MIGHTY HISTORY

The crazy story of the first helicopter rescue at sea

World War II was over. Defense manufacturers had armories full of new goodies that they wanted to sell to the U.S. as it entered the Cold War, but America was no longer desperate for every piece of materiel it could get its hands on thanks to Hitler's suicide and Japan's surrender.


A company-owned Sikorsky S-51 Dragonfly helicopter lands on the USS Princeton during trials with the U.S. Navy.

(U.S. Navy)

So Sikorsky, looking to sell its new helicopters to the Navy in 1947, did the hard work to find customers. It sent a flight team with the Navy in the Mediterranean for exercises and offered to have its helicopter do all sorts of tasks like delivering mail, ferrying personnel, and even rescuing pilots from the sea if it became necessary.

It did become necessary, and so a civilian pilot conducting what was essentially a sales call conducted the first helicopter rescue of a pilot in the water in history while a fleet of sailors looked on in surprise.

The flight was conducted by D. D. Viner, an employee of Sikorsky. He made it to the fleet in his S-51 helicopter and began flying from the carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. Viner was immediately assigned a Navy observer, Lt. Joe Rullo, and the two were told to go and deliver the mail.

So they took the mail bags and began going to all the outlying ships, even landing on the gun turrets of the larger ships like the battleship USS Missouri. But the fleet quickly needed more dire service from the helicopter. On February 9, Lt. Robert A. Shields had to ditch his Curtiss SB2C Helldiver because of an engine failure.

Typically, this would've resulted in the pilot and his radioman, Don K. Little, floating for hours until a ship or boat could come alongside for a rescue. Instead, the S-51 roared to life and flew directly to the floating crew, scooping them up and delivering them safely back aboard in less than 10 minutes.

The rescue took fast so quickly that the flight control officer reportedly didn't initially believe it when Shields reported back aboard the carrier. He thought there was simply no way that the man, who had radioed his distress just minutes prior, could be out of the water.

A U.S. Navy S-51 takes off from the deck of the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney in 1951.

(R. Miller, Public Domain)

The next rescue took place just nine days later when another Helldiver suffered a failure during a low altitude turn. The helicopter swooped into action again and hovered just over the water. The radioman didn't make it out of the sinking plane. The pilot, Lt. Cmdr. George R. Stablein was badly hurt, and his life vest didn't inflate.

Viner got the helicopter over the officer so quickly that Stablein had no chance to sink, and Viner got the rescue hoist directly into the officer's hands. Stablein got his hands pinched at the top of the hoist and almost fell back into the water, but Viner tipped the helicopter back under him as Rullo, that Navy observer, grabbed onto the superior officer.

The three men flew back to the carrier safely.

Viner conducted a third, more routine rescue later in the exercises and another Sikorsky pilot conducted a fourth.

At the end of Sikorsky's participation with the fleet, officers were lining up to praise the helicopter's performance, and the carrier crew decided to honor Viner and Rullo with a Navy tradition. Carriers in World War II had gotten in the practice of gifting 10 gallons of ice cream to any ship crew that rescued one of their pilots.

The carrier counted Viner and Russo as a ship crew and gifted them 30 gallons of ice cream on the day that Viner was scheduled to leave the FDR. They couldn't possibly consume all of that sugary goodness, so they stashed it all in the ready room and opened it up for anyone to eat.

The Navy soon began buying helicopters to conduct all the same missions that Viner had been doing for the fleet.