The History of New York Airways’ Helicopter Operations

New York Airways Helicopter Operations
New York Airways Boeing Vertol 107-II after landing at JFK Airport.

If a person about to board an airplane in Omaha were asked where he was flying to and he responded, “Omaha,” he may receive a few perplexed looks and even an audible, “But aren’t you there now?” Yet, when you live in metropolises that support multiple airports, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Tokyo, it is possible to fly from one to the other.

While distances between them may not be that far, surface travel, particularly during rush hours, can require excess time, and there is nothing like landing at an airport and proceeding to the next gate for a connecting flight and even having your checked baggage interlined to it.

New York qualifies as having one of these inter-airport networks and its namesake New York Airways made a valiant, two-decade attempt to offer scheduled, rotary-wing service within it.

As the third to do so, it followed Los Angles Airways and Helicopter Air Services of Chicago and was awarded an operating certificate by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in December of 1951 to fly between within the tri-airport Idlewild, La Guardia, and Newark catchment area.

Reflecting early-aviation development, during which open-cockpit biplanes carried mail over designated routes and accommodated a few passengers to augment revenue when space allowed, it transitioned to the passenger form of payload on July 8, 1952 with seven-seat Sikorsky S-55s, eventually expanding beyond its inter-airport network to New Brunswick, Princeton, and, Trenton in New Jersey. Manhattan-penetrating service to the Hudson River hugging West 30th Street Heliport began four years later, on December 5.

Noise and vibration were counteracted with convenience, speed, travel times that were measured in minutes, and unparalleled views of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline. Approaches to the encircled “H” touchdown point on the water jutting pier placed the aircraft’s size into perspective when it was virtually swallowed by Manhattan’s monoliths during its alight.

Earlier that year, on April 21, New York Airways inaugurated the higher-capacity, more advanced, tandem twin-rotor Vertol 44B into service. “It was the first transport helicopter to have its cabin arranged like that of a conventional airliner, accommodating 15 passengers, mainly two-abreast on the starboard side of the cabin with the aisle and baggage space on the left,” according to R. E. G. Davies in Airlines of the United States since 1914 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998, p. 475).

New York Airways Helicopter Operations
New York Airways Boeing Vertol 107-II after landing at JFK Airport.

Yet, passenger acceptance and expansion quickly necessitated even larger, more advanced equipment, prompting New York Airways’ initial, $4,350,000 order for ten Vertol V-107-IIs on January 15, 1960. It was later halved to five.

The type, which eventually became its flagship and virtual symbol of it, not only traces its origins to a design, but to the very, manufacturer that created it. Vertol, a Philadelphia-based, rotary-wing company, was concurrently designing two tandem-rotor helicopters—namely, the Chinook for the US Army and the CH-46A Sea Knight for the US Navy and Marines. 

The latter, the result of a design competition for a Marine Corps medium assault transport, first flew in August of 1962 and was first delivered two years later, carrying troops and cargo between South China Sea positioned ships and Vietnam. Of its three prototypes, one was modified to civil V-107-II standard and it first flew on October 25, 1960, at a time when Boeing had acquired the company, resulting in the Boeing-Vertol name.

Powered by a 1,250-shp General Electric T58-8 turboshaft engine, it featured a 50-foot rotor diameter. With an 84-foot overall length, it had an 18,400-pound gross weight.

First flying in full production guise the following year, on May 19, it was FAA type-certified in January of 1962 and entered scheduled New York Airway service on July 1. The remaining ten built were sold to Kawasaki of Japan to serve as license-produced pattern aircraft, but that plan never proceeded into production.

Images of the V-107-II taking off from the Pan Am rooftop heliport symbolized skyscraper-stretching Manhattan island and formed an integral part of the city’s culture. They also represented an aspect of urban mobility: subways below its streets and helicopters above its buildings depicted successful technological triumphs over traffic-saturated streets and significantly reduced travel times.

“Twenty-five passengers rode in this twin-turbine design at a cruising speed of 140 mph,” according to Len Morgan in Airliners of the World (Arco Publishing Company, 1966, p. 90). “New York Airways took you from Kennedy International to the foot of Wall Street in 16 minutes or to the top of the Pan Am Building in seven. Either trip required a hectic hour and a quarter by car during rush hours.”

New York Airways was able to operate at half-hour intervals and its annual passenger totals reflected the popularity of its offerings— 8,758 in its first year of operation and more than 250,000 in its tenth.

While rotary-wing operations offered numerous advantages, including multiple daily frequencies; low-capacity, easy-to-fill cabins; quick aerial hops; unparalleled views; and the ability to alight on any postage-stamp-sized patch, whether paved or not, they also had their disadvantages. They had high operating costs, produced significant noise, featured engine and mechanical complexity, operated within highly populated urban areas where safety was of paramount concern, required subsidies for profitability, and, at least initially, were dependent upon weather and visual meteorological conditions.

Progressively decreased subsidies necessitated service discontinuations, including those to the West 30th Street Heliport and Bridgeport, Connecticut. On April 11, 1965, they were altogether eliminated, affecting not only New York Airways, but the other comparable rotary-wing concerns in Chicago and Los Angeles.

A financial lifeline was cast by Pan American World Airways, which purchased two additional V-107-IIs for $850,000 each and then leased them to New York Airways for operation to the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows.

Sikorsky, through its United Aircraft Corporation parent, did the same with three S-61s. Powered by the same General Electric T58-8 engine, but featuring a different configuration, a shorter fuselage, and a larger, 62-foot rotor diameter, it was the V-107-II’s competitor, but it was otherwise similar with a 25-passenger capacity and an 18,700-pound gross weight. It was inaugurated into service on December 21, 1965.

Bypassing all surface traffic and reducing travel time to a mere seven minutes, Boeing-Vertol V-107-II and Sikorsky S-61 service between the Pan Am rooftop heliport and JFK enabled passengers to check-in for their fixed-wing flights in the Pan Am Building 45 minutes before they were scheduled to depart. Seventeen daily roundtrips offered ultimate convenience. Fares were $7.00 one-way and $10.00 roundtrip.

Because the service fulfilled the CAB’s “public convenience and necessity” clause, both Pan Am and TWA were able to make stockholding investments in New York Airways, the former to the tune of 24.4 percent and the latter at 15.6 percent. The Sikorsky S-61s sported TWA’s emblem on their aft fuselage sides.

Aside from the airline’s financial fatalities, there were also human ones, creating dark clouds of doubt on rotary-wing technology for scheduled commercial operations.

On May 18, 1977, for instance, a New York Airways S-61L keeled over during boarding on top of the Pan Am heliport, taking the lives of five with it while it did, including that of a person walking on Madison Avenue below where the unleashed rotor blade hit him.

Two years later, in April of 1979, three were killed when a rotor blade snapped off of another S-61 at Newark International Airport. Metal fatigue and failure had caused the right landing gear to collapse in the first incident and the tail rotor to break off in the second.

Forced to cease operations, New York Airways filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection; and, while various strategies were devised to resurrect it, none proved fruitful.

New York Airways’ 18-year, four-type, scheduled mail and passenger, inter-airport and neighboring-state rotary-wing operations were convenient and popular and defined a new market and purpose for the design. But those then in existence were loud, complex, fuel-thirsty, and ultimately flawed, and not necessarily of sufficient advancement for safe, profitable, high-frequency, daily operations, leaving later carriers, such as New York Helicopter, to fill the gap in the New York airport area and many others throughout the world. While technology had intermittently improved and was one measure of the type’s success, its operating costs and profitability constituted its others.

“After twelve years of passenger operations, therefore, the Helicopter carriers (including New York Airways, Chicago Helicopter Airways, Los Angeles Airways, and San Francisco and Oakland Airlines) had been given a good chance to prove the efficiency of rotor-driven aircraft, but had failed to make their case,” Davies concludes (op. cit. p. 479).

Robert G. Waldvogel has spent thirty years working at JFK International and LaGuardia airports with the likes of Capitol Air, Midway Airlines, Triangle Aviation Services, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Austrian Airlines, and Lufthansa in Ground Operations and Management. He has created and taught aviation programs on both the airline and university level, and is an aviation author.

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