Rotary Action logo by Mike Pepper military helicopter A GUIDE TO HELICOPTERS  
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In 15th century Italy, famous artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) produced this sketch of a "helical air screw" to be powered by a wound-up spring. Although this device, with its rotating spiral to provide lift, was never built - it is one of the earliest drawings of a helicopter machine.

da Vinci's helicopter
Ukranian engineer Igor Sikorsky (1889 - 1972) is credited with building the world's first helicopter in 1909, but it was more than 25 years before early practical machines - like the VS-300 (pictured) were flown in prewar trials.

"The helicopter approaches closer than any other [vehicle] to fulfilment of mankind's ancient dreams of the flying horse and the magic carpet." - Igor Sikorsky
early helicopter VS-300
The science fiction dream of a flying car reached prototype stage back in the mid-1930s, when the Autogyro Corporation of America, a company set up by Harold Pitcairn to pursue rotary-wing development, in concert with Spanish inventor of the autogyro Juan de la Cierva, built the Pitcairn AC-35, a "roadable autogyro" (flown by test pilot Jim Ray), which reached a speed of 115 mph in the sky but managed only 25 mph on the ground. The AC-35 is on display in the National Air and Space Museum.

[Further reading: Legacy of Wings, The Harold F. Pitcairn Story by Frank Kingston Smith]

AC-35 autogyro
By 1936, German inventor Professor Heinrich Focke had one of the first true helicopters, the FA-61 (built by the Focke-Achgelis company). It could fly at 75 mph for up 150 miles, and was flown by female test pilot Hanna Reitsch (1st charter member of Whirly-Girls, founded in 1955 by Jean Ross Howard). But even though the Luftwaffe carried out successful tests with later versions - such as the FA 223 (pictured), useful for airlift duties, and as a spotter plane in the early 1940s - very few helicopters saw action during WWII.
Focke 223
Britain was the first nation to use helicopters during wartime, when a Sikorsky R-4 'Hoverfly' rescued a pilot and three injured passengers from a plane crash in mountains of northern Burma, April 1944.

Floyd Bennett airfield in Brooklyn, NY was made a US Coast Guard training facility during the 1940s. In the summer of 1944, Igor Sikorsky visited the base to help demonstrate a lifting hoist on a Sikorsky NHS-1 helicopter (on loan from US Navy) piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Frank Erickson.

the RAF-4
HNS-1 rescue demo

In the Autumn of 1946, a 50 mile point-to-point race was staged between a commuter train, a motor car, a 200 mph Lockheed Lodestar airplane and an S-51 - the world's first civilian helicopter. It was organised by Russian defector and inventor Igor Sikorsky to effectively prove the worth of his creation as a means of public transportation. The race began from a small heliport behind the Bridgeport, Connecticut base of Sikorsky Aircraft and ended in a field behind the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Corporation building in nearby East Hartford - a distance of 50 miles by air. As expected, the Sikorsky helicopter won, landing on the P&W terrace (see picture) just 31 minutes later. The airplane passengers arrived in second place (after only 21 minutes flying time) but they were delayed by having to drive to and from airports to catch their flight. The motorist (a woman driver!) came third, taking 95 minutes on the state highway - where she was stopped by the cops for speeding. The train journey took over two hours, and was in fact running hehind the scheduled timetable.
S-51 at Pratt and Whitney

In 1956, American inventor Stanley Hiller Jr built the unique Rotorcycle XROE-1 (pictured), a mini-helicopter capable of 80 mph. This foldaway unit could be easily assembled in a few minutes without any special tools.

Designed by Arthur M. Young, the Bell 47 was produced in the thousands from 1946-74, and made in several variants.

While in training for Apollo 11, astronaut Neil Armstrong used a Bell 47 (pictured, right) when practicing for his 1969 landing on the Moon.

A modified Bell 47 was used as the Batcopter in a 1966 movie.
Bell 47
America began production of the Bell UH-1, "Huey" - utility helicopter (first flown in 1956) in 1959, and this was deployed in the Vietnam War during the 1960s, as a troop transport for 'Air Cavalry' forces, and medevac duties, then later for airborne assault to protect ground troops.

For more about the use of Hueys in Vietnam, see movies like Apocalypse Now and We Were Soldiers.
Bell UH-1 Huey
The Hughes Helicopters 500 series was derived from the US military's OH-6A Cayuse, which first flew on 27 February 1963, and was chosen by the army as their preferred 'Light Observation Helicopter' (nicknamed 'Loach'). Many variations of the 500 family (aka: 369), were built from 1960s to 1990s, for military and civil use, and the 'flying egg' (as it's sometimes nicknamed) became one of the most popular helicopters ever seen in cinema and TV. Hughes Helicopters (founded by the legendary Howard Hughes), was bought out by McDonnell Douglas in 1984, though MD itself merged with Boeing in 1997, only for its commercial line to be sold off by Boeing two years later.
Hughes OH-64
In 1967, the French-built Aerospatiale (Eurocopter) SA 341 Gazelle became the first helicopter to feature a 'fenestron' tail rotor, which reduces noise levels. Similar enclosed tail-rotor designs have since appeared on Eurocopter's Dauphin 2, and Boeing/Sikorsky's 'stealth' Comanche. Other versions of the Gazelle were built in UK by Westland Aerospace. Alongside Westland's Lynx, Gazelles are now in service with British Army Air Corps' helicopter display team, The Blue Eagles.

In 1983, Hollywood's action movie Blue Thunder used a modified and customised Gazelle as the 'prototype' armed police helicopter of the title.
Gazelle photo by Ian Britton ©
Gazelle photo (c)

With its commando-helicopter imagery, the official badge for German 'special forces' team GSG9 (formed in 1973), gets the Rotary Action seal of approval!
GSG9 badge

First flown in 1975 (as YAH-64), the Boeing (McDonnell Douglas) AH-64 Apache attack helicopter is one of the most successful army gunships in service, with over 1,000 built in various types since 1984. Most versions carry a Longbow radar mast above the four-blade rotors. This hi-tech military chopper is showcased in the exceptional 'rotary action' film Wings Of The Apache (aka: Firebirds). US Apache pilots have a saying: "Don't bother running, you'll die tired."
Boeing MD AH-64 Apache
The biggest helicopter in the world (pictured) is Russia's heavy duty Mil Mi-26 Halo, which first flew in 1977. Over 200 have been built, and the mighty Halo is able to lift payloads of 20,000 kilos, in a cargo bay similar to a C-130 Hercules transport plane. Halo can cruise at 250 kph with 70 passengers or 80 troops, and has been used as an airborne hospital and a flying tanker.
Mil Mi-26 Halo
Made in 1977, Triceracopter: 'The Hope for the Obsolescence of War' was created by Pat Renick, as response to conflict in Vietnam. It combines a dinosaur with parts of US Army's OH-6A Cayuse helicopter.
Since 1979, the Robinson R22 has become the world's best-selling light chopper, used for everything from business transport, aerial photography, police patrols, cattle herding, and pilot training. It's the cheapest helicopter on the market, and boasts the lowest operating and maintenance costs.
Robinson R22 Beta
The forward velocity of any helicopter is limited due to vibration stresses on the tips of leading rotor blades as they approach the speed of sound. On 11th August 1986, the current world speed record for a helicopter was set by a British GKN Westland Lynx (G-LYNX, piloted by Trevor Egginton), when a test flight with experimental rotor blades topped 400 kph (249 mph) over a 15-kilometre course.

This famous Lynx is now on display at the Helicopter Museum in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.
Lynx helicopter
Although there were several experimental helicopters and prototypes without tail rotors, such as the Hiller J-10, and McDonnell's XH-20 'Little Henry' (the world's first ram-jet helicopter, built in 1947), it wasn't until 2 July 1991 that the very first McDonnell Douglas 500 series' NOTAR (No Tail Rotor) chopper got airborne, later to become the world's quietest production helicopter in the 1990s.

The MD 520N's first screen appearance was during the action movie, Speed.
MD Explorer
Expert pilot Ron Bower, founder of Bower Helicopters, set a new around-the-world speed record in 1996, flying a Bell 430. He took 17 days, 6 hours, 14 minutes to circumnavigate the globe.
Bell 430, around the world flight
This picture was doing the rounds on the Internet in 2002, titled - Having a Bad Day at Work? Reportedly, it was chosen as a 'picture of the year', but it turned out to be fake. A clever hoax though, it recalls the movie Jaws 2 (1978), in which a monster shark attacks and tries to eat a rescue helicopter. It also resembles the funny scene in Batman: The Movie (1966), where the caped crusader is menaced by a shark when he climbs down a rope ladder from the bat-copter!
having a bad day
On 23 February 2004, the Pentagon officially axed the futuristic Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche 'stealth' attack helicopter (first flown on 4 January 1996). After 20 years development at a reported cost of more than $30 billion, the US military cancelled the whole programme for this highly advanced rotorcraft, originally intended to spearhead US Army aviation plans for the 21st century. Cruising at 165 knots, the Comanche was able to turn in only 4.5 seconds, fly sideways or backwards at 70 mph, and climb at a rate of 1,400 feet per minute. This helicopter's only feature movie appearance was in Ang Lee's magnificent Hulk.
Comanche cancelled
On the 14th May 2005, a Eurocopter A-Star AS350-B3 Ecureuil made an historic landing on the peak of Mount Everest (29,035 ft). Flying in good weather, the test pilot for this high-altitude publicity stunt was Didier Delsalle, who stayed on the mountain-top for two minutes before returning safely to base-camp. The record-breaking flight was then repeated on the following day.
A-Star flies to Everest
What's interesting about this poster artwork for a UFO con (Las Vegas, 2005) is that it puts a likeness of Soviet-era gunships (Mil Mi-24 Hind) in the foreground, with the Comanche stealth helicopter (an unfinished defence programme recently axed by the Pentagon) in the background. Using generic rotorcraft images to promote such an event seems amusing, but also - perhaps, tellingly - comments upon the paranoid concerns of some UFO cults: a secret collaboration between Russian and American military forces to retrieve crashed flying saucers? Oh, there must be a global conspiracy!
UFO crash con
The world's first hotelicopter (18 rooms with five-star facilities) - a customised and refitted Soviet-built Mil V-12 helicopter... but it's simply another hoax, unleashed on 1st April 2009.
publicity roll-out | heliport ground crew

Hotelicopter hoax