“WHAT is THAT?”
That is the most common reaction when people see the Pitcairn Autogiro PA-18 fly overhead at air shows.
The 1930s-era aircraft looks like a cross between a helicopter and an airplane. The 160-hp Kinner engine sounds like that 20-inch bike you had as a kid when you put playing cards in the spokes. In short, it truly is a page of history come to life.
Owned by Jack and Kate Tiffany of New Carlisle, Ohio, the Pitcairn is the only one left in the world that is airworthy. Even in its heyday it was unusual. Only 18 were built. Today it attracts crowds like a rock star when it makes an appearance at an air show.
Earlier this year, Jack Tiffany was on hand at Sun ‘n Fun to answer questions and to make sure that the Pitcairn was safe and secure in its berth in the vintage aircraft parking after a morning demonstration flight.
“My heart drops to my feet every time we fly it,” he explained. “It is a piece of history and if we prang it, it’s gone.”
It is such a special machine, he notes, that when it was at AirVenture and slated to fly at 7 p.m. several hours after the conclusion of the air show, people stayed to watch. “There were about 3,000 on the flight line wanting to see it,” he noted. “It’s a very rare dinosaur.”
People of a certain vintage commented that they had seen the Pitcairn in the pages of action comics or in Disney cartoons in the 1930s and they were surprised to learn that it really exists. Movie buffs may remember it from the 1990s Disney film “The Rocketeer.” It was used by Howard Hughes to rescue Cliff Secord and Jenny from a burning zeppelin over Hollywood. “The Pitcairn really was flown by Howard Hughes,” Tiffany said. “It was flown by a lot of celebrities of that era.”
During Sun ‘n Fun the bright orange aircraft was parked in the front row of vintage aircraft. A series of display boards told the story of its inception, intended use, fall into disrepair, its four-year restoration, and return to flight. Today the airplane lives at the Champaign Aviation Museum, located at Grimes Field (I74) in Urbana, Ohio.
The Pitcairn Autogiro was the first rotary-wing aircraft to achieve type certification in the United States. The aircraft, which rolled off the assembly line in 1931, is a two-place tandem design.
“This model was a sports model. There was supposed to be one in every garage,” Tiffany explained. “You can’t fly this with any wind component at all, it can’t take a crosswind, and the rotors are fixed so you need a monstrous place to store it, so it was never going to be a personal airplane, but it was flown by a lot of movie people.”
It was also used for record-setting flights. In 1935 Johnny Miller was the first person to fly one across country. This feat was duplicated a short time later by Amelia Earhart.
They were also used as air taxis, notes Tiffany, recalling a story that an elderly man shared with the Pitcairn crew at Sun ‘n Fun. “He told us that when he was a kid in Miami, people used to come to town by train and then a Pitcairn would pick them up and fly them the 13 miles to the Biltmore Hotel. The route took them right over his house.”
The aircraft was lost for many years, according to Tiffany. “No one knew where it was, then my stepson found it in the Mojave Desert,” he said. “It was an extremely lucky find because in 1937 Pitcairn decided to buy all the aircraft back and take the wings off them to add new articulating rotor blades. At that time there were 13 of them left. This one was owned by Ann Strawbridge of Strawbridge Department store fame. She politely told them that she was not going to sell. Harold Pitcairn bought the other ones back and put them on a ship to England. About halfway across the Atlantic a submarine torpedoed the ship and they went to the bottom of the sea.”
Being abandoned in the desert for 40 years took its toll on the aircraft. When Tiffany acquired it in 2000, parts were missing and what was left wasn’t in the best shape. “When we got the ship, it was a derelict airplane,” Tiffany said, recalling all the cables and fittings were in the aircraft and in the right places, “but they all had to be taken out and redone,” he said. The old parts were used as patterns, he added. “We hunted high and low for missing parts.”
The Pitcairn is constructed of tube fuselage with conventional wood wings made from Sitka Spruce. The rotors are steel tube spars with wooden ribs attached. The leading edge is plywood, while the trailing edge consists of stainless steel. Each blade measures 20 feet and weighs 45 pounds and are covered with fabric. This drew exclamations of astonishment from people who were expecting to see metal blades like those on a modern helicopter.
The restoration was not without its challenges, noted Tiffany. In addition to scavenging for parts, an alternate covering for the tube and fabric design had to be found because the original Grade A cotton Irish linen is no longer available. “We used Dacron fabric,” he said. “And from the initial Dacron fabric we built it up exactly the same way that it was done in the 1930s with Nitrate Butyrate dope.”
There was some heartache with the restoration as well. The job was completed, then when the engine was started, “We ended up chopping off the tail with the rotors,” said Tiffany, shaking his head. “So we had to build four more rotors and repair the tail. We got it flying again in 2009.”
According to Tiffany, the Pitcairn doesn’t have the noise and vibration that a helicopter does. “When you are in the aircraft I guess the excitement and the joy factor override the noise factor. You don’t hear the engine,” he laughed. “You don’t hear the rotors because, unlike a helicopter, where all the downwash and noise is coming down, in this the air is going up through the rotors so all the wash and noise is above the aircraft and it will dampen out all the rough air. If you get bumped and jostled around, the rotors dampen it out as smooth as silk.”
The job of flying it at Sun ‘n Fun on that April morning belonged to Andrew King, who has flown about 120 different types of airplanes, logging about 3,000 hours, including 32 in the Pitcairn. Because the Pitcairn is a one-of-a-kind design, King had to fly modern gyrocopters to get the airplane gyrocopter rating. He also relied on literature from Pitcairn test pilots and the folklore method to learn about the aircraft’s handling characteristics.
“Johnny Miller, who was 101 at the time I talked to him, still had a good memory for the Pitcairn,” he said. “I also talked with Steve Pitcairn, who was the last person to fly one.”
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 Pitcarins, he said.
Although it was flown for sport, it didn’t really catch on with the aviation crowd, said King. “The Pitcairn can’t hover and they don’t go fast. That’s what people wanted from aircraft at the time,” he said. “People did fly them for fun, but it wasn’t the practical aircraft that the manufacturer wanted it to be.”
Tiffany noted that the sheer size of the rotor blades also made it impractical for most people. “Where would you keep it?” he asked.