The Vault

The Confederate Helicopter That Never Got Off the Ground

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During the Civil War, advances in technology rendered the conflict bloody and lopsided, as the industrial North churned out weapons, canned food, and uniforms for its far-flung armies and used its superior railroad network to resupply them.

Given this situation, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Confederate inventors scrambled to come up with new ideas to tip the balance. One such idea was the CSS Hunley, the first submarine ever to successfully engage in combat. This helicopter, a model of which is held at the National Air and Space Museum, was another.


Living in Mobile, Ala., engineer William C. Powers saw the effects of the Union blockade of Confederate ports firsthand. Understanding that Confederate naval power wasn’t equal to the task of breaking the Union line, Powers set about inventing a flying machine that could bomb the blockading ships.


Powers’ design used a steam engine for power, and Archimedean screws (four in total, two vertical and two horizontal) for lift and thrust. The design also had a rudder in the rear, meant to allow the operator to steer the helicopter like a boat.

The design had multiple defects. J.G. Leishman, a professor of aerospace engineering, writes that all helicopter models built before the early 20th century suffered from a lack of theoretical understanding of aerodynamics, the unavailability of light and powerful engines and building materials for the machine’s body, and a host of other technical problems. “The history of flight documents literally hundreds of failed helicopter inventions,” Leishman writes. “More often than not, the machine just vibrated itself to pieces.”


Powers’ helicopter was never built. Tom Paone of the National Air and Space Museum writes that Powers may have been afraid that a successful helicopter might fall into Yankee hands and be put into mass production in Northern factories, only to return in swarms to wreak havoc on Confederate forces.

Read more about the design, and see some of Powers’ plans, in Tom Paone’s post on the blog of the National Air and Space Museum.

Civil War Helicopter

Three-quarter view of William C. Powers’ model. National Air and Space Museum (NASM A-34342-A), Smithsonian Institution.