The Coming Air Age


The time is 1955; the place a lovely meadow surrounded by deep woods on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful lake in the Catskill Mountains 120 miles from New York. It is quarter past eight in the morning, and you are about to commute to your office in the city. Yet there is no paved highway nearer than fifteen miles, and it is fifty to a railroad station.

Now you hear a low hum, and over the horizon appears a flying machine. You press the button of a box near by and a radio signal flashes to the machine. The aircraft, looking oddly like a horizontal electric fan, drones toward you. When the pilot is directly overhead, all forward movement of the machine ceases and it descends vertically until the cabin door is within a foot of the ground.

On the machine's gray side is painted Helicopter Express to New York. As you make ready to enter, the direct-lift machine does not touch the ground; it poises motionless under its whirling rotor blades like a gigantic hummingbird. The door opens and you step inside; you nod a greeting to the co-pilot who takes your commutation ticket, you wave to those of the other fifteen passengers you know. The door closes and the helicopter immediately ascends vertically to 1000 feet. Now it darts ahead, quickly attaining a forward speed of 140 miles an hour.

The co-pilot says conversationally, "How do you like your new home? Good, eh? Popular spot here. So many people have moved into these mountains that we've had to put on an extra bus to carry them."

Fifty minutes later the helicopter bus hovers over a midtown New York building, descends slowly to alight on a roof space some sixty yards square. You go into the building, take the elevator to the street below, and walk half a block to your office. Not quite an hour has elapsed since you drank your morning coffee in your home. Des this sound like a fantasy imagined by Jules Verne? If so, I can assure you, as a practical aeronautical engineer, that such a trip is neither fantastic nor impractical. Any of us who are alive ten years after this Second World War is won will see and use hundreds of short-run helicopter bus services. We shall see hundreds of thousands of privately owned direct-lift machines carrying Americans about their business and their pleasures.

In forecasting this aviation development I am not drawing upon any imagination, nor am I depending upon the future invention of a direct-lift machine. A practical helicopter that can do everything I have just described is at this instant within a hundred yards of me. Less than an hour ago this craft was hovering motionless ten feet off the ground while a man climbed to the cabin by a rope ladder. With a pointed stick on the nose of our helicopter, it was possible to spear a wooden ring twelve inches in diameter fastened to a pole only four feet from the ground. The helicopter could be backed, turned, and stopped motionless in the air right in front of a man who plucked the ring off the helicopter's nose. In April 1941, the VS-300, piloted by its designer, exceeded the record of endurance for this type of craft by remaining in the air for one hour, thirty-two minutes. The novelty of this record flight was that the ship hovered during the entire period over one spot less than half an acre in area. Since that time considerable further progress has been achieved with this project.


But for the fact that the helicopter is now a war weapon—which means that all improvements must be shrouded in military secrecy—I could describe additional details which would show why I am convinced that a helicopter bus service, for instance, is not only practicable but, in fact, inevitable. Had the Second World War not turned all our thoughts to instruments of destruction, I do not believe you would have to wait another decade to see hundreds of thousands of helicopters in daily use.

So I must be content with picturing for you this coming air age as I believe it will be. The first question, naturally, is why mass flying should need to wait for the direct-lift machine—particularly because, in the past twenty-five years, many prophets have forecast air-minded millions taking to the sky in air-flivvers, the foolproof plane that anyone could pilot. Why did these prophecies fail of realization? The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that as airplanes developed in size and range, the speed necessary for landing and take-off also increased. Indeed, airports grew so enormous in size that they had to be moved miles away from centers of population. Today, if you wish to take a journey of 200 miles, you spend thirty minutes riding to the airport, one hour traveling 200 miles, and thirty more minutes getting from the terminal airport to your destination. Thus the airplane came to be the slave of the airport and, like the railroad, became of value mainly as a medium of travel between established public terminals.

Another drawback to mass use of the airplane is that the speed of landing and takeoff usually exceeds the speed we are accustomed to in the automobile. Landing and taking off an airplane at such speeds demands good reflexes, quick decisions, and immediate action, particularly under unfavorable weather conditions. Hence the millions of Americans in middle life who can afford an airplane fail to buy one because they believe the machine takes more skill than they possess; and also because the airplane as a rule cannot carry them directly from home to office.

Yet these are the millions whose purchases made possible the fabulous automobile era. These are the millions who must be sold on the simplicity and safety of flying if we are to have—as we shall have—the era of aviation.

I first experimented with the helicopter as early as 1908. Now, once again, more than thirty years later, I have turned to a study of the direct-lift machine as the only aircraft that could take the speed out of landing and take-off, eliminate the necessity of runways, and hence bring to flying the door-to-door flexibility of the automobile.

The direct-lift machine, as finally made practical, has characteristics possessed by no other means of conveyance. It can hover, ascend and descend vertically at any speed you choose; it can stop, back up, go sideways with no forward motion. It is simple to operate and service. These are, I am certain, the essential attributes of an aircraft that can be used by hundreds of thousands of men and women, old and young.

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.

Suppose, for instance, you decide to buy a two-place helicopter. The cost of teaching is included in the sales price, and you go to the dealer to be taught to operate the machine before taking delivery. He has a demonstrator in a suitable space. You both get in the cabin, and he explains the controls much as I have set them forth here. Now he presses the starter; the engine comes to life.

"Try it," he suggests. "Get the feel of it."

You speed up the rotor blades, you pull the left lift lever, but you do not rise, as you expect, to a disconcerting height; instead, a cable attached to the helicopter holds it some four feet above the ground, permitting you safely and easily to study the control movements. How simple this method of accustoming yourself to flying a helicopter! And I am certain that flying a direct-lift machine will become, in time, just as much an automatic habit as driving your motorcar is now. I envision helicopters, attached to the earth by cables, at hundreds of county fairs; thus, thousands of men, women, and children will operate the controls, safely enjoy the thrill of flying, and become air-minded.

A question certain to trouble you is this: With hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of helicopters flying in all directions at once, what about sky congestion and air traffic problems?

This problem has been foreseen and already a certain amount of planning has been done. While air traffic problems will not be at all comparable to what we now have with the motorcar, there must certainly be one-way air lanes within the limits and in the neighborhood of big centers of population. There will be "slow" and "fast" altitudes and you will choose the one that suits your temperament. Naturally, all helicopter highways will be at a safe distance from the airplane levels.

All helicopters, of course, will remain at a reasonable altitude over thickly populated centers. But there need be no such "flight plan " as airplanes now must often submit to before undertaking a long journey. Helicopter owners will fly at will, bound only by their common sense and some general traffic rules which are easily obeyed in the vast reaches of the sky.

Nor will the strict physical examination that now might prohibit many thousands from flying an airplane be necessary. A person who can drive an automobile can fly a helicopter; and a man or woman with middle-aged reflexes is just as safe in one as in the other because the helicopter, as a rule, is always moving slowly when close to the ground. The helicopter owner will have to pass no stricter examination than is—or should be—necessary for driving a motorcar. He should not be color-blind, his vision should be normal with or without glasses. A man or woman with a heart ailment should not drive a helicopter—nor an automobile.

You or your wife will have to pass a driving examination for a helicopter just as you must for an automobile. Then you can obtain insurance on your direct-lift machine as you do now on your car.

One more question will doubtless trouble you: What about the helicopter and the weather? Rain or snow, fog or wind? What happens to the helicopter and its average owner then?

Man has always been limited by weather, even when he moved only on foot or horse. Common sense tells us that no one will stir abroad in bad weather with a helicopter or any other conveyance unless necessity compels. Yet if bad weather surprises you, the helicopter possesses advantages that no other vehicle can claim. If you are caught in mid-air by fog, you may slow down to five or fifteen miles an hour, cautiously descend and pick your way to your destination or to some place where you can wait until conditions improve. A heavy snowfall will immobilize airplane and motorcar until airport runways and roads have been cleared. But a helicopter, rising directly from the snow, is not stormbound and may go anywhere. A physician hastily summoned on an emergency call before the roads are cleared can descend by helicopter at his patient's door. This is not speculative; our helicopters have been flown in rain and fog and wind to test these characteristics.

The helicopter easily reaches what were hitherto inaccessible regions. Some time ago I received a letter from a man who owns a mine with valuable ore deposits. But the mine is at the bottom of a canyon whose walls are 2000 feet of sheer drop. It is extremely difficult for him to get supplies down and the ore out. The direct-lift machine, of course, when we begin making it for peace instead of for war, will open an easy air highway to his mine.

Though I may not touch upon the uses of the helicopter in wartime, its ability to hover and lower a rope, for example, to help an exhausted swimmer climb up to safety should give some indication of its utility. The power of a helicopter to hide behind trees and in valleys and behind hills and also to skim swiftly over the most formidable land obstacles suggests its value on a field of battle.

In contrast to a war plane, which is useless in peace, a military helicopter is 75 per cent adaptable to commercial use. The improvements we make today will be used by you in the air age of tomorrow. I am convinced that the manufacture, sale, and upkeep of the direct-lift machine will become a billion-dollar industry within ten years after this war, just as the automobile industry grew colossally after the last. There will spring up associated industries, and a new prosperity. There will be many startling changes in our way of life.


What will some of these changes be? Most important, I think, is that hundreds of thousands of people can return to the health and beauty of the countryside. Suburban development has hitherto been limited by the range of the bus, the automobile, and the commuter's train. This has put a high price on real estate adjacent to railroad or highway—prices beyond the reach of the low-income groups. But because of the helicopter, millions of acres of hitherto inaccessible land will be developed with small homes for medium- or low-income groups. A cheap, swift helicopter bus service will ferry these people to and from their work. Suburbs will include ten thousand or more square miles. Real-estate values will come within the reach of average incomes, and the people will literally return to the good earth.

I envision a new type of architecture—perhaps a house with a flat roof and a pleasantly designed helicopter hangar to one side of it, so that you have only to wheel the machine a few feet to take off. Hotels in beautiful surroundings will provide landing and hangar space for touring. Now, a day's tour of 400 miles in a motorcar is considered a great accomplishment. An air voyage of 1000 miles in a helicopter will not be unusual or fatiguing.

Long-distance transportation of passengers and freight over land and sea will definitely remain the job for the large airplane, which can carry out such flights with greater speed and efficiency. Therefore the long flights across the continent, as well as the air travel to Europe, South America, or other remote corners of the world, belong definitely to the airliner. But the short haul of less than 1000 miles is equally the task of the helicopter, which can do it with the greatest efficiency.

Express and air mail will be carried from the airports to final destination by helicopter. There will be a direct-lift machine service to take airliner passengers from the airport to the city in a few minutes. There will be special delivery of perishable food to your door.

By the use of a helicopter shuttle service, oranges that were yesterday on the trees in Florida and California will be today moved to the big air-freight terminals and dropped off there. They will then reach your grocer's the next day by the freight helicopter's connecting lines to small centers of population—and from your grocer's will come to your door by his helicopter delivery service.

The winter growth of fresh vegetables such as beans and tomatoes, celery and lettuce, in the warm South and the Far West has been hitherto restricted because of cost and time of transportation to market. The airline and helicopter freight service will speed such healthy foods to the ends of the nation. Hence our eating habits will change perhaps more than we realize. Strawberries in January, as it were, available for all.

Private and bus helicopters will make possible vacations at seashore or mountain for countless thousands. The helicopter will destroy space for millions of people. Nothing, I believe, is more delightful than touring in a helicopter. To hover and fill one's eyes with an enchanting vista is to bring joy to the soul. So, while he who must hurry will speed to other continents and across oceans by airliner, the man who has time may tour in his helicopter distances now impossible to the motorcar.

South America will become a continent easily accessible for such tourists. Shall we not, then, see a hemispheric unity based on the understanding of thousands who will see much of South America through the glass of their helicopter cabin? I think so, for jungles hold no terrors for the helicopter. A small clearing suffices; if a helicopter settles down on a jungle forest, the machine may be irretrievable, but the passengers calmly descend to earth by a rope ladder. Equipped with floats instead of wheels, it can rise from your door and, if necessary, land in swamp or lake, river or savannah. The vast and beautiful Canadian north country with its thousands of gem-like lakes will be visited by helicopter tourists who will look upon breathless scenes never before, perhaps, seen by eye of man. Yes, we Americans, with our eager curiosity and desire to travel, will bind together North and South America by helicopter; and what will come of that, no man may now even hazard a guess.

But since he who can, will seek the cool Arctic in the summer and the warm and beautiful southern countries in the winter, there will be gas stations on the Canadian and Alaskan tundras—and hotels, too—and skilled mechanics in Point Barrow or Belize to check your helicopter.

In the American democracy are bred the daring, imaginative people who will know how to make use of the breath-taking possibilities of the helicopter. And when they do—within a decade after the war—we shall enter the new air age in which the helicopter will contribute toward the greatest prosperity our people and our country and the world have ever known.

* Editor's note—Igor Sikorsky, the aero-engineer, was born in Kiev, Russia, in 1889, and became an American citizen in his fortieth year. He designed and built flying machines on his own account from 1908 to 1911, and even in these pioneer days his thoughts were gravitating towards the helicopter. In the present war he is perhaps best known for the Sikorsky multimotored amphibian plane. But the story which he told in detail to Frederick C. Painton is an amazing promise of what flying might be when at last the fighting is over.