The Bell Jet Ranger was a popular aircraft for servicing oil rigs and other commercial duties.
Evergreen Helicopters' Sikorsky S-61N provides oil rig support for a consortium of major oil companies.
Air ambulance evacuation using a Bell helicopter.
The Bell 47 was one of the first helicopters used for commercial purposes.
The Aérospatiale Puma has been a popular aircraft for North Sea oil operations.
British European Airways used the Westland-Sikorsky S-51 for its commercial passenger service between Liverpool, England, and Cardiff, Wales in 1950.
Civil and Commercial HelicoptersThe first production helicopters were built for the military, which has been their largest user. In addition to their military function, these aircraft also have offered great promise for civil government and commercial customers even though they are complicated and expensive machines. Thousands of helicopters have performed many commercial and civil functions throughout the United States and worldwide, although in nowhere near the same numbers as military helicopters have been used.
The first helicopter to enter commercial use was the Sikorsky S-51. But the most popular early commercial helicopters were the light utility craft such as the Bell 47. These aircraft were used for many different jobs that required remote operations or operating in areas that fixed-wing aircraft could not access. For instance, by the early 1950s, the Bell 47 was often used for surveying and commercial observation work. It could carry personnel far distances to areas without roads, as long as a flat, treeless area was available for the helicopter to land.
Helicopters were also used by civilian government agencies, such as police departments. Police used helicopters to monitor traffic and even to catch speeders. Fire departments occasionally used them to monitor brushfires, rescue people from tall buildings, and drop chemicals on forest fires.
Also in the 1950s, ranchers began using helicopters to reach distant parts of their property and even to herd cattle. Farmers also equipped some helicopters for crop-dusting. The Bell 47 was modified by Continental Copters to the 47G-2 El Tomcat version that was equipped with two large external tanks and two spraying bars that extended below and to either side of the single-seat cockpit. An advantage of using a helicopter for this purpose rather than a plane was that the air from the rotors hit the ground and then bounced back up, ensuring the pesticide reached the undersides of plants. Further, the helicopter did not need a runway for taking off and landing.
Airlines also hoped to exploit the helicopter's ability to land virtually anywhere. British European Airways launched the first commercial passenger service in June 1950, traveling between Liverpool, England, and Cardiff, Wales, using a Westland-Sikorsky S-51. New York City's first helicopter station began operating from a pier on the East River on May 18, 1949. Helicopter lines have also served as connectors between airlines at sister airports in the same community, such as between Newark International Airport in New Jersey and the Long Island, New York airports and between San Francisco International Airport and the nearby Oakland International Airport in California. On July 9, 1953, New York Airways became the first scheduled passenger helicopter air carrier to operate in the United States.
But early helicopters were slow and noisy and could not carry many passengers. By the 1960s, when larger military helicopters like the Boeing-Vertol CH-46 had entered service, some airlines anticipated creating commercial "heliports" in the center of New York and other cities that would allow passengers to fly from downtown to major airports such as LaGuardia and JFK airports. Boeing-Vertol even began to market civilian versions of its large helicopters. The airlines and helicopter manufacturers anticipated that the primary customers would be businessmen who were on tight schedules and had the money to pay for expensive helicopter services. This market never developed, however, and most commercial heliport proposals died by the 1970s. However, helicopters did enter extensive use as corporate transports.
Commercial passenger helicopters did establish niche markets in other areas, however, such as the offshore oil business. Early offshore oil platforms had crews that stayed aboard for long periods of time. This was unattractive to potential workers. But the advent of the helicopter allowed crews to be rotated fairly easily—replacement crews could now reach a drilling platform in an hour by air rather than in ten hours by boat. In fact, in the United States, by the 1960s and 1970s, oil crews became highly mobile, often traveling cross-country by commercial air to take a two-week tour on an oil platform before returning home. The helicopter made this possible. They were also used for oil surveying missions to remote areas.
Early commercial helicopters were often ex-military aircraft, such as the Sikorsky H-34 and its variants. They were usually converted to carry more seats. The Bell Huey and its commercial variants such as the Model 212 and 214 have been popular for servicing offshore oil rigs.
Oil platforms in the North Sea tended to be bigger and required larger crews than those in the Gulf of Mexico or off the Pacific coast. They therefore required larger helicopters to service them. British Airways Helicopters purchased several commercial Boeing-Vertol Model 234 civil variants of the CH-47 Chinook large military transport equipped with seats and a lavatory. The "Commercial Chinook" had its first flight in 1980 and in its first year of service carried over 80,000 passengers. But this type was never very popular and customers replaced them with the smaller Aérospatiale Puma and Sikorsky S-61N.
The Bell Jet Ranger, which first flew in January 1966 and was FAA type-certificated in October 1966, was also a highly popular aircraft for oil rigs and other duties. In fact, the Jet Ranger and its variants have been some of the most successful commercial helicopters, used for everything from surveying to lifting and transportation duties. They have also been highly popular with police forces and ambulance services.
Helicopters are also used in a number of unusual and unexpected commercial tasks. They are used to drop seeds over inaccessible territory, such as hills and mountains stripped clean after forest fires or logging operations. They are also used in the firefighting role, usually under contract to state and local governments. They can drop foam or water with precision over wildfires and, unlike airplanes, can refill their tanks without landing.
As it had in other fields, the military helicopter mission soon crossed over to the civilian world, such as ("medevac"). In 1965, 34 hospitals in the United States had heliports. In 1966, the state of Montana announced it would build a heliport for any hospital that was willing to have one. Soon Michigan and Wyoming followed with the same proposal and by the end of 1966, the number of hospital heliports had doubled. Houston, Texas, began a service known as "Life Flight" in 1976, and two helicopters responded to 1,788 calls in 1978 alone.
Helicopters like the Bell 47 and some of the later Huey variants such as the 412 were used for this task. The Bell Jet Ranger has also commonly been used for this purpose. Although small, it is fast, which is important when a person's life hinges on the ability to get them to a fully equipped emergency room.
Eventually these "Life Flights" or "Mercy Flights" began to use dedicated mid-size commercial helicopters, such as the Sikorsky S-70 and the German MBB BK-117 to speed patients and paramedics to emergency care. They were generally equipped as fully as a rescue ambulance with patient monitoring equipment and usually room for up to two patients and two paramedics.
Finally, helicopters are used extensively by local television stations to monitor breaking news events, as well as traffic. They have also added a third dimension to movie photography, allowing the camera to film things that were impossible in the early days of motion pictures.
Dwayne A. Day
Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America, Revised Edition. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Dorr, Robert. "CH-47 Variant Briefing." World Airpower Journal 38 (Autumn/Fall 1999) 98-129.
Gablehouse, Charles. Helicopters and Autogiros. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1969.
Ahnstrom, D.N. The Complete Book of Helicopters. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1971.
Lundh, Lennart. Sikorsky H-34. Atglen, Penn.: Schiffer, 1998.
Simpson, Rod. Airlife's Helicopters & Rotorcraft. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife, 1998.
Manning, Treg. "The Helicopter in Air Medical Service." Bell Aircraft Company.