Helicopter History

The concept of the helicopter has been envisioned by man for centuries, perhaps most famously by Leonardo Da Vinci who sketched a helicopter design long before we had the ability to produce them.

Leonardo Da Vinci's helicopter sketch

However it wasn’t until the 20th century that a greater understanding of the nature of lift and the invention of suitable engines powerful enough in theory to lift a helicopter that things began to get of the ground, literally!

Early designs revealed a host of problems, for example, torque, the effect produced by the rotor that forces the fuselage to rotate in the opposite direction as the engine, early designers used two opposing rotors to eliminate torque and eventually this issue was solved on single rotor helicopters by the addition of a tail rotor. Also, Dissymmetry of lift, (which made a lot of helicopters flip over), the invention of the swashplate helped to solve this problem, with cyclic pitch control allowing the rotor blade angles to be altered so that lift would be equal on each side of the central shaft. Notably in 1907 two French brothers Jacques and Louis Breguet created a variation on the design of a helicopter known as the Gyroplane No 1 but this had to be steadied by men at either end, so cannot really be considered as an independent flight.

Paul Cornu's early helicopter

The first truly free flight was accredited to another French inventor, Paul Cornu who designed a helicopter that had 2 counter rotating rotors powered by an Antoinette engine, it flew 12 inches off the ground for 20 seconds on 13th November 1907 however its instability led to it being shelved.

Etienne Oehmichen's early helicopter

Many more incarnations followed but significantly another French pioneer, Etienne Oehmichen, became the first to fly a helicopter one kilometer in a closed circuit in 1924. It was an historic flight taking 7 minutes and 40 seconds.

The german Fock Wulf 61 helicopter

The Germans are credited with building the first practical helicopter, the Focke Wulf FW 61. This was flown for the first time by test pilot Ewald Rohlfs for 28 seconds on 26th june 1936, and went on to set a number of world records before the start of world war two. It utilized the airframe of an airplane that was modified to provide two opposing rotors, the original engine propeller being cut down to provide just enough cooling air for the engine. Sceptics thought initially that the propeller aided the aircraft to fly more like an autogyro but this was dismissed when the aircraft was seen to be capable of vertical landings.

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