The Unlikely Flight of the Helicopter

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Ben Bowlin: Welcome to the podcast. My name is Ben Bowlin. I am a video writer here at I'm hanging out with our very own auto editor.

Scott Benjamin: Scott Benjamin. I'm the - well, you just said it. I'm the auto editor here at

Ben Bowlin: I kind of stole your thunder, actually.

Scott Benjamin: You know what? I don't know. I wasn't paying attention, I guess. I was shuffling through my notes.

Ben Bowlin: We have a lot of notes on this one.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, we do. This is kind of a complex topic, but we'll try to cut through it a little bit and just - we'll keep it simple. We'll keep it on the basic level for this.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, this will be an everyman's guide - a layman's guide. We're going to address - are you ready, Scott?

Scott Benjamin: I'm ready.

Ben Bowlin: Helicopters.

Scott Benjamin: Excellent.

Ben Bowlin: You know what? I was a little bit intimidated by this topic just because the more you look into it, the more science, the more history, there's so much behind what we know today as a helicopter.

Scott Benjamin: You mean you're not a helicopter pilot? You've never piloted a helicopter?

Ben Bowlin: Look, just because my nickname is Dr. Helicopter doesn't mean that I - I think you're making some assumptions.

Scott Benjamin: I'm not gonna ask about that one bit. I'm really not. Helicopters are pretty cool. I've liked helicopters for a long time. I've never, ever been in a helicopter, and I don't know if that's because I'm afraid of it or what. I think I am. I think I'm a little afraid of them.

Ben Bowlin: Really?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, because I've been in towns and cities - let's say you go to Las Vegas. There are helicopter tours that you can take of not only the strip, but you can head over to the Grand Canyon. You can do the sunset tour. You can look at the strip at night from a helicopter. I don't know. I've just kind of always backed down from the idea of ever doing that because I think I'm a little bit afraid of them.

Ben Bowlin: Well, there's one thing we can gladly admit. Helicopters in the air, they don't look natural. It's true. If I was somewhere and I saw - if I was from the Middle Ages or something and I saw an airplane, yes, I'd freak out. But if I saw a helicopter, it'd be even crazier, and that's because helicopters can do something that even very few animals can do, like hummingbirds are one of the few animals that can fly backwards and that can hover.

Scott Benjamin: Yep.

Ben Bowlin: And a helicopter can do those things. A plane cannot. Honestly, as somebody who's been in a helicopter - I love flying, Scott. Don't get me wrong. I don't know if I'm a fan of hovering.

Scott Benjamin: How many times have you been in a helicopter?

Ben Bowlin: Three times .

Scott Benjamin: Three times, really?

Ben Bowlin: Yep.

Scott Benjamin: Very good. Tourist trip type stuff or should I ask?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, stuff like that. Yeah, nothing top secret, no.

Scott Benjamin: Not like a med flight to the hospital or something.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, no, no, no, all lighthearted helicopter trips.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, good. Okay, very good. I say that I'm afraid to go in them, but I think it's just getting over that first fear of getting in and actually feeling what it's like. When I was really young, my dad had a friend that was a - he worked in television. My dad works in television, still does, and he had a friend that was a - he was either a helicopter pilot - I was really young - helicopter pilot or he was a reporter in a helicopter, and it went down.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, no.

Scott Benjamin: And it sticks out in my head so vividly about this helicopter crash and his friend. His friend's name was Kermit. This was back in Peoria, Illinois a long, long time ago. Just ever since then, I've had this kind of irrational fear of them because from what I read, this is odd, but we'll get into this at the end, but there's a way that if a helicopter engine stops operating, there's a way for the helicopter to land safely. I thought you're done. I thought there's no coasting like you can in a plane, but quite the contrary. There's a way to set it down. Like I said, we'll get into that towards the end, the safety part of it, but it's actually a relatively safe vehicle to travel in.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, I just remembered the only other animal that can impersonate a helicopter - the dragonfly.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, fantastic.

Ben Bowlin: Because they can also hover.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, very good.

Ben Bowlin: Do you want to get into the history?

Scott Benjamin: I have a wiener dog that cannot hover.

Ben Bowlin: You have a - oh, man.

Scott Benjamin: No, a dachshund cannot hover.

Ben Bowlin: Cannot hover.

Scott Benjamin: No, dachshunds cannot hover.

Ben Bowlin: I was very disappointed. The last dog I had was a German shepherd. I was very disappointed with his lack of hovering.

Scott Benjamin: Also cannot hover, right.

Ben Bowlin: He was good at the launch.

Scott Benjamin: That's right. Not so good at backing up either.

Ben Bowlin: Not a breed known for their aerodynamic design.

Scott Benjamin: Let's get into this helicopter discussion here, now that we've talked for 20 minutes about other stuff - related stuff, anyway.

Ben Bowlin: Related stuff.

Scott Benjamin: So, get this.

Ben Bowlin: What's that?

Scott Benjamin: Helicopter design, guess who it goes back to. I'll bet you can guess.

Ben Bowlin: I will bet it is the great Kaiser Soze of our podcast, Leonardo da Vinci.

Scott Benjamin: Absolutely correct, and the design is somewhere in the neighborhood of the 1480s, so the design of the helicopter goes all the way back to the 1480s. Again, it's just - now, there's something speculation if he ever actually built any of these working models.

Ben Bowlin: Right, or if he just drew them.

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. But the idea was that the designs that he had, the entire vehicle spun with the screws. Actually, the design was called the aerial screw design, and the principle that it worked on was that the screw keeps it - gives it vertical capability. The entire vehicle spun with what would be the blades, I guess, on a modern helicopter. Of course, you don't want that because you would be violently ill quickly, I would think.

Ben Bowlin: Right, and I can throw in another one here that goes back even further, but is not near the same as that machine.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, cool.

Ben Bowlin: Just that there was a toy in China, the Chinese top. And I think you recognize this. It's basically just feathers at the end of a stick, and you spin it between your hands and then when you release it, it flies up just for a little bit.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: So, it's just that vertical flight.

Scott Benjamin: I've seen wooden versions of that. I've had wooden versions of that. You pick them up at these little towns that are touristy type towns, kids toys that usually they've made them in some wood shop there for - they're for sale for a dollar or two each. Great fun inside.

Ben Bowlin: Guess when the first one of those dates back to.

Scott Benjamin: I have no idea. You said it predates?

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: I have no idea.

Ben Bowlin: We're going way back here.

Scott Benjamin: Really?

Ben Bowlin: Yes, sir.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, tell me.

Ben Bowlin: 400 BC.

Scott Benjamin: No way.

Ben Bowlin: Yes way, Scott.

Scott Benjamin: 400 BC?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, yep.

Scott Benjamin: Really?

Ben Bowlin: Um-hum, but still, I think we should give daVinci the award for the first helicopter because his was a machine that someone could sit inside.

Scott Benjamin: Correct, but that - you're talking that toy was 1,900 years earlier?

Ben Bowlin: I don't think they - and this is when archaeologists find the first trace of that toy.

Scott Benjamin: Wow.

Ben Bowlin: I don't think that means anybody said, "Hey, you know what? We should hop in one of these."

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that's right. That's a pretty radical idea to be able to get inside a vehicle that's going to actually lift off.

Ben Bowlin: And it took a while to get there.

Scott Benjamin: It did take a while to get there. I'll tell you exactly how long it took to get there.

Ben Bowlin: Tell me exactly how long.

Scott Benjamin: Let me see. I'm gonna go back to 1907.

Ben Bowlin: 1907?

Scott Benjamin: 1907.

Ben Bowlin: All right.

Scott Benjamin: So, in 1907, there was a Frenchman, his name was Paul Cornu, and he had a 20 second, 30 centimeter high flight, so the flight lasted 20 seconds. 30 centimeters high is all he went, but the vehicle did lift off vertically.

Ben Bowlin: And that counts.

Scott Benjamin: And that counts, and that's really the first test of a helicopter from what I - what we would consider a somewhat modern helicopter. But then, it wasn't until I think it was 1924 that another Frenchman flew in a helicopter. He flew a distance, though. He flew 1 kilometer, but it took him 7 minutes and 40 seconds. The French were working on these helicopters apparently very early. What really kind of brought this about was World War II - I'm sorry, the end of World War I. In between the 1907 and 1924 episode here, the advancements came after the war, near the end of the war, with the idea that they could be used for -

Ben Bowlin: Reconnaissance.

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. Exactly, and that's primarily what they were used for from that point forward, I guess. There were variations of this. In 1936, there was a German helicopter, which is probably the first practical helicopter that they've come up with. There was also something called an auto gyro, which apparently could not hover, but it could - it could not descend vertically either, so it had kind of airplane characteristics, but it also had a bit more lift, a bit more vertical than an airplane would, but not exactly straight up and straight down like the helicopter we think of does.

Ben Bowlin: Now, are those the ones where if you were looking at them from overhead, they would appear to be roughly built like an airplane, but with circular rotors inside the wings?

Scott Benjamin: I believe that's the one, yeah.

Ben Bowlin: I think that's - yeah, I think I know what you're talking about.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, and that gives it the ability to, like I said, just take off with a little bit less runway than what was necessary for a standard plane at the time because really what a plane is all about is getting air to flow across those wings to create lift. With a helicopter, what you've got is the blades are taking the place of the wing, and you're forcing air across those, and you're able to adjust it that way, and it's really going straight up, straight down. No need for wheels, it's just the skids. Again, you don't have to worry about rolling in these things.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. And then, when we see the evolution of the helicopter now, because between World War I - I'm sorry, the interwar period to modern times, obviously there have been some pretty smart people doing some pretty smart things.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that's right. And they're pretty advanced now. I like watching helicopters. I like seeing them because they're pretty fascinating, really. There's a small helicopter near where I live here in Georgia that lands on top of an optometrist's building in the city that I live in.

Ben Bowlin: Really?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, the wires around there - the telephone wires all have the big orange - you know the balls that they attach to those so that they can see the wires? They're all around there. Occasionally, you'll see the helicopter on top of the building. I don't know if he just uses it to get to and from work or what, but they're in the hands of private individuals now as well. They have been for a long time. It's not anything new. There are companies that make 1-seat helicopters that you can build on your own.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, build your own.

Scott Benjamin: I love watching those videos of those that the guy brings it in, and he can balance it on top of a fence post or something like that. Those are really cool, but I don't know if I would want to build my own helicopter, really.

Ben Bowlin: Are you serious?

Scott Benjamin: I just have a little skepticism about getting in something and then taking it up to 1,000 feet - just my own thing, my own worry.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, I see what you're saying. I really agree with you once you get to 1,000 feet. I think I could build one and then around - honestly, around about 100 feet, I would start thinking, "All right, time to land this thing."

Scott Benjamin: So, let me get this straight. You're okay with falling 100 feet.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: Okay. To me, 100 feet, 1,000 feet, I guess it's all the same at that point.

Ben Bowlin: Well, I think I could survive.

Scott Benjamin: Sure. Sure you could, yeah.

Ben Bowlin: I wish you guys could see Scott's face. That is not a, "Ben will survive" face.

Scott Benjamin: That's disbelief, but we'll see. Anyways, there's a lot to flying helicopters.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, yeah.

Scott Benjamin: Do you know anything about the controls?

Ben Bowlin: I know that like a motorcycle, a helicopter requires all four of your limbs for the operation.

Scott Benjamin: Correct, yeah. You're right. It's a handful to fly a helicopter, that's for sure. That's why even - this is maybe a bad comparison, I don't know, but even remote control helicopters, you have to train to fly remote control helicopters because otherwise, you'll destroy your investment quickly. You can't just pick it up and get it or understand it right away. Flying a real helicopter, obviously, much more complex and also just very difficult to do. Your hands are moving. Your feet are moving at all times. There's a lot to it. Your hand controls are the cyclic control, which controls your lateral direction, which is the forward, backward, left and right. There's a collective control, which is really just up and down and engine speed. Then, there's also the feet. Your feet are on pedals that control the tail rudder, and the tail rudder is a very critical part of every helicopter, really. The tail rudder controls the torque that comes from the main rotor.

Ben Bowlin: Which prevents your helicopter from spinning like Leonardo's original gyroscope idea?

Scott Benjamin: Exactly, so that it doesn't just wildly spin out of control as soon as you lift off the ground. The tail rotor counteracts whatever the rotor is gonna do to you. So, let's say that you lift off and it starts to kind of pivot around one way or the other on that axis of the main rotor. The tail rotor, which you control with your feet, again, remember, you're able to balance that out so that it remains steady or you're able to swing it around, and you can pivot however you like. Helicopters are extremely versatile. They're really flexible in the way they can move. They can move up, down, left, right. They can hover.

Ben Bowlin: They can go sideways.

Scott Benjamin: Like we said, they can go backwards. Airplanes can't do that, so it gives them an advantage.

Ben Bowlin: And hovercrafts - I mean not hovercrafts. Excuse me. Helicopters, as a result, can fly almost anywhere.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that's right. Other than - well, I guess if you think of this way, you can't fly an airplane through dense woods or anything either, but again, you've got to be careful with your surroundings, but really, they can get into a lot of areas that airplanes can't get into, and they can leave those areas just as easily. With an airplane you need a long landing strip, and you also need a long area for takeoff. That's a definite advantage. That's why you see them that they're able to land on the highway and pick up somebody who's critically injured and needs to get to a hospital immediately. Helicopters are the vehicle of choice.

Ben Bowlin: And if you think about it, that one main advantage, that's the primary reason that people have insisted upon maintaining, improving, revising helicopter design despite several disadvantages. In the military, of course, where we see a lot of helicopter research, I think the original mass production of helicopters was a military effort. If you see the way helicopters are designed now - of course, for a long time, they were just there to transport troops or to get reconnaissance. I guess first reconnaissance, and then later when they could lift more, they add troops or medical supplies or rescue. But the problem was these things were flying ducks, basically.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, they're a bit dangerous because they're relatively slow compared to a jet or an airplane. They're an easier target, but they're just so darn practical. They really are practical, and they can get in and out quickly and effectively, and I guess the precision. You're able to set down exactly where you want to. You're able to take off quickly again. You never even have to shut it off. Just set down, unload or load, whatever you have to do, and get out. But again, like you said, they're not as quick as a jet or a plane and relatively easy targets, so that's the downside. But they do have this incredible - there are some that have this incredible lifting ability. Very valuable for that.

Ben Bowlin: I've got a really cool piece of trivia for you, Scott.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, okay. Good.

Ben Bowlin: There is a tradition of naming helicopters after Native American tribes.

Scott Benjamin: I didn't know that.

Ben Bowlin: The Apache. The Blackhawk, apparently. I picked this up somewhere, and it's one of those things that finally connected and made sense to me. Now, I don't know why that tradition has come about, but it's still there. It kind of spurred me to read about the Apache and some of the modern military helicopters. Those things are crazy.

Scott Benjamin: Enlighten me. I'm a little bit behind on the helicopter technology. If you've got some. I didn't mean to catch you off guard there or anything like that.

Ben Bowlin: No, no, no. Perfect, yeah. Pardon my shuffling here.

Scott Benjamin: That's all right.

Ben Bowlin: Okay, so, let's just take the Blackhawk, right? It started service in the late '70s, and it's still one of the main choice helicopters for military forces around the world. We have an article on it, How Blackhawk Helicopters Work. So, it works like pretty much - every helicopter has to have the same design, which again, if we got into that design, we'd be here for a while.

Scott Benjamin: Basic design, you mean? They're all a little bit different, right? But they've got the same basic elements is what you're saying?

Ben Bowlin: Right, yes.

Scott Benjamin: Okay, got it.

Ben Bowlin: Exactly. It has three crew members, so not counting those three crew members, it can carry 11 soldiers. So, a lot of times, you'll see a Blackhawk in film or something as a transport vehicle to carry soldiers into a drop zone or something.

Scott Benjamin: No kidding, 14 people?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, total.

Scott Benjamin: Wow.

Ben Bowlin: Which is a lot if you think of a helicopter?

Scott Benjamin: That's a pretty big capacity. That's like a small bus.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. We're used to seeing the small traffic monitoring and weather monitoring copters.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, 2-seat.

Ben Bowlin: And that's because each wing can carry about 9,000 pounds of external loads.

Scott Benjamin: Whoa, wow.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, and they have a cargo hook that can help them carry around boxes of stuff.

Scott Benjamin: Cool.

Ben Bowlin: And they have 16 missiles.

Scott Benjamin: Sixteen missiles? Holy cow, those things carry a lot of weight.

Ben Bowlin: And they can carry another 16 inside to reload.

Scott Benjamin: Wow.

Ben Bowlin: So, the days of just flitting around trying not to get hit are done and over with, my friends.

Scott Benjamin: It's gone. Okay, good.

Ben Bowlin: So, they've got some other problems that are addressed in - the problems of being an easy target, a lot of the US military's money is spent trying to fix those, so the fuel system is made to seal itself off if it gets hit.

Scott Benjamin: Very smart.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, in all those war movies where you see the helicopter shot and the tail rotor goes out, and it spins around, and then they shoot it again and it blows up, hopefully that doesn't happen with a Blackhawk. Then, they can also, in case the missiles aren't enough, stick two machine guns on there and have two gunners for those, and you can actually - it says here you can replace one of the monitoring systems with a chain gun.

Scott Benjamin: A chain gun?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, this thing is pretty much capable of - do you remember Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction?

Scott Benjamin: Yes.

Ben Bowlin: This helicopter, as well as the Apache, they're basically designed to be as hardcore as his character and just rain down vengeance upon people.

Scott Benjamin: Nice comparison.

Ben Bowlin: It was an awkward comparison, but thank you for going with me.

Scott Benjamin: It was all right. I dig it.

Ben Bowlin: So, I just wanted to take a moment and talk about that because it's so mind boggling, when you think of the helicopter's original design, what it has sort of morphed into as we've been able to figure out more of the technology behind it.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, I think that's pretty cool. Like I said, I'm a little bit behind on the technology stuff on helicopters, but one thing that I did find cool, and I promised that I would talk about this early on, so we're going to - and not much more than this, really, but auto rotation. Now, this is the safety feature that I was telling you about that a helicopter can put itself safely on the ground - well, with a lot of help from the pilot, but it can relatively safely place itself on the ground if the engine stops in midair.

Ben Bowlin: Okay, to really bring this home, let's do a hypothetical.

Scott Benjamin: Sure.

Ben Bowlin: All right. I am with you in a helicopter, piloting the helicopter. The engine dies. We're going down. How are we gonna do it without dying?

Scott Benjamin: You know what? The thing goes straight down. It really does. It goes down, but it doesn't go down as fast as you would think it would. It doesn't fall like a rock. The blades are able to spin. They're able to - they slow the vertical speed, so they slow it down to the point where it's going - I think they said that it slows down to around 15 miles per hour, which is -

Ben Bowlin: Fifteen or?

Scott Benjamin: Fifteen.

Ben Bowlin: Wow.

Scott Benjamin: Which is pretty amazing? That's roughly the same speed that a parachutist hits the ground when they have the parachute open, so that's not bad, but not great to land. You're hitting the ground at 15 miles per hour in a helicopter, that's not good either way, but the idea is that it softens the landing, and it's possible because the rotor then is allowed to free sp in, or it's allowed to free wheel is what they call it - a free wheel unit - so the blades can spin faster. What it does is it just slows down the air speed. And there's also - and I don't quite understand exactly how this works, but there's a flare at the end that's possible that will - I don't know if it further increases the speed of the rotor or what, but it will even further soften the landing just the instant before it hits the ground. The idea is that the pilot has a lot to do quickly. They do have to counteract the rotation that we're talking about - the torque steer, I guess - from the main rotor. That happens again, so the pilot has to jump right on to what's going on. He has to know immediately what to do, so it's not like he just throws up his hands and says, "Well, we're going down." There's things that have to happen for this to work out correctly and for everybody to live.

Ben Bowlin: So, in our scenario, the engine dies, I throw up my hands and say, "Well, we're going down."

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, as I bail out on the left. But it's really kind of cool because I had no idea that it was able to do this, but the idea is that you're able to hopefully find a spot that's safe to set this down, like in a field or maybe even on a street. You try to avoid any buildings or any unlevel surfaces that maybe it would roll over when it hits, but much more safe than I thought it was in a helicopter. For some reason, I thought it would drop like a rock right out of the sky. Where an airplane requires forward movement and a lot of speed to glide even, but that's possible. But a helicopter doesn't need that. It does fall, but it falls much slower, and that's due to this auto rotation. I thought that was really interesting, and that's really about the last bit I have about helicopters today.

Ben Bowlin: So, you wouldn't build your own helicopter?

Scott Benjamin: Fun project, but I just would be a little wary of flying in something that I built. Maybe a boat I'd be all right in. I don't know. In a car, sure.

Ben Bowlin: Because you can swim.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, because I could swim, and a car, you can get out and put your feet on the ground. But building your own plane, your own helicopter, that's a different level!

Ben Bowlin: A little different.

Scott Benjamin: It's a different level, yeah.

Ben Bowlin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: How about you, Ben? Would you build your own helicopter?

Ben Bowlin: You know what? I would definitely build my own helicopter. It's kind of strange because I'm obviously terrified of doing the uphill race that we had talked about earlier.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that's right.

Ben Bowlin: The Pike's Peak.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: Just for some reason, the idea of that cliff.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, because that's crazy to get in a car and drive uphill.

Ben Bowlin: That's crazy, but building my own helicopter, yeah, I would. Even after what we've talked about now, especially now that I know I might not die if I have less than perfect craftsmanship, I probably would do it. I have a hard time thinking of anyone I could talk into going with me, and that seems irresponsible to do that.

Scott Benjamin: Well, most of these hobby helicopters are single-seater anyways.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, that's good.

Scott Benjamin: Plu s, it's a very quick commute to work.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, you're right.

Scott Benjamin: You could land right on the roof, and you're done.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: I worked at Chrysler when Bob Lutz worked there, and he would fly his helicopter in from - I think he lived in Ann Arbor, and he would land on the top of the headquarters and go back and forth that way.

Ben Bowlin: That's crazy.

Scott Benjamin: It was pretty awesome.

Ben Bowlin: I'm sold.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: Okay, so that wraps it up for us today. To our listeners, you guys, thanks so much for tuning in. Have you ever piloted a helicopter, rode in one? Do you have any particularly strange stories about those? Or do you have an idea that you would like to have us do a podcast on? If so, please send us an e-mail at

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