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History of the Helicopter

Leonardo Da Vinci Sketch
Leonardo Da Vinci Sketch

Helicopter, originating from the Greek words for twisted and wing, but where did it all begin? Famously sketched in principle by Leonardo Da Vinci, and made reference to by the Chinese from as early as the 5th Century BC, the development of the helicopter as we know it did not start until the 1930s. Despite early work by Paul Cornu in the early 1900s, the first operational helicopter was produced by the German Focke-Wulf company in 1936; the Fw 61.






Sikorsky VS300 Helicopter
Sikorsky VS300 Helicopter

On the other side of the Atlantic, the man who would become known as the “Father of the helicopter” was developing his first helicopter for the US military; his name was Igor Sikorsky. Sikorsky produced the VS-300 which is widely recognised as the first traditional modern helicopter with a single main rotor and tail rotor. One of the most significant challenges faced by early helicopter designers was that of torque reaction. Put simply, the rotation of the main rotor head causes a reaction whereby the entire helicopter body wants to rotate in the opposite direction; neither comfortable nor safe. Various methods of countering this torque reaction where tested, but Sikorsky was the master of the tail rotor. By placing a smaller rotor on the tail boom the helicopter, a force equal to and opposite to that created by the main rotor was created, and the helicopter body would remain stationery and stable. Furthermore, through the use of yaw pedals the pilot could vary the force produced by the tail rotor allowing the helicopter to hover perfectly still, or slowly rotate about its main rotor axis.

The 1950s saw the arrival of the turbine jet engine, allowing smaller, more powerful, more efficient and lighter engines to be fitted to helicopters. The arrival of the jet engine was the most significant development in helicopter aviation since the pioneering work of Sikorsky in the 1930s. The advantage of multiple engines was soon realised and complicated gearbox transmission systems were developed to allow a helicopter to continue flight in the event of a single engine failure.

Helicopter development has continued at a frantic pace with major improvements in reliability, range, speed, lifting capacity, instrumentation and specialist utility roles. Modern piston and turbine engine helicopters, flown by a single pilot in all weather conditions can be found performing roles as diverse as: oil platform deliveries, tree felling, load lifting, pleasure flights, aerial photography, VIP charter, preventing vineyards from freezing over or rescuing fallen hill walkers. The helicopter is the epitome of utility, flying sideways, backwards, hovering and landing on mountain tops; the development of this amazing machine continues with faster, more efficient and larger aircraft being launched on a regular basis.

As helicopters have developed the pilot workload has been significantly reduced. Automatic pilots, stabilisation systems, digital moving maps, GPS navigation, external cameras and instrument landing systems have all helped to make the helicopter cockpit and safer place to be, allowing the pilot to spend more time looking out of the window.