Pioneers — Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Pioneers — Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

By Mike Hirschberg, Executive Director
The Vertical Flight Society
From Vertiflite May/June 2019

Commentary May-June 2019 First Annual Dinner Oct 7, 1944The Vertical Flight Society is hosting its 75th Annual Forum & Technology Display on May 13-16 in Philadelphia. 

The Annual Forum has grown from humble beginnings to the largest vertical flight technical event in the world. Forum 1, also held in Philadelphia, was a one-day meeting on Monday, April 23, 1945, and featured 13 speakers. 

Forum 75 will have activities spanning the full week, with a short course on Monday morning, May 13, followed by three-and-a-half days of technical meetings, as well as industry tours on Friday, May 17. It promises to be an extraordinary event, setting a record of nearly 300 technical papers in 42 technical sessions, plus more than 60 invited presentations, a sold-out Technology Display with 75 exhibitors, and special commemorative events and recognitions for the 75th anniversary. Forum 75 will be one to remember. 

This year, the Forum will also host the 75th Annual Grand Awards Banquet, on Wednesday, May 15. Awards will go to 12 individuals and 8 organizations for the world’s most prestigious technical awards in vertical flight. VFS will also award a record $100,000 in Vertical Flight Foundation (VFF) scholarships to 28 of the top VTOL-interested engineering students in the world.


The story of how the American helicopter industry formed the American Helicopter Society — the world’s first association for vertical flight — has been retold many times. (For details, go to

The idea was the genesis of a handful of engineers at Sikorsky in January 1943, shortly after the company received the first American helicopter production contract, which was for the XR-4. The engineers who designed and built the underpowered rotorcraft were rebuffed by their fixed-wing counterparts in the wartime aviation industry who saw little practical value in an aircraft that flew slowly, had limited range and could only carry a small payload. 

That’s when these pioneers saw the need to come together to create the American Helicopter Society to support and advocate for vertical flight. The first organizational meeting was held Feb. 25, 1943, and the Society was incorporated on June 23, 1943.

Two years later, the Society held its first national conference, originally dubbed the first “Annual Philadelphia Helicopter Forum.” This first Annual Forum wasn’t the first time that the Society brought the helicopter industry together, however.

The first national AHS gathering was its First Annual Dinner, held at the Hotel Ambassador in New York, New York, on Oct. 7, 1944. Here, AHS bestowed its first two Honorary Fellowships upon Colonel H. Franklin Gregory, Army Air Corps, and Igor I. Sikorsky. (Separate annual awards banquets were again held at the Hotel Ambassador on Dec. 7, 1945, and Feb. 21, 1947, after which the Awards Banquets were incorporated into the Annual Forum.)

Many pioneers gathered at this First Annual Dinner, which included film presentations by Arthur Young (Bell Aircraft), Igor I. Sikorsky (Sikorsky Aircraft), Captain William J. Kossler (US Coast Guard), W. Laurence LePage (Platt-LePage Aircraft Co.) and the US Army Air Forces. Seated at the head table were Igor Sikorsky, Les Morris (Sikorsky Flight Engineering and then-President of AHS), Ralph Alex (Sikorsky Project Engineering and first AHS President) and Colonel Gregory. Other attendees represented the breadth of rotary-wing pioneers of the day from industry, academia and government, including Cierva Autogiro Co., Kellet Autogiro and many members of the US military. 

A Proud Legacy
Commentary May June 2019- First TVF Workshop August 2014For more than 75 years the Vertical Flight Society has been leading efforts to advance vertical flight. We strive every day to be as much of a force for progress and innovation today as we have been for more than three-quarters of a century. Forum 75 will highlight the tremendous progress in vertical flight, both recent advances and our impressive legacy.

Past Vertiflite Commentaries have highlighted the key role that the Society has played over the years on important issues. A few examples since Forum 50 in 1994 include successfully advocating for: 

  • The V-22 Osprey and civil tiltrotor (before 1994-present)
  • The National Rotorcraft Technology Center (NRTC) and the Rotorcraft Industry Technology Association (RITA), the predecessor of today's Vertical Lift Consortium (1994)
  • The Joint Strike Fighter/F-35 program (1995-2002)
  • Reforms to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Annex 14 standards for heliports (1997-present)
  • Restoring funding for NASA rotorcraft programs after they had been terminated (2002)
  • Transfer of the closed National Full Scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC) from NASA to the Department of Defense (2003-2004)
  • Creation of and support to the International Helicopter Safety Foundation (IHSF) with the goal of eliminating helicopter accidents (2005-present)
  • Instigation of and support to the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program (2008-present)
  • Establishment of and support to the Vertical Lift Consortium (2010-present)

More recently, VFS initiated the Transformative Vertical Flight Workshops (now the Annual Electric VTOL Symposiums) and their working groups (managed by the NASA Aeronautics Research Institute, NARI). The pioneers who attended the first meeting in August 2014 believed electric propulsion had a future, but the majority of the helicopter industry and the wider community were skeptical and had serious doubts. In fact, many in the aviation community were openly dismissive … not unlike when the first helicopters were developed in the 1940s. 

The Society today is playing the same role as when the XR-4 entered production in 1943 — advocating for a disruptive technology that is in its infancy but has the potential to transform society. Advancements in electric propulsion technology are giving rise to “The Electric VTOL Revolution,” where the advent of electric and hybrid-electric power promises a transformative effect on vertical flight and, potentially, on society at large. 

A Record for the Ages

Years before there were any other helicopter associations, the Society was established by the helicopter industry pioneers to solve common problems and lift the whole industry by engaging engineers and leaders in industry, academia and government.

The long legacy of the American Helicopter Society / AHS International / The Vertical Flight Society is documented in our new book by the Society’s former Executive Director, Rhett Flater, and Deputy Director, Kim Smith. “Advancing Vertical Flight — The History of the Vertical Flight Society: From Rotary-Wing Pioneers to the Future of Vertical Flight” recounts the origins and history of the Society, and the impressive progress it has supported for more than 75 years. 

It’s a legacy we can all be proud of.

What do you think? Let us know!

Posted: 2019-05-01