A Brief History of Rotary Wing Aircraft

A Brief History of Rotary Wing
By John Lynch
For PLTW STI 2011
Tyler, TX
This common “helicopter” toy originated in China around 400 B.C.
Visions of a screw-type flying machine as
sketched by Leonardo daVinci in 1480
Captain William C. Powers of
the Confederate forces
designed this machine in
1862. His goal was to get
around the Union Navy
during the civil war in search
of supplies.
Captain Powers’ machine was
never built for fear that the
North would find it and use it
against the South.
There were many other similar ideas in and around this time period. Like
Captain Powers’ design, they all specified steam engine power. This proved to
be a limiting factor due to the heavy machinery needed for steam power and a
relatively low power output.
Paul Cornu of France began working on a helicopter design in 1903. He
claimed to be the first person ever to fly a controlled and untethered helicopter
in 1907
According to research by Dr. J. Gordon Leischman of the University of
Maryland, Mr. Cornu’s claims are highly dubious. It is clear that he made a
flight with a crowd of witnesses but it’s control is questionable and believed to
have been tethered in some fashion.
The autogyro has a freespinning (non-powered) rotor.
Juan de la Cierva
invented this autogyro
in Spain and flew it
successfully in 1923
De la Cierva went
on to invent the
first hinged,
flapping rotor in
1922 – Geogrij de Bothezat was
contracted to build this helicopter for
the U.S. Army air service.
1924 - Etienne Oehmichen, of France,
makes history by flying this helicopter
around a full kilometer track in
7 minutes, 40 seconds
1928 - D’Ascanio of Italy hits a major altitude record
of 18 meters for helicopters.
1930 – USSR develops the ZAGI-1A, the world’s first 2 engine rotorcraft.
1936 – the Focke-Wulf, Germany, is the
world’s first practical helicopter. In 1938 it
reached an altitude of 11,243 ft and
covered a cross-country flight of 143
1939 – Igor Sikorsky makes the VS-300,
the first useful single rotor aircraft.
1940 – Focke Achgelis makes the biggest helicopter in the world and was intended to
free Mussolini from prison but couldn’t due to damage. Later it was the first helicopter
to fly across the English channel.
1941 – Nazi Germany is the first
to use helicopters in combat
using the Flettner FL282.
1942 – US Coast Guard
recommends using helicopters
for spotting submarines.
1943 – US Congress criticizes the Navy for ignoring the enormous military potential of
helicopters. The Navy took delivery of its first helicopter by October of the same year.
1944 – the world’s first helicopter training school is created in the U.S.
Animation of the Flettner FL282 Kolibri:
Frank Piasecki creates the “Dogship”, the first tandem rotor aircraft in 1945. It was used
by the Coast Guard to carry people or equipment in a spacious 400 cubic foot fuselage.
This aircraft had a Continental radial engine in mid-ship that produced 450 HP.
Brantly creates a
co-axial twin rotor
Cierva-Weir builds the three rotor
“Air Horse”.
The Bell 47 becomes the world’s first
certified civil helicopter.
SGV1 – First helicopter
made in Canada
“Little Henry” – world’s first ram-jet helicopter.
The Kellett twin
engine developed for
the USAF carried up
to ten people.
1948 – Mi1 becomes the first helicopter to go into production in the Soviet Union.
1949 – Hiller 360 becomes the first helicopter to cross the United States. The
U.S. Coast Guard flies from Maryland to San Diego in 62.5 hours.
1951 – The Kaman K-225 is the world’s
first gas turbine powered helicopter
Fiat created this strange looking bird
in the 50’s but was quickly canceled.
The American XA-8 was evaluated by
both the US Army and the US Air Force
between 1952-54 but neither branch
purchased these in quantity.
Igor Bensen made gyrocopter kits
for “DIY’ers” in the 50’s and sold
thousands of kits over a 30 year
This is the Doak model 16
Tiltrotor. It was made for
the US Army as an
experimental aircraft in
During the early 50’s this Curtiss-Wright flying
jeep was a test vehicle for the US Army. It is
now on display at the Army’s aviation museum
in Fort Rucker, Alabama.
The Rolls Royce “Flying
Bedstead” is the first
true VTOL (Vertical TakeOff & Landing) aircraft
with no lifting surfaces
(no wings or blades)
1954 – Convair made a VTOL (Vertical Take-Off & Landing) with counterrotating blades. It was assigned to the Navy as a high performance
fighter aircraft. It’s Allison turboprop engine developed 5,500 HP giving
this aircraft a top speed of 610 mph.
The HU-1A “Huey” was sold to South Vietnam as
medevacs but later became a symbol of the
US military as we
became involved in
the Vietnam war.
The Sikorsky S-65 is the biggest helicopter in
the Western world. Known as “The Jolly
Green Giant” it was used by the US Marine
Corps and came equipped with seating for 55
1968 – Soviet Union
The Mi-12 is the largest helicopter yet flown
lifting 40,204 kg to an altitude of 2,255 m
1972 – Aerospatiale Lama hits a major
helicopter height record of 12,442 m
1976 – Kaman makes the world’s first all
composite rotor blades.
1975 – Frank Robinson makes and flies the
R-22. By 1979 he gets FAA certification
and sold over 1,000 units by 1989
1980’s to Present – there are a
variety of home-built kits
available such as this
“mosquito” gyrocopter and the
“body-copter” shown below.
www.rotorfx.com – Rotor F/X LLC - Helicopter Ultralight kits
www.chinahistoryforum.com – Chinese history site
www.vtol.org – AHS International (American Helicopter Society)
www.helis.com – Helicopter history site
terpconnect.umd.edu – a history of helicopter flight by J. Gordon Leishman, professor of
aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park
www.aviastar.org – the history of the helicopter
www.thaitechnics.com – aviation website – history of flight

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