The Froebe Brothers’ 1938 helicopter flight in Homewood was the first to be recorded in Canadian history. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)
When the community of Homewood celebrates its reunion next summer, residents will also be able to mark a significant chapter in local – and federal – aviation history.
It may be a little known fact to the majority of the country, but Homewood was the site of the first helicopter flight in Canada – and the site of the second flight in the world.
And that accomplishment wasn’t result of millions of dollars of research and equipment; it was the result of an aviation obsession shared by three brothers who worked on their pioneering aircraft in the moments they could spare from farming.
Nicholas, Doulglas and Theodore Froebe moved to Homewood in 1921 with their family from Chatsworth, Illinois.
The brothers had lived close to an airport in Illinois, and were mesmerized by the new flying machines.
Flight was still a relatively new invention at the time. The Wright brothers had only take into the air in 1903.
Charlie Froebe, the son of Nicholas, said his father and uncles were interested in all sorts of flying machines.
They believed that flight would be the mode of transportation of the future. Instead of the cars we now have congested in traffic, they believed people would be traveling from place to place in the air right now.
The Froebe brothers’ first foray into building aircraft came in 1927, after spending time building various powered snow machines and other ground apparatuses.
They sent away for a blueprint for a “Heath Parasol” airplane that was available from Chicago. Charlie said they assembled it with the help of their trusty “Mechanix Illustrated” magazine.
They spent some time learning the fine points of engine torque and balancing the aircraft. It was a little under-powered, said Charlie, and ended up piled into a fence.
Undeterred, the brothers rebuilt a burnt “Barling” airplane in 1931 and learned how to fly it. An acquaintance crashed that plane in 1933, at which point the Froebes started thinking in terms of vertical flight.
“At this point in time, there were still those who swore that vertical flight was impossible,” said Charlie.
Undaunted - and innovators to the core - the three Froebe brothers decided to develop and build first helicopter to make it off the ground.
This was during the Great Depression, when money with scarce, and the brothers scavenged parts as they could.
They used Model T Ford accelerator pedals for rudder pedals. A Model T Ford tire jack became a collective control. The engine was a D.H. Gypsy #737, acquired from Los Angeles for $100.
That engine was connected to a transmission constructed of crown gears and the pinion from a Chevrolet.
To deal with the issue of torque, counter rotating rotors, one above the other, were used. Charlie explained that collective pitch control by use of a handcrank changed the pitch of both rotors, while cyclic control with used on the lower rotor. Directional control was achieved by the control of torque, increasing the pitch on the top and decreasing the bottom pitch by foot pedals.
All that hard work paid off on December 20, 1938, when the helicopter left the ground, with all three wheels hovering over the snow at once.
The highest wheel made it three feet.
Unfortunately, the makeshift parts and inability to balance the rollers resulted in excessive vibration that made it difficult to control and unsafe for the pilot, Charlie said, and very little maneuvering was possible.
Although they made attempt to refine the aircraft to a suitable level for flight, money constraints and discouragement caused the brothers to return to fixed-wing aircraft.
Charlie noted timing also played a role. Within one year the Second World War had started and there were other considerations to deal with.
Those three feet made a difference though: the flight is recorded by the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada as the first helicopter flight in the country’s history. Only Germany can boast an earlier flight; the country holds the record for first helicopter flight in 1936.
“The most interesting this is you have to take into account the time that they did it, which was in the mid-1930s in the depth of the Depression,” Froebe said. “And these guys were just very young people who had been facnicated by aviation forever. Just the fact that they came up with the idea and built the thing in the ‘30s is the amazing part of it.”
Now, Charlie Froebe and the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada are working to make sure that this accomplishment is commemorated properly on a local level.
Fundraising is currently underway to place a cairn in the centre of Homewood for residents and visitors to note the site of Canada’s first helicopter flight.
The cairn should be unveiled at Homewood’s reunion next July.