by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 23 (August 1998)

Think about this the next time you are stuck in rush-hour traffic: wouldn’t you just love to lift up over all those glaring red tail lights and go straight over to your destination?

Here are three things to consider:

  1. Semi-dirigible, easy-to-drive, simplified, safe and economical, inflatable helicopters.
  2. 40,000 or more mothballed military helicopters, from before the Vietnam era and since, rotting under the sun in the Mojave Desert.
  3. Beacon-to-beacon, pad-to-pad, line-of-flight commuting to your destination (and a commerciable community service to your destination), in a quarter to a tenth of the time it now takes you.

The invention: semi-dirigible helicopters. Overlooked thus far only because we think in categories instead of realistically (is it a helicopter, or is it ‘something else?’ Does it fly, or does it, um, well, fly?) Also in the combat missions and air rescue roles which we have let define the category “helicopter,” we wanted speed and power. In those capacities, dirigible characteristics would only be in the way.

The basic engineering would not be difficult. In effect, wrap inflatable panels as your fuselage, around the frame of the helicopter. Inflate them with helium to give partial lift. Balance off the weight of the frame in such a way that you don’t need the attitude controls which make the flying of conventional helicopters such a balancing act. (Provide a basic tilt control on a standby emergency basis, default position standard balance, usually never engaged – automatically pumping lifting-gas from one side to the other and/or front & back.) Most of the lifting panels will run along the upper sides of your frame. You want your weight down, your support up, like a child’s knock-me-down toy which keeps righting itself, so you can do away with the delicate balancing act which so complicated the flying of today’s helicopters.

The lifting-gas can be pumped back into pressurized tanks or canisters when the copter is going to be on the ground for awhile. That way you don’t have to even tether the thing to keep it from blowing away.

With controls simplified, you wouldn’t need the high level of skills, training, and multiple safety overrides which make helicopter flight such an expensive process today. With attitude (as distinct from altitude) controls not needed, virtually everything could be on one computer joystick or – more reassuringly for the typical driver, one automobile-like steering wheel with not only left-right, but forward-back for speed (back-click-further back for reverse). –Or use the accelerator/brake pedal arrangement of a car. Up & down on the steeringwheel to control, well, up and down. Fuel, temperature and other gauges would give not only direct readings but run with idiot lights – green for o.k., yellow a caution, red = DO something! Also with a “ping-hum” auditory signal when going into the yellow and a light continuous pinging – enough to be heard, not so loud as to panic the driver – once into the red. Objective of all of this is to make the diricopter easier to drive than is the ubiquitous family car – and a lot safer.

With most – not quite all – of the weight of the diricopter and its load effect by lifting helium, you would not need the gas-guzzler powerful engine which also makes helicopter flight such an expensive process today. Practically a lawn-mower engine would suffice.

Worry about style and looks later. The first generation diricopters – especially those which were adaptations from all those dead helicopters rotting in the Mojave – would stop looking like grasshoppers and start looking more like bumblebees or flying beetles. Design engineers and aerodynamicists can go to work to pretty up later generations of the diricopter.

Adaptable Resources Available to the First Generation of Diricopters

I am given to understand that the main reason that most of those rotting 40,000+ military helicopters in the Mojave aren’t harvested for parts is that there isn’t that much current demand for parts! Only a few can afford to operate copters under current conditions. Also, it’d cost more to harvest them than it does to leave them there rotting, keeping happy the bureaucrats and inventory specialists.

So should an enterprise or enterprises be put together for this purpose, arranging to take over for certified civilian purpose and rehabilitate a few thousand of these copters, should be relatively easy and inexpensive. –Not guaranteed so, of course, because politics may enter here in making such arrangements. An enterprise or enterprises could engineer the adaptations and rehabilitation of at least several specific types of these abandoned helicopters. Then operate directly by franchise, or sell to, enterprises in each major city which would provide the commuting service. There are plenty of people who would pay the $10 or $20 per flight to get immediately to where they want to go instead of wasting hour after hour drinking in exhaust fumes on the clogged roadways. My guess is that even with relatively inefficient first-generation diricopters, many commuting services could turn a modest profit from those prices. More efficient second-generation diricopters should provide an excellent competitive venue for further developments in the commuter service, and expand into the “company copter” market. Third generation diricopters should expand into the family car market, with a hugely differential impact on some real estate values. It would seem that there are some significant opportunities in this context for someone to create new wealth, if anyone reading this has some initiative.

By time of that third-generation and after, these semi-dirigible helicopters have been seen in several various futures as the “family car.” Low-flying, slow, light, can’t fall, worst it can do is only to drift if its power fails; following radar/radio beacons like roads; low-powered and fuel efficient. Three dimensions laned instead of two, means a few human generations before traffic gets to be a problem again and maybe by then we’ll have worked out a very different way altogether of getting back and forth. No more traffic problems: just mount another beacon-channel to fly through between widely spaced poles some or many miles apart. Safety overrides force drift-down with distress beacon if a flyer leaves the pre-programmed channel or if power fails. Wind and storm warning provisions built into override system. If a flyer drifts down onto water, it will float indefinitely. Nearly buoyant in the air, it will be very buoyant in the water. Emergency anchors and anchor for normal tethering when onsite, or fuselage panels filled with lifting gas or helium are deflated and pumped back into pressurized canisters for longer-term parking. Profitable for someone to provide: a simple, simple, simple system which lets people get on with what they need to be doing.

When, after 40 years of overlooking it(!), people back here in the U.S. finally picked up Europe’s nickel-cadmium battery, a pretty penny got turned and new branches of industry developed. Surely the diricopter, yet another one of our inventions which are exercises in the obvious, now your invention because cast into public domain to dramatize the need for patent reform (see posted at Project Renaissance) and in reference to our book Discovering the Obvious…. surely this diricopter is potentially a greater profit-maker for someone than was the likewise overlooked nickel-cadmium battery?