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Harold G. Sommer, helicopter pilot


Harold G. Sommer, a pioneering helicopter pilot and retired Baltimore City police officer, died Wednesday of a heart attack at Stoney Creek Democratic Club in Orchard Beach. He was 79.

Mr. Sommer, who had lived for 32 years in Riviera Beach, was one of the first six pilots to graduate from the Army Air Force helicopter school. He flew the first Sikorsky helicopters from the company's Michigan plant during the waning months of World War II, helped test helicopter mail service in 1946, and flew for an Air Force air rescue unit in Newfoundland, Canada.

"Like everybody, I didn't know we had helicopters," Mr. Sommer said in a 1989 interview with the Maryland Gazette. He said that when he was introduced to his first Sikorsky R-4 in 1944, "I couldn't believe what I saw. It was so different. It looked fragile. From the front, it looked like a big grasshopper."

The primitive "eggbeaters," as they were nicknamed, were hard to fly.

In 1988, he received an award from the Helicopter Association International for his pioneering work. He also received awards from the governor and state legislators.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Mr. Sommer hadn't completed high school when he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1935.

But military service proved elusive for the adventurous 18-year-old. Marines discovered "they could not fit me with regulation shoes; my foot was too narrow," he wrote in a 22-page memoir. Because of that, he was honorably discharged a month after enlisting. Mr. Sommer didn't give up. He hitchhiked to New York City, where the Army welcomed him and his feet.

After two years in the Panama Canal Zone, he was discharged and returned to Baltimore to work at the Bethlehem Steel Sparrows Point shipyards.

The day after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Mr. Sommer again was rejected for military service because he was married and had a job important to gearing up for World War II. Four months later, he was allowed to join.

After less than a year of training, Mr. Sommer, then a second lieutenant, flew two- and four-engine bombers from their American factories to India, Scotland, Italy and the South Pacific.

In September 1944, he volunteered for helicopter school in Seymour, Ind. A month later, he and five other pilots graduated and began delivering helicopters from factories to Army posts.

After pioneering mail-delivery work as a pilot on loan from the military, Mr. Sommer flew rescue missions out of Newfoundland in the late 1940s. He survived two crashes, and helped chart as many as 30 undiscovered plane wrecks -- some with the skeletons of crew members still inside. He retired as a Air Force major in 1951.

After his retirement, Mr. Sommer became a civilian pilot. He flew oil, mineral and topographic survey crews, dusted crops and towed advertising banners. One job involved suspending a straitjacketed magician upside-down above the Oklahoma State Fair.

He became a patrolman with the Baltimore Police Department late in 1951. Mr. Sommer retired in 1968, after injuring his back while chasing a suspect. After his retirement he became historian for the Stoney Creek Democratic Club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Fort Smallwood Post.

Services were to be held at 10:30 a.m. today at Gonce Funeral Home, 4001 Ritchie Highway.

Besides his wife of 56 years, the former Mary Evelyn McShane, Mr. Sommer is survived by a daughter, Dawn Marie Coleman of Kent Island; and a granddaughter.

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