Turbine Age

In 1951, at the urging of his contacts at the Department of the Navy, Charles H. Kaman modified his K-225 helicopter with a new kind of engine, the turbo-shaft engine. This adaptation of the turbine engine provided a large amount of horsepower to the helicopter with a lower weight penalty than piston engines, heavy engine blocks, and auxiliary components. On December 11, 1951, the K-225 became the first turbine-powered helicopter in the world. Two years later, on March 26, 1954, a modified Navy HTK‑1, another Kaman helicopter, became the first twin-turbine helicopter to fly. However, it was the Sud Aviation Alouette II that would become the first helicopter to be produced with a turbine engine.

Reliable helicopters capable of stable hover flight were developed decades after fixed-wing aircraft. This is largely due to higher engine power density requirements than fixedwing aircraft. Improvements in fuels and engines during the first half of the 20th century were a critical factor in helicopter development. The availability of lightweight turbo-shaft engines in the second half of the 20th century led to the development of larger, faster, and higher-performance helicopters. The turbine engine has the following advantages over a reciprocating engine: less vibration, increased aircraft performance, reliability, and ease of operation. While smaller and less expensive helicopters still use piston engines, turboshaft engines are the preferred powerplant for helicopters today.

The turbine engine has the following advantages over a reciprocating engine:

  • Less vibration
  • Increased aircraft performance
  • Reliability
  • Ease of operation


Due to the unique operating characteristics of the helicopter—its ability to take off and land vertically, to hover for extended periods of time, and the aircraft’s handling properties under low airspeed conditions—it has been chosen to conduct tasks that were previously not possible with other aircraft or were too time- or work-intensive to accomplish on the ground. Today, helicopters are used for transportation, construction, firefighting, search and rescue, and a variety of other jobs that require its special capabilities. [Figure]

Helicopter uses
The many uses for a helicopter include search and rescue (top), firefighting (middle), and construction (bottom)