In 1971 Mattel released, for the first time, the mighty VertiBird, a favourite of boys who bought toys at the time.
VertiBird consisted of a miniature helicopter with actual spinning rotor and blades that was attached by a thin metal rod to a circular base and a control unit, allowing the heli-pilot to manipulate the speed, height and forward motion of the helicopter by a series of levers.
The base sat in the centre of a themed playset, which usually involved some sort of rescue or mission motif such as “Astronaut Rescue”, “Airborne Rescue Mission” or “Night Patrol” (glows in the dark!). As you flew VertiBird in a circle, you could dip slowly down to the playset and pick items or figures off the ground with a hook assembly on the bottom of the helicopter.
The motor in the helicopter was powerful enough to pick up the light plastic items included with the set, but just a bit too underpowered to be able to pick up other toys you might have.
Many children found this out the hard way when trying to rescue their favourite action figure from a pool of lava (or some similar imagined life-threatening situation) only to have VertiBird be unable to lift-off, or worse yet, bend the connecting arm to the base rendering the helicopter “out of service”.
The assembly of the toy had some delicate parts that careless children could easily break due to improper storage or the ever-present threat of a parent’s heavy adult size foot stepping on it in the middle of the night. If that were to happen, it was “Goodnight VertiBird”.
Unlike other toys, the VertiBird line did not endure, in any form, and by the early 1980s, Mattel had ceased production. If you had a broken VertiBird after that, that was all you were ever going to have.
VertiBird, like remote-control vehicles or electric slot-car racing, offered a tantalising control over an inanimate object. Immediate and precise movement responding to the physical command of the levers created the illusion that you were flying a real helicopter. That was a rare and special feeling for a child who usually has less decision-making power in choosing his or her lunch.
Most of the sets were built around generic missions, but in the late 1970s Mattel made a licensed version of VertiBird that utilised the popular science-fiction television show Battlestar Galactica, with a Viper ship instead of a helicopter. Other companies tried to duplicate the VertiBird in their own sets with varying degrees of success.
Remco came out with a Star Trek licensed version that looked cooler than it worked. Marx, Stanzel, Lakeside, Ideal and Milton Bradley each released their own VertiBird, but none of them really equalled the original.
Milton Bradley’s ‘Flying Thunder’ set was a more recent attempt to revive the defunct toy line but to no avail. Milton Bradley’s attempt just didn’t have the magic of the original VertiBird.
But in November of 2000 (just in time for Christmas) a new toy company, Jasman, released a more exacting duplicate of the original VertiBird. Already, units of this toy sell on eBay at high prices. Of course, not for as much as original VertiBirds, which fetch up to $250.00 and more when complete in the box.
Nothing, however, will replace the glory of the original VertiBird and the illusory sense of freedom it provided.