helicopter history
Aviation History

English and French Helicopters


Many important advances in helicopter technology were made in Europe, with Germany playing a leading role. In England, however, little attention was paid to the helicopter until 1944.

That year, the Bristol Aeroplane Company created a Helicopter Division, which was ultimately named Bristol Helicopters.

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In July 1947, Bristol was ready to launch its first helicopter, the Type 171, also called the Sycamore.

The Sycamore helicopter was more advanced than the Sikorsky R-5 and R-6 and became one of the most popular helicopters of its time. Source: Wikimedia

The British military quickly became interested in the Sycamore, and it went into production as the HR. Mk. 14. The helicopter was used for search-and-rescue missions and medical evacuations.

The Royal Australian Navy, the German Air Force, and the German Navy also began using the Sycamore.

Westland was England’s primary helicopter manufacturer. After World War II, Westland negotiated permission to build the Sikorsky S-51 helicopter. It then modified the design and created the WS-51 Dragonfly.

Starting in 1950, the Dragonfly was used aboard aircraft carriers by the Royal Navy and was the helicopter of choice of the Navy’s first helicopter squadron. Source: Wikipedia

Also in 1950, Westland began building the WS-55 Whirlwind, which was based on the design of the Sikorsky S-55. This was soon followed by the Wessex, which was based on the Sikorsky S-58, and the Sea King, which was based on the Sikorsky S-61.

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Westland’s Sea King was used by the Royal Marine Commandoes and the RAF. Source: Wikimedia

Next, Westland focused on developing a tactical utility helicopter, the Lynx. It entered British military service in 1970 and was very successful.

The Lynx saw service in the 1981 Falklands War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In 1980, Westland began cooperating with the Italian helicopter manufacturer Agusta. Together, they developed the EH. 101 Merlin, which was to replace Westland’s Sea King.

The Merlin featured a five-blade rotor, three engines, and a retractable landing gear. Production of both a military and a civilian version began in the mid-1990s.


In France, the government took over the aviation industry after World War II. There were two companies that produced helicopters: Sud-Ouest and Sud-Est.

Sud-Ouest built the Djinn, a small helicopter used by the French army. The SO-1221 Djinn became the most successful model.

Sud-Est developed the Alouette helicopter. The Alouette II began flying in 1955, set a helicopter altitude record, and quickly became popular.

The two companies merged in 1957 and formed Sud-Aviation. It supplied helicopters to both the military and civilian users.

Versions of the Alouette II, particularly the high-altitude model called Lama, were licensed to be built by other countries.

The Lama, re-named Cheetah by India, was used frequently in the Himalayan Mountains, particularly for evacuations of injured mountaineers. Source: Wikimedia

In the 1960s, Sud-Aviation used Sikorsky helicopters to develop the Puma, a medium-sized, twin-engine helicopter. It became popular with the offshore oil industry.

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In 1970, several helicopter companies merged again to form a new company called Aérospatiale. It developed the Gazelle and the Dauphin to replace the aging Alouette.

These two helicopters feature a rotor that is built into the tail to minimize the risk of spinning tail blades hitting objects on the ground.

In 1992, Aérospatiale merged with the German company MBB and formed Eurocopter Holdings. Together with Agusta from Italy and Fokker from Germany, Eurocopter Holdings developed the NH. 90.

The NH. 90 is a multi-use helicopter that can do anything from transporting troops to hunting submarines. Source: Wikimedia

With the diminished demand for military helicopter, more mergers of helicopter manufacturers are likely in the future.

Rob V.
Rob V. founded Century-of-Flight.net in October of 2019. He holds commercial single and multi-engine instrument ratings, and is a licensed CFI / CFII for both single and multi-engine aircraft. Rob currently has 1,500+ hours of flight logged, 1,000 of which is dual-given as an instructor. Learn more about him in his full bio here.

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