Ostermans AERO – Sweden’s first helicopters

In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, company director Lennart Osterman found the Aero Service AB company. To start with this was not a particularly successful enterprise, but in 1946 this all changed and Aero Service AB began to make its mark on Swedish aviation history.

In 1946 the helicopter was still a very new aviation phenomenon, and relatively untested in military service. The Bell 47 had first felt air under its rotor as recently as December 8th 1945, but Bell worked quickly, and managed to get the Bell 47 approved for civilian use by March 1946. This was a smart move, since its competitor Sikorsky had established co-operation with the American military which supported Sikorsky’s development work. The interest in Bell’s new machine quickly spread all over the world, which had gradually begun to recover after the devastating war.

Lennart Osterman was one of those who noticed the Bell 47 and in November 1946, just one year after its first flight, Osterman took delivery of Sweden’s first helicopter, a Bell 47B. At the same time, his company also became the general agency for Bell Aircraft in Sweden and in connection with this changed its name to Ostermans Aero AB. Osterman’s thereby became the first purchaser and operator of the Bell 47 outside the USA.

In this way, the helicopter came into Sweden at a relatively early date, and thereby Osterman rapidly acquired detailed knowledge of helicopter services. This experience would prove vital when the defence services started to become interested in helicopters.

Osterman’s first ever Bell 47, a Bell 47B. This helicopter type has still not been equipped with the familiar bubble nose.

In service with the army

The Korean War was closely followed by the Swedish defence services, perhaps most of all in respect of the air battles between the MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre. The MiG-15 was the opponent that one could expect to meet in the event of war, and all the information that could be obtained regarding its capabilities was naturally of great interest. However even military helicopter operations during that War aroused curiosity, although not amongst the Swedish Air Force, that showed one could say at least a weak interest in helicopters. But the Swedish Army had taken on board how useful helicopters had been for carrying wounded soldiers rapidly to field hospitals behind the front line so that their lives could be saved, which would not have been the case if they were transported using traditional methods. The time factor was crucial.

At the Svea training regiment at Linköping an exercise took place in 1953 whereby one of Osterman’s Bell 47s participated, having been hired by the Ministry of Defence. The test went well, although it also showed how vulnerable a helicopter could be if the enemy’s airborne fighters had command of the air. It was just this perceived weakness that contributed to the Swedish Air Force’s firm resistance to the helicopter. Nevertheless this exercise did mean that the Bell 47 was the first helicopter to be used by the Swedish military, even though it had been hired. As the Army’s interest grew, another exercise took place at T1 in 1955, whereby Osterman’s also participated, this time with a Sikorsky S-55.

The Swedish Navy also used Osterman’s to evaluate the helicopter and showed a great deal of interest. The Bell 47 could be equipped with inflatable floats, and these helicopters were manoeuvrable enough to be able to land on simple platforms on the Navy’s cruisers and destroyers.

An Osterman’s Bell 47 approaches to land on one of the cruiser HMS Tre Kronor’s (HMS Three Crowns) gun turrets in 1954. Photograph Marinmuseum

In 1956 the Swedish Army decided to test the capability of helicopters in the area of Norrland, where the large and desolate countryside and paucity of roads meant that the ability of helicopters should be even more valuable. Once again it was the S S-55 that came along, and the Army was positively surprised by how well the helicopter managed to operate in the North Swedish winter climate. This laid the foundation for more extensive testing.

Between the 4th and 12th of March 1957 a major exercise took place in the North of Sweden, and this time the helicopter was tried out on a large scale. Ostermans Aero now took part with one S-55 and no less than three Bell 47s, which together amounted to a temporarily assembled helicopter unit. Despite the fierce cold, the helicopter met or even exceeded all expectations. They were used for liaison between units, for reconnaissance of movement routes and assembly areas, and on a large scale for transport of wounded and sick personnel.

In November 1957 proposals for the future organisation of the Army’s helicopter assets were presented to the Chief of Staff. Investigations continued and the plans solidified into acquiring the Bell 47 and Sikorsky S-55 for future use by the Swedish Army and Navy. In the Norrbotten district, in what would become the Norrbotten Army Aviation Battalion helicopter pilot training was carried out in 1958-1959, using the Bell 47.

However it was not the Bell 47 that was acquired. Instead the newer and more capable Alouette II that came on the scene and entered the Army and Navy as the Type 2 helicopter (Hkp 2). Nevertheless Osterman’s Bell 47s did come to play a very important part in the growth and development of Swedish military aviation. The fact that it was the more modern Alouette II that was acquired was in fact forward thinking and would be shown to have been a good choice. But it was the Osterman’s Bell 47s that formed the basis of helicopter operations by the defence forces, in both the Swedish Army and Navy. It could be said that during the 1950s Ostermans constituted the Swedish defence’s contracted helicopter force.

The police begin to fly

In June 1964 the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, made a state visit to Sweden, which necessitated comprehensive preparations. State Secretary and future National Police Chief Carl G. Persson was in a big hurry and the pressure on him from above was enormous. The Prime Minister himself, the well known Tage Erlander, had had made it perfectly obvious that everything would have to mesh perfectly, to 100%. Security would have to be absolute and nothing at all must go wrong! This was a tall order to live up to, but of course Khrushchev was the leader of a superpower with which Sweden had to say the least a complicated relationship.

An advantage for the police was however that since Erlander put such a great emphasis on the visit he also agreed that the police could have just about anything they desired in order to perform their tasks and to guarantee security. Carl G. Persson now decided to institute helicopter operations within the police force. And he knew exactly who to ask to become Sweden’s first flying policemen, namely Gert Skogberg.

Gert Skogberg was a policeman in Stockholm, but was also enormously interested in aviation. He had a private pilot’s licence and had very early on realised how useful helicopters could be for police work. So at his own expense he had also gained a helicopter licence and begun to perform a number of flights for the National Police force. So when Carl G. Persson turned to him with the question of whether he could give a lecture to important state figures on the possibility of helicopters contributing to the Khrushchev visit, Gert Skogberg volunteered. He made sure that he was well prepared, and once again Ostermans Aero helped and supported him by making cost calculations before the lecture.

The result was a decision to immediately procure a helicopter for the Swedish police and so from March 1, 1964 an aviation department was set up for the Swedish police. Their helicopter turned out to be a second-hand Bell 47-G2 that was purchased by a businessman in Kungsbacka, once again via Ostermans Aero, at a cost of SEK 300,000. It was obvious who would be the first police pilot, namely the deeply involved Gert Skogberg.

Thus was founded Swedish police aviation, with a second-hand helicopter, flown by an enthusiast. The state visit was successful and it was soon apparent that there would be another major task during which having police in the air would be a major advantage. Car traffic had increased dramatically after the war and traffic surveillance needed to be strengthened. In addition, Sweden would carry out a major traffic reform in 1967; the switch from right-hand to left-hand driving.

However police aviation received government support and not least from the otherwise parsimonious finance minister Gunnar Sträng. The strength of the force thereby grew to four Bell47s, which in summer was reinforced by, among other things, Ministry of Defence helicopters to keep a check on holiday traffic.

However in 1967, the same year as the change to right-hand driving, a replacement for the Bell 47 was being sought. This type was after all an old design that left a great deal to be desired in respect of load capacity and engine power. It was the Bell 206 Jet Ranger that was selected to be the main helicopter for the police in future. But the Bell 47 would continue to be used for monitoring traffic up to 1989, when it was transferred to become a training helicopter for police aviation. When in the end the Bell Jet Ranger took over the training role, one example of the Bell 47 was retained and continues to fly as a veteran. It is this one that is now inside the Aeroseum.