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Paul Cornu Helicoplane

After 100 years of helicopter flights, its use and functions have completely changed so to become an instrument for rescuing and saving lives among other duties. But at the very beginning came one man, Paul Cornu, having the idea of using propellers instead of wings to fling his flying machine. This is how the vertical flight was born and we wish to celebrate this year one century of helicopter innovation.

First of all bicycles maker, Paul Cornu, thanks to his inventor talent and his perseverance, became the precursor of the first vertical flight in France, on board his “flying bicycle”.

Born on June 15th, 1881 in Glos la Ferrière, France, in a 13-children family, he had since his childhood a strong interest in adventure and invention. He helped his father in his transports company but above all in his risky projects. His father transmitted him his ingenuity and his talent for drawing. The company progressively became a mechanics and bicycles workshop where Paul Cornu made his first inventions.

He had the dream of winning the 50,000F so-called Deutsch-Archdeacon award which rewarded the first 1km flight in closed tour and encouraged the aviation development. Indeed, between 1904 and 1907, Cornu carried on numerous prototypes and even asked for a patent regarding a propulsion and direction system for engines using rotary wings. He went on and finally made his “flying bicycle” in order to win the prize.

On November 13th 1907, he managed an unprecedented exploit. The flight only lasted 20 seconds and the flying machine only took off by 30 cm from the ground, but this test remains recognized as the first “helicopter” flight, or better said the first machine using propellers instead of wings. The word “helicopter” was invented in 1861 by the Viscount Ponton d’Amécourt, by bringing together the Greek words “helix” (spiral) and “pteron” (wing), but Leonardo da Vinci already did some drafts on some of his sketches four centuries before.

Cornu took another try during the same day and the machine reached an altitude of 1.50m: His engine was propelled by a Antoinette motor of 24shp (18kw) with two rotors of opposite rotation located at each side of the engine assembled on four wheels. The machine even managed to lift a total weight of 328 kg with the Cornu brothers Paul and Jacques on board.

However, on January 13th 1908, Farman won the award Cornu hoped to get with his improved machine. Indeed, Farman achieved the first 1km official flight in closed tour in a time of 1m 28s on board a Voisin aero plane. Cornu was so disappointed that he gave his works up the following year.

All the same, Cornu published an article presenting the technical details of his machine in the newspaper l’Aérophile of April 15th 1908, the first newspaper for aviation.

His last project, the so-called “Helicoplane”, was presented at the air transport international exhibition in Paris at the end of 1908, with the hope of attracting an investor to build a new machine using a cyclical variation mechanism of propeller incidence, but Cornu remained without response. Anyway, the most powerful motors at that time would not have permitted him to fly as they were too heavy for his flying machine and the lightest ones were not compatible with his helicopter needs.

After WWI, during which he was drafted as a medic, he kept his mechanics workshop but set up a new business: “T.S.F. sets” making (wireless telegraphy). He still showed a strong interest in aeronautics and sometimes participated in the specialized weekly les Ailes.

At the age of 58 years old, he was required as a turner in an arms factory in Vire. Progressively, the age, the tiredness and the death of his parents he never recovered from, damaged his health.
He died on June 6th 1944 under his home rubble, destroyed by the bombings announcing the Normandy landings.

Firstly dedicated to a common job at the end of the 19th century, Paul Cornu tried to fulfill his dreams in spite of the lack of financing and the strong competition at that time regarding technological invention.

This first flight with passenger, yet brief and unsteady, permitted Paul Cornu to enter the aviation history and find his place next to his colleagues such as Breguet, Ader or Blériot.

On the occasion of this anniversary, engineering students from the ESTACA school (Upper school of aeronautics techniques and car making) decided to rebuild a replica of Cornu’s helicopter: This project is done in partnership with the Le Bourget Air and Space Museum (MAE) and the French Union of Helicopter (UFH).

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