A Canadian, Godfrey W. Dean, demonstrated in a PCA-2 just how maneuverable a Pitcairn gyroplane was. He performed a loop at Willow Grove on October 13, 1931. Around this time, John Miller was also doing loops in a PCA-2 gyroplane at flying exhibitions across the country.
NOTE: Doing loops in a modern gyroplane is not recommended. Modern designs are much different from those of Pitcairn. Such a maneuver will most likely result in serious injury and death.
John Miller is also credited with being the first to fly a gyroplane across the continental United States leaving Willow Grove in a PCA-2 on May 14, 1931 and landing in San Diego on June 6, 1931.
Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly a gyroplane solo and subsequently established an altitude record at the time for gyroplanes of 18,415 ft in a PCA-2 on April 8, 1931 taking off from Willow Grove, PA.
A modified PCA-2 classified as an XOP-1 supplied to the Navy became the first rotary wing aircraft to fly to and from an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Langley off Norfolk on September 23, 1931.
Recognizing the need to train pilots on how to fly the gyroplane, the Cierva Company established an Autogiro flying school in May 1932. The very first student was sixty-eight years old! A Mr.s J.G. Weir became the first woman to get an Autogiro endorsement on her current British pilot’s license. By the end of 1935 it trained nearly 300 pilots, 37 of which were ab initio students.
The first gyroplane fatality occurred on December 19, 1932. This was the pilot’s first flight in a direct control gyroplane which was also a new design in testing. At this point in time, gyroplanes had accumulated about 35,000 hours without a fatality. In comparison, fixed wing General Aviation in the United States had a reported accident rate of one fatal accident every 5000 hours in 1939.
Whether gyroplanes could compete with airplanes was resolved at the Skegness Air Race on May 14, 1932 when a C.19 MKIII came in second place.
Local government recognized the utility of gyroplanes. A C.19 MK IV was hired by the London Metropolitan Police and experimentally used in 1932 to observe and direct traffic from the air. It was used to control traffic on Derby Day, June 1 of that year, both before and after the race.
By August 1934, about 150 gyroplanes including some 44 prototypes had been built in Spain, Britain, the U.S. and France. Nearly 50,000 hours had been accumulated in gyroplanes.
The Spanish navy was the first to use gyroplanes in a military operation. They were used during a rebellion in Asturias in October 1934.
The first fatal gyroplane accident in Britain (and second overall) occurred in January, 1935 when an Army officer flew the gyroplane into a cloud and got into an unrecoverable high speed dive.
The first fatal gyroplane accident in the United States (and third overall) occurred in August 1935 in a Pitcairn PA-18 fixed spindle gyroplane at Willow Grove, PA.
A Kellett designed gyroplane, the K-3, accompanied Admiral Byrd on his second Antarctica expedition. Bryd himself flew with the pilot to reconnaissance the sea ice and other missions. It was even used successfully in a search and rescue mission in the Antarctica to find a downed fixed wing aircraft and its crew on March 24, 1934. The K-3 was destroyed on September 28 shortly after takeoff due to snow that had gotten into the fuselage which shifted the center of gravity too far aft.
A Kellett designed gyroplane, the KD-1, was the first gyroplane to incorporate direct control of the rotor. It was first flown on December 9, 1934. It was used by the Philadelphia Police Department to direct traffic during the Army-Navy games and the Pennsylvania State Game reserve used it for animal count surveys. This prototype led to the production model, KD-1A.
A Kellett KD-1A made the first Arctic flights by a rotary wing aircraft in the summer of 1937. Thus, Kellet gyrocopters were the first to fly in both Polar Regions.
A Kellett KD-1B was used by Eastern Airlines from July 1939 to July 1940 carrying up to 300 lbs of mail five times a day between Camden, NJ to the roof of the main post office in downtown Philadelphia, PA. Around 2300 flights were completed. A Pitcairn PA-22 had demonstrated the feasibility of landing and departing from the Philadelphia Post Office roof on May 25, 1935.
A PA-33 purchased by the U.S. Army in 1935 and reclassified as a YG-2 achieved a record speed at that time of 144 mph at 3,150 ft for a gyroplane.
The first flying car, the AC-35 developed by Pitcairn, is flown on March 26, 1936. It had a maximum road speed of 30 mph. The three bladed rotor could be folded over the stabilizer. The engine was mounted behind the side by side seats and could be selected to power the propeller or the single rear drive wheel. It was flown to Washington, D.C. where it landed in the streets and then was driven to the Department of Commerce who took possession of it in October 1936.
A French test pilot named Stachenburg performed a loop in a direct control C.30 in 1939.
NOTE: Doing loops in a modern gyroplane is not recommended. Modern designs are much different from those of Cierva. Such a maneuver will most likely result in serious injury and death.
Germany is known to have produced around thirty C.30s under license between 1935 and 1938. Though in June 1936, Germany had developed a successful helicopter that set many world records diminishing any further interest in gyroplanes.
In the mid-1930’s, Russia flew its first successful gyroplane, the KaSkr-II which was basically an unlicensed copy of the Cierva C.8.
On June 2, 1936 the first telephone conversation from the ground with an airborne gyroplane occurred. The telephone wire was extended from a reel and the gyrocopter, a military version of the Kellett KD-1, flew to an altitude of 1,500 ft and remained there for a half hour. This is reminiscent of a gas balloon demonstration for Abraham Lincoln on the National Mall on June 18, 1861 where the balloon floated 500 feet above the ground and sent the first air-to-ground telegraph message from the balloon to the war department situated at the White House.
Compound helicopters are basically gyroplanes once in flight. Compound helicopters takeoff and land like a helicopter with a powered rotor but once in the air the rotor is allowed to autorotate like a gyroplane. The first compound helicopter was produced in Russia in 1938. Compound helicopters are sometimes referred to as Rotodynes.
Probably the first gyroplane to be featured on television occurred on February 19, 1939 in a BBC television program specifically about gyroplanes. It featured the C.40.
By the beginning of World War II, Britain had developed around 135 gyroplanes. The war ended any further gyroplane development.
The French were the largest users of gyroplanes for military purposes. The French Air Force had 52 gyroplanes assigned to them and the French Navy another 8 as of September 1, 1939. Only the Japanese achieved large scale production of gyroplanes during WWII building some 95. However, their employment in the war effort was marginal.
Kellett Autogiro company changed its name to Kellett Aircraft Corporation in 1943 after building more than forty gyroplanes. By this period of time, helicopters were now the favored aircraft.
In 1942, the German’s developed the Focke-Achgelis FA330 which was a gyroglider towed behind a U-boat to hoist a radio antenna and to provide better surveillance of the surrounding ocean.
The British developed the Rotachute, a one man rotary wing parachute. Development ended in 1943.
The British also developed the Malcolm Rotaplane or Rotabuggy which was essentially a Willys jeep with a rotor. It was first tested in late 1943 though never saw operational service. Design work was even started on outfitting a tank with a rotor to rapidly deploy them.
The Rotachute and Rotaplane are unique in that they are the earliest incorporation of a teetering rotor commonly found in today’s gyroplanes. Pitcairn and Cierva used an elaborate flapping and drag hinge system or articulated blades to overcome dissymmetry of lift. The teetering system was first tried by Gerard Herrick in the U.S. in 1931.
A pair of Magni M16 tandem open cockpit two seater gyroplanes crossed an expanse of ocean of around 100 miles departing from Marathon Key Airport (KMTH) in Florida on May 17, 2017 and landed in Cuba. They were flying less than 100 miles an hour with just 19 gallons of fuel on board against a 30kt headwind.
A British adventurer, James Ketchell, became the first person to circumnavigate the globe, a distance of around 22,800 miles in a Magni open cockpit gyrocopter. The flight originated from Popham Airfield in the UK in March 2019 and completed the trip in September. The Magni cruises from 75 to 95 mph and holds about 21 gallons of fuel, giving it a range of about four hours.
Gyroplanes have been featured in a number of films. An open frame Bensen type was flown in Mad Max 2. It was powered by a four cylinder Volkswagen engine with a direct driven propeller. The James Bond movie featured a modified Wallis WA-116 Agile, a British gyroplane developed in the early 1960s by former Royal Air Force Wing Commander Ken Wallis. It was nicknamed Little Nellie. The movie, "It Happened One Night," with Clark Gable, includes a landing by a Kellett gyroplane.
Here are some others:
International House (W.C. Fields)
Great Skycopter Rescue
Between Time and Timbuktu
Things to Come
Wings of Tomorrow by Juan de la Cierva
Legacy of Wings by Frank Kingston Smith
Cierva Autogiros by Peter W. Brooks
There is even a gyroplane at Walt Disney World, Florida. Can you find it?
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