TNB Night Owl – The Winnebago Heli-Camper

A Winnebago Heli-Camper. Image captured by the News Blender.

Founded in 1958, Winnebago was a popular and very successful recreational vehicle maker in the sixties and seventies. It was impossible to drive down any highway in the summertime without seeing at least one of their iconic motorhomes rambling down the road. The big beasts sucked gasoline “like it was goin’ outta style” (as people used to say). Gas was cheap, and gas mileage really didn’t matter to anyone that could afford a Winnebago.

The summer of ’73 was the last hurrah for gas guzzlers. That October, OPEC began the infamous oil embargo that brought down the curtain for big luxury sedans, muscle cars, and motorhomes. Winnebago sales plummeted as gas prices skyrocketed. You’d probably guess that, like automakers of the time, a company that manufactured ginormous boxes on wheels powered by big block V8 engines of the maximum-cubic-inch variety would do everything they could to build products that made more efficient use of gasoline, starting with building smaller RVs. Welp, that did happen eventually – but first they went in the sky-is-the-limit direction.

In need of a rabbit to pull out of their collective hats, the head honchos counter-intuitively went big instead of small. If a full-size RV was a dream machine, the next best thing was a dream machine that could fly: the Winnebago Heli-Camper (later called the Heli-Home).

Beginning in 1975 Winnebago partnered with Florida-based Orlando Helicopter Airways, a company that specialized in buying military-surplus helicopters and converting them for civilian use. Affluent Winnebago customers could choose between Siksorky S-55 or S-58 helicopters, with either an 800 or 1,525 horsepower radial piston engine. These motors were “maintenance intensive” however, so a popular third powerplant option was the “Twin-Pack”, a pair of gas turbine engines that were less expensive to operate but cost more upfront and could only be had if the customer ordered the S-58. The machines typically gulped 75 gallons per hour, and cruised at just a bit over 100mph, so a destination a couple hundred miles away would cost you several hundred dollars in gas round trip. Another option was pontoons (floats) in place of wheels, so you could set down on water if no clearing was available on land; your flying camper then became a houseboat!

The conversion from military utility workhorse to luxury RV cost the buyer, depending on options, anywhere from $185,000 to $300,000 – in 1977 dollars. That’s equivalent to about a million or more in today’s dollars. If that was out of your price range, but you just had to have one for that special camping trip, you could rent it for $10,000 per week (cost of pilot and fuel not included).

Inside, the freshly renovated and fully carpeted cabin (excluding cockpit) was only about 115 square feet. That’s about the size of an 11×11 foot suburban bedroom of the era. That’s pretty small for an RV that sleeps six persons, especially when you consider what else was crammed in there: every amenity customers could expect to find in a ground-bound Winnebago, including an “electric range, sink, fridge, couches, eight-track tape deck, television, generator, twin water heaters, parquet-topped dinette tables, mini-bar, air conditioner, furnace, shower, and bathroom with holding tanks”, according to Air & Space magazine.

Despite the luxuries and prestige that came with ownership, the Heli-Home wasn’t a best seller. It did make for a great marketing vehicle, though, that bought Winnebago alot of publicity and brand awareness through magazine articles, television reports, and RV trade show appearances. It also drew people to Winnebago dealerships like a magnet whenever a Heli-Home stopped by for a visit. In total, only eight conversions were ever sold. All of those Siksorkys are still flying today, but every one of them has since been converted to some other purpose. There are no more Winnebago flying RVs left.

“70s Tech: Winnebago’s Heli-Home!” (0:30):

“Winnebago’s amazing flying motorhomes” (3:12):

Question Of The Night: When you go camping, do you sleep under the stars, in a tent, in a cabin, in an RV, at the Bates Motel, at the Holiday Inn, or at the Hilton?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
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