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European Helicopters - Cold War Developments

Although many of the most important early developments in helicopter technology were made in Europe, and Germany made several important helicopter advances, rotary wing development in Great Britain was stagnant until 1944, when the Bristol Aeroplane Company established its Helicopter Division (eventually renamed Bristol Helicopters). Bristol's first helicopter was the Type 171, which first flew in July 1947. The Type 171, also named the Sycamore, was in some ways more advanced than the Sikorsky R-5 and R-6 then flying in the United States and by far the most popular and successful helicopters of the time.

British military forces soon evaluated the Sycamore, which was then produced in quantity as the HR. Mk.14. It entered service in 1953 and served in search and rescue and medical evacuation missions. It also soon entered service with the Royal Australian Navy and the German Air Force and Navy. While the Sycamore was under development, Bristol began developing a tandem-rotor helicopter somewhat similar to the Piasecki "Flying Banana." Known as the Type 173, this aircraft was soon developed into the Type 192 Belvedere, which had a rounded fuselage that looked like a baguette with four-bladed rotors on either end. The Belvedere, designated the HC.1 in Royal Air Force (RAF) service, was delivered in 1961 and saw service in the Middle East and Far East. It suffered from engine reliability problems and its high landing gear made loading cargo in the cabin difficult.

In March 1960, Bristol Helicopters was taken over by Westland. Westland was already the primary British helicopter manufacturer. After World War II, Westland had signed a license to build the Sikorsky S-51 helicopter. Westland significantly modified the design and designated it the WS-51 Dragonfly. The first flight was in October 1948 and in 1950 aircraft were being delivered to the Royal Navy for use aboard aircraft carriers. The Dragonfly HR.Mk1 equipped the Royal Navy's first helicopter squadron. Westland also produced the Dragonfly for civilian customers and the militaries of Japan, Iraq, France, Yugoslavia and Ceylon. The WS-51 Dragonfly was the first British-built helicopter to gain a certificate of airworthiness.

Westland began licensed manufacture of the Sikorsky S-55, designated the WS-55 Whirlwind, in November 1950. The aircraft served in the RAF and the Royal Navy, and also in the Queen's Flight and in civil service. Westland also soon licensed the Sikorsky S-58, which it produced as the popular Wessex. It was initially used as an anti-submarine helicopter, but soon employed by the Royal Marine Commandos and the RAF. By the mid-1960s, Westland also began producing the Sikorsky S-61 Sea King. The company also began cooperative production of its own helicopter design, the WG.3, with the French aerospace company Aérospatiale.

In 1963, Westland began work on the Lynx tactical utility helicopter, which began flying by 1970 and proved highly successful in British military service. It saw action in the Falklands War in 1981 and later in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. In the 1980s, Westland began work with the Italian firm Agusta on a replacement for the prolific Sea King. This led to the creation of European Helicopter Industries in June 1980. The new helicopter, designated the EH.101 Merlin, first flew in October 1987, but did not enter production until the mid-1990s. It has a five-bladed main rotor, a retractable landing gear, and three engines, and serves in various roles such as a submarine hunter and a utility version. A civil version, for offshore oil rig use, can seat 30 passengers.

In France, the aviation industry had been taken over by the government before World War II. After the war, two companies, Sud-Est and Sud-Ouest, pursued various helicopter projects. Sud-Ouest produced the small Djinn for the French Army. One model, the SO-1221 Djinn, was the most successful tip-jet helicopter design and one of the few to be put into production, with a total of 178 being built. Sud-Est developed the three-seat Alouette I prototype. The Alouette II, which first flew in March 1955, had a turbine engine and quickly broke the world helicopter altitude record. It entered production one year later in a five-seat version and soon became a highly popular helicopter.

Sud-Ouest and Sud-Est were merged into Sud-Aviation in 1957, and the company eventually produced over 1,600 examples of the Alouette II and its derivatives. They were supplied to military and civilian users in approximately 50 countries. A high-altitude version dubbed the Lama was also produced in France and Brazil and manufactured under license in India by Hindustan, which named it the Cheetah. The Cheetah was used heavily in the Himalayan Mountains for various tasks, including rescuing injured mountain-climbers.

In 1954 the French became involved in an eight-year conflict in Algeria. This conflict saw the first effective use of armed helicopters in combat. This first use was likely the result of a ground commander's quest for a flexible, rapidly responding weapons platform. A French G-l light helicopter (US Bell 47/OH-13equivalent) equipped with two stretchers landed at a French Army command post in Algeria's Atlas Mountains, prepared for use for medical evacuation. Soon after landing, a report came to the command post that a French infantry patrol was pinned down by rebel machine-gun fire and needed air support. The cloud ceilings were to low for high performance aircraft, so the commander on the ground made a momentous decision; arm the helicopter. Two volunteers were strapped to the helicopter's stretchers, facing forward with their machine guns. The pilot flew over the position, allowing the two riflemen to place accurate air-to-ground fires. While the mission was a success, the further deployment of tethered gunners was prohibited during the Algerian conflict.

From this beginning, French armed helicopter technology advanced rapidly. Initially, helicopters were armed to escort troop-carrying helicopters. With a ratio of one armed helicopter to five troop carriers, the French effectively provided enroute and landing zone (LZ) defensive fires, effectively countering rebel attacks on the helicopters. The development continued, with testing of various armament configurations being conducted concurrently with the updating of helicopter doctrine.

The French CH-21 helicopter was at different times equipped with two 68 mmrocket pods with eighteen rockets each, .30 caliber machine guns flexibly mounted under the fuselage, and a 20 mm cannon on a shockless flexible mount in the cabin door. In the late 1950s Nord-Aviation SS-10 and SS-11 wire-guided antitank missiles were installed on the CH-34 and Allouette II helicopters for firing into caves located beneath overhanging cliffs and other hard targets.

During the early 1960s Sud-Ouest manufactured several Sikorsky helicopters under license and developed the Puma medium twin turbine-powered helicopter. The Puma became popular with military and civilian users and found widespread use in the offshore oil industry. In 1970, Sud-Ouest and several other firms merged into a single company named Aérospatiale. The firm continued with a number of new designs, including the Gazelle, as a replacement for the Alouette, and the Dauphin. Both helicopters placed the dangerous tail rotor inside an opening in the tail (this was called a "Fenestron tail") where it was less likely that the spinning blades would strike objects on the ground or chop off heads. The Dauphin has proven popular and is even operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Aérospatiale also produced the highly popular six-seat Ecureuil (Squirrel).

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:49:58 ZULU