Anyone visiting the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada will quickly recognize the Freobe Helicopter as a unique piece of engineering. Doug, Nick and Theodore Froebe moved to Homewood, Manitoba in 1921. Having a keen interest in aviation at an early age, the brothers educated themselves by reading flight manuals and aviation magazines such as “Mechanics Illustrated”. The construction of a Heath Parasol airplane from a home-built kit also aided their training. This background gave them the confidence to build the first helicopter to fly in Canada out of scrap and a broken down truck.
Before the brothers began work on their helicopter, Doug Froebe travelled through the United States to meet with designers. Some experts were helpful, but many were not. Most of these designers were aware of a helicopter project that was going on at the Curtis plant in which $100,000 had been spent without results. This gave helicopters a bad reputation. Doug Froebe hitchhiked to Dearborn, Michigan to meet William Stout who was thought to be an “outside-of-the-box” sort of thinker. When Doug asked Stout about his plans to build a helicopter, Stout gave him a dollar and told him to hitchhike back to Homewood.
This did not stop Doug Froebe and his brothers from building what would later be considered the first helicopter created in Canada. The brothers purchased a 4-cylinder, air-cooled Gypsy engine from a dealer in California for $100. The steel tubing for the frame was picked up from McDonald Aircraft Supply in Winnipeg. A Ford truck fly wheel with a clutch that coupled the engine to the pinion gear was used to attach the other components together. The gas tank, which had been taken from a tractor on their farm, was placed on the back of the helicopter and filled half full for balance. The first flights began in the latter half of 1937. The first flight achieved a height of three feet above the ground. The last recorded flight at the same height was on March 2, 1939.
The Froebe Helicopter remains an astonishing achievement for three young men who grew up isolated on their farm and far away from the research and experimentation taking place in large cities. The Froebes’ success goes to show that a little confidence and determination can accomplish the impossible.
You can see the original Froebe Helicopter as well as a less-successful, human-powered version called the Ornithopter on permanent display at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.