MD Helicopters

From Howard Hughes to Lynn Tilton, a history still in the making.

By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot
AS350, AW 119, Cessna 182/172

There's a good chance that if you've flown helicopters for any amount of time, you've probably had your hands on the collective and cyclic of a product with the name MD Helicopters on the side. Since 1947, initially being Hughes Helicopters, MD has produced thousands of vertical-lift aircraft for military, commercial and private use.

While this company's 70-year history is filled with highs and lows, recent reorganization and prioritization has provided the catalyst for a new era. It's been a colorful story, one that MD Helicopters is still writing.


Early days of MD Helicopters goes back nearly to the dawn of helicopters as we know them. While the first true helicopter, the German Focke-Wulf Fw 61, took its maiden flight in 1936, it wasn't until Russian-American Igor Sikorsky designed and flew his R-4 in 1942 that the concept truly caught on. The US military flew over 400 of Sikorsky's various designs during World War II.

Around this same time, Arthur Young, working for Bell Aircraft, developed the Model 30, which would become the Bell 47, the first civilian helicopter. In 1947, billionaire Howard Hughes recognized the possibilities and application of helicopters for a variety of uses and began steering his Hughes Aircraft Company from fixed-wing to rotary-wing development.

The 1st helicopter from the Hughes Aircraft Co was the XH-17 Sky Crane, which initially flew in 1952. Shortly thereafter, the Hughes Tool Company Aircraft Division split from the Hughes Aircraft Company and began working specifically on light helicopters. Their debut offering under the new venture was the very successful Model 269.

Production began in 1957 and continues to this day as the Schweizer 300C, largely unchanged from its original design. This aircraft also marked Hughes' entry into military contracts. The 269, designated the TH-55 Osage by the US Army, was used as a primary trainer for several years.

Hughes OH-6A Cayuse

The versatility and usefulness of helicopters for wartime became obvious in the early 1950s during the Korean War. As US activity began to ramp up in Vietnam, in 1960 the US Navy Bureau of Weapons announced competition for a new Light Observation Helicopter (LOH) to replace the H-13 Sioux, the military version of the Bell 47 that had been used since 1945. The requirements were a 4-seat helicopter, powered by a turbine engine, and capable of multiple roles including transport, attack, medical evacuation and observation.

From the initial 19 designs put forth by 12 manufacturers, the final competition eventually whittled down to 3 aircraft for evaluation: The Bell D-250, Hiller Model 1100, and Hughes Model 369. In 1965, Hughes was awarded the contract over 2nd-place Hiller and the 369 became the OH-6A Cayuse. Hughes was tasked with an initial 714 aircraft, later increased to 1300 units as the conflict in Southeast Asia expanded.

The winning of this contract, however, was not without controversy. At the time, it was believed that Hughes intentionally undercut the bid put forth by Hiller, knowing he would lose money on the initial run of aircraft but make it up if the contract was fulfilled with an expected 3000 to 4000 helicopters. After formal complaints were filed by Hiller, in 1967 the US Army held another round of competitions. This time, Bell came out the victor with the highly-successful OH-58 Kiowa, a militarized version of the JetRanger.

As building costs on the OH-6A increased and fewer orders were requested, production ended soon after the US military adaptation of the OH-58. By the end of the Vietnam War, approximately 1434 OH-6As were produced compared to over 2200 OH-58s. It is estimated that Howard Hughes lost as much as $90 million dollars by the end of the OH-6A production run. All was not lost, though, since before the end of the decade, Hughes certified a civilian version of the Allison turbine-powered 369, renamed the 500 and 500C – the latter a more powerful utility version. Thus began the worldwide love affair with the esteemed "Flying Egg."

1970s and 1980s

MD530F Cayuse Warrior

In 1972, Howard Hughes sold off the Hughes Tool Co and combined other elements, including the Hughes Helicopter Division, into the Summa Corporation. That same year, they entered another US Army contract competition, this time for an Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH). Once again, the finalists were Hughes and Bell. This time, Hughes won in 1976 and the production of the AH-64 Apache began in 1982 at their new Mesa AZ facility. Concurrently, improvements were made to the 369/500 line.

The year 1976 saw the introduction of the 500D with a modified tail, quieter main rotors, beefed-up drivetrain, optional 4-bladed tailrotor, and a more powerful Allison 250-C20B engine. In 1982, the 500E was introduced with the biggest change being the new pointed nose, replacing the previous rounded-nose E model.

Several interior improvements were also made, including more space and improved soundproofing. 1985 welcomed the "Hot and High" version of the 500E, the 530F. Equipped with the more powerful Allison 250-C30B, it is still the best performing 500 model available.

After the disastrous attempt to save the 52 embassy staff being held during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980, the US Army recognized their need for better trained pilots and specialty aircraft to be used during such missions. This was the birth of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), known as the Night Stalkers.

Of the several types of helicopters flown, perhaps their most recognized is the MD Helicopters MH-6, or more commonly called, Little Bird. Originally a modified, armed version of the OH-6A, the current model MH-6M is based on the MD 530F, also modified with a 6-blade main rotor, 4-blade tail rotor, and other specifications – some classified.


As early as 1975, Hughes Aircraft began working on technology that would eliminate the tail rotor on a helicopter, with the benefits being a quieter aircraft with added safety. This system, which would use air blown down an enlarged tail section to provide anti-torque capabilities, was originally envisioned by helicopter pioneer Frank Piasecki. The inventor of the tandem rotor helicopter system used by modern day CH-46 Sea Knights and CH-47 Chinooks, Piasecki developed the tailrotor-less system in the 1940s for his PV-1 but it was deemed too complicated and abandoned.

Other companies attempted to advance the method but it was not until late 1981 that Hughes fitted the "NO TAilRotor" (NOTAR) system to an OH-6A for a successful first flight. More advanced prototypes flew in 1986 and production models were ready by the end of 1989. First deliveries of NOTAR helicopters were in December 1991. The single-engine MD520N and stretched-fuselage MD600N, along with the twin-engine MD900/901/902 series would all use this technology over the next 30 years.

In 1984, the Hughes Helicopter Division was sold to McDonnell Douglas for $470 million and renamed McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems. Then 2 years later, McDonnell Douglas sold the Model 300C to Schweizer Aircraft. This brought an end to the storied Hughes name and ushered in several years of triumphs and turmoil to the decades-old company.


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