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The Tale of Los Angeles Airways and the Skycrane

Robert Emslie June 24, 2014 All Things Hoon, Featured 18 Comments

L A Airways Sikorsky S-61L

Los Angeles Airways was a regional helicopter airline that served the sprawling Los Angeles and Orange Counties in the ’50s and ’60s. Earlier than that the company inaugurated the first regularly-scheduled helicopter mail service, starting in the San Fernando Valley in October 1947. They began passenger service between local airports and tourist destinations like Disneyland and the Newporter Hotel in Orange County in 1954, flying civilian (S-55) versions of the Sikorsky H-19. From these humble beginnings grew a sizable local carrier, however the company’s plans were vastly more innovative and ambitious, and involved one of the oddest helicopters ever conceived.

Los Angeles and its environs is a vast sprawl reaching south almost unbroken through Orange County and to the East through the Inland Empire. Back in the ’50s and ’60s these areas were served by small regional airports, while the locus of cross-country and international travel was Los Angeles International Airport. Getting to LAX, even on the region’s extensive network of freeways, was time consuming as traffic was, even then, an issue. Of course, a helicopter would be unencumbered by such issues and that’s why LA Airways’ service proved popular for the monied coming in and out of the airport and wishing to travel to Disneyland or any of the eight other heliports serviced by the company.

To provide greater capacity and comfort, in 1962 the airline purchased, at a cost of $650,000 apiece, Sikorsky S-61Ls, making the company that aircraft’s first civilian operator. LA Airways’ goal had always been to overcome the issue of the ‘last mile,’ that challenging problem with travel where the hardest part is actually getting from home to the airport. The solution, in the minds of LA Airways’ executives, was to combine the best attributes of a bus and a helicopter.

Skycrane

The idea was to build a bus that could be converted from being towed behind a semi-tractor to being hooked beneath the airframe of a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane. Dubbed the ‘Skylounge’ these luxury busses were conceived of in 1965 and the expectation was that the system could cut travel time from outlying areas to the airport from an hour or more to mere minutes. LA Airways received a half-million dollar feasibility grant from the Federal Government to determine if this system could work. Unfortunately for the company,  they would never have the chance to put the plan into action.

LAAArticle

On May 22, 1968 LA Airways flight 841 left the Disneyland heliport, bound for LAX with 23 passengers and crew onboard. Flying at 2000 feet, well above the rush hour traffic on the freeways below, the Sikorsky S-61 suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure. The pilot made a plaintive distress call to air traffic control – “L.A., we’re crashing, help us!”

One of the main rotor’s blades had come off its mount and that caused the aircraft to disintegrate in midair, with mail spilling out of the ruptured craft and onto the roofs of the homes and roads below. Horrified witnesses on the ground mistook this for bodies falling from the doomed aircraft. When it finally hit the ground it burst into flames. There were no survivors.

Helicopter-Crash-Shot-B-1968-from-Disneyland-WMAt the time, that accident was the worst civilian helicopter crash in history. It wouldn’t be LA Airways’ last, however. On August 14, 1968, three months after the Disney to LAX crash, flight 417 was making the reverse trek with a full load of passengers. At half-past 10 in the morning, and while cruising at 1500 feet, the main rotor head spindles failed which allowed the spindles to separate completely from the hub. Thrown out of balance, the S-61 spun out of control, its tail rotor flying off from the stress.

The pilot attempted to gain control of the plummeting craft, but in the end there was little that could be done with so much damage. The helicopter hit the ground in a ball of flames, killing all 18 passengers and 3 crew members onboard.

These disasters had the expected effect on LA Airways, as did competitive pressures from regional carriers offering puddle jumper flights, driving business away. Not even the government subsidies could help keep them afloat and the company sought a sale to keep them out of receivership. Discussions between the carrier and Golden West Airlines were initiated, but the talks eventually went nowhere. Los Angeles Airways closed their doors for good in 1971.

Imagine if they had not experienced the setbacks of those two disasters, and had been able to move forward with their Skylounge plans. Can you imagine boarding a bus near your home that is then wisked to the airport via a massive preying mantis-like helicopter? I guess that grand scheme was just another one of those fancy futures that was really never meant to be.

Images: LAAIRWAYS, DisneyHistoryInstitute, EdCoatesCollection, LAWeekly

  • A plan just so crazy, it could… no, no it couldn't.

  • That's a pretty egregious failure rate even for a helicopter. I wonder who was maintaining those Sikorskys and what the damage to the aircraft's reputation was.

    • FЯeeMan

      That was my first thought. (OK, I didn't think "egregious", but I did think "that's a lot of failures") Bizarre that they were both rotor/hub related failures. Wonder who had been using them previously.

    • As someone who spent my army years in aviation, this intrigued me enough to do some digging. 417 was caused by a fatigue crack in a rotor blade spindle, which should have been reveled on a previous magnaflux exam but was not for unknown. So that one sounds like shoddy maintenance. 841 crashed due to the failure of a rotor damper, but the root cause and failure mode could not be determined.

  • Newport Pagnell

    These helicopters live on as the Erikson S-64 Aircrane.
    [youtube k-y1OtbuOT0 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-y1OtbuOT0 youtube]

  • I had an idea for a futuristic, ultra convenient, home-to-work transportation solution when I was younger.

    Imagine sitting down in your home office, then remaining in your seat from home to the station, then from on the train to your place of work, and at no time having to leave your seat. Then, I realised that what I was describing was somewhat mundane and has existed for generations.

    <img src="http://www.careco.co.uk/csp/careco/mobility/products/320/WC01001_silver_sport_.jpg&quot; 300="" width="">

    EDIT: I should hurriedly add that I know that the life of a wheelchair user is far from easy. But now, by 2014, we really should have found a way to adapt and maintain an unimpeded path between destinations.

    • Van_Sarockin

      Indeed. I'd venture that nearly everyone in a wheelchair would like not to be. There are some drawbacks to that fully sedentary lifestyle. I like to mix it up, and try to reserve my driving for times and places where I'll actually enjoy it.

    • As someone posting to Hooniverse from Great Britain, you might at least have used the 1963 Wrigley Electric Chair invalid carriage as your example:

      <img src="http://i194.photobucket.com/albums/z211/stuartcyphus/S7301594.jpg&quot; width="450">

      • FЯeeMan

        A) Leave it to you to post something like this (especially since it looks like friction drive)
        B) How is someone with little to no use of his/her legs supposed to get into that thing???

        • Irishzombieman☆

          C) Did no one in the vast Wrigley marketing department consider the usual connotations of the phrase "electric chair"?

        • A) Thank you.
          B) The T-handle is removable.
          C) No idea. The owner has never mentioned that aspect to me. It was made by Wessex Industries Ltd. of Poole, Dorset, better known for their line of Wrigley Trucks:

          <img src="http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3372/3604082342_9d920f4deb.jpg&quot; width="450">

      • Looks like a novel way into tetanus contraction.

  • Van_Sarockin

    It remind me a bit of the landcrawler shuttle at Dulles Airport in DC, where your departure lounge is self propelled, and takes you to your departure gate, which is isolated in the middle of the field. Very, very slowly.

    I'd hope that two crashes in three months, sustaining 100% loss of life would put a crimp in the company's operations. Not being able to keep the big, rotating bits from rattling off, is a competitive disadvantage.

    Practically, the time it would take to connect your bus to the helicopter probably isn't any less than getting people to walk off the bus and onto a helicopter. So the real issue is gate and boarding protocol.

  • Night Traveller

    These Mixed media vehicles… Car/boat…Helicopter/bus….Car/aircraft.. are always good in one mode and not the other.

  • HTWHLS

    Never heard of this before..thanks for the very interesting post!

  • Interesting. I recently read about British Airways' helicopter service from the '60s until the '80s. It ended in a similar fate.

  • <img src="http://www.rotaryaction.com/images/swdfish1.jpg&quot; width=600>
    If only the FBI had a more in depth knowledge of esoteric historical facts, they would have totally seen this coming! And in LA even!

  • Tulsaturbinique

    As a kid on family vacation we flew the last flight the evening before the fatal AM Ralph William's Car Lot crash. Chopper was named Megopolis 3. I looked out the window and noticed the port side tire was bald. I dismissed this, thinking helicopters don't roll much anyway. Maintenance. Maintenance, Maintenance.