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Berliner: the first successful American helicopters (1908-1924)

Stargazer2006

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If you ask anyone with even the slightest knowledge of aviation history who invented the first American helicopter, they usually speak of Igor Sikorsky. While it is true that Sikorsky produced the first practical helicopter in 1939—resulting in the very first military order ever for a rotary wing aircraft as the R-4—Sikorsky was by no means the first American to build and successfully fly a helicopter.

Even when Sikorsky was still only a youngster in imperial Russia, he was already fascinated with rotary wings, and designed in 1908 and 1909 his first helicopters, the HJS-1 and HJS-2. At the very same time, an American by the name of Emile Berliner (who had already created the grammophone and the flat-disc records that replaced Thomas Edison’s cylindrical records) was now busy working on what was to become the first American helicopter. Berliner began by designing what may well be the first production rotary aircraft engine, the 36 hp Adams-Farwell engine. In 1908, John Newton Williams constructed a coaxial machine for Berliner using two of these rotary engines. It reportedly lifted both Williams and the machine – a total of 277 kg – but three feet off the ground; and though it was probably steadied, this was undoubtedly the first ever U.S. manned helicopter flight.

In May, 1908, Williams built another stand in Hammondsport, New York, as a member of the famed Aerial Experiment Association (which included Alexander Bell and Glenn Curtiss), using a 40 hp Curtiss engine. It made hovers around 1m, again steadied from the ground. Despite this semi-failure, Emile Berliner never gave up on his idea. He went on to build several other helicopters, and also suggested the use of an auxiliary tail rotor — a standard feature of helicopters today — to stabilize flight.

After Berliner suffered a nervous breakdown in 1914, it was his son, Henry, who took over the exploration of vertical flight machines. In June 1919, Henry Berliner built a machine with two co-axial propellers with vanes to vector the downwash for pitch control. Stabilizing the helicopter in flight was still a problem, though, and hovering flights again had to be steadied. Yet in 1920 the machine managed to move forward several yards, representing the first manned, controlled helicopter flight — or maybe jump — in the United States.

Three years later the Berliners built a new helicopter prototype by using the fuselage of a Nieuport 23 biplane with a 4.5m (14-ft.) rotor mounted on an outrigger on either side of and slightly forward of the cockpit. Control vanes, similar to those used on their 1919 coaxial machine, were used in the slipstream. Longitudinal control was by a small variable pitch lifting propeller near the tail. The pilot could tilt the main rotors to control yaw. Opening and closing louvers underneath the rotors controlled roll. A Bentley 220-horsepower engine was connected to geared shafts that turned the wingtip rotors in opposite directions. Henry’s historic June 1922 demonstration flight took place at College Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. The Berliner helicopter flew about 90m, and hovering up to 3.3m was accomplished. Overall performance was rather unsatisfactory, yet the Smithsonian Institute considers the Berliner machine as the first helicopter to make a controlled flight on the basis of these tests, despite a dispute by those who credit the Engineering Division’s de Bothezat helicopter free-flight on October 19, 1922.

The Berliners continued their efforts, bringing further refinements to their hybrid design, and built two additional machines, but they were short take-off convertaplanes. The Model No. 5 craft was demonstrated in front of Navy officials and the press on Feb. 24, 1924. It could move at about 40 mph, rise to an altitude of 15 feet and turn with a radius of 150 feet.

Here is an text about that machine taken from An Introduction to the Helicopter, published by NACA in 1925:
An early form of the Berliner helicopter was described in Mechanical Engineering for September, 1922. It was of the simplest possible form, with a 200 HP engine driving two moderate-sized lifting airscrews on either side of the fuselage. Lateral control was secured by the use of three movable fins under each of the propellers; and longitudinal control by a small variable-pitch propeller at the rear of the fuselage. A horizontal stabilizer and elevators and rudder identical with those of an airplane were provided. Successful short flights were achieved.

Quite obviously, Berliner was not satisfied with the safety of his craft in case of engine failure; and in his next design sought to provide the ability to glide by embodying wing surfaces in the structure. It now became a helicopter-airplane. Outline drawings and photographs of this machine are shown in Fig. 9.*

The Berliner helicopter is now provided with a conventionally trussed triplane wing surface and two lifting propellers, which latter also provide forward thrust on inclination of the entire craft. The transmission system is carefully enclosed within the wing surfaces and the interplane struts.

The system of control is complete. As light warping of the wings can be produced by a special control, whereby the axis of the lifting propellers can be inclined at different angles to the line of flight on either side of the machine; so that a turning couple can be obtained. With the lifting propellers in motion, the pilot regulates a variable-pitch propeller placed at the tail end of the machine, so as to raise the tail from the ground. Under the action of the lifting propeller the helicopter leaves the ground. The rear propeller permits the further inclination of the axis of the lifting propeller until a forward component of the thrust is obtained, with resulting forward speed. Lateral equilibrium is maintained by a system of movable fins placed below tho disk area of the propellers. It can be seen that the system of control is fully operative whether in forward flight or hovering flight or vertical movement.

If the lifting propellers become inoperative, either owing to damage or engine failure, the machine becomes a glider. On the glide, wind-tunnel experiments seem to indicate a best L/D of only 4. On the glide, warping of the wings takes care of lateral control; an ordinary rudder and elevator act in the usual manner.

The gross weight of the machine with pilot and fuel for a twenty-minute flight is about 1950 lb. The engine is a Bentley Rotary Model 2, air-cooled, providing 220 HP. at 1200 R.P.M. The lifting propellers turn at about 560 R.P.M. and have a diameter of 15 ft. The span of the wings is 39 ft. and the chord is approximately 1 ft. 11 in. The overall length is 20 ft . 6 in. and overall height about 6 ft. 8 in.

According to reports of the Italian Air Attaché in Washington, the machines makes only a fair getaway. The maneuverability seems satisfactory, and the aircraft responds well to the controls. In a moderate but irregular wind the oscillations appeared important. The Berliner helicopter is still in an experimental form, but it has definitely achieved vertical flight, and complete freedom of evolution. Its ability to glide is an important factor as regards safety. The maximum duration of flight achieved so far appears to be 1 min. 35 sec., and the highest altitude reached, 15 ft.

* Notizario di Aeronautica, No. 5, May, 1924. Elicotero Berliner Modificato.

Berliner photos on the web:
http://www.old-picture.com/american-history-1900-1930s/Helicopter-Berliner.htm
http://cf.alpa.org/internet/alp/2000/aug00p28.htm
http://www.usaf.com/museums/college_park_aviation_museum.htm
http://www.uen.org/utahlink/tours/tourElement.cgi?element_id=25907&tour_id=14628&category_id=21854
http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/thisdayintech/2010/06/18_berliner_1924.jpg

Main sources for this article:
- June 16, 1922: Ich Bin ein Berliner Helicopter By Robert Lemos
- An introduction to the Helicopter by Alexander Klemin
- The Aviastar website
 

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Stargazer2006

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Berliner's historical 1922 1924 helicopter has been preserved and now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, which sometimes loans it for exhibits in other museums (Cradle of Aviation, College Park Aviation Museum...).
 

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robunos

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Star, you know you've posted this twice, don't you.... ::)

Also is this the same Berliner as in Berliner-Joyce?


cheers,
Robin.
 

Apophenia

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robunos said:
Also is this the same Berliner as in Berliner-Joyce?
No, Emile's son Henry formed the company, Berliner Aircraft that joined with engineer Temple Nach Joyce (formerly of Curtiss) to form Berliner-Joyce Aircraft in 1929.

BTW, Joyce was a US Army test pilot who later went on to Bellanca and then Zap Development Corp (Zap Flaps)
 

Stargazer2006

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robunos said:
Star, you know you've posted this twice, don't you.... ::)
I had trouble posting the first message yesterday, but I checked right away and saw only one instance of the topic. Ah well... hope this has been cleared by a mod... Sorry!
 

Stargazer2006

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Going through this topic and newly-found Berliner helicopter photos, I realize that I mislabelled the remaining prototype as the 1922 machine, when in fact it is the 1924 machine.

From what I can see, there were at least FIVE separate Berliner attempts at vertical flight:

1908: rudimentary coaxial prototype; never left the ground
1919: coaxial prototype which made a few bounces off the ground
1922: wingless twin-rotor helicopter based on WWI pursuit-type fuselage; took off successfully
1924: triplane tilt-prop prototype; took off successfully
1925: biplane tilt-prop prototype with shorter high wing and high inclination of wings.

All five can be seen in the photos of this topic.
 

vstol

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Stargazer2006 said:
In 1908, John Newton Williams constructed a coaxial machine for Berliner using two of these rotary engines. It reportedly lifted both Williams and the machine – a total of 277 kg – but three feet off the ground; and though it was probably steadied, this was undoubtedly the first ever U.S. manned helicopter flight.

Henry’s historic June 1922 demonstration flight took place at College Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. The Berliner helicopter flew about 90m, and hovering up to 3.3m was accomplished. Overall performance was rather unsatisfactory, yet the Smithsonian Institute considers the Berliner machine as the first helicopter to make a controlled flight on the basis of these tests, despite a dispute by those who credit the Engineering Division’s de Bothezat helicopter free-flight on October 19, 1922.

Sorry to be a downer, both of the statements in bold are not correct -- past publications have seriously overstated the impressive accomplishments of the Berliners. Please see the current description on the Smithsonian website: http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?id=A19240006000


On July 11, 1908, Berliner's first "test-rig" helicopter design demonstrated that it had the potential to lift twice its own empty weight.
It does not say the test stand flew -- it certainly did not take Williams to 3 feet!

The Smithsonian website description doesn't even mention the June 1922 flight.

Most of the progress of the early "helicopter" testing -- Cornu, Breguet, Berliner, etc -- was later exaggerated. See http://helicopter-history.org/1907.html, produced by AHS and NASM.
 

Stargazer2006

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There may have been some exaggeration... but there may also be an attempt to undermine earlier pioneers so that the "official" history is respected...

Anyway, I'm sure the 1908 attempt was not successful and that the 1919 one was chaotic (at least that's what the video of it suggests!). But here is a set of three pictures showing the 1922 Berliner helicopter taking off. It may only be a yard or two from the ground, but it DID take off.
 

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vstol

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Stargazer2006 said:
Anyway, I'm sure the 1908 attempt was not successful and that the 1919 one was chaotic (at least that's what the video of it suggests!). But here is a set of three pictures showing the 1922 Berliner helicopter taking off. It may only be a yard or two from the ground, but it DID take off.

Sorry -- yes it flew (didn't mean to disparage that), but it is not considered "the first helicopter to make a controlled flight " by the Smithsonian. Personally, I wouldn't consider anything before the 1935 Breguet-Dorand "Gyroplane Laboratoire" to be a helicopter. Generally, they had no cyclic or collective and could not translate horizontally quickly enough to run into the dissymmetry of lift that was overcome by Juan de la Cierva's Autogiros. His was the real breakthrough that led to the helicopter -- everything prior to the Gyroplane Laboratoire was a VTOL aircraft, but not a helicopter.
 

Granit

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vstol said:
Personally, I wouldn't consider anything before the 1935 Breguet-Dorand "Gyroplane Laboratoire" to be a helicopter. Generally, they had no cyclic or collective and could not translate horizontally quickly enough to run into the dissymmetry of lift that was overcome by Juan de la Cierva's Autogiros. His was the real breakthrough that led to the helicopter -- everything prior to the Gyroplane Laboratoire was a VTOL aircraft, but not a helicopter.
What about Soviet TsAGI 1-EA ?

http://www.aviastar.org/helicopters_eng/brat_1ea.php
 

hesham

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Hi,


and here is a drawing to a Gyrocopter of 1914,designed by Emile Berliner.


http://www.pennula.de/american-magazine-of-aeronautics/american-magazine-of-aeronautics-1914-1915/aeronautics-1914-1915.htm
 

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memaerobilia

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Giving credit for any "first" successful helicopter, is going to vary a lot, depending on your definitions of flight, and control and actual helicopter, design (wingless ? etc) "Lift" is part of "flight" but does not satisfy the full meaining of flight to "some?" Numerous mentions of the early "helicopters" and SOME of the Berliner activities, really stretch the defintion of "flight." But there was certainly important progress being made, no matter how small or incremental.
Here was a puzzzling original photo that was in the Curtiss archives, It had no identification, other than the Curtiss negative # T-6274, which fell in the range of some other close negative numbers, that were around 1930 dates. It turned out to be a "flying" photo of Corradino D'Ascanio's third prototype helicopter, model D'AT3. It was a fairly successful helicopter design, and acheived "THEN" World FAI records of 57 feet altitude, and a flight distance of 1,078 feet. It was a coaxial helicopter with counter-rotating blades, and had *three small propellers in the airframe, to control pitch, and roll, and yaw.
It is suggested that some of these design features were then used by Bleecker, in the helicopter he built as Curtiss-Bleeker, and also used by Kaman. *ALTHOUGH the Bleeker is recorded to have its first flight in 1926? Lots to be explored.
 

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Stargazer2006

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memaerobilia said:
*ALTHOUGH the Bleeker is recorded to have its first flight in 1926?
No, the Curtiss-Bleecker SX5-1 was developed by Bleecker from 1926 but built circa 1929 and first test-flown in June 1930.
 

hesham

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Great work my friend Skyblazer.
 

memaerobilia

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yes, indeed, Great (and very interesting) work, as usual.
As to my first flight date, chalk it up to a quick look at the Wikipedia page which lists the Bleeker first flight date as 1926. I need to be more careful.
Interestingly, the front cockpit overhead door for the Bleeker, swings the whole thing open, with all the instruments still in the hinged-front open door, as shown in this Curtiss photo of 3-26-30. Reminds me of an Isetta?
 

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hesham

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Hi,

there is two helicopter of 1907,one had single blade and the second had a twin
blade.
 
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