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Whirlybird

Monroe remembers an early helicopter enthusiast

Whirlybird

Biedenharn Museum and Gardens

B. W. Biedenharn flying his helicopter at the Monroe Civic Center.

Imagine a helicopter landing on Interstate 20 on a Saturday afternoon in the early 1960s. As reported in a Monroe paper, the “pilot lowered his helicopter to the I-20 bridge near the end of one of the ramps at S. 5th Street. He rested there a few minutes like some giant insect, then trundled down to the end before taking off into the air.” At the time, most Monrovians would have known the pilot was Bernard William Biedenharn.

Born in 1907, Biedenharn was the youngest son of Anne and Joseph A. Biedenharn, the first bottler of Coca-Cola. The movement of his feet was limited after he was stricken by polio when he was eight years old; however, this disability did little to slow him down. Among many other accomplishments, Biedenharn graduated from Princeton University in 1930, served as president of the Ouachita Candy Company and chairman of the board of the Ouachita Coca-Cola Bottling Company, and ardently supported the local Boys and Girls Club and the Dixie Youth sports programs. He was among the first stockholders in Delta Airlines and served on their board of directors from 1967 to 1986. Fittingly, Biedenharn purchased the first privately owned plane in Monroe in 1930.

After examining a helicopter close-up at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Biedenharn visited Bell Helicopters in Fort Worth. He quickly acquired his helicopter pilot license in 1962, and purchased a Bell 47G-2A helicopter, thus becoming, at fifty-five years old, the first North Louisiana resident to privately own a helicopter. Biedenharn installed a helipad behind his home and was known to fly to business meetings in Monroe and for pleasure. A September 1963 article describes him giving helicopter rides at the Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home, stating, “For more than three hours on three separate afternoons, Biedenharn piloted [his three-passenger helicopter], taking aloft for the first time about 140 residents of the Home.”

Versions of the Bell 47 are known to many as the Army medical helicopters featured in the CBS series M*A*S*H. Whirlybirds, a late-1950s syndicated TV show, also showcased Bell 47s. Biedenharn’s helicopter #N73257 was also featured on the small screen during a broadcast of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which first aired on NBC Sunday, October 24, 1965. In a forty-second segment early in the episode, titled “Bayou Backwaters,” the helicopter, with Biedenharn at the controls, deposits host Marlin Perkins on a sand bar to be picked up by co-host Jim Fowler as they begin their journey into the uncharted, moss-covered silence of a Louisiana bayou. Much of the footage was shot on Biedenharn’s property a few miles southwest of Monroe, and some of the captured animals were borrowed from the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo. (You can view the episode by searching “Bayou Backwaters” on YouTube; Biedenharn’s helicopter arrives around 3 minutes and 15 seconds into the show.)

You can view artifacts from Biedenharn’s life, including photos of his helicopter, at the Coke Museum at the Biedenharn Museum and Gardens in Monroe, Louisiana. For more information, including operating hours, visit bmuseum.org.