header dipartimenti
  1. Home
  2. Departments
  3. Transport
  4. Air transport
  5. The history of the helicopter


Leonardo da Vinci, air screw. Study for a flying machine with vertical traction.


Inspired by the forms of nature, Leonardo left this unique study on rotating structures. Muscle strength is not enough to make his machine fly, so he can only test it with a paper model. Moreover, Leonardo does not consider the auto-spin caused by the model’s rotation. Thus he does not contrast it with a second rotor.

Drawing of Launoy and Bienvenu’s model helicopter.


At the Paris Academy of Science, French scientists Launoy and Bienvenu present a model helicopter to the scientific community. The device consists of two helices made of bird feathers that rotate in opposite directions thanks to the action of a steel spring.

The first helicopter: the pioneer

Drawing of the boiler.
E. Forlanini Fund folder 3A\9.
Library of the National Museum of Science and Technology.


The experimental apparatus of young Enrico Forlanini is the first object heavier than air that can fly. It features a lightweight steam engine of only 1.512 kg (built by Forlanini himself) and two counter-rotating propellers placed on the same axis. It does not have a pilot. The official launch takes place in August 1877 in the Public Gardens in Milan. In front of a selected audience of technicians, engineers and aviation enthusiasts invited by Professor Giuseppe Colombo from the Milan Polytechnic, the device is activated and rises up for about 13 meters. For 20 seconds it drifts in the air and then gently descends - applauded - to the point of departure.

The first helicopter with pilot on board

Cornu helicopter. The first helicopter with a pilot on board.
© Archivio Giorgio Apostolo.


On 13 September 1907, a young mechanic specialized in the construction of bicycles produces a complicated mechanism which is able to rise from the ground. Paul Cornu places the counter-rotating propellers on independent axes. The event is important even if the height reached is of only 30 cm above ground for 20 seconds.

Von Baumhauer helicopter. First helicopter with tail rotor. © Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.


The Dutch inventor Von Baumhauer builds the first helicopter with a tail rotor instead of the traditional counter-rotating propeller. The helicopter has independent motors for each of the two rotors.

D'Ascanio helicopter. The first helicopter designed in Italy. © Archivio Giorgio Apostolo.


In October 1930, at Ciampino Nord military airport, the D’A.T. 3, piloted by Major Marinello Nelli, scored three records which were to remain unbeaten for several years: it rose 18 metres in the air, travelling a distance of over 1 km, flying for about 9 minutes.


The Sikorsky R-4 type. The first helicopter built on an industrial scale. © Archivio Giorgio Apostolo.


The Sikorsky R-4 type - after 20 hours of experimental flight and a test of 1100 km covered in eleven stages at an average speed of 90km/h - was the first helicopter to be produced industrially in 130 pieces.

Bell Helicopter Model 30. The first helicopter industrially manufactured by Bell. © Archivio Giorgio Apostolo.


Following the example of Sikorsky, Bell designs five prototypes – called Model 30 – to start a large scale production. This model is characterized by a two-bladed propeller with a stabilizing paddle, a typical feature of this production.

Helicopter AB47G. The first helicopter built industrially by Agusta. © Archivio Giorgio Apostolo.


The Giovanni Agusta aircraft constructions signs the agreement for the building of the Model 47 licensed by the Bell Aircraft Corporation. The first helicopter built by the Italian industry (signed AB47G) flies on May 24, 1954.


The first helicopter designed and built by an Italian industry is called Agusta A109. The first flight takes place on August 4, 1971 in Cascina Costa in the province of Varese. In 1975 Agusta obtains the Type Certificate, which opens the doors of the American market. The first models of A109 are delivered in 1976. This model quickly becomes one of the most successful helicopters in the world and represents one of the leading products of Agusta

< back
THE MUSEUM The institution
History of the museum
Informal Education
International relations
VISITING THE MUSEUM Opening hours and prices
How to reach us
Services and facilities
LEONARDO Exhibiting section
Leonardo i.lab
Leonardesque models
at the museum

The collection of models
Life story