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Berliner Helicopter Experiment
Berliner Helicopter experiments at College Park ca 1924.
CPAM Photograph, Henry Berliner/Fred Knaur Collection.

In 1920, a new kind of flying machine made an appearance at College Park Airfield. It was not just another type of aircraft - it was an attempt at an altogether new way to fly.

Controlled vertical flight intrigued inventor Emile Berliner and his son, Henry. Emile Berliner was already an inventor of some note, having invented the gramophone, the telephone transmitter (mouthpiece) and other devices. He was keenly interested in aviation and was a sponsor of the Washington Aeroplane Company that had been based at the airfield since 1912. However, his real interest was in solving the problems of vertical flight, which he had been working on as early as 1908. Henry joined his father in 1919 and took over most of the experimental operation when they moved to College Park the next year.

The initial machine had two contra-rotating propellers, a four-wheeled chassis, engine, shutter-like vanes, rudder, a seat for the pilot, and little else. While the machine rose quite easily from the ground, there was still a need for more lateral control and an engine with more power.

The 1922-24 machines incorporated the fuselage of a Nieuport 23 bi-plane, and had more powerful engines which were provided by the U.S. Navy, which had taken great interest in Berliner's experiments. Tri-plane wings were also added to increase lift when moving forward. On February 24, 1924, with an English Bentley engine of 220 hp, Berliner Helicopter No. 5 achieved an altitude of 15 feet with a maneuvering radius of 150 feet while maintaining a speed of about 40 mph. This flight, made in front of Navy officials and media, was acclaimed as the first controlled helicopter flight.

Emile Berliner with Vertical Flight
Emile Berliner with early experiment in vertical flight, College Park, 1920.
CPAM Photograph, Henry Berliner/Fred Knauer Collection
Though much work still needed to be done to effect a safer, smoother landing, the 1924 Berliner helicopter had shown that maneuvering an aircraft in flight could be accomplished. The Berliners had done much to pave the way for future accomplishments in the field of vertical flight. These early experiments in vertical flight culminated in the design and development of a practical machine by Igor Sikorsky in 1940.

Henry Berliner went on to found the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) in Riverdale, Maryland, maker of the innovative Ercoupe. For more information on Erco click here .