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by Dean Jennings

Stanley Hiller, teen-age tycoon, casually sat down in his workshop and built the co-axial flying machine Da Vinci dreamed about.

WAY back in the florid days of the Renaissance, when painters were social heroes and scientists were frequently hauled off to the clinic for nitwits, the great painter Leonardo Da Vinci invented a flying machine— on paper.

It would have two motors, one above the fuselage, one below, with long horizontal rotor blades revolving in opposite directions. This curious gadget was the father of all helicopters. But Da Vinci’s friends said he was as nutty as a squirrel, assuming they had squirrels in those days, and the idea never got beyond the drawing board.

Some five centuries later, in Berkeley, California, a 17-year-old boy examined those same Da Vinci sketches and said to himself: “Hot dog, there’s the answer. Two big coaxial blades but none on the tail. I’ll build one of ’em.” His friends and even the Army experts thought, in effect, that he was as cracked as the Liberty Bell.

But Stanley Hiller, Jr., is neither nutty nor cracked, and that makes him a very remarkable young man.

Because at this moment this lad, just turned nineteen, has not only built and flown the world’s first successful co-axial helicopter, but has in his pockets one of Henry J. Kaiser’s fat checks and a contract to design and build a lot more of these unique planes.

In the world of science and aviation, the Hillercopter, as he has quaintly named the ship, has the old-timers clucking like old ladies at a parish tea. In the first place, it couldn’t be done—and he did it. In the second place, here is a helicopter anyone can learn to fly in less than two hours, that can be mass produced for something under $2,000, that weighs less than 1,400 pounds fully loaded with pilot and gas, and that can be run into an ordinary garage. If that isn’t enough, it has no more vibration than a kitchen refrigerator, gets 20 miles to the gallon, and is almost as safe as the gold at Fort Knox. In fact, Stanley has flown it with both hands outside the cockpit, a miracle that makes veteran helicopter pilots twist their beards and send put for another bottle of sedatives. But more of this in a moment. . . .

The Stanley Hiller formula, so dear to the success story teachers, has always had in it the natural flaws of fiction.

The Stanley Hiller formula, in real life, has more punch because it’s as real and solid as a block of cement, and because any American boy with brains can duplicate it without the necessity of shining the boss’ shoes and marrying his myopic daughter. Here is a youngster who knew what he wanted, and didn’t get sidetracked with all the familiar guff about a Ph.D. and the right fraternity on the right campus.

Stanley got his first taste of flying as a small boy, and was virtually born inhaling great gusts of propwash.

His father, now president of a major steamship company in San Francisco, was one of aviation’s “Early Birds,” and used to take the boy up for flights in a plane of his own design. Sitting at the controls, with cushions to prop him up and special extensions on the foot pedals, young Stanley piloted a Stinson under his father’s directions at an age when most other children are still afraid of the dark.

There are neighbors in the vicinity of his Berkeley home who can point to the gray hairs they got from dodging Stanley’s earliest mechanical monsters. It seems he was standing around in the basement one day when a long-used washing machine gave a final little cough and quit.

“Hey, Mom, it’s no good anymore, huh?” Stanley cried with what he thought was concealed glee. “Can I have it?”

“I guess so,” she said dubiously. “But it won’t work.”

That’s what you think, Mrs. Hiller.

Because in less than a week the washing machine gas engine had acquired a body of sorts, four wheels and a roar like Niagara Falls. The boy breezed down the sidewalks in the neighborhood like a miniature rocket, scaring children and adults alike, until the gendarmes interrupted and gave him assorted tickets for reckless driving, riding the sidewalks, having no driver’s license, and being a general nuisance. They tore the tickets up as soon as the boy got out of sight, of course, laughed until their badges rattled, and amused the station sergeants with tales about the nervy Hiller kid.

Between the ages of ten and fourteen, Stanley covered practically all the ground trod by automotive engineers in the preceding forty years. He made marvelous motor scooters, various small racing cars, trick bicycles and other mechanisms, and was indubitably the hero of the small fry in the district. Then he turned to aviation, and put his extraordinary energy into the construction of a miniature plane.

He spent three months on the job, designing an amazing little gasoline power plant for the ship, and carefully planning and building the fuselage. When the great day came for its first flight, the plane swept down an improvised runway, soared into space. But in three agonizing seconds the craft went into a nosedive and crashed. There was nothing in the wreckage worth salvaging except the little motor, and most youngsters would have tossed that into a junkpile, too.

But that’s where the fine line comes in.

Stanley saved the motor, redesigned it and fitted it into the body of a discarded toy auto.

Quicker than you can say Rickenbacker, Stanley had produced a midget racing auto which was the envy of the neighborhood, a ear that did better than forty miles an hour on a circular track. Pretty soon one of Stanley’s close friends clamored for a duplicate, which he made. Then other boys brought their savings around, commissioned the building engineer to build them a car. Presently the situation was out of hand, and Stanley and his father took stock.

What would you have done?

Why, certainly. That’s just what he did.

In a few months there was a new firm in Berkeley; Hiller Industries, Stanley Hiller.

Jr., President. Nor was it a nickel and dime proposition either, for in less than two years the small plant was grossing $100,000 a year manufacturing from 200 to 300 midget autos a month.

The Hiller Comet, as it was named, was an engineering achievement of top rank.

The car was 18 inches long, weighed about 6 pounds, and sold for $36 FOB Berkeley, complete with a small garage and tool kit. It had real piston rings, spark plugs, rotary valves and a fan-driven cooling system, with a Tom Thumb size carburetor. The machine ran on ether, alcohol, gasoline and assorted fuels, and some of the more refined models were clocked at speeds over 100 miles an hour.

Most of the employees in the plant were high school boys, and they were paid union scale wages. Indeed, these junior auto workers turned out such beautiful precision work under Stanley’s direction that Army engineers who inspected the plant in 1942 were flabbergasted. Many of the boys went direct from the place into large manufacturing firms, and quite a few have since contributed their share to the production miracles of this war. Stanley was a salesman, too. He produced and filmed a 16 mm. color movie of his tiny cars in action, and showed It free at Boy Scout meetings, high school classes and other places where a potential cash customer might be on hand. He made volume sales at such distant points as South Africa, South America, Singapore and India.

His factory operated on standard assembly line techniques. A sliding conveyor carried the little machines through the plant, where the wheels, engines, and other parts were installed, thence to a chamber of his own design where they were sprayed with paint, and finally to the drying ovens. Red cars, incidentally, were the best sellers, although customers in the southwest states showed a curious preference for white.

In 1942, when the government was combing cities, towns and villages for sub-contractors, the Army scouts came upon this beautiful little factory. They saw the quality of work being done, they gaped at the die-casting machines designed by the boy, and they reached for their fountain pens. Out went the little cars, in came airplane parts, and that’s what Stanley’s factory is still making today.

But all this time, buzzing around in that lively young brain like an atom looking for a place to bounce, was the helicopter idea. The kid had sense enough to know he couldn’t make P-38’s in his backyard, or half a dozen backyards, and the boys at Douglas, Vultee, Northrop and other places were fairly well satisfied with their product. But the helicopter field was wide open.

At the ripe old age of 14 Stanley went back east to Connecticut to attend high school. One afternoon an older friend took him through the Pratt & Whitney factory, and there he saw the sketches and the mockup of the Sikorsky helicopter. The ugly and seemingly awkward machine’ fascinated the boy, and he developed a voracious research appetite on the subject. And that was how he came upon the Leonardo drawings.

The artist, as the world knows now, was five hundred years ahead of his era, and some authorities contend now that he might even have flown in the fifteenth century if gasoline had existed then. In any case, Leonardo had designed a type of helicopter carrying two rotors on a common axis, but revolving in opposite directions. And it was this idea that intrigued Stanley Hiller.

Why? Because up to now helicopters have been built with some sort of a tail propeller to compensate for torque, the force which tends to rotate or swing the fuselage.

The experts have always said a helicopter wouldn’t work any other way. Oh, yes, they’d considered the co-axial type which would use only two rotors, one above the other. In fact, Stanley discovered that designers in half a dozen countries had built 37 different co-axial helicopters and had trundled them out to flying fields, and had cracked up each one of the thirty-seven. The darn things just wouldn’t stay off the ground.

And so this zany kid from Berkeley said to his father: “I’m going to build one that’ll fly.”

“Sure you are,” Hiller senior grinned.

Back in Berkeley to stay, the pride of the Hiller family went to work. He rented an abandoned public garage near his home, took his books and his tools there and tackled the problem of eliminating the tail rotor with its waste of horse power and its useless weight. For one solid year his thin figure was bent over the drawing boards, and he made tiny models, trying one design after another and throwing them away. When he finally completed a small model that offered possibilities, Stanley went to the building in San Francisco where his father worked and began some unique tests.

He posted men with movie cameras at each floor of the nine-story building, and went up to the roof himself. There he dropped his model helicopter to the street, and had it photographed as it passed each floor. The tests convinced him that he was on the right track, and also proved that the double-bladed rotor, four blades in all, was the most efficient.

He was working, of course, as all engineers work—slowly, methodically, with some trial, some error, and some success. This in itself is not exceptional. But if you know that the boy had never flown a helicopter, indeed, that he had never seen one and knew only what he got out of the books, then his achievement belongs to posterity.

In the spring of 1943 Stanley Hiller was ready for the inevitable showdown. In the midst of a war which has been predominantly an airmen’s war there was only one place to take an invention that was both a potential weapon and a service instrument—to the armed services. Stanley Hiller packed up a new model that weighed 100 pounds, grabbed his well-filled briefcase, and hurried east to Wright Field to see Colonel H. Franklin Gregory, the Army’s helicopter expert. Colonel Gregory was a pioneer in the field; he had flown the Sikorsky model, and he was among those authorities who conceded that flying a standard airplane was almost kindergarten stuff compared to learning how to fly helicopters. In fact, test pilot C. L. “Les” Morris of Sikorsky once wrote a prodigious paper about how he and Colonel Gregory struggled with the operatic temperament of the Sikorsky ship, and offered the opinion that it probably takes some 40 hours of instruction to make a good helicopter pilot.

To his complete consternation, the boy soon discovered that Colonel Gregory was strangely uninterested in”his work. The officer called in his own engineers and his experts and together they looked at Stanley’s model and checked his figures.

“It’s a fine idea,” Colonel Gregory said at last. “But it’s been tried and I don’t think it will work.”

“But it will work, sir,” the boy insisted. “I’m sure it will.”

Colonel Gregory shook his head. “I’m sorry, but it won’t do.”

It is perhaps a good thing for the nation, and probably the world, that Stanley Hiller didn’t know when he was licked. He wrapped up the heavy model, slung it over his shoulder, and took the next train for Washington. There he encountered the type of run-around which even substantial citizens are apt to suffer during the melee of wartime conditions, and it was some time before he gained an audience with Grover Loen-ing, world-famed pilot, inventor, and aircraft manufacturer. Loening, chief aircraft consultant for the War Production Board, took a fancy to this eager youngster from the West and promised to help.

During the next eleven months there was feverish and slightly mysterious activity in the rented garage at Berkeley.

Starting from scratch, and with the aid of material obtained through WPB priorities, Stanley and a small staff of assistants began building the plane. In May, 1944, the last daub of yellow paint was applied to the trim fuselage, and he trucked the finished helicopter to the backyard of the Hiller home at the foot of the Berkeley hills.

The following morning, anchoring the plane to his car as a precautionary measure, the young inventor started the motor, climbed into the cockpit and made what will some day appear in the history books as an epochal flight. He laughs about it now, because it wasn’t much of a debut. Held down by the cable and with the 25-foot rotors swishing around in a space only 30 feet wide, the Hillercopter hopped around like a chicken with a game leg.

“This won’t do at all, son,” his father said.

“I guess not. We’ll have to find a bigger place.”

The next day they persuaded mildly skeptical University of California authorities to let them work inside the vast, unused football stadium. And there, to the complete delirium of the whole Hiller family, a boy’s dream came true. The ship not only flew, but it maneuvered with the precision and grace of a Ziegfeld chorus. Stanley flew it some 100 feet to the rim of the stadium, let it hover there, dropped it down, shot back up, and with pardonable exuberance gave it a speed run in a dizzy circular course around the big concrete bowl. Since that day he has flown it in half a dozen different places, and piled up some twenty hours in the air in a few short weeks. But this young genius will never forget that first fragile, memorable and intoxicating moment when the plane left the ground, floated gently to a height of six feet, and hung there like a magic bubble, iridescent and wonderful in the morning sun.

He puts it rather succinctly, in his own words: “Well, before I gave her the gun she looked just like an angry bug backing up. Then I nosed her down a little and—wham—she went down the field!”

To men who know something about aircraft, the Hillercopter is the soul of ingenious simplicity. Its instrument panel, for example, has fewer knobs and dials than the average home radio set, and even fewer than the modern automobile. There is only a throttle, an air speed indicator, an RPM indicator, an ignition switch and oil and fuel gauges. The cockpit itself has the standard aircraft control levers, with a rider bar operated by the feet, a regular stick which moves backward, forward and sideways, and a hand control on the right for controlling the variable pitch rotor blades.

And in that one control, incidentally, is the secret contained in the patents the boy has applied for.

The co-axial mechanism to which the big rotor blades are attached contains a series of intricate propeller pitch devices which give the pilot full control over all phases of flight, ascent and descent, lateral and horizontal flight, and the hovering principle which only a few birds have mastered up to this point. The mechanism has been shrouded in canvas at all of the public demonstrations, and has the status of a military secret. The Navy says he can’t talk about it— even if he happened to feel in a chatty mood.

The pear-shaped fuselage is twelve feet long, and the engine is a 90-horsepower Franklin comparable to those used in conventional light aircraft. The Hillercopter weighs some 1400 pounds with gasoline and oil and one pilot. Stanley says this particular model has a cruising speed of about 70 miles an hour, but will do close to 100 with the throttle wide open. The present ship can carry only enough gasoline for ninety minutes of flight, but averages 20 miles to the gallon. The 25-foot rotor blades are made of light steel, and only one would be enough to keep the ship aloft. Stanley has discovered, as a matter of fact, that the rotors would keep turning and get you down even in case of motor failure, a pleasant and reassuring thought in case you have to make any detours, or all the gas stations are closed some Sunday night late.

Indeed, Stanley never wears a parachute when he’s aloft, and says it’s safe enough even for a guy with coffee nerves.

Engineers, pilots and mere unscientific bystanders have learned, “with a feeling of awe, that the craft is uncanny in its flying talents. Stanley delights in confounding the skeptics by hanging fifty feet over the ground, motionless, and waving out the cockpit with both hands. In comparison to the Hillercopter, the Sikorsky helicopter is a ship that writhes like a jitterbug. Colonel Gregory once described the Sikorsky stick as something “that quivers and shakes.” Stanley’s neat little job is quieter than an old maid in a church pew, and just as reliable.

Last August, just after he had given a convincing public demonstration for Army and Navy experts on the San Francisco waterfront, Stanley got the familiar little notice from his President, with orders to report for induction the following day. But the Navy stepped in, asked for and obtained a deferment so the boy could continue the important job he had started.

At that point two more familiar characters injected themselves into Stanley’s destiny—Henry J. Kaiser and his brilliant chief engineer, Clay Bedford. They had watched the meteoric progress of the Berkeley lad, had encouraged and advised him. Further, both men had crawled into the cockpit of this aerial puddlejumper and learned for themselves how easy it was. Now they were ready to talk business, in the Kaiser big business manner.

And at the age of nineteen, when most other boys are buying their first corsage and trying to fathom the mysteries of the gender female, Stanley Hiller had a Kaiser contract and a future as bright and pink as a Burbank rose. W. H. Engle, chief test pilot for the Kaiser Fleetwings plant in Pennsylvania, put it this way: “The Hillercopter is superior in controllability to any helicopter I’ve ever flown. There is also much less vibration.”

What of the future?

He hopes the armed services will find a use for his plane, perhaps in aerial ambulance work, or as a rescue craft over dangerous terrain where the conventional planes can’t go. For peacetime he envisions a two-seater, or maybe even a fourseater—a family model, if you will—that most people can afford and anyone can fly. The ship can land on a dime, or at least a silver dollar, coming straight down on its three-wheeled landing gear. And with a slight horizontal roof extension and little expense, most garages could be altered to handle the long rotors when they are lined up parallel to each other. The ship has a flight ceiling now of about 6,000 feet, but Stanley says the best cruising height, except over cities, is from 300 to 500 feet. He can take my order right now, if he wants.

What is Stanley doing meanwhile?

Well, ladies, this incredible youngster has already solved two of your most acute kitchen problems. He has designed and manufactured an aluminum frying pan in which you can fry eggs or hotcakes or ‘most anything—without grease. You can even turn the heat on full and forget it— because the pan will never burn food. He does the trick with a few fillets or ridges die-cast into the under side of the pan which diffuse the heat. He’s also, perfected a new kind of electric iron which …. well, let him describe it. “It’s simple,” he says. “You plug it in—and it’s hot immediately. And just the right heat, too.”

The first thing you know Stanley will develop a bride’s biscuit that will not only be edible without sodium bicarbonate, but can be flattened out into a phonograph record that will say sweetly: “Yes, dear.”

It’s not impossible, believe me.

This kid can do anything.

1 comment
  1. Stannous says: November 22, 20061:42 pm

    Stanley Hiller died last April at 81 after a lifetime of innovation and design. There is a Hiller Aviation Museum just south of SF International Airport in San Mateo, Calif.
    Here’s the web page and a bio:…

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