Flettner Fl 282 Kolibri (Hummingbird) Single-Seat Scout Helicopter
The Flettner Fl 282 became the first helicopter in history to be used in a military role - this by the German Kriegsmarine in 1942.
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The helicopter, as a viable war weapon, was not the sole historical domain of the Vietnam War - nor the Korean War before it for that matter - for, indeed, the concept of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) flight was on the minds of engineers for thousands of years. The Germans saw a use for such versatile machines during World War 2 (1939-1945) where its Navy could rely on hovering platforms launched from ships to scan "over-the-horizon" and spot enemy submarines. Additionally, these systems could assist as artillery spotters for cruisers and battleships, radioing careful corrections to gunners. One of the notable contributors to the German helicopter realm in the war became Anton Flettner and his Fl 265 and Fl 282 single-seat creations. The Fl 265 appeared across six examples beginning in 1939 while the Fl 282 "Kolibri" ("Hummingbird") followed in 1942 with 24 of the type produced for both the German Navy and Luftwaffe (Air Force).
The Fl 282 was provided as a follow-up, if improved, version of the limited-run Fl 265 prior. Flettner was also responsible for several autogyro designs leading up to World War 2 during the tumultuous 1930s, the Fl 184 and Fl 185 prototypes being some examples. The earlier Fl 265 was, itself, also more or less a prototype offering while the Fl 282 became more of a refined end-product for practical military usage. The Fl 282 shared the same "intermeshing" rotor design as in the preceding Fl 265, this arrangement involving two individual rotor blades crossing one another, without touching, while rotating in opposite directions and on individual masts to achieve the desired vertical lift. The Fl 282 was also given an all-new engine in the Bramo Sh.14A, a 7-cylinder, air-cooled radial piston engine outputting at 160 horsepower.
In its basic form, the Fl 282 essentially appeared as a design built around its engine housing. The housing was centralized and made up much of the fuselage proper. At the front, in an open-air cockpit, was the pilot with an instrument panel before him and control stick between the knees. The rotors were seated atop shallow masts on top of the fuselage. A basic tail unit was added aft of the fuselage bulk to which a vertical tail assembly and horizontal planes were affixed. The undercarriage of the vehicle was fixed in place and involved a pair of single-wheeled main legs at the side of the fuselage with a single-wheeled nose leg under the cockpit floor. Rather utilitarian by modern standards, it nonetheless helped to shape the form of helicopter designs to follow. The construction of the fuselage involved steel tubing throughout with a fabric covering skin on non-critical surfaces.
Flight testing of the Fl 282 began in 1941 and eventually involved two flyable prototypes. Interestingly, these two prototypes were given enclosed cockpits while follow-up units were to feature the well-photographed open-air design described earlier. It was the German Navy, once again, that saw the value inherent in the Flettner helicopter and ordered a batch of fifteen for evaluation from its surface ships. Prototypes were designated Fl 282 V1 through V7 and followed by the Fl 282A-1 single-seat reconnaissance version for launching/retrieval from German warships. The Fl 282B-2 designation delineated submarine-launched, single-seat reconnaissance Fl 282s. The Fl 282B-2 was a unique sub-variant of the main B-model line and incorporated a second seat placement, this at the rear of the frame, for an observer in the scout, reconnaissance or mission liaison role.
The helicopters certainly provided considerable tactical value for the time - not requiring runway space to land on/take-off from and featuring relatively low-maintenance engines. Additionally, the platforms offered availability during overcast days and were not prone to the influences caused by inclement weather as experienced by fixed-wing aircraft. The Luftwaffe was granted a production order for some 1,000 Fl 282 units sometime in 1944, these to be manufactured by the storied concern of BMW for the sheer numbers required of the German war effort - having now turned into a defensive war. In 1945, the Luftwaffe went on to establish a dedicated reconnaissance wing through Transportstaffel 40 (TS/40) which was to stock several Fl 282 helicopters and based out of the Muhldorf District of Bavaria.
The Fl 282s in service soldiered on into the final weeks of the war. However, the intended (and rather ambitious) 1,000-strong fleet never materialized for the Allied bombing campaign put an end to the BMW facility operating out of Munich. Anton Flettner eventually went to work for the American firm of Kaman in the post-war years, allowing the company to deliver several well-known light helicopters utilizing the intermeshing rotor arrangement (the valuable multirole "K-MAX" line is one such modern example). It is noteworthy that the Germans also made limited-scale use of another helicopter during the war - the unrelated Focke-Achgelis Fa 223 of 1941 - of which twenty were produced. These were also assigned to TS/40 before the war's end.
Examples of Fl 282 aircraft were captured by both the Americans and Soviets in the Allied advance on Germany where they were rigorously evaluated in the post-war years.