Risky business – the Hafner Rotachute

Rotary-winged craft come in lots of shapes and sizes, from compound helicopters to home-built gyrocopters. The Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop in Hampshire has a wide selection, especially since the British Army was one of the earliest adopters of the helicopter for battlefield use. However, the collections do not just cover the work of the Army Air Corps following its re-constitution in modern form 1957, but also the original AAC as formed by Winston Churchill in 1942, and the work of the Army’s Royal Flying Corps in WW1, and the Royal Engineers Balloon Section prior to that conflict!

It is inevitable, therefore, that oddities will have survived; technological dead-ends which have lurked around in the corners of hangars sometimes surface and end up in the museum, and it is so with the Hafner H.8 or Rotachute.

Raoul Hafner, F.Eng, FRAeS, was an Austrian national with an abiding interest in rotary-winged flight. Somehow, he managed to flee Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent Anschluss between Germany and Austria, and ended up in Britain. He met, and worked with, Juan de la Cierva, that Spanish giant of rotary-winged flight, prior to Cierva’s death in the crash of a KLM DC-2.

Hafner then formed his own company and began working on rotary-wing problems, including improving the mechanism for altering the pitch of the rotor blades collectively, which Cierva had devised.

WW2 was a disaster for many foreign nationals living in Britain. If they were from Italy or Germany (or the former Austria), they were classified as ‘enemy aliens’ and they were subject to restrictions and regarded with suspicion. When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in May, 1940 things changed and many individuals were put into internment camps. The Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea, was used to house thousands of these aliens. Raoul Hafner was classified as an enemy alien, but was soon processed as it was obvious that his work had direct application to the war effort.

One of his first wartime projects was a radical attempt to insert a single soldier, or highly trained agent, into enemy territory. Working at the Central Landing Establishment (the British centre for trials of parachute and glider equipment) at Ringway Airport outside of Manchester, Hafner constructed a series of scale models, some of which were dropped from Tiger Moths and a old Boulton-Paul Overstrand biplane bomber. A full scale version of the rotorcraft was tested by being strapped onto a Ford flatbed truck and driven up and down the airfield. The Hafner H.8 – later to be called the Rotachute – was a simple, fabric-covered framework, with space for a single pilot at the front, supported by a 15 foot diameter, two-blade rotor.

The Central Landing Establishment was renamed the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment, and the Development Section moved to RAF Sherburn-in-Elmet in Yorkshire, where work on the Rotachute continued. Various modifications meant that the tiny personal rotorcraft moved through successive Mark numbers. The first examples had a steel framework, whereas later Marks were wooden. The Rotachutes were towed behind Jeeps, reaching 100 feet in altitude. On 17th June, 1942, a de Havilland Tiger Moth took off, towing a Rotachute on a 300 foot towline. It was released at an altitude of 200 feet, and made a successful autorotation back to earth. Unfortunately, at the end of the landing run, some damage was incurred as the rotorcraft fell on its side. Modifications gave rise to the Mark IV, with stabilizer wheels either side of the central landing skid, and a more rigid tailplane with endplate fins to give greater stability. Control in flight was achieved by moving the hanging ‘loop’ handle fore and aft and from side to side. This gave control in two axes, which was enough.

Here you can see the ONLY surviving Rotachute, displayed suspended from the ceiling in the Army Museum of Flying. It was fifth example to be built as a Mark III, hence the marking ‘P.5’, and converted to Mark IV standard. The linen covering could conceal a Bren light machinegun and up to 300 rounds of ammunition. Able to be towed at 108 mph, the idea was that the Rotachute would be used to insert a secret agent into a particular drop zone (presumably at night).

By this stage of the war, parachute techniques had improved, allowing secret agents to be inserted with greater accuracy; as well, Special Duties squadrons of the Royal Air Force – mostly using Lysander aircraft – were making covert landings deep in enemy territory. The need for the Rotachute had passed. However, flights with the Rotachutes continued into 1943, as they were being used to support an even more ambitious Hafner project, the Rotabuggy! There is some dispute as to the number of Rotachutes built; some sources give the total as 8, but I am inclined to go with the Museum of Army Flying, which insists on 20.

The Rotachute worked, but perhaps fortunately for its intended users, a better way was found to deliver agents and soldiers to the battlefield.



One comment on “Risky business – the Hafner Rotachute”

  1. A unique aircraft indeed!


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