A Piece of the Rotary Action
The late 1940s and early 1950s are best known in the context of aviation as the dawn of the jet age. However, in the shadow of jets, the age of the helicopter had also arrived in the same period.
The Korean War had been a proving ground for the jet as a viable combat platform and the helicopter as a valuable transport and utility resource. By the end of hostilities, both technologies had been proven and had come to stay.
Dominant names in the early days of helicopter production included Sikorsky from America, Bristol from Great Britain and Mil of the Soviet Union. There were however some smaller players fielding helicopter designs in the period; among them was the Czechoslovak firm, Aero.
Aero would be involved in the first, and thus far only, Czech domestically designed and produced helicopter: the Heli Baby.
A Complicated Birth
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a tremendous amount of reorganization and nationalization that touched every company in the former Czechoslovakia. The Communist government, which took over the nation in 1948, went further to dictate exactly what certain companies could and could not produce.
Aero, a longstanding player in the country’s aviation sector, remained safe in aircraft production. However, the Praga company lost their aviation division and found themselves limited to truck production. This represents the first complication in the Heli Baby story; Jaroslav Šlechta, who designed the aircraft, was working for Praga at the time the company lost their aircraft division and had designed it while still employed by them. Praga’s aircraft operations ended up in Aero’s hands along with Šlechta and the Heli Baby design by the end of the 1940s.
The Aero name was firmly on the Heli Baby when construction of the prototype took place in 1951. The prototype’s much delayed first teathered flight took place in early 1954; by that time, Aero’s design department was being overseen by the Aeronautical Reaserch and Test Institute (VZLÚ). As a result of this organizational structure, some references give VZLÚ credit for the Heli Baby design.
By the time testing was finished and production approved in 1956, a further layer of confusion was added to the Heli Baby story when VZLÚ placed the responsibility for production of the new aircraft in the hands of Moravian Otrokovice. This company was an ancestral form of today’s Zlín Aircraft company; this is why many references attach the Zlín name to the Heli Baby.
A Difficult Child
Designations for the Heli Baby changed almost as often as those overseeing development of it did. Šlechta’s original design was designated XE-II; through testing and early production it was known as the HC-2 or VR-2 and by 1959, a reworked and improved version had been announced under the designation HC-102.
By the time the Heli Baby prototype made it’s first free flight in late 1954, it was lagging behind the designs of other manufacturers significantly. When production began in 1958, there were high expectations of the machine from both the civil sector and military and both side would be left dissapointed by the initial production version.
Known as the HC-2, the first production variant of the Heli Baby was left decidedly underpowered by it’s 82 horsepower Praga DH four cylinder engine. The Czechoslovak army was unimpressed and unwilling to accept the machine into service in that state and proceded to order Soviet designed Mil Mi-1 and Mi-4 helicopters.
1961 saw the first flight of the reworked HC-102 variant. The new Heli Baby version had been fitted with a four cylinder Avia M-110 engine of 117 horsepower. This increase of power was enough for the army to equip a single unit with the type for utility and training roles in the early 1960s. In army service, the aircraft was designated VR-2.
The aircraft was used by the army only very briefly for training and communications work before they handed their fleet over to Svazarm, an organization encouraging cooperation between civilians and the military in Czechoslovakia. Svazarm used the Heli Baby for flight training from 1963 to 1978.
The last Heli Baby was struck from the Czechoslovak civil register before the 1970s were out. The type was never exported. A total of 21 HC-102 aircraft were produced, including 15 HC-2 aircraft converted to HC-102 standard.
A Few Bright Spots
Despite the fact that the Heli Baby’s prolonged and delayed development had seen it well surpassed by more matured helicopter designs by the time it was fit for service, the type did have some accomplishments to it’s credit.
In September of 1958, an HC-2 was flown from Prague to Brussels for the World’s Fair in a time of less than ten hours.
In 1959, the Heli Baby set two world speed records for helicopters of it’s class over closed circuit courses.
In the civil sector, the aircraft found use in the film industries of Czechoslovakia and East Germany through the late 1950s to the late 1960s.
The Heli Baby was commemorated on a postal stamp issued by Czech Post in 2013.
The Heli Baby Today
Today, there are five or six Heli Baby aircraft on display in museums across the Czech Republic and Slovakia, so there is the opportunity to see this obscure type if you visit these countries.
Not surprisingly, there are no airworthy examples of the Heli Baby surviving and that is likely to remain the case given both it’s rarity and obscurity.