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THE BELL HELICOPTER - Training Workhorse of the Vertical-Lift Warfighter

Posted 8 years 226 days ago ago by Admin



As I researched through the depths of information related to this story, I kept noting that some form of global conflict triggered each milestone. Bell Helicopter’s commitment to the production of safe and reliable aircraft supports the freedoms we all share each day. For that, I say, “Thank you!”

To those that endured the countless hours of questions (and more questions) as I gathered the facts for this story, thank you for all the time you spent with me. I’m sure that some will disagree with some of the timelines or events; I can only say that any errors are not intentional. Memories fade, and in some instances I was forced to choose between two recollections of the same event. If I chose incorrectly, please excuse the error.

I want to thank Bell CEO John Garrison for providing an open door to me for this story. Additionally, my gratitude also goes out to members of Bell’s Military Business Unit, especially Mike Miller, Scott Clifton, Hank Perry (retired), and Andy Woodward. They provided tremendous insight and knowledge of their company’s military history. Finally, thanks to my fellow members of Twirly Birds: the organization of pioneering helicopter and other vertical takeoff pilots. Many of them participated in this story’s early events.  


If you are a helicopter pilot trained by the U.S. military, you have flown a Bell Helicopter. No other helicopter manufacturer played such a crucial, in-depth role in training military helicopter pilots. For nearly 70 years, Bell Helicopter (formerly Bell Aircraft Company) has supported the U.S. vertical-lift warfighter with a safe, efficient, and predictable training fleet. To this day, every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces uses a Bell helicopter as their primary helicopter-training platform.

In March 1946, the Bell Helicopter Model 47A was awarded Helicopter Type Certificate No. 1 by the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA). In December of that same year, the first military sale to the U.S. Army occurred. In early 1947, military aviation was divided between the Army Air Forces (air assets over land) and the Navy (air assets from aircraft carriers). A total of 28 helicopters (10 HTL-1s, three YR-13As, and 15 YR-13s) were delivered that year between the two services. The 15 YR-13s were sent to San Marcos, Texas, where all military helicopter pilots were trained. Here’s a look at the history of helicopter training for each branch of service.


By the end of World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces Flying Training Command (originally located in Seymour, Indiana, in June 1944, and then moved to Chanute, Illinois, in December of that year) had trained a total of 93 helicopter pilots. In 1945, the Army and the Army Air Corps (eventually known as the Army Air Forces) reached a tentative agreement to allow a limited number of Army pilots to be trained as helicopter pilots, and moved the school to Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas. Initially, the first Army-specific helicopter pilots were trained individually by Bell in Buffalo, New York, until the Bell Training School opened in 1946. Two of its graduates from early 1947, Hugh Gaddis and Jack Marionelli, both rose to be generals and head Army aviation. In September 1947, the first combined helicopter pilot training class began training in the Bell YR-13 (later designated the YH-13) at the San Marcos Army Airfield (later named San Marcos Air Force Base in 1951, then named Edward Gary Air Force Base in 1953). In 1949, the Army began sending newly minted helicopter pilots to Post Field at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for Advanced Helicopter Techniques in the Bell H-13.

Although the Army employed helicopters in World War II, most remained in the U.S., with a few in Pacific Theater service. With no doctrines or tactics developed for their use, many did not see rotorcraft as a viable military option. However, this was about to change. In 1950, the Army had 63 H-13s in its inventory. Then the Korean War broke out. Army appropriation funds increased from $2 million to more than $42 million dollars, and by 1954 the Army had acquired more than 600 Bell H-13s for transporting troops and supplies.

The Army continued training its pilots in the H-13 throughout the Korean conflict. Then in 1956, Army helicopter pilot training moved to Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells, Texas. Camp Wolters (eventually known as Fort Wolters) was the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter School from 1956 to 1973. The first helicopters transferred to Camp Wolters in 1956 were 13 Bell H-13s from Edward Gary Air Force Base. By 1969, nearly 1,300 training helicopters were operating there, mixed among several manufacturers.

In addition to Fort Wolters, two additional helicopter pilot schools: Camp Rucker (changed to Fort Rucker 1955) and Hunter Army Airfield were activated. In 1967, Hunter Army Airfield (Georgia) was designated the Attack Helicopter Training Department.  Also known as "Cobra Hall,” it was the Army's first attack helicopter school whose purpose was to train pilots in the Bell AH-1G Cobra.

Fort Rucker (Alabama) introduced the Bell UH-1 Huey into the Army training fleet in 1966. After primary training in a piston helicopter, Army helicopter pilots would fly the Huey as their Advanced Aircraft Transition. Shortly after, the Aero-Scout track was established with the introduction of the Bell OH-58. Graduating helicopter pilots would either pilot a Bell UH-1 Huey or OH-58 Kiowa. Over the next few years, the Army completely phased out piston helicopters. In 1990, the Bell UH-1 Huey was the Army’s primary training helicopter. In 1993, the Army took bids for what it called a New Training Helicopter (NTH). Bell Helicopter was awarded the NTH contract, and in 1994 the first Bell TH-67 Creek was delivered.  

When Fort Wolters was deactivated in 1973, all Army helicopter pilot training transferred to Fort Rucker. Additionally, training of Army helicopter pilots at Hunter Army Airfield phased out, ending in 1970. Today, Fort Rucker continues to train Army pilots in the Bell TH-67.


The Army Air Forces (eventually becoming the U.S. Air Force in 1947) and the Army have a similar history. As mentioned earlier, beginning in 1947, all combined training of military helicopter pilots took place in San Marcos. Then from 1949 to 1951, helicopter pilot training was moved to Waco Air Force Base, and then moved back to San Marcos. Although Army helicopter pilots were trained in the Bell H-13, Air Force helicopter pilots were trained in a mixed fleet including the Bell H-13. In 1956, the Air Force discontinued training Army helicopter pilots and moved the Air Force Helicopter School to Randolph AFB in San Antonio.

The Air Force introduced the Bell UH-1F as their primary helicopter training aircraft in 1967. Once an Air Force helicopter pilot graduated from primary flight school, they were introduced to their next rotorcraft within the Air Force fleet, such as the CH-3C. In 1970, Air Force helicopter pilots began to receive training from Army and contract instructor pilots at Fort Wolters. Next, they transitioned into the Bell UH-1 at Ft. Rucker, and then proceeded to Sheppard AFB for Phase III combat crew training in UH-1F and CH-3C helicopters.

In 1971, all Air Force primary rotorcraft pilot training was moved to Fort Rucker. Today, the Air Force continues to train at Fort Rucker, with all primary helicopter pilot training conducted in the Bell TH-1 helicopter.


In 1946, the Navy was looking for a suitable training helicopter. Bell was awarded the “Helicopter, Training, Light” (HTL) contract and made their first delivery in 1947. Helicopter Utility Squadron 1 (HU-1) was commissioned in 1948, with HU-2 commissioned only one year later. As with other services, initial helicopter pilot training was completed by the Air Force in San Marcos until 1950. The Navy, recognizing their use of the helicopter to be unique, decided to establish their own helicopter pilot school.

In December 1950, the Navy established Helicopter Training Unit One (HTU-1) at Naval Air Station Ellyson Field in Pensacola, Florida. The Navy had nearly 60 helicopters on hand for training Navy and Marine helicopter pilots by 1951. Training was conducted in the Bell HTL (H-13, including the HTL-1 thru HTL-7 series) with a total of 183 aircraft delivered by 1959. The Bell H-13 remained in service as the primary basic training helicopter at Ellyson Field until 1969.

The Navy then went looking for a new training helicopter and again Bell had the answer, delivering the first TH-57A (Bell 206A) in 1969. The TH-57A Sea Ranger was ideal for primary training. To date, the Navy currently operates 117 Bell TH-57B/C aircraft as their primary basic training aircraft. Of the current TH-57s, nearly 85 percent have in excess of 15,000 flight hours, however they remain dependable to the Navy’s training command. When the TH-57 was introduced, its ease of operation and advanced design were instrumental in preparing Navy pilots for sophisticated operational helicopters used in the fleet.

For nearly 70 years, Bell has provided the Navy with helicopters that have supported training thousands of naval and marine pilots. As the Navy begins their search for a new training helicopter, Bell has answered the call with the Bell 407 GX. In the same vein as the TH-57, the Bell 407GX is a technologically advanced aircraft with all of the systems found in more advanced fleet helicopters.


When you think Marine helicopters, Marine One and Sikorsky come to mind. However, this hasn’t always been the case. The president’s first helicopter was a Bell H-13J (Model 47J) supplied to the White House by the Air Force. In 1954, the U.S. Secret Service selected this helicopter due to its excellent safety record. Then on July 12 at 2:08 p.m., Major Joseph E. Barrett lifted off in the Bell with President Dwight D. Eisenhower sitting in the right rear and James Rowley (chief of the White House Secret Service detail) sitting to his left.

However, Marine helicopter aviation goes far beyond takeoffs and landings at the White House. It officially began in 1947, when Helicopter Squadron 1 (HMX-1) was commissioned. (Interestingly, HMX-1 would later become the primary executive helicopter transport unit to the president.) As the Navy was procuring a large number of Bell HTL helicopters, Marine leaders were hesitant to replace their existing fixed-wing observation aircraft with helicopters. Still, in 1949 the chief of naval operations identified the Bell HTL helicopter as the primary observation aircraft of the Marine Corps.

Marine helicopter aviation was growing, with many Bell HTL helicopters being sent to Korea. The need for Marine pilot training was increasingly crucial, and the Department of the Navy had the solution already in place: Marine helicopter pilots would receive their training at NAS Ellyson Field alongside Navy pilots, which happened until 1967. Then, there was a tremendous shortage of helicopter pilots due to the Vietnam War escalation. Since the Navy had their own pool of helicopter pilots in training, additional Marine pilots were sent into Army training that included the Bell H-13.

Once the Army closed Fort Wolters in 1973 and moved all Army helicopter pilot training to Fort Rucker, Marine helicopter pilot training returned to its home in Pensacola. Later in 1973, NAS Ellyson Field was also closed and all Navy and Marine helicopter pilot training moving to NAS Whiting Field, also in Pensacola. Marine helicopter pilots continue to train at NAS Whiting Field alongside other naval aviators in the Bell TH-57 Sea Ranger.


Since in 1947 military aviation was divided between the Army and Navy, the Navy purchased helicopter assets primarily operating over water. These helicopters were then assigned either to the Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard. In May 1947, the Navy issued the Coast Guard its first Bell HTL-1. The Coast Guard fleet continued to build and they operated the Bell HTL/H-13 (Model 47) helicopter until 1968 in roles such as port security in New York out of Bennett Field, and in Alaska as part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line system.

Today, Coast Guard helicopter pilots receive their primary helicopter training at NAS Whiting Field alongside Navy and Marine pilots in the Bell TH-57 Sea Ranger. As the Navy prepares to select their new primary training helicopter, it’s easy to see they will have some big shoes to fill. However, if the Bell 407GX is selected by the Navy as their new primary training helicopter, Bell sees it as another new pair of shoes with a nearly 70-year guarantee to fit.


The year 1946 was really big for both military and civilian helicopter aviation. The CAA issuance of the first helicopter type certificate with the Bell Model 47 introduced the first requirement for large-scale helicopter pilot training. Bell had the foresight to see that training was the key to safely operating this new technology and opened the Bell Training School the same year the Model 47 was certified.

Bell Helicopter supported the growth of military aviation by providing safe and dependable training platforms to all military helicopter pilots since 1946. Beginning with the H-13, every helicopter they delivered to the military for training has served decades beyond its intended design. No other helicopter manufacturer can boast such a robust and distinct history of training support to the men and women in military service. If you’re a military helicopter pilot and have flown a Bell Helicopter product, you too have ridden the training workhorse of the vertical-lift warfighter.
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