In early 2010 I had the chance to fly in a Bell 47 Sioux of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s No 3 Squadron at Ohakea, north of Wellington.
The Bell 47 embodied many firsts. It was the first helicopter to be certified for civilian use, and as the H-13 Sioux, was the first military chopper in widespread service. First flown as long ago as 1945, the definitive Bell 47G came along in 1953 and reached the RNZAF in 1965, with a second batch in 1970. They were the first New Zealand military helicopters, and although their numbers have diminished, still serve as the air force’s basic helicopter trainer.
The RNZAF’s Sioux have been in service as long as my mum’s fridge, which admittedly hasn’t done much more than keep food cold and act as something to put the TV guide on top of in all that time. Used for a while to scout for the enemy on behalf of the army, and occasionally to carry up to two passengers, the RNZAF’s Bell 47s are the last in any air arm and possibly the last aircraft designed in the 1940s in military service outside of a historic flight.
The Sioux’s big brother, the UH-1 or Iroquois (a name which only ever seems to have stuck in New Zealand) is being replaced by the NH90, a helicopter so sophisticated that the RNZAF can only afford to buy eight of them. Training NH90 pilots on the Sioux would be like learning Photoshop on an Etch-a-Sketch, so it is being replaced from late this year with new Agusta Westland AW109s, which have such refinements as wheels, a cabin and two engines.
It is not true to say every RNZAF Sioux has crashed once, because several of them have crashed twice. To be fair, two of the thirteen don’t seem to have crashed at all, and NZ3713, our chariot today, has only had a heavy landing, 22 years ago, when it was still a teenager, as was I. Only one of us has required rebuilding so far and I hope to keep it that way.
As we approach the Sioux, waiting alone for us on the Ohakea flightline, the shape is familiar from MASH, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and many other programmes and films of my youth that were made on a bit of a tight budget. It looks like a large goldfish bowl jammed atop a fallen radio mast. Two red fuel tanks sit above the bubble, and whatever else isn’t made of Perspex, bathroom fittings and No. 8 fencing wire is a mid green.
These days they are not often seen too far from Ohakea as the transit time to anywhere interesting, such as hills, is too long to bother with anymore. The never-exceed speed is 91 knots, although the Sioux usually cruises at 60-70. In a headwind it is frequently overtaken by traffic on nearby State Highway 1. Pilots find it particularly galling to see big semi-trailers go past.
Despite this less than blistering performance, at higher speeds the famous bubble can actually flex enough to move back several inches and touch the radio platform ahead of the instrument panel.
“It’s great for teaching hand-and-foot piloting”. Says my pilot, Squadron Leader Rob Arrowsmith. “It’s very mandraulic”. It turns out that Rob went to the same school as I did, although a few years later. The headmaster of my years retired during his, and may be one of few people we know in common. Rob obviously paid better attention in maths and physics than I did, and picked up better hand-eye coordination too, as we shall see later.
The bubble is moulded in a single piece and is distortion free, quite an achievement for 1940s technology. Replacements are understandably hard to get now and the bubble of ’13 shows a few signs of repairs, being literally held together in a few places with sticky tape.
Rob engages the starter and the 280-horsepower Lycoming engine chugs and coughs like the a Hillman Hunter on a winter morning, but soon catches and the rotors begin spinning happily above us. I can look up and see them. I can look in almost every direction and see outside. Only the column of instruments (all 12 of them) blocks part of the view forward.
I love flying but hate heights. I usually don’t mind open doors in helicopter cabins, but I find the proximity of my right foot and shoulder to the open air, with the slipstream tugging at my sleeve and nothing below but a skid rather disturbing. I keep an extra tight grip on my cameras. The Sioux has doors which are put back on in the winter, but in summer it’s like an oven with them on, Rob says; “and the students are sweating enough already”.
We hover taxy and call for clearance to the Raumai firing range on the coast, about 10 minutes away by Sioux or 9 by truck. We climb to a thousand feet. Yellow Tonka toys are extracting gravel from the Rangatikei River. We descend to 50 feet. A pair of magpies and a quartet of geese fly below, but don’t try and overtake us.
Raumai was the site of many thousands of gun, rocket and practice bomb attacks by P-40s, Mosquitoes, Vampires, Strikemasters and Skyhawks, at least until the latter were retired in 2001. The ranges are now mainly used for low flying, helicopter landing and the odd bit of door gun practice by 3 Squadron’s Hueys and training airdrops by 40 Squadron’s C-130s . The tattered remains of a number of rotting parachutes hang in the pine trees, at least nine of which were put there by C-130 navigator ‘LG’ Wilson, who had earlier told me the drops were all bullseyes on the open drop zone, but were caught by gusts at the point of landing. “We would have had to cut down the trees to get them but the trees are worth more than the chutes, so we left them there.”
Arrowsmith shows me a landing in a confined space – a triangular-shaped gravel-bottomed clearing in the pines, which seems pretty small from a distance. As we circle it, he goes through a patter that trainees must learn and recite to themselves in such situations. Some of it went like this: “The clearing is two Sioux long; wind is on the nose at five knots; there are no wires; the surface is sandy; blowing sand might be a factor; the clearing is level; the sun is at 12 o’clock; escape is straight ahead”
We drop into the clearing, raising a little dust, hover for a few moments then pop out again over the pines. We cross the dunes where students practice landing on one skid and other tactical manoeuvres and circle the range control tower. The beach sand is not suitable for training for landings in dusty environments such as East Timor, or in the future, possibly Afghanistan. Iroquois pilots today either train ‘closer to theatre’ where possible or using snow as a dust substitute on their annual mountain flying exercise in the Southern Alps.
We have briefed to land in a larger area so that I can get out and take some photos of the Sioux against a forest background. The two cows at the end of the first field we approach turn out to be bulls, who stand their ground briefly before bolting off into a shady corner, where closer inspection reveals another half dozen. Agreeing that letting me out in a paddock full of startled beasts was not the best idea, we move on to land in a quieter field and Arrowsmith does a couple of 360 degree turns for my camera – at least until I realise the memory card has filled up, requiring me to delete older images furiously as we return to Ohakea.
We wheel over the dunes and head back to Ohakea, passing by the new hangar destined for occupation by the AW109s and NH90s, replacing the pre-war structures built for Wellington bombers that never came when those aircraft were diverted to the RAF.
Engine out to touchdown landings are not practiced much these days by most air forces, mainly because of the accidents they cause, but are still part of the Sioux syllabus. Rob cuts the throttle. We rise slightly in our seats then green grass fills all of the view. Down we go, autorotating until daisies are clearly visible and starting to look quite large. Rob raises the collective, arresting our descent, and the skids do their job as we slide gently across the grass.
Rob gives me a chance to try my hand at flying the Sioux, one control axis at a time.
Despite having reread ‘Chickenhawk’ in the last week, or perhaps because of it, I am all over the place. Given just the cyclic to operate, and shown how gently it needs to be handled to move the rotor disc, the reference point I am told to keep pointed at drifts one way and then the other before “I have control” predictably comes through the intercom. I get confused with the collective lever and lower it when I am supposed to lift it to go up. We go down. My instructor arrests the descent before we hit the ground. I’m sure students do that to him all the time, but maybe not. My rudder inputs spin the horizon even worse than the cyclic, but in my defence, there is a considerable lag between foot pressure and effect. Perhaps rashly, Rob gives me a chance to try all three controls at once. I was great. Suddenly it all came together for me and I could hold it steady as a rock, keeping the Sioux precisely in any position I chose. OK, I’m lying. We went up, backwards and sideways simultaneously, then down, forwards and sideways the other way. Rob had control again and I was cool with that.
“It takes a student 10 hours to get to this point”. I think he means handling all the controls in some sort of coordinated way, not threatening to reduce the Sioux force by one more. Rob picks up the whole contraption and plonks us gently back on the flight line. The rotors spin down again.
We replaced my mother’s fridge this week with something larger and shinier with more plastic parts. It supposedly holds more stuff, uses less juice, and costs at least 10 times as much as the 1965 model.
Like Mum’s old Norge, which thrummed away continuously for 45 years apart from the odd defrosting, the last Sioux will undoubtedly still work the day they come to take it away.