A helicopter simulator with a difference: it flies – Canada’s Jacobs Jaycopter

A Jacobs Jaycopter at rest, Edmonton, Alberta. Lyn Harrington, “Cutting helicopter training cost.” Canadian Aviation, February 1961, 20.

If it is okay with you, yours truly would like to start this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee with a question. Do you like flight simulators, or video games inspired by this type of technology?

If so, please read the following. If not, please read the following anyway. Please note that this article had its origins in a photograph that yours truly found in the February 1961 issue of the monthly magazine Canadian Aviation, a go-to source for anyone interested in the history of aviation in Canada or, more exactly, in English Canada.

One of the few Canadian aeronautical arcade games hit the market around 1968. Produced by Jaycopters Recreation Limited of Edmonton, Alberta, a subsidiary of Jacobs Welding and Engineering Limited of Edmonton founded around 1963, Animated Helicopter had as its goal to land a miniature helicopter on 3 different sites. This arcade game, apparently also known as Mini-Copter, was one of the few to use a miniature helicopter, attached to a central base, in the center of a transparent plastic bubble, through a flexible arm. The Alberta firm, which may, I repeat may, have become Jaycopter Corporation Limited around December 1966, manufactured about 250 of these.

Animated Helicopters could (can?) be found in a number of airports in Western Canada, and possibly elsewhere. One only needs to mention airports which serviced towns and cities in Alberta (Edmonton and Fort McMurray), British Columbia (Fort St. John and Nanaimo) and Yukon (Whitehorse), and…

Did you not know that a few other arcade game makers used the extraordinary flying machine that was / is the helicopter when developing such games? Ahh, interesting. I expected a little more expertise from an aviation enthusiast like you. If I may paraphrase, out of context, the odious editor-in-chief of The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly, I am very disappointed. This being said (typed?), let me enlighten you – whether you like it or not.

The American firm Midway Manufacturing Company produced arcade games which touched upon both the military and civilian fields, and this between 1958 and 1969. Let us mention for example Dog Fight and Stunt Pilot, launched in 1968 and 1971. The firm also produced 2 games arcade which used a miniature helicopter. Whirly Bird and Chopper, much more sophisticated, hit the market in 1969 and 1974. The sales pamphlet of Whirly Bird was / is heartbreakingly sexist.

Some American firms seemed to produce only one aeronautical arcade game. Let us mention Helicopter Trainer from Amusement Engineering Company, another of the few arcade games to use a miniature helicopter. Helicopter Trainer hit the market in 1968. Midway Manufacturing produced this game designed by Lieutenant-Colonel Richard F. Brown, a United States Air Force officer who was in South Vietnam at the time.

A few Japanese firms made their entry into the arcade game world no later than the 1960s. Kabushiki Kaisha Sega Gēmusu, for example, launched a few aeronautical products: Hericoputā / Helicopter (1968), Jet Rocket (1970), Daibu Bonbā / Dive Bomber (1971) and Ea Attaku / Air Attack (1972). Hericoputā, you guessed it, was / is one of the few arcade games which used a miniature helicopter. And no, Jet Rocket was seemingly not available in a Japanese version, which is rather curious, but I digress.

Animated Helicopter had / has its origins in a full-size flight simulator developed around 1957-58 by Peter Charles Jacobs and his brothers, Paul, Emil and Leo Albert Jacobs, and their nephew, Edward “Ted” Jacobs, with the assistance of the Alberta Research Council (ARC) and Associated Helicopters Limited of Edmonton, a subsidiary of Associated Airways Limited of Edmonton. The latter suggested the conditions and situations to be simulated while the ARC provided information of a technical nature.

If I may digress, the ARC was founded in 1921. Then known as the Alberta Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, its founding director was Henry Marshall Tory, the first full time director of the National Research Council – a renowned organisation mentioned several times in our you know what since May 2018. Tory also held the position of founding president of Carleton College, now Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, between 1942 and 1947, but back to the Jaycopter.

The Jaycopter was a full-size dummy 2-seat helicopter whose main and tail rotors were powered by one or more electric motors. Said helicopter was attached to a pylon by means of a long flexible arm. Reliable, simple and realistic, this simulator which could be used day or night, despite winds reaching 50 or so kilometres/hour (30 miles/hour), really had it all.

Peter Charles Jacobs had had his light bulb moment around 1956-57 while in hospital, in all likelihood the Royal Alexandra Hospital, located near the Edmonton City Centre Airport, closed in November 2013, after knee surgery. Seeing helicopters come and go, he thought that a simulator would save flight schools a lot of money. Jacobs’s concept was actually inspired by a toy he had seen, a toy comprising a miniature helicopter powered by dry cell batteries and attached to a central base via an arm.

Jacobs was not some kid off the street. During the Second World War, he had designed (or improved?) (on his own?) a machine gun turret for the Bristol Bolingbrokes of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan’s bombing and gunnery schools. Said turret could complete full rotations instead of covering no more than 60 degrees on either side of the tail. Jacobs thus won the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service.

I presume you knew that the astonishing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, includes a Bolingbroke. No? What do you mean, no? Sigh… Anyway, let us move on.

After the war, Jacobs designed ski lifts for ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains for 8 years, but back to our flight simulator.

Jacobs built a scale model to see if his idea made sense. He then began building a full-size prototype in his garage. Jacobs later moved to the garage of one of his brothers, the aforementioned Leo Albert Jacobs, before moving again, to a building at Edmonton City Centre Airport.

“Flight” tests of the Jaycopter prototype began in December 1958.

The Jaycopter made it possible to start a helicopter pilot’s training, the first 15 or 20 hours apparently, at much lower costs than conventional training – $ 20 an hour instead of the $ 100 normally charged at the time. These amounts correspond to approximately $ 175 and $ 875 respectively in 2021. The various safety features of the Jaycopter also reduced the risk of an accident to almost zero.

This risk was in fact very present during the 1950s. The helicopters of the day were somewhat capricious flying machines. Many helicopters used for training military and civilian pilots crashed. Many people lost their lives or suffered serious injuries.

Is that skepticism that I see in your face, my somewhat impudent reading friend? Know then that, around April 1959, Leo Albert Jacobs, a gentleman who was not a pilot, flew rarely and had never set foot in a helicopter, managed to take off, hover and land, all without incident, after 18 minutes of flight in an Associated Helicopters whirlybird – and around 15 hours spent flying a Jaycopter. The chief pilot of Associated Helicopters, one of the pioneers of helicopter flight in Alberta, Tellef Vaasjo, was very proud of his student.

Jacobs Welding and Engineering formed a subsidiary, Jaycopters Limited, no later than January 1961 to commercialise the Jaycopter, a very promising invention if there ever was one.

In fact, no later than 1960, Jacobs Welding and Engineering signed a marketing agreement with an American firm, a distributor of products and services more specifically, Transaero Incorporated, which would market the Jaycopter throughout the world, except in Canada and the United States.

It should be noted that the Jaycopter was unfortunately facing serious problems on Canadian soil. While it was true that the Department of Transportation was intrigued by this simulator, it was equally true that it limited to 5 the number of hours on a simulator that a student could credit during training. The number of helicopter pilots trained annually in Canada was also quite low, and there were enough military helicopter pilots going into civilian careers anyway. Worse yet, most Canadian helicopter operators did not see the point in testing the Jaycopter. In fact, the Jaycopter’s lack of success throughout the 1960s was largely due to the fact that flight schools preferred to use real helicopters.

Was the Jaycopter the first simulator of its kind, you ask yourself, my reading friend? A good question. The answer is… yes and no. The Bölkow Bo 102 Heli-Trainer took to the sky in 1957. This West German simulator was, however, much less mobile than the Jaycopter. This being said (typed?), it could be mounted on an air-cushion platform which allowed the student pilot to move horizontally. Yes, yes, I kid you not. Made in a few examples for a few users, the Heli-Trainer apparently did not give birth to any play version, and… You know what, yours truly thinks that the Heli-Trainer would be an interesting topic for our blog / bulletin / thingee, but I digress.

As well, a prototype of the Del Mar Whirlymite Self-Trainer took to the sky no later than the spring of 1961. If I may be permitted a slightly controversial comment, this American simulator looked suspiciously like the Heli-Trainer. And yes, it was even mounted on an air-cushion platform which allowed the student pilot to move horizontally.

Tested by the armed forces of the United States and those of at least one foreign country, tested by American (and foreign?) civilian agencies also, the Self-Trainer was seemingly not put in series production, and this even if a study by the United States Army readily recognised that this type of simulator could be useful, by eliminating the less talented pilot candidates and improving the training of the others.

Realising how fascinating the Jaycopter was to people who were seeing it in action, the small Alberta firm designed an 8-seat version (with a pilot?) as a fairground attraction. Indeed, you would believe that traffic on the freeway which ran along the Jacobs Welding and Engineering site stopped when Jaycopter tests took place, between 1958 and 1960, to the chagrin of drivers in a bit of a hurry? Yet this was true.

Jacobs Welding and Engineering began manufacturing 2 multi-seat Jaycopters at the end of 1960 or the beginning of 1961. The firm ultimately manufactured 3 that it sent (temporarily?) to Edmonton, as well as Calgary, Alberta, Vancouver, British Columbia, Toronto, Ontario, and San Diego, California.

These devices were mounted at the sites of the Edmonton Exhibition, the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, the Pacific National Exhibition, the Canadian National Exhibition and the Southern California Exposition and San Diego County Fair.

Mind you, they may well have been mounted elsewhere as well.

Jacobs Welding and Engineering and / or a subsidiary also completed a Jaycopter with pilot able to accommodate 16 adults or 24 children which was a resounding success at the 1964/1965 New York World Fair, a universal exhibition not recognised by the Bureau international des expositions of Paris, France. And yes, my reading friend with very keen senses, it was / is indeed the World Expo Observatory of said exhibition that you can see in the excellent 1997 American film Men in Black.

Would you believe that the enthusiastic passengers of the giant Jaycopter included Caroline Bouvier Kennedy and her younger brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Junior, the children of Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy?

Visitors of 1964/1965 New York World Fair who did not wish to wander (forward or backward, up or down, left or right, or spinning) in the sky could, however, have fun with one of the (20, 22, 23 or 24?) Jacobs Baby Jay, a miniature unmanned version of the Jaycopter, which could be found nearby. Each of these people had to pay the modest sum of 25 cents. A ride on the Jaycopter, on the other hand, cost $ 1. Yours truly assumes that this sum, which corresponds to about $ 8.75 in 2021, only affected adults, children having access to the thingee for a (much?) lower sum.

While it is true that requests for information from France, Italy and Japan (and elsewhere?) arrived in Edmonton around 1964-65, the fact was that no other multi-seat Jaycopters was manufactured.

Jacobs Welding and Engineering or one of its subsidiaries may, I repeat may, have sold 2 2-seat training Jaycopters around 1969 to the United States Navy and the Argentine government. These orders were very possibly the only ones that the firm managed to obtain. Pity. This being said (typed?), the Colombian armed forces apparently considered ordering a Jaycopter at some point in the 1960s.

Before going any further, I must mention that the United States Army tested a Jaycopter Demonstration Trainer around 1965-66. This simulator consisted of a seat with controls and a miniature helicopter attached to a central base, just in front of said seat, via a flexible arm. Yours truly wonders if this device was a barely modified version of the aforementioned Baby Jay. Anyway, let us move on.

Some officers of the United States Army also went to Edmonton in 1967 to see a real Jaycopter in action. This visit did not give rise to any contract.

Jaycopter, the firm and not its product, ceased operations in September 1973.

A few Jaycopters, including the giant 16-seater, not to mention a Baby Jay and an Animated Helicopter, are in the collection of the Reynolds-Alberta Museum, in Wetaskiwin, Alberta – an institution mentioned in a September 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Would you believe that Animated Helicopter was extremely rare, and expensive, at the start of 2021? Yes, yes, it was. The known number of examples seemed to be counted on the fingers of one hand, with 1 or 2 or 3 spare fingers. If I may be permitted a slightly controversial suggestion (Hello, EG!), in a perfect world, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum should consider the possibility of getting its hands on one of these thingees.

In fact, given the importance of the helicopter in Canadian aviation history over the past 75 years, in another perfect world, this national museum of Canada should consider the possibility of getting its hands on a Jaycopter in good condition. Just sayin’. (Hello, EG!)

And a good week to you, my reading friend.

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Rénald Fortier