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Tinseltown-famous M.A.S.H. Machine Makes AirVenture Appearance

Restored Bell 47 draws crowds of civilians and veterans alike

By Frederick A. Johnsen

July 26, 2018 - A classic Bell 47 helicopter in the Warbirds area at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018 earned a place in television history when it flew to Malibu Creek and the set of the Korean War TV dramedy M.A.S.H. in 1972. For the next 11 years, weekly viewers watched this Bell open the show in a filmed sequence that ethereally blended lifesaving in the midst of war.

Adrian Grieve owned this helicopter back then, as part of his Pathfinder Helicopters company at Flabob Airport in Riverside, California. By 1981, this Bell was working on a farm in South Dakota as an airborne livestock herder, and later as a sprayer.

For the past 25 years, the helicopter has been operated by John D’Alessandris, a contractor from Reno, Nevada. John did not know the provenance of the helicopter when he bought it. It was a chance meeting with an FAA official, who turned out to be Grieve, that revealed the Tinseltown past of this machine, John said.

John likes to point out where his Bell can be seen in M.A.S.H. It has unusual blue paint on the cockpit controls that eagle-eyed M.A.S.H.-watchers can pick out onscreen, he said. In the opening scene of M.A.S.H. on TV, John’s Bell is the closest to the camera, he said. And in the second scene, his is the second of two helicopters approaching the landing zone. This Bell rounded out its M.A.S.H. career in the final departure scene of the show’s record-setting finale in 1983.

John said Grieve recalled that the helicopter had blue seat upholstery back then, so the TV crew quickly improvised an army blanket to cover the civilian fabric for filming.

Still widely recognized more than three decades after its final episode, M.A.S.H. has legions of fans at AirVenture, judging from the helicopter’s steady stream of visitors. They pause, read John’s descriptive signs beside the helicopter, and sometimes get invited to sit in the bubble cockpit.

John wanted to re-create a Korean War-vintage medevac helicopter, so he obtained a pair of litter platforms to attach to the skids. In a museum he found an original Plexiglas-and-aluminum windscreen that was used to protect the litter patient in transit to the hospital. From this he made a pair of reproductions. The result is a stunning look at the rustic but effective origins of medevac.

John’s home field at Reno has a density altitude that can challenge the Franklin engine in his Model 47. So he typically keeps the Bell at a field near Sacramento, California, where lower altitude makes the flying experience fun. “I have a lot of fun taking her to air shows,” he said. “She loves to fly. I love to fly.”

Sometimes, a veteran at a show will approach and tell John, “I rode on a helicopter like that in Korea,” John said. “You can tell the vets … they get a tear in their eye.”

John’s an experienced flier, air racer, and air show attendee. “This is my first Oshkosh,” he said. Looking around the colorful Warbirds campus, he added, “I’m just excited to be part of it.”

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