UH-1H

In August 1966 I was an engineer with Landing and Recovery Division, NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, Clear Lake, Texas (i.e., NASA Houston). I received a call from a good friend and fellow Texas Aggie who was a young Army lieutenant fulfilling his ROTC military obligation, assigned to the Army UH-1 Project Office. He said the Army needed a flight test engineer for helicopters at Edwards AFB, and he had put in my name as a candidate for that flight test position. I told him that was a crazy idea, as I knew nothing about flight test engineering. He said not to worry about it—they would teach me.

The more I thought about it, the better I liked the idea of flight test engineering. Although it was exciting working for NASA Houston, I decided to apply for the civilian flight test engineer position with the US Army Aviation Test Activity at Edwards AFB, California. My wife Jean, who was an elementary education teacher, agreed with me on this decision. I applied for the position and was accepted.

I gave notice to NASA Houston, and Jean gave notice to the LaPorte School District where she was a first-grade teacher. We left Texas in early September 1966 and made the long, hot drive in our un-air conditioned MGB from Texas to Lancaster, California, the closest civilian town to Edwards AFB.

Ryan XV-5

Not a Valkyrie, but the XV-5 was a unique aircraft.

At Edwards, NASA and the Air Force were flying the fast movers such as the X-15, the XB-70, and the F-111. My new organization, the US Army Aviation Test Activity, had no fast movers but we did have a fully restored two-place P-51 Mustang to be used as a chase plane when our Navy T-28 wouldn’t hack it.

As a greenie weenie, I was given the job of reducing data on a new project, which was fine with me as I needed the experience. The project involved the Ryan XV-5, which was a V/STOL aircraft powered by twin GE J85 turbojets, with ducted fans in the wings, nose, and tail. This allowed it to hover like a helicopter and then transition to normal forward flight at a high subsonic speed. The theory was to use the XV-5 in search and rescue in Vietnam, dashing to a downed air crew, hovering and dropping a horse collar to the crewman, and returning to base at a much higher speed than a helicopter. Our test pilot for the XV-5 was Air Force Major David Tittle, a nice guy.

On the initial proof-of concept tests, Major Tittle was hovering the XV-5 on the Edwards ramp at about 50 feet and lowered the improvised horse collar to simulate rescuing a downed air crew. But he mistakenly allowed a slight forward velocity to the XV-5, and the horse collar was ingested in one of the wing ducted fans, damaging it. The XV-5 slowly descended, and just at impact with the ramp, Major Tittle initiated an ejection. The impact damaged the low-level ejection seat, and it came off the rails at an angle. The parachute wrapped around Major Tittle and he was killed when he landed on the concrete ramp. The film of the accident was terrible to watch.

We then received our prototype Bell UH-1H, which was a UH-1 Delta model with a longer tail boom to handle the increased torque of the up-rated Lycoming T53-L-13, with an output of 1400 shp. This increase in UH-1 Huey power was badly needed in Vietnam, with the hot climate and high humidity. I was assigned this project, working under an experienced flight test engineer. My test pilot was Chief Warrant Officer Emery Nelson, who had been a much-decorated Marine Corsair pilot in WWII. Emery as PIC sat in the right-hand seat and I occupied the left-hand seat on all the fight tests, either recording data by hand or operating the photo panel in the cabin, filming the performance gauges and the instrumented control position parameters. (Can anyone explain why the PIC in rotary wing aircraft occupies the right seat, while the PIC in fixed wing occupies the left seat? I can’t, but I think that it has something to do with the location of the collective control lever on early helicopters.)

Emery Nelson was an excellent test pilot and a graduate of the Navy’s Pax River test pilot school. I learned a lot from him and he let me fly the bird every chance we got (I had a private fixed wing license at the time)!

UH-1H

The prototype UH-1H was tested at high altitudes over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Edwards DOD Aero Club had an Air Force Beech T-34A for rental. On February 12, 1967, I completed check-out of N10560, which was hangared at Edwards South Base (with U-2s as neighbors). South Base was a short field with hangars a few miles south of the Edwards main runway and angled towards it.

In order not to interfere with Edwards’s main traffic, we would fly the traffic pattern at 500 feet AGL. The T-34 was a beautiful flying and landing machine, and much easier to fly than the taildraggers that I was used to. My logbook shows that I had about 230 total hours at that time, and I, who had limited aircraft radio experience, was communicating with the professional tower operators at the main Edwards runway.

Jean and I flew the T-34 quite a bit, but the flight I remember most was to the Merced, California, Antique Airplane Fly-In. The airport was uncontrolled, with a mobile FAA tower on the field. Most of the antiques at that time didn’t have radios and my approach speed in the T-34 with full flaps was much faster than the antique aircraft. I had to make several go-arounds, cycling the landing gear each time. I finally got us on the ground, exhausted!

Emery Nelson and I did quite a bit of testing on the prototype UH-1H, but the one I remember most was us taking the bird to its absolute ceiling—around 25,000 feet! The Vne at that altitude was 60 knots, and the retreating blade stall was shaking the bird so hard that we could barely read the instrument panel. It was soon time to break it off and return to base. Unfortunately, I lost the test report that plotted this climb to 25,000 ft.

Flight testing of the prototype UH-1H was coming to an end and the Army was opening the competition for the second production buy of the Light Observation Helicopter (“Loach!”), with the Hughes OH-6 winning the first production buy. Contenders were Bell, Hughes, and Fairchild-Hiller. I was assigned the Fairchild-Hiller entry with their FH-1100 (YOH-5), but F-H withdrew from the competition before it started.

Along this time a Bell Helicopter flight test crew from Texas visited our facility for some project. We had our fellow Texans over for dinner and I casually mentioned that we wouldn’t mind getting back to Texas. Several weeks later I received a call from the senior flight test engineer who had dinner with us, and he suggested that I send a resume to Bell Flight Test. I did, an offer was made that I accepted, and that had Jean and me leaving California on Thanksgiving 1967 for Texas. The next morning at our motel in Phoenix, we learned from the newspaper that my alma mater, Texas A&M, beat rival Texas 10-7 in the then- traditional Turkey Day game to win the Southwestern Conference. Way to go, Aggies! Gig ‘em!

Dean Thomas
32 replies
  1. Skip Stagg
    Skip Stagg says:

    You had ask (Can anyone explain why the PIC in rotary wing aircraft occupies the right seat, while the PIC in fixed wing occupies the left seat? I can’t, but I think that it has something to do with the location of the collective control lever on early helicopters.) Ok here is the reason and please do not yell WTF. In the early 60s, Only Warrant Officers flew helicopters. regular offices piloted only fix wing Army aircraft.. Later when they began flying in helicopters the Pilot sat in the right seat while the Aircraft commander rank not withstanding sat in the left seat he was “commanding” the aircraft, While the pilot (right seat) duty was to fly the aircraft. The collective position had nothing to do with it..
    I received this info from a CWO with more time in the sky than God.
    Anyway That’s my story and I am sticking to it.

    Reply
  2. David Settle
    David Settle says:

    Hi Dean,
    My Uncle “Ned” Gilliand was a test pilot for Bell Helicopter in 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Did you know him?
    David Settle

    Reply
    • Dean Thomas
      Dean Thomas says:

      David, the name Ned Gilliand doesn’t ring a bell (no pun intended!). I was an experimental flight test engineer at the Bell flight test facility at the Arlington TX airport. There were around six experimental test pilots there, none as I recall with your uncle’s name.

      The main Bell facility at Hurst TX had production test pilots who checked out the helicopters coming off the production line. Possibly your uncle was there, and I wasn’t familiar with production test pilots, as they were at a separate facility.

      I was at Bell flight test 1967-1968-1969.

      Thanks, David, for your comment.

      Dean Thomas

      Reply
      • David Settle
        David Settle says:

        Dean,
        He was a production test pilot. He had the reputation of having the longest squawk sheets. Told of a time when he was at their Canadian test facility. Apparently it was after an accident where a ship went down in NYC off a building pad due to ice ingestion. He said it wasn’t much fun, spent the day in low hover as they fired ice cannons the engine intakes. He said the ice would cause the motor to stall and he had to autorotate looking at the ground through the lower glass because the windshield was ice covered! One of many stories!
        Thank you for your interesting article!
        David S

        Reply
        • Dean Thomas
          Dean Thomas says:

          David, it sounds like on the ice ingestion tests that he was more of an experimental test pilot than a production test pilot. But he is correct, some flight tests can get pretty hairy (” Been there done that! “)

          David, thanks for the comments.

          Dean Thomas

          Reply
  3. Jay Miller
    Jay Miller says:

    Hi Dean. I enjoyed your stories. Good writing style, to boot! A couple of comments, if I may. I had a close friend for many years by the name of Jim Kishi (Ph.D.). Am wondering if you knew him during your Edwards AFB days? He was chief of the Army’s flight test board during many of the years you were in flight test at Bell as well.

    Also, Ned Gilliand was a close friend. He was a pilot for Bell at various levels throughout the many years he was onboard there. His piloting skills were legendary. I will never forget his story about landing in a lake with several crew members in a Model 47J (if memory serves) only to discover that the cold water temperature was causing pressures to drop in the floats. In turn, this caused the undersides of the floats to deflate inward. When Ned – not knowing about the deflation effect – attempted to lift off in a slightly overweight condition, the suction created by the deflated floats prevented this from happening. Slightly panicked, he eventually determined that forward velocity would break the suction enough to allow lift-off, and that was how they got home.

    Thanks for your piece. Enjoyable and brought back some good memories for me. I have been a contract photograph for Bell for nearly forty years, so there is a chance we may have crossed paths in the past… Jay Miller

    Reply
    • Dean Thomas
      Dean Thomas says:

      Jay, thanks for the comments.
      I don’t recall a Jim Kishi nor a Ned Gilliand nor you.
      When I was at Edwards I was with the U.S. Army Aviation Test Activity which I believe moved to Ft. Rucker at some point.
      At Bell, I was with the Bell Flight Test Facility at the Arlington (TX) Municipal Airport. I think that some of that was later moved to Montreal, Canada.
      When I arrived at Bell, Bob Wheelock had just moved from head of experimental flight test to a corporate position at the main Hurst (TX) facility. Bill Jennings was my boss at Arlington.
      I can’t remember the name of the head of experimental test pilots at Arlington when I was there, but he was the test pilot who ran the Model 47 through FAA certification in 1947 (CAA back then?)

      Again, Jay, thanks for the comments.
      Dean Thomas

      Reply
  4. Davis Newman
    Davis Newman says:

    I graduated from the U S Army warrant officer flight program in February, 1968 as a UH-1 pilot and the story of Igor Sikorsky training pilots from the left seat is what we were told. The UH-1 is set up to fly instruments from the right seat. The senior pilot (aircraft commander) flew from the left seat for two reasons. We did not fly instruments and with a smaller panel on the left side you could see the ground through the chin bubble which was essential for landing (to a hover) in uneven terrain. Once out of Vietnam, we flew instruments from the right seat. Annual check rides were taken in the right seat. It was part of the pre-flight brief, who was PIC and where would they sit.

    Reply
    • Dean Thomas
      Dean Thomas says:

      Davis, I suspect that the tradition of PIC in the right seat goes back to Igor Sikorsky, and the flight instruments on the right side evolved because of that.
      Thanks, Davis for the comments.
      Dean Thomas

      Reply
  5. Mpilot
    Mpilot says:

    I always thought it was because it was easier to free up your left hand to tune radios/flip switches, etc. in a helicopter. Where as in an airplane it us easier to free up your right hand to adjust power/radios/switches etc. Obviously some helos are exceptions to that setup (Hughes 369/EC130/etc).

    Reply
    • Dean Thomas
      Dean Thomas says:

      Mpilot, that sounds reasonable. Although I had no formal rotary wing training, the test pilots I flew with would let us flight test engineers fly (if we wanted to!) as much as possible. I was glad that I was using my dominant right hand on the cyclic. I would have been all over the sky with my left hand.
      Again, thanks for the comments.
      Dean Thomas

      Reply
  6. Lyle Holbo
    Lyle Holbo says:

    I worked at the US Army Aviation Systems Test Activity, Edwards AFB, in 1970-71, as a civil service Flight Test Engineer. My project involved developing an operational “Deadman’s Curve” for the OH-58 helicopter. The project test pilot was Joe Watts, another civilian.

    The aircraft fleet included the subject OH-58, an armed AH-1 Cobra being evaluated for vibration related to weapons firing, a two seat P-51 Mustang chase plane, an OV-10 Mohawk chase plane, a UH-1 used as a support aircraft, a C-46 transport used for liaison, and YO-3A stealth powered glider.

    Developing the “Deadman’s Curve” involved hovering the aircraft at 600 ft agl, simulating an engine failure, waiting 4 seconds, then attempting a safe autorotation landing. The procedure was repeated at incrementally lower altitudes until Joe felt that was low as we could safely land. Then the whole sequence was repeated in increments of 10 kt forward airspeed, up to about 70 kts. The lower half of the “Deadman’s Curve “ involved approaching the landing at 10 ft and 70 kts, simulating the engine failure and again making a safe autorotation landing. If successful, the next approaches would be made at incrementally lower forward speeds until approaching hover.

    I sat in the left seat and recorded various data like fuel load at the start of an auto rotation and miscellaneous notes, A special slit camera was operated on the ground to allow accurate calculation of altitude and ground speed that would be matched up with recorded data on the aircraft.

    This testing was accomplished at Edwards AFB for 3,000 ft density altitude, at Shafter Field, north west of Bakersfield, CA for sea level data, Bishop, CA, for 5,000 ft data, and a forest service strip in the mountains above Bishop for 8,000 ft data.

    On one day at Bishop, when winds precluded testing, the UH-1 carried some of the support staff to a mountain lake to do some trout fishing. They landed military painted aircraft near a couple young men fishing the lake, rushed toward them and announced, “We’re your Draft Board. We’ve come to get you.” Oh, our tax dollars at work.

    Reply
    • Lyle Holbo
      Lyle Holbo says:

      Incidentally, on American helicopters, the rotor blade typically rotate counter clockwise as seen from above. Consequently, the forward moving blade is on the right side, developing lift at a lower angle of attack. The retreating blade on the left side needs a greater angle of attack to develop an equal amount of lift for stable flight. Placing the typical single pilot in the right seat, creates more efficient flight characteristics and a wider lateral cg envelope.

      I’m surprised out test pilot author was not cognizant of the relatively basic helicopter aerodynamics.

      Reply
      • Dean Thomas
        Dean Thomas says:

        Lyle, I’m not quite sure what you meant by you being surprised that the test pilot author (as the author, I was the flight test engineer, not the test pilot) not being cognizant of the basic helicopter aerodynamics. I can assure you that my test pilot and I were both fully cognizant of retreating blade stall, which you described.
        Thanks, Lyle, for your comments.
        Dean Thomas

        Reply
    • Dean Thomas
      Dean Thomas says:

      Lyle, I left the Army Aviation Test Activity in 1967 for a position with Bell flight test in Texas. Although I never flew with Joe Watts (an African American), I knew him.

      Oh my goodness! Dead Man’s Curve on the OH-58, BEEN THERE, DONE THAT at Bell. Height velocity Curves: Not for the faint hearted! i was the flight test engineer on the FAA certification of the OH-58, and my test pilot (can’t remember his first name) Cannon, a former Marine helicopter, and I ran the original Height-Velocity Curves on the OH-58.
      At Edwards we had coming up flight testing the very fast Lockheed AAAH (Advanced Armed Attack Helicopter?) named, I believe, the Cheyenne, which was a very fast rigid rotor compound helicopter. Our Navy T-28 chase plane would not have been able to keep up, so our guys bought a two place P-51 from an outfit in Florida, and completely re-furbished it.The Cheyenne had technical problems, and on a test flight at Lockheed the main rotor went divergent, striking the cockpit and killing the test pilot and flight test engineer. The program was cancelled.
      Let me tell you a funny story about the OV-10 Mohawk at Edwards. Two active duty Army Majors were running an external fuel tank jettison test. One of the conditions was not to jettison an external fuel tank with the landing gear down because of the possibility of fuel tank contacting the landing gear. Before one test flight the crew chief tested the jettison firing circuits on the ramp by wiring around the landing gear squat switches, and putting the gear handle in the down position
      (you see where this is going, don’t you?). Our aviators came out, kicked the tire, lit the fire on #1 T-53, and the nose wheel retracted immediately, sticking the Mohawk tail WAAAAYY up in the air- on the ramp! Two embarrassed Majors!
      We flew the prototype UH-IH out of Bishop to our 11,000 ft high altitude test site in the White Mountains. The photo in the article is actually of us in the prototype UH-1H with support ship coming off the White Mountain test site with Bishop below.
      Wow! lots of old memories.
      Thanks, Lyle.
      Dean Thomas

      Reply
      • Dean Thomas
        Dean Thomas says:

        Lyle, in my comment about the OV-10 Mohawk at the Army Aviation Test Activity at Edwards, of course I meant that the landing gear handle was in the “UP” position on the ramp.
        Sorry ’bout that!
        Dean Thomas

        Reply
    • Dean Thomas
      Dean Thomas says:

      Lyle, my test pilot at Bell on the OH-58 was an avid golfer (he was ex-Marine, and I just remembered his name- Don Bloom.) When we finished a test, Don would find the nearest golf course, find guys on the green, and tell me, ” I’m gonna make that guy miss his putt.” Don would buzz the green at low level in the Army OD paint of the OH-58, scattering golfers. I would say,
      ” Don, you’re crazy, somebody’s going to report us!”. Nobody ever did.
      Dean Thomas

      Reply
  7. Charles Farrell
    Charles Farrell says:

    I was told in Flight School (1967) that the standard traffic pattern flow was that FW flew left traffic and rotary wing standard flow was right traffic due to speed differences. Hence the PIC seat was established as left for FW and right for RW. Anyway, made sense to me.
    Chuck Farrell

    Reply
    • Dean Thomas
      Dean Thomas says:

      Lyle, I’m not quite sure what you meant by you being surprised that the test pilot author (as the author, I was the flight test engineer, not the test pilot) not being cognizant of the basic helicopter aerodynamics. I can assure you that my test pilot and I were both fully cognizant of retreating blade stall, which you described.
      Thanks, Lyle, for your comments.
      Dean Thomas

      Reply
    • Dean Thomas
      Dean Thomas says:

      Charles, maybe so, but all my rotary wing flights with fixed wing in the pattern were left base, unless the local airport called for right base. Isn’t that FAA regs?
      Thanks, Charles, for the comments.
      Dean Thomas.

      Reply
  8. James J Tyson Jr
    James J Tyson Jr says:

    Hi Dean, great story and well composed. Thank you for posting it!

    You might find my association with the U.S. Army interesting.

    First, John Foster was a classmate at USN Test Pilot School in 1960 (Class 28). He was the first Army aviator to attend. We were good friends.

    Second, I was the Navy’s selection to go to the U.K. for the P.1127 (Kestrel, XV-6A) project. That Tripartite program was managed by the Army, for the USA. Friends and fellow Army aviators there included Lou Solt, John Johnson, Paul Curry and Bill King (non-Kestrel pilot but maintenance officer). . You might find “Kestrel Squadron” by Brian Carlin an interesting background. Harrier was the end result.

    Feel free to talk with me despite my advanced age (93).

    Jim Tyson, Captain, USN (Retired)
    828-215-7803
    [email protected]

    Reply
  9. Dean Thomas
    Dean Thomas says:

    James, I don’t recognize any of the names, but I’m only 84!

    When I was at Edwards, the P.1127 Kestrel was being tested. i remember they had to be careful not to tear up the asphalt ramp during low altitude hover. James, thanks for the comments.

    Dean Thomas
    ’63 Texas A&M University, Aerospace Engineering

    Reply
  10. Walter Catlow
    Walter Catlow says:

    Hey Dean, really enjoyed your story. It caught my attention because I had not seen TATSA in years. My father, Walt Senior was lead pilot on the Sikorsky H-37 (what a miserable beast) and Hiller H-23 programs when TATSA was at Rucker in 1957. He and 12 other Marines had transferred to the Army as Warrants so they could keep flying. (A story for another time.) He always joked that the Army had given them the worst flying jobs they could find.

    Reply
  11. Dean Thomas
    Dean Thomas says:

    Howdy, Walter. Thanks for your comments.
    I am not familiar with the initials TATSA. What does it designate? I was a civilian flight test engineer at the U.S. Army Aviation Test Activity, Edwards AFB, in 1966 and 1967.
    I agree with you in your description of the Sikorsky H-37. When I was with NASA Houston, we were testing the Gemini astronaut’s personal parachutes somewhere (maybe China Lake, I just can’t remember where, but somewhere where there was a lot of sand) with DOD supporting us with a Marine H-37. Besides being plain ugly, the cowlings on those big radial engines were just covered and dripping in oil.
    When the crew cranked up the H-37 to support our tests, the magneto test was not good, with the engines banging and snorting and carrying on. Apparently, the engines had ingested a lot of sand, and the poor crew chief had to un-cowl both engines and change all the spark plugs on both huge radial engines, while we sat on our butts waiting for him to finish!
    That was my only experience with the H-37.
    Walter, again, thanks for your comments.
    Dean Thomas

    Reply
  12. Larry
    Larry says:

    N10560 !! I flew that airplane from late 1972 to late 1999 when I left the area. GREAT airplane. In the beginning — if ya’ll can believe it — it cost $8/hr wet !! As one of the A&P’s who helped keep up the aero club airplanes, we scraped her off the runway more than once after gear up landings. I just talked to the club manager about another airplane I “forced” the club to buy in 1981… a slightly used ’78 Skylane RG N1668R. IT is still there flying. N10560 is now a part of the new Flight Test Historical museum.

    PHOTO PANEL instrumentation! The T-38’s used in the TPS curriculum had them early on, too.

    Reply
  13. Dean Thomas
    Dean Thomas says:

    Larry, thanks for the comments.
    Were you in the Air Force at Edwards when you flew the Edwards Aero Club Beech T-34 N10560? (I was a civilian flight test engineer with the U.S. Army Aviation Test Activity at Edwards 1966-1967.)
    Were you flying the T-34 from Edwards South Base?
    You are right that it was hard to believe that renting the Edwards Aero Club T-34 wet was cheaper than renting a civilian Cessna 150!
    Again, Larry, thanks for the comments.
    Dean Thomas

    Reply
  14. Ian Hollingsworth
    Ian Hollingsworth says:

    Hi Dean.
    Thank you for the interesting article.
    My boss/co-worker, Bill Davies, was scheduled to fly the XV-5 the week after the crash, so he never flew it.
    Bill told me about that, but never explained the crash. Thanks for the information.
    Bill and I have over 28 years of working together, and he taught me what I know about flight test.

    Ian Hollingsworth
    DER Flight Test Pilot
    (Flight Technology Corporation)
    704 8th Street
    Ramona, CA 92065
    cell: 760-419-9985
    [email protected]

    Reply
    • Dean Thomas
      Dean Thomas says:

      Ian, thanks for the comments.
      The XV-5, like the Kestrel and the Harrier, was hard to fly in the transition from hover to forward flight and back to hover.
      If you would google the XV-5, you will find that it killed another test pilot.
      In our case, the test pilot did not completely follow test procedures, and lowered the horse collar with enough forward speed to cause the horse collar to be ingested in one of the ducted fans in the wings.
      Ian, thanks again for the comment.
      Dean Thomas

      Reply
      • Dean Thomas
        Dean Thomas says:

        Ian, the test pilot killed in the 5 Oct 1966 accident of the
        XV-5 was Air Force Major David Tittle, not (“Title” as reported in Air Facts. I may have sent that in incorrectly).
        Did you know him?
        I emailed Air Facts with the correction.
        Thanks again, Ian.
        Dean Thomas

        Reply

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