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The Ensign, the Rescue, and the HUP Helicopter

Less than a month after the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War, a U.S. Navy photo of an Aug. 12, 1953 rescue at sea became one of the most widely circulated images of its era. Readily visible in the photo were the escort carrier USS Block Island (CVE 106), a downed aviator with an open parachute canopy, a Piasecki HUP-2 Retriever helicopter, and a sinking Grumman AF Guardian aircraft from anti-submarine squadron VS-22. Some newspapers reported the rescue as occurring in Korean waters but, in fact, it took place in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

A single, 550-horsepower Continental R-975-46A radial adopted from the engine used on the Sherman tank drove the HUP’s tandem twin rotors. Literature credits the HUP-2 as the first helicopter to have an autopilot. Veterans differ on whether the autopilot was installed, but say that if it was, it was never used in an aircraft that lacked sufficient power and constantly needed the pilot’s full attention.

Navy veterans who flew the HUP series of helicopters remember the picture well. “It illustrates everything that was good and bad about the HUP,” said retired Capt. Thomas Nelson. “It depicts a muscular tug of war, with the guy’s parachute canopy pulling him in one direction and the HUP helicopter pulling him in the other. I’ll tell you now, the HUP isn’t going to win.”


Twin-tandem and Tight HUP

The HUP is remembered today as one of the first tandem, twin-rotor helicopters in a tradition that later included the CH-46 Sea Knight and the CH-47 Chinook.

HUP Helicopter

A U.S. Navy HUP-2 Retriever of Helicopter Utility Squadron (HU-2) on the flight deck of the carrier Saratoga (CVA 60). Another HUP-2 flies alongside the flight deck, serving as a plane guard during flight operations. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

Piasecki Helicopter Corporation developed the single-engine HUP Retriever/H-25A Army Mule to meet a 1945 Navy Bureau of Aeronautics requirement for a utility helicopter to be based aboard aircraft carriers and other large warships for rescue and general transportation duties. After early trials with versions designated XHJP-1 and HUP-1, the company began manufacturing the HUP-2 model and it joined the fleet, serving mostly as a plane guard on carrier desks.

Piasecki became Vertol in 1956, which then became part of Boeing in 1960. The company manufactured 339 of the helicopters. Several variations on production figures appear in histories, but the company’s own figures show this breakdown: two XHJP-1 prototypes; 32 HUP-1 transports; 173 HUP-2 rescue craft (including 12 for France); 12 HUP-2S anti-submarine craft; (including three for Canada); 50 HUP-3s, and 70 H-25A Army Mules, of which 50 were returned to the Navy. It’s unclear whether the -2S model ever actually pulled anti-sub duty. Production of HUP/H-25 rotorcraft ended in July 1954.

A single, 550-horsepower Continental R-975-46A radial adopted from the engine used on the Sherman tank drove the HUP’s tandem twin rotors. Literature credits the HUP-2 as the first helicopter to have an autopilot. Veterans differ on whether the autopilot was installed, but say that if it was, it was never used in an aircraft that lacked sufficient power and constantly needed the pilot’s full attention.

HUP Helicopter

A Navy HUP-2 of Helicopter Utility Squadron (HU-2) delivers survivors of the destroyer-minesweeper USS Hobson (DMS 26) to the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV 18) after the ships collided in the Atlantic in April 26, 1952. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

After Oct. 1, 1962, all aircraft in the series, regardless of service branch, had an H-25 designation. The HUP-2 became the UH-25B and the HUP-3 was re-named the UH-25C.

The carrier-based HUP could carry a pilot, co-pilot and enlisted sailor (the Navy did not yet have its rescue swimmer career field). “Because tolerances were so tight,” said former Lt. Robert Maddox – the HUP could carry just 1,000 pounds including crew and the person(s) being rescued — “most missions were flown with just two aboard.”

The copilot’s seat folded forward and a rectangular, electrically operated hatch door lowered to drop a rescue sling from an overhead hoist for a live rescue; the hydraulic hoist could lift up to 400 pounds. No one today remembers whether it was there all along or whether it was inspired by the rescue described here, but a warning for anyone down in the water was writ in brilliant red letters on the exterior of the hatch: ABANDON YOUR PARACHUTE, it read.


Wildly in the Water

Even veterans on the scene aren’t certain whether it was a takeoff or a waveoff that sent Ensign E.H. Barry of Indianapolis, the pilot of a massive, single-engine Grumman AF Guardian into the drink, and none recalls how his parachute deployed. “I saw a lot of this from the destroyer USS Bearss [DD 654],” said former Bosun’s Mate Third Class Ron Arnold. “Barry was being pulled in two directions – one way by his chute and the other by the HUP.” Former Lt. Peter Dosland aboard the Block Island remembered that the straining HUP helicopter lost the contest. “Barry went back into the water and pretty soon we saw a whaleboat from the Bearss churning wildly through the high seas toward him.”

HUP Helicopter

A U.S. Navy HUP-3 Retriever of Helicopter Utility Squadron One (HU-1) hovers over the flight deck of USS Coral Sea (CVA 43) during the carrier’s operational readiness inspection (ORI) in the waters off Hawaii, Dec. 20, 1961. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

Arnold was aboard the motorboat. He remembers that sailors plucked a distraught Barry from the water. “In returning to our ship, Barry’s parachute risers became entangled in our boat’s propeller,” said Arnold. “We borrowed the ensign’s survival knife to cut the shrouds from the prop and returned to the Bearss with Barry aboard.”

Added Arnold: “The Bearss rigged a bosun chair to transfer Barry to the carrier but wouldn’t return him till the Block Island provided the Bearss with ice cream for her crew, which was an old Navy tradition.” Arnold said that once Barry set foot on the carrier deck, his squadron mates immediately put him into the cockpit of another Guardian and had him take off – “sort of getting back on the horse after a fall, so to speak.” The photo of the rescue, one of a sequence by Navy photographer Ray J. Wright, appeared in newspapers everywhere and, eventually, in Life magazine.



Happy HUP

Although it was difficult to fly, underpowered, didn’t carry much and had wooden rotors and a partly fabric tail, the HUP Retriever/H-25 Army Mule was in some sense beloved by pilots and crewmembers who welcomed a challenge. “I was happy with my assignment,” said retired Cmdr. Tom Zinn, who logged 1,100 hours in the HUP. “It was unpredictable but that made flying it all the more rewarding.” U.S. Navy versions of the helicopter served until 1964, while French and Canadian models were retired in 1966.

French HUP Helicopter

A French HUP-2 helicopter from the French aircraft carrier Bois Belleau lands on the flight deck of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Albion during a NATO exercise, May, 1957. French HUP helicopters were retired in 1966. © Crown copyright. IWM

“It was a fun helicopter,” said retired U.S. Army CW4 Don Joyce. ” It was tricky to taxi because you had two front wheels and the tail wheel in the back. A running takeoff was an interesting thing: you could go fast on the runway and zoom up. It was not quite an approved maneuver but everybody did it. Once it came up to a hover, it was like any other helicopter and was very stable.”

HUP Retriever/H-25A Army Mule helicopters are on display in several locations, including the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla. and the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Ala.

Ensign Barry? We were not able to locate him. Defense Media network would like to hear from you, sir.


Piasecki HUP-3 Retriever

  • Type: Utility and rescue helicopter
  • Powerplant: One 550-horsepower (410 kW) Continental R-975-46A radial engine driving twin tandem rotors
  • Performance: Maximum speed: 105 miles per hour (169 km/h); service ceiling: 10,000 feet (3048 m); range 340 miles (545 km)
  • Weights: Empty weight: 3,928 pounds (1782 kg); maximum takeoff weight: 6,100 pounds (2767 kg)
  • Dimensions: Rotor diameter: 35 feet (10.67 m); length: 56 feet 11 inches (17.35 m); height: 12 feet 6 inches (3.81 m)


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

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    Dwight Jon Zimmerman
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    What a fascinating story of a long-forgotten helicopter! Robert F. Dorr’s ability to find such gems of tales and tell them well is on full display here. Bravo!

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    Tom "Zero" Zinn

    I flew that HUP while in HU2 and NAS Kingsville, TX, from 1958 through 2003. Got over 1100 accident-free hours. Very primitive. Had to fly it 60 seconds of every minute. Could not take your hands off of the controls. Strictly VFR day. Could lift a total of 1000 pounds. I managed to rescue 14 downed pilots, but 14 did not survive their crash.