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Leonardo da Vinci’s conception of the helicopter, or what was then just an aerial screw, appeared about 1490. A scientist, artist and inventor, da Vinci conceived that a flying machine, although it remained untested in his time, could be propelled in the air if a screw-like device were rotating swiftly.
The man who looked at the sketch of da Vinci’s aerial screw and put the concept into practical reality was the Russian aviation pioneer Igor I. Sikorsky (1889-1972). On Sept. 14, 1939, Mr. Sikorsky test piloted the first model, the VS-300, two weeks after the outbreak of World War II. It was about 450 years after da Vinci’s aerial screw and 40 years after the young Igor was mesmerized by da Vinci’s design.
The first helicopter to be put into flight was tied down with weights, as a precaution. The machine lifted off the ground vertically, then returned after just a few seconds. But the dream of flight using the aerial screw was now reality with Mr. Sikorsky’s three-blade rotor. Sikorsky went on to refine his design and registered 38 patents in all.
The military was the first to recognize the vehicle’s mobility potential, that it could maneuver left and right, back and forth and up and down -- in the air. In July 1940, the U.S. Army Air Corps awarded Mr. Sikorsky a contract to deliver refined versions of the VS-300 for two-man crews. When the United States entered World War II, Mr. Sikorsky began delivery, and most of the helicopters were used in noncombat roles to transport wounded soldiers or gather intelligence. It was during the Korean War in 1950 that helicopters were first armed with machine guns and rockets during combat missions.
Helicopters continue to wield their might in the battlefields of the 21st century. About 900 helicopters of the coalition forces are at the forefront of the assault against Iraq. The Apache helicopter was instrumental in opening the way for combat forces to cross the border into Iraq, and the Sea Knight is there to transport special operations forces into enemy territory.
But such spearheads of sophisticated warfare are being put out of commission nearly every day due to collisions and enemy fire. In Iraq, the aircraft is giving little service to the words that Igor Sikorsky spoke at his retirement: The most important mission of helicopters is to save human lives.

by Oh Byung-sang

The writer is London correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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