Tony’s Scrapbook; Pitcairn PA-19 Autogyro

A worn thick cardboard cover lies loosely on top of an aged book filled with new house designs of the 1930s now covered with newspaper clippings and articles. The binding and back cover are missing, with the pages discolored and worn over time from a young man’s fascination with aviation and repeated viewing of his precious collection. As I carefully turn each page, I often find myself thinking of a time when he was adding to his scrapbook and how these events shaped a man to become a pioneer himself, bringing aviation to the Niagara Frontier in the 1940s and a test pilot of the P-47 Thunderbolt. I find his collection so fascinating that I never know where to start, and I wish I possess a prolific writer’s skills. But until then, I’ll start at the beginning and take it page by page without any chronographic order. I hope you enjoy this series, Tony’s Scrapbook, and please sign up for email notifications for future blog posts if you find them interesting.

A page from Tony’s Scrapbook

A newspaper clipping from the Herald-Tribune that my father dated March 1933 of a Pitcairn PA-19 autogyro craft hovering over midtown New York. This new design features the first passenger cabin that could comfortably carry four people, including the pilot. The PA-19 is the largest cabin autogiro ever constructed in the US at the time with a sizeable stabilizing rotor or “Windmill” mounted on top of the cabin over 50 feet in diameter. The wingspan is 38’8″, and the fuselage has a length of 25’9″ with dual rudders. A nine-cylinder air-cooled Wright R-975E-2 Whirlwind radial engine provides power to the propeller rated at 420 hp. This engine is the largest of the Whirlwind models with a displacement of around 975 cubic inches or just under 16 liters.

“Detroit News” Cierva PCA-2 (courtesy Melissa D. Scripps)

What is an autogyro or often spelled autogiro, you ask? Well, you’re not alone, and I too needed to research this unique design that emphasizes safer flights at slow speeds and short take-off and landing (STOL) capabilities. An autogyro is a rotary-wing aircraft equipped with fully articulating, or hinged, airfoil-shaped rotor blades suspended above the fuselage attached to a central hub mounted on a freely spinning vertical axle shaft. The key here is freely spinning rotor, and please don’t confuse an autogyro with a helicopter, because a helicopter uses a powered rotor.

Cierva C.4 (courtesy Heli Start)

During forward motion, each blade’s independent movement reduces the uneven lift created between the advancing blade and the retreating blade, known as “Dissymmetry of Lift.” Without getting too deep on this subject, for my sanity and yours, let’s remember that the vital fact here is the invention of fully articulating rotor blades by Juan de la Cierva with two others’ help in 1922. Emilio Herrera, a military engineer, and Rey Pastor, a mathematician, provided the technical knowledge he desperately needed to solve this problem on earlier prototypes. The C.4, De la Cierva’s fourth prototype, carried out the world’s first successful flight of a stable rotary-wing craft or, as he called it, an Auto-Spin at the end of January in 1923.

A propeller is needed for the forward motion to generate lift by the unpowered, freely rotating rotor blades that will continue to spin during flight. Mechanical assistance is required to start the rotor blades’ rotation before take-off and usually provided by a PTO off of the engine or by hand with a rope wrapped around the axle shaft in earlier designs. So forget about taking off or landing anywhere there wasn’t anyone to help “pull start” your rotor in those first models.

Cierva C.6 (courtesy Sci Hi Blog)

I can only hear it now. “Hey, Bob!” What he exclaimed! “Can you start my rotor on my new autogiro that I just built by pulling on this long rope? Oh, and watch your head.” You want me to do WHAT he yelled back. I’m sure they went through a lot of leather gloves back then.

Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing (courtesy Jim Hough)

Harold Frederick Pitcairn, son of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG) founder John Pitcairn Jr., started an aviation business, Pitcairn Air Service, at a small flying field in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, in 1924. There he offered flight lessons, scenic rides and housed a fleet of eight aircraft, including his first aircraft purchased in 1923, a Farman Sport biplane. He later went on to create Pitcairn Air Field (#2) in 1926 when he bought 190 acres in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, to expand his business. Since graduating from flight school in 1918, Harold Pitcairn and his close friend from school Agnew E. Larsen developed many ideas for vertical lift and rotary-wing aircraft, and the two are issued 270 patents. Seeing an opportunity to acquire a contract with the US government for quick, reliable airmail delivery for the New York to Atlanta route, Mr. Pitcairn designs and builds the Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing biplane in 1927 with the help of Mr. Larsen. The PA-5 Mailwing can carry 600 pounds of mail with a cruising speed of 120 mph, making it the ideal aircraft for this contract. After winning the New York-Atlanta contract, Mr. Pitcairn bids on and wins the Atlanta-Miami contract and now services most of the East Coast for daily airmail delivery. The PA-5 was so popular that he sold custom versions to celebrities like Howard Hughes with a chrome-plated engine and one to Felix du Pont with gold-plated rocker covers.

Cierva C.8 photo from Le Document aƩronautique December,1928

Even with the success of the PA-5 and his Flight Service business, Mr. Pitcairn believes that the future of aviation lies within the autogyro, and he purchases a Cierva C.8 Autogiro in 1928 after a test flight in England. He is so determined to design and build his versions of autogyros using Juan De La Cierva’s designs, that he decides a significant change in his business structure is necessary. His plan is simple, but not for the weak-hearted. Sell his current business, form a new one to sell autogiros in the US, and start working on improving the technology to make them the country’s safest aircraft. Since he has committed himself to follow through with his dream of the rotary-wing vertical lift aircraft, he forms a partnership with Juan de la Cierva. Mr. Pitcairn creates the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogyro Company of America in 1929, where he is licensed to build and sell autogyros in the US under the De la Cierva patents. With the sale of his enormously successful airmail line and Pitcairn Air Lines to Curtiss Wright and General Motors’ syndicate for 2.5 million in July, he and his design team can focus all of their attention on building autogyros to be sold under this new licensing agreement. The transition from fixed-winged aircraft to autogyros came quickly for Mr. Pitcairn, and he started working on new designs immediately after he reassembled the Cierva C-8 that he purchased in England in 1928 after being shipped to Pitcairn Field, Pennsylvania. There, Mr. Pitcairn received flight training in his newly reassembled C-8 from Cierva pilot Arthur “Dizzy” Rawson in December of that same year. Harold Pitcairn becomes the first rotary-wing pilot on the North American Continent with the autogiro’s introduction in the winter of 1928.

Harold Pitcairn May 14, 1929 (photo courtesy Corbis-Bettmann)

Harold Pitcairn successfully piloted his autogiro, nicknamed the “Windmill” from Pennsylvania to Washington DC on May 14, 1929. His first long trip proves that his radically new design is airworthy for such an extended flight in aviation history. In 1930 Mr. Pitcairn created a subsidiary, the Autogiro Company of America as a patent licensee to Buhl, Sikorsky, Kellett, and other interested manufactures. In the same year, Harold F. Pitcairn and associates receive the prestigious Collier Trophy “for development and application of the autogyro and its demonstration as safe aerial transport.” 1930 is a busy year for Mr. Pitcairn, and he introduces the Cierva PCA-1 as the first commercial autogyro in the US. It is a redesigned version of the C-8, but with the fuselage of the PA-5 Sport Mailwing. Shortly after, the Cierva CPA-2 is released the following year with significant improvements and is quite substantial in setting world altitude records and a cross-country flight by Amelia Earhart. It also earns government approval for the first non-conventional aircraft. The CPA-2 is today’s modern helicopter’s ancestor and initialized the groundwork for the powered rotor blade.

Amelia Earhart and her PCA-2 (courtesy Purdue University)

On April 8, 1931, Amelia Earhart set a world altitude record of 18,415 feet in a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro at Pitcairn Field. She held that record for over a year until Lewis Yancy piloted a PCA-2 on September 25, 1932, setting a new world altitude record of 21,500 feet.

James G. Ray, the chief pilot for Pitcairn, lands a PCA-2 autogiro on the south lawn of the White House on April 22, 1931, before President Hoover and leading aviation authorities in Harold Pitcairn’s acceptance of the Collier Trophy for the development of the autogiro.

Noorduyn Norseman (courtesy B. Nord)

Even though Harold Pitcairn built the PA-19, Robert B.C. Noorduyn is responsible for designing the first enclosed four-seater autogiro while working as a designer at the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogyro Company in 1932. If his name sounds familiar, he is best known for the legendary Canadian Noorduyn Norseman bush plane built in the 1930s.

Juan de la Cierva lost his life at the age of 41 when a plane he was on crashed after take-off on December 9, 1936. He boarded a Dutch DC-2 of a KLM airliner at Croydon Airfield bound for Amsterdam. The flight later departs around 10:30 am after being delayed earlier by heavy fog. During take-off, the DC-2 veered off the white guidelines on the grass runway and crashed into the roof of a building towards the end of the runway. Only 2 of the 17 passengers on board survive and is the single worst accident in British history at that time.

Harold Pitcairn and his team built many more autogyros variations up to 1943, with the PA-44 being the last model, but never delivered due to cooling issues. His company changed names two more times, to Pitcairn-Larsen Autogiro Company Incorporated in February 1941 and finally to AGA Aviation Corporation in December of the same year. The US Navy purchased Pitcairn Field in 1942, expanded it, and renamed the site United States Naval Air Station Willow Grove. The G&A Division of the Firestone Rubber Company acquired AGA Aviation Corporation in 1946 and, renamed to the Firestone Aircraft Company in 1947. As momentum gained on the new helicopter’s popularity, the autogyro lost interest, and by 1946, most manufacturers are producing helicopters under contracts for the US government. With the beloved autogyro’s enthusiasm fading, Harold Pitcairn decided to dissolve the Pitcairn Autogiro Company in 1948. Dealing with the loss of his company and seeing his patents used by other manufacturers and the government without compensation, Mr. Pitcairn hires legal counsel to pursue litigation for the illegal use of his registered patents starting in 1951. I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for him. A man, an inventor who designed the Pitcairn Mailwing for reliable airmail service on the East Coast, flown through Pitcairn Aviation, later becoming Eastern Airlines after the sale. A pioneer who developed the autogiro and patents that resulted in the modern helicopter, and to see his designs used illegally without compensation must have been infuriating and agonizing. Harold Pitcairn would never know the victory he so rightfully deserved, and on April 23, 1960, he took his own life at the age of 62. Litigation continued after his death. In 1977 the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Pitcairn of the infringement that the Autogiro Company’s rotor-wing patents legally owned and awarded his estate $32 million for lost compensation.