A surprisingly entertaining account of the helicopter: part history, part technical exploration, part flying lesson.
Science writer Chiles (Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology, 2001) points out that rotating wings, not propellers, produced mankind’s first flying machine. The earliest, boomerangs, have turned up in ancient sites 20,000 years old. The first powered aircraft was a toy-like device whose whirling rotors raised it into the air above Paris on April 28, 1784. Despite this head start, Orville Wright made man’s first powered flight 20 years before the first helicopter wobbled unsteadily off the ground—because, Chiles explains, helicopters are much trickier than fixed-wing aircraft. Not until the 1930s did engineers realize that a simple propeller may lift a craft into the air, but it then becomes wildly unstable. A rotor must flex freely but also be damped to prevent too much flexion. To make matters more complicated, moving the helicopter through the sky safely requires subtly changing the angle of the rotor blades and the speed of the engine. The solution to these problems produced a wonderfully useful but expensive contraption. Chiles is at his best describing the persistent, often wacky efforts to persuade Americans to replace the family car with a dazzling machine whose lowest price is currently about $350,000. Aside from the wealthy, the helicopter’s cost and complexities render it unprofitable as a personal transportation vehicle. The Coast Guard, major hospitals, TV stations, police departments and other organizations with big budgets, however, make superb use of its ability to observe, hover and rescue. In the military, where money is no object, it has produced a revolution, delivering firepower from the air more accurately than a bomber and landing troops more efficiently than parachutes.
Delivers an avalanche of information with enough lucidity and enthusiasm to captivate not only aviation buffs, but general readers as well.