early helicopter technology
early helicopter development
contributions of the autogyro
Heinrich Focke Fa 61W
Anton Flettner Kolibri
Jacques Bréguet Gyroplane
Igor Sikorsky VS-300
search and rescue helicopters
civil and commercial helicopters
Bell UH-1 "Huey"
M.A.S.H. medevac helicopters
helicopters at war
private helicopters
Sikorsky UH-60/S-70 Black Hawk
assault helicopters
Soviet and Russian helicopters
French and British helicopters

private helicopters

Bell Jet Ranger

Early helicopter pioneers envisioned that the helicopter would revolutionize personal transportation. People like Arthur Young, who designed the Bell Model 47, and Stanley Hiller, Jr. thought families would own helicopters they would fly from their backyards on everyday trips. Magazines like Popular Mechanics reinforced this idea. The helicopter was to be as common as the automobile.

The dream was never realized. Whereas fixed-wing military aircraft are usually considerably more expensive than military helicopters, the reverse is true for small private aircraft and small helicopters. Small and simple private aircraft can cost about the same as a midsize family car, but a common small helicopter, such as the Robinson R22, costs more than $150,000. Whereas a small aircraft can be maintained at a low expense, helicopters often cost hundreds of dollars for every hour of flight because of both fuel and maintenance costs. The reason is that a propeller-driven small plane is a fairly simple device, but a small helicopter has many complicated control mechanisms, requires more maintenance and has a higher insurance cost.

Stanley Hiller was perhaps the biggest advocate of personal helicopters. In 1944, he flew a prototype helicopter using coaxial rotors, one on top of the other. Over the next several years, he developed several more conventional helicopters (with a single main rotor and a tail rotor), hoping to produce a truly inexpensive helicopter that would be available to private citizens. He was never completely successful at this and soon resorted to producing small observation and training helicopters for the Army and commercial industry. His Model 12 had the longest production run of any helicopter. It was years later before smaller "private" helicopters were built that wealthy individuals could afford. Hiller was also the first successful company whose sole product initially was the civil helicopter.

The most popular "personal helicopter" is the Robinson R22. Frank Robinson was an experienced helicopter engineer who had worked for Bell, Kaman, Cessna, and Hughes aircraft companies. In 1973, he left Hughes to form his own company and build personal helicopters. He developed the R22 as a relatively inexpensive two-seat piston-engine personal helicopter. It first flew in August 1975, and the first deliveries were made in 1980. Robinson Helicopter Company, based in Torrance, California, soon began producing the R22 in increasingly larger numbers and built more than 400 in 1992. Robinson can be credited with sparking a resurgence in piston engine design, mainly because of its cost benefits.

The Robinson R22 is the most popular "personal helicopter. " It first flew in August 1975.

The R22 is a fairly straightforward design, consisting of a pod-like cabin and a boom tail mounting a conventional anti-torque propeller. A 124-horsepower (92-kilowatt) Lycoming O-320 engine drives the two-bladed rotor. The R22 quickly became the dominant light piston helicopter on the world market. It has had a higher than average accident rate, due to its teetering rotor coupled with its light weight, but it was cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration as safe. The main problems apparently arose because the helicopter was marketed to a less-experienced clientele, and light helicopters tend to be unforgiving when an engine fails or in high winds. R22s are often used for light utility work such as cattle herding, traffic monitoring, agricultural spraying, and police observation. The R44 is a four-seat version of the R22 with a larger engine that handles a lot better than its smaller cousin.

Like in private aviation, some helicopters are built from kits. A person can buy the kit and then assemble the parts himself, reducing the cost of the aircraft. Probably the most popular amateur-built helicopter was the Bensen B-8 Gyrocopter. Igor Bensen experimented with a number of towed gyroglider designs in the 1950s, improving them from the B-5 to the B-6, B-7 and B-8. The B-8 had a central girder with a pilot's seat mounted in the nose and a tricycle landing gear. A free-spinning rotor was mounted atop a vertical mast. Later he created the B-7M and B-8M Gyrocopters, which had a small McCulloch engine mounted behind the pilot. The first B-7M flew in December 1955. Several thousand B-7M and B-8M kits were sold in the United States.

The Bensen X-25 was an early version of the B-8 gyrocopter. It was tested by the U.S. Air Force as a way for downed flyers to escape from enemy territory.

American Sportscopter was formed in 1990 as a joint U.S.-Taiwan company to produce small helicopters that could be built from a kit. American Sportscopter's first ultralight helicopter was the Ultrasport 254, which first flew in July 1993. It is a single-seat helicopter with a semi-enclosed fuselage. It has skis for landing and a long tubular tailboom that mounts the tail rotor. A 55-horsepower (55-kilowatt) Hirth 2703 engine powers the craft. American Sportscopter also produces larger versions, such as the Ultrasport 331 and the Ultrasport 496, which has a two-seat cabin and a 95-horsepower (71-kilowatt) engine. The kits are manufactured in Taiwan. Because of their small size, short range, and low speed, these helicopters are useful only as private craft.

RotorWay Scorpion133

The RotorWay Scorpion133 may be the most successful and attractive of the helicopters that amateurs can build. It has a two-blade main/tail rotor configuration, seats two side-by-side in an enclosed cabin, and is powered by a 145-horsepower (108-kilowatt) RotorWay engine. The Exec is similar, but has a much-improved cabin, enclosed tailboom structure, and can come with a wider range of equipment.

More recently, Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, two Italian brothers living in Cucciago in northern Italy, formed Dragon Fly Srl. They designed and built a small two-seat helicopter for personal use in archaeological expeditions, then decided to produce the helicopter for sale. Called the Dragon Fly 333, the first production aircraft was delivered in 1993. The Dragon Fly has an enclosed pod fuselage with a large curved windscreen and ski landing gear. A 105-horsepower (78-kilowatt) Dragon Fly/Hirth F30.A2 engine drives a two-blade rotor. A pilotless version is also available for military use.

There are other small helicopters built by various manufacturers, but none are as cheap as the thousands of light fixed-wing aircraft that are in service throughout the United States and the world. Considering the high skill-level required to operate a helicopter, the fact that they are more difficult to acquire may not be a bad thing.