Halligan Plane


Early VTOL aircraft designed and built by the Halligan brothers in Beardstown, Illinois.

Francis, Russell, and their sister LaNora were the children of German and English immigrants Henrietta and John Francis. John was trained as a veterinarian in England and was licensed to practice in Illinois, but he instead pursued work as Beardstown's water works engineer. He then opened the J.F. Halligan grocery store in 1914, a business that the two brothers would continue to develop into a multi-store enterprise with plans for expanding operations into other cities, though this ultimately never transpired.

The brothers also had a particular fascination with aviation, inspired to involve themselves in the field by building their own aircraft despite a lack of formal engineering or mechanical background. Around 1915 they began work on their unique rotary-wing aircraft design, initially building flyable scale models to study its feasibility. Though they claimed the design was not a helicopter, as they felt rotorcraft were inherently unsafe and lacked practical usage, it employed a rotating hub of lifting surfaces each driven by a single propeller in order to generate vertical lift, to which the principle was essentially the same. Undeterred by discouragement from those who held doubt towards such a machine being able to take flight, this hard work would eventually result in the full-size "Halligan Plane" around 1923, built in the large garage behind their house which served as their workshop.

The machine was simply an up-scaling from their model studies, with no blueprints or technical drawings used for its construction. It consisted of a simple metal fuselage with a single pilot seat, just behind the complex rotor system powered by a modified 30hp Johnson outboard engine. The two blades - or "wing panels" as the Piper Cub-sized wing panels were referred to - held a prominently positive angle of incidence, with two-bladed propellers made of walnut wood at their leading edge.

It apparently achieved its first flight in May 25, 1932, at the Beardstown High School football field, after midnight hours to avoid injury to possible onlookers in the event of an accident - a practice that was done on several previous field tests, some also done in remote country areas. On that particular occasion, Russell took control and was able to bring it a few feet off the ground, maintaining a hover that lasted around two to three minutes.

Following the Dorsey Bill being passed in 1938, which was inspired by the success of the German Focke-Achaelis FW 61 and appropriated two million dollars for American rotary-wing development, the Halligan brothers were among several independent inventors that viewed their design as a possible candidate for military use. Responding to their application, USAAF Col. H. Frank Gregory - whom had experience flying the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 and served as Project Officer for the Army Air Corps Helicopter Program - and other Army officers from Dayton, Ohio, visited their family home to inspect the aircraft in July of 1940. It was inside the house that they were treated with an introduction to the design: Francis, being a skillful pianist thanks to the brothers' education from the Illinois College Conservatory of Music, set the musical tone for the demonstration by playing the piano, while Russell released one of the scale models to flight. Amusingly, the model rose to a height that resulted in it skimming the ceiling. Following this overture, the military representatives were led to the workshop where the full-scale machine was revealed. They were not impressed, Gregory especially noting its crude construction with the comment that it appeared as if it were "put together with stove bolts and cast-iron piping." The brothers then abandoned work on the prototype.

The story about the Army officers' visitation has a conflicting side, however:

The more dubious account tells how these Army officers sneaked onto the property one summer night to check out the aircraft, prompting the police to be called, and that the mysteriously secretive men never revealed their identities to the family. The brothers would go on to boast about how much attention the design had attracted aside from the military, from the British and French governments, as well as Ralph Budd, president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, and also claimed to have been working on a "silent invisible radar repellent" that had the ability to render planes virtually invisible to the eye and to run silently.

The brothers went on to pursue further work on the scale models, hoping to build more and sell them as toys, eventually filing a patent for the design on January 19th, 1943. They varied in their operation, some powered by small gas motors built in their workshop and others were simpler rubber band-powered designs, but were all commonly constructed of wood, metal, and paper components.

The Halligan Plane was often shown around local events, one of them being the Illinois State Fair in 1971 with assistance provided by the Air Force. It was then donated to the EAA Air Museum in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, in 1976 (now known as the EAA AirVenture Museum located in Oshkosh, Wisconsin). For reasons unknown, it was eventually scrapped sometime in the 1980s, but the two propellers and various other historical items relating to the Halligans and their aircraft were preserved by the museum. One of the small, rubber band-powered experimental models survived as well and was donated to the Old Lincoln Courtroom & Museum in Beardstown in 2013.

Rei Lee Evans

The Halligan Plane being shown at the 1971 Illinois State Fair.

TheĀ Halligan Plane on display at the EAA Air Museum.

A surviving model of the Halligan brothers' design after being donatedĀ 
to the Old Lincoln Courtroom & Museum in Beardstown, 2013.

1943 patent.