Valor Friday

| October 27, 2023

Harold Thompson

Sometimes my research brings me to non-military men and women of exceptional bravery. Harold Thompson was one such man.

Born in 1922 in Hobart, Indiana, Thompson was at the prime age to see military service in World War II. As with most men of his generation, he was called to federal service during the war. His call came in 1943, when he was brought into the US Army Air Forces. He’d attended two years at Indiana’s Purdue University before being called up.

A skilled pilot, he was commissioned and served as a flight instructor. It looks as if he flew P-40 Warhawks and then trained men on how to fly the venerable P-47 Thunderbolt. Though he never saw overseas service, Lieutenant Thompson was an early pioneer in Army helicopter aviation.

In January 1945, Thompson was sent to Chanute Field, Illinois. There he was part of the Army’s first class of helicopter pilots trained by Igor Sikorsky, the inventor of the modern helicopter. They would have been flying the then-state of the art Sikorsky R-4.

The R-4, known as the Hoverfly in British service (a nickname that found its way into the American vernacular), was the first mass produced helicopter, with about 130 built. It was a small, two-seat aircraft powered by a 185 horsepower radial engine.

The R-4’s main rotor blades, made of wood wrapped around a steel spar and covered with doped fabric, made it notoriously difficult to fly. There was no governor for the rotor’s speed, which necessitated constant monitoring by the pilot to ensure proper throttle and blade pitch were maintained. The blades were also difficult to balance, which caused the flight stick to vibrate.

A contemporary news report chronicling the flight of an R-4 said that the “control stick shakes like a jackhammer, and the pilot must hold it tightly at all times. Should he relax for even a minute the plane falls out of control. Pilots of regular planes say it’s easy to identify a helicopter pilot – he has a permanent case of the shakes.”

Despite these shortcomings, the Hoverfly’s ability to land and take off vertically was greatly intriguing to the military. The Army envisioned (and in the coming wars would make good use of) helicopters for rescue, resupply, and reconnaissance. The naval authorities, who had for years used similar-looking tethered autogyros, wanted to use them for similar roles.

With the ongoing global war, the nascent helicopter was almost immediately pressed into service once pilots had been trained. January of 1944 had seen the USCG use an R-4 in the first rescue operation, when Commander Frank Erickson carried lifesaving blood plasma to New York City for casualties of the USS Turner explosion.

A few months later, an R-4 flying with the American 1st Air Commando Group in the Burma Theater conducted the first combat rescue. Army Lieutenant Carter Harman rescued three British aviators (flying them two at a time on the helicopter’s single extra seat) from a high altitude location. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. With such early, rousing successes, the helicopter proved its worth and would go on to change warfare in the next conflicts.

Thompson, Erickson, and Harman were literally writing the book on flying helicopters with their pioneering actions. Sikorsky himself taught the earliest aviators, but that only covered the basics of taking off, hovering, and flying. How to go out and get the helicopter to actually do something useful fell to men like Thompson. If the Second World War had continued, the helicopter surely would have seen wider use thanks to their efforts.

As it were, post war the R-4 was replaced by newer, easier to fly models like the H-5 (initially known as the R-5) and H-6. Sikorsky would go on to make some of the best known helicopter models like the CH-53 Sea Stallion (and its derivatives), CH-54 Tarhe (aka the Skycrane), and the UH-60 Black Hawk (and its many derivatives).

Thompson making the first helicopter landing in the Pentagon courtyard

Just before entering active duty, Harold “Tommy” Thompson had married his childhood sweetheart Carolyn Kramer. They would be married for 60 years, parting only at Tommy’s death.

Post-war, Thompson parlayed his wartime piloting experience in a civilian job with Sikorsky as a test pilot. Test pilots are a rare breed of brave or maybe just crazy. They willingly go up into the air in experimental aircraft to suss out the limits of the airframe or engine. At the time, test piloting was a very dangerous profession. As anyone who has read The Right Stuff (or seen the excellent film adaptation) will be familiar with the risks and the types of men who took on the job.

Thompson was one of just three test pilots employed by Sikorsky. At 28 years old, he was the youngest. At the time, the Sikorsky plant was producing just six hand-built helicopters per month. Being a new technology, the engineers would make changes or tweak a design, and it was the test pilots like Thompson that would evaluate them in flight.

During these early post-war years, Thompson was also Sikorsky’s personal pilot. By 1949, Tommy was one of the most experienced helicopter pilots in the world. As you might expect, he’d been involved in several crashes or forced landings, but had so far escaped serious injury.

Before the end of WWII, Sikorsky had started developing the S-52. This utility helicopter design would be used by the US Navy, Marine Corps as the HO5S. The Army called it the YH-18A, but elected not to purchase it. The aircraft first flew in 1947.

As part of his flight testing duties, in 1949 Thompson would be putting the new whirly bird through its paces. In contrast to earlier models, the S-52 was nimble and responsive. When a man’s job is to test the limits, well…he’s gonna test those limits. Thompson said, “It was a sharp, responsive dream. After trying some mild acrobatics, I figured it would loop.”

Now it’s worth noting that to that time, nobody had ever tried to fly a loop with a helicopter. They’re not exactly designed for pushing the flight envelope like that. It’s contrary to much of how a helicopter flies. In order for a chopper to fly a loop (or fly inverted at all such as a barrel roll), it needs to be light, have sufficient excess engine power, and go into the maneuver with a good bit of airspeed.

There’s always gotta be somebody who does something incredibly dangerous or even foolhardy first. On 9 May 1949, Tompson would try to do a loop in a helicopter. As Sikorsky’s chief test pilot told him, “Any of 10 things can go wrong–all fatal, be sure you know what you’re doing.” Helicopters have a fairly narrow flight window in which they fly. Similar to a child’s toy top spinning on a table, any perturbation could send the aircraft tumbling, with disastrous (and likely fatal) consequences.

To film Thompson’s ludicrous feat (or document his death), someone at the airfield was rolling with an 8mm film camera. Thompson’s son Bill has a copy of that film and has uploaded it to YouTube.

In the video you can see Thompson come in with a good bit of airspeed by putting the helicopter into a dive. He pulled back with only about 20-30 feet of altitude above the ground, and, a bit shaky at first, flies a loop. He could do better than that run though. So he did it another nine times!

Why so low? Well, you see that was part of his plan, because he needed to constantly look around to maintain his bearings. A helicopter flying upside down has none of the inherent stability a fixed wing aircraft has.

Bill Thompson quotes his dad as describing the delicate balance and supreme airmanship required of this maneuver;

At about two hundred feet I put the helicopter in a dive and picked up airspeed to approximately 120 miles per hour; by this time at the bottom of the loop we were only twenty or thirty feet above the ground. Then the ordeal of raising the pitch stick, applying more power, gradually easing back on the azimuth stick more and more until as you look over backward and see the horizon and ground as the helicopter is now upside down in reference to the ground. Just before going over I backed off on power and pitch and by all means didn’t allow the rotor RPM to exceed it’s red line. Gingerly continuing to hold back on the azimuth stick allowed us to begin our descent down to the landmark from which we started. As we were coming down, we felt a thump or thud which shook the helicopter. This thump or thud was rewarding in that it signified our loop was next to perfect in that we reentered our prop or blade wash.

One hundred and twenty miles an hour doesn’t sound very fast to modern ears, but at the time it was blazing fast for a helicopter. Thompson set a world airspeed record in an S-52 a short time later by flying at 129.616 MPH over a three kilometer course. When he was making those loops he was most definitely at the very ragged edge of the airframe’s capabilities.

Before his epic attempt, Thompson had asked the S-52 program crew chief Adolph Plenefisch to make some adjustments to the aircraft’s flight controls to allow him to push it to the limit. Suspicious, Plenefisch made the adjustments, but insisted on flying with Thompson if he was going to be doing anything extreme.

Doing first ever acrobatics right down on the deck like Thompson did, without any prior approval of authorities (who’d have believed him if he’d even asked?) tends to anger up government regulators. Because he was in violation of FAA rules regarding aerobatic displays below the specified altitude they took his pilot’s license away. Thankfully, he got it back the next day after Sikorsky intervened.

After that, Sikorsky had Thompson fly his gravity defying maneuvers in demo flights, shocking onlookers. In one such display, off Long Island Sound, Thompson finished his loop with only about five feet between him and the drink. To those watching from the shore, he disappeared from view, and they assumed he’d crashed, until he popped back up a second or so later. After that particular run he flew back to the plant and told them he hoped they got their pictures because he was done for the day.

In addition to test piloting, Thompson taught other aviators how to fly helicopters. Among his students was the first woman to solo in a helicopter and naval aviation legend Admiral Arthur Radford (a central figure in the post-war “Revolt of the Admirals” and future two term Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff).

In the spring of 1950, Thompson was on a flight with a navy admiral at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Something snapped in the airframe, and the tail rotor came apart. The tail rotor is necessary to keep the helicopter from spinning out of control due to the torque of the main rotor spinning. Without the tail rotor, helicopters almost always immediately spin out of control.

Somehow Thompson kept his cool, and with his thousands of hours of flight experience, kept the craft from spinning and was able to land it. Neither he nor his passenger were seriously injured. The chopper came down very hard though, crushing the landing gear, and the main rotor spun into the tarmac, chewing it up.

While Thompson crawled out of the wreckage with only a cut cheek, the admiral took it in stride, saying “All in a day’s work, eh, boy?” Thompson replied, “Maybe for you, sir, but not for me.”

Thompson, not even thirty years old, had already survived more than 20 forced landings. This was his fifth helicopter crash. He’d had enough of pushing his luck. Going home that night, he discussed things with his wife, and didn’t fly again for decades.

After leaving Sikorsky, Thompson and his wife moved back to Indiana. He went to work for his father, delivering fuel oil for Standard Oil. He’d remain in Hobart for the rest of his life, passing away in 2003 at age 82.

In 1979, Thompson visited the Tucson Convention Center. A large helicopter industry convention was going on at the time. Once people found out that the man, the myth, the legend was there, the Sikorsky representatives offered to let him fly one of their S-58s (better known to this audience as the H-34 Choctaw in US military service).

Thompson is immortalized at the National Air and Space Museum, on Panel #37, Tablet #1, Column #1 outside the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife, his two sons, and two grandsons. His wife Carolyn passed away in 2011 at age 87.

Category: Army, Historical, Valor, We Remember

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26Limabeans

“passing away in 2003 at age 82”

That was a great read. I wonder what other risky things he did
in that long life to the benefit of us all.

Odie

One never thinks of civilians when reading your articles.
A great read for sure.

Old tanker

How in the heck did he get those 2 massive brass balls into the cockpit???

Last edited 7 months ago by Old tanker
Sam

Today is the anniversary of another Sikorsky helicopter:

27 October 2015: The first flight of the Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion Engineering Development Model–1, Bu. No. 169019, at West Palm Beach, Florida.

https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/27-october-2015/

KoB

“…the man, the myth, the legend…” Testify! Not all heroes wear capes.

Another great story, Mason. Thanks!