Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America


Hal Symes, Pioneering Helicopter Pilot

Born Sept. 30, 1924, Symes served during World War II in the US Army Air Corps where he flew North American B-25 Mitchell bombers and served as an instructor; he retired from the US Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. The following summary is based on a 2011 press release from the Helicopter Association International (HAI).

After the war, Symes joined Bell Aircraft Corporation, working for founder Larry Bell, and logged time in Bell Model 47, serial number 1 (NC1H), the first licensed helicopter in the United States. He was the 26th helicopter pilot to be trained at Bell. Symes was among a group of pilots sent to Argentina to eradicate locusts. This was the first time helicopters were used for locust eradication missions; airplanes had been used since 1924. He then went to work for the US Forest Service in California, where he served on the first Forest Service contract. Following that he briefly went to work for Hiller, where he trained Whirly-Girl #7, Ethel Schafer, the first woman trained on a Hiller.

After Hiller, Symes went to work at Chicago Helicopter Airways alongside Wes Moore, with whom he had worked in Argentina. There he delivered mail to 28 cities around Chicago three times a day. A year later, the airline purchased S-55s and S-58s and he began flying passengers. He worked there for 17 years. He later went to work for Evergreen, where he demonstrated the commercial use of the S-64 Skycrane helicopter in construction. The first year at Evergreen, Symes arranged four helicopter construction projects, then 12 the next year and 16 the following year, working with Carson and St. Louis Helicopters on many of those projects. Some notable projects include taking down climbing cranes from the tops of buildings in Atlanta, setting electric transmission towers — one 150 miles above the Arctic Circle in Sweden — and setting twin TV towers on top of the 1,500-ft (460-m) high Sears Towers in downtown Chicago. He worked for Evergreen for 10 years.

Symes’ career included flying many famous people, including Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Other luminaries he transported include aviation entrepreneur Howard Hughes and radio/TV personality Arthur Godfrey.

Early helicopter pioneer Harold “Hal” Warren Symes passed away on Oct. 8, 2023, at 99 years of age. He flew for Bell Aircraft, Hiller and Sikorsky, and was later the chief pilot for Chicago Helicopter Airways.

Society Update: Vertiflite, January/February 2024