It is with much remorse that this tribute to a true pioneer of the autogyro comes too late. In an effort to try and preserve or document some form of our proud gyroplane contribution to aviation, www.gyroplanepassion.com regularly attempts to contact those individuals who have made landmark accomplishments in the development and promotion to the gyroplane. In the case of Mr. Miller it simply became an issue of not knowing whether the gentleman was still living or not and then the sad news of his passing.
Mr. Miller is not just a gyroplane icon but an icon of barnstorming from a time when aviation was young. That we in aviation had a voice to tell us of those early days of flying and the true daring these pioneers regularly demonstrated to promote aviation to the American public. So in the only way I know how, let’s take a walk into the life of John McDonald Miller and hear from his own words what over a century of flight has meant.
The year is 1905, a time where most homes in America have no electricity. A time where most homes do not have running water. The automobile is a very young invention that still has not seen it full potential and in the very near future the Wright Brothers will enter the history books with the first recorded powered flight. It was this event, the first powered, heavier-than-air flight, that would change the way a very lad would view the world around him for the rest of his life. The young boy, John Miller, was determined to find himself in the seat of one of these new flying machines.
In 1910, at the age of five, “Johnny” got to witness Glenn Curtiss’s historic flight down the Hudson River. According to Dr. Bruce Charnov and in an EAA interview in John Millers own words, in 1915, Johnny was fortunate enough to be able to see Ruth Law’s aircraft, a Wright B, talk to her about flying and aviation and sit in the cockpit. Ruth Law was the third woman to receive her pilot license in the United States of America.
Curtiss Video Provided By Don.
1930 would change two of these peoples lives in two very different ways. In May of 1930, Glenn Curtiss would loose his life and for Mr. Miller; another gentleman Harold Pitcairn would design and build the first American autogyro and receive the Collier Trophy in 1930.
Miller graduated from engineering school in 1927 and by 1931 had seven years worth of flying under his belt. In 1931, he also placed an order for a new aircraft a Pitcairn PCA-2. John then set about planning for a transcontinental flight across the United States.
My Thanks to Dave S. for providing the Pitcairn Autogyro video.
Some points to understand in flying during this early time in aviation is that there were no control towers, flight following, weather briefings or XM weather, no radio equipment and no aviation maps. Navigation came down to a magnetic compass and a road map or atlas. Following a course near established roads makes a lot of sense for this period of time. Flying over or near roads at a time when airfields were few and scattered, roads provided places for emergency landings, fuel and assistance if needed.
The point being Mr. Miller definitely had his work cut out for himself when he decided to attempt this transcontinental flight. . John sought out the Pitcairn Autogyro Company and placed an order for a brand new PCA-2 autogyro with order confirmation for serial number B-12. The cost of the aircraft was on the order of $5,000.00 (this converts to something around $62,078.44 in 2007 U.S. Dollars, using an online GDP calculator), so while an expensive investment we can see that Mr. Miller really got a lot of aircraft for his money. With the aircraft on order it was now time to start planning. John started gathering strip maps and atlas’s and laying out a route to fly an autogyro from Pennsylvania to California. In planning his tripMiller also had to include certain stops along the way to help earn his living as a barnstormer, one such stop would include Omaha for the air races to be held on May 17, 1931. While receiving his aerodynamics ground training for his new purchase Miller learned of Amelia Earhart’s plans to perform the same task he had planned for but with the support of a major sponsor in Beech-Nut.
Naturally, the Pitcairn senior staff would rather have the publicity of a major celebrity like Amelia over the unknown talents of the young Barnstormer of John Miller. The Pitcairn Factory had the intention of giving the Beech-Nut aircraft Millers position in production but with John learning of what was being attempted he secured local residence and received his solo training in a day and was then allowed use of a PCA-1B, belonging to the Pitcairn Factory, to continue further training in. Miller took advantage of the aircraft and flew the ship over the next few days leading to the delivery of his aircraft on 14 May, 1931. Miller named his new Autogiro “Missing Link” and after doing some local check flights with the aircraft Miller and “Missing Link” set off chasing the sun in the western sky.
Miller kept a reserved approach with his new aircraft and proceeded at a conservative airspeed in order to break in the new engine and achieve the best fuel economy he could. By day two, Miller was near Chicago and on the 16th reached Omaha and stayed the duration of the air races till the 19th. During his time at the Omaha Air Race Miller flew and gave many demonstration flights in his new ship.
Meanwhile, back in Willow Grove, Amelia was taking delivery of her aircraft but in a totally different fashion than Miller had. It has been documented that Amelia had no interest in the aerodynamics of the Autogiro and only desired to break the transcontinental record, perform her required public relations stops and continue on to other endeavors in flying.
In some accounts it is told that neither pilot new of the others intentions but in regards to Millers memoirs is that he had spoken to Earhart on at least one occasion at the Pitcairn Facilities. In either case it is only trivial other than the approach that each aviator took at preparing and understanding their aircraft for the flight each was to undertake. Interesting enough both would choose a similar flight path, one that would closely follow the path of the Lincoln Highway.
On the 28th of May John M. Miller climbed aboard his aircraft for the last leg of his flight, taking off from Lordsburg, New Mexico and landing nearly nine hours later at North Island Naval Air Station, San Diego, California. The entire trip taking 43.8 hours, he had beat “Lady Lindy” to the opposite coast. Earhart was going to continue her flight to be the first female to accomplish the trip but she damaged her aircraft and did not continue her attempt at crossing the continent.
Miller departed California on June 21st and arrived back at Pitcairn Field on June 30th. The Pitcairn mechanics looked over the Autogiro and determined the only maintenance needed was, an oil change. The aircraft and pilot had performed a great feat both performed flawlessly. Miller would continue to fly “Missing Link” a total of 2,000 hours before selling the aircraft where it went on to perform crop dusting duties. During 1932, Miller continued to Barnstorm America and show the incredible safety and performance of the Pitcairn PCA-2 Autogiro.
Earhart on the other hand continued to have mishaps with her aircraft and eventually left the design behind her after a landing incident in Detroit.
Who better to explain the events leading to Miller looping an autogyro than Miller himself:
“Before that, I had demonstrated the Pitcairn PCA-2 autogiro at quite a number of air shows (including the NARs at CLE and LAX and the Intl. Air Races at CHI, in 1933) by aerobatic performances that no pilot has duplicated, since.
After I had practiced loops during cross-country flights between air shows, I offered to do loops at the 1931 Cleveland Air Races but I was turned down. I had offered to call the loops at CLE to be the first, not saying that I had already practiced them out of sight of air show crowds. Cliff Henderson, who ran the NARs, contacted Pitcairn about it and they had said that it was too dangerous, but they had a Canadian pilot do about two loops at Pitcairn Field. The next year, 1932, I did perform at CLE. So, Pitcairn claims that their Canadian pilot did the first loops. I have not argued about it, for I had kept the practice loops secret in order to claim that the crowds at CLE would be witnessing the first attempts to loop. My mistake. My aerobatic shows took place in various places around the country, in the very depths of the depression and it was hard to make a living in aviation at that time. I had so much faith and interest in the development of the autogiro that I desired to prove it to the skeptics and nay-sayers. I just wanted to prove that the rotor would not break off. There was really stiff opposition by the fixed wing people, everywhere I performed.”
John M. Miller was widely known during the period for his aerobatic prowess in his autogiro demonstrations. He had proven the skeptics wrong and it is even more remarkable when we remember the rotor blades construction being of wood and fabric.
John Miller and the U.S. Mail
In an attempt to further promote the autogiro Miller petitioned an received the endorsement needed to test the validity of postal delivery from building to building using an autogiro. With Presidential approval Miller and Pitcairn pilot Jim Ray conducted testing landing on the U.S. Post Office located at 30th Street in Philadelphia in 1935. This lead to additional talks of regularly scheduled air -mail using gyroplanes as the mode of transportation.
Miller went to work for the Kellet Autogiro Company in 1937 taking the position as test pilot. The Kellett was modified and designated the Kellett KD-1B specially suited for the airmail role. In a publicity stunt during 1938, Miller made landings to the rooftops of the post offices in both Washington DC and Chicago. The KD-1B received ATC Number 712 in 1939 and Kellett started talking to the then major airlines about bidding on the airmail route.
Eastern Airlines entered into an agreement with Kellett Autogiro to apply for the airmail route. The establishment of this route would become the shortest airmail route in history and the first route to utilize a rotary winged aircraft. Eastern Airlines President, “Eddie” Rickenbacker gave the personal interview to Miller. Rickenbacker was impressed when Miller stated that he felt that there would be a 75% on-time performance. Rickenbacker knew he would need the expertise of an experienced autogiro pilot to lead the program and enlisted Miller into the Eastern Airline ranks. Miller secured his position at double the pay he was receiving at Kellett. Eastern Airlines bid for the government contract and received a one-year commitment at $63,000 for a 75% completion rate. Following the first year of service, Eastern agreed retain Miller in its employ with the rank of Captain and seniority from the date the mail route started in 1939.
In preparing for the beginning of air operations Miller made studies of air currents from the proposed rooftops using pieces of toilet paper. The initial flight took place with much fanfare and media coverage. As operations continued into the year John approached Eastern to secure a reserve pilot in case anything should happen to himself. Eastern balked at hiring an additional pilot but relented when in the fall Miller got sick and Eastern added a former Pitcairn pilot by the name of Lukens. Lukens was the same instructor who had checked out Miller at Pitcairn when Miller had purchased his PCA-2.
Over the course of the contract, Lukens and Miller achieved a 95% on time record and made over 2300 takeoffs and landings from the post offices. Unfortunately there had been two incidents during the year as well, both while Lukens was at the controls. One of the incidents involved an Autogiro that was damaged during strong winds and in another incident Lukens had to make a precautionary landing due to suspected carburetor icing. The experimental airmail route had established an outstanding completion record that was profitable with a very good safety record.
The words of John Miller:
“I have been somewhat disappointed at the small amount of recognition of the very successful rooftop Air Mail operation. Due to wind turbulence of complicated and changing patterns on the roof it was sometimes very difficult and I tried and succeeded in completing the project without accident, flying in winds of up to speeds of 50 mph. in order to keep the percentage of flights completed high. I had written into the bill (passed by Congress and signed by President F. D. Roosevelt) that weather restrictions applying to fixed wing aircraft would not apply to rotary-wing aircraft, due to their low speed and short landing ability. It was left to the plot’s judgment. That set a precedent. There were no flying accidents. However, after I had checked out another pilot to do some of the flying, he landed successfully in a 50 mph turbulent wind, but while taxying to have the mail unloaded with the rotor still running, the wind pushed the autogiro over on its side, breaking the rotor blades. It was not a flying accident and could have been avoided by fully stopping the rotor before taxying crosswind in such a high wind. I blame myself for that, for not sufficiently warning the pilot to avoid it. Later, a well known book about Air Mail stamp collecting erroneously stated that the autogiro Air Mail experiment ended in disaster when the autogiro fell to the street below.”
Miller would continue to serve on as an EAL Captain, an additional twenty-five years reaching his retirement from Eastern
Many Thanks to Grant for providing the Kellett Air-Mail video.
Forgotten but not Lost.
Johnny Miller fell from public sight with a “normal” job and entering his retirement. Johnny was not the publicity seeker as Earhart had been but he quietly followed the gyroplane movement and would regularly give his insight to younger pilots and academic people and relate what the early days were like.
Miller would continue to fly and speak of aviation and of the superb flying characteristics of the autogiro well into his advanced years.
Miller was interviewed as part of the EAA’s “Timeless Voices” interviews , a project to preserve the thoughts and memoirs of early aviation history.
Many great thanks to the EAA and its preservation of these historic people: Timeless Voices.
John M. Miller received the Sikorsky Award for his part in the evolution of the helicopter, a Certificate of Honor from the National Aeronautic association for his contributions to aviation, and had been made an honorary fellow in the Society of Test Experimental Pilots for having “promoted the moral obligation of the test pilot to the safety of the aerospace world.”
June 25, 2008 After a lifetime of promoting aviation, and autogiro John M. Miller passed the clouds of this world for the last time. His passing will be missed but not forgotten to the annals of aviation history. A true pioneer, barnstormer, commercial pilot and “Timeless Voice”.