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Solopilot Society

The Solopilot Society recognizes those original US Army helicopter ambulance pilots who were first to fly helicopters totally dedicated to battlefield medical services. The Society was formed to honor the courage, commitment and innovation of an elite group of military aviators who brought rotary wing ambulances into battlefield environment.

From its inception in the Korean War in 1952, Solopilots routinely flew hazardous missions in underpowered helicopters lacking navigational aids and limited to external litter carrying capabilities. The pioneer aviators that are members of the Solopilot Society performed all ambulance duties; pilot, copilot, medic, and crewchief. During the Korean conflict, over 21,000 wounded solders were transported via helicopter.

The existence of functional helicopters at a time when the Army was faced with the inadequate road net and inhospitable terrain of Korea hastened their use as air ambulances. The helicopter was much less punishing to patients than ground vehicles, provided quicker transport time, and was not slowed by roadblocks and destroyed bridges.

Initially Air Force, and later Marine and Army, aviators, employing the primitive equipment available to them, used innovation to forge an aeromedical doctrine that would become a sophisticated part of the Army's medical evacuation and treatment system. The helicopters were piloted by officers from a number of branches during the war, some of whom later transferred to the Medical Service Corps. 

Four helicopter detachments arrived in Korea for assignment to the Eighth Army surgeon beginning in January 1951. Each detachment had four helicopters; two had Bell H-13s, and two had Hiller H-23s. Each helicopter had one pilot and was rigged with two exterior pods for litter patients; one ambulatory patient could be carried at the same time under ideal conditions. One detachment never became operational because its aircraft were diverted to other units immediately upon arrival. The remaining three detachments were each attached to a forward-deployed MASH. The first detachments were general aviation units, but in November 1952 the 49th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance), commanded by Capt. John W. Hammett, Artillery, was organized as the first purely medical aviation unit. Hammett, a World War II artillery liaison pilot, later transferred to the Medical Service Corps.

The helicopters were primitive aircraft. The Army's H-13 had a ten-gallon gas tank with a sixty-mile range, and the pilots had to either carry extra gas cans or refuel en route for longer missions. Because its weak battery system gave no guarantee of restarting the engine, the pilots engaged in "hot refueling." Leaded gas would foul sparkplugs and cause forced landings, so the pilots had to clean the plugs every day. The power transmission systems depended on a series of fan belts, which added more excitement, and with two outboard litters the aircraft would get nose heavy if the fuel ran low. Its gas tank was not self-sealing and the gear-box was exposed to enemy fire. Furthermore, the aviators did not have formal training in casualty care.


CPT Joseph Bowler refuels his H-13 helicopter with a "Gerry can" before leaving Chipyong-ni with a seriously wounded patient, February 15, 1951. 

Almost any damage from enemy fire was fatal to the helicopters. Therefore, the rules for their use were strict and tightly monitored by the Eighth Army Surgeon's Office. Missions were restricted to serious injuries, and the pilots had a right to refuse any mission that would damage the helicopter. Pickups were supposed to occur only at medical treatment facilities and only in daylight hours. However, the plucky aviators often ignored the rules when there were emergencies. As one put it, they would go to "any spot that was big enough to get the blades into."

The pioneers had to be adept at improvisation. Intravenous bottles would freeze outside. Lieutenant Bowler and Lt. Col. James M. Brown, MC, commander of the 8063d MASH, devised a rig for suspending bottles for infusion of plasma or blood inside the cabin with a tube that ran outside to the litter. The door would pinch off the line to the patient, and Capt. Hubert D. Gaddis, Artillery, devised a notched opening in the fuselage large enough to accommodate the bottle while allowing the tubing to clear the door. 

In the first month of the war, the US Army evacuated over 500 injured soldiers. Over 5040 injured soldiers were evacuated by helicopter by the end of 1951. Lt. Joseph Bowler evacuated 824 in 1951, and Lt. William Brake evacuated over 900 in 1952. The total number of wounded evacuated by all makes of helicopter during the war was 21,212.

From the lessons learned on the frozen battlefields of Korea, the Solopilots' skill and dedication brought theory into practice and verified the tactical importance of the helicopter as the vital link in battlefield emergency continuum of care. The same link, over the next fifty years, would save thousands of American lives in places like Lebanon, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, each owing its success to a cadre of brave and resourceful Army aviators know as the Solopilots!