Who was the First Marine Helicopter Pilot?

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired

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Marine Corps Historical Center Photo Collection LtCol Armond H. DeLalio, recipient of the Navy Cross for heroism as a pilot with Marine Scout-Bomber Squadron 241 during the battle of Midway and a Marine Corps helicopter pioneer, was honored in 1965 when an elementary school at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, was dedicated in his name.

 

There is some dispute about who the first Marine Corps helicopter pilot actually was. According to Marine lore that honor goes to fighter ace and famed test pilot Marion E. Carl, but the official records of the naval service identify Major Armond H. DeLalio as Marine helicopter pilot number one, and Marion Carl himself proclaimed that Desmond E. Canavan was probably the first Marine to fly a helicopter.

According to the Marine Corps’ official history, Marines and Helicopters, 1962-1973, “Major General Marion E. Carl is generally credited with being the first Marine to learn how to fly a helicopter in July 1945 [but] it was not until some years later that he was officially designated [as such].” In his autobiography, Pushing The Envelope (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), Carl relates that he learned how to fly a Sikorsky HNS (R-4) while a test pilot stationed at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland. He was given about three hours of instruction before he soloed. In that same memoir, however, he states that fellow Marine Desmond Canavan was flying helicopters in late 1944. Carl’s claim that he was helicopter pilot number one rests upon the fact that he was the first Marine to log the 40 hours required for certification even though he never applied for such certification. Neither Carl nor Canovan appear on the naval service helicopter pilot certification list prior to June 1950.

Marine Corps Historian Lynn Montross, the recognized authority on early Marine helicopter operations, lists Navy Cross holder Armond DeLalio as having flown U.S. Navy helicopters at New York’s Floyd Bennett Field then under the auspices of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1944. He is officially recognized as the first Marine certified as a helicopter pilot, achieving that honor on 8 August 1946. DeLalio was the operations officer for Navy helicopter squadron VX-3 at that time. He was killed during a test flight in 1952 when a rocket-assisted takeoff pod malfunctioned causing his HRS helicopter to catch fire and then crash.

The Navy register of early helicopter pilots lists 250 qualifiers prior to the onset of the Korean War in June 1950; 33 are Marines, including three enlisted naval aviation pilots (the famous “Flying Sergeants” of the Marine Corps).

While who should be recognized as the true “Gray Eagle” of Marine helicopter aviation remains murky, there is little doubt about the specific incident that started the Marine Corps helicopter program. That event occurred at Quantico, Virginia, in 1946 and was described by helicopter pioneer Edward C. Dyer:

One day Marion Carl, a test pilot at Patuxent, flew a helicopter to Marine Corps Schools to demonstrate it to the students. . . . He hoisted [Lieutenant Colonel Victor H.] Brute Krulak . . . about 15 feet [off the ground] and pulled him into the cockpit. [Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B.] Twining and I were standing by the window and watching and I said ‘Bill, let’s . . . quit fooling around.’ He said ‘OK! . . . He wrote the theory . . . principles . . . background . . . reasoning . . . and I wrote [an implementation] program.”

Marion Carl recalled that he specifically selected Lieutenant Colonel Krulak because his small stature and lightweight could be accommodated by the limited room and lift capability of his HOS-1 helicopter. Krulak thereafter became a helicopter devotee.

One thought on “Who was the First Marine Helicopter Pilot?

  1. I was unaware of your organization but appreciate your acknowledging my father, Des Canavan, and his early testing of the Sikorsky HNS-1. Beginning on 30 March 1944, in BuNo 39034, in a familiarization flight with Lt. CDR Johnny Miller, who was later referred to as “Windmill” Miller in letters, Lt. Col. Canavan’s began a series of self-instruction and flight tests. His first SOLO helicopter flight was on 2 Nov. 1944. His last solo flight for 1.2 hours was on 20 January 1945, and was characterized as a “search”. After a year and a half at Flight Test, my father’s orders were to return to the Pacific as the big push was on.
    Over the years it has been my privilege to know many men, both fine and flawed, who were Marine Corps and Naval aviators, all of whom deserve recognition for their selfless actions during this epic struggle as well as in peacetime. Now I’m a little old lady who hopes to tell some of their stories well enough… to their overdue credit. Thank you for helping to carry the torch.

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