History of Helicopters

Early Roots

  • Nature, in the form of maple seeds spinning as they gently descend and hummingbirds hovering in mid-air have been a source of inspiration since the dawn of mankind.
  • The idea of vertical flight aircraft can be traced back to early Chinese tops, around 400 BC
  • Leonardo Da Vinci sketched an “aerial-screw” or “air gyroscope” in 1483, but it is not published until 300 years later
  • In the 1880s Thomas Alva Edison experimented with small helicopter models in the United States. His efforts focused on the areas of rotor design and engines research.
  • European development of the rotary wing aircraft concepts flourished during the first two decades of the 20th century, as a precursor to the autogiro and ultimately the modern helicopter.
  • In 1907, only four years after the Wright brothers first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, Louis and Jacques Breguet and Paul Cornu of France independently construct and test rotating wing aircraft that introduce key technical concepts that would enable future autogiros and helicopters.  Their machines however, are incapable of sustained flight. 
  • Igor Sikorsky and Boris Yur’ev independently and without knowledge of each other’s efforts begin the design and fabrication of vertical lift machines in Russia around 1912. Both vehicles lack sufficient power to fly, but resemble modern helicopters using a main rotor and tail rotor.

1920s

  • Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva builds  and flies a rotating wing aircraft he dubs the CA autogiro in 1923.  Resembling a hybrid between a fixed wing airplane and a helicopter, his autogiro has conventional airplane wings and a tail with a rotor mounted on a vertical shaft above the fuselage. The rotor is not powered by the engine, but turns freely on the shaft due to airflow acting on the blades. The engine creates the horizontal motion of the aircraft and lift on the wings and rotors generate the vertical motion.
  • In 1928 Harold Pitcairn orders a Cierva C.8W autogiro leading to the first flight of a rotating wing aircraft in the United States on December 18th of that same year.   In 1929, Pitcairn licenses the autogiro patents from Cierva and begins manufacturing the aircraft in the U.S. at what becomes the Willow Grove Naval Air Station (until its closure in 2011) where his team focuses on further developing and promoting the Autogiro.  Aviatrix Amelia Earhart breaks the altitude record in a Pitcairn Autogiro further popularizing the aircraft. Harold Pitcairn was a native of Bucks County, PA.
  • Nikolay Kamov designs the first Soviet autogyro, the KASKR-1 and is the father of Kamov, the Soviet Union’s first helicopter manufacturing factory. 

1930s

  • Autogiros become the predominant form of vertical flight in the U.S. and other countries.  In 1930, Pitcairn is awarded the Collier Trophy for the greatest aviation achievement of the year, but by the end of the decade, a new form of rotary wing aircraft was entering the scene – the Helicopter.
  • Autogiros are being used in many ways from delivering mail to sightseeing.  A Kellett K-3 autogyro is employed by Rear Admiral Byrd in his 1934 expedition to the Antarctic.  The first practical helicopter is built in Germany in 1937. The Focke- Achgelis FA-61 is a side by side twin rotor design.  Hitler’s test pilot, Hanna Reitsch, flies the FA-61 inside the Berlin Deutschlandhalle at the 1938 Berlin Motor Show.

1940s

  • In 1940 the US Congress signs the Dorsey-Logan Act authorizing funds to develop rotary wing aircraft for the War Department.
  • Igor Sikorsky flies his VS-300 in 1940.  It is the first successful US helicopter and the first to employ a main rotor and tail rotor configuration, commonly used in helicopters today.  The Sikorsky R-4 goes into full production and proves the utility of helicopters for rescue and reconnaissance through service in WWII and austere locations like Burma and Alaska.
  • In 1940, Platt-LePage of Eddystone, PA receives a contract to build a helicopter for the U.S. Army Air Corp, but their XR-1 helicopter modeled after the German design proves troublesome and the contract is cancelled.
  • In 1943 Frank Piasecki flies his  PV-2 in Philadelphia. He becomes the first FAA certified helicopter pilot and goes on to develop a line of successful tandem rotor helicopters.   His PV Engineering Forum, later Piasecki Helicopter, was the forerunner of today’s Boeing Vertical Lift Division. Arthur Young designs, builds and flies the Bell Model 30 near Gardenville, N.Y.. Originally from Paoli, PA, Arthur Young's efforts leads to establishing Bell Helicopter.
  • Westland Aircraft begins building helicopters under license to Sikorsky in Great Britain following WWII.  Following a series of mergers, the company became Westland Helicopters two decades later.
  • Mikhail Leontovich Mil launches MIL Bureau in Russia with the Mi-1 helicopter.

1950s

  • The Korean War validates the use of helicopters in a combat theater of operations.
  • The Bell 47 is  purchased by the US Army and designated the OH-13. It was used for observation, artillery aiming, and medical evacuation.
  • The turbine engine is  first used in a helicopter design by Charles Kaman in Connecticut. The power to weight ratio of a turbine was 4 times that of a piston engine and revolutionizes helicopter design and performance thereafter.
  • The Sikorsky H-34 is introduced for utility transport, anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, and VIP transport.

1960s

  • The Vietnam War,  also known as the Helicopter War definitely proves the utility of helicopters across a multitude of missions. They were used for:
    • Troop transport
    • Gun ships
    • Search and rescue, Medical evacuation
    • Re-supply
    • Command and control
  • The Vietnam War sees the introduction of the Bell UH-1 “Huey”, the Bell AH-1 Cobra, the Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight and Boeing CH-47 Chinook.
  • Mil’s most popular helicopter, the Mi-8, enters production

1970s-Present

  • The 1970s sees the development of the AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Blackhawk based on lessons learned from the Vietnam War.
  • Bell and Boeing partner to build the V-22 Osprey, the world’s first production tilt-rotor that can take off like a helicopter and fly like an airplane.
  • The Sikorsky CH-53 Super Stallion is one of the world’s largest heavy lift helicopters
  • The Airbus UH-72 Lakota is the first European owned, US produced helicopter entering service for the US Army
  • Sikorsky S-92 and Bell Jet Ranger become the standard for commercial helicopter transport
  • Frank Robinson designs and manufactures the R-22 which becomes the most popular training and personal helicopter in the world.
  • European companies establish US operations with AgustaWestland and Airbus Helicopters (formerly Aerospatiale and Eurocopter)
  • Tens of thousands of helicopters operate worldwide providing:
    • Disaster Relief
    • Medical Evacuation
    • Fire fighting
    • News gathering
    • Police
    • Construction
    • Logging
    • Offshore oil rig transportation
    • Presidential and Executive transport
    • Combat Operations 

To learn more about the history of rotorcraft and the individual helicopters mentioned, come visit the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center in West Chester, PA.