Bruce Del Mar

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2012 by hillermuseum

A Voice From California’s Golden Age of Aviation

by Jon Welte

In the mid 1940s, a young Stanley Hiller Jr. and his father traveled from the Bay Area toSanta Monica,California, home of Donald Douglas and the Douglas Aircraft Company. 

Hiller had recently built and tested the XH-44 helicopter, and sought to consult withDouglason the prospects for creating the West Coast’s first helicopter factory.

Douglasassigned Bruce Del Mar, one of his promising young engineers, to meet with Hiller and review his designs.  The meetings between the two were brief, but marked an intersection of two remarkable careers in aviation.

DelMar had aNorthern Californiaconnection himself, having received a degree in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley in 1937.  He had spent several school vacations working for Donald Douglas and quickly accepted a full time position at the Douglas Aircraft Company upon graduation. DelMar’s first projects helped facilitate the testing and certification of the epochal DC-3 airliner then entering production, but he quickly took on greater responsibilities onDouglas’ next project, the four-engined DC-4.

Designed as a larger, faster, more powerful successor to the workhorse DC-3, the newDouglasaircraft would operate best at altitudes too high for human passengers to breathe safely.  Del Mar was tasked with leading the development of a cabin air pressurization system for the new plane that would allow both passengers and crew to fly in shirt-sleeve comfort at altitudes up to 22,000’.  Although pressurized aircraft had been built before, the DC-4 would be the first pressurized passenger airliner to see large-scale production.  The innovative cabin pressurization system developed by Del Mar’s team was highly successful, and royalties from the patents—shared by Douglas with his engineers as a matter of policy—helped enable Del Mar to establish his own design lab.

In 1952,DelMar ended a 15-year relationship with the Douglas Aircraft Company and founded Del Mar Engineering Laboratories.  Del Mar Engineering evolved into a design and manufacture center for a variety of niche products.  The company achieved notable success building towed gunnery targets for use in military training exercises, which led to construction of a new factory borderingLos AngelesInternationalAirport. 

By the early 1960s, demand for military helicopter pilot training had expanded dramatically. DelMar responded with an innovative solution:  the Del Mar DH-2 Whirlymite.  Remarkably, while the DH-2 was designed for the training mission, it carried only a single student pilot.  For most missions, the small turbine-powered aircraft would be bolted to a large hovercraft-type platform beneath it.  Exhaust gas from the helicopter’s engine was diverted to the hover platform, which was chained to the ground.  The student pilot could then safely fly solo, able to practice hovering and other basic maneuvers extensively without risk of crashing the aircraft.  Five DH-2s were built and delivered to the military as trainers.

The DH-2 was employed more widely as a remotely operated target drone for experiments in aerial gunnery.  The basic DH-2 aircraft was modified for radio-controlled operation, and the structure enclosed in a 7/16th scale shell of a Bell UH-1 transport helicopter of the type used extensively by the US Army in the 1960s.  The exterior shells were equipped with sensors able to detect impacts from small arms fire, and the helicopters then flew in a series of tests to predict the ability of a full-sized helicopter to operate successfully in a hostile environment.

The ultimate evolution of theDelMar helicopters was the tandem-rotor DH-20.  Conceived as a super-portable medical evacuation helicopter, the DH-20 was powered by twin turbine engines and designed to carry a pilot and two passengers, or a pilot and one passenger in a litter.  Remarkably, the entire helicopter was able to fold up for ground, sea or air transport, and was capable of operating in and out of far smaller landing zones than a traditional helicopter.  As testing of the DH-20 continued, however, the requirement for such missions declined, and the aircraft was never put into production or flown operationally.

Although the DH-20 was the last helicopter designed by Del Mar Engineering, the company continued to grow as an increasingly capable fabricator of highly specialized machinery.  In the late 1960s,DelMar began production of high-capacity hydraulic lifts capable of moving multi-ton payloads with unprecedented precision.  These lifts proved particularly useful toAmerica’s space program; a set of three is used to precisely lift NASA space shuttle orbiters on and off of their Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, and individual lifts are used to move satellites and launch vehicle components throughout the space industry.

Today, Del Mar Engineering and a sister company, Del Mar Avionics, are located in a facility inIrvine,Californiaoriginally built to fabricate wings for the Concorde supersonic transport project.  The company’s primary focus has shifted to medical monitoring devices, but tucked amid its offices and factory floors a place was reserved to preserve its history.  Beautifully restored by a group of veteranDelMar engineers, a DH-2 and the only DH-20 ever built have been on display for fortunate staff, customers, and other visitors.

This year, theHillerAviationMuseumwelcomes the generous donation of both of these unique rotorcraft by Bruce Del Mar.  Delivery is expected in the first quarter of 2012, with the helicopters to be placed on display shortly thereafter.  Come to see these innovative and distinctive vehicles first hand, and discover a lesser-known piece ofCalifornia’s aviation heritage. 


1000 Aircraft Photos.  Downloaded 1 February 2012

DelMar Avionics.  Downloaded 1 February 2012

Bruce DelMar.  Ready for Takeoff, 2010.


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