Admit it. When you hear a helicopter fly overhead, you look up.
Perhaps the police are searching for someone. Maybe it’s a military copter from Base Borden or the powerful Leonardo AW139 of the Ornge fleet leaving Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre.
Although not a new conveyance, there is still a bit of novelty attached to the sighting of a helicopter in the sky.
Imagine the excitement on April 28, 1949, when this brand-new type of aircraft descended from the sky and landed in the centre of downtown Barrie.
“First helicopter ever to land in Barrie did so last evening on the CNR station lawn. The strange craft came in from the north, circled the town and landed at the airport in search of gasoline. Finding no one at the port, the helicopter pilot phoned in and found he could land on the narrow strip of lawn in front of the station. Gas was supplied by W.R. Delaney whose boat service is close by.”
Brothers Herb and Eddie Robinson, of Syracuse, N.Y., owners of the craft, had been returning from experimental work in northern Ontario when they realized that more fuel would be required to safely get to Toronto. Their appearance in Barrie caused quite a stir as the Barrie Examiner reported.
“Ed Robinson watched the helicopter as his brother went for gas. Quite a crowd soon gathered after the landing. It hovered over the station lawn a moment and then settled straight down. The wide rotors swirling around form quite a hazard and the pilot had to be sure no eager spectator was on the lawn before he let the wheels gently down.”
In 1949, private helicopter companies like the one owned by the American Robinson brothers did not yet exist in Canada. All helicopters in this country were in service with the Navy or RCAF during this period.
In fact, this mode of transportation was very new. Much like the Beta-versus-VHS war for videotape supremacy in the 1980s, the battle for rotorcraft technology was waged between the autogiro and the helicopter during the 1920s and 1930s.
Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva pioneered the propeller driven autogiro with its unpowered rotor blades. His successes and failures paved the way for helicopter designers to fine tune their inventions.
Out of the pack that included Arthur Young, Heinrich Foch and Wynn LePage, inventor Igor Sikorsky pulled ahead and became the first to mass produce helicopters.
When the Second World War ended in 1945, Sikorsky had manufactured some 400 of these flying machines.
Edward ‘Eddie’ Smiley Robinson, who had dropped in announced on the good people of Barrie, had served with the U.S. Naval Air Service until 1946. After that, he started his own business and became the first commercial helicopter pilot in the U.S.
Robinson’s craft, christened ‘Bugbeater,' was used mainly for the spraying of crops, as the name suggests, but quickly received many requests for a wide variety of assignments. It was becoming apparent that the helicopter was going to be a very useful piece of machinery.
There are likely folks still living in Barrie today who recall the day Bugbeater made an appearance in the heart of the town.
“He took a run forward of several yards and then swerved sharply to the left over the bay and then gained altitude gradually while speeding across the water. The helicopter disappeared on the horizon towards Toronto.”
Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.