A helicopter is a type of rotorcraft in which lift and thrust are supplied by rotors. This allows the helicopter to take off and land vertically, to hover, and to fly forward, backward, and laterally. These attributes allow helicopters to be used in congested or isolated areas where fixed-wing aircraft and many forms of VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft cannot perform.
Helicopters were developed and built during the first half-century of flight, with the Focke-Wulf Fw 61 being the first operational helicopter in 1936. Some helicopters reached limited production, but it was not until 1942 that a helicopter designed by Igor Sikorsky reached full-scale production,with 131 aircraft built.Though most earlier designs used more than one main rotor, it is the single main rotor with anti-torque tail rotor configuration that has become the most common helicopter configuration. Tandem rotor helicopters are also in widespread use due to their greater payload capacity. Coaxial helicopters, tiltrotor aircraft, and compound helicopters are all flying today. Quadcopter helicopters pioneered as early as 1907 in France, and other types of multicopter have been developed for specialized applications such as unmanned drones.
The earliest references for vertical flight have come from China. Since around 400 BC,Chinese children have played with bamboo flying toys. This bamboo-copter is spun by rolling a stick attached to a rotor. The spinning creates lift, and the toy flies when released.The 4th-century AD Daoist book Baopuzi by Ge Hong reportedly describes some of the ideas inherent to rotary wing aircraft.
This Chinese helicopter toy was introduced into Europe and appeared in Renaissance paintings and other works.Early Western scientists developed flying machines based on the original Chinese model.
It was not until the early 1480s, when Leonardo da Vinci created a design for a machine that could be described as an "aerial screw", that any recorded advancement was made towards vertical flight. His notes suggested that he built small flying models, but there were no indications for any provision to stop the rotor from making the craft rotate.As scientific knowledge increased and became more accepted, men continued to pursue the idea of vertical flight. Many of these later models and machines would more closely resemble the ancient bamboo flying top with spinning wings, rather than Leonardo's screw.
In July 1754, Russian Mikhail Lomonosov had developed a small coaxial modeled after the Chinese top but powered by wound-up spring device and demonstrated it to the Russian Academy of Sciences. It was powered by a spring and suggested as a method to lift meteorological instruments. In 1783, Christian de Launoy, and his mechanic, Bienvenu, used a coaxial version of Chinese top in a model consisting of a contrarotating of turkey flight feathers as rotor blades, and in 1784, demonstrated it to the French Academy of Sciences. Sir George Cayley, influenced by a childhood fascination with the Chinese flying top, grew up to develop a model of feathers, similar to Launoy and Bienvenu, but powered by rubber bands. By the end of the century, he had progressed to using sheets of tin for rotor blades and springs for power. His writings on his experiments and models would become influential on future aviation pioneers.Alphonse Pénaud would later develop coaxial rotor model helicopter toys in 1870, also powered by rubber bands. One of these toys, given as a gift by their father, would inspire the Wright brothers to pursue the dream of flight.
In 1861, the word "helicopter" was coined by Gustave de Ponton d'Amécourt, a French inventor who demonstrated a small, steam-powered model. While celebrated as an innovative use of a new metal, aluminum, the model never lifted off the ground. D'Amecourt's linguistic contribution would survive to eventually describe the vertical flight he had envisioned. Steam power was popular with other inventors as well. In 1878 the Italian Enrico Forlanini's unmanned vehicle that was also powered by a steam engine, was the first of its type that rose to a height of 12 meters (40 ft), where it hovered for some 20 seconds after a vertical take-off. Emmanuel Dieuaide's steam-powered design featured counter-rotating rotors powered through a hose from a boiler on the ground.
In 1885, Thomas Edison was given US$1,000 by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., to conduct experiments towards developing flight. Edison built a helicopter and used the paper for a stock ticker to create guncotton, with which he attempted to power an internal combustion engine. The helicopter was damaged by explosions and one of his workers was badly burned. Edison reported that it would take a motor with a ratio of three to four pounds per horsepower produced to be successful, based on his experiments.Ján Bahý?, a Slovak inventor, adapted the internal combustion engine to power his helicopter model that reached a height of 0.5 meters (1.6 ft) in 1901. On 5 May 1905, his helicopter reached four meters (13 ft) in altitude and flew for over 1,500 meters (4,900 ft).In 1908, Edison patented his own design for a helicopter powered by a gasoline engine with box kites attached to a mast by cables for a rotor, but it never flew.
Due to the operating characteristics of the helicopter—its ability to take off and land vertically, and to hover for extended periods of time, as well as the aircraft's handling properties under low airspeed conditions—it has been chosen to conduct tasks that were previously not possible with other aircraft, or were time- or work-intensive to accomplish on the ground. Today, helicopter uses include transportation of people and cargo, military uses, construction, firefighting, search and rescue, tourism, medical transport, and aerial observation, among others.
A helicopter used to carry loads connected to long cables or slings is called an aerial crane. Aerial cranes are used to place heavy equipment, like radio transmission towers and large air conditioning units, on the tops of tall buildings, or when an item must be raised up in a remote area, such as a radio tower raised on the top of a hill or mountain. Helicopters are used as aerial cranes in the logging industry to lift trees out of terrain where vehicles cannot travel and where environmental concerns prohibit the building of roads.These operations are referred to as longline because of the long, single sling line used to carry the load.
The largest single non-combat helicopter operation in history was the disaster management operation following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Hundreds of pilots were involved in airdrop and observation missions, making dozens of sorties a day for several months.
Helitack is the use of helicopters to combat wildland fires.The helicopters are used for aerial firefighting (or water bombing) and may be fitted with tanks or carry helibuckets. Helibuckets, such as the Bambi bucket, are usually filled by submerging the bucket into lakes, rivers, reservoirs, or portable tanks. Tanks fitted onto helicopters are filled from a hose while the helicopter is on the ground or water is siphoned from lakes or reservoirs through a hanging snorkel as the helicopter hovers over the water source. Helitack helicopters are also used to deliver firefighters, who rappel down to inaccessible areas, and to resupply firefighters. Common firefighting helicopters include variants of the Bell 205 and the Erickson S-64 Aircrane helitanker.
Helicopters are used as air ambulances for emergency medical assistance in situations when an ambulance cannot easily or quickly reach the scene, or cannot transport the patient to a medical facility in time. Helicopters are also used when a patient needs to be transported between medical facilities and air transportation is the most practical method for the safety of the patient. Air ambulance helicopters are equipped to provide medical treatment to a patient while in flight. The use of helicopters as air ambulances is often referred to as MEDEVAC, and patients are referred to as being "airlifted", or "medevaced". This use was pioneered in the Korean war, when time to reach a medical facility was reduced to 3 hours from 8 hours in World War II, and again to 2 hours by the Vietnam war.
Police departments and other law enforcement agencies use helicopters to pursue suspects. Since helicopters can achieve a unique aerial view, they are often used in conjunction with police on the ground to report on suspects' locations and movements. They are often mounted with lighting and heat-sensing equipment for night pursuits.
Military forces use attack helicopters to conduct aerial attacks on ground targets. Such helicopters are mounted with missile launchers and miniguns. Transport helicopters are used to ferry troops and supplies where the lack of an airstrip would make transport via fixed-wing aircraft impossible. The use of transport helicopters to deliver troops as an attack force on an objective is referred to as Air Assault. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) helicopter systems of varying sizes are being developed by companies for military reconnaissance and surveillance duties. Naval forces also use helicopters equipped with dipping sonar for anti-submarine warfare, since they can operate from small ships.
Oil companies charter helicopters to move workers and parts quickly to remote drilling sites located out to sea or in remote locations. The speed over boats makes the high operating cost of helicopters cost effective to ensure that oil platforms continue to flow. Various companies specialize in this type of operation.