Set'er Down in Your Back Yard
April 1943 Popular Mechanics

May 1968 Popular Mechanics
May 1968 Popular Mechanics - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

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Set'er Down in Your Back Yard

By Roderick M. Grant

Fitted with pontoons for landing on water or land, the Sikorsky VS-300 helicopter hovers motionless in air before alighting

Igor Sikorsky beside one of his first helicopters at Kiev, 1908. It was a beginning, but it wouldn't fly

Demonstrating perfect control, the pilot pierces a paper target and gently lifts away a metal loop set in top of a pole

This is no midsummer day's dream. Your next car may be a helicopter.

Pure poppycock, you'll say; the thing is fantastic. For 30 years, if you're that old, you have read tales of that crazy contraption that would hoist itself by its own bootstraps six feet off the ground and then come down to the good earth with a bonebreaking thump. Then you'd drive twelve miles to the airport and watch those $100,000 sky liners climb away gracefully at 125 miles an hour, and if you thought of the helicopter again you wondered why crackpots went on wasting time with these impractical dancing dervishes when the sky was filling with Clippers and Stratoliners and Flying Fortresses.

You have been misled. Alone, since 1908, one man has been laboring to build a craft that you can lift safely from between the cherry trees and the Monday wash line in your urban back yard and set down as gently as a toy balloon between two parked cars.

And lo, the helicopter has arrived. You believe when you see it rise vertically to hover like the frozen motion of a hummingbird, swim backward in air as easily as forward, do a right-about-face with a doughboy's precision and swing from side to side as smoothly as a pendulum.

The thing still looks like the skeleton from an inventor's closet and you subconsciously search the sky for the invisible string from which it must be hanging. But it has arrived at its beginning, and the principal obstacles between the helicopter and your garage are lack of a nickname - helicopter is still a 25-cent word with controversial pronunciation - and lack of a production line.

The nickname is up to you. The production line is up to Igor Sikorsky, the unassuming genius who nursed the unbelievable craft for 31 years before he got it to work, and had time meanwhile to turn out some of the world's largest commercial transoceanic flying boats.

In this panel are the three stages of the experimental helicopter, first of its breed to fly successfully. The original model, above, had outrigger structures extending from the tail, with twin rotors

The outriggers were dropped in the first major revision and a tower over the tail substituted (above), carrying a single rotor. In the present version the tower has been scrapped, pontoons replace wheels

Mr. Sikorsky is a native Russian and today is a more passionate American than you or I. He built his first edition of the helicopter at Kiev in 1908. It looked like a Dutch windmill upended, and it wouldn't fly. That did not discourage Mr. Sikorsky. He built a second helicopter that also didn't fly. Then he began building fixed-wing craft, mostly multi-engine planes, until the tragedies of the bolshevik revolution drove him from his homeland. He translated his endeavors to America, building land planes and amphibions and flying boats. It was a long time before he tackled the wingless machine again, and a flying generation had grown up before the Sikorsky helicopter first thrashed its great arms and rose into space.

Ingenious controls in main rotor mast permit sidewise, backward, forward or vertical maneuvers

That was 1939. In the four years since, 18 major changes have been made in the craft and more are in the making. The original helicopter of 1939 is the same steel dragonfly that darts over the bay at Stratford, Conn., today in absurd aerial evolutions. It is like the Model T Ford that entered its second 100,000 miles with none of its original parts.

Up to this moment Mr. Sikorsky has confined himself to a search for stability, control and smoothness of transmission and rotor operations. Those fundamentals having been solved, save for the refinements time and experience will bring, the inventor will be free after the war to attack the problems of production. They will be simple. Basically the helicopter is a framework of welded steel tubing with a main rotor and a tail rotor driven by a gasoline engine and operated by an ingenious set of controls; it should cost no more than a medium-priced automobile, and it presents much less difficulty than the automobile in mass production. Since the war's end will undoubtedly see a vastly expanded aviation plant seeking peacetime employment, the helicopter should find a home. There will remain the problems of stepping up performance beyond the present easy pace of 80 miles an hour, increasing the capacity of the experimental VS-300 to family size, and convincing you the helicopter is no neck-breaking aerial jungle gym for daredevils but the safest and most convenient aircraft invented for a cliff-dwelling kitchenette civilization.


Its arms thrashing just enough to counteract gravity, the helicopter waits upstairs while its "ground crew" attaches a can of gasoline to line to refuel

Photo-diagram shows the principal elements of control. After the war, you may learn to fly it in an afternoon

So far as the neck-breaking proclivities of this flying machine go, it is significant that Mr. Sikorsky still has his own neck. True, in his pioneer experiments he took the precaution to fly his helicopter as a captive, maneuvering it over the factory yard while assistants restrained it within a safe distance of earth by rope. Now that the controls are perfected the VS-300 hops around as unfettered as a mosquito, which it resembles except for the sting.

"The helicopter can do what no eagle can," says Mr. Sikorsky. "Indeed, it can perform as no other thing on earth - fish, flesh, fowl or mechanical. No eagle can hover. No bird can fly backward. No ship can swim sideways. No plane can rise vertically from a standing start. But, to be quite humble about it, the helicopter can't do much that a mosquito can't do."

At the Sikorsky plant you may meet the only two Americans licensed to fly the only helicopter in the hemisphere. Igor Sikorsky holds No.1 private license. Charles L. Morris, test pilot, holds No.1 commercial license. It is the opinion of these two that you could learn to fly the helicopter in two hours. You will learn more safely than the airplane pilot, for you need not roar across a field at 60 miles an hour to take off or alight. When the helicopter has its day, you can learn by maneuvering the craft through its three-dimensional repertoire while it hangs from its gyrating umbrella, anchored a few feet above the ground by ropes. If your engine fails, you drift to the ground under the restraining influence of the free-wheeling main rotor blades.

Mr. Sikorsky sets the VS-300 down between parked cars, in a space just wide enough to allow clearance of the fourteen-foot main rotor blades

When Mr. Sikorsky established a world's endurance record of 1 hour, 32 minutes and 26.1 seconds in the air on May 6, 1941, the VS-300 was an ungainly skeleton with four fans: a three-bladed main rotor mounted on its complex control tower aft of the pilot, who sat on the nose in quite as exposed a position as the Wright Brothers in their kite of 1905; two smaller horizontal rotors on opposite ends of outrigger structures jutting sidewise from the tail, and a vertical tail rotor with sidewise thrust for turning and torque compensation. The outrigger blades turned in opposite directions and provided lateral (sideways) and longitudinal (fore-and-aft) control.

In the next major stage the outrigger bridgework was shorn off and a tower installed over the tail with a single rotor. This was still crude and clumsy, and on the theory that the simplest structure works best the tower was scrapped after extensive and satisfactory experimentation. The VS-300 had reached substantially its present form. The cockpit was later covered with fabric, and a vertical fabric fin from midsection to tail improved stability. Surviving the innumerable changes are the main rotor consisting of three 14-foot blades turning 260 revolutions per minute in hovering flight, and a single 7-foot 8-inch tail propeller rotating in a vertical plane. The blades of the tail rotor, controlled by rudder pedals, vary from positive to negative in thrust for directional control, and with the pedals neutral there is a slight positive angle in the blades to compensate for the torque of the main lifting rotor. By pressing on either pedal the pilot can turn the helicopter right-about-face in its own length.

In the cyclic pitch control which is the brain of the main rotor lies the greatest investment of genius. Within the last year this has been perfected to the point that the rotor blades, at the command of the conventional stick, change their angle of incidence progressively as they revolve. With the stick forward, for example, each blade increases its pitch as it swings to the rear, is feathered at the sides and is at lowest pitch when it swings in front; the result is to tilt the craft's nose slightly downward for forward flight. With the stick back, the cycle of pitch is reversed and the helicopter goes into retreat. The helicopter engineer, instead of speaking of the wing angle of attack, refers to the inclination of the disc described by the rotor. Tilt the disc to the right and the craft moves in that direction. Similarly, the weight carried is described as disc loading rather than wing loading; that of the VS-300 is 2.25 pounds per square foot of disc.

The stick, operating the cyclic pitch control, determines the direction of flight. At the pilot's left hand is a second control lever which increases or decreases the thrust of the main rotor blades simultaneously to control the rate of ascent or descent. The throttle is synchronized with this to provide automatic change of power as the angle of the blades changes, so that revolutions per minute remain constant. These two levers and the rudders are the controls, simple in operation as they are ingenious and complex in conception.

Recently Mr. Sikorsky has been trying a two-blade main rotor, which would simplify storage. The helicopter still flies with one less blade, but there is more vibration. The difference is that between a 4-cylinder and a 2-cylinder car. It may work yet. The VS-300 with its pilot weighs 1,300 pounds. Mr. Sikorsky sees no reason why a helicopter of 10 tons gross weight, carrying 20 passengers and cargo, cannot be built. The VS-300 flies 70 to 80 miles an hour, 8 miles to the gallon with its 90-horsepower Franklin engine. They can improve those figures when they try.

Before this war is over the helicopter may be in it. It takes little imagination to see the helicopter as an ideal liaison craft, landing in a forest clearing or on a headquarters roof; or as an observation post hovering high above the ocean or battleground; or as an aerial machine-gun nest in lieu of barrage balloons. Rising vertically above a fort or factory it could meet enemy bombers halfway with a hail of bullets. The army tried an autogiro in mock battle against fighter planes and dive bombers some years ago, using cameras for guns. The autogiro got more photographic hits in its gunsights than either of its combatants. The dive bomber can't aim or evade; the pursuit plane is less accurate than the slower autogiro. The helicopter, which can sit still or dodge and keep firing, should out-perform the autogiro, which must keep flying forward for buoyancy.

After the war the helicopter surely will be the aerial runabout, climbing out of the back yard to fly to the grocery or the downtown office or the airport, settling gently into any space large enough to contain its structure. It is not designed for high-speed commercial air travel nor heavy cargo, but it should solve the problem of ferrying passengers from outlying airports into crowded cities.

Fitted with rubber pontoons, the VS-300 is at home, like the Marines, on land - on the sea - and in the air. It lands on your concrete driveway so tenderly the pilot might hold a cup of coffee without spilling. It alights on a back yard pond with scarcely a ripple. In the Sikorsky yard they nose it up to a post and lift a ring off its top, hang it three feet above ground while someone loads a suitcase into a luggage rack on the nose, or poise upstairs while an assistant hooks a can of gasoline on a rope to be hauled up.

The airplane, says Mr. Sikorsky - and he builds them - in spite of its excellent speed and carrying efficiency, is a very helpless machine with respect to points of takeoff and arrival. The helicopter is the most independent creature man has devised.