Posted by Crystal Lewis Brown

How the Helicopter's Complexity is Still Influencing Aviation

In the 2015 movie San Andreas, Dwayne Johnson plays a helicopter pilot with the Los Angeles Fire Department looking for his family in the wake of a massive earthquake. In one action-packed scene, Johnson’s character pilots a hovering rescue ‘copter as his ex-wife hops from a crumbling building, eventually making it to safety in the nick of time. A bit dramatic, sure, but the truth is, helicopters are better suited to some tasks than other aircraft because of their ability to fly vertically.

For novices, vertical landing and takeoff -- called VTOL in the industry -- may not seem that difficult a feat. Actually, however, it’s a very complex concept that has continued to evolve throughout the years.

The autogyro, a predecessor to the helicopter, was invented in 1923 by Juan de la Cierva in Spain. Unlike the helicopter, the autogyro used an unpowered rotor on top and flew horizontally, although its hinged rotor blades allowed it to safely descend vertically. That early attempt set the stage for many young, aspiring aviation geeks to embrace the idea of VTOL. Chief among them were Igor Sikorsky and Frank Piasecki who became the first two men to create a viable helicopter in the United States.

The Russian-born Sikorsky came to the United States in 1919 and formed his own aeronautics company, the Sirkorsky Aero Engineering Company in 1923. His first successful helicopter design was the VS-300 in 1939, which included one main rotor and a small auxiliary rotor in the rear to counteract torque. It was the first successful single lifting rotor helicopter in the United States.While it only vaguely resembled the modern helicopter -- the pilot sat uncovered in a seat and the fuselage was similarly open -- it paved the way for future helicopter designs.

The Boeing Company

Igor Sikorsky’s VS-300 becomes the world’s first practical helicopter.

Piasecki, the son of Polish immigrants, grew up in the early 1900s watching the autogyro deliver mail in his hometown of Philadelphia. Like Sikorsky, his childhood interest in aviation didn’t wane as he neared adulthood. Piasecki’s love for flight led to his eventually studying mechanical and aeronautical engineering and, later, designing the PV-2 helicopter that took its first successful flight in 1943. Piasecki’s PV-2 marked just the second viable helicopter to fly in America.

Like many other early aviation innovations, the helicopter was adopted early on by the military. Sikorsky was contracted by the U.S. Army Air Forces to design the R-4, which became the world’s first large-scale mass-produced helicopter. It was also the first helicopter to be used by the U.S. Army Air Forces, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.

For his part, Piasecki was assigned a U.S. Navy contract to design a helicopter capable of carrying heavy loads. The XHRP-X, with its revolutionary tandem rotor design, made its first successful test flight in 1943. Piasecki’s company soon became the only company in the world to produce such aircraft. Other significant designs included the HRP-1, HUP, and the H-21 which were used by both U.S. and international military.

If there were any doubts about the helicopter’s importance to the military, Piasecki’s later designs, which include the CH-46 Sea Knight and the CH-47 Chinook, put them to rest. Both helicopters were used heavily during the Vietnam War and were so integral to the U.S. military that it became known as the “helicopter war.” Helicopters were able to quickly transport troops and provide close air support for ground operations. Helicopters were also able to provide logistical support like resupplying and reinforcing ground troops, as well as evacuating wounded troops in places that would be difficult for airplanes. The Chinook is still in use in over 20 nations today.

The Boeing Company

A Chinook is operated by a crew of three, and can carry up to 55 troops or 24,000 lbs of cargo.

Although drones have surged in popularity over the past few years, we can also credit Piasecki for those. The immediate needs of the military meant that his drone designs from 1955 weren’t widely used, but they served as the basis for today’s drone designs. It’s amazing that Piasecki’s forward-thinking designs are still the crux of newer innovations still today. In fact, as his children uncover some of his unused ideas, they are looking into many of them as viable. It’s easy to imagine a young Piasecki, entranced as he watches aircraft deliver mail and deciding that he too had a vision that would revolutionize aircraft design.

That vision has now become more than that. It’s become a legacy.