Helicopters were developed and built during the first half-century of flight, with the Focke-Wulf Fw 61 being the first operational helicopter in 1936. Some helicopters reached limited production, but it was not until 1942 that the R-4 helicopter designed by Igor Sikorsky reached full-scale production, with 131 aircraft built.
Focke-Wulf Fw 61
Though earlier designs used more than one main rotor, it is the single main rotor with anti-torque tail rotor configuration that has become the most common helicopter configuration. Tandem rotor helicopters are also in widespread use due to their greater payload capacity. Coaxial helicopters, tiltrotor aircraft, and compound helicopters are all flying today. Quadcopter helicopters pioneered as early as 1907 in France, and other types of multicopter have been developed for specialized applications such as unmanned drones.
The earliest references for vertical flight came from China. Since around 400 BC, Chinese children have played with bamboo flying toys. This bamboo-copter is spun by rolling a stick attached to a rotor. The spinning creates lift, and the toy flies when released. The 4th-century AD Daoist book Baopuzi by Ge Hong (“Master who Embraces Simplicity") reportedly describes some of the ideas inherent to rotary wing aircraft.
It was not until the early 1480s, when Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci created a design for a machine that could be described as an "aerial screw", that any recorded advancement was made towards vertical flight. His notes suggested that he built small flying models, but there were no indications for any provision to stop the rotor from making the craft rotate. As scientific knowledge increased and became more accepted, people continued to pursue the idea of vertical flight.
Leonardo da Vinci "Aerial Screw"
In July 1754, Russian Mikhail Lomonosov had developed a small coaxial modeled after the Chinese top but powered by a wound-up spring device and demonstrated it to the Russian Academy of Sciences. It was powered by a spring, and was suggested as a method to lift meteorological instruments.
In 1783, Christian de Launoy, and his mechanic, Bienvenu, used a coaxial version of the Chinese top in a model consisting of contrarotating turkey flight feathers as rotor blades, and in 1784, demonstrated it to the French Academy of Sciences.
Sir George Cayley, influenced by a childhood fascination with the Chinese flying top, developed a model of feathers, similar to that of Launoy and Bienvenu, but powered by rubber bands. By the end of the century, he had progressed to using sheets of tin for rotor blades and springs for power. His writings on his experiments and models would become influential on future aviation pioneers.
Alphonse Pénaud would later develop coaxial rotor model helicopter toys in 1870, also powered by rubber bands. One of these toys, given as a gift by their father, would inspire the Wright brothers to pursue the dream of flight.
In 1861, the word "helicopter" was coined by Gustave de Ponton d'Amécourt, a French inventor who demonstrated a small steam-powered model. While celebrated as an innovative use of a new metal, aluminium, the model never lifted off the ground. D'Amecourt's linguistic contribution would survive to eventually describe the vertical flight he had envisioned. Steam power was popular with other inventors as well.
In 1878 the Italian Enrico Forlanini's unmanned vehicle, also powered by a steam engine, rose to a height of 12 meters, where it hovered for some 20 seconds after a vertical take-off. Emmanuel Dieuaide's steam-powered design featured counter-rotating rotors powered through a hose from a boiler on the ground.
Enrico Forlanini's unmanned vehicle
In July 1901, the maiden flight of Hermann Ganswindt's helicopter took place in Berlin-Schöneberg; this was probably the first motor-driven flight carrying humans. A movie covering the event was taken by Max Skladanowsky, but it remains lost.
In 1885, Thomas Edison was given US$1,000 by James Gordon Bennett Jr to conduct experiments towards developing flight. Edison built a helicopter and used the paper for a stock ticker to create guncotton, with which he attempted to power an internal combustion engine. The helicopter was damaged by explosions and one of his workers was badly burned. Edison reported that it would take a motor with a ratio of three to four pounds per horsepower produced to be successful, based on his experiments.
Ján Bahýľ, a Slovak inventor, adapted the internal combustion engine to power his helicopter model that reached a height of 0.5 meters in 1901. On 5 May 1905, his helicopter reached four meters in altitude and flew for over 1,500 meters.
In 1908, Edison patented his own design for a helicopter powered by a gasoline engine with box kites attached to a mast by cables for a rotor, but it never flew.
In 1906, two French brothers, Jacques and Louis Breguet, began experimenting with airfoils for helicopters. In 1907, those experiments resulted in the Gyroplane No.1, possibly as the earliest known example of a quadcopter. Although there is some uncertainty about the date, sometime between 14 August and 29 September 1907, the Gyroplane No. 1 lifted its pilot into the air about two feet for a minute.The Gyroplane No. 1 proved to be extremely unsteady and required a man at each corner of the airframe to hold it steady. For this reason, the flights of the Gyroplane No. 1 are considered to be the first manned flight of a helicopter, but not a free or untethered flight.
Gyroplane No. 1
That same year, fellow French inventor Paul Cornu designed and built a Cornu helicopter that used two 6.1 m counter-rotating rotors driven by a 24 hp Antoinette engine. On 13 November 1907, it lifted its inventor to 1-foot (0.30 m) and remained aloft for 20 seconds. Even though this flight did not surpass the flight of the Gyroplane No. 1, it was reported to be the first truly free flight with a pilot. Cornu's helicopter completed a few more flights and achieved a height of nearly 2.0 m, but it proved to be unstable and was later abandoned.
The Danish inventor Jacob Ellehammer built the Ellehammer helicopter in 1912. It consisted of a frame equipped with two counter-rotating discs, each of which was fitted with six vanes around its circumference. After indoor tests, the aircraft was demonstrated outdoors and made several free take-offs. Experiments with the helicopter continued until September 1916, when it tipped over during take-off, destroying its rotors.
During World War I, Austria-Hungary developed the PKZ, an experimental helicopter prototype, with two aircraft built.
In the early 1920s, Argentine Raúl Pateras-Pescara de Castelluccio, while working in Europe, demonstrated one of the first successful applications of cyclic pitch. Coaxial, contra-rotating, biplane rotors could be warped to cyclically increase and decrease the lift they produced. The rotor hub could also be tilted forward a few degrees, allowing the aircraft to move forward without a separate propeller to push or pull it. Pateras-Pescara was also able to demonstrate the principle of autorotation. By January 1924, Pescara's helicopter No. 1 was tested but was found to be underpowered and could not lift its own weight, his 2F fared better and set a record. The British government funded further research by Pescara which resulted in helicopter No. 3, powered by a 250 hp radial engine which could fly for up to ten minutes.
Helicopter No. 3
On 14 April 1924 Frenchman Étienne Oehmichen set the first helicopter world record recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), flying his quadrotor helicopter 360 meters. On 18 April 1924, Pescara beat Oemichen's record, flying for a distance of 736 meters in 4 minutes and 11 seconds, maintaining a height of six feet. On 4 May, Oehmichen set the first 1 km closed-circuit helicopter flight in 7 minutes 40 seconds with his No. 2 machine.
In the US, George de Bothezat built the quadrotor helicopter de Bothezat helicopter for the United States Army Air Service but the Army cancelled the program in 1924, and the aircraft was scrapped.
George de Bothezat Quadrotor Helicopter
Albert Gillis von Baumhauer, a Dutch aeronautical engineer, began studying rotorcraft design in 1923. His first prototype "flew" on 24 September 1925, with Dutch Army-Air arm Captain Floris Albert van Heijst at the controls. The controls that van Heijst used were von Baumhauer's inventions, the cyclic and collective. Patents were granted to von Baumhauer for his cyclic and collective controls by the British ministry of aviation on 31 January 1927, under patent number 265,272.
In 1927, Engelbert Zaschka from Germany built a helicopter, equipped with two rotors, in which a gyroscope was used to increase stability and serves as an energy accumulator for a gliding flight to make a landing. Zaschka's plane, the first helicopter, which ever worked so successfully in miniature, not only rises and descends vertically, but is able to remain stationary at any height.
Engelbert Zaschka Helicopter
In 1928, Hungarian aviation engineer Oszkár Asbóth constructed a helicopter prototype that took off and landed at least 182 times, with a maximum single flight duration of 53 minutes.
Oszkár Asbóth Helicopter
In 1930, the Italian engineer Corradino D'Ascanio built his D'AT3, a coaxial helicopter. His relatively large machine had two, two-bladed, counter-rotating rotors. Control was achieved by using auxiliary wings or servo-tabs on the trailing edges of the blades, a concept that was later adopted by other helicopter designers, including Bleeker and Kaman. Three small propellers mounted to the airframe were used for additional pitch, roll, and yaw control. The D'AT3 held modest FAI speed and altitude records for the time, including altitude (18 m), duration (8 minutes 45 seconds) and distance flown (1,078 m).
Corradino D'Ascanio D'AT3
In the Soviet Union, Boris N. Yuriev and Alexei M. Cheremukhin, two aeronautical engineers working at the Tsentralniy Aerogidrodinamicheskiy Institut (TsAGI or the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute), constructed and flew the TsAGI 1-EA single lift-rotor helicopter, which used an open tubing framework, a four-blade main lift rotor, and twin sets of 1.8-meter diameter, two-bladed anti-torque rotors: one set of two at the nose and one set of two at the tail. Powered by two M-2 powerplants, up-rated copies of the Gnome Monosoupape 9 Type B-2 100 CV output rotary engine of World War I, the TsAGI 1-EA made several low altitude flights. By 14 August 1932, Cheremukhin managed to get the 1-EA up to an unofficial altitude of 1,985 feet, shattering d'Ascanio's earlier achievement. As the Soviet Union was not yet a member of the FAI, however, Cheremukhin's record remained unrecognized.
Nicolas Florine, a Russian engineer, built the first twin tandem rotor machine to perform a free flight. It flew in Sint-Genesius-Rode, at the Laboratoire Aérotechnique de Belgique in April 1933, and attained an altitude of six meters and an endurance of eight minutes. Florine chose a co-rotating configuration because the gyroscopic stability of the rotors would not cancel. Therefore, the rotors had to be tilted slightly in opposite directions to counter torque. Using hinge less rotors and co-rotation also minimised the stress on the hull. At the time, it was one of the most stable helicopters in existence.
Nicolas Florine Twin Tandem Rotor
The Bréguet-Dorand Gyroplane Laboratoire was built in 1933. It was a coaxial helicopter, contra-rotating. After many ground tests and an accident, it first took flight on 26 June 1935. Within a short time, the aircraft was setting records with pilot Maurice Claisse at the controls. On 14 December 1935, he set a record for closed-circuit flight with a 500-meter diameter. The next year, on 26 September 1936, Claisse set a height record of 518 feet. And, finally, on 24 November 1936, he set a flight duration record of one hour, two minutes and 50 seconds over a 27 miles closed circuit at 27.8 mph. The aircraft was destroyed in 1943 by an Allied airstrike at Villacoublay airport.
Bréguet-Dorand Gyroplane Laboratoire
Arthur M. Young, American inventor, started work on model helicopters in 1928 using converted electric hover motors to drive the rotor head. Young invented the stabilizer bar and patented it shortly after. A mutual friend introduced Young to Lawrence Dale, who once seeing his work asked him to join the Bell Aircraft company. When Young arrived at Bell in 1941, he signed his patent over and began work on the helicopter. His budget was US$250,000 to build 2 working helicopters. In just 6 months they completed the first Bell Model 1, which spawned the Bell Model 30, later succeeded by the Bell 47.
Bell Model 1
Early rotor winged flight suffered failures primarily associated with the unbalanced rolling movement generated when attempting take-off, due to dissymmetry of lift between the advancing and retreating blades. This major difficulty was resolved by Juan de la Cierva's introduction of the flapping hinge. In 1923, de la Cierva's first successful autogyro was flown in Spain by Lt. Gomez Spencer. In 1925 he brought his C.6 to Britain and demonstrated it to the Air Ministry at Farnborough, Hampshire. This machine had a four blade rotor with flapping hinges but relied upon conventional airplane controls for pitch, roll and yaw. It was based upon an Avro 504K fuselage, initial rotation of the rotor was achieved by the rapid uncoiling of a rope passed around stops on the undersides of the blades.
Juan de la Cierva
A major problem with the autogyro was driving the rotor before take-off. Several methods were attempted in addition to the coiled rope system, which could take the rotor speed to 50% of that required, at which point movement along the ground to reach flying speed was necessary, while tilting the rotor to establish autorotation. Another approach was to tilt the tail stabiliser to deflect engine slipstream up through the rotor. The most acceptable solution was finally achieved with the C.19 Mk.4, which was produced in some quantities; a direct drive from the engine to the rotor was fitted, through which the rotor could be accelerated up to speed. The rotor clutch was then disengaged before the take-off run.
As de la Cierva's autogyros achieved success and acceptance, others began to follow and with them came further innovation. Most important was the development of direct rotor control through cyclic pitch variation, achieved initially by tilting the rotor hub and subsequently by the Austrian engineer Raoul Hafner, by the application of a spider mechanism that acted directly on each rotor blade. The first production direct control autogyro was the C.30, produced in quantity by Avro, Liore et Olivier, and Focke-Wulf.
The production model, called the C.30A by Avro, was built under licence in Britain, France and Germany and was similar to the C.30P. It carried small movable trimming surfaces. Each licensee used nationally built engines and used slightly different names. In all, 143 production C.30s were built, making it by far the most numerous pre-war autogyro.
C.30A by Avro
Between 1933 and 1936, de la Cierva used one C.30A (G-ACWF) to perfect his last contribution to autogyro development before his death in late 1936. To enable the aircraft to take off without forward ground travel, he produced the "Autodynamic" rotor head, which allowed the rotor to be spun up by the engine in the usual way but to higher than take-off r.p.m at zero rotor incidence and then to reach operational positive pitch suddenly enough to jump some 20 ft (6.1 m) upwards.
Heinrich Focke at Focke-Wulf was licensed to produce the Cierva C.30 autogyro in 1933. Focke designed the world's first practical transverse twin-rotor helicopter, the Focke-Wulf Fw 61, which first flew on 26 June 1936. The Fw 61 broke all of the helicopter world records in 1937, demonstrating a flight envelope that had only previously been achieved by the autogyro.
During World War II, Nazi Germany used helicopters in small numbers for observation, transport, and medical evacuation. The Flettner Fl 282 Kolibri synchropter—using the same basic configuration as Anton Flettner's own pioneering Fl 265—was used in the Mediterranean, while the Focke Achgelis Fa 223 Drache twin-rotor helicopter was used in Europe. Extensive bombing by the Allied forces prevented Germany from producing any helicopters in large quantities during the war.
Flettner Fl 282 Kolibri synchropter
In the United States, Russian-born engineer Igor Sikorsky and W. Lawrence LePage competed to produce the U.S. military's first helicopter. LePage received the patent rights to develop helicopters patterned after the Fw 61, and built the XR-1. Meanwhile, Sikorsky settled on a simpler, single rotor design, the VS-300, which turned out to be the first practical single lifting-rotor helicopter design. After experimenting with configurations to counteract the torque produced by the single main rotor, Sikorsky settled on a single, smaller rotor mounted on the tail boom.
Developed from the VS-300, Sikorsky's R-4 was the first large-scale mass-produced helicopter, with a production order for 100 aircraft. The R-4 was the only Allied helicopter to serve in World War II, when it was used primarily for search and rescue (by the USAAF 1st Air Commando Group) in Burma; in Alaska; and in other areas with harsh terrain. Total production reached 131 helicopters before the R-4 was replaced by other Sikorsky helicopters such as the R-5 and the R-6. In all, Sikorsky produced over 400 helicopters before the end of World War II.
While LePage and Sikorsky built their helicopters for the military, Bell Aircraft hired Arthur Young to help build a helicopter using Young's two-blade teetering rotor design, which used a weighted stabilizer bar placed at a 90° angle to the rotor blades. The subsequent Model 30 helicopter showed the design's simplicity and ease of use. The Model 30 was developed into the Bell 47, which became the first helicopter certified for civilian use in the United States. Produced in several countries, the Bell 47 was the most popular helicopter model for nearly 30 years.
In 1951, at the urging of his contacts at the Department of the Navy, Charles Kaman modified his K-225 synchropter, a design for a twin-rotor helicopter concept first pioneered by Anton Flettner in 1939, with the aforementioned Fl 265 piston-engined design in Germany with a new kind of engine, the turboshaft engine. This adaptation of the turbine engine provided a large amount of power to Kaman's helicopter with a lower weight penalty than piston engines, with their heavy engine blocks and auxiliary components.
On 11 December 1951, the Kaman K-225 became the first turbine-powered helicopter in the world. Two years later, on 26 March 1954, a modified Navy HTK-1, another Kaman helicopter, became the first twin-turbine helicopter to fly. However, it was the Sud Aviation Alouette II that would become the first helicopter to be produced with a turbine-engine.
Sud Aviation Alouette II
Reliable helicopters capable of stable hover flight were developed decades after fixed-wing aircraft. This is largely due to higher engine power density requirements than fixed-wing aircraft. Improvements in fuels and engines during the first half of the 20th century were a critical factor in helicopter development. The availability of lightweight turboshaft engines in the second half of the 20th century led to the development of larger, faster, and higher-performance helicopters. While smaller and less expensive helicopters still use piston engines, turboshaft engines are the preferred power plant for helicopters today.