Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America
Written by LTC Paul J. Fardink, U.S. Army, Retired
In 1926, a 23-year old Maitland Bleecker submitted a proposal to the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company for an experimental helicopter. As Project Engineer, Bleecker would oversee the design and construction of a full-scale prototype and conduct myriad test flights between 1930 and 1931. Due to the dire Depression economy caused by the stock market crash in October of 1929, the failure of a $100 part would kill the entire project. Soon afterward, Bleecker’s car was broken into, his projector and flight films all stolen—and with them the tangible proof his helicopter had actually flown. Sadly, current technical and historical vertical flight literature make little reference to this brilliant helicopter pioneer who passed away in 2002 at the age of 99, but his contributions to vertical flight are indeed vast.
While a student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Maitland Bleecker was first introduced to the helicopter in an extra-curricular project to construct an actual half-sized model. Even though it could fly, the model couldn’t be controlled—at all; neither could Bleecker’s desire to create a helicopter of his own. After graduating in 1924 with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering, he accepted a position at the National Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, a precursor to NASA) at Langley Field, Virginia. During his first year, an ironic twist saved his life when another young man took his seat in a test flight, which then crashed and killed Stevens Bromley. This tragedy bothered Bleecker for decades and he only made peace with it by believing that God must have had something special in mind for him to accomplish during his life, although the answer remained nebulous for him personally.
The next year Bleecker encouraged the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in Garden City, New York, to accept his project. When reflecting back on this design period later in life, he states, “I’m the first to agree that the full-sized machine is clumsy looking, complicated, and appears rather unwieldy, but it must be remembered it was in itself a flying experiment to check basic principles of control and maneuverability, leading to future refinement, if a successful full-sized test model could actually be produced. In that regard it was a success; the balance control mechanism of independent collective and cyclic control of the blades is so fundamental that it is the standard control system in almost all helicopters which have followed.”
“In summary, a total of forty-four separate and distinct model tests of aerodynamic properties of the contemplated design were run and analyzed and then combined with weight estimates and power-available figures. Performance curves were then computed and drawn, as well. By March of 1930, the maze of struts, shafts, gears, gear boxes, and propellers was finally assembled; the helicopter was actually ready for flight testing. While others had achieved vertical lift sufficient to get their craft off the ground, the problem with complete success, however, required something more. The aerodynamic controls would additionally need to maintain the helicopter in its desired attitude, in spite of adverse air currents, and tip the plane of the rotor to create translational movement, primarily forward, but also in whatever direction the sustained tipping maintained. Therefore, a control system needed to be devised that would accomplish all of this without interference between the two distinctly different functions of lift and roll in any quadrant. My original patent application filed on July 7, 1925, showed, rather crudely, the way this could be achieved. Not being very knowledgeable about patents at the time, this basic and essential method for controlling helicopters became lost in a lot of other details.”
Writing in 1996, Bleecker stated the following, “To me it is quite remarkable how closely the controls of today’s helicopters resemble those of my early model: rudder pedals to align the direction of the way the fuselage is pointing; control stick (cyclic) to roll the machine for transitional flight or for lateral and longitudinal attitude correction; collective lever along the left side of the pilot’s seat, for vertical control. I conducted many short flights to get used to how the helicopter responded to all of its controls and see how it reacted in general. These flights were done outdoors on the very spacious concrete ramps of the hangar, consisting of many takeoffs and landings, some with the power shut off. They were modest climbs and short flights in various directions—nothing spectacular—as I tried to get the feel of flying the helicopter and see whether it reacted easily and properly under all conditions. These flights were all documented in 4,000 feet of film with the 16mm Kodak movie camera my father had given me.”
“The Curtiss publicity department set up a public showing of my helicopter on June 18, 1930, although no flight testing would occur that day. Paramount News showed their clip of this event throughout the country that month, in the newsreel which was part of every show in movie theaters at the time. A rash of newspaper articles also appeared. Very thoughtfully, Paramount gave me a copy of the film, and later, as other events took place, this would become extremely important” (Ref. 2)
About one year later, after significant development and flight testing he noticed that the little propeller which cooled the engine had stopped spinning; the same small gear which caused problems earlier had failed again. Even though Bleecker spoke with the Vice President of Curtiss to arrange for redesign of the part, the company treasurer turned down the order because of the devastating impact of the Great Depression. A $100 part thus killed the helicopter project Curtiss had already invested over $95,000 in to that point.
Determined not to let his dream die, Bleecker then tried to convince the Navy to take on the project with a redesigned helicopter, using a wingtip ramjet propulsion system. But fate and bad timing interceded once again. On the way to Washington, D. C., he dropped his family off at Grand Central Station in New York, but when he returned to his parked car he found the rear door jimmied open and realized that his 16mm projector, along with the 4,000 feet of movie film, had been stolen! Not one single foot was left, showing that his helicopter had actually flown.
“Seven years of my life’s pioneering work was now, finally, down the drain, just like that, after I had done everything possible to prove the practicability and success of an entirely new and uniquely useful form of aerial flight—the helicopter. By this time my personal finances were becoming catastrophic and I sorely needed a job and money to keep my family from starving, so one day I walked out of the hangar, left the helicopter and the ramjet there and, to this day, I have no idea what became of either of them” (Ref. 2).
Sixty years later, Bleecker reflected on this and Igor Sikorsky’s VS-300 helicopter: “Sikorsky began working on the design of a single-rotor helicopter and succeeded in making successful flights with it during September of 1939. I, of course, became aware of this and am frank enough to admit that it was very depressing to see how his work—some nine years after I had successfully flown a single-rotor helicopter—was hailed as the first in the world. Now, I in no way wish to detract from what Mr. Sikorsky did, back in those days. Because the heart of the successful helicopter is the rather simple mechanism in the control system which permits cyclic and collective angle of incident changes in the rotating rotor blades, it is perfectly possible that he worked this out entirely independent of what I had done, some eight or nine years previously. On the other hand, the public showing of the Curtiss-Bleecker Helicopter in June of 1930 gave ample opportunity to study this mechanism, and my patent filed on July 7, 1925, displayed, schematically, how to do this, although my inexperience about patents didn’t properly claim this” (Ref. 2).
While it is clear that Igor Sikorsky developed and built the first “practical” helicopter, substantial evidence also exists that Maitland Bleecker did, indeed, invent and build the first flyable single-rotor helicopter—and well ahead of any other. Even though it may never be known with certainty if his designs were copied or his patents infringed, leading to the creation of the modern helicopter, it is, however, imperative to recognize Bleecker’s work and secure his place in vertical flight history. What truly matters, however, is how each different design and every tiny part would help make the necessary steps toward the successful development of this life-saving modern miracle.