By: Norm Goyer
One of the very first practical helicopters was built in Germany in the early 1930s by Professor Henrich Focke. Focke first experimented with rotary wing development with his licensed copy of the Cierva Autogyro. He had previously built versions of the Cierva C.19 and C.20, which were autogyros. While working with these aircraft, Professor Focke realized that they were incapable of many maneuvers. He knew the answer was in the development of a true helicopter. Working with engineer Gerd Achgelis, they started the design for their Fw.61 helicopter in 1932. A free-flying model, built in 1934 and propelled by a small two-stroke engine, brought the promise of success. Today, the model can be seen in the Deutsches Museum in Munich. I checked my favorite source for German aircraft, “Hitler’s Luftwaffe”, and discovered further information about the world’s first helicopter.
“During early February of 1935, Focke received an order for the building of a prototype, which was designated the Fw 61, however Focke referred to it as the F 61. Roluf Lucht, of the technical office of the RLM, extended the order for a second aircraft on December 19, 1935. The airframe was based on that of a well-tried training aircraft, the Focke-Wulf Fw 44 Stieglitz.
A single, radial engine drove twin rotors, set on outriggers to the left and right of the fuselage. The counter-rotation of the two rotors solved the problem of torque-reaction. The small horizontal-axis propeller directly driven by the engine was purely to provide the necessary airflow to cool the engine during low speed or hovering flight- it provided negligible forward thrust.
Only two aircraft were produced. The first prototype, the V 1 D-EBVU, had its first free flight on June 29, 1936 with Ewald Rohlfs at the controls. By spring 1937, the second prototype, V 2 D-EKRA, was completed and flown for its first flight. On May 10, 1937, it accomplished its first autorotation landing with the engine turned off.
Professor Focke decided to introduce his new helicopter to the German people in a very daring indoor flight in a large gymnasium. He also chose Hanna Reitsch, Germany’s hero female pilot to do the demonstration flight. This was a huge risk due to hundreds of spectators in the building which could be in harm’s way in case of a mishap. The photographs and the motion pictures taken on that occasion are among some of the most viewed of any photos every taken. [
In February 1938, the Fw 61 demonstration flown by Hanna Reitsch was indeed held indoors at the Deutschlandhalle sports stadium in Berlin, Germany. The Fw 61 subsequently set several records for altitude, speed and flight duration culminating, in June 1938, with an altitude record of 11,243 ft and a straight line flight record of 143 miles.
Neither of these machines appear to have survived World War II, however a replica is on display at the Helicopter museum in Bückeburg, Germany.
Specifications Fw 61
- Crew: 1
- Length: 23 ft 11.04 in
- Rotor diameter: 2 × 23 ft
- Height: 8 ft 7.92 in
- Empty weight: 1,803 lb
- Max takeoff weight: 2,094 lb
- Engine: BMW Bramo 314 E 7-cylinder radial, 160 hp
- Maximum speed: 122 km/h 76 mph
- Cruise speed: 49 kn, 56 mph
- Range: 124 nmi, 143 miles
- Service ceiling: 11,243 ft
- Rate of climb: 690 ft/min