Article: Froebe Brothers – Pioneers and Their Homebuilt Aircraft

  • Image of Froebe Brothers and their helicopter

    Doug Froebe and his brothers built a Heath Parasol in 1927. They later went on to build Canada’s first helicopter known as the Froebe Helicopter.

    Both Nicholas and Theodore met misfortune in the 1940s; the latter was killed in a Heath Parasol the brothers had acquired.

    Heather Emberley interviewed Doug Froebe in July, 1979. This is an excerpt of that interview.

    Doug Froebe: I was born February 7, 1912 in Chatsworth, Illinois. We lived there until 1921, when we moved to Canada and bought a farm in Homewood, Manitoba. While living in Illinois during the First World War, we saw many old aircraft flying over the farm from Rantoul Field, and I guess that’s where I became interested in flying machines to start with.

    There were Jennies and de Havilland airplanes, and all kinds flying over. They trained at Rantoul Field about 50 miles north of us. Of course, I was eight years old when we left Illinois. I’d always been making model airplanes out of shingles and whipple trees and things like that.

    After we moved to Canada we continued to build things – snow sleds and snowmobiles, but always had the airplane idea in the back of our heads. Heath Parasol came out with a kit – build your own – which we sent for and built.

    What year was that?

    Doug Froebe: Oh, that’s hard to say… 1927 maybe.

    You mentioned flying yourself. Where did you learn to fly and how did that come about?

    Doug Froebe: Well, I talked to Konnie Johanneson and told him we had tried to get the thing (Parasol) off the ground at the farm. He said I’d better go up in his (DH.60 Gipsy) Moth and see what an airplane feels like when you get it in the air. So I went up with him for 20 minutes, and I followed him on the controls while he took off and flew it around.

    The second time he said: “OK, you take it off”. So I pushed the throttle open, but he said: “Clear open”. Seemed like it was ready to jump out the front end as it was. I was going along on the wheels, and he said: “Well, when are you going to take it off? We’re going 60 miles per hour now”. So I hauled back on the stick and the thing jumped in the air. He said: “Take it between your two fingers, you’re not handling a plow now”.

    He corrected me all the way around and the third time I took the thing off and flew it, chopped the throttle and brought it in and landed it and he didn’t say a single word. I thought I’d made a pretty good landing, but I guess it was par for the course.

    From then on I felt confident enough to try to fly the Heath. We always had a tail-heavy problem with it, so we moved the landing gear back in order to get the tail off the ground. This time I turned it loose on a timothy patch. The tail was up and it was moving right along. I looked down and the wheel was off the ground about three feet, so I chopped the throttle and came down on one wheel and on the other. I had to hold the stick clear over to the right to keep the wing up. We warped the wings to counteract for the engine torque.

    The next day we tried it again and this time I took it off, cleared the fence and went over the neighbour’s barn. When I looked out over the barn I was lost. The country was so different from the air. I started to make a slow turn and went behind some trees. I would say I was 100 feet high and things seemed to be sinking right down towards the road. Of course I had been reading all the instruction books on flying; to be sure and maintain flying speed, so I shoved the nose right down at the road. I thought I must be headed downwind, so I started a turn in the direction from where I had taken off. I’d made a complete 180-degree turn by the time I got the wing up and straightened out. I plunked right down on a three-point landing right in a wheat field. The ground was so soft it wouldn’t even roll. I jumped out and was so happy the thing would even fly.

    My brothers kept looking for me. When they heard the engine go silent, they came chasing after me. They said: “The last time we saw you, you were headed this way. How come you’re heading the other way?” They couldn’t figure out that I could make a 180-degree turn at about 100 feet altitude.

    Image of Froebe Brothers, Theodore, Douglas and Nicholas

    In the building of the Heath, how did you get the experience needed to construct an aircraft?

    Doug Froebe: We had the plans from the Heath Parasol people in Chicago, and it was the Mechanics Illustrated magazine that had the instructions on how to go about fabricating an aircraft. I think that was where we got most of the information on wing coverings and things like that which the blueprints didn’t cover very thoroughly. It did cover the airframe and ribs, wings, etc.

    The fourth time we were going to fly, the wind was in the west. I took off in a westerly direction this time, cleared the fence and was about as high as the telephone wires, waving at the neighbours going by. At the other end of the field, which was a mile away, there were high tension wires and telephone wires below the high tension wires. About the time I got up to the high tension wires, they were level with the windshield, so I just shoved the stick ahead and the Parasol came down. This experience discouraged us from trying it again.

    What about your two brothers, Nicholas and Theodore?

    Doug Froebe: Well, during the War they acquired the Heath Parasol that Art Brazier had built at MacDonald Brothers. They’d bought the thing and it had a two-cylinder Aeronca (C2) engine, 35 horsepower. They had taken flying lessons at Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. My younger brother, Theodore, had about 40 hours in it, so did my older brother. One of the neighbours was watching him and said it looked like he was trying to loop the Heath and on the third attempt he was just too low to the ground and it hit the ground after he pulled it up into a stall.

    My older brother, Nick, became interested in spraying crops and he flew an Aeronca Champion with a $600 spray outfit on it. I guess by the looks of the accident he must have made a turn and pulled the thing up in a hammerhead stall turn of some kind – trying to save a little time or something. I guess he had 60 gallons of chemical in the tanks and it stalled and just rolled the thing over in a cartwheel and that’s the way it cracked up. It burned up. That was in 1942, I guess.

    This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2006 edition of Altitude.
    The top image is of the Froebe brothers helicopter. The second image if of the three Froebe brothers, Theodore, Douglas and Nicholas. Both images are from the museum’s archive.

2 Responses and Counting...

  • Charlie Froebe

    Just a couple of corrections in Doug’s comments. It was actually 1920 when they moved to Homewood from Chatsworth, Illinois. Our dad, Nicholas, crashed his spray plane on Thursday, June 25, 1959, a day that still lives with us. I had been marking the field for him just prior to his accident.

    The amazing part of this whole helicopter episode is that it was accomplished during the depths of the depression, partly out of salvaged material. They managed to acquire a used “Gypsy Moth” engine from the largest used aircraft dealer in the world, at the time, in Los Angeles, California and hauled it back to Homewood in a house trailer that they had built in their little farm shop that was used to build the helicopter.

    One also has to appreciate that there is, apparently, quite a difference between flying a fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter. I doubt if they would have been prepared for that. Their biggest problem was vibration, which they never managed to correct enough to make an entirely successful flight, but damn they got the thing off the ground and were overjoyed and disappointed at the same time.

    What brave and future-looking souls. They had visions of helicopters being a main means of travel in the future. They had built their shop and two houses with flat roofs in order to land their helicopters on. Oh, the best laid plans of mice and men. We finally had to move out of one of the flat-roofed houses that Bonnie and I lived in from 1964 to 1974. In the rain in 1974, we had 27 pots out collecting rain water inside the house. The sad part was that I had re-tarred the roof that spring.

    I was two years old when Theodore (Deed) had his accident, but talking to neighbours who knew him they described him as a daredevil flier always buzzing folks and doing loops with his under-powered plane in which, apparently, he could do two loops. But that fateful day he didn’t quite have the power to do the three that he attempted that day in June, 1943. There was some concern amongst some of the neighbours, apparently, as to how he managed to get fuel during the rationing of WWII. I have no answer for that one, except they were farming which probably gave them access to fuel. There was also speculation that, with the name of “Froebe” they must be spying for the Germans. Now I ask you, what would you spy on in Homewood, Manitoba, population approximately 50 people?

    Hope this adds some perspective to the lives of those young men in their early 20’s in the forefront of aviation as it developed in Manitoba.

  • Charlie Froebe

    I stand corrected on the year of the move to Canada. It was actually 1921, not 1920 as I had indicated earlier. My memory isn’t as good as it used to be and so I did some more research. Although the farm in Homewood was actually purchased on December 9, 1919, thus making me think they moved up in 1920. However, they didn’t move up until 1921 by rail.

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