Classic Toy Helicopter Flies Again As DIY Version

For many of us who grew up in the 1970s, “VertiBird”, the fly-it-yourself indoor helicopter, was a toy that was begged for often enough that it eventually appeared under the Christmas tree. And more than a few of the fascinating but delicate toys were defunct by Christmas afternoon, victims of the fatal combination of exuberant play and price-point engineering. But now a DIY version of the classic toy flies again, this time with a more robust design.

To be fair to the designers at Mattel, the toy company that marketed VertiBird, the toy was pretty amazing. The plastic helicopter was powered by a motor located in the central base, which rotated a drive rod that ran through a stiff tether. Small springs in the base and at the copter acted as universal joints to transmit power to the rotor. These springs were the weak point in the design, especially the one in the base, often snapping in two.

[Luke J. Barker]’s redesign puts a tiny gear motor in the aircraft rather than in the base, something that wouldn’t have been feasible in the original. To address the problem of getting electrical power from the base to the aircraft, [Luke] eschewed an expensive slip ring and instead used a standard 3.5-mm audio jack and plug. The plug serves as an axle for the main gear in the base that powers the copter’s rotation; sadly, this version doesn’t tilt the aircraft mechanically to control backward and forward flight like the original. A pair of pots with 3D-printed levers control throttle and flight direction through an Arduino; see it in action in the video below.

These pages abound with rotorcraft builds, both helicopters and multirotor. We appreciate all manner of flying machines, but this one really takes us back.

31 thoughts on “Classic Toy Helicopter Flies Again As DIY Version

  1. I remember seeing one of these demonstrated in the basement of Debenhams, a department store in Oxford. I seem to recall there was a small hook under the copter, to pick up little packages?

    1. Correct, at least on some of them. It’s my memory there were a couple themes available – police, fire rescue, that kind of thing.

      I think the one we had in the 70’s was a police theme and came with a lightweight plastic car ‘bank robber’ car: you could, with care, hook and pick up the bank robbers!

      1. In the 1970’s, Hewlett Packard used to have a christmas party at all their sites where the company gave presents to all the kids of all the employees. One year they gave out these, in a giant form: a roughly meter-long styrofoam ship with the controls at the stern, a helipad on the ship just in front of this, and the pivot point at the bow. I still have it, albeit with a kinked spring at the pivot point. I spent hundreds of hours playing with that, far more than the crummy (real leather, probably more expensive) football I got another year.

  2. The toys we had back then were so cool! I never had one of these myself, but I knew other kids that did, and seem to remember having a chance to play with one.
    I love toys that inspire children’s imaginations, especially since I haven’t managed to grow up in the 50-ish years I’ve been alive. :D

  3. I always ended up with the cheaper variant of this toy. It had the batteries and motor in what looked like a modified flashlight. It was portable and in all honesty made for better playtime as you could fly the chopper anywhere you wanted.
    I later had a chance to play with the floor model when a guy I knew bought one from a yard sale. It was fun but limited in scope to the handheld model.
    When you really think about the mechanism works, it’s just a weedeater, or a dremel chuck extension. For kids.

  4. I was TA for the logic design lab at UCSB in the early 1970’s (incidentally, favorite job of my career), and we had a VERY TINY budget. I bought a couple of these and the students tweaked D/As into the lever controls and interfaced to a Nova 1210. The VertiBird could simulated ‘rescue’ of the included space capsule. What a HOOT!

      1. Nope, just a fan. As they say several times in the video, no strings or wires.

        It goes like this: the airstream accelerates as it goes around the balloon, creating a low pressure area all around the balloon. It is self-stabilizing because as the balloon starts to fall out of the airstream in any direction, it moves into the higher pressure surrounding air, forcing it back into the airstream. Yes, it really worked. Try this with any fan and balloon.

    1. The Star Trek version was a copycat made by Remco. Pretty sure it was around from the mid to late 60’s when it was made. I remember it was hard to control because of the hand controller design. That sucker would slide all over the place.

  5. I too had one of these as a kid, and loved it! Mine was the “rescue” version, with a little man on a stretcher that you could pick up and fly to the hospital.

    It’s not that they couldn’t put the motor in the helicopter in the 1960’s; it was that they couldn’t do it for $1. :-) Their solution to put the motor in the center, and drive the helicopter rotor with a flexible shaft was very clever!

    They didn’t provide a way to move the helicopter radially, which would have made it easier to “hook” things. It could have been done simply by putting the entire motor-shaft-helicopter assembly on a slide, with a mechanical linkage to move it in-out.

  6. “It’s not that they couldn’t put the motor in the helicopter in the 1960’s; it was that they couldn’t do it for $1. :-) Their solution to put the motor in the center, and drive the helicopter rotor with a flexible shaft was very clever!”

    Or they could but with an off the shelf motor it would just sit there. Power to weight ratio wasn’t great in the 60s and hand building the highly consumable motors was necessary to get model planes off the ground, which needed maybe a third the power of ‘copters. Read this ’65 article to get a hint of the state of motor development then…

    However with the continued popularity of slot car racing, and the availability of rare earth magnets, in the the 1970s better motors were available and were more efficient as well as durable, such that a decade later the planes at least could get off the ground with a mass produced motor. Development continued and I’d say it would have been the 80s before a toy company would even think of having the motor in the heli. Also I think the spring of the driveshaft also compensated a lot for the weight on the end, and less power was needed due to that as well.

  7. I had an earlier variant of this. Instead of the base, the batteries and motor were in a flashlight-like handle. It had a button you pulse-modulated to vary the lift, and to go forward or back, you just twisted the flashlight. And yes, of course it had the hook and a plastic man with his arms over his head, hands joined, to pick up. One of the coolest toys ever, for a day or two. The down side was that it went through batteries pretty quickly.

  8. There was a toy with a big disk that rotated. In the disk were several dimples. There was a bridge like piece from the center out to the edge. The goal was either to drop things into or pick things up from the dimples. To aid in aiming it had an angled mirror on the part that moved radially. The player looked into the end of the bridge to see down onto the rotating disk.

  9. I had one in 1973 and played with it 10x longer than any other toy I ever got. I finally started “tweaking” the air foil rotors to give it more lift. My 8 year old brain couldn’t understand why I just couldn’t extend the rotors (longer) with the same power and lift more payload. Ironic that I grew up to be a Physics teacher and now teach Engineering :) Parents… buy better toys.

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