A Brief History
On June 26, 1936, the Focke-Wulf Fw 61 made its first flight as the world’s first practical helicopter. Introduced into service with the Luftwaffe soon afterwards, the Fw 61 only had 2 copies built, but was a harbinger of things to come. Attempts to invent practical helicopters had been going on for decades, and in various countries, including contemporaneous with the Fw 61. Company namesake Professor Henrich Focke had invented various flying machines, including auto gyros prior to his collaboration with Gerd Achgelis, but the two engineers decided auto gyros were not quite the end result they were looking for, and the quest for true vertical take off and landing continued, until finally the Fw 61 made its maiden flight. A new company was formed reflecting the names of the chief engineers, Focke-Achgelis to develop the Fw 61.
Today helicopters are so ubiquitous that it is hard to imagine life without them, especially in the military and in search and rescue. Of course, many other applications for helicopters exist, including the medical evacuation flight (“Life flight”) that saved the author’s life in 2012. Fire-fighting, police work, industrial lifting, maintenance patrol of high tension lines, anti-drug and anti-submarine patrols, mapping, wildlife management, news reporting, sight-seeing, taking cargo and people to remote places and almost anything else you can think of. Tiny one-person versions to enormous heavy cargo and personnel carriers, including the familiar Marine 1 that carries the American president. Originally powered by gasoline engines, helicopters today are commonly powered by much more powerful turbine (jet) engines. All this began with Fw 61.
While Russian immigrant to the United State Igor Sikorsky is often thought of when discussing the invention of the helicopter, his first practical machine, the Sikorsky R-4, did not fly until 1942 when it also entered service as the first US military helicopter, seeing limited service in World War II. The R-4 was the first mass produced helicopter, with 131 copies made from 1942 to 1944. Sikorsky had previously demonstrated the VS-300 in 1940, showing that he could indeed design a helicopter that worked.
Both the R-4 and the Fw 61 were limited by the amount of power their engines could make and still be light enough to fly vertically. The R-4 had a 165 horsepower engine soon replaced by a 180 horsepower model. The Fw 61 had a 160 horsepower and flew at a top speed of only 56 miles per hour. The lifting capacity of the Fw 61 was only about 330 pounds of fuel and pilot, meaning this first helicopter was not a viable method of attacking with weapons or transporting people and equipment. The main rotor spanned only 23 feet and the empty weight of the machine was 1764 pounds, a tiny helicopter by today’s standards.
A follow on development by the Focke-Achgelis company that actually achieved production status was the much larger and more powerful Fa 223 Drache (Dragon). Starting in 1941, 20 of these machines were built and actually fielded by the German military. With a 40 foot long fuselage and 2 main rotors arrayed in a side by side configuration (mounted on booms extending to each side of the fuselage), the Fa 223 was powered by a 1010 horsepower Bramo radial engine that allowed a lift capacity of over 2000 pounds of cargo (or people) and a top speed of 109 miles per hour while achieving an altitude of just over 8000 feet. Allied bombing in 1942 hampered production of this first operational military helicopter and a second factory was built to replace the first one that was destroyed. That factory was also destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944.
After World War II, helicopter development continued around the world and aviation soon had a true vertical lift capability that was widely available. Probably the biggest advancement in helicopter technology came with the use of turbine engines, which not only provided more power per pound of engine weight, but also used much less flammable jet fuel instead of highly volatile aviation gasoline.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you flown in a helicopter? Do you have any interesting helicopter related stories? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Apostolo, G. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Helicopters. Crescent, 1988.
Chiles, James. The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks: The Story of the Helicopter. Bantam, 2008.