Gyrocopters are not a new phenomenon. They have been around since the 1920’s in various forms and have continued to evolve into today’s modern sport gyrocopter. They were conceived to be the first “safe” airplane due to the large number of airplane crashes occurring in the nascent days of aviation.
Their existence can be attributed to two individuals, Juan de la Cierva of Spain and Harold Pitcairn of Pennsylvania, USA. Each of these men were independently inspired to create a “safe” airplane. In 1923, the first controlled flight of a rotary-wing aircraft occurred when test pilot Lt. Gomez Spencer flew Juan de la Cierva’s autogiro in Madrid, Spain. It wasn’t until they combined forces that the first commercially viable gyrocopter was born. The Detroit News became the owner of the Pitcairn PCA-2 with a 300 HP Wright engine. It was a tandem open cockpit design with a conventional airplane like fuselage and stubby wings which were used to turn the aircraft. The movable rotor head had yet to be developed.
You might remember the retired postal worker who landed a gyrocopter on the White House lawn in April 2015. However, this was not the first time a gyrocopter graced the lawn of the White House. Pitcairn test pilot Jim Ray landed one on the White House lawn on April 22, 1931. Back then it was more acceptable.
All of the early gyroplanes were of the tractor design, that is with the propeller up front. There is one notable exception though. Buhl Aircraft designed a pusher gyroplane, the A-1 Autogiro in 1931. While prescient of today’s gyroplanes only one was ever built. Pusher designs would not become popular until Igor Bensen introduced his line of gyroplanes.
The early gyroplanes also basically used aircraft fuselages to which they attached a rotor. They incorporated stubby wings or outriggers with ailerons attached since the first gyroplanes did not have a controllable head, termed direct control, so turns and climbs utilized conventional aircraft control surfaces, ailerons and elevator. Direct control was eventually developed, initially only in one axis such as pitch or roll but eventually incorporating both thus eliminating the need for the conventional aircraft control surfaces. Direct control is how modern gyroplanes are controlled.