Shore man helped helicopter pioneer


July 14, 1993|By Susan Canfora | Susan Canfora,Salisbury Daily Times

PRINCESS ANNE -- "And this," says Rudy Beitzel, cradling a rudder from an early helicopter, "is my pride and joy."

Made of mahogany and covered with silver paint to make it smooth, the rudder is special to the 75-year-old Princess Anne resident, who was there when aeronautical engineer Igor Sikorsky made history with his design of a helicopter mechanism. The rudder fell off an early helicopter when it crashed during a test flight.

Sikorsky developed the main rotor and transmission for the modern helicopter, which allowed the craft to move in different directions. Before that, helicopters could move only up and down.

"It made his dream," Mr. Beitzel said of Sikorsky. "The whole secret of the thing is to make that propeller work and do what you want it to do."

Helicopters are distinctive because of their range of movement and because they don't need a forward thrust down a runway the way an airplane does, he said.

Mr. Beitzel worked for Chance Vought Sikorsky in eastern Connecticut in the 1930s when Sikorsky, who also worked there, developed the rotor.

"It was all handmade in those days. We worked all the time. The time clock didn't mean anything to us at all," Mr. Beitzel said.

One day Sikorsky asked Mr. Beitzel to go to Sears and buy a "football," by which the Russian-born Sikorsky meant a soccer ball. He attached it to the front of the helicopter to cushion the landing.

"In all your lifetime, you would never meet a nicer gentleman," Mr. Beitzel said of Sikorsky, who died in 1972.

Mr. Beitzel left Chance because he didn't want to work in production. "When I left, the Army had accepted the helicopter. I could have stayed a lot longer, but when they started talking about production, I said, 'You lost me,' " he said.

Mr. Beitzel returned to his native Trenton, N.J., and took a job at Lockheed Aircraft, where his future wife, Norma, was a secretary.

They married in August 1943, and he was an aircraft instructor in the Marine Corps from 1943 to 1946. Later, he was a tool and die maker.

Mr. Beitzel has worked as an aircraft researcher in several states. He and his wife have lived in Princess Anne for six years.

In 1989, 100 years after Sikorsky's birth in Kiev, Ukraine, Mr. Beitzel was invited to the Smithsonian Institution to see an original Sikorsky helicopter as part of a touring exhibit.

His association with Sikorsky left a lasting impression.

"He gave me advice just by his reaction to things. He took everybody personally," Mr. Beitzel said.

Once, Mr. Beitzel was lying on his back under a helicopter, looking at the engine.

"I said, 'What the hell is going on here?'" Mr. Beitzel remembered. "I was on one of those things mechanics lie on, with wheels, and he pulled me out from under the helicopter and said, 'Rudy! Rudy'

"To swear -- he didn't appreciate it at all," Mr. Beitzel said. "He was a gentleman. He worked with the engineers, but he came down all the time to see the workers."

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