Gregory, H. Franklin "Frank"
Perhaps no military officer has been more influential in the trajectory of rotorcraft development than Hollingsworth Franklin “Frank” Gregory (1906-1978). Though his rotorcraft career spanned a mere nine years, from 1935 to 1944, he oversaw the initial definition of military rotorcraft requirements and the development of core technologies from inventor’s folly to battlefield operations. His first assignment was to evaluate direct control autogiros for the Army Air Corps, starting in 1935. This position eventually evolved into responsibility for the Army Air Forces Material Division rotorcraft development program at Wright Field. Gregory’s career as a test pilot was remarkable in itself, but it was as a program manager and bureaucrat that truly secured the prominence of his place in rotorcraft history.
Gregory’s legacy can be considered in four segments. First, beginning in 1935, he brought a problem-plagued autogiro program to national prominence and successfully bridged the great gulf between ardent advocates for autogiros and the realities of the battlefield. This program was unsuccessful in terms of yielding an operational capability, but it was critical in several respects. It allowed the Air Corps to become comfortable with rotary wing technology as a practical, if not operationally viable, form of flight and provided a grounding in rotorcraft theory, development, production, training and operations that would later be critical. The program originated out of the desire of Army ground arms (infantry, cavalry, coast artillery, etc.) to have an observation platform that could operate from unimproved environments with a minimum of effort. Air Corps leadership resisted the program because it was contrary to an organizational emphasis on rapid growth of performance parameters and a low-speed aircraft with minimal payload held little interest. This bureaucratic environment would have been a dead end position for many program managers, but Gregory successfully straddled the divide by performing service tests that validated the Army ground arm requirements and demonstrated the potential and unique capabilities of rotary wing aircraft, as well as revealing the underlying flaws in the autogiro in terms of performance and potential for growth. Gregory’s testing revealed ground resonance as a particular weakness of existing autogiro designs and helped spur critical NACA research into the matter. He also established an autogiro school that trained the first generation of Army rotary wing pilots and mechanics. By 1938, Gregory had transcended his test pilot role and had become the principal agent of U.S. government policy towards rotorcraft development.
While the Air Corps was entering the rotary wing field, the Navy was divesting itself of the technology on the basis of its earlier negative assessment of autogiro potential, making the Air Corps the de facto government entity with a dedicated interest in rotary wing development (the NACA and Department of Agriculture also had an experimental interest at this time). When Congressional hearings for a government bailout of the politically well-connected autogiro industry began in 1937 – the so-called ‘Dorsey Bill’ hearings – Gregory took center stage in what would become his second great legacy. He maneuvered the initial $2M appropriation (later cut to $300,000) away from dedicated sponsorship of autogiros to a broader application in rotorcraft development. Aware of the autogiro’s limited potential for further development and the promising trials of helicopters occurring in France and Germany, Gregory saw an emphasis on the helicopter as means of putting the problematic autogiro program ultimately to bed while perhaps getting an aircraft with far more military utility. He also negotiated full responsibility for rotorcraft development with the Dorsey funds under the auspices of the Air Corps. This placed him as the sole arbiter for the future of the American rotorcraft industry as there were virtually no commercial prospects at the time for future rotorcraft development.
Thirdly, as Gregory began formulating a requirement for a rotorcraft development program that was to satisfy needs ranging from forestry to Air Mail, he established a set of requirements that definitively favored the helicopter over the autogiro by establishing the ability to take off over a fifty-foot obstacle in zero length as a critical performance requirement. This set the stage for a 1940 contract award for the first U.S. government helicopter program since 1922, which went to Platt-LePage Aircraft, who had submitted a Focke Fw 61 inspired design. However, the company proved incapable of effectively managing the program. By the time of the first flight of the newly designated XR-1 in 1941, Gregory’s concern over the prospects of the program caused him to give new attention to the runner up in the original competition, Vought-Sikorsky, which was testing the VS-300 of Igor Sikorsky’s design. With a supplementary $60,000 in seed money from the Air Corps, Gregory authorized Sikorsky to pursue a militarized evolution of the VS-300. The resulting XR-4 immediately eclipsed the faltering XR-1 in early 1942 and gave Gregory hope that his desires for a militarily viable rotorcraft had been met. This event combined with strong British enthusiasm for acquiring Sikorsky helicopters via lend-lease for fighting U-boats allowed Gregory to persuade the commander of the Army Air Forces, General H. H. Arnold, to enter full production of the R-4 series for service test and training, as well as rapid development of utility models, without having had a full evaluation program for the helicopter. Gregory’s supervision of this program led to a rapid expansion of Wright Field’s fledgling rotary-wing branch, which came to oversee wartime development of types ranging from the XR-1 to Kellett’s promising, but ultimately flawed, XR-10 transport along with two autogiro reboots (the XO-60 and XO-61). Ultimately, only Sikorsky’s R-4, R-5 and R-6 series proved worthy of production, and though beset by a long string of engineering and manufacturing challenges, more than three hundred aircraft were accepted by war’s end with several dozen being sent to support Army Air Forces operations in the Pacific and CBI.
While running the Wright Field development program, Gregory found time to serve as the principal test pilot for Sikorsky’s XR-4 for trials ranging from depth bomb delivery, hydrophone trials and shipboard landings. He played a central role in defining helicopter pilot and maintainer training programs. He also managed rotary wing procurement for other government entities and allied nations, most notably the U.S. Coast Guard and the United Kingdom. By January 1945, Gregory was reassigned to operational duties with the Army Air Forces in the Pacific theater and left the rotary wing field. As he arrived in theater for his new assignment the helicopters he brought to fruition were arriving in the Far East for the first routine helicopter combat deployments. Gregory continued his career in the Air Force in a variety of technical development and administrative roles, including heading the Office of Scientific Research and serving as air attaché to France, until his retirement as Brigadier General in 1958. H. F. Gregory passed away on November 22, 1978 at the age of 72.
Source: AHS History Committee