Pitcairn Aircraft Company

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Pitcairn Aircraft Company
Aircraft Manufacturer
Successor Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company, Company of America (ACA, Pitcairn-Larsen Autogiro Company, AGA Aviation Corporation, G and A Aviation.
Founded 1927
Defunct 1948
Headquarters Willow Grove, Pennsylvania
Key people
Harold Frederick Pitcairn
Products Commercial aircraft
Subsidiaries Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company
a PA-5 Mailwing in the Air and Space Museum

The Pitcairn Aircraft Company was an American aircraft manufacturer of light utility aircraft. An early proponent of the autogyro, the company, later known as the Autogiro Company of America among other names, would remain in business until 1948.


Harold Frederick Pitcairn, the youngest son of PPG Industries founder, John Pitcairn, Jr., founded Pitcairn Aircraft Company. The business started with the formation of Pitcairn Flying School and Passenger Service on 2 November 1924 which later became Eastern Airlines.[1]

In 1926, Pitcairn started Pitcairn Aircraft Company initially to build aircraft for his growing airmail service. He purchased a field in Horsham Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and built Pitcairn Field no. 2.[2]


The first aircraft, a Pitcairn PA-1 Fleetwing was built at the Bryn Athyn field.[3] In 1927, Pitcairn brought aboard a friend and designer from his apprenticeship days at Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, Agnew E. Larsen. Larsen left the Thomas-Morse Aircraft company to join Pitcairn.[1] In June 1927, the state of the art Wright Whirlwind powered Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing was introduced for airmail service. The plane proved popular and was bought by thirteen other companies.[3] In 1928, Pitcairn purchased a Cierva C.8W and the American manufacturing rights from Juan de la Cierva for his autogiro designs[4][5] for $300,000.[6] In 1929, Pitcairn formed a separate patent holding company to build autogiros, the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company, which was later renamed the Autogiro Company of America. Kellett autogyros competed with, and eventually licensed production rights from Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company for $300,000.[citation needed] As a part of the licensing agreement, Pitcairn used Cierva's copyrighted variant of the name Autogiro (capitalized and spelled with an i) as opposed to the currently more common spelling of autogyro which was initially used to bypass his copyright.

Licensed Kellet K-2
A restored PA-18

In 1929, three prototypes were built with one being demonstrated in the 1929 Cleveland Air Races. Following a fire in November 1929, The first PCA-1 was built and tested the same month.[7] In June 1929,Clement Keys personally bought all the shares of Pitcairn Aviation (The airline and flying school) for 2.5 million dollars, and resold them two weeks later to North American Aviation, which renamed the company Eastern Air Transport, and finally Eastern Airlines.[8] From this point on, Pitcairn focused on autogiros.

In 1931 the company was renamed to the Autogiro Company of America (ACA).[7] In 1931, The Detroit News made history when they bought the first Pitcairn PCA-2 for use as a news aircraft due to it ability to fly well at low altitude and speed, land and take off from restricted spaces and semi-hover for better camera shots. This PCA-2 was the ancestor of today's news helicopters.[9] Also in 1931, pilot James G. Ray landed an autogiro on the South lawn of the White House. Harold F. Pitcairn, the pilot and three other company members of the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company were present to receive the Collier Trophy for their development of the autogyro.[10]

In 1932, autogyro inventor Cierva was greeted by U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who predicted in the future we would have large transport autogyros.[11] Amelia Earhart borrowed a company Pitcairn PCA-2 model. She arranged for the National Aeronautics Association to monitor the flight. Members of the New York press and Movietone News were invited to watch. On her second flight, she remained airborne for about three hours and set a woman's autogiro altitude record of 18,415 feet. Later she toured the country for Beech-Nut Packing Company in a bright green autogiro. On the return trip she crash landed in Abilene, Texas earning her a reprimand from the United States Department of Commerce. A second crash at the Michigan state fair, caused an unintended injury of her husband's ankle as he ran to the scene.[12]

In 1933, the parent company and conventional aircraft manufacturing arm, Pitcairn Aircraft Company merged with the autogiro arm, following the end of Mailwing production, and contract air-mail flights.

On December 9, 1936, Juan de la Cierva died in a crash of a KLM DC-2.[6] The Cierva Autogiro Company, Ltd., largely financed by the Scottish marine engineering firm of G&J Weir, Ltd.,was then engaged in development of the autodynamic rotor, unworkable features of which were abandoned to produce the C.40 jump-takeoff Autogiro for the British Air Ministry. Pitcairn's engineering staff utilized a different and more practical means of providing jump-takeoff performance which was applied to the PA-36, PA-39, and XO-60 Autogiros. The C.40 was the last Autogiro produced by the British company, the activities of which were suspended with the outbreak of World War II.

Pitcairn was kept apprised of the activities of the Cierva Autogiro Company which proposed the Gyrodyne to the Royal Navy in 1938 in response to a requirement for a ship-borne rotorcraft capable of hovering. Pitcairn's staff was similarly engaged in the design of such an aircraft, modifying the AC-35 Autogiro for the purpose. The G&J Weir, Ltd., Aircraft Department was engaged in the development of the W-5 helicopter which was similar in configuration to that of the Focke-Wulf FW-61. Though holding a construction license for the Cierva C.19 and C.30 Autogiros, which did not include access to any theoretical information or patented technology, Focke-Wulf engaged in a systematic study of publicly available documents as well as original research to develop the FW-61. The British Government attempted, both through its own offices and those of G&J Weir, Ltd., to license FW-61 technology but were presented with onerous terms which were rejected. Though urged to abandon the Autogiro and instead pursue helicopter development, Pitcairn considered the former aircraft to offer more utility to the private flyer and largely ignored the latter. This decision was to consign Pitcairn's rotary-wing activities to the sidelines as new companies appeared that took advantage of his pioneering work with the Autogiro that was readily applied to helicopter development.

In 1938, the company was renamed to the Pitcairn-Larsen Autogiro company, and again in 1940 to the AGA Aviation Corporation.[3]

In 1942, Pitcairn's airfield and facilities at Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, were condemned by the US government for which he received $480,000, forming the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove. AGA Aviation was now renamed to G and A Aviation, and became part of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. Under threat by the US government of receiving no payment for his proprietary rotary-wing technology, Pitcairn reduced royalties for 19 in-house patents and 145 licensed patents to subcontractors of the government during wartime. After 1946, other manufacturers continued to produce helicopters under contracts with the US government which the latter assumed all indemnification for payment of royalties. The Pitcairn Autogiro Company was dissolved in 1948. Pitcairn continued to pursue litigation for use of the patents by other firms in 1951 that stretched into a 1977 Supreme Court Case awarding Pitcairn's estate[13] 32 million dollars.[6]

Military operations

The US Navy evaluated a PCA-2 in 1931, designated as Pitcairn OP on the aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV-1), to become the first rotary wing craft to land on a ship at sea.[14]

In 1940, six Pitcairn PA-18 autogyros were converted to Pitcairn PA-39 models for convoy escorts for the Fleet Air Arm.[15]


Pitcairn's influence on early airmail service and rotary-wing flight have inspired several museums to display Pitcairn aircraft prominently.


Summary of aircraft built by Pitcairn Aircraft Company
Model name First flight Number built Type
Pitcairn PA-1 Fleetwing 1926 - Five passenger commercial biplane
Pitcairn PA-2 Sesquiwing 1926 1 Commercial biplane
Pitcairn PA-3 Orowing 1926 35 Commercial biplane
Pitcairn PA-4 Fleetwing II 1927 10 Sport biplane
Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing 1927 106 Commercial airmail biplane
Pitcairn PA-6 Super Mailwing 1928 - PA-5 Mailwing modified with more cargo capacity
Pitcairn PA-7 Super Mailwing 1929 28 PA-6 Mailwing with three passenger capacity
Pitcairn PA-8 Super Mailwing 1930 6 PA-7 Mailwing with a Wright J-6 engine
Pitcairn PA-18 1932 51 Autogiro
Pitcairn PA-19 1933 1 R-975 powered autogiro with enclosed four place cabin
Pitcairn PA-20 1933 Kinner R-5 powered autogiro
Pitcairn PA-21 1932 R-975 powered autogiro
Pitcairn PA-22[17][18] 1932 1 Two place wingless experimental autogiro
Pitcairn PA-24 1933 1 Twin tail version of PA-20 autogiro
Pitcairn PA-32 1932 Enclosed biplane
Pitcairn PA-33 - Pitcairn YG-2 1935 1 US army autogiro
Pitcairn PA-34 - Pitcairn XOP-1 1937 3 US Navy autogiro
Pitcairn PA-36 1939 1 Two place aluminum body autogiro
Pitcairn PA-38 1939 0 Military autogiro design
Pitcairn PA-39 1940 6 Two place jump takeoff autogiro for Royal Navy
Summary of aircraft built by Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro
Model name First flight Number built Type
Pitcairn PCA-1 1930 Autogiro
Pitcairn PCA-2 1931 51 Autogiro
Pitcairn PCA-3 1931 1 Autogiro
Pitcairn PAA-1 1931 25 Two place sport autogiro
Pitcairn XOP-1 1932 3 Three place military autogiro
Summary of aircraft built by Autogiro Company of America
Model name First flight Number built Type
Autogiro Company of America AC-35 1936 1 Two place roadable autogiro
Summary of aircraft built by Pitcairn/AGA
Model name First flight Number built Type
Pitcairn XO-61 1943 1 Two place jump takeoff military autogiro


  1. 1.0 1.1 Donald M. Pattillo. A history in the making: 80 turbulent years in the American general aviation ...<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Old York Road Historical Society. The Morelands and Bryn Athyn.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  4. http://www.centennialofflight.net/essay/Rotary/autogiro/HE3.htm
  5. "LOCAL FLYER MAKES GOOD". Los Angeles Times. Nov 9, 1930.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Charnov, Bruce H. Cierva, Pitcairn and the Legacy of Rotary-Wing Flight Hofstra University. Accessed: 22 November 2011.
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  8. F. Robert Van der Linden. Airlines and air mail: the post office and the birth of the commercial.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Hover Plane and Camera Join News Staff", October 1931, Popular Mechanics
  10. "RAY LANDS AUTOGIRO AT THE WHITE HOUSE AUTOGIRO LANDS AT WHITE HOUSE". New York Times. April 23, 1931.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "HOOVER RECEIVES CIERVA.; Inventor Predicts Big Autogiro Transport Planes". New York Times. Jan 31, 1932.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. http://www.historynet.com/aviators-amelia-earharts-autogiro-adventures.htm
  13. "rotorcraft pioneers". Retrieved 23 January 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Autogiro Lands On Big Ships Deck", December 1931, Popular Science
  15. "Pitcairn". Retrieved 23 Jan 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Miss Champion". Retrieved 23 January 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Small Gyroplane May Bring Flying For All" Popular Mechanics, June 1935
  18. "Wingless Autogiro Parks Like An Automobile" Popular Mechanics, February 1935

"PITCAIRN TO DEVELOP AUTOGIRO IN AMERICA; Aviation Leader Announces New Concern to Promote Cierva Craft Commercially". New York Times. Feb 17, 1929.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


Brooks, Peter W. Cierva Autogiros: the Development of Rotary-Wing Flight. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

Gablehouse, Charles. Helicopters and Autogiros; A History of Rotating-wing and V/STOL Aviation. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1969.

Lightbody, Andy and Poyer, Joe. The Illustrated History of Helicopters. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Publications International, 1990.

Rotorcraft Flying Handbook. U.S. Department of Transportation. Federal Aviation Administration. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2000.

External links

External video
Pitcairn PA-36 jump take-off