By William Pearce
The Gyroptere was designed in France from 1911-1914 by Alphonse Papin and Didier Rouilly. Their monocopter was based on the sycamore seed; a single blade extends from the seed to spin the seed and slow its descent as it falls. Though unsuccessful, the machine was the first air-jet helicopter. Papin and Rouilly obtained French patents 440,593 and 440,594 for their invention and later obtained U.S. patent 1,133,660 in 1915 (filed in 1912).
Construction of Papin and Rouilly’s Gyroptere began in February 1914 and was completed in June of the same year. The prototype was named Chrysalis (Chrysalide). Constructed of molded wood, the Gyroptere was well built with compound curves and a smooth sweep of its single, long, airfoil-shaped blade. The fabric-covered blade was hollow and approximately 19.5 ft long (5.9 m) and 4.4 ft wide (1.33 m), giving it an area of 130 sq ft (12 sq m). The blade was counterbalanced by an 80 hp (60 kW), nine-cylinder Le Rhone rotary engine. The pilot occupied a nacelle between the blade and engine. The bottom of the nacelle included a structure to support the machine while it was on the ground or act as a float when on water.
The Le Rhone engine was started with a pulley system. The engine, turning at 1,200 rpm, drove a fan that produced an output of just over 250 cu ft (7 cu m) of air per second. The air, along with the engine’s hot exhaust for thermal expansion, was directed through the length of the blade and exited the blade’s tip through a nozzle on the trailing edge at 330 ft/s (100 m/s). This jet of air would turn the blade, and the gyroscopic force of the motor would lift the blade into a positive angle of attack. The nacelle that carried the pilot was centered on the axis of rotation. The nacelle was mounted on ball-bearings and was centered against four horizontal rollers. The entire machine weighed 1,100 lb (500 kg), which was 220 lb (100 kg) more than originally planned.
The pilot controlled the Gyroptere through the use of two foot pedals: one pedal opened a valve to admit air to the blade; and the second pedal allowed air into an L-shaped tube above the craft that served as a rudder for directional control. The L-shaped tube was directed by the pilot; its discharge provided forward thrust, steering, and stabilized the center drum to prevent it from spinning with the blade. A switch in the nacelle allowed the pilot to engaged or disengaged the engine.
The outbreak of World War I delayed testing until 31 March 1915. During tests on Lake Cercey (Reservoir de Cercey), near Pouilly-en-Auxois, France, the craft achieved a rotor speed of only 47 rpm, well below the 60 rpm calculated as necessary for liftoff. Even so, the machine was wildly out of balance, and the blade repeatedly contacted the water, damaging itself and shaking up the pilot. In addition, the Le Rhone engine used was not powerful enough; the Gyroptere had been designed to use a 100 hp (75 kW) engine which could not be obtained.
A military commission observing the test determined that such a machine could not aid the war effort and halted further evaluation. The Gyroptere remained at Lake Cercey until it was sold for scrap in 1919.
French Aircraft of the First World War by Davilla and Soltan (1997)
Helicopter, U.S. Patent 1,133,660 by Papin and Rouilly (1915) pdf
“Will This ‘Whirling Leaf’ Flying Machine Solve Greatest Problem in Aviation?” Popular Science September 1922.