Heritage: The Bell UH1-B Iroquois

During the early 1960s with rising ‘Cold War’ tensions and the build-up of the Soviet submarine fleet, together with Indonesia expanding its fleet of Russian-built submarines, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) sought to strengthen its anti-submarine capabilities.

In 1961, an order was placed for 27 Westland Wessex HAS 31 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, generating a demand for ASW helicopter pilots. As the RAN’s aging Bristol Sycamore helicopters were due to retire, there was an urgent need for a new helicopter for training purposes. After evaluating various types the Bell Iroquois UH-1B was selected.

In 1963 the Navy ordered three Iroquois, which were delivered to 723 Squadron in May 1964. A further four followed in 1965/66, making a total of seven. The Iroquois were an unqualified success, performing helicopter training, Search and Rescue (SAR), Medical Evacuations and Utility work. Based at the RAN Air Station (HMAS Albatross), they remained in service until the last three were delisted in 1989.

The Bell Iroquois Origins

The use of helicopters to carry wounded troops more quickly to field hospitals was proven in the Korean War – but they were small, underpowered and limited their role. The US Army wanted a medevac and utility helicopter that could carry two stretchers and an attendant inside the cabin.  The Bell Helicopter Company responded to this need in 1955, producing the Bell XH-40, a turbine-powered helicopter that first flew on 22 October 1956. The US Army named it ‘Iroquois’ after the native American tribe, and full production began at Bell’s Fort Worth plant in 1959. (The ‘Huey’ nickname came from the HU-1 designation – later changed to UH-1).

The UH-1A was the first in a long list of variants. Its semi-monocoque metal construction, low-profile fuselage and tail made them instantly recognisable. Cockpit features included side-by-side seating for pilot and co-pilot, with all-weather instrumentation, good all-round vision, and car-style doors. The rear cabin was fitted with sliding doors on both sides for quick access, and the canvas seats could easily be removed to make room for stretchers.

The single turbo-engine and two-blade main rotor was mounted over the rear of the cabin. The tail boom included small elevators linked to the cyclic control; a vertical fin with a two-blade anti-torque tail rotor; and a tail skid. Undercarriage consisted of braced landing skids. A cargo hook was located on the underside of the cabin.

The Iroquois UH-1B

In 1961 the HU-1A was superseded by the UH-1B which was upgraded with a more powerful engine, improved rotor blades, higher rotor mast, and revised passenger cabin. Used extensively in Vietnam by the US Army, the Iroquois gained a reputation for toughness and reliability. The RAN found the UH-1B to be an excellent training, SAR, and utility helicopter.  

The RAN Iroquois Arrive

When the RAAF placed an order for its UH-1Bs in mid-1963 the RAN joined suit. The first three RAN UH-1Bs (N9-881 to 883) arrived in May 1964 with three more (N9-3101 to 3103) in 1965 and one (N9-3104) in 1966. All were delivered from Bell via the US Army and transported to Australia by merchant ships. After test flights and fitting radio equipment for local needs they were assigned to 723 Squadron at NAS Nowra.

Pilot Training

In August 1963, Lt Cdr James O’Farrell RAN began Iroquois training at the US Army Aviation School where he qualified as a helicopter instructor (QHI) before spending several months at the Bell Helicopter Company plant at Fort Worth, Texas, for liaison and familiarisation. Upon return to Nowra as CO of 723 Squadron he took charge of the RAN Iroquois training program.     


At the beginning of the war in Korea the US Army had about 60 rotorcraft on its books – and by the end that number had increased to over 600.  The conflict proved beyond any measure of doubt the value of helicopters in close battlefield support.

But the choppers of that era, such as the Bell 47 and Sikorsky H-9 ‘Chickasaw’ were relatively small, with limited lifting capacity.  The US Army wanted something which could, at a minimum, carry two stretchers inside the cabin with a medical attendant.  It released a specification in 1955 which was won by Bell Aircraft, and by the following October the prototype XH-40 took to the air for the first time.

Despite the promise of its turbine design, the XH-40 did not surpass the power and payload capacity of piston-powered rivals such as the Sikorsky H-19. The engine management was tricky with significant turbine lag, and it was difficult to fly – but it had enormous design advantages over its competitors and promised much.

Firstly, it used a rotor system proven by the Bell 47. This all metal semi-rigid design was lighter and far easier to maintain than the heavy, hinged rotor heads of other helicopters such as Sikorsky’s H-34. (The trade off was higher vibration levels and the characteristic ‘Huey Thump’ when in flight). And the small size of the Lycoming XT53 gas-turbine engine allowed it to be mounted above and behind the main cabin, making it easier to balance the aircraft’s centre of gravity whilst expanding the size and payload capacity of the forward fuselage.  

Moving the engine from the nose (where it had resided for most piston-engined variants) to the roof also allowed for a lower and wider profile: the big sliding doors on each side were at knee height, allowing easy access to the cabin, which was unencumbered by drive-shaft tunnels or the like. This low-slung, wide helicopter cabin would prove to be revolutionary for military commanders – the ‘tadpole’ shape, as they called it, with wide doors on the side, meant they could come into the landing zone and quickly egress or pick up troops.  The days of trucking soldiers to a distant drop-off point and then moving them forward on foot was a thing of the past.

The second Huey variant, designated UH-1B, sported a Lycoming T53-L-5 engine, delivering 960 shp (25% more power than the ‘A’ prototype). It also increased the cabin length to accommodate either seven passengers or four stretchers with an attendant. The first production ‘B’ model was delivered in March of 1961.  A further engine variant, the Lycoming T53-L-11, delivered 1100 shp and was the engine fitted to the RAN’s ‘B’ models.

It was the Vietnam War that brought fame to the Huey, as it married the need for a highly mobile, tough and versatile helicopter to a conflict that was being brought to the living rooms of every family with a television.  By then the RAN was operating its own Hueys, and although they were never used in a shooting war, they demonstrated the same qualities during their 25 years of service.

723 began its first Bell Iroquois advanced flying training course in July 1964 and shortly after began other basic flying training for young pilots who had completed their ab-initio courses. The Iroquois UH-1B proved ideal for training purposes with side-by-side seating and dual controls in the cockpit. Being sturdy, reliable and popular with pilots and maintainers, the Iroquois were a great success in teaching scores of pilots to fly rotary wing aircraft.

During the 1960s pilots who had qualified on the Iroquois would then convert to the larger Westland Wessex ASW helicopters, and later in the 70s to the twin-engined Westland Sea King. In 1973 the Aerospatiale AS350B Squirrel was introduced to shoulder the major training role, but the RAN Iroquois continued to provide outstanding service in SAR and Utility roles until the late 1980s.

Search and Rescue 

The first flight of the Bell XH-40 – the prototype Iroquois – occurred at the Bell plant in October 1956. It demonstrated the ‘tadpole’ shape that was to change little over the following decades.

Besides pilot training, the 723 Iroquois played an important role in search and rescue; assisting the civil authorities in flood relief, searching for lost bushwalkers and missing canoeists, fishermen and yachts in distress, also medical evacuations – conveying accident cases and the seriously ill to hospital. The May 1966 rescue of survivors adrift from the dredge W.D. Atlas which capsized at night during a violent storm, about 18 kilometres south-east of Jervis Bay NSW, is a remarkable demonstration of the Iroquois UH-1B’s ability to operate in extreme conditions.

 Rescue winch

The RAN Iroquois had a hoist mounted above the RHS cabin door where the operator was located. Approaching a rescue site the pilot and winch operator would communicate via intercom to position the helicopter correctly. The winch could lift up to 270 kg (600 lb), and the hoist cable extended some 27 metres (90 ft). 

Flexible utility role

Operating from NAS Nowra as a utility helicopter the Iroquois assisted the fleet with mail drops and equipment deliveries, personnel transfers between ships and shore, photography, communications, medical evacuations, and occasionally as a troop carrier. The Iroquois could land on larger ships fitted with a flight deck, but they were not designed for maritime operations and so were unsuitable for longer embarkations. 

Although Iroquois did occasional work aboard ships it was unusual for them to embark for any period of time. Here, 897 makes a short visit to HMAS Tobruk.

In May 1987, however, following a coup d’état in Fiji, two Iroquois with a Bell Kiowa and two AS350B Squirrels were temporarily attached to the heavy-lift ship HMAS Tobruk ready to evacuate Australian citizens if needed. Positioned offshore from Fiji with other RAN warships and ‘B’ Company 1 RAR, the ‘Operation Morris Dance’ taskforce remained on station until 29 May when situation stabilised. After visiting Apia for the South Pacific Forum, Tobruk berthed at Sydney on 12 June, where Iroquois 898 was trucked to NAS Nowra having damaged a landing skid on Tobruk’s flight deck. 

RANHFV & EMU

In July 1967, 723 Squadron formed a special unit called the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV). Responding to a US request, the RAN began training pilots, observers, maintainers and support staff, to serve with the US Army’s 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) – designated an ‘Experimental Military Unit’ (EMU). Not surprisingly, the name ‘Emu’ stuck, to the amusement of the Australians who knew full well that the Emu was flightless. The unit operated US Army UH-1C and UH-1H ‘Huey’ helicopters, covering a wide area around Saigon and the Mekong Delta.    You can read a little of their story here.                          

Between 1967 and 1971 the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV), was fully integrated with the US Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) flying Iroquois helicopters in both the utility and gun-ship configurations. Training was initially conducted in Australia, using 723 Squadron aircraft that were very similar to those that would be operated in the conflict.

Aircrew and maintainers for the RAN HFV were drawn from existing squadrons and joined 723 Squadron. The first contingent formed on 28 August 1967 with eight weeks of operational training at NAS Nowra using the Iroquois UH-1Bs. The course included troop-lift insertion and support, small arms and survival training, code of conduct training, and colloquial language. The RAAF provided advice and assistance, supplying M60 door guns and mounts. Field exercises were also conducted with the Australian Army.

Between September 1967 and June 1971 a total of four RANHFV contingents were sent to Vietnam. Each group of 50 personnel served a year, fully integrated with the 135th AHC. Their job was flying air-mobile combat and supply missions – it was hazardous work which involved flying into communist hotspots, combating well-armed North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. 

The RANHFV personnel displayed exceptional skill and dedication while serving with the 135th AHC. Five of them lost their lives over the period – you can read their stories here. Subsequently, in August 2018, the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam was awarded a Unit Citation for Gallantry (UCG).

RAN Pilots Join RAAF 9 Squadron

In 1968 the RAN assigned eight RAN helicopter pilots for duty with RAAF 9 Squadron in Vietnam. They supported Australian Army operations doing troop-lifts and medivacs flying Iroquois UH-1H helicopters. A high degree of flying skill was required with the ever-present danger of hostile small arms fire from well-equipped and determined enemy.  

 Middle East UNEF Deployments

In 1977 RAN Iroquois pilots and maintainers from 723 Squadron were included in the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF 2) integrated with a team of RAAF people operating as peacekeepers, flying Iroquois UH-1H helicopters on six month rotations monitoring the 300 km long Sinai Peninsula buffer zone separating Egypt and Israel following the 1973 war – the Australian contingent was called AUSTAIR. The rotation used a ‘trickle system’ with new personnel arriving every month (for six months) to maintain local knowledge and skills. In February 1982 HMAS Tobruk shipped eight RAAF Iroquois to the Middle East for operations in Sinai as part of the Multi-nation Force Observers (MFO) including RAN peacekeeping personnel.

Updates and Modifications

The RAN UH-1Bs worked hard, but they were well maintained and gave excellent service. The aircraft were popular with maintainers as they were relatively easy to service. One of the features of the UH-1B was the ability to reorganise the passenger cabin for different roles – an important one was converting the cabin to carry three stretchers, with seats for medical attendants and an aircrewman. Auxiliary fuel tanks could be fitted to external pylons to increase range.   

The RAN UH-1Bs were serviced on a regular basis, some items on a daily or weekly basis, whereas other more detailed overhauls required dismantling components for workshop checks and testing. Progressive updates and modifications were carried out during inspections, with two UH-1Bs fitted with new equipment – entailing a larger internal fuel tank to extend range and a dust filter on the turbo intake (as on the UH-1C) to boost performance.

Considering their length of service and the rate of work demanded of them, there were relatively few accidents. This one was a training mishap in ’81 which brought the demise of that particular airframe.

Helicopter Mishaps

Several of the RAN’s Iroquois UH-1Bs were involved in accidents.

While conducting forced landing exercises, on 11 November 1964, Iroquois N9-883 crashed amongst trees near Jervis Bay Airfield, with the pilot receiving serious injuries. The helicopter was assessed at ‘Cat 5’ and written off.  You can read more of this event here.

In the 25 years the Iroquois operated at Nowra only one fatal UH-1B accident occurred, which took place during a Range clearing exercise at Beecroft Head on 5 June 1968. Taking off after delivering an officer at the Range, N9-881 struck an embankment, before breaking up and tumbling over the edge of a cliff into the sea. LEUT P. Ward, POACMN D. Sanderson and NAM(AE) R.K. Smith lost their lives in the accident: you can read a little about each of them though our Roll of Honour page here.

Engine trouble caused N9-3102 to ditch into Jervis Bay on 24 November 1970, all five onboard were able to escape unhurt, but the helicopter quickly sank. Navy divers located the helicopter and on 26 November the boom-defence vessel HMAS Kimbla raised the aircraft to the surface placing it on an AWL lighter, where it was hosed down with fresh water a remarkable recovery in stormy conditions. After renovation 894 returned to service until withdrawn on 31 October 1988. Nowadays 894 is mounted on a pole at the entry to Nowra township.

On 29 March 1971, N9-3104 suffered a flame-out while practising forced landings and crashed into a gully south of NAS Nowra airfield where it caught fire. Fortunately, the crew only received minor injuries and the aircraft was able to be repaired for service again and is now part of the HARS Aviation Museum collection.

During a training exercise N9-3103 crashed on the airfield at NAS Nowra on 26 March 1981. The instructor and trainee both escaped injury, but the helicopter was a write-off, and later converted to components.

The Iroquois Legacy

The signature thump-thump of an approaching Iroquois is evocative of one the most successful military helicopters of its time. The gas turbine driving the wide chord two-bladed main rotor gave the helicopter power and performance. The Iroquois were sturdy, reliable machines, with all-weather day and night versatility, and were well-liked by pilots and maintainers.  

The RAN’s Iroquois UH-1Bs were an important advance over the rudimentary Bristol Sycamores they replaced. During the 1960s, 723 Squadron’s Iroquois played a major role in training scores of helicopter pilots who then converted to the Westland Wessex and other helicopters. Significantly, the Iroquois were used to train each of the RANHFV contingents from 1967 to 1971.

At NAS Nowra, the search and rescue (SAR) flights made good use of the Iroquois with aircrew on standby during Navy operations. After hours and at weekends a ‘duty’ Iroquois would assist with searches, medivacs, and calls from the civil authorities. The value of the Iroquois was their multi-role capability including passenger transport, fleet support, and other work.

The arrival of the Bell Kiowa and AS350B Squirrels in 1973 took over much of the pilot conversion training at Nowra, but the Iroquois continued to provide years of exceptional service. Then, on 31 May 1989, after 25 years operating in the RAN the last three Iroquois were decommissioned.

Surviving Iroquois

Two ex-RAN FAA Iroquois UH-1B helicopters (N9-3104, N9-3101) are now part of the Historical Aviation Restoration Society (HARS) “Navy Heritage” collection, with the intent to restore them to flying status.  

The Fleet Air Arm Museum at RANAS Nowra, NSW, has an ex-US Army Iroquois UH-1H ‘slick’ on display, similar to those flown by the RANHFV in Vietnam. This was never an RAN aircraft.

References:
RAN 723 Squadron history
RAN reports of proceedings
‘Slipstream’ magazine archive
RAN Navy News
RAAF Museum
Bell Helicopter Textron
‘Wings Across the Sea’ by Ross Gillett
RAN Sea Power reports
ADF Serials
Air-Vectors
Wikipedia
With special thanks to Bill Barlow, Kevin Camm, Peter Clark and Stuart Harwood for advice and assistance.