Clovis helicopter icon 'Harry' Rogers dies

The Fresno BeeJanuary 22, 2014 

Clovis helicopter pilot Robert "Harry" Rogers, a local pioneer in rotary-wing aviation and known as an "Ace" of mountain searches and rescues, died Jan. 16 at Saint Agnes Medical Center of a stroke. He was 84.

Mr. Rogers and his wife, Wanda, founded Rogers Helicopters in 1962 in Clovis and stayed there for three decades before moving the operation to Fresno Yosemite International airport.

Over the years, he and his pilots have flown tens of thousands of hours in firefighting, salvage and search and rescue operations up and down California.

Mr. Rogers was an authority on flying in the Sierra where summer winds can be treacherous, winter icing is common and where there are few places to make emergency landings.

Sheriff's deputies, park rangers and search and rescue crews relied on him and his choppers to rescue stranded hikers and dead climbers, investigate wildfires and mountain utility lines, and bring emergency supplies to the needy.

In 1965, the U.S. Army awarded Mr. Rogers a citation for flying in dangerous weather conditions to bring supplies to victims of flooding in Northern California.

In his spare time, Mr. Rogers liked taking news crews up in the air so they could photograph the scenery. "I think at times that God put the Kings River in Fresno so I could make a living flying helicopters over it," he told a reporter in 1979.

From 1955 to 1990, Mr. Rogers logged 25,000 hours of flight time in helicopters and airplanes, said his sister, Peg Bos.

Mr. Rogers' family has deep roots in Clovis, where he was born. His grandparents were Kate and Harry Whiton, who settled there in 1906 and opened Whiton's Cyclery on Fifth Street in 1918.

Harry Whiton also was fire chief of the Clovis Volunteer Fire Department, Bos said. When a fire erupted, young Mr. Rogers, or "Harry Bob" as his family called him, would race from the bike shop to the fire station, sound the alarm and give responders the address to the fire, Bos said.

But it was the dream of flying that made him tick, his sister said.

As a kid, Mr. Rogers made model airplanes that he would hang from the ceiling of the bicycle shop. "He was a master at it," Bos said, adding that her brother built model airplanes into his 80s.

A 1947 graduate of Clovis High School, Mr. Rogers was influenced by his father, Robert Rogers, and other local pilots. When his father left the family during World War II to work in a shipyard in Southern California, his mother, Edna Whiton Rogers, who owned an insurance business, raised their children.

Mr. Rogers married Wanda Cox in 1950; they met at a tennis match when she was a senior at Clovis High and he was a student in the aircraft department at Reedley College.

"He was a quiet guy, very unassuming," said brother-in-law Sid Cox. "Sometimes you didn't even know he was around."

But Mr. Rogers was filled with confidence, Cox said.

He wanted to join the Air Force but couldn't because he broke his leg playing football at Clovis High, Cox said.

After college, he worked as a pilot and mechanic for several helicopter companies before a banker loaned the couple $35,000 to start Rogers Helicopters Inc. on Bullard Avenue between Armstrong and Temperance avenue.

The company specialized in supplying helicopters for crop dusting, firefighting and utility line patrols and snow surveys, but its owners were always ready to help in search and rescues.

In the early days, Mr. Rogers flew Bell 47 and Hiller 12 helicopters. He later mastered turbine helicopters.

In the 1979 newspaper article, Mr. Rogers estimated he had walked away from five accidents, including one in the Stanislaus River canyon where a fire swept over a ridge. He landed his chopper and jumped out to warn firefighters, only to find himself trapped by flames.

He dove into the river to save himself and surfaced to see his helicopter engulfed in flames. After the fire was put out, he inspected the damage, got rid of melted parts and flew the helicopter out of the canyon.

In another incident, his chopper crashed in a river canyon. He rescued his passengers just seconds before the aircraft exploded, the article said.

"The early birds weren't too reliable," Mr. Rogers said at the time. "They were often put together by people who really don't know what they were doing."

Despite the dangers, Mr. Rogers never avoided helping others, said former Bee reporter Gene Rose, who wrote the 1979 article.

Rose recalled that in 1969 Mr. Rogers landed on top of Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest summit in the continental United States.

"It was the first such landing," Rose said.

Mr. Rogers did the tremendous feat to help a ranger who needed to go up there to service an outhouse, Rose said, chuckling.

Two of Mr. Rogers' kin died in helicopter crashes. A brother, Richard, who worked with Rogers Helicopters, died while airlifting firefighters in 1973.

And in in the summer of 1991, Mr. Rogers' 33-year-old son, Rory, was killed while flying on a salvage operation near White Mountain Peak in Mono County.

Cox said Mr. Rogers was a private man who seldom talked about himself or his family. He treasured his wife, Wanda, and would often buy clothes for her at the old Belle Quinn Dress Shop on Pollasky Avenue.

"Should I just give it to her now?" he would ask his children in excitement.

Kevin Cox, a former Fresno television news reporter who now lives in Southern California, described his uncle as "an American original."

As a kid, Cox lived near his uncle's home and business and often went there to check out the helicopters and maintenance shop.

"He had the best man-cave ever," Cox said. "He had old Bell helicopters with those exposed tailbooms, like dinosaur skeletons, and every tool imaginable."

"To a small kid, I couldn't believe adults did cool stuff like this," he said.

Cox recalled one time the neighborhood near his home was flooded, so his uncle flew him and his brother and his two cousins to Jefferson Elementary so they wouldn't be late to school. His uncle landed in a pasture, dropped them off, and then took off, he said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Rogers often took Clovis High cheerleaders for a ride, dropping them off on the football field.

Mr. Rogers did things that can't be done today because there are so many government regulations, Cox said. "It was a different country back then," Cox said. "He came along at a time when helicopters were new."

Cox said there will never be another Harry Rogers. "He was a true pioneer who was part of history. He really was one of kind."

Robert "Harry" Rogers

Born: March 28, 1929

Died: Jan. 16, 2014

Career: pilot, master mechanic and co-founder of Rogers Helicopters

Survivors: wife, Wanda Rogers; son, Robin Rogers, two grandsons, Robby and Randy Rogers; sister, Peg Bos

Services: Private funeral services; a celebration of Mr. Rogers' life will be held at a later date.

Remembrances: Care of the Clovis Big Dry Creek Museum, 401 Pollasky Ave., Clovis 93612

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, or @beecourts on Twitter.

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