Aviation Book Reviews
A DEVELOPMENTAL HISTORY OF THE HELIO COURIER ULTRA C/STOL AIRCRAFT
By Frank Joseph Rowe
As aviation enthusiasts, we all seem to have our own favorite aircraft. I know that I have my own all-star collection, at least in my mind. Usually it is because of some marvelous combination of form and function, or emotional attachment due to various personal reasons. One of my general aviation favorites is the Helio Courier. Not because it is a particularly graceful design, but rather because of what it’s capable of doing in the hands of an experienced pilot. Perhaps it is also the lure of all those many stories of covert use in foreign lands.
Mention the name “Helio Courier” to any seasoned tail wheel pilot, and there is a reasonably good chance that he or she will pause, and then with carefully measured words recall what seems at times to border between amazement and absurdity at the incredible capabilities of this outstanding C/Stol aircraft. Throughout the years, circulated stories have become legion as to the confirmed as well as rumored feats of this workhorse aircraft and its crews. In fact, the Helio line of aircraft seems to abound at times in a kind of mystique that is usually reserved for all but a very few outstanding aircraft produced throughout history.
Sitting idly on a ramp, the Helio seems innocuous enough, betraying its incredible performance capabilities with its overall conventional tail-dragger looks. Perhaps too, it is in fact that its overall commonplace appearance seems to confound as well as fortify the myths and legends that have become are a part of the Helio legacy.
Conceived as a “stall-proof/spin-proof everyman’s safety-plane” initially intended to revolutionize general aviation, the Helio not only defied contemporary flight practices as well as challenge CAA regulations, but at the same time it set a standard for STOL/slow speed maneuvering flight that has yet to be completely rivaled to this day for fixed wing aircraft.
From the steaming Amazon Jungle in South America to the Arctic remoteness of Polar expeditions; from clandestine CIA and Special Forces operative bases in Southeast Asia to immaculate corporate flight departments of the Western World, the Helio line of C/STOL aircraft has distinguished itself as one of the very finest and most versatile of aircraft in the world.
Research for a book on the Helio Courier originally stemmed from another book project titled: “Borne on the South Wind, a Century of Kansas Aviation”. Helio Aircraft Company, specifically, their manufacturing plant (Mid States Manufacturing) was located in Pittsburg, Kansas, and as such, was one of the many aircraft manufacturing companies listed in that work. During the research phase for that effort, I encountered a sizeable amount of conflicting data, historical gaps and generally enough frustration to offer incentive to try to reconstruct a history.
I chose to primarily focus my research on a developmental history, rather than a field history, due to a current lack of available material that gives a detailed and accurate accounting of how and why the original concept evolved into final production form. In this respect, the developmental history traces the genesis of Helio aircraft design, target markets, performance goals and certification through production maturity. This is not to say that we have completely dismissed field history in terms of how the Helio Courier (and its stable mate, the Stallion) has been utilized by its owners/operators. Indeed, it would be impossible to speak about the Helio without touching briefly on field use by such organizations involved with military, as well as humanitarian outreach programs.
Organization of this work on the Helio Courier is based upon chapters that match distinct phases of Helio Courier development.
As unique and impressive as the Helio Courier is, it certainly is not without its historical predecessors. With this in mind, I chose to start this work (Chapter 1 (Chasing the Sun/Helio Progenitors) with a brief summary of some of the more noteworthy attempts to build aircraft that offered significantly improved safety and performance improvements that preceded the Helio. It was these earlier efforts that “set the stage” for the Helio Courier concept.
In Chapter 2 (Dawn of the Tennis Court Airplane/Early Helio Prototypes), we explore the original concept, design goals, target markets and prototype testing that preceded full-scale production. This is an exciting time of inspired innovation, exacting work, trial-and-error as well as serendipitous happenstances that all contributed to the development of an aircraft that would offer astounding capability and performance.
Transitioning from early concept prototyping to full scale production certainly offered a myriad of challenges considering the significant extent of departure from conventional design/operation as well as philosophical fit into CAA certification. Throughout Chapter 3 (Geared for Success/Main Production Models and Variants), we study the development of production aircraft that spanned from 1954 through 1974.
Given that the stellar-performing Helio Courier was a relatively complex and expensive machine to own and operate, it was the military that became its major customer. With a significant amount of Helio legacy rooted in military development and application, Chapter 4 (Litterbugs and Black Ops), focuses on the evolution of the Helio Courier for military use by conventional as well as unconventional (special operations).
As unique and promising as the original Helio Courier was, its success spurred on the development of advanced concepts that sought to further capitalize on the aircraft’s already superb safety and performance capabilities. Chapter 5 (“Above and Beyond”) captures these efforts. Some of these, for example, the H-500 Twin and the HST-550A/AU-24A-HE Stallion were turbocharged limited production aircraft, while many others were only fanciful yet intriguing “paper airplanes” that never made it off of the Helio drawing boards.
Chapter 6 (Twighlight of the Courier/the Last Helios), documents the development of the last (as of this work’s publication date) Helio Couriers that briefly spanned from 1983 through 1985.
If Helio lore is a direct by-product of its unique use, then it would be fitting to discuss the Helio as utilized in humanitarian outreach programs. The Helio Courier is (when flown to its full performance capabilities) an “extreme machine” that excelled in extreme environments and circumstances. As such, Chapter 4 (Couriers of the Word) documents how one such outreach program (JAARS, Inc. of Waxhaw, N.C.) has adapted and utilized the Helios throughout the worlds most extreme climates and work environments.
Finally, Chapter 8 (Epilogue) reflects on the past, present and examines possible future Helio development.
Much of the research for the book was pieced-together from recorded interviews, independent archival data and primary source news articles, as supplemented by company annual reports and FAA type design specifications. A tremendous amount of information has been gleaned from discussions with former Helio company officials. Much of the original Helio Aircraft Company drawings, reports, general data and historical information has ,unfortunately, been lost through time, due to various circumstances, including a flood in 1956 at the Bedford, Massachusetts headquarters, as well as files that gone missing during the many instances in which the company has changed ownership. That said, while initially frustrating, it is with a certain amount of satisfaction that an overall history has resulted from the contributions of so many sources.
While intended to be a comprehensive study, the author notes that undoubtedly, their may well be additional facts, stories and data that have not been yet discovered. It is my hope that with publication of this work, those stories will also be prompted to come forth to be shared and archived.
I hope that this history, gleaned from former company officers, workers, owners/operators, and archives, will provide an expanded perspective on the visions of its principal leadership, development of the company as well as its equally impressive series of C/STOL machines.
Frank Joseph Rowe
January 31, 2005
Back to Book Reviews.