Harold Pitcairn

Video provided by Industrial.com.

Video provided by Industrial.com

Harold Pitcairn was born in 1897. The son of a Pittsburgh industrialist, who founded the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG), Harold gained an interest in aviation from the success of the Wright Brothers 1903 flight.

In the closing days of World War I Harold began his flight training as a cadet and would continue to pursue his flight training until being signed off by none other than Orville Wright himself.

Pitcairn had met a lad by the name of Agnew Larson, as a cadet in flight school, and they would later enter into producing a successful airplane called the “Mailwing”. Business was going well for the two young entrepreneurs but Harold found a new interest in what a Spanish noble was doing with a new invention called the Autogiro. The Spaniard, Juan de la Cierva had recently developed the technology to make rotary - wing flight possible. By keeping the wing moving at the proper angle and velocity Cierva reasoned correctly that the rotating wing would not stall as readily as in fixed wing aircraft. This was really a major breakthrough for rotary wing development and Cierva developed and patented his design. The benefit of producing an aircraft that would not stall enticed Pitcairn to take a closer look at what might be possible with the Cierva Autogiros. Pitcairn had seen the results from the use of his aircraft delivering mail for the government and on more than one occasion an aircraft was lost and possibly a life from the aircraft stalling.

Pitcairn Mailwing

Harold’s’ clout from his previous success with the “Mailwing” and newly found passion for the autogiro made the perfect combination for success in the U.S. market to build and sell Cierva’s Autogiros. In 1929 Pitcairn and Cierva agreed to terms and The Pitcairn Autogiro Company (PCA) was formed.

Pitcairn was untiring in his efforts to see his company succeed and proceeded to build, test, research and promote the autogiro for the next year and a half. At the time of the meeting with Cierva Pitcairn purchased a C.8W from Cierva to ship to the United States to introduce and use for testing of future autogiro designs. The autogiro (NC418) was reassembled at Pitcairn Field, PA and flown by Cierva pilot Arthur “Dizzy” Rawson on December 18, 1928, and then soon flown by Pitcairn himself, there is some debate as to when the Pitcairn flight actually occurred. Pitcairn company historian Carl Gunther claims that Pitcairn flew immediately after Rawson on the 18th, but the Autogiro Company of America 1932’s publication maintained that the first flight occurred on both the 18th and 19th of December. It seems more plausible that flight training and testing took place over the two day period but this is simply personal speculation. Providing the 18th of December is correct day of the first flight, it would be twenty-five years and a day since the Wright brothers first flew on their historic flight. Nevertheless, Pitcairn had both introduced the autogiro and became the first rotary wing pilot on the North American Continent in the winter of 1928.

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His devotion and commitment did not go unnoticed as in 1930 Harold Pitcairn received the prestigious Collier Trophy.

Using the C.8.W as a test bed, Pitcairn refined the design into something of his own and called the design the PCA-1. Continuing on the PCA-1 design Pitcairn developed the A and B models. The original C.8.W that Pitcairn used was requested and put on loan to the Smithsonian Museum in 1931.

Pitcairns’ next model of autogiro would be a huge success, the PCA-2. The PCA-2 was the pinnacle of rotorcraft design at the time. It was as fast as many fixed-wing designs, could carry a fair payload and make short field takeoffs and landings (STOL) with ease. The company had refined the principal of rotor prerotation that would earn the autogiro its trademark STOL characteristics. It was the development of his prerotator that Pitcairn would make “jump takeoff” practical.

Pitcairn PCA-2.

The PCA-2 was greatly accepted into the general public. In almost every major city a Pitcairn PCA-2 found a mission. The aircraft were not cheap and most were used by large companies and corporations for publicity, a sort of status symbol for the company. Some did find their way into private hands performing rides-for-hire, aerial photography and survey, selecting air routes for the up and coming airline industry, carrying mail, and agricultural spraying operations among the many tasks the aircraft could perform.

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Some people of notoriety who found their way into the cockpit of a Pitcairn Autogiro include Roscoe Turner, Charles Lindberg, and Amelia Earhart. It was very posh at the time to be involved with this new technology and any pilot worth his or her salt wanted to show their mastery of the air by piloting an autogiro as well. There were new frontiers to explore in altitude, speed and endurance and these pilots had the daring to find the limits of man and machine.

Remarkably, Cierva and Pitcairn continued to improve their designs and seek better technologies to get the most efficient performance from their designs. From the design evidence both were seeking solutions to the same issues and each found similar though different means of controlling, directing or harnessing the forces and issues being addressed. Jump take-off, adjustable masts and rotor trim controls and many other innovative ideas were put into practical application during this period.

Pitcairn continued to develop and market several models of autogiros. Both Cierva and Pitcairn were also starting to gain additional licensee’s to build autogiros such as Buhl, and Kellet. Kellet, based in Philadelphia, was even beginning to find its own success with their designs. Buhl on the other hand developed the first pusher configuration of autogyro but did not find the same success as Kellet.

At this great time in gyroplane history the proverbial shoe decided to fall. First, the founding father of the autogiro, Juan de la Cierva, died in a plane crash (KLM DC-2). While the Cierva Company had secured many license to build his design, at Cierva’s passing many companies turned their attention elsewhere. The Cierva Company itself would even change its development from autogiros to helicopter development.

The next shoe to fall was the autogiros greatest ambassador; Harold Pitcairn was fatally wounded from an accidental gunshot.

Kellet would continue to produce limited numbers of autogiros up to the Second World War but without Cierva and Pitcairn the future of autogiro development would enter a Dark Age for the next twenty years.

Not to help matters for the autogiro industry, Sikorsky managed to acquire the fully articulated rotor design, that Cierva had invented, to develop his helicopter designs. In 1938 the world was shocked when the Germans unveiled movies of a fully controllable helicopter that was being flown indoors by a female pilot by the name of Hanna Reitsch.

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Hanna flew the helicopter, a Fa-61, indoors putting on demonstrations for a solid week. Every major nation in the world now sought the capabilities and technology to develop their own helicopter. This attitude practically doomed the future of the autogiro and autogyro research. Ironically, the same company, Focke-Achgelis, that developed the Fa-61 also played a role (unknowingly) in the re-emergence of the gyroplane when Focke-Achgelis developed a gyro kite, model designation Fa-330. Harold Pitcairn had refined and developed his autogiros to be the most widely purchased, flown and recognizable autogiro in history. Pitcairn developed more versions or models of gyroplanes than any other U.S. manufacturer starting with the PCA-1 through the PA-36.

Pitcairn autogyro flown by Steve Pitcairn, Harold Pitcairn's son. Video provided by T. Chick.

Two decades later the passion for gyroplanes that had fueled Pitcairn's creative spirit would find a new home in the heart of a Russian born immigrant, who would develop an aircraft called a Gyro-Copter, Igor Bensen.

Pitcairn Autogiro Models and Known Quantities Built

Year________________Model_____________________Known Number Built


1931-32.............PCA-2..................24 (Incl.XOP-1 models)













The data above derived from numbers as noted in "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Helicopters", by Giorgio Apostlol, copyright 1984 Arnoldo Mondadori Editore SpA.,Milano.

It is within these numbers that we can see that Pitcairn was attempting to advance the technology. As to what final form Pitcairn was seeking for his autogiros one can only speculate. Pitcairn's PA-36 cabin style, all aluminum, four-place autogiro was the largest certificated autogiro at the time. His advancements in control, stability, and performance were very advanced for a newly found industry. Perhaps the companies move following his death is the key. Following Pitcairn's passing the company started concentrating on helicopter development. The company was soon acquired by Firestone and became the Firestone Glider and Autogiro Company (Firestone G&A).

Picture of Harold Pitcairn provided by Craig Harmon and The Lincoln Highway Museum.

Notable Achievements of Harold Pitcairn

1928 Introduced rotary-wing aircraft to the United States with a Cierva C.8.W piloted by pilot “Dizzy” Rawson.

1928 Pitcairn becomes the first American to pilot a rotary wing aircraft on the North American Continent.

1929 Becomes first North American Licensed Manufacturer of Cierva Autogiros, founding the Pitcairn Autogiro Company.

1930 Develops the PCA-1,the first Pitcairn designed autogiro.

1930-31 Develops the PCA-2 and in 1931 secures certification for the United States first commercial rotorcraft.

1930 Receives the Collier Trophy.

1930-31 Develops the prerotator and develops the “jump takeoff” process.

1931 Buhl certificates the worlds first pusher driven autogiro under license of Pitcairn.

1932-1936 Continued research and development on autogiro stability. Incorporates adjustable fore & aft mast system and rotor trim controls in various production designs.

1966- From the written record from legal proceedings the court found Harold Pitcairn as the key person responsible for rotary wing development in the United States.

In six short years, Harold Pitcairn and his company took a basic Cierva C.8.W and then set about designing and producing multiple models of autogiros. A feat that has not been duplicated by any other certificated gyroplane manufacturer since. Pitcairn's marketing and publicity/media skills gave the autogiro acceptance to the general public providing the foundation for future gyroplane interest in the United States and abroad. Pitcairn’s contribution to autogiros in the United States cannot be underestimated, prior to Pitcairn and the Cierva C.8.W the North American Continent had never seen a flying rotary wing aircraft. Pitcairn’s talent at staging public events and gaining the trust and notoriety of the top flyers of the day provided the credible evidence of this new technology to the general public. Had this foundation of public acceptance of rotary wing flight not been established the outcome might not have been nearly as receptive when the shift from gyroplane research turned to helicopter development in the following years.

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That Harold Pitcairn is the founding father of rotary wing aviation in North America cannot be disputed, Pitcairn and Larsen were issued 270 basic patents for rotary wing aircraft and vertical lift devices. Even the triumphs of Sikorsky would not have been realized without Cierva’s fully articulated rotor design. This design provided Igor Sikorsky the stability he was seeking. This is not meant to diminish Sikorsky and what he accomplished but historically it was the research, development and technology from the gyroplane that made the helicopter a practical reality. Sikorsky also had fewer obstacles to break in people accepting his new invention. The helicopter had been produced in somewhat successful applications overseas in both France and Germany prior to Sikorsky. Sikorsky had managed to develop a design that was practical enough to develop into an actual production rate aircraft. Had Germany continued to fund and support the Focke-Achgelis helicopter developments the story may have had different results but it was Igor that made many peoples dreams into a reality. Consider that practically every autogiro company around the world went into helicopter research and they still did not find the right approach to harnessing vertical flight Sikorsky certainly deserves credit in producing the world’s first commercially certified helicopter.

On March 5, 1966 the Trial Examiner in a legal case for government liable, came to a 232 page decision that concluded, “Harold Pitcairn had been the key person in the development of the rotary wing industry in the United States, a true pioneer.” Damages were awarded in the amount of 31.4 million dollars on 12 July, 1977 and affirmed by the Supreme Court on 23 July, 1977 including an additional award of $600,000 for delay of payment for a total of $32,048,738.

Unfortunately Pitcairn would never see the legal justification of his contributions, July 23, 1960, following a family event for Harold’s older brother, Raymond’s 75th birthday, tragedy befell the great pioneer. According to accounts at the time, the party had been a great event and Pitcairn appeared to be in high spirits that evening. Upon his arrival back to his home from the party, Pitcairn went about his normal nightly routine of securing the home, a procedure he had started since the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping. Pitcairn would secure the homes windows and doors while brandishing a loaded Savage .32 caliber, semi-automatic, pistol. Harold’s wife Clara soon rushed to the study from the sound of a gunshot and found her husband’s body over the top of his desk, located in the study, with a gunshot wound to the head.

The circumstances of Harold Pitcairn’s death remain a mystery even decades later. The media reported the death initially as a suicide but according to accounts, the police investigation reported that two shots were fired. One shot was found in the ceiling over the desk and another struck Pitcairn in the eye. Clara requested that the inquiry come to an end, and stated that she never wished to speak of the incident again.

With Pitcairn’s death so ended the autogiro and perhaps it is good for us to now call the machine by another name. It preserves a time in history for the autogiro and the new approach to the future of sustained autorotative flight. While we cannot forget where we came from, maybe it is appropriate that we honor those men and women of the period with an aircraft that was truly theirs.

It is out of respect for these people and their contribution to rotary-wing flight that gyroplanepassion.com uses a vintage autogiro in its logo. It is a reminder of what those before us had to overcome, the sacrifices they made and all they did to provide the inspiration and passion for the gyroplane.

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The Wright Brothers: www.first-to-fly

Collier Trophy: www.naa.aero

C.8.W:The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum

PCA-2: www.airventure.org

Pitcairn Model Data: "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Helicopters" by Giorgio Apostola, copyright 1984, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore SpA.,Milano. ISBN: O-517-439352

Pitcairn Mailwing: www.airminded.net

Harold Pitcairn: The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum

Harold Pitcairn: The Lincoln Highway Museum

Pitcairn Field:www.airfirlds-freeman.com

Pitcairn Autogiro Construction Numbers: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Helicopters, By Giorgio Apostolo, ISBN: 0-517-439352.

Video provided by: www.aero-tv.net

Video provided by: Industrial.com

Additional video provided by: T. Chick

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