Bell Jet Ranger
Early helicopter pioneers envisioned
that the helicopter would revolutionize personal transportation. People
like Arthur Young, who designed the Bell Model 47, and Stanley Hiller, Jr.
thought families would own helicopters they would fly from their backyards
on everyday trips. Magazines like Popular Mechanics reinforced this
idea. The helicopter was to be as common as the automobile.
The dream was never realized. Whereas
fixed-wing military aircraft are usually considerably more expensive than
military helicopters, the reverse is true for small private aircraft and
small helicopters. Small and simple private aircraft can cost about the
same as a midsize family car, but a common small helicopter, such as the
Robinson R22, costs more than $150,000. Whereas a small aircraft can be
maintained at a low expense, helicopters often cost hundreds of dollars
for every hour of flight because of both fuel and maintenance costs. The
reason is that a propeller-driven small plane is a fairly simple device,
but a small helicopter has many complicated control mechanisms, requires
more maintenance and has a higher insurance cost.
Stanley Hiller was perhaps the biggest
advocate of personal helicopters. In 1944, he flew a prototype helicopter
using coaxial rotors, one on top of the other. Over the next several
years, he developed several more conventional helicopters (with a single
main rotor and a tail rotor), hoping to produce a truly inexpensive
helicopter that would be available to private citizens. He was never
completely successful at this and soon resorted to producing small
observation and training helicopters for the Army and commercial industry.
His Model 12 had the longest production run of any helicopter. It was
years later before smaller "private" helicopters were built that wealthy
individuals could afford. Hiller was also the first successful company
whose sole product initially was the civil helicopter.
The most popular "personal helicopter"
is the Robinson R22. Frank Robinson was an experienced helicopter engineer
who had worked for Bell, Kaman, Cessna, and Hughes aircraft companies. In
1973, he left Hughes to form his own company and build personal
helicopters. He developed the R22 as a relatively inexpensive two-seat
piston-engine personal helicopter. It first flew in August 1975, and the
first deliveries were made in 1980. Robinson Helicopter Company, based in
Torrance, California, soon began producing the R22 in increasingly larger
numbers and built more than 400 in 1992. Robinson can be credited with
sparking a resurgence in piston engine design, mainly because of its cost
Robinson R22 is the most popular "personal helicopter. " It first flew in
The R22 is a fairly straightforward
design, consisting of a pod-like cabin and a boom tail mounting a
conventional anti-torque propeller. A 124-horsepower (92-kilowatt)
Lycoming O-320 engine drives the two-bladed rotor. The R22 quickly became
the dominant light piston helicopter on the world market. It has had a
higher than average accident rate, due to its teetering rotor coupled with
its light weight, but it was cleared by the Federal Aviation
Administration as safe. The main problems apparently arose because the
helicopter was marketed to a less-experienced clientele, and light
helicopters tend to be unforgiving when an engine fails or in high winds.
R22s are often used for light utility work such as cattle herding, traffic
monitoring, agricultural spraying, and police observation. The R44 is a
four-seat version of the R22 with a larger engine that handles a lot
better than its smaller cousin.
Like in private aviation, some
helicopters are built from kits. A person can buy the kit and then
assemble the parts himself, reducing the cost of the aircraft. Probably
the most popular amateur-built helicopter was the Bensen B-8 Gyrocopter.
Igor Bensen experimented with a number of towed gyroglider designs in the
1950s, improving them from the B-5 to the B-6, B-7 and B-8. The B-8 had a
central girder with a pilot's seat mounted in the nose and a tricycle
landing gear. A free-spinning rotor was mounted atop a vertical mast.
Later he created the B-7M and B-8M Gyrocopters, which had a small
McCulloch engine mounted behind the pilot. The first B-7M flew in December
1955. Several thousand B-7M and B-8M kits were sold in the United States.
The Bensen X-25 was an early version of the B-8 gyrocopter.
It was tested by the U.S. Air Force as a way for downed flyers to escape
from enemy territory.
American Sportscopter was formed in 1990
as a joint U.S.-Taiwan company to produce small helicopters that could be
built from a kit. American Sportscopter's first ultralight helicopter was
the Ultrasport 254, which first flew in July 1993. It is a single-seat
helicopter with a semi-enclosed fuselage. It has skis for landing and a
long tubular tailboom that mounts the tail rotor. A 55-horsepower
(55-kilowatt) Hirth 2703 engine powers the craft. American Sportscopter
also produces larger versions, such as the Ultrasport 331 and the
Ultrasport 496, which has a two-seat cabin and a 95-horsepower
(71-kilowatt) engine. The kits are manufactured in Taiwan. Because of
their small size, short range, and low speed, these helicopters are useful
only as private craft.
The RotorWay Scorpion133 may be the most
successful and attractive of the helicopters that amateurs can build. It
has a two-blade main/tail rotor configuration, seats two side-by-side in
an enclosed cabin, and is powered by a 145-horsepower (108-kilowatt)
RotorWay engine. The Exec is similar, but has a much-improved cabin,
enclosed tailboom structure, and can come with a wider range of equipment.
More recently, Angelo and Alfredo
Castiglioni, two Italian brothers living in Cucciago in northern Italy,
formed Dragon Fly Srl. They designed and built a small two-seat helicopter
for personal use in archaeological expeditions, then decided to produce the
helicopter for sale. Called the Dragon Fly 333, the first production
aircraft was delivered in 1993. The Dragon Fly has an enclosed pod
fuselage with a large curved windscreen and ski landing gear. A
105-horsepower (78-kilowatt) Dragon Fly/Hirth F30.A2 engine drives a
two-blade rotor. A pilotless version is also available for military use.
There are other small helicopters built
by various manufacturers, but none are as cheap as the thousands of light
fixed-wing aircraft that are in service throughout the United States and
the world. Considering the high skill-level required to operate a
helicopter, the fact that they are more difficult to acquire may not be a