Ike and the First Presidential Helicopters

Posted on Mon, July 12 2010

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 at the Udvar-Hazy Center
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).

Bell H-13J 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.