Left: Painting of Sikorsky S55 G-ANUK touching down at Waterloo Air Terminal in 1955. Right: “Harold” as modelled for the TV Series.
The Sikorsky S55 helicopter from 1949 was one of the first commercially viable helicopters manufactured under licence in the UK by Westland, based out of Yeovil, who named it "Whirlwind". Westland produced several model variants of the S55, of which the "HAR" series used by the RN for Search and Rescue operations likely inspired Harold's moniker.
Harold's 1956 introduction in Percy the Small Engine has a historical basis. During the early 1950s, Lord Cherlwell (a.k.a. Frederick Lindermann) was then Prime Minister Winston Churchill's chief scientific advisor. The UK's post-war railways were in a sorry state and in need of modernization. Lord Cherlwell convinced Churchill not to invest monies into the nation's railways, going on record to say that they were "an obsolete form of transport". Cherlwell envisioned that motorways, aerodromes and personal helicopters were the future of civilian transportation. This vision of the future made the news, so Percy's race with Harold may have been in part to rebuff this. A sort of helicopter "craze" burgeoned in some parts of the Midlands as the British Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation encouraged municipalities to reserve parcels of land for the construction of future "helicopter stations". The enthusiasm of some municipal authorities wanting to be in the "flight-path" was greatest in areas with poor road and rail service.
Lord Cherwell's vision of future personal transport that would replace "obsolete" railways.
Just imagine the cost of insurance coverage!
The Whirlwind was recruited into many air forces around the world including the RAF, USAF and RN, but the example seen in the photo below is in the civilian colours of the now-defunct British European Airways (BEA). In July 1955, BEA ran a short-lived (10 months) air shuttle service with two S55s ferrying up to five passengers each between the London Airport (now Heathrow) and Waterloo Air Terminal, right next to the railway station. The scenic aerial route over the city covered 17.5 miles in 15 minutes, compared to the alternative hour's travel by coach through congested motorways and streets.
"Stupid thing", said Percy, "why can't it go and buzz somewhere else?"
~ Percy and Harold, Percy the Small engine (1956)
Percy's annoyance by Harold's loud buzzing was somewhat justified. There were complaints of chopper noise as the S55s flew over the city during early trial runs, especially over the Houses of Parliament and County Hall. In response, the Ministry of Supply tasked Westland to find a solution. Westland engineers innovated and fitted a prototype exhaust silencer (a.k.a. muffler) to the exterior of the BEA S55s. The silencer worked as promised, reducing the noise from an "uneven roar" to a "steady purr". This apparently satisfied the concerns of Sir Edward Boyle, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply, who took a ride in the aircraft during the silencer's test run. Westland refined and streamlined the muffler's design shortly thereafter, and the "Vokes Silencer" was incorporated into helicopter refits and builds.
BEA's S55 landing at Waterloo Airfield (© Britsh Pathé)
The BEA S55s were initially fitted with solid metal floats for emergency landings on the Thames, which closely resemble those of the early RWS illustrations of Harold by C.R. Dalby. It's worth noting that the landing wheels are still mounted separately on the BEA aircraft - a feature which Dalby simplified by incorporating them into the floats. Webmaster Martin Clutterbuck's sharp eyes vindicates Dalby to some degree, as seen in the photo below where the floats have been notched to accomodate the rear landing gear! The solid floats were considered too cumbersome and were subsequently replaced by floatation bags which allowed the weight of 2 additional passengers and the reduced drag increased the helicopter's speed by 10 m.p.h. As an aside, the American-built S55 variant H-19 “Chickasaw” rescue helicopter's metallic floats had integrated wheels on a frame similar to the TV model of Harold (see Revell model kit cover further down this page). The S55 is an unmistakable design, with the pilot's cabin on an upper deck with passenger space underneath in the solid, bulbous body and nose.
BEA's S55 undercarriage showing wheel and float detail (© Britsh Pathé)
The photos above were taken from a 1955 British Pathé newsreel which can be viewed on YouTube where you can see "Harold" in flight:
Stepping back a bit, in 1953, London Country Council (LCC), Chief Architect Dr. J. L. Martin proposed a major development of their South Bank property. One noteworthy suggestion was to adapt the roof of the Waterloo Station for helicopter landings. The proposal was met favorably, but recommended further studies of the roof's capacity to hold large helicopters. The project would have provided helicopter passengers with direct access to surface and underground rail and road facilities, as well as close spacing of BEA's helicopter and coach facilities. Interestingly, any of B.E.A.'s negotiations to build a heliport atop Waterloo Station would need to be conducted with the Railway Executive, with the M.T.C.A as intermediary. The grandiose plan was put to rest in 1957 when BEA relocated their South Bank air operations to the new West London Air Terminal. The photo below of the architectual model highlighting the proposed Waterloo Station roof heliport would have certainly come under the Rev. Awdry's notice!
Dashed lines on this architectural site model highlight the 1953 proposed Waterloo Station rooftop Heliport
Operating at a loss, BEA suspended the S55 helicopter shuttle service between London Airport and the South Bank indefinitely on May 4, 1956, pending the results of an investigation into an unrelated crash 4 days earlier of a Whirlwind in the New Forest Area, which claimed the lives of 4 people. In the end, the London Tube's Piccadilly Line was extended to Heathrow a good two decades later and remains the standard route into central London from Heathrow, so ironically, the train really did beat the helicopter.
Close-up of BEA G-ANUK with metal floats. © Flight Magazine, May 20, 1955
Westland S55 advert - note amphibious metal landing gear matching those of its American cousin, the
H-19 Chickasaw (pictured below) and close to Harold's TV counterpart. © Flight Magazine, July 9, 1954
US Navy S55 variant H-19 Chickasaw making an amphibious landing. (pic. fom Ebay listing)
Harold appeared in "Percy the Small Engine" (1956).
"Helicopters and the South Bank", Flight Magazine, 1953-10-23
"Silencer for Helicopter", The Times of London, 1955-01-22
"Quietening the Helicopter, The Times of London, 1955-01-25
"South Bank Trials". Flight Magazine, 1955-05-20
"Helicopter Line Opening". The Times of London, 1955-07-21
"Preparing for Helicopters". The Times of London, 1955-08-16
"By Helicopter to Town". The Times of London, 1955-10-17
"South Bank Helicopter Services Suspended", The Times of London, 1956-05-04
Early editions of Percy the Small Engine included a songsheet tune for Percy's "race" with Harold - lyrics written by the Rev. Awdry and put to music by an E. Trundle. Later editions only included the lyrics. Below is the songsheet for the musically inclined, contributed to TRLOTTTE with thanks by visitor Callum Walker. Callum found it included in The Rev. W. Awdry's Railway Stories - Six Stories in One (7-12) Yellow Book (listed in our Library page).
The December 23, 1950 Illustrated London News carried a series of adverts for the debutante S-55 as the "latest type of all-purpose helicopter" than can be used as a passenger-freight carrier, an air ambulance, and as a troop-carrier. The advert also touted the S-55s powerful hoist for heavy lifting at sea and airlift rescues in mountainous areas. The picture below showing the S-55's innards was taken from said advert.
This S-55 was aquired by the Thai Police Air Arm in 1954 and retired in 1966. Photo © Martin Clutterbuck 2009.
Correspondent Dave Moulton found this example on the US Coastguard webpages of an S-55 with floats - Hello there Harold!
BELOW: TRLOTTTE co-editor Jim Gratton had the good fortune of having two "Harolds" (variant S-55B) on site in Ontario during a government aerial spray program back in 1985. The aircraft were fitted with aerial spray booms which offered added application advantages over conventional fixed-wing aircraft..
Secondhand model feature
Airfix, maker of mostly 1/72 scale polystyrene aircraft kits, once made one of the Westland Whirlwind. Add floats, red stripe and a face...
Revell H-19 S-55 Helicopter with wheeled floats.
I bought the Airfix kit a while back, but I finally resolved to make good on my own suggestion. Of course it was not quite as straightfoward as it looked. Firstly I had to choose a reference picture and stick with it; this had to be the first picture when Percy meets Harold. This has the floats in a "trapezoid" side elevation rather than the "parallelograms" in the picture when he is in the air. Dalby isn't kind to the humans in Harold, because the cockpit windscreen is way too small and people in the hold are denied any kind of windows, although some prototype S-55s were indeed windowless. All the seating, controls, and pilots are painted black, because none of the interior can be seen in the original. Struts, wheels and rotor were also black, while everything else was white, spray-painted before assembly, with the hold windows in.
After it was mostly assembled, it was time to bid farewell to the Airfix instructions and have the reference picture open at the workspace on my phone. The red lines are HMRS "Pressfix" locomotive lining. I could see there was a level horizontal line from the tailplane to under the cockpit windows. At the front, I essayed the curve to go essentially parallel to the point of departure, as you can't see them on the front view picture, but after the front bulge, turned in slightly towards the centre. I was gratified to see that the TV model makers had interpreted this curve in a similar way. The name, perhaps in olden days done by Letraset, was a computer-generated sticker cut out and stuck on, with good luck the same scarlet red as the stripe. The main rotor goes around freely, while the tail rotor can be positioned if not freely rotated.
Then to the floats: cylindrical cross-section balsa wood, cut and shaped, made gaps for rear struts, then sanded and spray-painted. I'd hoped my Harold could actually float, as balsa is naturally bouyant, but the helicopter body with nose counterweight turned out to be just a mite too heavy.
Slots were carved out for the wheels, which were pushed in and superglued in situ. The bottom front strut is a cut down wooden toothpick, after deliberation a dummy top front strut was abandoned as too much risk to ruin the model. No landing gear frame as in the TV model and the real US Coastguard helicopter equipped with floats, which you'll also notice has a very prominent front strut right up to the window.
All struts and floats were glued simultaneously with poly cement at the back and superglue at the front. Then carefully shaped so the floats were parallel to the body, parallel to each other and down as far as they could go for the body to clear the ground, left to dry sitting on two balsa cylinders lashed together, and so eventually the floats were quite rigid. After a final retouching Harold was finished. It was decided no face would be added, to follow the style of the Rev Wilbert Awdry's own models of his characters, and give Testbedford Junction a civilian helicopter to use!
Just have to add another comment seeing JG's excellent discovery of the BEA shuttle above. It's obvious to me that this machine is Dalby's original model, because I had puzzled mightily over the utility of the floats and their weird shape, so a mere emergency precaution makes sense. The BEA livery is also similar to Harold's stripe, but Dalby had to fit a face in there somewhere. Just one more observation about wheels v. floats, again I'd puzzled over how the prototype nose wheels were much more inboard than the floats, although the back wheels quite fit into them, so now I have the answer..
New take-along model of Harold
Classic model of Harold
Bachmann model of Harold (42441)