History of the Helicopter

All About Igor Sikorsky and Other Early Flight Pioneers

Helicopter flying over Washington, D.C. on an overcast day.

Driendl Group/Stone/Getty Images

During the mid-1500s, Italian inventor and artist Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) made drawings of an ornithopter flying machine, a fantastical machine that might have flapped its wings like a bird and that some experts say inspired the modern helicopter. In 1784, French inventors named Launoy and Bienvenue demonstrated a toy to the French Academy that had a rotary-wing that could lift and fly. The toy proved the principle of helicopter flight.

Origins of the Name

In 1863, the French writer Gustave de Ponton d'Amécourt (1825–1888) was the first person to coin the term "helicopter" from the Greek words "helix" for spiral and "pter" for wings.

The very first piloted helicopter was invented by French engineer Paul Cornu (1881–1944) in 1907. However, his design did not work, and French inventor Etienne Oehmichen (1884–1955) was more successful. He built and flew a helicopter one kilometer in 1924. Another early helicopter that flew for a decent distance was the German Focke-Wulf Fw 61, invented by an unknown designer.

Who Invented the Helicopter?

The Russian-American aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky (1889–1972) is considered to be the "father" of helicopters, not because he was the first to invent it, but because he invented the first successful helicopter upon which further designs were based.

One of aviation's greatest designers, Sikorsky began work on helicopters as early as 1910. By 1940, Sikorsky's successful VS-300 had become the model for all modern single-rotor helicopters. He also designed and built the first military helicopter, the XR-4, which he delivered to the U.S. Army in 1941.

Sikorsky's helicopters had the control capabilities to fly safely forwards and backward, up and down and sideways. In 1958, Sikorsky's rotorcraft company made the world's first helicopter that had a boat hull. It could land and take off from the water; and floated on water as well.

Stanley Hiller

In 1944, U.S. inventor Stanley Hiller, Jr. (1924–2006) made the first helicopter with all-metal rotor blades that were very stiff. They allowed the helicopter to fly at speeds much faster than before. In 1949, Stanley Hiller piloted the first helicopter flight across the United States, piloting a helicopter that he invented called the Hiller 360.

In 1946, U.S. pilot and pioneer Arthur M. Young (1905–1995) of the Bell Aircraft company designed the Bell Model 47 helicopter, the first helicopter to have a full bubble canopy and the first certified for commercial use.

Well-Known Helicopter Models Throughout History

SH-60 Seahawk
The UH-60 Black Hawk was fielded by the Army in 1979. The Navy received the SH-60B Seahawk in 1983 and the SH-60F in 1988.

HH-60G Pave Hawk
The Pave Hawk is a highly-modified version of the Army Black Hawk helicopter and features an upgraded communication and navigation suite. The design includes an integrated inertial navigation/global positioning/Doppler navigation system, satellite communications, secure voice, and Have Quick frequency-hopping communications.

CH-53E Super Stallion
The Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion is the largest helicopter in the western world.

CH-46D/E Sea Knight
The CH-46 Sea Knight was first procured in 1964.

AH-64D Longbow Apache
The AH-64D Longbow Apache is the most advanced, versatile, survivable, deployable, and maintainable multi-role combat helicopter in the world.

Paul E. Williams (U.S. patent #3,065,933)
On November 26, 1962, African-American inventor Paul E. Williams patented a helicopter named the Lockheed Model 186 (XH-51). It was a compound experimental helicopter, and only 3 units were built.

Sources and Further Information

  • Fay, John Foster. "The Helicopter: History, Piloting, and How it Flies." Sterling Book House, 2007. 
  • Leishman, J. Gordon. "Principles of Helicopter Aerodynamics." Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Prouty, Raymond W., and H. C. Curtiss, "Helicopter Control Systems: A History." Journal of Guidance, Control, and Dynamics 26.1 (2003): 12–18.