The History of the Helicopter: Early Helicopter Footage

We recently posted a compilation video of early helicopter footage onto our YouTube channel. The video uses eight different reels from the British Pathé film archive, and there are some others that didn’t make it into the final cut. The history of the helicopter and the quest for vertical flight in the early 20the century is a vast and interesting subject that was very well documented by British Pathé. We have to admit that in selecting footage for the YouTube video we went for a certain aesthetic, choosing images that “looked helicoptery!” when the truth is that there were several plane / helicopter hybrids such as the autogyro that pioneered for some years, as well as related projects such as zeppelin technology and bizarre prototypes for what would eventually become known as the hovercraft.

Here is an embedded version of the video and beneath it is links to the full length versions of each video used with the original Pathé title, dates and the length of the original reel (which you can watch for free by following the link).

And now for the videos used in this compilation:

Aerial Merry Go Round” (1921) – 1 minute 24 seconds

Shots of very large propellers slowly turning, we see an early helicopter taking off in a rather meandering fashion and men diving out of its way!

The Helicopter” (1921) – 1 minute 38 seconds

An early helicopter sporting a giant oblong balloon (as used in the thumbnail for the YouTube video) hovers and sways unsteadily with men rushing about beneath it and directing it along a field.

New Era In Flying” (1922) – 1 minute 22 seconds

Mr. Pescara, a key individual in the history of the helicopter, is seen with one of his first machines. The helicopter is much lighter than previous models and has four rotors.

Vertical Flight Soon” (1923) – 1 minute 14 seconds

Mr. Pescara appears with an improved version of his helicopter. The helicopter’s flight is still a rather higgledy-piggledy affair and the vehicle lands nose first.

Perseverance Rewarded” (1924) – 1 minute 41 seconds

The final video of Mr. Pescara used in the YouTube compilation. We see him in an open cockpit flying in his new and improved helicopter!

Helicopter Demo” (1940) – 1 minute 34 seconds

Various shots of helicopters (possibly Sikorsky helicopters) flying over factory rooftops and in group formations.

U.S. Air Force Tests Helicopter” (1943) – 1 minute 43 seconds

A great clip that didn’t make it into the YouTube edit, this video shows men jumping out of helicopters from a height of several metres, and good close-up shows of a man manoeuvring a helicopter a little bit like an arcade game!

Mass Flight” (1948) – 1 minute 45 seconds

Shots of photographers on the ground filming the helicopter as it takes off. Nine helicopters seen flying in formation and flying over water.

Welsh Airlift” (1949) – 1 minute 51 seconds

A Sikorsky S-51 helicopter is seen hovering over the Welsh hills in Croesor Valley, Festiniog. The YouTube edit uses a clip of the helicopter crashing and pilot Dennis Bryan leaving the vehicle seemingly unharmed before explaining what went wrong.

Helicopter Service For BIF” (1950) – 1 minute 56 seconds

A great clip showing the first ever public helicopter service, like a bus service. We see a sign with information about the service and then footage of people waving the helicopter off into the distance.

For more helicopter clips please do conduct your own search in the British Pathe film archive. We recommend going to the homepage and typing in “helicopter” into the search bar and then selecting the Sort By: Year option.

You can ask us any questions by joining our Facebook page, or by chatting to us on Twitter, or via the contact page on

Author: British Pathé

British Pathé holds the world's finest newsreel collection. We also represent the Reuters historical collection. All 220K films are viewable on our website.

2 thoughts on “The History of the Helicopter: Early Helicopter Footage”

  1. You don’t often see very much about the history of the helicopter as compared to the history of airplanes. I’m quite surprised there are so many videos. Thanks so much for sharing and making this available!

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