Army Museum Had To Let It Go -- And It Was Not All It
Working for Aero-News, we learn about something new every day.
But every once in a while you learn about something that you just
can't get your skull around, and one example is shown in this
photograph from a rotorcraft fan website:
This picture tells a clean and simple story: one of the US
Army's museums is destroying one of its exhibits, a priceless,
unique prototype helicopter. The text usually circulated with the
picture advances that story. But, as it turns out, that story is
-- and false.
When I mentioned this picture to Editor-in-Chief Jim Campbell,
Jim remembered that he'd gotten a similar photo in email
recently. The picture is ricocheting around the net --
especially the Army aviation community -- from email to blog to
The aircraft that's losing an argument with a construction
loader is the Boeing XCH-62, the prototype of the largest
helicopter ever built outside of Russia. It looks a lot like a
Chinook, but looks are deceptive -- it's between once-and-a-half
and twice the size; you can almost park a Hook under it, as the
second photo shows.
Or, "could" almost park a Hook under it. Because the only
prototype of the Boeing design for the Heavy Lift Helicopter
program of the early seventies, is gone now. "Destroyed by a goon
in a payloader," one Ft Rucker soldier told me, fuming.
But as it happens, what appears to be an act of wanton
destruction is a lot more complicated that it seems. I contacted
the Army Aviation Museum, at Ft Rucker, Alabama, one of a plethora
of installation and specialty museums that the Army's Center for
Military History, with a lot of alarmed questions. Either my
questions, or my tone, or the way this controversy has exploded
across the internet brought a reply from museum Curator R. Steven
Maxham with very un-helicopter-like speed.
The poor fellow has been taking a beating on the net from people
who don't even know him, and what's more, don't know the machine at
issue. XCH-62 Serial Number 73-22012, built by Boeing-Vertol in
Philadelphia and destroyed by a goon in a payloader thirty years
later, turns out to have been something less than a real
"[I]t was never an aircraft," Steve Maxham says. "It never flew.
It was essentially an incomplete concept model, the shell of an
idea. It was never structurally completed. It was never
mechanically completed. It was never electrically harnessed. There
was only one rotor head produced, the second was not. There were
only blades made for the one head. There were no drive train
components. The upper structures both fore and aft were never
manufactured. The interior was never completed. In no way, shape,
or form did it qualify as an aircraft, historic or otherwise."
Yow! Do you get the feeling that Steve Maxham is just a little
bit ticked at people who come riding in to save the CH-62, now that
it's dead and gone? But certainly, there was some historical value
in it... why not save what they had?
"The very scarce funding available to this museum for collection
management concerns is much better suited to the preservation and
conservation of any one the many technologically significant and
unique aircraft that we do maintain here. These are items that were
completed, were tested, and that have a tangible value to lessons
learned in the development of rotor wing technology."
It turns out that the museum has the real, original prototypes
of just about every historic Army aircraft. "At the end of any
contract development the Army takes possession of the prototypes
they paid for," Maxham explained to Aero-News. "This was the case
with the OH6, the NOTAR, the YUH60, the YAH64, the 61, the 63..."
The museum includes other rarities and one-offs, like the Boeing
347, a Chinook with fly-by-wire controls, retractable gear and
wings (yes, wings). It has a Lockheed YAH-56A Cheyenne on display
(and another in storage), another high-tech victim of the 1970s
budget crunch. And Maxham promises they're not going anywhere.
"There is no, repeat no intention to divest the collection of
any of the true aircraft we have, to include the 347 that you
One important reason to preserve these prototypes is that the
test pilots come to visit them -- and long after the test pilots
are gone, the test pilots' descendants will. But no test pilot ever
pulled pitch on the XCH-62 (although the internet reverberates with
the complaints of project engineers who worked on the ill-fated
The XCH-62 was intended to be the next-generation Heavy Lift
Helicopter, replacing the obsolete Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe
("Skycrane", in it's S-64 civilian guise). The -62 combined
concepts from other aerial cranes, like the CH-54 (for example, it
had a rearward-facing pilot station, which was tested on the above
mentioned Boeing 347), with technology from the proven CH-47
Chinook, with new concepts like its four-bladed rotors. But the
Army had little love for one-task, special-purpose heavy lift
helicopters and in the post-Vietnam budget-slashing frenzy, the
unfinished CH-62 prototype was axed in 1973. True believers at
Boeing Vertol's Philadelphia plant pushed the unfinished machine
between a massive hangar and outdoor storage over the years as the
company fought Washington to reinstate the project.
In the military expansion of the early Reagan years, the project
was briefly revitalized, only to be killed again in 1985 -- this
time, for good. The machine was gussied up as a mockup and
delivered to the museum after that (they must have used a railroad
to deliver the massive fuselage). There was no question of storing
the mockup indoors, and yet it hadn't been built to last.
And the XCH-62 wasn't the only exhibit to suffer the rains and
hail of Ft Rucker's LA (Lower Alabama) location. Outdoor storage,
and primitive indoor storage in decrepit World War II "temporary"
buildings, had left much of the museum's collection at risk. It's
not that Maxham and his fellow curators are unaware of the damage
being done to their collection, or how to stop it. It's that their
museums belong to the Army, which in peace and in war has many
priorities higher than preserving its museum collections -- and in
our society, remember, the Army doesn't get to set its spending
priorities. The Congress does that -- need I say more?
So the seasons came, and the XCH-62 deteriorated. "While there
are some in the general aviation history community who will see
this as a loss, it has in fact been at a loss for many years now,
and could easily be categorized as an accident waiting to happen.
The very simple matter of corrosion in the skin and frame due to
unprotected exposure to 20+ years of the elements prohibited any
real consideration for removal to another site," Maxham told us in
a passionate email.
So the writing was on the wall for 73-22012 and its strange
conglomeration of aircraft parts and plywood. It would have taken
an absolute fortune to save the mockup by 2005 -- and if anybody
gave Steve Maxham and his comrades in the Center for Military
History's museum network an absolute fortune for the Army Aviation
Museum, they had far higher priorities. The only thing left was to
get a small budget to tear the gigantic mockup down, before it fell
on a sixth-grade class touring the museum.
The museum still has the history of the abortive HLH program on
file. "We have archived several linear feet of vertical file
material that track the project up to cancellation. That material
will be retained as historical documentation. That, moreso than an
incomplete concept model, will be sufficient to assist in the story
of heavy lift." After all, the museum has the real heavy-lift
helicopters of the Army, showing how the practice evolved, from the
use of utility helicopters like the CH-21 and CH-34, to the first
real brawny lifting machine, the twin-radial CH-37 Mojave, through
the CH-54 -- the last helicopter to bear Igor Sikorsky's own hand
in the design -- to the CH-47, used today in the role.
Except where it can't, and we have to hire Russians to come with
an Mi-26. Which, apart from the embarrassment of it, certainly cost
less than finishing and fielding the CH-62 would have done.
And, in a victory not of a moment, but of a decade, Maxham
writes that most of his at-risk unique and irreplaceable aircraft
are out of the weather. "[O]ver the past 10 years we have managed
to secure these examples in covered storage, where many were in the
elements prior to that, and we have also managed to obtain newer
and better storage facilities than the obsolete WWII vintage wooden
structures that had been museum storage since the 1970's," he
So there you have it-- the whole complex tale of the CH-62, with
all its twists and turns. The tagline of the Army Aviation Museum
at Fort Rucker is "Preserving the past... for the future."
Sometimes doing that means that the curators have to make hard
The Museum must, like everybody, live within its means. The
deterioration of the mockup was making it a hazard. It would have
cost a fortune to make safe, and to make more representative of the
real XCH-62 that was planned but never completed. The machine at
the Museum was a mockup, remember, made from some aircraft parts
and some Hollywood parts, of a concept that never flew.
With a collection of truly historic, once-flying aircraft that
were outdoors, crying out for preservation, something had to give.
The curators were unanimous: preserve real history, not a visually
striking mock-up. The Army Center for Military History
The XCH-62 was a powerful sight, unique, and in a way, historic;
but its claims lose out compared to some of the other aircraft the
museum has to preserve. I suppose I'm one of the unrealistic
purists, for I truly hated to see it go; but there's a lot more to
the story than first meets the eye.