A HUNDRED YEARS ago this month, a French bicycle builder named Paul Cornu started the engine on a strange twin-rotor machine, lifted off the ground, and fluttered above the grass in Lisieux, France, for a few moments. Or so the story goes: The event is shrouded in controversy because no photograph or movie of it has ever surfaced. And experts say that Cornu's 24-horsepower machine almost certainly lacked the oomph to hoist itself off the ground. But Cornu's tinkering did contribute to the birth of the modern helicopter.
Today, a century on, the helicopter has evolved far from Cornu's Belle Epoque device, which looked something like a limousine for elves. In a vast array of sizes and roles, helicopters have become an unavoidable part of the American scene - but unlike the car or the airplane, have never become part of most citizens' lives. They remain a piece of technological magic descending from the sky. And thus their ever-changing image in popular culture provides a unique lens on American society - symbolic of the fears and hopes that Americans pin on technology.
Early visions of the helicopter, perhaps not surprisingly, positively oozed optimism. The first functional helicopters made documented flights in 1924. During World War II, earthbound citizens began daydreaming that freedom of the air would be available to just about anyone with a good salary. For sale might be a sort of flying station wagon (complete with balcony and suitable for camping), or perhaps a "housewife helicopter" that would speed daily errands. Such machines would liberate commuters and weekend travelers from crowded and dangerous two-lane highways. A Popular Mechanics magazine cover in 1951 showed a fatherly figure just back from work, rolling a perky little chopper into the garage.
Boston hosted the world's first commuting-copter service: In 1947, the small helicopters of Skyway Corp. hoisted two or three clients at a time from the roof of the Motor Mart Garage in Park Square and dropped them off at Logan Airport three minutes later.
But no inventor ever pulled off the task of making vertical travel cheap and simple enough for the masses. Skyway was pummeled by costs and went out of business in just four months. By early 1950, helicopter businesses had failed by the dozen.
Helicopters themselves, however, were on the verge of their first leading role. It was the military, not civilians, that created the first real job for helicopters - and would forge a lasting image of this new machine as a tool for the power structure.
The Army began using two-seaters for errands and medical evacuation in the South Pacific during World War II, and medical flights made news from the very first weeks in Korea. Beginning in 1950, ever-bigger helicopters waded into battle across Korea, Malaya, Indochina, and Algeria.
Helicopters in those wars lifted whole infantry companies, dropped off commandos, and fired rockets. Vietnam, the first helicopter war, opened the next decade - and the images that came home showed Americans a chilling new vision of turbine-powered predators, dealing death from above and delivering troops to ensnare the enemy. By 1969, helicopters were wading into street fights here at home, quelling civil unrest in California, and sometimes tear-gassing protesters.
The shift in the public image of the helicopter dovetailed with growing citizen mistrust of its government: In 1973 came the first mention of "black helicopters," mysterious government-controlled aircraft with a "whisper mode" that allowed them to hover silently by night in backyards, on snooping and kidnapping missions. Though the full-sized silent helicopter is a myth, such helicopters would become a staple of American conspiracy theorists, to say nothing of movies like "Blue Thunder."
Strangely, throughout all this paranoia, the helicopter never lost its alter-ego image of a trusty workhorse in the right hands. After Vietnam, a surplus of turbine-powered helicopters and thousands of war-seasoned pilots ignited a boom in aerial ambulance work and evacuation. During a fire at the 26-story MGM Grand Hotel in 1980, volunteer pilots improvised a daisy chain of 30 choppers that pulled hundreds from the smoky rooftop and balconies.
High costs and helicopters continue to stick together, however, creating yet another image that refracts what has happened to society: A chariot for what some marketers are calling the "emancipated wealthy," dividing the haves and have-nots with a whap-whap-whap of rotor blades.
Personal helicopters do exist, but even the most affordable cost 10 to 15 times more than cars, and executive models are a great deal more costly than that. A helipad is standard equipment on the latest mega-yachts; in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with its dramatic contrast between wealth and poverty, those who can afford helicopters rely on them to bypass the dangerous and chronically congested streets.
The dream of an affordable heli-taxi from central Boston is long gone, but in New York, executives can summon the company copter to whisk them from a waterfront pad to the Hamptons. Drivers trapped on the Long Island Expressway can look up on Friday evenings and see helicopters taking the aerial overpass. It's a humbling reminder that the early populist dream of the helicopter - flying flivver for the masses - still hovers quite out of reach.
James R. Chiles is the author of "The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter."