Flying the iconic Bell 47

It’s not often you get the chance to fly a helicopter that looks like it’s come straight off the set of M*A*S*H, and having admired the Bell 47 since before I even started flying rotary, I was thrilled to be given the chance to have a go at flying one of the few in the UK with Heli Air at Wellesbourne Airfield last week.

‘Iconic’ is an overused adjective, but its use is definitely justified in the case of the Bell 47. Taking its first flight in 1945, this quirky-looking machine was the first helicopter certified for civilian use in the 1950s. Its distinctive bubble shape, wide skids (to accommodate stretchers for military medevac purposes) and steel tube tail boom make it instantly recognisable. The one at Heli Air was built in 1966 and it’s still going strong.

My morning with this memorable machine – and with my old instructor Matt, whom you may remember from way back in my trial lesson post – began with an introduction to the Check A (pre-flight inspection), which is pretty straightforward when everything is so exposed. Matt, seen here demonstrating the head for heights needed for the rotorhead inspection process, warned me that there is grease absolutely everywhere on this thing!

Getting the helicopter out of the hangar took some doing, with two of us pushing on the skids and another applying full body weight on the tail rotor guard. This pic gives you a better idea of the width of the skids, which could accommodate stretchers for wounded soldiers, whom I’d imagine probably had worse things to worry about than the precariousness of being perched on the side of a helicopter.

An interesting fact for you: the distinctive ‘chop-chop’ sound of the Bell 47’s rotors was what led to the helicopter getting the nickname ‘chopper’. This particular aircraft’s registration is G-CHOP!

The fuel tanks are insane. There’s no fuel gauge and you work out how much fuel there is by visually looking in the tanks and seeing where the fuel comes up to in relation to a series of holes in the metal plate inside. Retro! Side note: I just love the fact they chose the word “replenish” rather than just run-of-the-mill “fill”!

Seating is three abreast and the pilot sits in the left seat, which takes some getting used to for a Robinson pilot. Realistically it’s really a two-seat machine, however, and as you can see, the instructor’s collective is right between the legs of the unfortunate person in the middle seat!

The engine start involved lots of throttle primes, pressing and holding the starter button for five seconds, then watching the gauges to select the appropriate moment to switch the mags and other bits on. It’s basically an R44 engine – not the original one!

I wasn’t expecting to be let loose on a take-off straightaway, especially as we were right next to the hangar, but Matt let me have a go and I was surprised at how stable the helicopter was when it lifted into the hover. What I hadn’t expected was how much throttle control would be required; the helicopters I fly automatically open and close the throttle as you raise and lower the collective, effectively giving you only three controls to worry about. In the Bell 47 you have to control the throttle as well, so that’s four things to think about at once (cyclic, collective, throttle and pedals – talk about multi-tasking!). That said, the helicopter was smooth and stable, to the point where you can even take your hands off the controls, and though slow, it was a pleasure to fly.

Here’s Matt and me! Hard to believe it’s been two-and-a-half years since I first flew with Matt on my trial lesson!

This Bell 47 has been retro-fitted with a few ‘modern’ (!) instruments to facilitate training.

This was real back-to-basics flying – lots of guesswork, responding to changes in the engine sound more than the instruments.

Here’s yours truly in the pilot’s seat! Should I ever be lucky enough to fly the 47 again, I’d put a cushion behind me. As you can see, my arm is fully extended in straight and level flight, and I kept ending up flying too slowly because of the amount of nose forward required!

By the way, are you wondering what that yellow band around the cockpit is? It’s to show you what fields you’d be able to get into if you had to enter autorotation! Anything below that yellow band should be within reach with the engine off; anything above it, not a chance! The aircraft handled incredibly well in autorotation – smooth to the point that you can even take your hands off the controls – but it does go pretty much straight down.

The view behind you in the cockpit is surreal. Every bit of moving machinery, which you can conveniently forget about in most helicopters, is there on show, right next to you, with a great view all the way down the tail boom.

Back at the airfield, I got to practice some into-wind and crosswind take-offs and landings before heading back to Heli Air to shut down. There’s no rotor brake, so the blades keep turning for an absolute age! Here I am back on the ground, grinning from ear to ear of course!

The Bell 47 is available for training, type ratings and trial lessons, and whether you want to get fully qualified on this historic helicopter or you just fancy having a go in one, I can’t recommend the experience enough. Contact Matthew Browne at Heli Air on 01789 470476 to find out more or book your flight – you won’t regret it!

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