A Banana-Shaped Chopper With an Old Gun Turret Isn’t Much of a Gunship
Modified helicopter could barely manage the weight
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On June 7, 1957, a group of U.S. Army troops showed off seven prototype armed helicopters at a symposium the private Association of the United States Army was sponsoring at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Among the experimental gunships was an odd vehicle that combined a transport chopper with an old, World War II era gun mount.
With a small budget and lack of support from top Army brass, the unit in charge of the work had to make do with whatever weapons and equipment it could get. One option the General Electric company had offered was to rig up an old turret for the B-29 Superfortress bomber underneath a H-21 Shawnee helicopter.
“It proved feasible, but exceeded the weight carrying capability of the H-21 helicopter,” Army Maj. Charles Griminger and Aaron Rose wrote in an official history of armed choppers in 1968. “The idea behind the system was to provide flexible guns to fire on the objective while the helicopter was in a nose-high landing attitude.”
A contemporary photograph shows the H-21 gunship in flight and shooting at mock targets on the ground. We don’t know if the observers on the ground could tell just how sluggish and under-powered the arrangement actually was in the air.
Because let’s face it — a transport chopper with an old gun turret strapped underneath just isn’t much of a gunship.
In 1956, Army Gen. Carl Hutton, then commandant of the Army Aviation School, was fed up waiting for his service to get behind the idea of armed helicopters. Taking matters into his own hands, the officer recalled Army Col. Jay Vanderpool to duty and quietly put him to work.
Hutton believed in his mission, but felt his superiors might see it as insubordination. He ordered Vanderpool to work — at first — virtually in secret.
So, the colonel and other members of his close-knit team — who ultimately gained the nickname Vanderpool’s Fools — made numerous trips to personally discuss their project with other like-minded Army officials and defense contractors.
During one meeting, he sketched out a possible weapon pack design on a napkin and gave it to engineers at General Electric.
Based in Burlington, Vermont, the firm already had experience with putting remote-controlled weapons on aircraft. It had designed and built the state-of-the-art turrets for Boeing’s B-29.
During World War II, the mounts were something of a revolution — as you can see in the video below. Gunners no longer had to squeeze into turrets on top and below the huge planes.
The crew could sit inside heated, pressurized compartments in relative comfort, tracking the enemy through observation windows with special gun sights. As a result, the turrets could be smaller and more aerodynamic, too.
During the Cold War, General Electric built new, larger types for the Air Force’s B-36 bombers. Upgraded B-29s, called B-50s, still carried the original versions.
The version the company’s technicians whipped up for the H-21 featured a simple metal frame holding just one of turrets. Separate ammunition magazines held rounds for one of the two .50-caliber guns.
In principle, a gunner in the cockpit could use the sighting system to aim the weapons at enemy troops as the helicopter came in to land. This would also allow the crew to defend the chopper on the ground while it dropped off troops.
The real problem with the idea was the H-21 itself. Nicknamed the “Flying Banana” because of its distinctive shape, Piasecki’s twin-rotor chopper could only carry approximately 5,000 pounds of both fuel and troops or cargo.
While we don’t know how much the B-29 turrets weighed, manned World War II-era turrets could be over an impressive 800 pounds. A 500-pound weapon mount would have immediately taken up a tenth of the helicopter’s carrying capacity — and stuck it all underneath the nose.
Though Piasecki — and later Boeing — sold H-21s around the world, it never earned a particularly stellar reputation. Even without guns, the choppers were slow and vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire.
These limitations were particularly obvious during the infamous battle of Ap Bac in South Vietnam in 1963. When the shooting stopped, Viet Cong insurgents had shot down four American H-21s.
By then, the Army had long since abandoned the idea of the turret-armed version.
Vanderpool’s Fools’ other attempts to turn the Flying Bananas into gunships with guns and rockets also failed and French forces had come to the same conclusion in Algeria after similar experiments.
When Army aviators brought the first Shawnees to South Vietnam, commanders expected more powerful UH-1s Hueys — as well as traditional ground attack planes — to provide the real firepower. The H-21s only had .30-caliber machine guns mounted at the doors to the main cabin.