When most people think of the helicopter, they will often talk about commercial and military aircraft. As there is an emphasis on how the latest technology is changing the industry. A good example of this occurred, in May 2011 when the U.S. Navy Seals used a special rotor that could not be heard in surrounding area or seen on radar. This is illustrating the advancements in the helicopter technology over the last few years. To fully understand what is happening requires carefully examining its development. Once this takes place, is when the recent innovations will highlight a trend that has been occurring since the aircraft was first placed into active use during the Second World War. (Emspak, 2011) (Patillo, 2001, pp. 142 — 148)
Early History of the Helicopter
The early history of the helicopter dates back to around 400 BC. This is when the Chinese theorized that some kind of flying machine could be developed based upon a child’s toy that involved a single spinning piece at the top. Then, in the 1480s Leonardo Di Vinci created the first design based on what he called an aerial screw. This helped to give Russian and French scientists from the 1750s to the 1780s a foundation to work off of. They created a design that was based on two counter rotators to help the machine remain stable in flight. (Leishman, 2006, pp. 18 — 35) (McGowan, 2003, pp. 1 — 22)
However, it was not until the 1860s and 1870s when there were different prototypes developed by French scientists. Their design was based on a single blade that utilized steam to fuel the machine. This is when the term helicopter was first used. Despite the improvements in technology, no one was able to make any kind of significant breakthroughs in flight. Instead, many of these machines were considered to be dangerous based upon: the inability to hover in one place and conduct vertical takeoffs / landings safely. (Leishman, 2006, pp. 18 — 35) (McGowan, 2003, pp. 1 — 22)
A good example of this occurred, in 1885 when Thomas Edison hired John Bennett Jr. To create a vertical machine that was capable of moving in different directions. Despite several innovations and breakthroughs (i.e. The use of the internal combustion engine), the project resulted in the explosion and injury of several workers. However, despite these setbacks the foundation from Edison’s research created enough of a blue print for future breakthroughs. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 1 — 22)
This occurred when Slovak inventor Jan Bayhil developed the first working prototype of a machine powered by a gasoline engine. On May 5, 1905 his machine hovered for a total of four meters (in the course of five minutes). This was the first successful test flight of the helicopter. However, Edison continued with his work and patented his own device in 1906 (although it never flew). At the same time, French inventors created their own prototypes that were tested and flew longer than the experiments conducted by the Bayil. These developments set the stage for future innovations in helicopters. This would lead to it becoming the aircraft of choice for many organizations. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 1 — 22) (“Pioneers,” 2012)
New Developments in Technology
Throughout the early 20th century, the French continued with their developments into the helicopter. The most significant breakthroughs occurred in 1920. This is when Argentine Pescara created a new design that helped to improve the ability of the machine to remain stable during flight. As a result, he designed an aircraft that had wings and a single (cylindrical looking) rotator. This allowed their machine to climb higher and remain controlled during vertical takeoffs / hovering. The combination of these factors created a situation where the helicopter became an aircraft that could evolve into a reliable transportation solution. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 1 — 22) (“Pioneers,” 2012)
However, there were still tremendous innovations that were required for conducting any kind of successful tests (to show that the helicopter was reliable and safe). As a result, the British government provided direct funding to Pescara. He was able to develop a machine that was capable of maintaining flight for ten minutes. Then, in 1924 Etinne Oehmichen created his own helicopter that was able to fly a total of 360 meters. This sparked a competition between Oehmichen and Pescara. In this case, Pescara was able to improve his helicopter and fly it for a distance of 736 meters. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 1 — 22) (“Pioneers,” 2012)
This inspired other inventors around the world to create their own helicopters based on the rotor engine design. It is at this point that aggressive research was started in locations such as: the United States, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia and Germany. The techniques and prototypes that were created and tested, demonstrated how the helicopter could be used for both civilian and military purposes. Throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, these innovators demonstrated how this could play a major part in a host of activities. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 1 — 22) (“Pioneers,” 2012)
Then in 1936, Nazi Germany introduced and began utilizing the Focke-Wulf FW 6. This helicopter was capable of maintaining a flight envelope and had more maneuverability in comparison with previous models. During the initial testing, these different factors allowed the aircraft to break all of the previous records that had been established. As a result, the Germans began using helicopters to travel longer distances. However, the German high command was not completely convinced about the durability and limited the use of the aircraft to mainly: transport, observation along with medical evacuation. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 1 — 22) (“Pioneers,” 2012) (Loeing, 1944, pp. 24 — 25) (Patillo, 2001, pp. 142 — 148)
In the United States, Igor Sirkorsky worked exclusively with the Army to develop a helicopter which could be used for: transportation, evacuation and possibly more. The results were the introduction of the single engine VS 300 and R. 4. Like with Nazi Germany, the Allies were not completely convinced about the practical applications of the helicopter in warfare. This caused them to limit its usage. However, there was support inside the Navy, Coast Guard and Army who found useful purposes for the aircraft. In the case of the Navy and Coast Guard, they started using the helicopter to conduct observation missions and patrols of commercial areas. This was designed to help prevent u boat attacks on allied shipping lanes. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 25-48) (Johnson, 1994, pp. 3 — 27) (Loeing, 1944, pp. 24 — 25) (Patillo, 2001, pp. 142 — 148)
At the same time, the U.S. Army and the British would use the helicopter for missions involving transportation and evacuation of critical personnel. This occurred in areas such as: Burma, Alaska and other locations with rough terrain. Despite its limited usage, Sirkorsky continued to innovate and develop new models (i.e. The R. 5 and the R. 6). As the war was ending, he established an industry that was selling its products to the military. Moreover, he was continuing to demonstrate how the aircraft could be utilized for a wide variety of purposes. The combination of these factors, created a situation where helicopter went from an experimental device to a machine that was capable of addressing a wide variety of needs. From select points-of-view, these advantages of the helicopter are what helped to build its following. During World War II, the advancements in the technology allowed for aircraft remain stable. This is when it became the tool of choice for flying into locations that were difficult for airplanes. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 25-48) (Johnson, 1994, pp. 3 — 27) (Loeing, 1944, pp. 24 — 25) (Patillo, 2001, pp. 142 — 148)
The Application of Commercial and Military Use
After the end of World War II, is when there would be transformations in helicopter design and usage. The biggest change occurred during the 1950s with the introduction of the turbo prop engine. What happened was the U.S. Navy began work on developing an aircraft that could fly further than any other prototype that was developed. After years of research, Charles Kammen created the K225 Skycopter. This was smaller and had greater amounts of maneuverability in comparison with models that were using the roto block engines. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 51-121) (“A History of Helicopter Flight,” 2010)
At the same time, the body was redesigned to be longer and more aero dynamic. The combination of these factors helped the helicopter to fly greater distances. During this time, is when the practical applications for commercial and military use were continually evolving. These innovations improved the reliability of the aircraft. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 51-121) (“A History of Helicopter Flight,” 2010)
During the late 1950s and into the 1960s, is when designers in the United States, Europe and Russia began to work on other models using turbo prop technology. This involved the creation of different models using one single blade. While at other times, this took place utilizing two traditional rotator blades. This was in response to the U.S. wanting more helicopters to play a role in warfare. As a result, a number of different models were developed to provide the military with the tools to meet their needs. A few of the most notable include: Sirkorsky Sea King, the UH-1 Huey, the Chapter 46 / 47 and the AH-1 Super Cobra. These different designs are showing how the technology evolved, as military planners could begin using the helicopter during various operations. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 51-121) (“A History of Helicopter Flight,” 2010)
The advancements that were made in military technology meant that the civilian sector began to use helicopters for practical applications. Some good examples of this usage includes: observation and transportation. In general, there are different kinds of organizations that will utilize this aircraft to include: law enforcement agencies, news outlets, hospitals and wealthy individuals. This is illustrating how industry has continued to evolve and innovate. As a result, helicopters became practical aircraft that could be used to perform a host of different functions. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 51-121) (“A History of Helicopter Flight,” 2010)
At the same time, the Russians were able to make similar advancements with helicopter. In this case, they created the KA 25 Hormone (for anti-submarine usage), the MI 8 / MI 24 Hind and the KA 32 Helix (for transportation). These aircraft were designed to provide the military with the ability to: monitor, transport and attack potential targets. These different factors are illustrating how during the Cold War, this technology was used to give some kind of tactical advantage to either side. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 51-121) (“Soviet and Russian Helicopters,” 2012)
Helicopter Development from the 1970s Onward
Since the 1970s, the development of helicopter technology has been continuing to evolve. This is because their roles for commercial and military applications are increasing exponentially. In many cases, different innovations have been occurring about how to be able to make the aircraft faster, lighter and capable of flying longer distances. The results are that the military has been continuing to lead the way as far as innovation is concerned. This occurred with the development of the Blackhawk and Apache attack helicopters. Both of these aircraft were designed to keep the noise down and reduce the amounts of drag. At the same time, different kinds of weapon systems and electronics were introduced (which gave the pilot the ability to see everything that is taking place on the ground). (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219)
The combination of the factors meant that many civilian models would embrace similar designs and use select aspects of their technology to achieve specific objectives. Until the downfall of the Soviet Union, most of the innovations that were taking place were based on specific military applications. The research in these areas; opened the door for the development of aircraft which is being used in commercial activities. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219)
However, after the end of the Cold War is when more manufacturers were becoming involved in the production of helicopters. This began to occur in locations such as: Europe, Japan, China and India. What these manufacturers were doing, was to take the basic designs that were created in the U.S. Or the Soviet Union. Then, begin to generate their own models that were focused on new engines that were developed locally. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219)
A good example of this can be seen with Huey and Kamov models. During the Cold War, these were considered to be the aircraft of choice for transportation and observation. However, nearly 50 years after the first prototypes were designed many of these helicopters are still considered to be very reliable. As a result, the manufacturers of both aircraft have been working with foreign-based firms to help them develop these products under a sub-licensing agreement. This is providing the civilian sector with even more aircraft (which can be used to deal with a variety of challenges facing an organization). (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219)
At the same time, the Europeans created their own venture for developing new helicopters called MIL. They would form various alliances with established defense manufacturers and created their own designs. This helped to provide more models that were available to the civilian aircraft industry. Once this occurs, is when there were more choices and the underlying costs of purchasing / maintaining the aircraft came down. These elements are illustrating how the development of helicopter was focused on military application. When this happened, is the point that many of these innovations were passed on the private sector (who began to utilize this aircraft for a host of purposes). (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219)
The Future of Helicopter Innovations
In the future, the military will more than likely lead any kind of development into new technology related to helicopters. The reason why is because, many of these applications are necessary to help the armed forces deal with the changing nature of the threat they are facing. Evidence of this can be seen by looking no further than the Osprey aircraft. This was designed to provide the U.S. military with added amounts flexibility by combining fixed wing and helicopter technology together. The results were that the aircraft had challenges during the takeoffs and landings (which resulted in several different accidents). (“A History of Helicopter Flight,” 2010) (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219)
However, research and development are continuing with the Osprey slowly starting to become a potential aircraft that will replace the Black Hawk (as the primary troop carrier for the U.S.). Once this happens, is when the civilian sector and other U.S. allies will be able to create similar kinds of helicopters (based on the track record that was established). This is illustrating how the trends of military are leading to continuing innovation. In the future, this will result in more makes and models available to the civilian market. (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219) (“A History of Helicopter Flight,” 2010)
Moreover, any kind of new innovations will involve some kind of changes to the actual design of the helicopter. Once of the best examples of this can be seen with the use of stealth technology. What is happening is the military is realizing that certain modifications can be made to aircraft that will give U.S. forces an advantage (when conducting different kinds of operations around the globe). (Emspak, 2011) (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219)
Recently, some of these innovations were brought to light when the U.S. Navy Seals conducted the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. One of the biggest challenges facing helicopter designers is the noise that is made from the aircraft itself. This is because helicopters have shorter rotator blades and they are flying lower to the ground. During the flight, this will help to prevent the aircraft from being seen on radar. However, everyone on the ground will know that there is a helicopter flying in the area. (Emspak, 2011) (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219)
To mitigate this, the U.S. has been working on technology that will nearly eliminate the noise. What is happening is the single rotor blade on top and the bottom of helicopter will make tremendous amounts of sound when the aircraft is approaching. This is because the two blades must carry the entire weight of the helicopter and its passengers. When this occurs, the blades are forced to work harder (which will result in greater amounts of noise). To reduce this, engineers have created a design that involves two rotator blades at the front. While in the back, there is no rear rotator blade. Instead, this area will provide stability based on the jet flow patterns of the air. The combination of these factors will reduce the total amounts of noise that can be heard on the ground. (Emspak, 2011) (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219)
In the case of Bin Laden raid, the Navy Seals arrived at his compound using this technology. This allowed them to entire the location and kill Bin Laden without letting anyone in the area know what was happening. As a result, this example is illustrating how the military has been focused on designing aircraft that is quieter and can be used for a host of functions. In the future, this means that many of the designs will often take these kinds of factors into account. (Emspak, 2011) (McGowan, 2003, pp. 143-219)
Clearly, the technology that is utilized in helicopters is continually changing. The main reason is from the military having different needs. This has forced to designers to create makes and models that will address these requirements. Over the course of time, this allows the civilian sector to use many of these techniques in creating their own helicopters.
In the future, there will be continuing research and development into making the aircraft more efficient. The most recent innovations have been focused on combining fixed wing elements with helicopter technology (the Osprey). This is supposed to give the military the ability to use the aircraft for different purposes.
The combination of these factors are illustrating how in the future, helicopters will be quieter and they will severe a number of functions. This will give military planners around the world more tools they can use when conducting various operations. For the civilian sector, this will provide everyone with a large choice of models and features. As a result, these kinds of innovations will continue with the military conducting the primary research in these areas and passing it onto others. This is the historical trends associated with the development of this aircraft.
A History of Helicopter Flight. (2010). University of Maryland. Retrieved from:
Pioneers. (2012). Helis. Retrieved from: http://www.helis.com/pioneers/1900.php
Soviet and Russian Helicopter. (2012). U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. Retrieved from:
Emspak, J. (2011). How to Make Helicopters Stealthy. Discovery News. Retrieved from:
Loeing, G. (1944). Limitations of the Helicopter. Flying Magazine 35 (1), 24 — 25.
Johnson, W. (1994). Helicopter Theory. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Leishman, G. (2006) Principles of Helicopter Aerodynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McGowan, S. (2003). Helicopters: An Illustrated History. Santa Barbra, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Patillo, D. (2001). Pushing the Envelope. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
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