It’s an incomparable sound, sometimes a buzzing, sometimes a knocking, occasionally underlined by the slight hissing of a turbine. In any case, in our part of the world the noise, the last 75 years, always means: help is on its way. Be it the form of police or rescue teams, helicopters are more closely linked with the protection of human life than any other mode of transport. It all started on a very small scale: with a toy.
Even 400 BC, small children in China played with sticks mounted with a rotor. These flying tops worked according to the same principle as our modern-day Eurocopter H145. The rotor, which is activated manually in the case of the toy, produces an upward thrust, which makes the flying top fly. We are familiar with this toy in Europe to this day, even though it is now made of plastic and has a drawstring. But it was still a long way from the toy to the rescue of human life.
The Helicopter has more than one Dad
Unlike the lightbulb or telephone, there very many inventors who paved the way for the helicopter. Some of whose names have mostly been forgotten. Like Hermann Ganswindt for example, whose flying machine took passengers up in the air in Berlin for the first time in 1901 – two years before the first motor-driven flight of the Wright brothers. However, Ganswindt used drop weights for propulsion and a safety bar to provide at least a minimum of protection to the people on board. This safety bar became his downfall. Sceptics accused him of fraud and Ganswindt spent eight weeks in pre-trial custody.
But some of the other names have been remembered. Leonardo da Vinci, for example. In the 15th century, the Italian genius designed his famous aerial screw, which does not appear airworthy from a modern-day perspective though. And then there is Igor Sikorsky, whose name still adorns some of the world’s most successful and widely used rotary wing aircraft: the mighty CH-53 transport helicopters, the UH-60 Black Hawks of the US army and the S-92 series, the transport mode of choice on drilling platforms around the world.
Although Igor Sikorsky neither invented the helicopter nor the layout for the horizontal main rotor and (more or less) vertical tail rotor that is still used today, the inventive Russian and American-by-choice combined all the components designed by inventors before him into a stable, airworthy and functioning whole. That is why his name is so closely associated with air rescue, because the first rescue helicopter was a Sikorsky… even though they were not called rescue helicopters back then.
The War accelerates development
This is because there was war. Everywhere. A world war, in other words. The second one, to be exact. And the war had to end before helicopters were used for rescue purposes for the first time:
in April 1944. About two months before the Allies invaded Normandy, a small tragedy occurred in another part of the world that would probably have been completely ignored by the history books because of the war if it would not today be considered the birth of helicopter air rescue. In the leading roles: a young helicopter pilot of the US Army Air Corps, Second Lieutenant Carter Harman, and his Sikorsky YR-4B.
India, on the border to Burma, now known as Myanmar. Here, too, people were fighting, blood was being spilled, people were injured. The British and the Americans joined forces to jointly fight against the Japanese Empire.
On 21 April, a reconnaissance aircraft crashed in the dense Burmese jungle in enemy territory. Ironically enough, the aircraft was itself transporting wounded soldiers. Thus the condition of the soldiers did not make it possible for them to return to the base camp on their own. The only possible option was to use the latest achievement of the US Army Air Corps: the helicopter.
Only a few months before, four brand new Sikorsky helicopters, including technicians and pilots, had been stationed at the Allied military base of Lalaghat in India. The technicians quickly had their hands full, as there were no experienced helicopter pilots around. It did not take long before the army started running out of spare parts and pilots. In the end, only one helicopter remained operational. And one pilot. Carter Harman.
Harman started the seven-cylinder radial engine of the Sikorsky and set out on the journey. The accident site was located almost 1000 kilometres from Harman’s base camp. Moreover, the YR-4B was barely faster than the regional “Münsterland“ express between Dülmen and Detmold: the small helicopter had a cruising speed of little more than 100 km/h. So the flight was about ten hours long. Plus refuelling and pee breaks – although Harman did not need to worry about the latter because the helicopter could only carry enough fuel for 250 km anyway.
24 hours to site of incident
So instead of the 20 minutes response time we generally have today, Harman needed around 24 hours(!) to get to his operations base. The accident site, however, was another 200 kilometres away.
The only solution: extra tanks. Otherwise it would not have been possible to manage the 400 km to and from accident site. This also meant that Harman had to fly the men out one by one. The carrying capacity of the small Sikorsky was ridiculously low. And the heat and humidity in Burma’s jungle did not help either. The engine overheated on one of the flights, and Harman had to make an emergency landing himself. But the 9-litre radial motor engine restarted again after an extensive cooling phase and the operation could continue.
The injured soldiers had to hide from Japanese search parties in the dense jungle until all of them had finally been rescued. The last one to leave was the pilot of the crashed airplane. Up to this day, he had never seen a helicopter.
With this rescue mission, Harman set a trend. In the following months of the war, more and more rescue missions used helicopters. The peculiar construction that Harman’s commanding officer, fighter pilot Phil Cochran, had disrespectfully called “egg beater” had found its purpose.
The birth of “Search and Rescue”
A few months later, the International Aviation Conference was held in Chicago. The treaty signed by 52 states that was to govern future international civil aviation regulated many things, in particular something that would lay the foundation for air rescue as we know it today: the international search and rescue service for air and sea emergencies: SAR.
Even though other confederate organisations such as the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force also became aware of the benefits of helicopters, the concept only really started gaining tract after a further innovation provided the necessary propulsion: the turbine engine.
Enter: the Legend
Engineers began experimenting with turbines in helicopters in the early 50s, as these were more compact, efficient, reliable and lighter than the previously used cast iron piston engines. It was also the turbine that brought the main rotor of the world’s most famous helicopter up to speed for the first time in 1956: the Bell 204, UH-1 (for Utility Helicopter 1), or Huey for short.
It was the first helicopter designed to rescue lives.
If you, like the author of this text, grew up with a stonewashed jeans jacket, acid rain and the sound of Duran Duran, then you will surely also remember the characteristic flip-flap of the Huey. After all, Dornier built over 340 of these all-purpose helicopters for the German army. Many of these are still in use today, 50 years later, including the SAR helicopters with the distinctive signal red door.
It was probably these helicopters that motivated a doctor from Munich to reorganise the entire German rescue service.
First Air Rescue Service in Germany
This was in the late 60s. Post-war Germany was experiencing an economic boom, and people liked to show off their possessions. The cars became bigger and faster, and more and more people had them. This resulted in an ever-increasing number of road casualties. This culminated in 1970 when there were almost 20,000 fatalities.
A certain Dr Hans Burghart, who at the time was an emergency doctor and surgeon at the municipal hospital in Munich-Harlaching, quickly realised how important it is to provide first aid swiftly at the scene of an accident. Many more accident victims would survive if they would receive medical care promptly and be brought to a hospital. An ambulance is not always capable of doing this and is also dependent on the traffic situation. His idea: a helicopter was to take an emergency doctor to the scene of the accident to treat the injured. Burghart approached the then vice president of the ADAC (German Automobile Association), Franz Stadler, with his idea. Together they developed the air rescue concept for the Federal Republic of Germany.
As a first step, the ADAC chartered a Bell 206 Jet Ranger in 1968, which was deployed as a rescue helicopter from Munich-Riem in a field test. It could transport two patients on normal stretchers, one above the other, in cross-flight direction. Space was limited, so the crew consisted solely of the pilot and the emergency doctor. There was not enough space for paramedics.
The “Kolibri”, as the Jet Ranger was called, was only in use for 47 days, but flew 52 rescue missions. The air rescue concept was a complete success, although nobody at the time thought about using it for moving intensive care patients or saving stroke or heart attack patients.
1970 finally marked the start of German air rescue. Germany’s first rescue helicopter was Christoph 1, a brand new Bölkow Bo 105, which was stationed at the Munich-Harlaching hospital. The Christoph 1 was “brand new” in many respects: rescue helicopters were new, the Bo 105 series was new and the Christoph 1 was the first series machine of this model series.
From exotic to common appearance
And today? Today, rescue helicopters save lives around the world. Especially in mountainous areas, helicopters are a must. Austria has been using rescue helicopters since 1983. They are stationed in 27 locations throughout the alpine republic. The helicopter air recue service is notified automatically in cases where ambulances would take too long to reach the accident site, as long as certain prerequisites are met – for example in the case of motorcycle accidents.
Switzerland has been using helicopters since the 50s, the first real rescue helicopter was put into operation around the time of the field test in Germany. Like in Germany, a Bell 206 Jet Ranger was used, laying the foundation stone for the legendary Air Zermatt.
As a rough estimate, the over 80 rescue helicopters, intensive care transport helicopters, dual use helicopters and SAR helicopters in Germany were deployed in over 100,000 rescue missions in 2017. Carter Harman would surely give his nod of approval: “Not bad for a Chinese toy.”