The day of the triphibs: Monte-Copter Incorporated and the Model 15 Triphibian helicopter

The one and only Monte-Copter Model 15 Triphibian, Seattle, Washington. Anon., “World Air News.” Air Pictorial, May 1960, 167.

Once upon a time, my reading friend, yours truly came across a photograph in the May 1960 issue of the British monthly magazine Air Pictorial. I liked this photograph and promptly decided to pontificate about it at a later date. This day has now arrived. Lucky you.

The caption of said photograph read as follows, by the way:

The Monte-Copter Model 15 tri-phibian has now entered the flight test stage. The Model 15 has a boat-type hull of fibreglass construction and a Continental Model 141 turbine.

One could argue that the story of this machine began in November 1917 with the birth, in the United States, of Maurice Leroy Ramme. This gentleman seemingly caught the flying bug fairly early in his life. He soon became a commercial pilot. In 1948, he became the test pilot of Hoppi-Copters Incorporated, a small firm founded by Horace Thomas “Penny” Pentecost, a mechanical engineer who had left his job with Boeing Aircraft Company, in December 1945, to develop a highly original idea he had come up with in 1944, the Hoppi-Copter, a tiny helicopter a person could wear like a backpack.

And yes, my scholarly reading friend, Pentecost and his Hoppi-Copter were mentioned in a June 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Sadly enough, the tiny machines the firm wanted to produce were never put in production.

Ramme, a founding member of the American Helicopter Society Incorporated, today’s Vertical Flight Society Incorporated, if you must know, soon found employment elsewhere, teaching turbine theory at the Edison Technical Institute in California to be more precise.

Having come across information concerning the possibility that air produced by a gas turbine could be used to drive the rotor of a helicopter, Ramme incorporated Monte-Copter Incorporated in June 1953.

Incidentally, the idea of using an engine to push air through the hollow blades of a helicopter’s rotor and eject it at the tips was in the air at the time. Around the beginning of 1946, Witold B. “Witek” Brzozowski, a Polish aeronautical engineer who had come to Canada during the Second World War then employed by Canadair Limited, an aircraft manufacturing firm located in Cartierville, near Montréal, Québec, completed the development of a helicopter, the BC-36, whose piston engine drove a compressor which ejected cool air at the tips of the rotor’s blades. Burners mounted at said tips heated this cool air to increase its speed and rotate the rotor. Most components of this most intriguing prototype were made in the United States. Unable to commercialise the BC-36, Brzozowski’s small firm, Jet Helicopter Registered, ended its activities in 1947.

Need I say (type?) that Canadair was mentioned in many issues of our you know what since November 2017? Very well. In that case, I will say (type?) that Brzozowski helped with the design of the Canadair North Star, an airliner and military transport aircraft found in the incomparable collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario. The museum’s aircraft is the last North Star left on this Earth.

Brzozowski moved to the United States in 1949 and gradually put aside aeronautical engineering. He founded Research and Engineering Corporation, for example. This firm, known in 2020 under another name, played a pioneering role in the incineration of toxic waste, in the early 1950s. This being said (typed?), Brzozowski seemingly left the firm fairly quickly. Indeed, in 1951, he was working at Duke University under the direction of Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine, the father of parapsychology.

Even so, the BC-36 was ground tested during the 1950s, in the United States, seemingly under the auspices of a virtually unknown firm, Jet Helicopter Corporation of New York City, New York. Sadly, this helicopter was not put in production. Indeed, it may never have flown.

Brzozowski was / is one the pioneers of the hot / hot jet rotortip drive technology, which remained / remains little used in 2020 because of its high fuel consumption and noise level, but back to Monte-Copter.

This small firm began its activities with the design and construction of a 2-seat prototype which flew for the first time in 1955. This machine had a cold / cold jet rotortip drive. In other words, there were no burners at the tips of the rotor’s blades.

After some testing, Monte-Copter’s staff removed the cabin covering and small wings of the Model 10. It also replaced its piston engine with a pair of French-designed compressed air generators made under licence in the United States by Continental Aircraft Engine Company, a subsidiary / division of Continental Motors Company.

Did you know that the compressed air generator in question, the Turbomeca Palouste, was a derivative of the first small turboshaft, a type of gas turbine designed for use on helicopters, to be mass produced anywhere in the world, the world famous Turbomeca Artouste? And yes, the absolutely fabulous collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum includes an Artouste. Of course.

The Model 10 later lost its rear fuselage and twin fins in favour of a single rudder, thus becoming the Model 12. This modified helicopter first took to the sky in May 1958, or perhaps even in February. This journey in the heavens may have been a tethered flight.

That same year, Monte-Copter began to design a brand new machine, the production version of its helicopter and arguably one of the most interesting helicopters of its day, the aforementioned Model 15 Triphibian, which was completed in 1959. This curvaceous, dare I say cute as a button, machine was certainly ambitious. The very streamlined and boat-shaped fuselage / hull with a forward-sliding canopy was made of fibreglass while the internal structure was made of aluminium and magnesium. There were neither rivets nor bolts. The residual thrust of the Triphibian’s single Continental compressed air generator was high enough to enable it to taxi on land, or water, without any assistance from the rotor – something no other helicopter of this Earth could do.

Monte-Copter’s machine may well have been the world’s first light amphibian helicopter. 

Relatively easy to fly and quite comfortable, the Triphibian had much to offer.

Indeed, according to a 1961 article, the Triphibian could reach a speed of almost 65 kilometres/hour (40 miles/hour) on a good road. The catch with that was that every other driver on that road would have been honking like mad at the slowpoke in the helicopter. As well, the 11 metre (36 feet) rotor might have made turns in a city centre an interesting adventure. Braking and / or controlling the thrust of the engine might have made said turns even more interesting.

The Triphibian’s speed on water could reach, it was said, up to 40 kilometres/hour (25 miles/hour) – an impressive figure. Choppy waters might have been fun.

It was a good thing that kerosene / jet fuel / gasoline / diesel oil did not cost much around 1960 because it looks as if the Triphibian’s fuel consumption in the air was a bit on the high side: more than 141 litres/100 kilometres (2 miles/Imperial gallon / 1.65 mile/American gallon).

Floatability trials began in February 1960. Taxi trials, without any assistance from the rotor, began that same month. The first tethered flight may have taken place later in the year. Even though Monte-Copter had hoped at some point to deliver the first production machine to a happy customer in 1962, financial difficulties led to the abandonment of any and all production projects at some point in the 1960s.

Even though Monte-Copter may, I repeat may, have existed, presumably on paper, until 1998, the Model 12 and Triphibian were seemingly put in storage at some point in the 1960s.

In 1976 at the latest, the latter was the property of an as yet unidentified Canadian firm who had purchased its design / production rights. Indeed, the rotorless and engineless Triphibian was tucked in a corner of a hangar used by a small Canadian aircraft manufacturing firm, Trident Aircraft Limited, at Victoria International Airport, near Victoria, British Columbia. The remains of the helicopter left for parts unknown one weekend in 1977.

By the way, would you mind if I pontificated on the Trident TriGull / Trigull, a 5 or 6-seat light / private amphibious aircraft? I do not have much material on this fascinating machine, not enough to produce an article perhaps, only 4 pages worth, and… All right, all right. There is no need to pick up the torches and pitchforks. Back to our story.

If that’s the way you want to play this, yours truly will endeavour to find a photograph of the Trigull, and I will look for material on its predecessor / inspiration, the American-designed Republic RC-1 Seabee. Yes, there may well be a 2-part article on the Trigull and Seabee before too long. Happy face.

At some point in the 1980s, the remains of the Triphibian were donated to the Museum of Flight, at Seattle, Washington. They were soon carted behind a building, under a tree. A (very?) young employee or volunteer offered to restore the helicopter. The museum’s management readily agreed to let him move all components to his parents’ home. A few months later, the family had to move overseas. The remains of the Triphibian went back to the Museum of Flight. A troop of boy scouts seemed interested in restoring the helicopter but it eventually decided to drop the idea.

Sadly, Ramme left this Earth in December 1995. He was 78 years old.

Would you believe that the Model 12 and the Triphibian were with Classic Rotors, a museum in Ramona, California, as of the spring of 2020? Neither machine was / is in very good shape, or complete. Pity.

Be well, my reading friend. If I may, virum non carborundum.

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Rénald Fortier