It happened today - November 13, 2015

Well, this surprised me. November 13 is the anniversary of the first ever true free helicopter flight. It doesn’t surprise me that it was Nov. 13. Why shouldn’t it be? What surprises me is that it was in 1907.

I figured helicopters came a long time after airplanes. They seem more mechanically challenging and more likely to fail catastrophically. So when you think of all those weird airplane crates and suchlike contraptions collapsing in old jerky films it’s hard to believe a helicopter didn’t fly to bits in the first three seconds if not, indeed, while still on the drawing board.

Instead, it turns out, model helicopters in a very loose sense had existed in China since about 400 B.C., basically bamboo rotors you spun with a perpendicular stick. Of course Leonardo famously sketched a plan that could not be built with Renaissance technology. But various small models actually flew a bit in the 18th century in both Russia and France (the latter using turkey feathers) and in 1861 a Frenchman named Gustave de Ponton d’Amécourt made a functioning steam model.

So what happened in 1907? Actually not much. It got about 1 foot in the air for 20 seconds or so. Not exactly intercontinental. And indeed it wasn’t until 1936 that a genuinely practical helicopter took to the air and stayed in it, the Focke-Wulf Fw 61. So yes, the helicopter took a while to work, and genuinely functioning helicopters came along well after functioning airplanes.

World War I saw significant aerial combat as well as observation, some ground support and a bit of bombing. World War II of course had the Blitz and so on. But no helicopters except toward the end the Sikorsky R-4, used for some search and rescue work in Burma, Alaska and other such difficult terrain.

Still, hope springs eternal. This notion of vertical flight with the capacity to hover and manoeuvre fascinated people and inspired inventors for centuries and, someday soon, will have drones delivering packages right to your door.

Or snooping on you. No matter how clever the invention or benign the intentions humans can make malevolent use of it. But helicopters are still cool.

It happened todayJohn Robson