The helicopter plays a vital role in aviation history. Today many helicopter types are operating in the commercial aviation space, ranging from small two-person private helicopters to large passenger-carrying types and work vehicles capable of carrying considerable loads to remote places.
We will look at how the helicopter developed from ancient times in China to the efficient workhorse and pleasure aircraft we know today.
Where did it all begin?
Vertical flight started as early as 400 CE in China. There are records of a kite that used rotary wings to help lift it skywards. In the Middle Ages, some toys utilised the principle of the helicopter, where a rotary blade was turned by pulling a string.
Most people know that Leonardo da Vinci, a great inventor in the 1500s, designed and drew diagrams of a helicopter that used a spiral airscrew to achieve lift. Unfortunately, Leonardo’s designs never came to fruition in his lifetime, but scientists and engineers have explored his concepts in detail. See below – scale model of one of da Vinci’s designs.
In 1784 French artisans, Launoy and Bienvenu created a toy helicopter made from bird feathers. They introduced the concept to the French Academy of Science. This toy was the forerunner to a more successful model built by Alphonse Penaud in 1870.
The first successful crewed vertical flight
In 1843 Sir George Cayley, also known as the father of fixed-wing flight, further explored the scientific principles of helicopters that ultimately led to the first successful helicopter.
Following that, however, there were many dead ends until 1907 when the Breguet brothers, Louis, and Jacques, made a short flight in a gyroplane under the watchful eye of Charles Richet, an aviation pioneer. The aircraft remained tethered to the ground and lifted vertically for about two feet. Gyroplane No. 1 was a lightweight frame with four sets of rotors and a 45-horsepower engine.
Later that year, bicycle maker Paul Cornu achieved free flight for around 20 seconds at one foot off the ground in a twin-rotor craft powered by a 24-horsepower engine. Igor Sikorsky, who later made his name as a fixed-wing aircraft engineer, did some unsuccessful experiments with vertical flight around the same time.
Timeline of helicopter advancement 1912 – 1970
Following the French successes with vertical flight, the helicopter advanced in leaps and bounds. Here are some of the highlights and pivotal moments in the history of early helicopters.
- 1912 Danish inventor Jacob Ellehammer made short lifts in a helicopter featuring contrarotating rotors and cyclic pitch control.
- 1922, George de Bothezat designed a complex helicopter for the U.S. Army Air Force, which lifted off the ground for less than two minutes, under minimum control.
- 1924 Argentine inventor Raúl Pateras Pescara designed several helicopters that applied cyclic pitch control and, backup for when the engine failed, using rotor autorotation. He set a straight-line distance record of 736 metres on April 18, 1924.
- Also in 1924, in France, on May 4, Étienne Oehmichen set a distance record for helicopters by flying a 1-kilometre circle.
- 1927 – 1930 Nicholas Florine, a Russian-born aeronaut, demonstrated a helicopter with flapping wings at the Brussels Exhibition in 1930 and was responsible for building the first tandem-rotor helicopter in 1927
- 1936 Germany developed the Focke Achgelis FA 61, which had two three-bladed rotors mounted on outriggers and powered by a 160-horsepower radial engine.
- 1938 Germany – the FA61 completed an altitude flight of 11,243 feet and a cross-country flight of 143 miles. German aviator Hanna Reitsch became the first female helicopter pilot in the world to fly the Fa 61 inside the Deutschland-Halle in Berlin.
- 1939 – 40 In the United States, Igor Sikorsky, returned to building helicopters and made a successful series of test flights of his VS-300 – the VS-300 was small (weighing 1,092 pounds) powered by a 65-horsepower Lycoming engine, had a single main three-blade rotor with collective pitch and a tail rotor
- As with most inventions made during times of war, following World War II, helicopters began to be used for firefighting, police work, agricultural crop spraying, mosquito control, medical evacuation, and carrying mail and passengers.
- During this time, Bell Model 47, one of the most significant helicopters of all time, incorporating an articulated, gyro-stabilised, two-blade rotor, was developed by The Bell Aircraft Corporation under the leadership of Arthur Young.
- Frank Piasecki formed the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation; the Piasecki designs featured tandem-rotor concepts. Twin tandem rotors were strong enough to allow helicopters to be manufactured to almost twice their previous size without having to create substantial rotor blades.
- 1951 – Jet engine technology was applied to the helicopter by the Kaman Aircraft Corporation’s HTK-1. This machine had Kaman’s patented aerodynamic servo-controlled rotors in the “synchropter” configuration.
- 1955 – French SNCA-S.E. 3130 Alouette II made its first flight on March 12, powered by a Turbomeca Artouste II turbine engine. It became one of the most influential helicopters in the world and started a trend toward jet-powered helicopters everywhere.
- 1956 Jean Boulet and Henri Petit executed the first rescue by a helicopter at 4,362 metres on Mont Blanc Mountain.
- 1957, Jean Boulet and Gérard Henry flew two Alouette II helicopters and rescued French Air Force crew and rescuers while performing operations, following the accident of Vincendon and Henry. The Alouette II unlocked technology for a whole new generation of helicopters. The Alouette ceased production in 1975
- 1962 Jean Cantinieau designed a two-seater helicopter named, Faon (French for Fawn). It was an elegant small two-seater helicopter with 180 hp and no rear rotor – it was abandoned in 1963 due to stability problems.
- 1962 SA 321 Super Frelon, a triple-engine, heavy transport helicopter, was produced by the aerospace manufacturer Sud Aviation of France. It was the most powerful helicopter to be built in Europe in its time and the world’s fastest helicopter.
- 1963 The Super Frelon set three speed records: over 3 km, a speed of 341.23 km/h, over 15-25 km, a speed of 350.470 km/h, over 100 km closed circuit, and a speed of 334.280 km/h.
- 1967 The German Bo105 was the first light twin-engine helicopter to enter commercial service.
- 1969 The SA-315 Lama set an altitude record that still stands today. Jean Boulet set the altitude record when he climbed to 12,442 metres. The Indian government utilised the helicopter in the Himalayas and later manufactured the helicopter under the name, Cheetah.
- 1970 Sud Aviation became SNIAS when they merged with French Nord Aviation and SEREB companies. SNIAS went on to launch the very first Airbus A300 B in 1972. Aerospatiale’s helicopter division produces helicopters still in production today: the Ecureuil, Dauphin and Super Puma.
We can’t dismiss the importance that the autogyro played in helping to develop the modern helicopter, even though the autogyro operates on a different principle from the helicopter. Spaniard Juan de la Cierva had some success in Spain in 1923 when he made his first successful flight. The autogyro rotor is not powered but obtains lift by its mechanical rotation as the autogyro moves forward through the air. As a result, the autogyro has the advantage of short take-off and a near-vertical descent.
The autogyro initially overshadowed the helicopter, and they were manufactured in several countries. However, this was only temporary; when the helicopter improved and became more successful in utilising some of the autogyro rotor head and blade development technology, the autogyro became somewhat obsolete. Nevertheless, the autogyro or gyrocopter did not disappear altogether and is still widely used today as a recreation aircraft.
The helicopter today
From 1970 to today, the helicopter has become ubiquitous. There have been technological breakthroughs, new speed records and numerous design changes over the years, but one thing hasn’t changed: our reliance on this versatile aircraft.
We use them for most rescue and emergency requirements due to their manoeuvrability and speed; farmers or station owners use helicopters to round up cattle and survey their land, people ride in them for the pure joy of flying, and they make up a significant part of most countries’ military squadrons.
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