First Delivery

by Charles Lester Morris


In May, 1942 Mr. Igor Sikorsky directed our entire attention toward accomplishing the delivery flight to Wright Field of the Sikorsky XR-4 Helicopter. This was to be the worlds first delivery of a production helicopter. Much remained to be investigated. We had not yet flown for even one continuous hour, and there were a hundred little items that still needed attention. So for the first eleven days in May, we put in more than five hours in the air. On the eighth I made the first true cross-country helicopter flights in America by going from Stratford to West Haven and return-a distance of twelve miles each way! I made the round trip three or four times, staying up over an hour and getting used to the strange sensation of "going somewhere" again. For a full year, my flying had been entirely within a one-mile radius of my point of take-off, and, although I knew every bush and grass blade in that area, I had almost forgotten what the rest of the world looked like from above.

Finally it was settled that I would leave for Dayton on Tuesday, May 13. So on the preceding Sunday we made the last few tests and then turned the ship over to Adolph Plencfisch and his crew for final preparation.XR-4

Lester Morris pilots the XR-4 on its first flight

Tuesday was a beautiful warm day, with the temperature close to 80° and a gentle breeze barely stirring the stately elms that bordered our little field. I sat inside the blunt-nosed cabin, reading the instruments that would tell me when all was ready, arranging maps and parachute harness, watching the rotor flicking overhead in powerful rhythm. Several of my friends drifted out of the crowd and stuck a farewell hand in the open window.

Mr. Sikorsky hovered near, nervously chewing at the corner of his mouth. His keen gray-blue eyes flashed out from under the familiar gray fedora as they searched every detail of the craft to detect any sign of flaw. I knew the capacity of those eyes from experience-that time they had seen from twenty-five feet the strut that was so slightly bent that I had to sight along it at close range to notice it-the time when, without apparently looking at the ship at all, he had commented on a tail-rotor blade whose tip had an eighth of-an-inch nick in it. And I knew on this May morning that his vision would be doubly sharp because he was not wholly convinced of the wisdom of the impending flight-he felt that this "first-of-the-type" should be handled with kid gloves and should be delivered to Dayton by truck, thus eliminating the potential hazards of a cross-country trip in a totally novel type of aircraft that had had less than twenty flying hours since its wheels first left the ground. So I knew those eyes would probe to the marrow any minute indication of things awry.

It is understandable, therefore, that I experienced a calm reassurance when he walked quickly to the ship, thrust out his hand, and said, "Well, Les, today you are making history!"

But I couldn't tell him what I wanted to: that I was only the ball carrier in a football play that was destined to be a brilliant touchdown. The play had been nurtured and studied in Coach Sikorsky's mind since 1909. It had profited enormously from similar plays worked out by other coaches throughout the world. The snap of the ball had found a stout engineering and shop team on the line and in the backfield running the interference, taking the knocks, and clearing the way, so that now the lone ball carrier might trot across the goal line standing up!

The engine roared its crescendo as I pulled upward on the pitch lever. The ship lifted vertically to ten or fifteen feet; then I eased forward on the stick and started across the field. Sweeping in a gentle circle, I swooped low over the clump of upturned faces and waving hands-on over the factory and into an easy climb to 1,500 feet.

A car with a large yellow dot painted on the roof was already speeding out the factory gate-it was to be my shadow for five days. In it were the backfield that had been chosen to run the interference for this final play: Bob Labensky, the project engineer who had cast his lot with the penniless Sikorsky of nineteen years ago and had remained loyal through lean and rich alike; Ralph Alex, his assistant, who had labored endless days and nights to bring this craft to flying condition; Adolph Plenefisch, shop foreman on the helicopter ever since the first nerve-racking flights in 1939;and Ed Beatty, transportation chief, who elected to make this epic drive himself.

I quickly lost them in the elm tunnels of Stratford, but my maps were marked with the exact route they would take, so I followed it closely, always ready to land in some little field beside the road should the slightest thing seem wrong. They would see me as they drove by, and delays would be minimized.

Danbury was the halfway point on the first leg. It came in sight a little behind schedule. I was flying at 2,000 feet now, because the land was rising; and at that altitude there was a fifteen-mile head wind. Sixty miles an hour had been chosen as the best cruising air speed for the flight-easy onboth ship and pilot-and the head wind cut my true ground speed down to forty-five.

The day was getting hotter, and the oil had been slowly warming up until it approached the danger zone. It passed 80 degrees (centigrade) and crept on up toward 85. It worried me, and I watched it so closely that I didn't realize until afterward that I was setting another one of those unofficial records-flying a helicopter across a state boundary for the first time.

Brewster, New York, drifted slowly behind and for a while my beacon was a winding ribbon of highway flanked on either side by almost unbroken forest. Finally, however, the open fields of the Hudson Valley caught my shadow like a giant whirling spider, and I began to let down for the landing at New Hackensack, just outside Poughkeepsie, thirty-five minutes behind schedule. It was pleasant to see George Lubben's shock of red hair come bounding from the hangar as I hove in sight. Lubben was at this first stop to give the ship a thorough going-over, and, as I came in range of the field, he had been talking by phone with the ground party, who had gotten as far as Brewster and called to check progress.

On this first leg, besides the crossing of the state line, another record was written into our logbook: the national airline-distance record for this type of craft was unofficially established at fifty miles (since no other helicopter in the Western Hemisphere had flown any appreciable distance before).

From New Hackensack, I swung north toward Albany, flying about 1,000 feet above the valley floor. The mounting heat was building great white thunderheads above the Catskills, but they were still adolescent and presented me with only a modicum of turbulent air as I passed in front of  them. Just below Albany, a few tremendous raindrops spread saucers on the windshield, but that was the worst those ominous clouds could do.



last update SEPTEMBER 22, 2012