Vertical Challenge: The Hiller Aircraft Story focused on a helicopter industry pioneer, the most innovative of the four companies that achieved volume helicopter production during the 1940’s, it was the only one located outside the eastern U.S., in northern California. Not only did Hiller Aircraft build the longest-produced piston-engine helicopter; it was also the source of many innovative alternatives to conventional helicopters -- flying platforms, ramjet helicopters, and cargo-carrying VTOL (vertical-takeoff-and-landing) planes.
Jay P. Spenser provides a highly readable combination of corporate history, technical history, and biography, tracing Hiller Aircraft through war and peace, depression and economic expansion, and final corporate closure. The company’s founder and director, Stanley Hiller, Jr., was only nineteen years old when he made history with his XH-44, the first successful helicopter to use all-metal rigid rotor blades. Hiller’s design skills and his stamina as a test pilot were considerable, and his corporate vision was pivotal in shaping the character and direction of his company. He attracted a remarkable team of engineers, test pilots, and business associates, creating a company noted for the boldness of its design concepts. Hiller Aircraft’s legacy of new technologies remains out of all proportion to the company’s relatively small size.
The highly competitive nature of helicopter development is vividly portrayed. Hiller’s brief World War II association with Henry J. Kaiser is detailed, as is the company’s stand-alone course after 1945, during a time when the future of helicopter technology, in contrast to that of fixed-wing aircraft, was still uncertain. The civilian helicopter market had scarcely emerged and military procurement programs were never guaranteed, thereby forcing all competitors in the U.S. market to ride a financial roller coaster. Hiller Aircraft’s loss of the military contract for the LOH (Light Observation Helicopter) was a crucial factor in the corporation’s untimely demise in 1968, with Howard Hughes playing a singularly dramatic adversary role.
Spenser accurately describes Hiller Aircraft’s intriguing ducted fan research, and its development of helicopters like the UH-1 Commuter (addressing the dream of "an aircraft in every garage"), the classic Hiller 360 (known in its military role as the H-23A, an air ambulance in the Korean War), and the Rotorcycle. He also notes some of Hiller’s more visionary concepts, such as the "flying submarine" and tip-powered flying cranes that were never built although the company devoted years of research to their development. All are presented in a context that integrates elements of economic, social, and military history, providing a working sense of how a test program evolves.
Appendixes include specifications and performance of Hiller aircraft serial and bureau numbers, and museums displaying Hiller aircraft. Copiously illustrated, the book includes over eighty photographs of as well as schematic drawings of Hiller aircraft.