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Saluting Rare Old Birds

January 30, 2012  By Peter Pigott

What and where is the oldest helicopter in Canada? It’s an intriguing question, one I have always wanted to answer.

What and where is the oldest helicopter in Canada? It’s an intriguing question, one I have always wanted to answer.

Developed in 1942, the Sikorsky R-4B was the first American helicopter to be put into production – and it has a distinct Canadian connection. A R-4B is in storage at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum (CASM) in Ottawa, and Dr. Rénald Fortier, the museum’s curator, knows something of its background.

In short, the career of the museum’s R-4B is virtually unknown, Fortier says. The museum acquired it without an engine in 1983, from the Planes of Fame Air Museum in California. Was it the first helicopter in this country? No. “The first helicopter in Canada appears to be the one designed and built by the Froebe brothers,” Fortier says. Before Sikorsky, three Manitoba brothers, Douglas, Nicholas and Theodore Froebe, invented and built a helicopter, conducting flights with it throughout 1937-39. Now it is on display at the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg.

Another early helicopter of Canadian design worth noting is the Intercity SG-VI or Grey Gull. “This rare bird is with the Reynolds-Alberta Museum,” Fortier says. “And here lies a tale.” Bernard W. “Snitz” Sznycer (1904-1970), an American engineer of Polish origin, designed the SG-VI/Grey Gull with the help of fellow engineer Selma G. Gottlieb. Not only was a female aeronautical engineer in the early postwar years a rarity, but Gottlieb was more than likely the only one working on helicopters.


Sznycer had worked with Harold Pitcairn and Agnew Larsen, who built the ingenious “Roadable Autogiro” and preliminary design of the SG-VI had begun in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1943. The original team broke up, however, following some bitter infighting and Sznycer and Gottlieb moved to New York. By 1945, they had offered to sell a set of SG-VI plans to the Soviets and became involved with a group interested in producing helicopters in Mexico. The two projects went nowhere – until Montreal’s Intercity Airlines stepped in.

“Founded in 1943,” Fortier says, “its head, J. Ernest Savard, was a well-known stockbroker and professional sport enthusiast (baseball, hockey) who owned a major intercity bus company. By the middle of the 1944, Intercity Airlines was looking into the possibility of linking by air 35 or so important cities and towns in Quebec, from Boucherville to Victoriaville, not to mention Sherbrooke, my hometown, using the only vehicle it thought capable of making these short haul flights – the helicopter.”

Sznycer and Intercity Airlines signed a contract in August 1945 to guide the detailed design, testing and certification of a version of the SG-VI. It was decided that the Canadian SG-VIs would be built and marketed by a company created for that very purpose, Canadian Helicopter (CHC).

As this incarnation of CHC sank into oblivion, Montreal-based Engineering Products of Canada (EPC), a B.F. Goodrich subsidiary with no helicopter/aviation experience, agreed to assemble the prototype using U.S. and Canadian components. Sadly, the prototype may have been built without any competent inspection, in part because the company fired some of the aviation industry workers recommended by Sznycer.

Concerned by the structural integrity of the SG-VI, Sznycer convinced the management of Intercity Airlines of the necessity of making a second prototype. Christened the Grey Gull, this two- or three-seat helicopter flew in an untethered flight in July 1947, proving both remarkably easy to handle and vibration free.

But soon the project was in turmoil. Management fired trained staff, only to rehire many of them, seemingly without reason. Disgusted, numerous people quit and investor morale dropped. All the while, the managers and Sznycer – a brilliant if opinionated individual – blamed each other for the mess. But the Grey Gull received a Canadian certification in March 1951, following gruelling tests in dreadful winter weather.

“If truth be told,” Fortier says, “Sznycer’s design was the first helicopter to be certified within the Commonwealth. Sadly, neither commercial operators nor the military showed much interest. By then, of course, they were operating U.S. machines such as the Sikorsky S-51 or the Bell Model 47 – two helicopters represented in the CASM collection. Understandably enough, Intercity Airlines’ financial backing soon fell apart.

“At some point,” Fortier says, “in the 1950s or 1960s presumably, the Grey Gull ended up in New York where it was stored and forgotten.” Today Sznycer/Gottleib’s helicopter is part of the aviation collection at the Reynolds Alberta Museum, Wetaskiwin, Alta.

Peter Pigott is a veteran aviation journalist living in Ottawa.


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