Any textbook can tell you that American-Russian engineer, Igor Sikorsky, fathered the modern helicopter. However, did you know many people accredit 15th-century Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci, as the person who first conceived the idea? He never built his 1488 design for the ornithopter flying machine. However, it certainly could be seen as the beginning of the history of the helicopter. The rotors on top of the design hint at the same movement that propels helicopters off the ground.
The word helicopter comes from two Greek words: helix (spiral) and pteron (wing). Why? Well, because the original idea gained height from spiral airfoils, a type of wing shape. Although, it didn’t quite work that way in the end. Let’s take a closer look at the history of the helicopter.
The Early, Early History of the Helicopter
The first physical embodiment of a helicopter started with Paul Cornu. He was a French engineer who built and designed the first helicopter that managed to get off the ground. As a result, that makes it the world’s first piloted helicopter. It had two rotating blades moving in opposite directions, and was powered by a 24 horsepower engine.
Vertically mounted rotators served as the focal point of French helicopter designer, Etienne Oehmichen’s, helicopter design. His November 1922 liftoff went down in the history books. It was the first to successfully transport a person.
Oehmichen briefly had his moment in history, but it was the Focke-Wulf Fw 61 which claimed the title of the world’s first fully-functional helicopter. In 1936, German designer Henrich Focke and pilot Gerd Achgelis made history with their invention. Yet, it more resembled an airplane with blades, rather than a modern helicopter.
Then came Igor Sikorsky.
The Modern Helicopter Starts to Take Shape
Sikorsky’s design was the first truly successful helicopter and continues to inspire the creations we know today. Russian-born Sikorsky was a true pioneer of the aviation world, founding the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation in 1923. His first major gift to the helicopter industry was creating the rotor design that most modern copters use today. His second was to invent the world’s first mass-produced helicopter, the Sikorsky R-4.
While his talents are obvious now, he was even a gifted inventor from early on. At the tender age of 12, he built his very first model flying machine—a helicopter powered by rubber bands. From there his interest blossomed and, thanks to a bit of financial backing from his sisters, he went to Paris to study aviation.
His initial major foray into the aviation industry was his development of the first four-engine bomber, which was used by the Russians in World War I. However, it wasn’t until 1939 that he got his first helicopter off the ground—a successful tethered flight.
Eight months after that, he had successfully completed his first free flight.
The Helicopter We Know Today
After seeing its potential, inventors looked to build upon the success of Sikorsky’s model and improve the design. The first to make significant improvements was one Stanley Hiller, Jr. His 100 percent metal rotor blades made it much easier for pilots to hit faster speeds.
In addition to his engineering success, Hiller Jr. had more to his name. He was also the first person to successfully fly a helicopter across the US, achieving his record in 1949.
The second major improvement to the helicopter came from Arthur Young, a designer for the Bell Aircraft Company. His helicopter, the Bell Model 47, was the first to utilize a full bubble canopy, making it much easier for pilots to see where they’re going. Something we can all be grateful for!
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