Harold Pitcairn

Harold Pitcairn

Enshrined 1995

Pitcairn devoted a quarter of a century prior to World War II to developing rotary-wing flight. He flew the first rotary-wing craft, or autogiro in the U.S. His autogyros were so safe and agile that his pilots made headlines with stunts. One of these stunts was landing on the White House lawn when Pitcairn received the Collier Trophy from President Hoover on April 22nd, 1931.

In 1916 attended the Curtiss Flying School in Newport News and graduated from the Army Air Cadet School in 1918.

    By 1927, he and Agnew Larsen experimented with helicopters and developed a flying model with 42-inch diameter rotor blades and carbon dioxide jets on the rotor tips.
    Received the Collier Trophy for his autogiro development and application in 1930.
    Pitcairn and Larsen were issued 270 basic patents for vertical lift and rotary wing aircraft.
    Developed the PA-5 Mailwing improving reliability and cargo capacity for airmail planes. Pitcairn held most airmail routes on the east coast.


From boyhood airplanes had fascinated Harold Pitcairn. In 1916, he attended the Curtiss Flying School at Newport News, Virginia, and later graduated from the Army Air Cadet School in 1918. With a fellow aviation enthusiast, Agnew E. Larsen, they began experiments with models, photos of which bear a startling resemblance to today’s swept-wing supersonic aircraft.

In 1923, Pitcairn purchased his first plane, a Farman two-seat biplane and continued to take flying lessons. He and Larsen began experimenting with rubber band powered helicopters. This research led to the issue of 270 basic patents for vertical lift and rotary wing aircraft.

By 1927 they developed a flying model with 42 inch diameter rotor blades and carbon dioxide jets at the rotor tips. It displayed amazing stability, and excellent auto-rotational characteristics. Pitcairn naturally took to the air for business travel, hiring a plane and a pilot, James J. Ray, from Curtiss. When Pitcairn launched his own aircraft manufacturing and flying service business, he hired Ray as chief pilot of Pitcairn Aviation. In 1925 Pitcairn produced the five-place Fleetwing PA-1 for passenger service.

About this time he became aware of the work of the Spanish inventor, Juan de la Cierva, who called his vertical lift aircraft the Autogiro. It became evident that de la Cierva had already developed a similar flight concept and had successfully tested the new type of aircraft. The timing was fortuitous. Already in business, Pitcairn envisioned moving into commercial air transport. He went to Europe to study the operations of British Imperial Airways, Air France, and KLM and to see de la Cierva while there.

The PA-2 Sesqui-Wing Racer was the second Pitcairn design, and won the 1926 National Air Races in two classes. Next was the PA-3 Orowing Trainer of which 35 were built, followed by the PA-4, a sleek sport biplane. Sightseeing flights were begun at $5 for ten minutes. Five Pitcairn flight schools were established on the East Coast. Charter flights and aerial photography were added to the business.

When the federal government announced plans to contract with private operators to carry air mail, Pitcairn studied the possibilities and decided to bid for the route from New York to Atlanta. The decision to bid on the air mail contract was a commitment to maintain a flight schedule which no existing plane could meet. Pitcairn had to design and build an aircraft that would carry 600 pounds of mail. The aircraft would also have the speed and cruising radius to fly the mail out of Atlanta at the close of the business day and arrive in New York for first mail delivery the next morning. Pitcairn won this contract and later bid for and won the Atlanta-Miami contract giving Pitcairn the contract for most of the East Coast.

The PA-5 Mailwing was specifically designed for this work. It had a top speed of 136 m.p.h. and cruised at about 120 m.p.h. Like all Pitcairn planes it was fast, very stable, easy to handle, and had pleasing clean lines. The first Mailwing built now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., and carries the livery of Pitcairn and Eastern for which it carried the mail. With the PA-6, PA-7, and PA-8 designs, the Mailwing continued to improve in speed, economy, reliability, and doubled the load capacity. The Pitcairn organization became highly esteemed throughout the industry.

In addition to Chief Engineer Agnew Larsen, Pitcairn had other fine engineers and designers: Harlan Fowler, who later originated the Fowler flap in which the whole trailing edge of the wing retracted or extended, making it possible to reduce landing speed by 30% and, Paul Stanley, a great mathematician who really understood Cierva’s theory of flight, and had much to do with the Pitcairn patents which were held by the Autogyro Company of America.

Many private pilots bought Pitcairn planes for their own use. Howard Hughes ordered a PA-5 with a chrome-plated engine. Felix du Pont did better than that: he ordered a PA-5 with gold-plated rocker covers. In addition to the airlines, state and federal agencies also purchased Pitcairn Mailwings, which won top awards for efficiency, load carrying, short landing and quick takeoff.

In 1928, Pitcairn flew a Cierva C-8 Autogiro in England and brought it to America. After exhaustive flight tests, Pitcairn began designing his own Autogiros, often improving on Cierva’s technology, and thus introduced the safest aircraft flown in this country.

In 1929, the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogyro Company of America was formed to license the manufacture of Autogyros in the United States under the de la Cierva patents. Pitcairn had become convinced that the future of aviation was with rotary wing, vertical lift aircraft. As a result, he sold his airmail line and his company, Pitcairn Aviation, to a syndicate of Curtiss Wright and General Motors for $2,500,000 in July of 1929. The purchasers changed the name to Eastern Air Transport, which eventually became Eastern Airlines in 1934.

From then on Pitcairn and his staff devoted all their talents and energy to the Autogyro. Their efforts received recognition in the form of the highest honor in American aviation, the Collier Trophy for 1930, awarded for the development and application of the Autogiro. President Hoover awarded the trophy on the lawn of the White House in 1931. Pitcairn’s extensive experimentation improved flight characteristics, developed “jump takeoff,” and designed the Roadable Autogiro, also on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

Due to patent infringement by helicopter manufacturers and the government, Pitcairn instituted a monumental law suit which went all the way to the Supreme Court. After 28 years of litigation the court ruled that the rotary wing patents of the Autogiro Company of America had been infringed and Harold F. Pitcairn was granted the victory.

Harold Pitcairn died in 1960.

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