Connecticut History and the Helicopter

November 6, 2014 · Collections ·

Living within ten miles of Bradley International Airport I see an awful lot of air traffic on a daily basis; representing commercial, military, and general aviation activity. Turbofan, turboprop, and piston engines all contribute to the ambient background noise of daily life. While most of these aircraft are of the fixed-wing variety, I do occasionally experience the distinctive “thump-thump” of rotary-wing aircraft—helicopters.

Sikorsky S-51 helicopters land on the state capitol grounds in 1947. CHS Collection

Sikorsky S-51 helicopters land on the state capitol grounds in 1947. CHS Collection

Connecticut has had a long and close association with this type of aircraft, harkening back to Igor Sikorsky’s pioneering work in the 1930s. In the postwar decades Charles Kaman also made his mark in this developing field. And as time went on, the number of possible uses for helicopters increased along with the number of models produced. Thousands of helicopters have come off of Connecticut production lines in the last seventy years. But Connecticut’s involvement with helicopter development and production went well beyond the perimeter security fences at the Sikorsky and Kaman plants in Stratford and Bloomfield, respectively. Hundreds of subcontractors throughout the state produced a myriad of component parts that comprised modern helicopters.

Kaman’s distinctive H-43 Huskie, notable for two pairs of counter-rotating main rotors (but no tail rotor), was a workhorse of the military from the 1950s to early 1970s. This model depicts an Air Force search and rescue variant. CHS Collection

Kaman’s distinctive H-43 Huskie, notable for two pairs of counter-rotating main rotors (but no tail rotor), was a workhorse of the military from the 1950s to early 1970s. This model depicts an Air Force search and rescue variant. CHS Collection

A recent donation to CHS serves as yet another reminder of helicopter innovation in the state. Over the past decade Sikorsky worked on an advanced high speed helicopter design, ultimately designated the X-2. Basically this experimental craft served as a test bed for new technologies as it attempted to break the world speed record for helicopters, a feat realized in 2010 when it achieved an astounding 290 mph in level flight. Trust me, that’s really fast for a rotary-wing aircraft!

Sikorsky's experimental X-2 helicopter set a world speed record in 2010. Note the two sets of main rotors and a pusher rotor at the tail end. Sikorsky Aircraft photo

Sikorsky’s experimental X-2 helicopter set a world speed record in 2010. Note the two sets of main rotors and a pusher rotor at the tail end. Sikorsky Aircraft photo

Flying helicopters has been described as trying to stay perched atop a large ball, requiring constant vigilance and adjustment of the flight controls. As with new, advanced fixed wing aircraft, computer assistance has been added to the mix to assist helicopter pilots in maintaining control, particularly at the higher speeds achieved by this new experimental model. Like the “shade tree mechanic”, gone are the days of purely mechanical control cables and simple servo motors to move control surfaces. The Sikorsky Aircraft gift, an Electro-Mechanical Actuator Gang assembly, is a patented device that is part of the “fly-by-wire” controls that enables pilots to safely fly advanced aircraft. Simply put, it helps link the human pilot and a sophisticated flight control computer. Developed in Connecticut, it is among the many technological innovations that have sprung from the minds and design boards (and now CAD programs) of aerospace R&D folks in the state over almost a century.

The “EMA Gang” is part of the innovative control system pioneered in the X-2. CHS Collection

The “EMA Gang” is part of the innovative control system pioneered in the X-2. CHS Collection

While the X-2 has completed its work (and is bound for the Smithsonian collection), much of what was learned from the program will find its way into new applications, increasing both the efficiency and safety of aviation into the future. So, next time you hear that “thump-thump” in the distance, think about how helicopters have impacted your life, because they have!

 

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