civil and commercial helicopters
ambulance evacuation using a Bell helicopter.
The first production helicopters were
built for the military, which has been their largest user. In addition to
their military function, these aircraft also have offered great promise
for civil government and commercial customers even though they are
complicated and expensive machines. Thousands of helicopters have
performed many commercial and civil functions throughout the United States
and worldwide, although in nowhere near the same numbers as military
helicopters have been used.
The first helicopter to enter commercial
use was the Sikorsky S-51. But the most popular early commercial
helicopters were the light utility craft such as the Bell 47. These
aircraft were used for many different jobs that required remote operations
or operating in areas that fixed-wing aircraft could not access. For
instance, by the early 1950s, the Bell 47 was often used for surveying and
commercial observation work. It could carry personnel far distances to
areas without roads, as long as a flat, treeless area was available for
the helicopter to land.
Helicopters were also used by civilian
government agencies, such as police departments. Police used helicopters
to monitor traffic and even to catch speeders. Fire departments
occasionally used them to monitor brushfires, rescue people from tall
buildings, and drop chemicals on forest fires.
European Airways used the Westland-Sikorsky S-51 for its commercial
between Liverpool, England, and Cardiff, Wales in 1950 .
Also in the 1950s, ranchers began using
helicopters to reach distant parts of their property and even to herd
cattle. Farmers also equipped some helicopters for crop-dusting. The Bell
47 was modified by Continental Copters to the 47G-2 El Tomcat version that
was equipped with two large external tanks and two spraying bars that
extended below and to either side of the single-seat cockpit. An advantage
of using a helicopter for this purpose rather than a plane was that the
air from the rotors hit the ground and then bounced back up, ensuring the
pesticide reached the undersides of plants. Further, the helicopter did
not need a runway for taking off and landing.
Airlines also hoped to exploit the
helicopter's ability to land virtually anywhere. British European Airways
launched the first commercial passenger service in June 1950, travelling
between Liverpool, England, and Cardiff, Wales, using a Westland-Sikorsky
S-51. New York City's first helicopter station began operating from a pier
on the East River on May 18, 1949. Helicopter lines have also served as
connectors between airlines at sister airports in the same community, such
as between Newark International Airport in New Jersey and the Long Island,
New York airports and between San Francisco International Airport and the
nearby Oakland International Airport in California. On July 9, 1953, New
York Airways became the first scheduled passenger helicopter air carrier
to operate in the United States.
But early helicopters were slow and
noisy and could not carry many passengers. By the 1960s, when larger
military helicopters like the Boeing-Vertol CH-46 had entered service,
some airlines anticipated creating commercial "heliports" in the
New York and other cities that would allow passengers to fly from downtown
to major airports such as LaGuardia and JFK airports. Boeing-Vertol even
began to market civilian versions of its large helicopters. The airlines
and helicopter manufacturers anticipated that the primary customers would
be businessmen who were on tight schedules and had the money to pay for
expensive helicopter services. This market never developed, however, and
most commercial heliport proposals died by the 1970s. However, helicopters
did enter extensive use as corporate transports.
Commercial passenger helicopters did
establish niche markets in other areas, however, such as the offshore oil
business. Early offshore oil platforms had crews that stayed aboard for
long periods of time. This was unattractive to potential workers. But the
advent of the helicopter allowed crews to be rotated fairly
easily—replacement crews could now reach a drilling platform in an hour by
air rather than in ten hours by boat. In fact, in the United States, by
the 1960s and 1970s, oil crews became highly mobile, often travelling
cross-country by commercial air to take a two-week tour on an oil platform
before returning home. The helicopter made this possible. They were also
used for oil surveying missions to remote areas.
Bell 47 was one of the first helicopters used for commercial purposes.
Early commercial helicopters were often
ex-military aircraft, such as the Sikorsky H-34 and its variants. They
were usually converted to carry more seats. The Bell Huey and its
commercial variants such as the Model 212 and 214 have been popular for
servicing offshore oil rigs.
Oil platforms in the North Sea tended to
be bigger and required larger crews than those in the Gulf of Mexico or
off the Pacific coast. They therefore required larger helicopters to
service them. British Airways Helicopters purchased several commercial
Boeing-Vertol Model 234 civil variants of the CH-47 Chinook large military
transport equipped with seats and a lavatory. The "Commercial Chinook" had
its first flight in 1980 and in its first year of service carried over
80,000 passengers. But this type was never very popular and customers
replaced them with the smaller Aérospatiale Puma and Sikorsky S-61N.
Aerospatiale Puma has been a popular aircraft for North Sea oil
The Bell Jet Ranger, which first flew in
January 1966 and was FAA type-certificated in October 1966, was also a
highly popular aircraft for oil rigs and other duties. In fact, the Jet
Ranger and its variants have been some of the most successful commercial
helicopters, used for everything from surveying to lifting and
transportation duties. They have also been highly popular with police
forces and ambulance services.
Helicopters are also used in a number of
unusual and unexpected commercial tasks. They are used to drop seeds over
inaccessible territory, such as hills and mountains stripped clean after
forest fires or logging operations. They are also used in the firefighting
role, usually under contract to state and local governments. They can drop
foam or water with precision over wildfires and, unlike airplanes, can
refill their tanks without landing.
As it had in other fields, the military
helicopter mission soon crossed over to the civilian world, such as
medical evacuation ("medevac"). In 1965,
34 hospitals in the United States had heliports. In 1966, the state of
Montana announced it would build a heliport for any hospital that was
willing to have one. Soon Michigan and Wyoming followed with the same
proposal and by the end of 1966, the number of hospital heliports had
doubled. Houston, Texas, began a service known as "Life Flight" in 1976,
and two helicopters responded to 1,788 calls in 1978 alone.
Helicopters like the Bell 47 and some of
the later Huey variants such as the 412 were used for this task. The Bell
Jet Ranger has also commonly been used for this purpose. Although small,
it is fast, which is important when a person's life hinges on the ability
to get them to a fully equipped emergency room.
Eventually these "Life Flights" or
"Mercy Flights" began to use dedicated mid-size commercial helicopters,
such as the Sikorsky S-70 and the German MBB BK-117 to speed patients and
paramedics to emergency care. They were generally equipped as fully as a
rescue ambulance with patient monitoring equipment and usually room for up
to two patients and two paramedics.
Finally, helicopters are used
extensively by local television stations to monitor breaking news events,
as well as traffic. They have also added a third dimension to movie
photography, allowing the camera to film things that were impossible in
the early days of motion pictures.