The helicopter wasn’t invented by a single person.

Instead, the principle behind helicopter flight and rotary flight was supposedly first used in ancient Chinese toys.

Leonardo da Vinci was the first person to design a rotary-power aircraft, but he never built it.

Subsequent engineers and inventors from Spain, Russia, and France would design and build different rotary-powered aircraft with varying success.

Russian aviator Igor Sikorsky developed the world’s first mass-produced helicopter, the XR-7 in 1942.

Helicopters became increasingly common for both civilian and military use since then.

Modern helicopters are extremely sophisticated compared with their predecessors.

Early Helicopter Designs

Leonardo da Vinci sketched the earliest helicopter designs during the late 15th century.

His helicopter designs were supposedly inspired by Chinese propeller-based toys that reached Europe during the Renaissance. 

Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonsov designed a 2 propeller rotary model to lift meteorological instruments in the air in 1754.

The French inventors Launoy and Bienvenu built a rotary wing toy that flew based on the same principle as helicopter flight in 1774. 

First Helicopter Flights

The French writer Ponton D’Amecourt designed a working coaxial propeller flying machine in 1863 after coining the term ‘helicopter’ in 1861.

Paul Cornu then completed the world’s first piloted helicopter flight in 1907.

Cornu’s twin-rotor helicopter flew one foot (0.3m) off the ground for 20 seconds, but the design was unsuccessful. 

Berliner created a 36-horsepower engine in 1908, which lifted him and John Newton Williams 3 feet off the ground.

Berliner later built several more helicopters and suggested using auxiliary tail rotors, a standard helicopter feature today, for stabilizing flight. 

Early Developments

A 25-year-old Spanish engineer, De La Cierva, built the Autogiro No.4, an airplane with a propeller instead of wings in 1923.

The Autogiro 1923 flight is widely considered the start of helicopter flights.

Subsequently, the Berliner family built a hybrid helicopter that could rise 15 feet in 1924. 

First Practical Rotorcraft

Heinrich Focke and Gerd Achgelis built and flew the Focke-Wulf FW 61 in 1937.

The Focke-Wulf FW 61 was similar to Cierva’s designs, but had powered rotors instead of a propeller. 

Russian aviator Igor Sikorsky flew his prototype VS-300 in 1939.

The aircraft hovered several times but remained tethered to the ground.

The VS-300 subsequently completed its first free flight in 1940, and broke the world helicopter endurance record in 1941.

The VS-300 is often considered one of, if not the first, real helicopter. 

First Mass-Produced Helicopters

Igor Sikorsky, after accepting a $50,000 contract with the U.S. Army Air Corps, built the world’s first mass-produced helicopter, the XR-4, in January 1942.

The XR-4 is considered America’s first helicopter, and it was used by both the US and British militaries. 

First Turbine-Powered Helicopters

Charles Kaman created the world’s first turbine powered helicopter in 1951 by refitting a K-225 Synchropter with a Boeing 502 turboshaft engine.

Kaman’s design suffered from only moving at three-quarters the speed of existing rotorcraft, but he paved the way for future turbine-powered helicopters. 

Helicopters Today

Modern day helicopters are efficient rotorcraft used for both civilian and military purposes.

Today’s choppers can hover at altitudes over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and fly several hundreds miles. 

Modern helicopters can also be fitted with missiles, advanced flight control systems, navigational systems, and computers.

So, they’re very sophisticated compared to their mechanical predecessors. 

Currently, aviation engineers are improving helicopter designs by increasing flight times, improving fuel use, and increasing stability and comfort.

The Future of Helicopter Designs

Future helicopters will likely have superior navigation and control systems, along with better flight performance, and improved fuel efficiency.

Military choppers will likely be the most advanced future helicopters. 

The biggest goal of military helicopter engineers is to increase stealth in military helicopters.

Countries like the US, China, and Russia are all developing better helicopter stealth technology. 

Another ambitious helicopter design goal is to create Helicopter UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

Currently, Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout is a helicopter UAV used by the US Navy – it can be operated from a ship’s deck.

Sikorsky Aircraft is also building a UAV version of their UH-60A. 

Airplanes Were Invented Before Helicopters

Airplanes were technically invented before helicopters.

While helicopters were technically designed before airplanes, airplanes were built before helicopters. 

Helicopters Were First Used in Conflict During WW2

The Sirkosky XR-4 was the world’s first mass-produced helicopter, and it was first used by the US military in 1944 during an active combat zone. 

  • Ultimately, helicopters weren’t invented by a single person.
  • Instead, the design for helicopters can be traced back to ancient Chinese toys that used rotary flight.
  • Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century is the first-known person to consider a rotary-flight powered aircraft, but he never built his designs.
  • Subsequent engineers and aviators mostly from France, Spain, and Russia designed and built different rotorcraft.
  • Eventually, Russian aviator Igor Sikorsky built the world’s first mass-produced helicopter in 1942 for the US military.
  • Helicopter use and development dramatically increased since then, leading to the impressive modern choppers we have today.
  • Engineers and aviators will likely build even better and more advanced helicopters in the future.

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.