Anders Clark

Flying has long been a dream of humankind. And surprisingly, for as long as we’ve dreamed of wings, and airplane style flight, we’ve also dreamed of rotor-based, or vertical flight. Centuries of study were poured into the subject of flight, but it wasn’t until a little over a century ago that the first helicopter lifted off from the Earth, and spun its way into history. Since that time, helicopter design has become incredibly refined, and helicopters now serve a variety of important purposes. But where did it all start? When was the first helicopter invented, and where, and by who? Well, turns out that’s kind of a tricky question.

A Brief History of Vertical Flight
The first helicopter toy, a simple bamboo one developed by the Chinese.
Image by: Haragayato

The very earliest references we can find for vertical flight come from China, around 400 BC. Around that time, there are records of Chinese children playing with a bamboo helicopter-like toy. It worked by rolling a stick attached to a rotor and then releasing it. The spinning would generate lift, and when released, the toy sprung into the air. This toy, eventually introduced into Europe, became profoundly influential and early Western scientists based much of their research and attempts to design flying machines on this simple toy.

A drawing of Leonardo da Vinci's first helicopter design, or aerial screw.

Then, in the early 1480s, Leonardo da Vinci created the design for what was described as an “aerial screw.” This is considered the next big step forward for vertical flight. Then in 1754, Russian Mikhail Lomonosov developed a model based off the Chinese toy but powered by a wound-up spring. For the next hundred years, other scientists and researchers began developing new and different models, including Frenchman Christian de Launoy and British inventor Sir George Cayley. In particular, Cayley’s experiments and models were very influential on future pioneers.

Then, in 1861, French inventor Gustave de Ponton d’Amecourt demonstrated a small steam-powered model. It failed to lift off, but was important for two reasons: Gustave coined the term “helicopter” in describing his model, and it marked the first use of aluminum, a then rather new and exciting metal. Then, in 1878, an exciting first. Italian Enrico Forlanni built an unmanned, steam powered model that was able to take off vertically, rise to a height of nearly 40 feet (12 meters) and hover for almost 20 seconds. Model, unmanned and brief, but it was the first helicopter to achieve flight.

Around the world, the different countries forged ahead, trying a variety of methods to power their craft. In 1887, Frenchman Gustave Trouve built and flew a tethered electrical model. In 1885, Thomas Edison began working on a helicopter powered by an internal combustion engine, which ultimately resulted in an explosion and failure. Slovak inventor Jan Bahyl was able to make an internal combustion engine work in his model, and in 1901, it was able to hover at a height of almost 2 feet. Four years later, a more refined version of his helicopter model reached 13 feet (4 meters) and was able to cover 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) of distance.

The First Manned Helicopter Flights

Then, French brothers Jacques and Louis Breguet entered the scene. They had developed Gyroplane No. 1, which may be the first known quadcopter. The exact date is unclear, but sometime between August 14th and September 29th of 1907, Gyroplane No. 1 lifted its pilot about 2 feet (.6 meters) into the air, hovering for roughly a minute. It was, however, an extremely unsteady aircraft, and required a man to hold it steady at each corner of the airframe. For this reason, the flights of Gyroplane No. 1 are considered to be the first manned helicopter flight, but not the first free or untethered flight.

Cornu's first helicopter design to achieve manned flight

That would happen very soon after that same year, on the 13th of November. French inventor Paul Cornu had built a helicopter that used two 20 foot (6 meters) counter rotating rotors driven by 24 hp engine. The Cornu helicopter lifted the inventor 1 foot (.3 meters) off the ground for almost 20 seconds. Though this was not as high or long as Gyroplane No. 1, it did not require assistance to remain steady, and so is considered the first truly free, manned helicopter flight.

Helicopter Designs Abound

The Wrights had achieved manned flight with the first fixed wing aircraft in December 1903, and in 1907, the Breguet brothers and Cornu had achieved the same with helicopter flight. The doors to the world of aviation were thrown wide open, and inventors, scientists, and enthusiasts poured in.

By the 1920s, Argentine Raul Pateras-Pescara de Castelluccio had successfully demonstrated cyclic pitch, or the ability to tilt the rotor hub forward a few degrees and allow the helicopter to move forward without the need for a separate propeller for pushing or pulling. He also was the first to successfully demonstrate the principle of autorotation, which was key to the safe landing of damaged helicopters.

Rare footage of a test flight of Pescara’s helicopter in 1922

In 1924, Frenchman Etienne Oehmichen set the first helicopter world record for distance recognized by the Federation Aeoronautique Internationale (FAI). He flew 1,181 feet (360 meters). This record was beaten a mere four days later by Pescara, who flew 2,415 feet (736 meters) in 4 minutes and 11 seconds, at a height of roughly 6 feet (1.8 meters).

In the US, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, and Russia, countless models were tested, flown, abandoned or improved on at an incredible rate. Then, in 1936, another first.

The Birth of the Helicopter Industry

In 1933, German Heinrich Focke was brought into the world of helicopter research. Inspired by autogyro designs, he set to work. He designed the world’s first practical, stable transverse twin rotor helicopter, and on June 26, 1936, it flew for the first time. The Focke-Wulf Fw 61 then broke all the previously established helicopter world records in 1937 and pushed the flight envelope for helicopters to new heights.

The world was paying attention. In the United States, Russian-born Igor Sikorsky competed fiercely with W. Lawrence LePage to produce the first helicopter for use in the US military. LePage was successful in acquiring the patent rights to design a helicopter in the same style of the Fw 61, so Sikorsky went with a more simple, single rotor design. LePage was also awarded a contract from the military after winning a military sponsored contest in early 1940, which also included designs by Sikorsky, and others.

The contract specified that delivery of a flying prototype must be accomplished by January 1941, and by July of 1940, the airframe for LePage’s model, the XR-1, was complete. However, they were unable to meet the prototype deadline, and due to this delay, Sikorsky was also able to receive funding for his model.

The XR-1 helicopter designed by LePage, during a flight test.

Finally, three months late, the XR-1 arrived. It resembled the Fw 61, with its two, three-bladed rotors, and was powered by a 450 hp Pratt and Whitney engine. It first flew on May 12th, 1941, though it was flown tethered in its early flights, and wasn’t flown flee until late June. Even then, it was flown within a few feet of the ground. This was because the XR-1 showed a variety of design and stability problems. Over the next four years, additional money and time were spent refining the design, and though it improved, it was never quite good enough. Finally, in April of 1945, the military canceled all their contracted with LePage and his company, after a US Air Force report concluded that the company was “inept” and employed a “hit and miss method” with their research and development.

The World’s First Helicopter to be Mass Produced
Igor Sikorsky test flying the VS-300 with floats
Sikorsky test flying the VS-300.

Meanwhile, Sikorsky and his team had been hard at work, and the result was the VS-300. It had a single, three bladed rotor powered by a 75 hp engine, and a single vertical tail rotor for anti-torque. It could also have floats attached to it for water use. The first tethered flight was conducted by Sikorsky on the 14th of September, 1939, followed on May 13th, 1940 by the first free flight. This made the VS-300 the first single lifting rotor helicopter in the US, the first successful helicopter to use single tail rotor configuration and the first practical amphibious helicopter. It was a monumental achievement.

Igor Sikorsky in the XR-4, the first helicopter to be mass produced on a large scale
Sikorsky in the XR-4.

The military contracted with Sikorsky, and using the VS-300 as a basis for the design, Sikorsky produced a new, refined model, the VS-316. Designated the XR-4 by the military, it made its first flight on January 13th, 1942, and was accepted into use by the military in May. The XR-4 broke all previous helicopter endurance, altitude and airspeed records, completing a 761 mile (1,225 km) cross-country flight; setting a service ceiling of 12,000 feet (3,700 meters), and with an airspeed of nearly 90 mph (140km/h).

The military ordered 100 XR-4s, making it the world’s first helicopter that was mass produced on a large scale. All told, 131 XR-4s were produced before newer models replaced it.

One Final First Helicopter

While Sikorsky and LePage were working with the military on helicopters, Bell Aircraft was working on a civilian solution. They hired Arthur Young and were interested in building a helicopter based on a design by Young’s that promised simplicity and ease of use. The result was the Model 30 prototype, which was eventually refined into the Bell 47. On March 8th, 1946, it became the first helicopter certified for civilian use. For the next 30 years, it was considered the most popular helicopter model and more than 5,600 of these helicopters were produced.

Conclusion

So, which helicopter was first? Well, as you can see, depending on what you’re asking, there are a lot of firsts. The first helicopter model to fly, the first unmanned helicopter flight, the first manned helicopter flight, and so on. And these firsts, though they may be credited to a single person or machine, represent centuries of research, testing, and determination from scientists, inventors, and enthusiasts across the globe.

Since the arrival of these first helicopters, the designs have continued to be refined and adapted for use in a variety of industries and for a variety of purposes. Learning to fly these incredible machines requires training, skill and dedication, but it opens up a wide world of opportunity for those who dream about flying helicopters for a living. It is an exciting time to join the world of aviation, and as many pilots and aviators have expressed before, the best work view is the one from the cockpit.

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