Choppin' it up: All About Helicopters!

The idea of vertical flight has been around for centuries, and took about just that long to perfect. The concept of vertical flight was documented as early as the 400s BCE in China where kids had propeller toys and would spin them in their hands to make the propellors fly straight upward. (See the activities section below to learn how to make your own!)

Then there wasn't much recorded buzz around vertical flight until the 1480s, when Leonardo da Vinci sketched the now famous picture of his "aerial screw". (see below) Then all went quiet again until the 1750s when Russian and French inventors started tackling the mystery of vertical flight with gradual success. The word "helicopter" was coined by French inventor Gustave de Ponton d'Amecourt in 1861 with the presentation of his steam-powered model. His version of vertical flight didn't last, but the name did! The first successful helicopter flights started popping up in the early 1900s, but the models weren't that steady and only "flew" a foot or two in the air. Iterations of the helicopter continued to be developed and it wasn't until 1944 when the Igor Sikorsky created the R-4, the world' first mass produced helicopter model, which was also the only issued model used in World War II.

Leonardo da Vinci's "aerial screw" sketch (Wikipedia)

Leonardo da Vinci's "aerial screw" sketch (Wikipedia)

Now there are several versions of helicopters used for military and recreational purposes (see below for examples). While the bodies of the helicopters may look different, the principles of vertical flight are all the same. There is a main rotor that lifts the helicopter straight up. Then there is a second rotor that counteracts yaw, the torque caused when an object spins around a single vertical axis. On most helicopter models, the second rotor is on the tail, but it can also be a double-rotor helicopter like a CH-47 Chinook. This helicopter needs to equally sized large rotors to lift its heavy body. To counteract yaw, the rotor blades spin in opposite directions and the helicopter can fly straight!  

Helicopters (Wikipedia)

Helicopters (Wikipedia)


Make your own propellor toy! 

Make the toy that inspired the first documentation of vertical flight in China! Here's an easy project from that will result in a new, simple, hand-powered toy! See how high you can make yours fly just by using your own hands!


Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beatty tells the story of a second grader named Rosie who loved making inventions for her family, but becomes discouraged when her creativity isn't appreciated. She then decides to try making one more invention (a helicopter!) for her Great Great Aunt Rose who has a dream of flying...and learns a lesson in how to frame failure as a positive experience. It's an incredible book, beloved in our home, and is part of a series! Enjoy!

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