While Igor Sikorsky is undoubtedly the father of the modern helicopter (Check out our infographic on the First Flying Helicopter!), the history of the helicopter is said by many to have started with an ingenious drawing by 15th century painter and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci. Called the ornithopter flying machine, da Vinci’s 1488 design was never built, but it is said to have inspired modern day helicopters, and there is a suggestion that it inspired Sikorsky.
Fascinated by the idea of man flying, the great Leonardo da Vinci also designed a machine with a helical screw (as opposed to rotor blades), following the concept of an ancient Chinese toy (a kind of bamboo-copter) that would fly as the spinning rotor created lift. Later, several other inventors also created helicopter-like toys, the most notable of which was Alphonse Pénaud’s 1870 coaxial rotor model helicopter that was powered by simple rubber bands. It was one of these toys that reputedly inspired the American Wright brothers, inventors of the world’s first airplane that was heavier than air, just after the turn of the 20th century.
The name helicopter is said to have come from two Greek words, helix (meaning spiral) and pteron (meaning wing), because the original idea was that the flying machine would gain lift from spiral aerofoils – but it didn’t.
Helicopters That Preceded Sikorsky’s
Paul Cornu, A French engineer designed and built a helicopter and managed to get it to lift off in 1907 – officially making it the world’s first piloted helicopter. It featured two rotor blades that rotated in opposite directions so that the torque would be canceled. Powered by a 24 horsepower engine, it had to be held in position by men on the ground and wasn’t at all maneuverable, so all in all it wasn’t a great success.
Another French engineer, Etienne Oehmichen designed a helicopter with vertically mounted rotors that rotated in the opposite direction to large lifting rotors. He also developed a tail rotor later. His first helicopter success was in November 1922 with Oehmichen No. 2 that made history because it was used successfully to transport a person. In April the next year Oehmichen flew 360 m and 525 m, a record, and in May 1924 flew a closed circuit helicopter about one kilometer in seven minutes, 40 seconds. The same year he flew one of his helicopters with two passengers.
While Oehmichen’s helicopter designs were reasonable successful, the Focke-Wolf Fw 61 is commonly considered the world’s first really functional helicopter. First flown in 1936, it was designed and developed by two Germans, Henrich Focke and Gerd Achgelis, a pilot. The frame of the aircraft was based on another that Focke had co-designed, the Focke-Wulf Fw 44, and it utilized licensed rotor technology that relied on a radial engine to drive twin rotors. A major breakthrough was the counter rotation of the rotors because this solved the puzzle of torque reaction. It also featured a small horizontal-axes propeller that was driven by the engine, to cool the engine when the helicopter hovered or flew at low speed. A second prototype was built in 1937 and the resultant aircraft went a step further by successfully executing an autorotation landing without the engine switched on.
And then there was Igor Sikorsky.
The Father of the Modern Helicopter
Russian-born Sikorsky did not invent the first helicopter, as is clear from the brief history above. He did though invent the first really successful helicopter and this design has continued to be used to the present day.
A true aviation pioneer in terms not only of helicopters, but fixed-wing aircraft as well, Sikorsky immigrated to the USA in 1919 and founded his own Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation in 1923. Notably, he pioneered the rotor design that is used in most of today’s helicopters, and he designed the world’s first helicopter that went on to be mass-produced, the Sikorsky R-4.
Clearly a young protégé encouraged by both his parents, he was homeschooled by his mother who introduced him to the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, and his father who encouraged his natural interest in the natural sciences. At the age of 12, Sikorsky made his first model flying machine, a helicopter powered by rubber bands.
Sikorsky decided when he was about 17 that he wanted to study engineering, after spending three years at the Imperial Russian Naval Academy. About two years later, he learnt about the Wright brothers and other aeronautical pioneers, and backed financially by his sister, went off to Paris to study aviation.
He began his helicopter design career in 1909 in Russia, but quickly realized that various factors counted against him, not least of which was his lack of experience and shortage of money. While he continued to design aircraft, and developed the first ever four-engine bomber for use by the Russian in World War I, it wasn’t until 1939 that he developed his first helicopter prototype. The first flight in September that year was a tethered flight, and it took another eight months to achieve a “free flight”, during which he as able to fly in every direction except forwards. It took a few more years, until 1942, for Sikorsky to successfully design the world’s very first production helicopter.
The Birth of Metal Rotor Blades and Bubble Canopies
There are at least two more inventors that definitely deserve a mention in the history of the helicopter, Stanley Hiller, Jnr and Arthur Young.
Hiller‘s claim to fame is that he made the first helicopter that had 100 percent metal rotor blades that enabled pilots to fly the craft at much faster speeds. He was also the pilot of the first helicopter to be successfully flown across the USA in 1949 – the Hiller 360.
Young, who worked for the Bell Aircraft Company designed a helicopter that was the first to have a full bubble canopy – the Bell Model 47.
The modern day rotary-wing aircraft is a far-cry from De Vinci’s first design, with more capabilities than ever thought possible by these historic innovators!