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World War II German Helicopters – Focke-Achgelis Fa 223 and Fa 330 at War

Part 2

After Focke’s Fa 61 experimental helicopter (described in Part 1) proved stable in flight and reliable in service, in 1938, Lufthansa, the German airline, ordered a six-passenger version to whisk VIP passengers between city-center heliports. One prototype of the Fa 266 Hornisse (“Hornet”) was built and flown before the outbreak of war (September 1939) halted commercial aircraft development. Military aircraft development continued, however, as did the work on what would become one of the most capable Nazi helicopters that flew during World War II.

A Focke Achgelis FA 223 considered to be the largest and most efficient helicopter of the 1940s, it was based on the principle of the Fw 61. Eleven units were manufactured, which distinguished themselves especially by their quality as a transport and resupply helicopter. EADS Heritage photo A Focke Achgelis FA 223 A Fa 223 considered to be the largest and most efficient helicopter of the 1940s, it was based on the principle of the Fw 61. Eleven units were manufactured, which distinguished themselves especially by their quality as a transport and resupply helicopter. EADS Heritage photo

A Focke Achgelis FA 223 considered to be the largest and most efficient helicopter of the 1940s, it was based on the principle of the Fw 61. Eleven units were manufactured, which distinguished themselves especially by their quality as a transport and resupply helicopter. EADS Heritage photo

Impressed by the Hornisse’s performance, the air ministry ordered a militarized version: Fa 223 Drache (Dragon).

 

Fa 223 Drache

Like the Fa 61, the Drache had twin three-bladed rotors on outriggers, but it was a much bigger and more capable machine. At the front of the aircraft was an extensively glazed compartment for the pilot and observer, just ahead of a cargo/personnel compartment whose rear wall comprised the grille for the engine. A self-sealing fuel tank hung from netting just in front of the grille. The engine itself was suspended by steel hawsers in the central compartment, with annular air vents running completely around the compartment at front and rear to draw in cooling air. Behind it was the mostly empty tail compartment. Powered by the centrally mounted engine, the rotors rotated in opposite directions.  In the event of engine failure, the gearbox disengaged, allowing the blades to “auto-rotate” for a (hopefully) safe landing.

Flight tests beginning in August 1940 revealed severe vibration and poor low speed controllability, as well as other lesser problems, which were to be expected in such an advanced aircraft. These took almost two years to correct. The Luftwaffe planned to build up to 400 per month in five versions:

  • Fa 223A – anti-submarine (two depth charges)
  • Fa 223B – reconnaissance (long-range drop tank)
  • Fa 223C – search and rescue (winch and cable reel)
  • Fa 223D – cargo carrier (up to 2,000 pounds)
  • Fa 223E – trainer (dual controls)

A few carried a nose-mounted MG 15 machine gun. Allied bombing so disrupted production that only 37 were built and only 11 ever flown. Those 11 machines, however, demonstrated well the capabilities of the Fa 223. A detachment operating in the mountains of Austria successfully demonstrated the ability to move artillery batteries as underslung loads to distant, formerly inaccessible mountaintops, as well as lifting downed aircraft, including another Drache, out of crash sites. A Drache was Otto Skorzeny’s first choice for the mission to rescue Mussolini from a mountain-top hotel in September 1943, but unfortunately the machine broke down, and a Fieseler Fi 156 Storch aircraft was used instead (with barely enough power to lift the chubby dictator and Skorzeny after plunging off the precipice of the Gran Sasso).

A view of the cockpit of a Fa 223 Drache. EADS Heritage photo

A view of the cockpit of a Fa 223 Drache. EADS Heritage photo

Focke sketched a twin-engine model (Fa 284) with greater lift, and even a quad-rotor made by joining two Drache together: these were never completed. Against all odds, a final Drache was completed in February 1945, and was almost immediately dispatched on a special mission, the details of which remain murky to this day, to Gdansk, then known as Danzig, on the express orders of Adolf Hitler.

Flown by Leutnant Helmut Gerstenhauer, possibly the Luftwaffe’s premier helicopter pilot, the Fa 223 took off from Tempelhof airport on Feb. 26, 1945. Two other pilots also accompanied Gerstenhauer. Plagued by bad winter weather, lack of fuel, and the need to skirt enemy-occupied territory, Gerstenhauer and his colleagues found Gdansk was falling when they finally arrived, having flown the perilous last leg of the journey directly over the Russians’ heads. Upon reporting the situation, they were ordered to return. They arrived back at their starting point on March 11, 1945, after an aerial odyssey covering more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles), and logging 16 hours, 25 minutes of flight time.

At least three Drache survived the war. One was shipped to the United States aboard an aircraft carrier. Another was flown by Gerstenhauer, with two British observers, from Germany to Cherbourg, France, and finally to England, which made it the first helicopter in history to cross the English Channel. Some Fa 223s were built in the late 1940s in France and Czechoslovakia from captured parts.

 

Fa 223 Drache Specifications

  • Crew: 2 (plus up to 4 passengers)
  • Length: 12.25 m (40 ft 2 in)
  • Span: 24.50 m (80 ft 5 in) (span over rotors)
  • Height: 4.36 m (14 ft 4 in)
  • Empty weight: 3,180 kg (7,011 lb)
  • Gross weight: 3,860 kg (8,510 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 4,315 kg (9,513 lb)
  • Fuel capacity: 490 liters (108 Imp Gal) internal + 300 L (66 Imp gal) external tank
  • Powerplant: 1 × BMW Bramo 323D-2 nine-cylinder radial, 750 kW (1,000 hp)
  • Maximum speed: 186 km/h (116 mph; 95 kn) at 2,000 m (6,600 ft)
  • Cruising speed: 134 km/h (83 mph; 72 kn) at 2,000 m (6,600 ft)
  • Range: 437 km (272 mi; 236 nmi) (internal fuel)
  • Ferry range: 700 km (435 mi; 378 nmi)
  • Endurance: 2 hr 20 min
  • Service ceiling: 4,875 m (15,994 ft)

 

Fa 330 Bachstelze

The strangest Focke-Achgelis design might have been the ultra-light collapsible “rotor-kite” towed by U-boats. About 200 Fa 330 Bachstelze (“Water Wagtail” aircraft – sometimes translated as “Sandpiper”) were built. The Fa 330 was a gyrocopter, with a rotor spinning freely in autorotation, and forward thrust coming courtesy of a U-boat to which it was attached by a cable.

To find prey or avoid pursuers, submarines must detect them, but the horizon for a surfaced U-boat was only about 8 kilometers (5 miles) distant.  By lifting an observer to 100 meters (328 feet), the horizon could be extended to 35 kilometers (22 miles) under ideal visibility. More than 100 were built.

Stowed in watertight canisters, Fa 330s could be assembled by four men in three minutes. Spinning the blades fast enough for liftoff required a 15-knot wind. A 300 meter (984 foot) steel tether carried a telephone cable (with no engine noise, the pilot-observer was easily heard). Pilots trained in Europe’s largest wind tunnel, at Chalais-Meudon, France.

Fa 330 gyrocopter

Fa 330 bachstelze as exhibited at Royal Air Force Cosford, UK in 2007. Photo by Yachtman

If the U-boat had to crash dive, the pilot pulled a lever to release the tow cable, detach the rotor and deploy a parachute. For normal recovery, the aircraft was winched down to the deck, dismantled and stowed in about 20 minutes.

Development was completed by August 1942. In April 1943, one deployed to the Indian Ocean aboard U-177, a long-range Type IX U-boat.  Little is known about the Fa 330’s operational history; many U-boats that carried them were lost.

Focke sketched designs for an Fa 330 with lightweight engine; this was never built.

Surviving Fa 330 are displayed at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

 

Fa 330 Bachstelze Specifications

  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 4.30 m (14.10 ft )
  • Empty weight: 70 kg (154 lb)
  • Main rotor diameter: 7.31 m (23.97 ft)
  • Main rotor area: 42 m2 (450 sq ft)
  • Maximum altitude:  220m (722 ft.)
  • Maximum speed: 40 km/h (25 mph; 22 knots) on tow
  • Minimum control speed: 27 km/h (17 mph; 15 knots) on tow
    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-162876">

    Supposedly Col Werner Baumbach flew a Drache into Breslau to rescue Gauleiter Karl Hanke after he’d been appointed the new Reichsfuhrer SS and then flown to Ruzyne airport outside Prague.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-163246">

    I’d like to learn more about that. I don’t think a fixed-wing pilot making the transition to rotary-wing at the time would have had an easy time of it, and I don’t know when Baumbach would have had the time for transition training. From what I’ve found, the Drache was not an easy aircraft to fly by any means. But Baumbach, though a committed Nazi, was a remarkable man, and he certainly flew a number of different types of aircraft, so I wouldn’t write off the possibility. I think the German helos are a fascinating subject. Many don’t even know they existed or how advanced they were for the time. Records were spotty at best, as is the case with so many advanced German aircraft developed toward war’s end, so their operations to some extent remain shrouded in mystery.