FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Berliner built the first version of the helicopter

June 16, 1922 – 100 years ago today, Henry Berliner presented a prototype helicopter to the US Navy’s Office of Aeronautics in College Park, Maryland.

Background

Emile Berliner. (Photo: kids.kiddle.co)

Berliner was from Washington DC Emile Berliner, his father, was an inventor whose best-known invention was what is now called a phonograph record. Henry Berliner was a technical genius in his own right and studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University for two years before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During World War I, Berliner served briefly as an aerial photographer with the Army Air Service. He returned to Washington in 1919 to assist his father in his helicopter research, which had been ongoing since 1903.

US Navy connection leads to prototype

The US Navy learned of the research and experiences of the Berliners. In the early 1920s, they had the opportunity to acquire a French World War I fighter plane (a Nieuport 23), as well as a 220 horsepower British Bentley engine. They worked to perfect their prototype and took it to nearby College Park, Maryland.

Henry Berliner in a 1920 version of his helicopter.  (Photo: wikiwand)
Henry Berliner in a 1920 version of his helicopter. (Photo: wikiwand)

The Berliners had used the Nieuport’s fuselage and engine to build their rudimentary helicopter. Gear shafts were used to connect the Bentley engine to two horizontal rotors which were mounted on a beam extending laterally from the fuselage. A third horizontal rotor at the rear provided pitch control.

According to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, “To initiate forward flight, the pilot pushed forward on the control column to increase the pitch of the horizontal tail rotor, which lowered the nose and angled the propellers slightly from lift to initiate forward flight.The flight controls were also linked to the elevators and an enlarged rudder on the tail of the fuselage, allowing control to be maintained at higher forward speeds.Two sets of five 36-inch x 8-inch louvers, located below each rotor, opened and closed differentially to provide roll control by presenting a flat surface, which reacted against the downward sweep of the rotor.

The prototype was presented to the US Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics on June 16, 1922, and is often considered the first flight of a helicopter.

One of the Berlin prototypes.  (Photo: wired.com)
One of the Berlin prototypes. (Photo: wired.com)

The 1924 prototype

Based on lessons learned from the 1922 prototype, the Berliners developed another version of their machine in 1923. Henry Berliner added to this version a triple set of backup wings in the event of engine failure. This machine could both hover and reach forward speeds of 40 mph, but lacked the power to gain much altitude. Its best performance was in another demonstration for the US Navy on February 23, 1924. While the second prototype performed better than the 1922 prototype, “the aircraft was still not completely controllable and could not gain a lot of height”. This machine reached an altitude of only 15 feet.

The Berlin Helicopter.  (Picture: secretprojects.uk.co)
The Berlin Helicopter. (Picture: secretprojects.uk.co)

A last attempt in 1925

In 1925, the Berliners again modified their invention. It was a biplane type design which was lighter and more efficient. Unfortunately, this version didn’t perform much better and was the Berliners’ last helicopter experience.

Despite the disappointing results, their experiments sparked international interest. Henry Berliner exhibited the aircraft in the UK.

A Berliner Joyce P-16.  (Picture: public domain)
A Berliner Joyce P-16. (Picture: public domain)

Subsequent activities

In 1926, he founded the Berliner Aircraft Company and developed the CM-4 family of aircraft. These were “umbrella monoplanes” fitted with several different engine options. Then, in 1927, Berliner bought Hoover Field, which is now the site of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

However, a fire in 1928 forced Berliner to sell the airfield and the Potomac Flying Service, which was also housed at the airfield. Berliner’s company merged to form Berliner-Joyce Aircraft in 1929; this company was acquired by North American Aviation a few months later.

Also in 1929, construction began on a new factory for Berliner-Joyce in Dundalk, Maryland. The new factory adjoined Logan Field and a state-of-the-art 16-foot-long wind tunnel was built.

A Berliner-Joyce OJ-2 with a retractable hood over the rear cockpit and a tall radio mast.  (Photo: US Navy)
A Berliner-Joyce OJ-2 with a retractable hood over the rear cockpit and a tall radio mast. (Photo: US Navy)

However, the stock market crash of October 1929 caused Berliner-Joyce to switch from civilian aircraft design to military contracts. The company designed several biplane aircraft for the United States Army and United States Navy. However, although the company had many contracts, it never built more than 50 aircraft for the military.

In 1930, Berliner founded Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO). ERCO built the ERCO Ercoupe beginning in 1939. During World War II the company produced the ball gun turret used in the PB4Y-1 Liberator and PB4Y-2 Privateer. At the end of the war, Berliner sold the rights and plans to Ercoupe and entered the field of flight simulators with ERCO.

An ERCO Ercoupe 415-C.  (Photo: National Air and Space Museum)
An ERCO Ercoupe 415-C. (Photo: National Air and Space Museum)

Legacy

In the late 1930s, Igor Sikorsky built, tested, and flew the world’s first working helicopter. (For more on that, follow this link.) However, Henry Adler Berliner (December 13, 1895 – May 1, 1970) was a pioneer in airplanes and helicopters and many regard the helicopters he built with his father as the first ones.

The Berliners’ triplane helicopter is the oldest helicopter in the world. It was donated to the Smithsonian Institution and, as part of the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, is on loan to the College Park Aviation Museum.

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