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Introduction

Bringing together a long history of excellence from some of Europe’s leading rotorcraft manufacturers, the Eurocopter Group (now Airbus Helicopters) was formed from the 1992 merger between the helicopter divisions of Germany’s Deutsche Aerospace and France’s Aerospatiale, with Spain’s CASA joining the company following the creation of EADS in 2000. Here's a look at the pioneers who paved the way for Airbus Helicopters, starting with Talleres Loring in 1923.

1920s:

Created in 1923 by Jorge Loring, this aviation company first produced autogyros. Then, under the name of Aeronautica Industrial S.A., the company began manufacturing fixed wing aircraft, gradually moving into helicopter activities in the 1960s. In 1995, the company was taken over by CASA.

  • January 1923:
    In 1922, the Spanish engineer Juan de La Cierva entered the final development stage of an autogyro: an airplane whose wings were replaced by a free-spinning rotor, entirely driven by the speed of the forward propeller. Landing of an autogyro occurred by shutting down the engine and performing an autorotation.

    The autogyro made its maiden flight on January 9, 1923 with Lieutenant Gomez Spencer at the controls. At the time, Cierva was working with the company Talleres Loring, which became Aeronautica Industrial S.A. (AISA) in 1934. AISA later joined CASA in 1995.

    Although the autogyro was not a helicopter in the proper sense of the term, Cierva's inventions did have an impact on the future of this type of aircraft. In particular, the rotor head principle became a model for future helicopter rotors with more than two blades. Later, Cierva created his own company in Great Britain and sold licenses to American or European companies such as Lioré & Olivier or Focke-Wulf.

© 1991 Jean Boulet,
in History of the Helicopter, Éditions France-Empire.

1930s-50s:

In the early 1920s, Pr. Henrich Focke began working on the development of a helicopter with two lateral rotors. In 1923, he created the firm Focke-Wulf in association with G. Wulf, which built small business aircraft until 1933 when the company was nationalized.

  • 1936: Focke 61
    In 1934, H. Focke decided to branch into rotary wings and acquired a licence for La Cierva's autogyros. From this experience, he began developing the Focke 61. This aircraft's engine had 160 horsepower and a total weight of approximately 1,000 kilograms in flight conditions with a pilot.

    In 1936, French industry created the Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Sud-Ouest by merging six aviation companies, including Blériot (established in 1905) and Bloch (Marcel Dassault). The company built transport aircraft (i.e. the Bretagne), bombers (the Vautour), a fighter (the Trident) and helicopters.

    On May 10, 1936, Rohlfs accomplished the first autorotation landing in the history of the helicopter.

    On June 26, 1936, test pilot Ewald Rohlfs performed the first flight lasting 26 seconds. Three flights later, the flight duration increased to16 minutes.

    In 1937, Heinrich Focke and Gerd Achgelis founded an aircraft company specialized in helicopters called Focke-Achgelis GmbH. The company is known for developing the FA330, a rotor kite that could be towed by a submarine to search for targets. After World War II, the company discontinued production until 1951, when they began producing gliders. In 1963, the company merged with Vereinigte Flugtechnische Werke (VFW).

    In 1937, Pr. Focke, who had been dismissed from Focke-Wulf, teamed up with the pilot Gert Achgelis to create the firm Focke-Achgelis. Carl Bode became the new test pilot of this company.

    In the meantime, the famous aviator Hanna Reitsch took over flight demonstrations involving the Focke 61. In February 1938, a series of sensational flights took place in the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin.

    On January 29, 1939, C. Bode climbed to an altitude of 3,4207 meters, beating Rohlfs' former record. The Focke 61 then retired with its last flight performed in December 1941.

  • June 1940: FA223
    Following the success of the F61, Pr Focke designed a larger aircraft, the FA223. In the fall of 1939, the first experimental aircraft was completed. The first flight took place on June 12, 1940, but the machine was considered as complete only at the beginning of 1942.

    The main characteristics were: speed of 182 km/h, ceiling of 7,1àà meters, maximum weight lifted vertically of 4,414 kg, and longest flying time of 3 hours and 42 minutes.

    Many flights were conducted in the mountains on unprepared landing grounds, often located as high as 2,300 meters in the Alps.

    In 1944, 30 FA223s were ordered, but in the spring 1945 only nine had been built. After the war, one was ferried to England, becoming the first Channel crossing by helicopter 30 years after Blériot did the same with an airplane. In mid-1947, Pr Focke joined the French company SNCASE.

  • 1947/1948:
    By the end of World War II, a helicopter Department had been created within Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Sud-Ouest under the direction of Paul Morain.

    Using some mechanical parts and engineers from the German firm Focke, the department developed a vertical-takeoff autogyro powered by a 9.75 meter diameter jet rotor with three blades. It was presented at the first post-war air show in Paris in November 1946.

    The SO1100 used a Mathis G7 engine with a maximum power of 175 horsepower. After numerous tie-down tests, the first "free flight" occurred on March 7, 1949, piloted by Claude Dellys. However, the yaw control was insufficient and the carburetion system difficult to adjust.

    However, several important modifications from this cancelled program led to the development of the Ariel II version.


  • June 1948: SE3101
    The SE3101 was a small single-seat aircraft, with two small tail rotors in the shape of an inverted V. With a weight of 535 kg, it was powered by a 90 horsepower Mathis engine. In June 1948, Jean Boulet, performed a takeoff at 30 centimeters above the ground. (Boulet obtained his pilot's license six months before; it was the beginning of his long career as a test pilot.

    In September, Boulet made the first public display over Villacoublay airfield near Paris. During the months that followed, the tests progressed very slowly, with only 20 flight hours between June 1948 and January 1950. That same year, the tests came to an end.

1950s-60s:

Bölkow

Ludwig Bölkow worked with Messerschmitt until 1948 when he created his own design office. In 1956, he founded his own aeronautical company and later merged with Messerschmitt in 1968. The company went on to develop the famous hingeless rotorhead without lead-lag hinges and blades, made of composite material.

  • 1950: SE3110
    The SE3110 was the first truly French helicopter. It featured a 200 horsepower Salmson engine and a metallic hull structure with a long and slender tail with a double butterfly rotor at the tip. The structure, the rotors, the blades, and the mechanical components were designed by a team including René Mouille, the future Director of the Aerospatiale design office.

    Jacques Lecarme flew the SE3110 for the first time on June 10, 1950. The rotors were very light and the aircraft difficult to fly.
    In parallel, the development of the first Alouette, the SE3120 was launched.

  • 1950/1951: SO1110 ARIEL II & SO1120 ARIEL III
    The Ariel II version featured an enlarged rotor from the SO1100 (10.80 m) and a more powerful engine (takeoff power 190 horsepower). After several adjustments, Claude Dellys flew the SO1110 for the first time on April 21, 1950. A contract for two prototypes was then awarded by the French Air Ministry.

    This twin-seat aircraft, with a maximum weight of 1,080 kilograms, was used as a flying test bench until 1952 and performed numerous public presentations. It demonstrated that the jet helicopter with combustion at the blade tips was a viable technology even if it was necessary to improve certain features.

    Using the Turbomeca Artouste prototype gas turbine, generating 260 horsepower, and a hollow blade spar made of light alloy, the SO1120 Ariel III with three seats placed side-by-side had a total weight of 1,250 kg and an authorized speed of 135 km/h. Two prototypes were ordered and the maiden flight occurred on April 18, 1951.

    Despite its advantages, the fuel consumption of the Ariel III was approximately twice that of a helicopter with a mechanical transmission and the same engine. From this came the idea to operate as an autogyro during cruise flight and to reserve high consumption only for the takeoff and landing phases. This idea became the SO1310 Farfadet.


  • 1953: SO1120 and SO1221 DJINN
    During 1951, the French Official Services set up a program for a light observation helicopter, which would show great ruggedness in operation. The experimental single seat SO1220 Djinn used the same hub and reduced diameter blades as the Ariel II with an empty weight of 280 kg.

    The aircraft was very basic, with no windshield, no electrical installation, and a cyclic pitch control directly linked to the swash plate. In November 1953, the French Flight Test Centre took the two prototypes to Montgenèvre (1,800 m altitude in the Alps) for mountain tests.

    On December 29, Jean Dabos established the international altitude record for helicopters weighing less than 500 kg at takeoff. He reached 4,789 meters. Later on, in 1957, he beat the record in all categories reaching an altitude of 8,492 meters.

    The twin-seat was called SO1221 Djinn. The first flight occurred on December 16, 1953, and a contract then followed for 25 pre-production aircraft. Because of the good results obtained, this batch was followed by production of 150 aircraft for the French Army (for training, observation and liaison purposes), and for civil and export customers.

    The Djinn was then certified by French airworthiness authorities on May 2,1957, becoming the first French helicopter -- and the only jet helicopter -- in the world to have reached the certification and industrial production stages


  • 1953: SO1310 FARFADET
    The contract for two prototypes of this aircraft was awarded in December 1951. The aircraft's total weight was 1,500 kg, with a maximum speed of 250 km/h in autogyro flight. Two independent Turbomeca turbines powered the aircraft. In the forward section, a 275 horsepower Artouste II drove a propeller. In the aft section, an Arrius I provided 275 horsepower on the compressor shaft driving the rotor. Tests were difficult because the gas turbines were prototypes and had to be adjusted. Jean Dabos performed the first flight on April 29, 1953, and the first transition took place in December 1953.

    Development was hampered by difficulties with the gas turbines. When the funds granted by the contract came to an end, new credits did not emerge because the financial efforts were transferred to operational military helicopters. The Department concentrated on the promising development of the Djinn.


  • 1953: Bo102-103
    In 1953, the German company Flettner, who at the time employed Mr. Bölkow, started developing a flight trainer, known as the Bo 102 Helitrainer. The trainer was in fact a "helicopter" secured to a platform on the ground. It was the first helicopter to be fitted with blades made of composite materials. In all, 18 of these machines were produced. Six countries purchased the trainer, which was the design reference for the Bo 103 - the very first helicopter produced by Bölkow Entwicklungen, founded in 1956.

    The Bo 103 took to the air for the first time on September 14, 1961. It was a single-seat machine and was not produced in series due to the lack of market prospects. But the knowhow acquired was put to use in the development of future Bölkow aircraft, and particularly for their rotors.


  • 1955: SE3130 "Alouette II"
    Charles Marchetti, head of the design office, decided to develop the SE3130 with a Turbomeca turbine. The Artouste II achieved 450 horsepower, but only 350 horsepower was utilized. The maiden flight occurred on March 12, 1955. Just two months later, 78 flights had been performed. On June 6, Jean Boulet easily broke the international altitude record flying 8,209 meters in the second prototype.

    The Alouette II was the first turbine helicopter to enter production. The first production SE 3130 was built in April 1956 and was used for an evaluation campaign in the Alps, only 13 months after the prototype's first flight. No such performance was ever achieved again.

    On July 3, 1956, Jean Boulet and crewmember Henri Petit performed the first rescue by helicopter at 4,362 meters from the Vallot refuge at the Mont Blanc mountain. On January 3, 1957, Jean Boulet and Gérard Henry flying two Alouette II helicopters rescued the French Air Force crew and rescuers during operations following the famous accident of Vincendon and Henry. The exceptional capabilities of turbine helicopters compared to piston engine aircraft were thus demonstrated in a spectacular fashion. The Alouette II opened the way for a new generation of helicopters.

    The production of the Alouette II ended in 1975 with more than 1,300 aircraft. The year 1966 saw the introduction of the SA318, a more powerful version powered by Turbomeca's Astazou engine, followed by the SA315 LAMA in 1969.


  • 1956: Bo46
    Beginning in 1956, Bölkow started work on a high-speed helicopter project with the development of a bearingless main rotor. The resulting helicopter, the experimental Bo 46, made its first flight with the new rotor system on January 30, 1964, powered by the French Turbomeca Turmo IIIb engine. Its designers hoped the helicopter would reach speeds close to 400 km/h. The rotor blades were made of composite materials. Two Bo 46 prototypes were built.

    Although the engineers had to suspend the project because of oscillatory blade flapping problems, the experience gained was to prove extremely valuable in the subsequent development of other helicopters based on the same technology.
  • 1957: creation of Sud Aviation (SNCASO & SNCASE)

    In 1957, Sud Aviation was born from the merger of SNCASE and SNCASO. The company achieved worldwide success with the first operational commercial jet in Europe, the Caravelle. Soon after, Sud Aviation became famous for its helicopter division with Alouettes, Pumas and Gazelles. In 1967, Potez-Fouga joined the group.

    • 1959: SA3160/ SA316/ SA319 B "Alouette III"
      Encouraged by the success of the Alouette II – the very first turbine-powered helicopter to be produced in series – Sud Aviation went on to develop a more powerful and highly streamlined seven-seat machine with excellent visibility, capable of carrying two stretchers.

      The Alouette III made its maiden flight on February 28, 1959 with Jean Boulet at the controls. The program was managed by René Mouille. In June, the prototype landed at an altitude of over 4,000 m in the Mont Blanc range and, in October 1960, at over 6,000 m in the Himalayas. On board were the pilot Jean Boulet, two passengers, and 250 kg of equipment. The innovative feature of the helicopter was its gas turbine engine: the Artouste, rated originally at 880 horsepower, but derated to 550 horsepower. The version with the more powerful Astazou gas turbine engine made its first flight on July 10, 1967.

      The first two customers of this version, which was certified on December 15, 1961, came from outside France, although the French Army placed an order for 50 Alouette IIIs in June 1961.
      The Alouette III was specifically designed to fly at high altitudes and quickly earned a well-merited reputation for performing rescue missions. It was the first helicopter with a real multi-mission capability and performances matched to its missions, whether in its civil or military version.

      Although the last and 1437th Alouette III left the Marignane assembly lines in 1979, close to 500 more were to be manufactured under license in Romania, India and Switzerland. The last Alouette III was delivered in 1985. Even today, there are still several dozen Alouette IIIs operating in about 30 countries.

      In 1959, Sud Aviation developed a helicopter in the six metric-ton class, the Frelon (SA320). A distinguishing characteristic of the Frelon was its short tail boom in relation to the overall length of the airframe. The finalization work on the aircraft proved to be very complex, and the Frelon program was quickly abandoned to give way to a program for a new, heavier machine - the Super Frelon (SA321). Two Frelon prototypes were built.

      The program was placed under the direction of Chief Engineer René Mouille, and on December 7, 1962, the SA321, a 13 metric-ton helicopter with a rotor system based on American technology, performed its first flight. The flight crew was made up of Jean Boulet, Roland Coffignot, Jean Maris Besse and Joseph Turchini. In July of 1963, the helicopter broke three speed records for all categories combined, including the record for a 100 km closed course at a speed of 334.280 km/h.

      The use of three turbine engines was a first in the industry. And the civil version, certified in October 1967, would be the first series-production helicopter of this type to receive certification. A Greek aviation company would use the aircraft in 1968 and 1969 to transport passengers between Athens and the Greek islands. When the Chinese purchased 13 machines, the country started to manufacture copies of the Super Frelon known as the Zhi 8 beginning in 1985. But the manufacturers of the SA321 deemed its profitability to be insufficient, thus shortening its career.

      A total of 106 Super Frelons would be manufactured. The French Navy received the first military version of the helicopter in 1966, and several other countries placed orders. Unfortunately, four of the most important customers would encounter various problems and eventually be subjected to embargoes, and the helicopter would not have the illustrious career that had been hoped for. Production stopped in 1981.

    1960s-90s:

    MESSERSCHMITT BÖLKOW BLOHM

    In 1969, MBB (Messerschmitt – Bölkow – Blohm) was created by merging three companies. The group Messerschmitt – Bölkow, already in existance since the year before, and Hamburger Flugzeugbau GmbH, the aviation division of Blohm und Voss. In 1980, VFW (see Focke-Achgelis) joined MBB, and in 1989 MBB was integrated into Deutsche Aerospace AG.

  • 1965: SA330 "PUMA"
    In the early 1960s, the French and British armies both developed similar projects to acquire a military helicopter capable of transporting an infantry platoon with its equipment. The aircraft had to have de-icing capabilities and also be able to operate in tropical regions. Another requirement for the helicopter was that it be transportable by air.

    The Puma performed its first flight on April 15, 1965 (flight crew: Boulet – Coffignot – Ricaud – Boutin). In order to resolve vibration problems, a new suspension system for the rotor – gearbox assembly – was developed by a team of engineers directed by René Mouille. This same system would then be applied to the other helicopters in the range.

    In the agreements signed between the French and the British, it was decided that the French would manufacture the Puma (except for 48 Pumas built by Westland, known as the SA 330E, beginning in 1967). A total of 705 Pumas would be delivered, without counting the versions manufactured in Indonesia and Romania. The Puma would receive its civil certification the year after the first machine was delivered to the French Army, in 1969. The first Puma would be delivered to the RAF in 1971. The South Africans also developed a similar helicopter using various components of the Puma. Known as the Oryx, the aircraft first entered service in 1988.


  • 1967: Bo105
    The Bo105 was the very first light twin-engine helicopter in the world to enter commercial service. It had a rigid Bölkow-designed rotor that was flight-tested for more than 1,000 hours on an Alouette II – an example of Franco-German cooperation ahead of its time. The Bo105 made its maiden flight on February 16, 1967 with Wilfried von Engelhardt at the controls and, just four months later, the helicopter was unveiled at the Paris Air Show. It had a four-bladed rotor, with reinforced blades made of composite materials, and displayed excellent maneuverability.

    The Bo105 program proved to be of major importance because it gave a jump-start to the helicopter sector in West Germany and other countries, thanks to its suitability for the numerous missions being developed at the time and to its twin engines, which enhanced safety. Nearly 1,500 Bo 105s were built, and its more recent versions are still in widespread service.

    Multi-role in the full sense of the term, the Bo 105 was produced in 25 versions and served in the civil and military sectors performing a wide range of missions, from rescue missions to anti-tank combat.


  • 1969: SA315 "LAMA"
    In 1968, in response to an invitation for bids from the Indian government, the Helicopter Division decided to combine the airframe of an Alouette II with the dynamic components of the Alouette III. The helicopter performed its first flight on March 17, 1969 with Roland Coffignot and Gérard Boutin at the crew.

    It was initially planned to land the helicopter on top of the Himalayas. But authorization could not be obtained, and it was then decided that an attempt would be made to set a world record using the aircraft.

    On June 21, 1972, Jean Boulet set the altitude record for all categories combined when he climbed to 12,442 meters. This officially certified record still stands today. The turbine also shut down due to the reduction in power, which means that the Lama also recorded the longest auto-rotation in the history of helicopter flying.
    Until the Ecureuil B3 came along, the Lama was the king of aerial mountain work thanks to the amazing amount of power it could generate for its weight. A total of 447 Lamas would be delivered by Sud Aviation / Aerospatiale. India also was licensed to manufacture the Lama under the name Cheetah.


  • 1970:
    Société Nationale Industrielle Aerospatiale (SNIAS). Sud Aviation became SNIAS by merging with French Nord Aviation and SEREB companies. From 1984, SNIAS operated under the name of AEROSPATIALE. The first famous success started in October 1972 with the maiden flight of the liner Airbus A300 B. With Matra, MBB and CASA, Aerospatiale played also a major role in the development of satellite launchers. Aerospatiale's helicopter division produced some families of helicopters still in production today: the Ecureuil, Dauphin and Super Puma.


  • 1972: SA360/ AS365 Dauphin - AS565 Panther- EC155
    The Dauphin was originally designed as the successor to the Alouette III and was to be called the "Business Alouette". The fuel tank was meant to go in the rear of a relatively small cabin before the idea arose to place the fuel tanks in the lower structure, thus increasing the cabin size. This is why there is such a height difference between the front and aft sections of the Dauphin cabin.


  • 1974: AS350/355 Ecureuil/AStar- AS550/555 Fennec - EC130
    Following the commercial success of the Alouette II, a new helicopter with five seats needed to be developed. The response was the Gazelle, which was adopted, in particular, by the British and French armies, but which did not enjoy the expected commercial success on the civil market because of its price. The decision was therefore taken to develop a more economical aircraft.


  • 1977: AS331/AS332 Super Puma - AS532 Cougar - EC225/EC725
    The development criteria for the Super Puma first took into account the request from Puma operators for improved safety. The mechanical design and the appearance of anti-crash fuel tanks, for example, offered military users new guarantees in terms of survivability and, in time, all the customers of the range would benefit from these improvements. On September 5, 1977, the precursor of the Super Puma, the SA331-01 (a sort of modified Puma) performed its maiden flight with the test pilots G. Henry and J. d'Elbreil at the controls, alongside G. Boutin, the test flight engineer (TFE), and J. Marty, the test flight technician (TFT). On September 13,1978, it was the turn of the AS332-01 to fly for the first time with almost the same crew (P. Loranchet replaced G. Henry).


  • 1979: BK 117
    The year 1985 was an important milestone in the annals of European helicopters: The first BK 117 was certified, developed jointly by a German manufacturer (MBB) and a Japanese company (Kawasaki). MBB was responsible for the rotors, tail boom, hydraulic systems, flight controls and stabilizer, whereas Kawasaki developed the landing gear, fuselage and transmission systems, including the main gearbox. The BK 117 had a rigid rotor made of titanium. Single-sourcing was employed in the manufacture of the BK117: the components were produced by a single supplier and shipped to the production centers in Germany (Donauwörth) and Japan (Gifu).

    The BK 117 made its maiden flight at Ottobrun on June 13, 1979 with Siegfried Hoffman piloting, and the first Japanese machine lifted off on August 10 of the same year.

    The helicopter's main success was to penetrate the market for emergency medical services, particularly in the United States. Of the 130 orders received when the helicopter was launched in February 1982, half came from US customers. The key to this success was chiefly its design, which was derived from the Bo105. The BK 117 had an exceptionally roomy cabin - more than 3.2 cubic meters – making it ideal for transport operations.

    In the late 1990s, a series of modifications and advances were embodied in the BK117 to meet the requirements of the French Government for a rescue helicopter. Named the BK117 C2, the new advanced version was later rebaptized the EC145.


  • 1985: BO108
    Considering the success of the Bo105, MBB worked from 1985 on the development of its successor. The Bo108 had to be an aircraft with the most up-to-date technology, including a composite structure, new vibration absorbers, and ultra-modern avionics with screens. The Bo108 made its maiden flight on October 15, 1988.


  • January, 1991:
    MBB announced the series production of the Bo108 with certification scheduled for 1994. One year later, Eurocopter was created, taking advantage of the promising technology of the ex-Helicopter Division of Aerospatiale, such as the Fenestron®. The result was the EC135, the first joint Eurocopter helicopter, which performed its maiden flight on February 15, 1994.
  • Anecdote

    © Airbus Helicopters Collection G. HENRY

  • AISA manufactured helicopters for the French Air Force as of 1942.

    In 1953, Jean Cantinieau, an engineer at Société Nationale des Constructions aéronautiques du Sud-Ouest (SNCASO), was hired by AISA to develop a helicopter range. AISA thus provided the helicopter industry with its structure, equipment and controls.

    Following AISA's bankruptcy in 1962, Jean Cantinieau returned to France where he joined Matra. He was an autodidact who designed and finalized the only version of "Bamb." This name was eventually discarded since the Walt Disney group opposed it and the aircraft was therefore called the "Faon" (fawn in French).

    The Faon was an elegant small two-seater helicopter with 180 hp and no rear rotor – it only took a few flights before being abandoned in 1963 due to stability problems.

    • Key figures of the Faon:

      •Two-seat light helicopter
      •Rotor diameter: 7.40 m
      •Empty weight: 470 kg
      •Total weight: 710 kg
      •Engine: 1 Lycoming 180 hp
      •Maximum speed: 130 km/h