There’s a great article by Meg Godlewski at General Aviation News about the Pitcairn PAA-1, an autogiro marketed to private pilots in the early 1930s. The article includes a glorious set of photos by Flickr user FlyerMedia of the Pitcairn at an airshow in April, 2010, but not any of it going off into the wild blue yonder. That’s cool; you can check it out in flight in the videos below.
You might recognize the Pitcairn from The Rocketeer, in which Howard Hughes flies one, or the concept of the autogiro in general from The Road Warrior. Thirty years before that, autogiros were popular in comic books and pulp fiction in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s because of their exotic look. They’re guaranteed to appeal to hipsters now because of that word we no longer say, ever, EVER, under any circumstances, even under the threat of having Ren Faire flunkies in top hats and chaos tattoos ask us testily if Vampire: The Masquerade is also no longer cool.
Anyway, back to the Pitcairn. Manufactured by the Pitcairn company, which was also at times called the Autogiro Company of America, the Pitcairn PAA-1 was one of the earliest attempts to market an autogiro to private pilots in the US.
An autogiro, sometimes spelled “autogyro” and sometimes called a “gyroplane” or “rotaplane,” was invented by Spanish civil engineer Juan de la Cierva in the early ’20s. The autogiro is not a helicopter and not an airplane, but it functions a lot more closely to an airplane. The overhead rotors do provide the necessary lift to keep the thing in the air. However, unlike a helicopter the rotors are unpowered, and rotate only because air is flowing over them once the front propeller gets the craft up to sufficient speed.
The advantage Cierva was looking for is that the craft can fly at very slow speeds — but it can’t do anything even remotely close to hovering like a helicopter. Flight control in most autogiros is provided by controlling the rotors; Pitcairn’s PAA-1 was one of the first commercially produced autogiros to incorporate control surfaces on the wings.
The currently-flying Pitcairn PAA-1 showcased in Godlewski’s General Aviation News post has a 160-horsepower engine and is owned by Jack and Kate Tiffany of New Carlisle, Ohio. Godlewski caught up with it at the Fun ‘n’ Sun airshow. She says it’s the only airworthy Pitcairn left in the world; only 18 of these puppies were built. When the craft appeared at the Air Venture air show, there were about 3,000 people waiting to see take to the skies. The craft normally lives at the Champaign Air Museum in Urbana, Illinois (which you can “like” on Facebook if you’re into that sort of thing).
Godlewski quotes pilot Andrew King on what it’s like to fly this beaut:
King estimates that the aircraft lifts off at 25 to 30 mph and lands at just about zero. “If you do it right, it will stop about 2 feet off the ground and it will just plop down,” said King. “Approach speed won’t stall if you get too slow, it just settles into a vertical descent. I have read stories about people landing them that way from about 500 feet — just pulling the stick all the way back and settling to the ground because it is like a parachute — but I don’t dare do it, I am afraid I might bend something. I usually hold about 45 mph on final. You flare when you get near the ground as you are coming down very steep.”
King noted that the Pitcairn is not necessarily a challenging aircraft to fly, but it does have some limitations. “The Pitcairn can’t take any crosswind,” he said, “It uses ailerons for banking and the ailerons do nothing at landing speed, so about the last 10 feet of the landing you are basically a parachute. If you get any sideways drift you can’t correct and you’re so top heavy it will tip over and that’s bad.” This tendency to tip over resulted in the destruction of many Pitcairns, he said.
Autogiros are mostly called “gyrocopters” or “autogyros” nowadays, because the term “autogiro” legally only applies to licensees of Cierva’s descendent company. They’re definitely a hobbyist’s game, they’ve got their devotees. If you live in New Zealand, you can fulfil all your gyrocopter needs at Autogyro New Zealand, which also publishes Autogyro News. In the U.S., American Autogyro markets the Sparrowhawk III.