From the Archives: The Pinwheel helicopter

April 15, 1957: The Pinwheel, rocket-powered, strap-on-the-back helicopter, rises above watching cro
April 15, 1957: The Pinwheel, a rocket-powered, strap-on-the-back helicopter, rises and hovers over a larger craft during its first demonstration.
(Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times)

The Pinwheel demonstration at the San Fernando Valley Airport – now the Van Nuys Airport – was reported in the April 16, 1957, Los Angeles Times:

The pinwheel performed like a hissing yo-yo yesterday — a rocket-powered strap-on-the-back helicopter that skittered Test Pilot Dick Whitehead around San Fernando Valley Airport with startling speed and controllability.

Several flights of the unique craft, said to be the smallest, lightest, simplest helicopter yet flown, were made during the first public demonstration of the tiny craft, disclosed by The Times last Feb. 28.

Designed and built by Rotor-Craft Corp., Glendale, the 170-pound ship is the culmination of seven years of development and is scheduled for immediate Navy flight evaluation tests. …


It is lifted by a thin, 17-foot rotor blade that whirls just above the pilot’s head under the power of hydrogen peroxide fuel broken down by catalytic action into steam that is ejected at high speed from the rotor tips.

Ultrasimple, it has no pistons, no electrical system, no lubrication or cooling system, no clutch, transmission or starter. …

In yesterday’s demonstrations, Whitehead, an ex-marine combat pilot (Korea) appeared to be wearing the Pinwheel rather that flying it. He jumped off the ground with ease, soared to perhaps 150 feet, flew backward and sideways, hovered over trees and tables, then took off around the airport like a giant dragonfly.

A followup story in the Nov. 5, 1957, Los Angeles Times reported that Whitehead suffered a broken leg and other injuries “after the Buck Rogers-type craft went out of control” and fell about 50 feet.


This three-photo combo by staff photographer Larry Sharkey was published in the April 16, 1957, Los Angeles Times.

This post was originally published on March 12, 2014.

See more from the Los Angeles Times archives here