Frank H. Duke, Boeing Test Pilot, Reaches New Speeds
By Martin J. “Marty” Pociask
Frank H. Duke began his aviation career flying for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, beginning first with fixed-wing aircraft and later helicopters. During his career with Boeing as a test pilot, he flew four “First Flights.” Those flights included the Boeing research helicopter designated the Model 347, the YUH 61A, and the Model 360.
“See Your Recruiter”
Duke grew up in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania. After graduating high school in 1949, he drifted for a year, working as a carpenter’s helper, until his parents forced the issue and enrolled him at the Pennsylvania State College.
Duke’s mother died in his freshman year of college, which he describes as “a crushing blow.” Because of his absences during her illness and funeral, Duke missed too many classes and failed to pass calculus.
To make up the class, he had to attend summer school. This entailed a grueling schedule of getting up before sunrise, then taking a series of train, subway, and bus rides, and finishing up with a mile-walk to the classroom — five days a week. Duke passed Calculus I, and the instructor recommended that all the students take Calculus II. Duke passed that class as well, which meant that he had 62 college credits.
During his travel to his summer school class, Duke had seen a future for himself in a subway poster. “I saw an ad showing a navy pilot climbing into the cockpit of a jet fighter. ‘See Your Recruiter’ were the keywords, and see a recruiter I did!”
The recruiter told him that 60 college credits were required to apply. Thanks to that extra calculus class, Duke had 62. After passing the required physical and aptitude tests, he left Penn State and enlisted in the navy.
Duke’s initial training as a naval aviation cadet was in Pensacola, Florida. He soloed in the North American SNJ, the navy’s designation for the North American T 6 Texan. The student pilot sat in the front, and the instructor was seated in the rear.
After primary flight school, Duke was assigned to advanced flight school in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he met lifelong friends.
After completing flight training, all navy aviation cadets were given the option to serve in the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps. Duke opted for the navy, but then was crushed to be assigned to fly the PBY, a seaplane nicknamed the pigboat.
No cadet had volunteered for this unglamorous mission, so paper chits were placed in a hat, and the cadets drew their assignment. “My cadet buddy picked fighters and was given a pilot’s crash helmet while I was issued sunglasses and a ball cap!” says Duke.
Duke spent the next week trying to get a transfer to fighter jets, but no dice. Then he got lucky. Two weeks into Duke’s seaplane training, another student was recalled to his duty station, leaving an open slot at the All Weather Flight School. Duke was reassigned to that slot, flying twin-engine SNBs, the navy’s version of the Beechcraft Model 18. He also flew the Douglas A 1 Skyraider.
After completing his flight training, Duke chose to fly for the marines rather than the navy. “I resented seeing my career path selected by chits drawn from a hat, so I opted for a commission in the marine corps. I was accepted and pinned with second lieutenant bars and navy wings of gold.”
After commissioning, Duke took some time off to return to Pennsylvania and marry Betty Betham, his longtime girlfriend. The two recently celebrated their 63rd year of marriage.
The newly married Dukes next moved to USMC Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. There the two enjoyed great camaraderie with other pilots and their wives while Duke transitioned to jet fighters in the Grumman F9F 2 Panther. He was next assigned to a fighter squadron flying the McDonnell F2H 4 Banshee.
As the Korean Conflict wound down, so did the need for fighter pilots. Soon, with no pilots leaving for Korea, but with newly commissioned pilots arriving from training, Duke’s squadron was overstaffed, and both pilot flight time and morale took a dive.
“Fighter Pilots Don’t Fly Helicopters”
Duke had already decided that he would not be a career marine officer and felt there was a future for helicopters, so he volunteered for helicopter pilot training. “My CO thought I had lost my mind,” says Duke. “’Fighter pilots don’t fly helicopter,’ he said.”
Duke returned to Pensacola for helicopter pilot training, where he flew four different models, including single rotor and syncopter. He then was sent to the Marine Corps Air Facility in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where he was a transport pilot flying the Sikorsky HRS (the marine corps variant of the H 19 Chickasaw).
By this time, Duke’s four-year obligation to the marines was coming to an end. Convinced that he should complete his college education, Duke elected to leave the marines. He also briefly considered a career in the airlines, but instead he and Betty returned to Pennsylvania.
Betty found work, and Duke was hired by the Piasecki Aircraft Corporation as a student engineer, working part-time. Duke supplemented the family’s meagre finances by flying the Grumman F9F 7 swept-wing Cougar and the HUP 2 helicopter as a “weekend warrior” at the nearby Willow Grove Naval Air Station.
After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, Duke accepted a job with Piasecki as a full-time engineer. Shortly after that, he was contacted by Kaman Aircraft Corporation in Connecticut about a test pilot position.
Eager to get back into the cockpit, Duke accepted the job without even knowing the salary and was assigned to work on the contract to build a new Navy helicopter, the SH 2 Seasprite. “The work schedule was very demanding,” says Duke. “On many days, I commuted to work in the morning with my headlights on … and returned home at night the same way. But the dedication and loyalty of my fellow employees was outstanding, and never duplicated by any company.”
“A Test Pilot with a Great Company”
After one year at Kaman, Duke was contacted by Boeing Helicopters, which now owned Piasecki Aircraft, and asked if he would like to return as a test pilot.
Duke initially worked on the U.S. Marine Corps CH 46 Sea Knight project there. In 1962, he was sent to the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School. After that, he was appointed senior project test pilot on the CH 46 program. In this job, Duke was responsible for all Boeing test pilot activity for the program.
“During this period, I conducted most of the flights required to demonstrate specification compliance and structural airworthiness.” he says. “This required putting the aircraft into dives, pullouts, ‘hard’ landings, and flight conditions more rigorous than those anticipated to be flown by marine corps and navy pilots. Included in this testing was an unprecedented requirement to autorotate the helicopter to water of sea state 3 (2-to-3-foot waves, scattered whitecaps) with neither engine providing power, without supplemental flotation devices, and do it five times!”
Four First Flights
Duke made four first flights in his Boeing career, including piloting the YUH-61A helicopter in a competition to replace the UH-1H Huey.
In the late 1970s, Duke flew the first flight in a Boeing research helicopter, the Model 347, a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook derivative. The improvements included a stretched fuselage and increasing the height of the aft pylon to allow for four-bladed rotors to replace the Chinook’s three-bladed configuration, advanced geometry rotor blade tips, retractable landing gear, increased soundproofing, and a state-of-the-art avionics suite.
“On the first forward flight, my co-pilot and I flew the aircraft to its maximum-level flight speed of approximately 170 mph, limited only by the drive system torque limit. The 347 was truly a pilot’s helicopter,” Duke says.
Duke was also the first pilot to fly the winged Model 347. “The added wing was positioned vertically for hover and slow forward flight, to mimimize the penalty that resulted from impingement of rotor wash in a horizontal position,” Duke says. “As the aircraft accelerated, the wing rotated down to the conventional horizontal position to enhance maneuverability and relieve the rotor of in-flight structural loads.”
In the early 1980s, Duke was promoted to director of Boeing’s Flight Test Department, responsible for test engineers, instrumentation engineers, and test pilots. Most importantly, in that position, he could continue as a test pilot.
Duke’s fourth first flight was in the Boeing Model 370, a research aircraft built almost entirely of composite materials. During testing, Duke and his copilot flew the helicopter in excess of 245 mph, which at that time was believed to be the fastest speed of any U.S. helicopter.
The Test Pilot’s Motto
Duke retired from Boeing after 32 years with the company. Describing Boeing as a great company to work for, Duke enjoyed the worldwide travel associated with his duties there. He also got to work with industry figures such as Charles Kaman, Chuck Ellis, Bill Murray, Al Newton, Leonard LaVassar, and Bill Peck.
Duke’s three children followed their father into aviation: his two sons, Frank and David, both became pilots, and his daughter, Karin, is a former flight attendant.
Duke has some advice for young men and women considering a career in helicopter aviation. “Realize that not everything in life will go according to plan. Stay positive and do not become discouraged.” He cites a favorite quotation: “It is easy enough to be pleasant when life flows along like a song … but the one worthwhile is the one who can smile when everything goes dead wrong.” A good motto for a test pilot!
Martin J. Pociask is curator for Helicopter Foundation International.