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Ike and the First Presidential Helicopters

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On July 12, 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first president to employ a helicopter while in office. Though helicopters had been in operational use by the American military since 1944, concerns over their safety caused the Secret Service to bar their use for the nation’s chief executive except in case of emergency. However, by 1956, the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union had reached the point where any evacuation of the president by roads could not be guaranteed and the head of President Eisenhower’s flight section, Air Force Col. William Draper, began shopping for helicopters.

Bell H-13J

Major Barrett departs the White House with President Eisenhower on July 12, 1957 for Camp David. White House Photo.

The Secret Service insisted on safety as the deciding factor in the selection process and much more capable models were bypassed in favor of Bell’s Ranger (military designation H-13J). It could accommodate only two passengers with any real degree of comfort, had an effective range of a mere 150 miles and was somewhat slow, with a top speed of around 100 miles per hour. It was also a single pilot aircraft, unlike the larger military models, which must have generated some concerns over the potential incapacitation of the pilot. Essentially a civilian off-the-shelf model that was an evolution of the bubble-topped Model 47s of Korean War fame, Bell marketed the Ranger principally for VIP travel.

Bell H-13J

Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first U.S. president to fly aboard a helicopter in this U.S. Air Force H-13J on July 12, 1957.

The Ranger did have some significant advantages. Its base purchase price of $40,000 and low operating costs made it one of the most economical helicopters in its class, but most importantly, it had an outstanding safety record and was the most reliable design available. As part of the Model 47 series (the first civil certificated helicopter in the world), it had a decade of operational use behind its design. Bell’s trademark “teetering” rotor system accounted for much of its sterling safety record. The much larger and more capable Sikorsky and Vertol designs employed complex articulated rotor systems incorporating hinges and other components with additional points of failure and increased maintenance concerns. They also utilized WWII-era radial engines that were more prone to fires and other failures.

The H-13J’s interior featured upgraded upholstery, but was nonetheless plain by presidential standards. The most obvious upgrade was the addition of a dark blue tinted Plexiglas bubble in place of the standard transparent installation to reduce its tendency to act like a magnifying glass in the sun. Otherwise, the only substantive improvements over standard models were military radios and a rotor-brake to reduce the shutdown time and allowing the president a more rapid exit (a helicopter rotor is most dangerous to pedestrians as it slows).

Heli Cockpit

Though not as comfortable as succeeding presidential helicopters, the president never had a better view.

On May 31, Maj. Joseph E. Barrett (perhaps the most accomplished helicopter pilot in the Air Force) landed a helicopter for the first time on the South Lawn of the White House, though this was not the first time a rotary wing aircraft had landed there. Twenty-six years earlier, James Ray touched down on the grounds in a Pitcairn-Cierva PCA-2 autogiro as part of an award ceremony. In 1911, Harry Atwood had landed there in his Wright Model B airplane as part of a similar event.

At 2:08 p.m. on July 12, Major Barrett lifted off in H-13J serial number 57-2729 [now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center] with Eisenhower sitting in the right rear and James Rowley, chief of the White House Secret Service detail sitting to his left. Cummings flew 57-2828 in trail with Maj. Gen. Howard Snyder, Ike’s personal physician and a second Secret Service agent. Barrett then proceeded to their undisclosed evacuation site (Camp David) at an altitude of 500-700 feet above the terrain.

In addition to the H-13Js, six larger helicopters descended on the Ellipse to airlift twenty key staffers and pool reporters. These included tandem-rotor Vertol H-21s of the Air Force and Army, as well as a Marine Corps HUS-1 and an obsolescent Air Force H-19. Naval personnel created an ad-hoc air traffic control center on the South Lawn to marshal the arriving whirlybirds. Virgil Olson, who later became the first official Marine Corps presidential helicopter pilot, recalled that the other larger and faster helicopters supporting Operation Alert, which had departed after the H-13J, “arrived several minutes before the small [and slower] Bell. When the president arrived, he was sweating from an uncomfortable ride and annoyed to find us on the ground, with the engines of our helicopter already off and cooled down.” After spending the night at Camp David, Eisenhower drove with family members to Gettysburg, but flew back to Washington in the H-13J on Monday morning with another stopover at the Camp David “command post.”

Army H-34C and Marine HUS-1

Army H-34C of the Executive Flight Detachment and Marine HUS-1 of HMX-1 awaiting departure with the president, summer, 1958.

Eisenhower’s next helicopter flight occurred on September 6, 1957 when he hitched a ride on a Marine HUS-1, which he found to be a vast improvement over the H-13J. Between the lackluster performance of the diminutive Ranger relative to the larger military transport helicopter and getting baked under the Bell’s bubble, Eisenhower ordered Draper to switch to the new model, which was not operated by the Air Force, previously the sole aerial purveyor of the president. Not wanting to show preference for either the Marine Corps or Army who did operate it, Ike alternated flights between the two services’ special flight detachments, a tradition that continued to the Ford administration, which eliminated the Army’s Executive Flight Detachment as a cost-cutting measure. Eisenhower’s embrace of air transport, including helicopters, forever changed how America’s chief executive conducts the nation’s business.

Roger Connor is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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18 thoughts on “Ike and the First Presidential Helicopters

  1. Brilliant! Way to pave the way for traveling in style, Ike! What kind of helicopter do today’s presidents fly in? I’d want to learn how to fly that kind of helicopter….

  2. @Gretta – The president currently flies on Sikorsky VH-3Ds operated by Marine Corps squadron HMX-1 for most flights requiring a helicopter, but there are several other types on standby for presidential duty. The VH-3Ds are into their fourth decade of service and the Pentagon is in the process of developing a replacement helicopter, though another decade may well pass before the current fleet is finally retired.

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  4. This article brought back lots of memories. I was fortunate enough to have been assigned to the Executive Flight Detachment out of Ft Belvoir, VA. This was when it was a join operation between the Army and Marines. I have over 2,000 hours in the VH-34D, and about 300 in the VH-3A. I was stationed there from December 1960 to November 1965. Still have my awards and my Presidential Service Badge,(#1293). The Army detachment commander was Col Jack J Tinnin, Jr. My NCOIC was CMSGT Henry Q Dunn from down in Quitman, GA. Somewhere I even still have a copy of our blanket travel orders. Lot of great memories, Thanks for bring them back. David Jacobs, TSgt Retired.

  5. David Jacobs,
    I am sure you know my father SFC Joseph Brent. He was the crew chief assigned to the Executive Flight Detachment during those same years and CMSgt. Henry Dunn was his NCOIC too. He stills talks about those days and what great times and great memories.

  6. amazing, all these pilots writing books and talking about the flight time with the Presidents, I was assigned to the Exec Flt in 1958 when it was fairly new. I attended one reunion in the 80′s at Fort Rucker, we are the forgotten members of the Exec Flt, the MP’s that spent hours standing on the tarmac in rain and snow and whatever else. We accompanied the Pres. (Eisenhower) overseas on two occasions in the fall of 59 and spring of 60 for the Failed Summit with Kruscheav. We were in Georgia, Kansas, Camp David, many other shorter trips, acted as honor guard at John Dulles’s funeral in D. C. One pilot that never forgot us was Willie Ruf may he rest in peace

  7. I am doing a school project where we investigate an aviator and the planes he/she flew. Col. Virgi Olson is my great uncle and i was at a naming ceremony where they named the HMX-1 hangar after him for being the first to fly the president in the original helicopter. This was a big help. Thank you so much for your detail and photographs.

  8. The H-13 or the civilian 47J is one of my favourite helicopters we still use them here in Australia on tourist operations. The best visibility of any chopper.

  9. My father,CW4 Frank Warren Cross,was a member of the Presidential flight detatchment.He was killed in 1968 in vietnam.I can not seem to find much on his career or service record.Is there someone who could help?

  10. The lineage of the Bell 47 still amazes me. from the Bell 47 (the first aircraft I flew) to the Bell 407 (which I fly now) are both great aircraft, with similarities 50 years later.

  11. I had a good laugh about my dad, Henry Q. Dunn from Quitman, Georgia. His name was Sgt. Maj. Henry Quitman Dunn from Fitzgerald, Georgia. Quitman is his middle name. CMSgt would be Air Force. He was one of the Army’s first SgtMaj, promoted to E9 personally by President Eisenhower. So wonderful this history is being maintained, and thank you to the “forgotten” MP’s. My dad started out as an MP.

  12. I am one of CSM Dunn’s 8 daughters. We were surprised and elated to hear that an Award for Crew Chief of the Year was being named after our Dad. We were present at the AAAA Awards Ceremony three years ago when the award was presented to it’s first recipient. Debbie Green, we sure remember your Dad and if I’m not mistaken some of us used to babysit for you. Is your Dad still living?

  13. Pingback: White House South Lawn Helicopter Landing Tests (1957) « Ghosts of DC

  14. MY NAME IS CPL. PAUL D. BONARRIGO.I WAS STATIONED AT QUANTICO DURING 1958-1960.- I HAD THE PRIVILIZE OF WORKING ON THE PRESIDENT HELICOPTER. I PAINTED THE FIRST PRESENTIAL HELICOPTER WITH A WHITE TOP AND GREEN BOTTOM.I WAS A WARDED THE WHITE HOUSE CERTIFICATE. COL. OLSON WAS THE PRESIDENT HMX-1 PILOT. QUITE AN EXPERIENCE FOR A YOUNG MARINE WHICH I HAVE CARRIED ALL MY LIFE.SEMPI FI

  15. To the former members of Executive Flight and SgtMaj Dunn’s daughters. My step-father SFC Duane Cooper was also a member of this unit. He still speaks highly of everyone in the unit (both aircrews and ground support personnel including MP’s). I remember going to SgtMaj Dunn’s house and playing with his son when we were both small boys. Dad will be 85 shortly and is still proud of his service and those he worked with. Best wishes to all of you and thank you for your service.

  16. Just a quick follow-up to my previous post. My father SFC Duane Cooper passed away at his home on May 24th. He was very proud of his service and those he served with in Executive Flt. He was fortunate that he was able to live in his home to the end, with his family with him. Rest in Peace, and thank you for your service to your country and to your family. Robert Frank (adopted son).

  17. It’s very interesting to see some of the history of the use of helicopters by the presidents of the United States and to acknowledge some of the servicemen who keep them flying. Sgt. Maj. Henry Q . Dunn was an uncle of mine. I remember visiting him and aunt Marie, though I was very young, when he was stationed at Fort Pepperrell, here in St. John’s Newfoundland, during or just after WWII. Dianne and Patti, you and your whole family must be so proud of him and the naming of the Crew Chief of the Year Award after him.

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