In 1907, John E. Hess Sr. and his family immigrated to Canada from Bavaria, Germany, settling in New Westminster, where he began a successful bricklaying business. It was not until 1927 that Hess would have sufficient funds to develop the Helioplane, with the help of his two sons, Harry Hess and John Hess Jr, both of which had began tests of the design with a model in a shed in their backyard.
Hess formed the John Hess Helioplane Company, Ltd. in October 1928, then patented the Helioplane design in November. The prototype was constructed with a 28 hp Lawrence two-cylinder aeroplane engine driving two metal disks with propellers made from drill cloth and cedar. The propellers created excess lift on the Helioplane's very first test, in which it rose a few inches off the ground and came in contact with crossbeams in the shed, destroying the rotors. Hess soon constructed new blades and tested it again, this time maintaining 200 rpm. It was a success, as were other experiments that followed.
Hess began development of a second prototype in 1930, using duraluminum for the airframe. It was constructed in 1933 with a 100 hp Kinner air-cooled radial engine. The heavy gear transmission prevented the aircraft to rise in tests, even after obtaining a 200 hp engine, forcing the construction of lighter transmission gears. At the earliest stages of testing, eight blades were attached to the rotor shafts.
Reportedly in July 1935, the Helioplane prototype successfully completed a tethered hover test approximately 14 inches above its landing platform for four minutes with engine running at 1850 rpm. Further tests were made with various types of propellers, followed by the extension in the width of the airframe by 18 inches and the construction of new lateral stabilizers. Unfortunately the stabilizers warped the rotor shafts during one of the tests in 1938, damaging the blades. A unit to govern the stabilizers was constructed in 1939, followed by the addition of a tail unit allowing a pilot complete control of the aircraft during tests. The right propeller gear assembly was damaged during a test in 1939, but was promptly replaced by a better set with increased power and efficiency. Lateral control had also been improved by replacing the oil system with an air system.
Tests from 1939 through 1940 proved to be quite satisfactory, with the pilot able to rise and hover through use of stick control, the throttle, and movement of the stabilizers.
In 1941, the war placed restrictions on materials and fuel needed in the testing and development of the Helioplane, though it was still serviced for possible future demonstrations. The project was eventually abandoned in the mid or late 1940s, with the Helioplane prototype laying rest in a junkyard near Vancouver, BC, around 1950. It disappeared some time after that, never to be seen again. John Hess Sr. passed away in 1954, with all remaining material regarding the Helioplane placed in the care of the Irving House Historical Centre in New Westminster, BC.