When we talk about the “Golden Year of Aviation” we always think of the 1920s - 1940 of the luxury of transports. We remember the famous air races which brought us the Gee Bee, maybe the De Havilland DH.88 Comet.
I think we can also speak from the 1940s - 1960s of the helicopter’s “Golden Ages”
When Igor Sikosky introduced the world to helicopters in 1939 a new version of the Golden Years were just beginning. With the VS-300 now in production, Sikorsky would introduce the H-5, in 1946 Helicopter Air Transport or HAT would accept its first of three H-5s. At a pretty penny of 48,500$ or in today’s value, 117,334$. HAT began flying passengers, mail, and freight from the Camden County Airport in New Jersey.
While the H-5s were flying in the United States, across the pound our British neighbors also began flying helicopters. British European Airways introduced their helicopter division in 1948.
BEA was flying mail and passengers in East Anglia, to Cardiff via Liverpool. In the 1950s BEA Helicopters established a base in Gatwick. The company was responsible for engineering and maintenance of the British Airways helicopter and for providing the flight crew. Cabin crew were from British Caledonian as was passenger handling at Gatwick. Heathrow handling was by British Airways,In 1986, the airline was sold by British Airways to Robert Maxwell, and renamed to British International Helicopters provided service to Penzance to Isles of Scilly. this route was canceled in 2012. British International Helicopters still operates a fleet of Sirkosky S-61
In 1974 British Airways Helicopter broke off from BEA and began its own service. n 1981, the airline bought six Boeing Vetrol BV-234 for use on the offshore oil support flights.The company was involved in setting up the Airlink high-frequency helicopter shuttle service between Gatwick and Heathrow in 1978. T
In 1949, Los Angeles Airways begin flying mail and passengers. Based in Southern California, LA Airways operated all over Southern California. In 1954 LA Airways had scheduled passenger routes making it the very first scheduled helicopter operation in the world. With their main hub at LAX, they would fly passengers to and from different hubs including landing at Disney World, and the Newporter Resort. They also flew scheduled routes to Ontario and San Bernardino. As the company grew so did their fleet, going from the famous R-5 to the S-61L
Because of the ability to operate multi engine aircraft, the FAA authorized LAA to fly over LA and fly in IFR conditions.
On the other side of the country, a new helicopter airlines was being formed, New York Airways. Founded in 1949 to fly cargo and mail flying the Sikorsky S-55. Based at La Gaurdia airport, NYA would fly passengers and mail all over New York city.
In 1958 New York Airways added to its fleet the Boeing Vertol V-44, A 15 passenger version of the
Piasecki H-21 “The Flying Banana”
In 1962 the company retired the S-55s and their S-58 helicopters and transitioned strictly to tandem rotor Boeing Vertol 107-II along with the Sikorsky S-61L. During this time a one way ticket with New York Airways from LaGuardia to Idlewild was $4.50 or 43 dollars today.
The first scheduled passenger service was from LGA was to Manhattan. In the 1960s the Downtown helipad was open providing daily flights from LGA there! In June 1964 they had 32 daily flights from JFK to Newark Airport and 33 returning; all flights each way between about 0900 and 1930 stopped at Wall Street. The only other flights were 15 round trips a day between JFK and the Port Authority building at the World’s Fair, as La Guardia was still under construction.Scheduled flights to the top of the Pan Am Building began in 1965. they ended in 1968, then resumed for a few months in 1977. In April 1966 23 flights a day flew nonstop to Pan Am’s terminal at JFK, scheduled 10 minutes; passengers could check in at the Pan Am Building 40 minutes before their scheduled departure out of JFK. The downtown heliport had 13 flights a day to Newark, 5 nonstops to TWA’s terminal at JFK and 12 to LGA, all of which continued to JFK., though downtown had no weekend flights.
New York Airways employed the first African American airline pilot. Perry H. Young made his historic first flight on February 5, 1957. Young had previously made history as the first African American flight instructor for the United States Army Air Corps. New York Airways defunct in 1979. All their Boeings went to Columbia helicopters that now serve the US in Afghanistan and fighting fires along with logging operations. N6674D is the highest flying time helicopter in the world, with more than 70,000 flight hours since its construction in 1962.
In 1961 San Francisco and Oakland Helicopters were founded. The company offered scheduled passenger service between San Fran, Oakland and other Bay Area cities. SFO Helicopters was one of the very first helicopters to operate with out federal subsidy. They also were the very first company to operate nothing but turbine helicopters. ince helicopter landing sites were scarce at that time, the port of Oakland’s board committee supported the service. Passenger flights started with two leased 10-passenger Sikorsky S-62.
In late summer of 1961, the SFO Helicopter Airlines system timetable stated that 68 flights a day were operated. The Airlines claimed the helicopter made as much noise as a neighborhood truck. The US Post office granted SFO Helicopters permission to fly mail until 1979. in 1962, SFO Helicopter was operating flight seeing aerial tours on weekends and holidays during the summer months from Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco with a fare of $4.50 for adults and $3.50 for children. In 1969, it carried 320,000 passengers on more than 100 flights a day. According to the April 27, 1969 SFO Helicopter Airlines timetable, each arriving and departing flight at two gates, American Airlines and TWA with staggered arrival and departure times for each flight at each gate being reflected in the timetable.In May 1968, after continuous growth, the company’s schedule reached 14 weekday departures from the San Francois Ferry Building, 11 from Marin, 13 from Berkeley, three from a parking garage in Oakland and 9 from Lafayette. Interline passengers connecting at SFO and then heading east beyond Colorado, the ticket to SFO cost $4.75 from Marin or Lafayette and only $4.50 from Berkeley. in 1976 and had gone out of business altogether in 1986.
In 1946 an American Cargo and passenger company was formed, Air America. From 1959 to 1962 the airline provided direct and indirect support to US Special Forces in Laos. Air America flew secret operations for the CIA during the Secret War of Laos. Operating Bell 47s, Bell 204Bs, Bell 205, Boeing CH-47, Hughes 500Ds, Bell OH-6A, Sikorsky S-55s, Sikorsky S-58T, Sikorsky CH-54Bs, Sikorsky H-43 their helicopters flew all over transporting VIPS, soldiers and other official government. With the War ending in Vietnam the US decided to conduct Operation Frequent Wind. Americans were told when they heard “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising. This will be followed by the playing of a White Christmas” this was code to get to the helicopter. On April 28, 1975 the song, “White Christmas” began playing over Armed Forces radio. 19 hours 81 helicopters brought over 7,000 people to US Naval ships. At the US Embassy a Bell 205 landed. About 30 seconds later the very last helicopter would leave Vietnam. Air America.
After returning to the States the Chinese Division of Air America, Air Asia was sold. Air America helicopter division was shut down. The Airlines was disbanded and shut its doors in 1979.
As many helicopter airlines have died off and scheduled airline service is a rare thing, there still are a few in the world.
In the US Pathfinder Aviation in Anchorage, Alaska is the only company to fly mail on it’s helicopters and provide passenger service to Diomede Island.
Air Greenland still operates helicopters flying the Bell 212. In Canada, Helijet provides passenger service from Vancouver to Victoria Island! The golden year of helicopters maybe over but we the chance to fly a helicopter as a paying every day passenger is still out there!