On June 16, 1922 – 100 years ago today, Henry Berliner demonstrated a prototype helicopter to the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics in College Park, Maryland.
Berliner was a native of Washington D.C. Emile Berliner, his father, was an inventor whose best-known invention was what is now known as 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 was briefly an aerial photographer with the Army Air Service. He moved back to Washington in 1919 to help his father with his helicopter research, which had been underway since 1903.
U.S. Navy connection leads to a prototype
The U.S. Navy learned of the Berliners’ research and experiments. In the early 1920s, they were given the opportunity to purchase a World War I French fighter airplane (a Nieuport 23), as well as a British Bentley 220-horsepower engine. They worked to perfect their prototype, and took it to nearby College Park, Maryland.
The Berliners had used the Nieuport’s fuselage and the engine to build their rudimentary helicopter. Geared shafts were used to connect the Bentley engine to two horizontal rotors that were mounted on a truss extending sideways 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 stick to increase the pitch of the horizontal tail rotor, which dropped the nose and inclined the lifting propellers slightly to initiate forward flight. The flight controls also connected to elevators and an enlarged rudder on the tail of the fuselage, which helped maintain control 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 rotor downwash.”
The prototype was demonstrated to the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics on June 16, 1922, and is often considered the first flight of a helicopter.
The 1924 prototype
Based on lessons learned from the 1922 prototype, the Berliners developed another version of their machine in 1923. Henry Berliner added a triple set of wings to this version as a backup in case of engine failure. This machine could both hover and reach forward speeds of 40 mph, but did not have the power to gain much altitude. Its best performance was during another demonstration for the U.S. Navy on February 23, 1924. While the second prototype worked better than the 1922 prototype, the “aircraft was still not completely controllable, and could not gain much height.” This machine reached an altitude of just 15 feet.
A last attempt in 1925
In 1925 the Berliners modified their invention again. It was a biplane-like design that was lighter and more efficient. Unfortunately, this version did not perform much better and was the Berliners’ last helicopter experiment.
Despite the disappointing results, their experiments attracted international interest. Henry Berliner displayed the aircraft in the United Kingdom.
In 1926 he founded the Berliner Aircraft Company and developed the CM-4 family of aircraft. These were “parasol monoplanes” that came with several different engine options. Then in 1927, Berliner purchased Hoover Field, which is now the site of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
However, a 1928 fire 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 just a few months later.
Also in 1929 construction started 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 constructed.
However, the October 1929 crash of the stock market caused Berliner-Joyce to shift from designing civilian aircraft to military contract work. The company designed multiple biplane aircraft for the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy. However, although the company had numerous contracts, it never built more than 50 airplanes 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 the PB4Y-2 Privateer. When the war ended, Berliner sold the rights and plans to the Ercoupe and moved into the field of flight simulators with ERCO.
In the late 1930s Igor Sikorsky built, tested and flew the world’s first working helicopter. (To read more about that, follow this link.) However, Henry Adler Berliner (December 13, 1895 – May 1, 1970) was an aircraft and helicopter pioneer and many consider the helicopters he built with his father to be the first.
The Berliners’ triplane helicopter is the oldest surviving helicopter in the world. It was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, and as part of the National Air and Space Museum collection, it is on loan to the College Park Aviation Museum.