Arguably one of the most recognizable helicopters in the world, the famed Bell 47 has been seen by millions as they’ve taken to the air and the airwaves over the years.
Shown at the opening of the TV series MASH, the Bell 47’s trademark bubble cockpit became the signature look of helicopters in the 1950s and early 1960s.
More than 5,600 Bell 47s were produced over the years. The helicopter’s origins date to the end of World War II, when Arthur M. Young came up with the design for civilian and military use. Only 10 of the pre-production models were built, featuring a 178hp Franklin engine and an automobile-type body.
The U.S. Air Force placed the first order for the helicopters, followed by the Navy and the Army. The Bell 47 was an immediate success and orders began to pour in from all three branches.
The familiar look of the Bell 47 didn’t arrive until the Model D, which was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1948. Model D introduced the trademark look of the 47 – the bubble canopy, the welded-tube tail boom, saddle fuel tanks and landing gear skids.
The timing of the Bell 47s development was perfect. It was first put into military action in the Korean War. There, it was used to transport injured troops, as an observation platform and light utility. Given its lack of horsepower, the Bell 47 was never a lifting workhorse. In battle, it carried a single M-1 Carbine for defensive use.
Thanks to its versatility, the Bell 47 was produced in many variations, each designed for a specific purpose. Two were outfitted with 179hp Lycomings for use by the President of the United States. Others were modified for use aboard icebreakers and a three-seater was produced to broaden the market for the helicopter.
The Bell 47 was not only popular with military and private pilots, but Hollywood as well. The 1950s adventure series, Whirlybirds, featured the Bell 47 in each episode. Of course, MASH is perhaps the most well-known starring role of the helicopter, but it was also given bat wings and appeared in numerous episodes of Batman as the Batcopter, including the feature length motion picture in 1966.
It also almost ended astronaut Eugene Cernan’s career. While he was training for his final flight on Apollo 17, Gene was practicing lunar landing approaches aboard one of the Bell 47’s NASA had purchased for the purpose. Over the Indian River near the space center, he couldn’t resist flat-hatting and flew too low over the river. It crashed and he barely escaped with his life.
For the trivia junkies, the Bell 47 set the altitude record for helicopters on May 13, 1949, reaching 18,550 feet. It was also the first helicopter to fly over the Alps. Finally, in 1952, Bell pilot Elton Smith flew nonstop in a specially modified Bell 47. He piloted the helicopter from Hurst, Texas to Buffalo, New York, a distance of 1,217 miles, a world record at the time.
Demonstrating the helicopter’s resiliency, many Bell 47s remain in flying condition, though the last Bell 47, the 47G-5, rolled off the production line in 1973.