Walking through history at the American Helicopter Museum

Since it first opened its doors to the public on Oct. 18, 1996, the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center (AHMEC) in West Chester, Pennsylvania, has welcomed over half a million visitors of all ages and nationalities.

Another classic tandem at the museum in the U.S. Marine Corps.' Boeing Vertol CH-46E "Phrog." Hanging from the roof is an Enstrom F-28. Skip Robinson
Another classic tandem at the museum in the U.S. Marine Corps.’ Boeing Vertol CH-46E “Phrog.” Hanging from the roof is an Enstrom F-28. Skip Robinson Photo
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AHMEC’s mission is simple: to preserve and promote rotary-wing aviation history, educate adults and children about helicopters and the missions they perform, and inspire future generations of helicopter enthusiasts.

“Education is a key part of our mission; we want to inspire future generations to become engineers, pilots, crew members and mechanics in the world of vertical flight,” Marc Sheffler, chairman of the board of trustees for the museum, told Vertical. “With electric aircraft on the forefront and unmanned vehicles, these are exciting times for the industry.”

The museum’s origins can be traced back to 1993, said Sheffler. “Spurred by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Helicopter Society, a number of pioneers of rotary-wing aviation and industry leaders gathered to discuss how to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American Helicopter Society, and recognize the Delaware Valley as the cradle of rotary-wing aviation in the United States,”
he said.

Peter Wright, president of Keystone Helicopters and a veteran of the famed Flying Tigers of the Second World War, was the driving force behind the idea of creating an all-helicopter museum. He solidified the concept by offering to donate several vintage helicopters. Two years of meetings followed to put in place the logistics, locate a site and raise funds to launch the museum. The first officers were Peter Wright (president), Robert Beggs (vice president) and Robert (Treb) Lipton (secretary and legal counsel).

In the restoration shop is a Sikorsky R-6, a rare and interesting helicopter with an enclosed cabin. Skip Robinson
In the restoration shop is a Sikorsky R-6, a rare and interesting helicopter with an enclosed cabin. Skip Robinson Photo

The charter team selected a vacant hanger at Brandywine Airport, formerly a manufacturing facility for MBB, as the location for the museum. A large number of historically-significant helicopter developments took place within a 50-mile radius of the museum in the Delaware Valley. Today, four major helicopter companies have facilities in the region, including Boeing, Sikorsky, Leonardo, and Piasecki Aircraft.

A Varied Display

The museum’s collection has grown over the years, and today provides a great overview of historic helicopters and other rotorcraft. Among the notable aircraft on display is the third prototype Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, which is on permanent loan from the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Updated versions of this revolutionary aircraft are now fully operational with the Marines and proving themselves every day. “We are proud to be the only museum in the world to have a V-22 on display, and are thrilled people can see our aircraft up close and climb inside,” said Sheffler.

A Hughes/MD AH-6J "Little Bird" from the U.S. Army 160th SOAR "Night Stalkers" is on display. The aircraft took part in numerous fascinating missions during its service, and later appeared in the movie "Black Hawk Down." Skip Robinson
A Hughes/MD AH-6J “Little Bird” from the U.S. Army 160th SOAR “Night Stalkers” is on display. The aircraft took part in numerous fascinating missions during its service, and later appeared in the movie “Black Hawk Down.” Skip Robinson Photo

Recent airframe acquisitions include a classic Marine Corps helicopter — a piston-powered Sikorsky UH-34D Seahorse that did many years of yeoman’s work in the Vietnam War and around the world, and was donated by the National Air and Space Museum. This particular aircraft is in superb physical condition, and represents a significant part of early Marines Corps helicopter history, as it was the first Marine helicopter able to lift 12 battle-equipped Marines in most environmental conditions.

In 2015, another significant and long-lived Marine helicopter was acquired by the museum — a tandem-rotor Boeing Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight, once operated by Marines Squadron HMMT-164. The CH-46E was the direct replacement for the CH-34D.

The museum also contains a truly unique aircraft in the form of the world’s only tandem-rotor Boeing Model 360 in existence. The aircraft is found outside the museum’s entrance. It was designed with high-strength, lightweight composite materials that make up almost all of the airframe’s structure and many dynamic components. It was built as a technology demonstrator and fell just a few knots short of setting the world speed record.

Boeing also donated the mock-up of the HH-47 Chinook-based combat search-and-rescue helicopter entry that was part of a canceled U.S. Air Force (USAF) competition. This interesting machine gives visitors a chance to see what a Chinook looks like on the inside, and is a very popular walk-through exhibit.

The museum is well laid out and has enough space for people to get a good look at the exhibits. Skip Robinson
The museum is well laid out and has enough space for people to get a good look at the exhibits. Skip Robinson Photo

There are two more tandem-rotor helicopters in the museum: the 1950s piston-powered Piasecki HUP-2 and the Piasecki H-21. Both were used as rescue aircraft; the former by the U.S. Navy, and the latter by the USAF in the Arctic and as a troop transport by the U.S. Army in the early years of the Vietnam War.

The museum’s collection also includes a Bell AH-1F Cobra attack helicopter and a Bell UH-1L “Huey” U.S. Navy trainer. Both are well known, and are crowd favorites in the museum.

Another popular helicopter with a lot of history is the U.S. Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment’s Hughes/MD AH-6J. This light, but potent, helicopter is best known as the “Little Bird,” and was used in Operation Just Cause in 1989, as well as featured in the movie Black Hawk Down. Other Hughes helicopters on display include a Model 369 /OH-6A and the classic Model 269A/TH-55 trainer.

Beside the Boeing 360 on the outside of the museum are examples of the Sikorsky HH-3A/S-61 Navy combat search-and-rescue helicopter, a U.S. Navy Kaman SH-2F Seasprite anti-submarine helicopter, and a Sikorsky HH-52A Sea Guardian helicopter once operated by the U.S. Coast Guard for search-and-rescue missions. Other Sikorsky helicopters include an S-51/R-5 and an S-52/HO5S.

The Boeing HH-47 prototype for the cancelled USAF Combat Search and Rescue program was acquired by the museum. Skip Robinson
The Boeing HH-47 prototype for the cancelled USAF Combat Search and Rescue program was acquired by the museum. Skip Robinson Photo

A French Sud-Ouest SO-1221 Djinn, featuring a unique “cold jet” propulsion system, is also on display, and represents European helicopter history in the museum.

On the purely civilian side, there is an Enstrom F-28, early RotorWay Scorpions, and an early, but very significant, Robinson R-22 — the design that brought helicopter flight to the masses.

The museum also displays a destroyer-based 1964 US Navy Gyrodyne QH-50C anti submarine drone helicopter, carrying two torpedoes. This early drone had electronic reliability issues, but proved the drone attack concept to the U.S. Navy.

Elsewhere, there is a Korean War MASH exhibit, which has a medevac Bell 47D-1/H-13D as its focal point. The museum also has an early B-model Bell 47 on display, which happens to be the third of 43 manufactured. The aircraft is a fine example of the type and is in original condition. Another Bell 47 — an executive H model — helps illustrate the significance of the Bell 47 series to helicopter history. Today, hundreds of Bell 47s still work for a living, primarily in the agricultural industry, but they are also flown by private owners across world.

The third prototype of the Boeing-Bell V-22 Osprey. Skip Robinson
The third prototype of the Boeing-Bell V-22 Osprey. Skip Robinson Photo

The museum is very proud of its rare 1957 Bensen B-7W hydro-gyroglider, and several gyrocopters such as the Bensen gyrocopter B-8M and Parsons Super Mac II that enhance its offering on this side of the rotary-wing world.

Taking the museum into the future

“Expanding the museum’s collection will always remain a priority,” Sheffler told Vertical. And as such, the number of aircraft on display continues to grow. A rare 1944 Sikorsky R-6 is currently being restored and will then become the oldest helicopter on display. Delivered to the Royal Air Force (RAF) as the Hoverfly II, production was shared by Sikorsky and Nash-Kelvinator in Detroit. The next planned restoration is a Piasecki HRP-1. According to Sheffler, a future dream addition would be one of the Pitcairn autogyros, to help show the earliest stages of rotary-wing flight.

The museum's library and archives have grown to almost 18,000 items. Skip Robinson Photo
The museum’s library and archives have grown to almost 18,000 items. Skip Robinson Photo

In addition to the rotorcraft on display, there are a number of special exhibits. Lee Douglas Pioneer Hall features interactive displays on the founders of the helicopter industry such as Igor Sikorsky, Frank Piasecki, Arthur Young, Harold Pitcairn and Stanley Hiller. Alongside is an exhibit on the AeroVelo Atlas, which won AHS International’s Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition in 2013. One quarter of this amazing vehicle hangs above the exhibit. The Cradle of Rotary Wing Aviation Exhibit tells the story of why AHMEC is well placed in the Delaware Valley, and other displays include different types of anti-torque concepts and an exhibit on the evolution of rotor blade manufacturing.

The museum is very proud of its research library and archives that have grown to almost 18,000 items, including original papers, manuals and one-of-a-kind historical artifacts. Two of the most treasured items in the library are the slide rules of pioneers Juan De La Cierva and Igor Sikorsky. “We are always looking for donations of historically significant items, so folks should contact us before throwing things away,” said Sheffler. “For example, we just received a generous contribution of material from Jeff Fucigna, whose late father, Warren, was president of New York Airways.”

In 2003, the museum leadership began looking at a transformation of the museum to add exhibit space and update the facility through a series of modernizations and upgrades. The first phase is now complete, consisting of a new state-of-the-art theater, more exhibit space, additional classrooms, a larger restoration area, a new children’s early education room, and renovations to the lobby area. To help finance such plans, the museum makes itself available for rental for corporate functions, weddings, birthday parties and other public and private events.

Education is a major component of the museum’s mission. Its signature program is Girls in Science and Technology, which pairs girls in third grade through high school with college mentors, and takes them through a series of STEM-related courses. Today, local vocational high schools include a blade design course taught by volunteers from the AHMEC. A key part of the museum’s strategic plan is expanding the number of students who benefit from the STEM courses.

The museum’s mascot — “Stubby” — is a Hughes 269 traveling ambassador that participates in community events throughout the Delaware Valley. Stubby’s blades were cut down for easier truck transport, and he is a hit with kids (and parents) wherever he travels. Children are allowed to climb around Stubby and are taught about how a helicopter works.

The museum's gift shop contains a variety of wonders for rotary-wing enthusiasts. Skip Robinson Photo
The museum’s gift shop contains a variety of wonders for rotary-wing enthusiasts. Skip Robinson Photo

The museum plans to continue its growth over the coming years. With sufficient funding, it ultimately hopes to take over the entire building for displays, and it wants to continue adding interactivity to the exhibits, embracing state-of-the-art technology, such as mobile audio guides.

Having already created a world-class exhibition, the museum’s dedicated staff are not planning to rest on their laurels. Under their watch, future generations of helicopter enthusiasts will always find a welcoming home in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

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