Homewood, Man., honours flight of first Canadian helicopter

On July 17, 2018, residents of Homewood, Man., honoured the community’s past with a reunion to celebrate the flight of the first helicopter built in Canada–the Froebe helicopter–which took place 80 years ago.

With support from the community, a cairn was presented at the reunion that identifies Homewood as the site of the Froebe Brothers’ helicopter, the first to fly in Canada. Bill Zuk Photo
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With over 300 former Homewood residents in attendance of the celebration, reunion chair and emcee Charlie Froebe was amazed at the turnout because the tiny community never amounted to more than 50 people.

The Froebe helicopter was the first Canadian-made rotary-wing aircraft, and was built by the three Froebe brothers–Douglas, Theodore (Charlie’s uncles) and Nicholas (Charlie’s father). The Froebe name is legendary in Homewood.

With the assistance of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS), Manitoba Chapter president Jim Bell worked with CAHS member Gerry Suski (who was a Froebe family friend), to determine the pedigree of the Froebe helicopter as Canada’s first helicopter.

Doug Froebe in the pilot seat during a run-up test of the original Froebe helicopter during the fall of 1938. Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada Photo

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 Bell, as well as a greeting from the crew of STARS Air Ambulance, who flew a helicopter on a special trip to Homewood, landing near where the Froebe helicopter had made its proving flights in the 1930s.

In the 1930s, the Froebe brothers were the typical backyard mechanics who tinkered with machinery of all kinds, including souping up jalopies and crafting homebuilt aircraft, and 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.

Pictured is the Froebe helicopter on recent public display. Today, the helicopter resides in the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada. Bill Zuk Photo

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 1937-39, 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.

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“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,” said Doug. “When I’d shut the throttle down, it would just take its time coming down – didn’t stall – just float down like a feather.”

Homewood Reunion Committee members Frank Froebe (left), Gerry Suski and Charlie Froebe (right), along with CAHS Manitoba president Jim Bell stand with crewmembers from STARS Air Ambulance. Bill Zuk Photo

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.

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