Fascinated by Flight: Ancestry of Flying Machines

2 Valhalla helicopter pilots pose in front of their Bell heli

Sometimes, our pilots are accused of being big kids with their cool toys.

Well, yeah! Who wouldn’t be as excited as a child around one of these amazing flying machines?

Modern helicopters, like numerous Bells in the Valhalla fleet, are just giant versions of age-old playthings. Before there were incredible helicopter tours of the Okanagan; before our pilots became essential team members in forestry and firefighting; before we got the opportunity to make your proposals or wine tours or sky-high weddings possible, there were people dreaming of human flight.

We thought it would be fun to take a look back at the evolution of the helicopter, starting with its ancient origins.


maple propeller seed pods on boardwalkThe Propeller Seed

Several species of trees drop a seed pod that has delighted children for millennia. The “whirlybird”, tossed in the air, gains a bit of loft and a lovely, lingering spiral as it falls to the ground (some have been known to ride the wind for more than a mile!). Our Okanagan lawns and beaches are full of maple trees that produce these seeds. Even in today’s modern age, it’s hard to resist giving these natural helicopters a chance for flight each fall.

bamboo propeller helicopter toy

The Bamboo Dragonfly

In China, the Tree of Heaven casts off these unique propeller seeds. Perhaps they were the inspiration for the zhuqingting, or Chinese top. Historians believe that this ancient toy was developed around 400 BCE, and was originally made of feathers and sticks. The simple design evolved into the toy we know today: a single rotary blade, carved out on opposing edges, and attached to a thin dowel, which is spun quickly between the hands before being released into the air. Eventually made from lightweight bamboo (and now thin plastic), examples of the dragonfly have been found all over the world.

Variations of this contraption existed for more than 1400 years as nothing more than a plaything. Updates to function and shape, such as using a leather strap, round blade, or spiral-cut dowel to accelerate velocity (oh, physics! Where would be without you?) have been depicted in ancient art and uncovered on archaeological digs, worldwide. But it took a Renaissance man to really discover the little bamboo dragonfly’s very big potential.

Image credit: Haragayato

Leonardo Davinci drawing of helical airscrewLeonardo DaVinci

Best known for the Mona Lisa, DaVinci possessed one of the greatest minds the world has ever known. His masterpieces and inventions are renowned, and his curiosity and imagination were limitless. The modern helicopter was borne of one of his designs: the helical airscrew. Based on the rotational spin of the humble propeller toy, he designed an incredible flying machine (which was never built). Although the general idea of compressing air and pushing against it for rise is a founding principle in helicopter flight, contemporary engineers agree that, given his specifications and the materials available to him in the 1400s, DaVinci’s airscrew would never have gotten off the ground.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the dreams of a bona fide genius! In the following centuries, several innovators would look again at both the airscrew and the bamboo dragonfly, and spread the seeds of helicopter flight.

Medieval illustration of man with wingsBecoming a Reality

In the 1700s and 1800s, in Russia, France, and England, the concept of rotary wing aviation was studied and refined. Technological advancements and a better understanding of the application of physics inched us ever closer to building real-life versions of these flying machines. These early designs would all come into play in the 1930s, when Igor Sikorsky finally invented the modern helicopter.

Meanwhile, children throughout the ages continued to play with flying gyroscopes, hand-held helicopters, and sophisticated kites, and continued to dream about flying. Just like all of the Valhalla pilots did when they were small.


Nowadays, you’ll find mass-produced plastic dragonflies at any dollar store. They can’t hold a candle to the sleek, detailed Apache models, remote-controlled toy helicopters, or increasingly ubiquitous drones.

But watch what happens when you give one to your favourite little kid. You’ll be amazed to see how high their imaginations can fly.

Let the team at Valhalla help you soar to new heights. Book a heli-tour with us –we’d love to have you come out and play!