Solopilots receive honor at Army Medical Department Museum
April 15, 2010
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- Solopilots, the helicopter pilots who responded alone to evacuate wounded warriors during the Korean Conflict were recognized April 12. A plaque honoring their commitment and sacrifice was unveiled at the Army Medical Department Museum.
"Like Benjamin Foulois and Billy Mitchell who helped to pioneer aviation, the solopilots risked their lives to demonstrate the potential of what a rotary-wing aircraft could do," said Maj. Gen. Russell Czerw, commanding general Fort Sam Houston and the Army Medical Department Center & School at the ceremony.
"Solopilots created one of those giant leaps forward of men and machine that saved the lives of men and women every single day."
These pioneers of aeromedical evacuation flew from 1952 to 1959 in conditions and over terrain that could give nightmares to most pilots, often in the dark and with primitive instrumentation.
Helicopters had only been in full-scale production 10 years at the outset of the Korean Conflict, but Army helicopters began to fly medical evacuation missions, sparing seriously wounded Soldiers punishing ambulance trips over Korea's wretched roads.
The Bell H-13 helicopter, which many pilots referred to as a flying fishbowl because of the huge plastic bubble the pilot sat in, was never designed for evacuating wounded. These pilots coaxed the underpowered aircraft to heroic feats, and during their first 12 months of operation in 1951, the Bell H-13's carried out 5,040 wounded.
By mid-1953, even with the perils associated with early helicopters, the Army solopilots evacuated 1,273 casualties in a single month.
"I found out that these helicopters didn't have enough power to take off when they were fully loaded," Czerw said. "I asked them how they did it and they said, 'Well, we'd get up on top of a high cliff and kind of jump off to get a jump start.' These aircraft delivered wounded warriors under the most austere and dangerous battlefield conditions, bringing the injured to battalion aid stations and MASH sites, places that would be considered primitive by today's standards."
While their exploits are now legendary, solopilots were actually U.S. Army Medical Service officers called to action by Maj. George E. Armstrong, the U.S. Army Surgeon General at the time. In early 1952, Armstrong sent out word to his corps of officers - which included pharmacists, assistant battalion surgeons, lab officers, etc. - that if they met the required flight qualifications, they could volunteer for helicopter flight training.
"Starting from these humble beginnings with one individual, the solopilot was not only responsible for flying and navigating the aircraft in all types of weather, they were also the mechanic and the medic," Czerw said. "On rare occasions, you had to land that bird, so you could fix it so it could fly out, or you had to help the patient. All of this was not performed by a team, but by an individual ... the solopilot."
"They took these small observation helicopters with marginal piston engine power and converted them into functional ambulances," said retired Lt. Col. Hank Capozzi, director of the Solopilots Society. "They strapped patients to the outside in locally contrived litter racks and transported them to lifesaving surgical hospitals. It was this dedicated willingness and the ability to improvise that makes the solopilot unique. They performed these duties more than half a century ago, 24/7, in all weather conditions alone."
"All of you have saved thousands and thousands of lives. There may not be some of us here today if not for you bringing back those injured service members," Czerw said.
"The dedication of this memorial in your honor will be a constant reminder to all of us of your place in the Army Medical Department history. It is with appreciation I extend to you, and to each and every one of your families, a sincere and heartfelt thank you. To all of you, I extend my salute."