The Bell “Huey” Helicopter became one of the most recognizable aircraft in history during the Vietnam War.  The Vietnam war was the first war shown on the television and the Huey Helicopter was seen by millions nightly.

The Huey has been used by all branches of the US Armed Forces and by most Allied nations.  The Bell Helicopter Company has continued to develop the helicopter for more than four decades.  The UH-1 started as a small utility machine in the 1950’s.  With the Huey still in military and commercial use today, it has been built in huge numbers, exceeding those of any aircraft since 1945 except for the Antonov An-2. 

The origins of the UH-1 started in the battlefields of the Korean War where the Bell 47 helicopter was used to recover thousands of wounded soldiers and delivered them to critical-care units called M.A.S.H. (Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals).  The Bell 47 was a piston-powered helicopter that was slow, noisy, and unreliable, yet effective enough to convince the military that helicopters could have a positive effect in warfare.

The Korean War demonstrated the value of the helicopter in battle, not as a weapons carrier, but as a utility transport system that could deliver food and ammunition to a front line outpost and evacuate the casualties on its return.  The Marines also used helicopters to ferry troops into battle (this technique would evolve into the doctrine of ‘vertical envelopment’).  The Bell Helicopter Company was at the forefront of the helicopter movement with its Bell 47, but the engine could only produce 200hp, which meant the lightweight helicopter was limited in what it could carry. 

The US Marines embraced the helicopter faster than the US Army, but by the mid 1950’s the Army launched a design competition for a new utility helicopter which would serve primarily as a medical evactuation (medevac) machine.  The Army’s specifications for the new helicopter were:

  • Weigh 8,000lb (3600kg) fully laden
  • Carry a paylod of 800lb (360kg) at least 227 miles (365km)
  • Cruise at 114mph (184kh/h) at a service ceiling of 6,000ft (1,824m)
  • Have 3 times the power of the Bell 47 Helicopter
  • Equal lift capacity of the Sikorsky S-55
  • Be wrapped in a neater and higher performing machine than the Sikorsky S-55

The Bell Helicopter Company had a clear advantage over its competitors.  The US Army held Bell in high regard based on its experience with the Bell 47 in Korea.  Bell was also flying the H-13D helicopter with a Continental XT-51 gas turbine engine.  The turbine engine represented a revolutionary step in the development of helicopters and the Army saw it as a critical component in the new medevac helicopter design.  The turbine engine is lighter, smoother, easier to maintain and more reliable than the reciprocating piston engine.

During development of the H-13D, the Avco Lycoming Company was developing the XT53 turbine engine with the backing of the US Army.  The Bell engineers determined that the engine had potential and modified it to Bell Helicopter specifications and it eventually powered the prototype Huey.

Bell won the US Army competition and in June 1955 was awarded a contract for three prototype helicopters designated the XH-40.  Bell designated the helicopter the Model 204.  Using the Lycoming engine, Bell installed the engine right next to the gearbox under the main rotor where it was readily accessible yet not encroach into the cabin.  This allowed for a wider and more efficient cabin with the pilot and passengers all on the same floor level.  Bell test pilot Floyd Carlson made the first flights at Fort Worth on October 20 and 22, 1956 and no severe problems were encountered.

By this time, Bell had built six YH-40s with pre-production Lycoming T53-L-1A engines with 700hp and extended the cabin by 12 inches to accommodate four stretchers and a wider crew door, as well as greater ground clearance and modified flight controls.  Successful testing led to nine pre-production helicopters that the Army designated  the HU-1.  The Army’s tradition of naming helicopters after Native American tribes, the HU-1 was given the official name of Iroquois.  The HU designation stood for “Helicopter, Utility,” gave rise to the unofficial nickname “Huey”.  This quickly became an almost universal usage – certainly being far more commonly used than the official Iroquois designation.

For more information about the Bell Huey Helicopter:

Bell UH-1 Huey Helicopter

Delivering the Huey Helicopter

The Huey and Tactical Air Mobility

Combat - Bell Huey Helicopter in Action

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