Maj. Thurman H. Bane, commanding officer of the technical department for American aeronautics in the engineering division of the Air Service, became convinced that a military role existed for rotary-wing aircraft after reading papers by Russian scientist George de Bothezat on the “theory of lifting screws,” setting forth detailed data for designing helicopter rotors. Bane wrote to his superiors: “The Air Service should undertake some positive steps toward the solution of some of the very difficult problems associated with helicopter development.”Bane, convinced that the most significant problem was rotor-blade design and that de Bothezat was the world’s expert in propeller design, obtained permission from Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, chief of the U.S. Air Service, to contract for a helicopter. The Russian scientist sent a letter proposing to construct it. The letter, in addition to its diagrams and drawings, set forth engineering details of a design for the craft and formed the basis of a 1921 contractual agreement for the first Army helicopter.Army Lt. Franklin O. Carroll, who later became a major general in the Air Force, was designated project officer, and he subsequently wrote of the experience with de Bothezat and his machine:Going to work mornings I felt like a spy. I would sneak in and duck quickly behind the canvass curtain that walled in the project. It was my job to understand the theory of its operation and fly the machine. I never got beyond the first line of the theory, but flew the craft—if you can call it flight—several times getting a few feet above the ground, with little positive control over its actions.As later related by Air Force Brig. Gen. H. Franklin Gregory, who would champion the Sikorsky helicopter design, the construction reflected the inventor’s idiosyncratic nature:Work was begun in a tin-roofed hangar. Later, when the machine grew, it was moved outside and the whole project was carried out behind a big topless tent. The inventor wouldn’t leave the site. He watched his pet as a miser his money. Nobody could get near the tent. McCook’s cocky bunch of young test pilots proved a problem for the inventor, and he didn’t like them. Daily the youngsters who were test flying the then latest airplanes that this country possessed would be in the air. Purposely they would swoop low over the tent wall that screened the first helicopter and pretend they were trying to see the all-secret work being done on it. The inventor was infuriated. He would rush outside and wave his arms frantically and shout, “Away! Away! Go Away! You are not to see. You are not to see.” The pilots antagonized him more. They merely waved back at him. He complained again and again.One of those pilots was a young lieutenant named Jimmy Doolittle.Dubbed the H-1, the helicopter was a single-seat quad-rotor with four six-bladed rotors, 25 feet in diameter, mounted at the ends of aluminum alloy tubing forming a cross and intersecting in all directions. The rotor axes were not parallel but slightly inclined inward, and each was equipped with collective pitch control. In addition, at the end of each of the four beams of the craft, there were “thrusting screws” or control propellers, each of which featured variable pitch, and the helicopter had two horizontal propellers called “steering airscrews” as well as two small airscrews placed above the gearbox and acting as regulators for the Le Rhône rotary engine. A more powerful rotary engine manufactured by Bentley was later installed.All in all, it was a complex piece of machinery and, not surprisingly, elicited decidedly mixed reviews. In The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks: The Story of the Helicopter, James R. Chiles wrote that “[it] looked like a monstrosity when finished,” while the pilots who flew it quickly dubbed it “the flying octopus” because “the ideal pilot would have as many appendages as an octopus.”Between de Bothezat and Bane, sources differ in regard to who first test-flew the craft, but Bane was arguably the first Army helicopter pilot. On Dec. 18, 1922, the aircraft rose 1.8 meters from the ground and remained airborne for a minute and 42 seconds. On Jan. 19, 1923, it lifted two people 1.2 meters, and it would eventually lift four people.Because of its great moment of inertia, the helicopter proved quite stable, yet despite the series of sustained flights it performed, the Air Corps rapidly lost interest in it. It had made over 50 test flights but never rose above 30 feet, still within “ground effect” and far from the contractually mandated 300 feet. The Army then contracted with de Bothezat to improve the H-1, but after spending thousands of dollars, the helicopter failed to meet performance expectations.In a report on the helicopter, W.F. Gerhardt, chief of the Flight Research Branch at McCook Field, Ohio, concluded:It is believed that this type of helicopter does not offer the best possibility for future development of the helicopter on account, principally, of the unfavorable feature of inherent dissymmetry in case of mechanical failure and general mechanical complexity. These features are such as to rule out its development except in the case of such military urgency that the life of the pilot and observer is of little consequence. Until these defects can be eliminated the future development of the helicopter proper appears to rest rather in the single-screw type and the reasons for this are at least strong enough to warrant the building and testing of such a type before multiple-screw types are adopted. This development has, however, contributed a definite forward step in the helicopter progress in being a practical example of the proper method of design and in being a helicopter which theoretically and practically has provision for more desired performance properties than any other existing machine.It was a devastating evaluation. After the first flight, everyone who witnessed it began to speculate as to how useful such a craft could be. Even Thomas Edison, an early observer of the H-1, proclaimed in a letter written to de Bothezat in February 1923 that he “made a great advance; in fact, as far as I know, the first successful helicopter.” The military evaluation, however, had brought the inventor from the mountain of accolade into the valley of reality, a reportedly difficult place for de Bothezat, the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest scientist and outstanding mathematician.”While the official evaluation did recognize the desirability of further helicopter development and that development should proceed with a single-rotor aircraft, thereby anticipating Igor Sikorsky by over a decade, that was of little comfort to de Bothezat, who was reportedly “heartbroken” by the Army abandonment of the project.The de Bothezat helicopter cost too much, performed too little and was too complex to be reliable. While it was not the first military project to go over budget and promise more than it delivered, it was the first rotary-wing project to do so. If for no other reason, it deserves to be remembered as a cautionary tale; it would not be the last aerial project to be thus regarded.