"If you are in trouble anywhere in the world, an airplane can fly over and drop flowers, but a helicopter can land and save your life." - Igor Sikorsky
Do you know what Leonardo da Vinci and maple seeds have in common? The helicopter. That's right, one of the most brilliant minds in history and winged seeds accurately predicted the future of flying.
Helicopters are often a focal point in movies and heighten the drama. Baltasar Kormákur captivated viewers in Everest (2015) when an AS350 B3 helicopter rescued Dr. Beck Weather at 20,000 feet. While directors use helicopters for dramatic appeal, reality shows their use is much more important.
For decades, helicopters have been saving lives by being able to land on dangerous terrain. Planes are unable to make landings such as these because they cannot hover mid-air and need a long and flat runway. So, where did the idea for a vertical aircraft come from? Well, everywhere. Mother Nature played a hand in the helicopter's design with the seed pods of maple trees, known as double samaras. The aerodynamics that keep the seeds twirling in the air are the same that allow hummingbirds and bats to hover.
The desire to create a machine that could hover was shared internationally. China had spinning tops in 400 B.C. and DaVinci purchased birds on several occasions to sketch in 1493. These sketches served as the first actual images of a vertical aircraft. Several engineers made variations of the helicopter we know today. Paul Cornu, a French engineer, developed a 24-horsepower engine with twin rotors. In 1923, Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva created a rotating wing aircraft named the CA autogiro. Etienne Oehmichen designed a helicopter with two vertically mounted rotors and successfully transported two passengers less than a year later.
The Father of the Modern Helicopter
Around the time the Socialist-Revolutionary Party was founded, Igor Sikorsky immigrated to the United States from Russia. The Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation was founded and still exists under its parent company, Lockheed Martin. While several engineers experimented with the helicopter, Sikorsky made his mark by designing the first practical model-the VS-300.
The aircraft's final features were introduced near the mid-1950s. Engineer Arthur Young worked for Bell Aircraft Company and designed a helicopter with a bubble canopy known as the Bell Model 47. Stanley Miller, Jr. proposed metal rotor blades, which made flying at a faster speed a reality. Miller piloted the Hiller 360-the first helicopter to successfully fly across the United States in 1949.
Aeronautics was neither an industry nor a science. It was a miracle - Igor Sikorsky
Such Great Heights
Despite successful innovation propelling the helicopter to its modern form, high-altitude is still an obstacle for the machine. The maximum altitude a helicopter can reach depends on the rotor's ability to provide sufficient lift, and the lift depends on air density.
Engineers are actively working towards the ability for helicopters to be better controlled at high-altitudes. One of the most successful charter and rescue missions took place in 2010 under Captain Daniel Aufdenblatten from Switzerland. He carried out the highest longline rescue in history with Fishtail Air and Air Zermatt. Three Spanish climbers had to be rescued from Mt. Annapurna at 26, 545 feet due to harsh weather conditions. An AS350 B3 hovered above the climbing site while a human sling operation was performed.
Helicopters performing rescue missions are not only necessary in outdoor excursions, but are also vital to those who need medical assistance in a rural area. Air ambulances, or Life Flights, can be the deciding factor in life or death situations. While crash statistics for helicopters can be troubling, it is important to remember that organizations such as the National EMS Pilot Association exists only to save lives. Groups such as these are proactive in increasing helicopter safety as much as possible.
A look towards the future shows conversations about helicopters involving drones. The idea of drones replacing police is a popular topic and near the end of 2016, the Tucson Police Department planned to introduce drones with cameras. These devices would be useful in special circumstances, but police explain that the human interaction cannot be replaced by a drone.