Aviation Safety in History

Aviation Safety in History

1907-The Helicopter's Chaotic Beginnings
by Guy Houdin, Chief, Aviation Terminology Standardization, Policy and Regulatory Services, Civil Aviation, Transport Canada

In those days, the safety of humans and machines was a concept that was buried in the subconscious. What mattered most was rising up, flying in the air, and landing without damaging the machine, or "beating up" the pilot. But first, the sky had to be conquered and mastered.

On July 14, 2007, I was watching the military parade, celebrating France's National Day in Paris, on television. Approximately one hundred aircraft had been invited to the event. The airplanes started the procession down the Champs-élysées, followed by the troops on foot and in vehicles, and then about 30 helicopters brought up the rear. When you could barely see them, high above the La Défense office towers, the reporter mentioned that 2007 was the 100th anniversary of rotary wing flight. Today, this flying machine is found in the sky everywhere; it is used in theatres of military operations, in sea and mountain rescue operations, in the transport of goods and personnel to areas that are otherwise inaccessible, and in firefighting operations-it is part of our visual landscape.

Yet, how many people know the name of the person who made the first free flight? His name is Paul Cornu. Paul (1881–1944) was, just like his father before and with him, an inspired handyman and inventor; they both sold cycles and repaired bicycles and sewing machines. At 14, he invented an incubator temperature control system, and later a motorized tricycle, a thermal clock, and, with his father, an "ultralight cart" with two engines, which reached a speed of 70 km/h. In 1905, Paul Cornu became interested in aviation. Everyone has heard of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, and his dreams of flying machines and all kinds of ornithopters. However, it was only four centuries later that his intuitions took shape. Cornu first perfected a 14-kg scale model, equipped with a 2-hp Buchet engine; a replica of the machine on board of which, on November 13, 1907, he would conduct the first free flights with an engine and pilot on board-one up to 30 cm above the ground, and the other up to 1.50 m.

Paul Cornu

Paul Cornu
Photo courtesy of http://www.bmlisieux.com/, with permission.

The machine weighed 203 kg, and was powered by a 24-hp Antoinette engine, that rotated at 900 rpm. It was made up of two rotors that were six metres in diameter, and powered by a 22-m belt, and "deflector planes" that would allow for directional control and turning. Even though Paul Cornu and his brother were the only ones to witness this first successful flight, and although others before him-such as Léger in Monaco, Bréguet and Vollumard in Douai, France-had some good, but less convincing, attempts, historians retained November 13, 1907, as the birth date of free flight by a rotary wing aircraft.

Paul Cornu's helicopter

Paul Cornu's helicopter
Photo courtesy of http://www.bmlisieux.com/, with permission.

Knowledge and technique slowly improved. In Issy-les-Moulineaux, France, in the early 1920s, Raoul Pateras conducted a five-minute flight, skimming the ground, and thought up the "possibility of autorotational landing." In 1923, the Spaniard Juan de la Cierva discovered how to make the "autogyro" sustain controlled flight, using hinged blades. But it was at the end of the Second World War, thanks to Sikorsky, an American engineer born in Russia, that the helicopter went beyond being a dream and a prototype to enter into an era of technical and functional efficiency. Fulfilling civil and military missions in areas where airplanes are of no use, these machines, which are able to hover and land on a postage stamp, have become vital. Many people who have been careless in the mountains, or devastated by natural disasters or accidents, owe their lives to these machines that bring hope from the sky.

The French version was based on information taken from: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Cornu (the list of authors may be found at http://fr.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Paul_Cornu&action=history), and on the article "Il y a cent ans, volait le premier hélicoptère," Air &Cosmos, Issue 2087, July 20, 2007.

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