STORY BY ELISABETH ALTAMIRANO-SMITH
PHOTOS BY JOYANNA LOVE AND CONTRIBUTED
Whether watching an action movie on television, taking an aerial tour on vacation or seeing old military documentaries, helicopters have always been a focal point for inspiring adrenaline and action. Clanton resident Ken Gilliland’s specialty is restoring Bell 47 helicopters. Bell 47 helicopters were instrumental during the Korean and Vietnam wars and have now become a popular item among aircraft collectors.
Gilliland’s initial interest in aviation began during his United States Air Force career. He was drafted during the Vietnam War operating F101 and F233 fixed-wing aircrafts. He also served in Operation Desert Storm before retiring in 1992.
After retirement, Gilliland took on the project of rebuilding a helicopter in Selma. Although he had no prior knowledge or history with helicopters, he purchased a repair manual and taught himself how to rebuild them.
“I got a manual on schematics,” said Gilliland. “If you have the aptitude to understand schematics, you can pretty much do anything.”
One of the unique differences in the Bell 47 comparably to a modern helicopter is the 50-DASH propeller, which is made of wood. Although prone to moisture absorption, the wooden propellers can last forever if oiled and maintained, whereas metal blade propellers get stress cracks, corrode and need replacing after so many hours.
“The older helicopters were built to last,”
Gilliland said. “Everything is welded and more reliable. The electronics are magnetos, which is old technology and extremely reliable. If you lose a magneto mid-flight, you still have another sparkplug to use for back up. These Bell 47s are like old Harley Davidsons. They are hard to start and leak oil, but once they start they’ll run forever.”
After Gilliland’s initial helicopter repair, he sold it and decided that he would continue repairing helicopters until he could purchase one for himself.
“I got two more helicopters to rebuild,” Gilliland said. “After rebuilding 10, I bought one for myself.”
Collectors and law enforcement throughout the Southeast have contracted Gilliland for rebuilding helicopters. Other locations he has rebuilt helicopter components for include Texas, Arizona, Puerto Rico and England. After being recommended by Bell and Coastal Helicopters, Gilliland was a part of the restoration of two helicopters for the Valiant Air Command Inc. Warbird Museum, which are currently on display in Titusville, Florida.
Melvin Juhl of Valiant Air Command Inc. Warbird Museum said Gilliland “has been critical” to getting the helicopters flying again.
He has worked on components and served as a consultant throughout the project.
“The man is unbelievable,” Juhl said. “He got me through a lot of problems with the helicopters.”
One of the helicopters is now flying, and the other is nearing completion.
Gilliland’s restorations have also led to city and State of Alabama Legislature declarations commending his work, as well as being named the Federal Aviation Administration-Southeast, Technician of the Year.
“I enjoy rebuilding helicopters,” said Gilliland. “If I have a truckload of parts and six months, I can build something that I can sit in and fly. That is a great feeling!”
Gilliland has also taught roto-craft and fixed-wing aviation to students. He currently flies a fixed-wing Cessna 182 for the Forestry Department, where he and students survey forests for pine beetles, storm damage and fire patrols.
“I am equally proud of my students,” said Gilliland. “Some of my former students are flying for airlines, flying for the FBI and have engineering degrees. I have always wanted to do something to make a difference and be remembered, and I am doing that.”