The Coming Air Age

Once again let us peer briefly at 1955 and see how your wife handles a typical family helicopter as she flies fifty miles to spend an hour with a friend. She opens the doors of the helicopter hangar that is only slightly larger and higher than your old two-car garage. She pushes the starter, the motor purrs. Seated in the two-place cabin, she presses a clutch that applies the engine power to the wheels. For this is a roadable model; she does not have to push or pull it to the lawn. The helicopter drives itself out of its garage to a suitable space near your badminton court. Here she disengages the wheel-clutch and applies the power to the overhead rotor blades. Your wife is now ready to ascend. How does she accomplish this?

To explain, let me describe the controls. Directly before her is a knobbed control stick, reminiscent of the gearshift on the earlier automobiles. On her left is another lever like the familiar emergency brake. Comfortable to her feet are two pedals resembling the clutch and brake of a car. There is a throttle quadrant near her hand, and among the instruments on the panel before her is a tachometer to count the number of revolutions a minute made by the rotor blades.

Now she opens the throttle. The engine, well muffled, picks up speed until the tachometer tells her the rotor blades are whirling 240 revolutions a minute—or the equivalent of 275 miles ail hour at the tip of the blade. The rotors must whirl at this rate before she applies the lift.

Now her hand pulls gently on the left-hand lift lever as if she were applying an emergency brake; only, in this instance, her pull changes the pitch of the rotor blades so that they bite more deeply, more powerfully into the air. The machine becomes light, quivers with eagerness to be off.

Another fraction of an inch pull on the lift lever and gently, smoothly, the helicopter begins to ascend straight up. She controls the rate of rise by increasing or lessening the rotor blade pitch by the lift lever. She permits the machine to ascend to 1200 feet. Now she pushes the center control stick forward. She is tilting the rotor blades—and the machine, too, slightly—so that they bite the air in a forward motion. The helicopter gets under way. From now on, all the helicopter's movements, save rise and descent, are controlled by the center stick. If she wishes to go forward more swiftly, she pushes the stick away from her. If she wishes to stop and hover, she leaves it in center—in the neutral of an automobile gearshift. If she wants to back up, she pulls it toward her; and she presses it right or left if she wishes to make a turn in those directions—or to go sideways with no forward movement.

Now she makes a last adjustment on the lift lever—a helicopter has a slight tendency to rise as it attains forward speed and she must adjust the rotor pitch to it. She turns the machine to the left to pick up the plainly marked air route to her friend's home. She is cruising comfortably at 120 miles an hour. In thirty minutes she sights her friend's house. Firmly she pulls back on the control stick, which slows down the helicopter to a stop 1200 feet above green lawn. She hovers, prepares to descend.

How does she do this? She sits with her right hand lightly on the control stick, her left gripping the lift lever. With the control stick she holds the helicopter motionless, against a light breeze, pressing forward, back, right or left as the case may be—just as she would jockey a motorcar into a parking space.

Gradually she releases the lift lever. As the rotor blades bite less powerfully at the air, the helicopter sinks gently to earth. She can control the descent to one foot a minute if she chooses. The wheels touch the ground, the shock absorbers lower the cabin without a jar. She turns off the ignition switch and climbs briskly out.


Does this appear complicated? If so, it is only because that which we have never experienced always seems complex. Actually, the operation is most simple. There are fewer control motions than in handling an automobile, and there is no need for the simultaneous actions of throwing a gearshift, applying the foot throttle, letting in the clutch, and steering a careful course, which make the control of an automobile at first so confusing. Nor is there the immediate speed of motorcar and airplane to tense the nerves. And once the helicopter take-off has been made and altitude achieved, the boundless spaces of the sky offer an uncrowded highway that leads anywhere without constant vigilance.

Because we are accustomed to them, the hazards and complications of driving an automobile are rarely realized. Habit makes us accept the swift car that speeds past us with only inches to spare; the skiddy road surface; the traffic jams; the car that suddenly darts from a side road into our path; the peril of a driving mistake that must be instantly corrected to avoid disaster. But that there is nerve strain is shown by the quick irritability of any two motorists arguing about a minor mishap, or failure of one to operate his car as was expected by the other.

I believe that if chance had produced the helicopter for general use before the automobile was invented, people would recoil in dismay at the hazards of a Sunday drive on a modern highway in what would be, to them, a newfangled dangerous contraption.

And the ability of the helicopter to hover and ascend and descend vertically gives the helicopter this advantage over the, airplane: the pilot does not have to gauge height and distance and rate of speed in gliding into an airport. Nor must the trees, telephone poles, and houses near an airport be sharply measured mentally to clear them in a take-off. A helicopter needs only slightly more than the diameter of its rotor blade circle to rise and descend.

But, you may ask, what happens to your wife and your helicopter if the engine should suddenly stop in mid-air? Certainly, without its power she must descend. What will happen to her?

If the engine fails, a clutch automatically disengages the engine from the rotor blades. These continue to spin by the air pressure. All other controls remain normal, and those spinning rotor blades enable the craft to descend safely from any altitude. But your wife, as she would if she had a tire puncture, looks for a place to stop. On her left is a small meadow. She thrusts the control stick forward and to the left, and the helicopter angles downward in that direction. As the ground approaches she pulls the stick back to check the forward movement. The helicopter lands with a slight forward speed, and may coast ten or twelve feet.

These actions of your wife are as simple in their way as handling a motorcar. Indeed, perhaps simpler. Any moving vehicle needs to be controlled, but the helicopter will go automatically into the normal gliding position when the engine stops; and your wife has only to pick out a suitable place to land. Even if she makes a faulty movement of the controls at the contact with the ground, this would involve, as a rule, only damage to the machine and not to the occupant.

Now, you may ask, what must I pay for my helicopter? Fortunately, the direct-lift machine is ideally adapted for mass production. Manufactured by hundreds of thousands, it will cost about as much as a medium-priced automobile. Because of the principle involved, the average medium-priced helicopter will probably not exceed the speed of 140 miles an hour. Twenty persons will probably be as many passengers as can be carried. Made entirely of metal, and having few working parts, the helicopter lends itself to assembly-line manufacture as easily as did the automobile.

Nor will the helicopter cost much to maintain. One of the drawbacks to the greater use of small private airplanes has been hangar rental at an airport. The direct-lift machine needs no airport; there is no hangar rental because it is housed in a garage on your own grounds.

A light two-seater helicopter can make ten miles to a gallon of gasoline. Time may better this figure. And the cost of servicing will be no more, certainly—and perhaps even less—than for your automobile. A helicopter operates with uniform rhythm. Whether you are flying at three miles an hour or 140, the rotor blades are spinning at a nearly constant speed. An automobile with its frequently shifting rates of speed and greater number of parts suffers from greater wear. An automobile is serviced, theoretically at least, every thousand miles. A helicopter will get a similar servicing approximately every hundred hours, which would mean about 5000 to 9000 miles. Finally, let me add that dust, the enemy of machinery, is rarely found in the clean air of the heights.


Learning to fly a helicopter will be no more difficult than learning to drive an automobile. The time necessary will vary with the individual, but probably twelve to twenty hours of instruction will be ample for the normal person. And the actual teaching operation will be much simpler than with either the motorcar or the airplane.

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