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A Visit to the American Helicopter Museum

By Hal Bryan, EAA Lifetime 638979, Senior Editor

May 19, 2016 - “Cool! A flying banana!”

That was the first thing we said as we drove up to the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center in West Chester, Pennsylvania. To some, West Chester is known as the birthplace of the Commodore Vic-20. To others, it’s the original home of Sharples Tubular Cream Separators; as everyone knows, these were the centrifugal separators of choice for millions of farmers in the early 20th century. But to hardcore aviation geeks like us, West Chester is the place with all the cool helicopters.

We were on a trip to Philadelphia recently to work on another story and finished early. With some time on our hands, we looked around for something else to do. We’d already had a look at a once-beautiful ocean liner and then dropped in at our friend’s sister’s coffee shop and were starting to seriously consider a trip to the Shoe Museum when we figured out that we were only about 45 minutes away from West Chester. With all due respect to the Shoe Museum, we’ll take flying machines over footwear any day.

A visit to this museum starts just before you actually get there. Driving in, you spot a lawn full of helicopters even before you see the sign. There’s the aforementioned Flying Banana, actually a Piasecki CH-21, a Seasprite, a Sea King, and something that looks like a vaguely futuristic CH-46 – actually, it’s a Boeing 360, a largely composite technology demonstrator built in 1987, the only one of its kind. Around the back of the building, there’s a mean-looking Huey AH-1F Cobra, a Boeing CH-46 (no tricks this time), and a prototype of the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, one of only two V-22s on display in the U.S.

When you walk in, the first thing you see is everything. A huge hangar, full, as you’d expect, of helicopters. There’s another Piasecki, this one an HUP-1 Retriever, and tucked in right in front of that is an early drone, a Gyrodyne QH-50C. As you start to explore the room, you come across one treasure after another. There’s a series of Bell helicopters, like the popular 206, the classic UH-1 Huey, and two Bell 47s: one, a D model also known as an H-13 that you’ll recognize from the TV show M.A.S.H., not to mention AirVenture, the other a rare B model which, with its wheels and “dolphin” nose, most of us don’t recognize from anywhere.

There’s a series of gyrocopters hanging from the ceiling, including an original Bensen B-8, a couple of classic Hughes designs, an OH-6, and a 530, and some really intriguing rarities like the S.O. 1221 Djinn. We don’t have a favorite, but, if we did, it just might be the little homebuilt Scorpion—the one with the classic EAA sticker on it. You can’t talk about helicopters without saying the word Sikorsky, and they’re well represented by the S-51, S-52, and the H-34 Choctaw that stands tall in the middle of the room, proudly painted in U.S. Marines Colors.

So, the next time you’re in Pennsylvania, or Delaware or New Jersey - states are really close together in that part of the country - stop in and see the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center in West Chester. It’s well worth a visit - unless you really do think shoes are better than helicopters.

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