Heart of Louisiana: Leo Ortego

Updated: Sep. 1, 2020 at 9:45 PM CDT
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ALEXANDRIA, La. (WVUE) - There were a lot of attempts in the early history of aviation to create a helicopter.

One of the earliest helicopters was invented and patented by a man in Alexandria, Louisiana. But you won’t find it in the history books.

It was while he was serving in the army in World War I that Alexandria, Louisiana native Leo Ortego became fascinated with flying.

“He had actually been in the infantry originally when he went into World War I. He got injured and afterwards they put him into the flying corps,” says nephew Gerald Ortego.

Gerald Ortego has only faint childhood memories of his Uncle Leo. But he’s heard family stories about his uncle’s inventions, including one of the earliest helicopters.

“He really often imagined instead of taking off, you know, horizontally you try to imagine a way of taking off vertically.”

There are photographs of Leo Ortego and his helicopter that he built and flew in 1922 and that received a U.S. patent in 1926.

“And the machine was built from just whatever parts he could find.”

Back in 1922, there was an open field in Alexandria and that is the spot where Leo Ortego climbed aboard his new invention and made his first helicopter flight.

“When you look at pictures, you will see the birth of the American helicopter in it,” says Michael Wynne, writer and amateur historian.

Visiting Ortego’s grave site at the Alexandria National Cemetery, Wynne is trying to bring attention to this Louisiana inventor and aviation pioneer.

“As far as we know, by documentation, Leo flew the helicopter once. He went up between 10 and 15 feet. He was witnessed by many people and then he had a mechanical problem and the helicopter landed. As far as we know, he may not have ever taken off again, but it was fundamental that he include this information in his patent,” says Wynne.

After flying his home-built helicopter and getting a patent, Ortego gave It away.

“He never profited from it. He, I think, was very patriotic and so he simply gave it to the U.S. Army, the patent of the U.S. Army to us it as they wanted to,” says Ortego.

You’re unlikely to find any mention of Leo Ortego’s helicopter in aviation history.

A 1950s Army training film shows the early history of the helicopter leading up to a helicopter designed by Igor Sikorsky in 1943, nearly 20 years after Ortego’s helicopter patent.

“Sikorsky did, he invented the helicopter that we know today. It’s just that he wasn’t the first one to do it,” says Ortego.

Throughout most of his life, Leo Ortego was inventing new things.

“He was a person of great imagination and great commitment and determination. And that’s a good lesson for all of us,” says Ortego.

And another lesson perhaps it’s never too late to add a few more lines to the history of American aviation.

There are renewed efforts in Central Louisiana to recognize some of the early advances in aviation that occurred in that area.

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