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Aviators: Amelia Earhart’s Autogiro Adventures

1/3/2008 • Aviation History, Personalities

As Amelia Earhart increased speed to take off from Willow Grove in December 1930, the cold wind whipped through her short-cropped hair. The engine prerotator of the open-cockpit autogiro she was piloting engaged, and the rotor began spinning—four long blades slicing through the air above her head. Once the autogiro was aloft, air pressure kept the blades whirling. Soon she was sailing over the snowy Pennsylvania fields, practicing takeoffs and landings under the watchful eye of her tutor, James Ray, a test pilot for the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company. After bringing the autogiro in for a final landing that day, Earhart admitted she didn’t know “whether I flew it or it flew me.”

The aviatrix had earned fame two years earlier as “Lady Lindy,” the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. She logged about 500 hours of flight time prior to that trip, but did not get to take the controls of the Fokker F.VII trimotor Friendship due to her lack of instrument training. That was left to Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis Gordon, both of whom were subsequently eclipsed by their passenger’s sudden notoriety.

Earhart loved flying and kept at it, piloting a Lockheed Vega to third place in the first Women’s Air Derby in 1929 and setting three women’s world speed records in June 1930. In February 1931, she married publisher George Putnam, the promoter who had tapped her for the Friendship flight. Putnam ordered a new autogiro for his bride. The unusual aircraft had been invented by Spanish mathematician Juan de la Cierva in the early 1920s, and was being marketed by his American partner, Harold Pitcairn, developer of Mailwing biplanes.

While waiting for her own rotorcraft to arrive, Earhart borrowed a company model for practice flights. On April 8, 1931, she donned a heavy flying suit, boots and mittens to fly Pitcairn’s PCA-2 model, the fourth such aircraft built. Planning to test the autogiro’s ceiling, she carried an oxygen bottle and had arranged for the National Aeronautic Association to install a sealed barograph in the PCA-2. Putnam, hoping she would do something newsworthy, had invited members of the New York press and Movietone News to watch. The crowd of nearly 500 dispersed after her first flight, but when Earhart sailed into the sky a second time that day she remained airborne for about three hours and set a woman’s autogiro altitude record of 18,415 feet.

Among the firms eager to purchase autogiros for promotional purposes was chewing gum manufacturer Beech-Nut Packing Company, which had already taken delivery of its rotorcraft before Putnam’s was completed. Putnam decided to cancel his own autogiro order and arranged to have Earhart fly Beech-Nut’s bird on a transcontinental tour. He was on hand, along with his son David, to pass out chewing gum when she took off in the company’s vivid green rotorcraft from Newark, N.J., on May 29, 1931, accompanied by mechanic Eddie de Vaught.

Earhart had undergone a tonsillectomy just a month before, but she tackled the strenuous tour with her usual verve. The ungainly looking aircraft, with its stubby wings, 300-hp Wright Whirlwind engine and 45-foot-diameter rotor blades, drew plenty of curious spectators—and so did its famous pilot. Since the autogiro had to be refueled frequently, Earhart made many stops in small communities across the country. The weather also affected her schedule, such as when she had to land at tiny Sidney, Neb., because of strong headwinds. Often she attended luncheons and banquets in her honor dressed in her flying clothes—leather jacket, jodhpurs and boots. She explained to one writer that she had no room in the open cockpit to carry a change of clothes.

Earhart flew an average of five hours a day at about 80 mph in the autogiro. In Wyoming she landed at Cheyenne, Laramie, Parco, Rock Springs and Leroy, towns roughly 100 miles apart. The Wyoming State Tribune estimated she drew half the state capital’s population to see the strange flying contraption when she arrived on June 4. The Rock Springs newspaper claimed that 2,000 people were on hand to watch as the autogiro “dropped almost vertically from the heavens” and made a “safe and somewhat esthetic landing.”

The aviatrix explained to one Wyoming reporter that she wanted the public to realize the autogiro was “not a circus contraption” but “a practical and scientific and safe means of air navigation.” Not everyone in the aviation industry agreed with her. Many pilots expressed concern about the safety of the experimental craft, resulting in the sinister nickname “Black Maria.” But Earhart told interviewers it was “the answer to an aviator’s dream.”

In a reception typical of her stopovers, the aviatrix was greeted at Denver’s airport by a host of local luminaries, including Frederick Bonfils, publisher of the Denver Post. People crammed rooftops to watch her demonstration flight there, which was vividly recounted in the Post’s front-page story. She sped about 100 feet down the runway as the propeller spun and the rotor blades whipped the air above her. When she pulled back on the stick, “the ship jumped from the ground like a scared rabbit,” then began climbing at a 75-degree angle. After reaching an altitude of 1,000 feet, she returned to the airport, making a sound landing with “no jolt at all.”

Upon her arrival in Oakland, Calif., on June 6, throngs of onlookers stormed through barriers to greet Lady Lindy. Earhart had hoped to set a record as the first pilot to cross the country in an autogiro, so she was disappointed to learn that John Miller, the first person to purchase a PCA-2, had achieved that goal two weeks earlier.

Beech-Nut’s autogiro had performed flawlessly thus far, seemingly validating Earhart’s confident appraisal of the aircraft. But during her return trip she encountered some difficulties that called her ability as a pilot into question. On June 12, she was preparing to land in Abilene, Texas, in front of a crowd when the winds suddenly calmed. She aimed the craft away from the onlookers, narrowly missing them as she crash-landed. The aviatrix climbed out of the cockpit unhurt, but the autogiro had been badly damaged. Arrangements were made for another autogiro to be flown from Willow Grove to Oklahoma so the tour could continue. According to news reports, she flew from Abilene to Oklahoma City in a plane piloted by another flier.

Earhart’s Texas crackup did little to diminish the fanfare surrounding her tour. Prior to her autogiro demo in Oklahoma City, for example, the program included a serenade by a 42-piece band, an airshow featuring what one report said was “practically every plane in Oklahoma City,” formation flying, a parachute jump and a demonstration by a local woman stunt pilot.

When Earhart stopped in Tulsa, however, she was dismayed to learn that the Department of Commerce had issued her a formal reprimand. Hiram Bingham, president of the National Aeronautic Association (of which Earhart was the vice president), had intervened on her behalf, preventing her from being grounded. The authorities attributed the cause of her autogiro crash in Texas to pilot carelessness. Stung by the criticism, she vented her frustration in an article in the New York World-Telegram, contending that the accident examiner who had interviewed her after the crash had never flown an autogiro nor even seen one in flight. She also complained that rather than receiving an official notice of the reprimand, she had first learned of the embarrassing judgment through the press.

During the course of her cross-country jaunt, Earhart had stopped in 76 towns in three weeks of travel. Eager to keep her name and face before the public, Putnam booked her on additional autogiro tours. Her second began in August.

On September 12, at the Michigan State Fair in Detroit, Earhart once again crash-landed. This time Putnam was in attendance, and when he heard the commotion he ran to rescue his wife. In the process he tripped on a guy wire, spraining his ankle and injuring his ribs. Earhart, who had once again escaped injury, continued the tour while Putnam recuperated in the hospital.

In November Earhart began a whirlwind tour of 13 southeastern states. During this trip, she sometimes made appearances on behalf of charities. For example, in Raleigh, N.C., she arrived a day early to help a local organization raise funds to prevent the city from having to start a soup and bread line, a common situation in the Depression era. She stayed from two to four days at each of her stopovers during the tour.

Earhart went on to cross the Atlantic solo in a Lockheed Vega on May 20, 1932, five years to the day after Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis flight. That achievement satisfied a personal goal—to be worthy of the nickname Lady Lindy. She also received a spate of national and international awards for the flight, among them America’s Distinguished Flying Cross.

Earhart’s increasing fame enabled her to champion the role of women in aviation. One of the founders of the Ninety-Nines, Inc., an international organization of women pilots, she became the group’s first president. In 1935 she took on a new job, counseling female students at Purdue University.

In 1937 the aviatrix made the fateful decision to tackle a globe-circling route that no pilot had attempted, flying “the world at its waistline” by following the equator. The attempt would be funded by donations to Purdue, passed on to Earhart to establish a “Purdue Flying Laboratory” that would further the cause of women in aviation.

Earhart logged 22,000 miles during a month of travel before arriving at Lae, New Guinea. When she took off from Lae in a Lockheed Electra on a hot July morning with her navigator, Fred Noonan, she planned to land at tiny Howland Island before continuing on to Hawaii and California. As all the world knows, Earhart and Noonan never reached the atoll, and to date the Electra has not been located, despite continuing efforts and the expenditure of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, the mystery surrounding Earhart’s untimely disappearance just weeks before her fortieth birthday has overshadowed her numerous accomplishments during the Golden Age of flight.

Autogiros similar to the one dubbed “the flying windmill” by the press during Earhart’s transcontinental tour are rare now. The 1941 Pitcairn PA-39 autogiro Miss Champion, once owned by Champion Spark Plugs, is on permanent display at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Air Venture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisc.

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