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Manitoba town honours flight of first Canadian helicopter

As part of Homewood’s 100-year celebrations, the small Manitoba town paid tribute to the first flight of a Canadian helicopter, developed by the Froebe brothers Douglas, Theodore and Nicholas, which took place in 1937.{gallery}7723{/gallery}


August 30, 2018
By Bill Zuk



Homewood owes its existence at the turn of the 20th Century to the coming of the railroad and its accompanying grain elevators. Like many settlements that dotted the prairie landscape, Homewood eventually became a complex of stores, churches and schools. The first Homewood School was built in 1908, burned down in 1924 and was replaced by a new school that continued in use until 1961. Homewood never really grew much larger than a hamlet as the larger town of Carman dominated the area.
 
On July 17, 2018, Homewood residents held a reunion, which brought together more than 300 former residents. Reunion chair and emcee Charlie Froebe was amazed at the turnout because the tiny community never amounted to more than 50 people. The highlight of the reunion was the dedication of a cairn commemorating the history of the Homewood School, now only a memory to most of the visitors. The Froebe name is legendary in Homewood, and revolves around Charlie’s uncles, Douglas and Theodore and his father, Nicholas.
 
The Froebe brothers in the 1930s were the typical backyard mechanics who tinkered with machinery of all kinds, including souping up jalopies and crafting homebuilt aircraft, even teaching themselves to fly. The brothers soon turned their energies to solving the problems of building a helicopter.

Throughout a protracted period of experimentation that began in 1937, the Froebes put together a sturdy twin-rotor contra-rotating machine, powered by a used 4-cylinder air-cooled, front-mounted de Havilland Gipsy engine. The open tube frame and rotors built from aircraft chrome molybdenum steel purchased at the MacDonald Brothers in Winnipeg also had a bevy of handcrafted or adapted parts salvaged from automotive or farm machinery.
 
Doug Froebe was the primary test pilot during a series of test flights undertaken in 1937 to 1939, recording Canada’s first controlled, manned vertical flights. His notebooks, logbook and letters (now preserved at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada) provide a vivid picture of the pioneering flights.
 
“During the first attempt to fly, the tail came off the ground about three feet. I hauled the stick clear back and the front wheels came off one at a time… when I’d shut the throttle down, it would just take its time coming down – didn’t stall – just float down like a feather,” wrote Doug Froebe
 
Although the helicopter suffered from severe torsional vibration and overheating, it easily transitioned into vertical and hovering flight, and while only flights of short duration were attempted, a total of four hours and five minutes was logged before the test flights ended on March 2, 1939. After an effort to sell their design to the U.S. Navy during the Second World War failed to gain a contract, the Froebe Helicopter was stored at the family farm. Later, the family donated the helicopter to the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada (formerly the Western Canada Aviation Museum) where it resides today.
 
With the assistance of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, Manitoba Chapter president Jim Bell worked with CAHS member Gerry Suski, who was a Froebe family friend, the pedigree of the Froebe Helicopter as Canada’s first helicopter was determined. Further support from the community led to a cairn that identifies Homewood as the site of the Froebe Brothers’ Helicopter, the first to fly in Canada.
 
The Homewood Reunion was marked by speeches from RM of Dufferin Reeve George Gray, MLA Blaine Pedersen and CAHS representative Jim Bell, as well as a greeting from the crew of the Stars Helicopter that made a special trip to Homewood, landing near where the Froebe Helicopter had made its proving flights in the 1930s. The assembled guests had a great time with a variety of activities at Homewood, culminating with a sold-out dinner at the Carman Community Hall.


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