Captain John Miller had what it took to fly the weirdones–the autogiro and the Grumman J2F Duck.
By Bud Walker
John Miller gently advanced the throttle with his left hand. As the autogiro’s 225-hp radial engine roared to life, the huge rotor blades began to sweep precariously close to his head. Suddenly, the aircraft began vibrating violently, and the massive rotor blades ripped through the tail section. The autogiro began to disintegrate around Miller. “It tore the aircraft to shreds,” Miller recalled. “Pieces flew all over the airport. I just held on and tried to avoid getting decapitated. It was not a real healthy place to be!”
It was 1937, and Miller’s string of accident-free test flights had been broken. So had his neck. The cracked vertebrae in his neck didn’t deter Miller from completing the testing program, however. Three years later, the Kellett KD-1 Autogiro became the first wingless aircraft to obtain official certification from the Civil Aeronautics Authority.
After seven decades and more than 35,000 hours in the cockpit, John Miller, 91, is now being recognized for his pioneering role as a test pilot for two of the most eccentric and innovative aircraft in history–the autogiro and the Duck.
First developed by Juan de la Cierva, the autogiro made its first successful flight in January 1923 in Madrid. Dubbed the “flying windmill” by the press because of its oversized rotor blades, the autogiro looked like an airplane but flew like a helicopter. Unlike a helicopter, however, the autogiro’s rotor was not powered in flight. The standard propeller provided forward airspeed, causing the rotor to turn. That enabled the aircraft to perform nearly vertical descents, but because the rotor was unpowered, the autogiro could not hover or take off vertically.
John Miller was the first individual to purchase a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogiro, Serial No. 13, in 1931. That number had been offered to but turned down by Amelia Earhart. Two years later, Earhart received national recognition for making a transcontinental flight in an autogiro–although Miller had accomplished the same feat two weeks earlier. “I made it out and back,” he mused after the flight. “She crashed it on the way out, then totaled it on the way back!”
Miller honed his autogiro flying skills while performing incredible feats–such as loops and rolls–at airshows across the country, including the National Air Races in Los Angeles and the International Air Races in Chicago in 1933.
“I was the only one who ever did loops and rolls at airshows [with an autogiro],” Miller declared. “Other pilots thought I was crazy. But I wasn’t crazy–I was an engineer!” A 1927 graduate of Pratt Institute in New York City, Miller knew the autogiro could withstand the maneuvers, and he meant to prove to everyone that it was a safe aircraft.
Wallace Kellett, president of the Kellett Autogiro Company, visited Miller in 1937 in Chicago, where he was stationed as a captain flying for United Airlines. He persuaded Miller, who by then was one of the most experienced autogiro pilots available, to finish the flight-test program for the world’s first wingless autogiro.
The Kellett KD-1 was unprecedented in that it featured a perfected “direct-control” system originally developed by Cierva. It lacked wings, ailerons, elevators and rudder–all directional control for the KD-1 was provided through the unique tilting rotor head. This simplified a complex control system, enabling the pilot to use a conventional “stick” to tilt the rotor head for complete directional control.
While Kellett was developing the wingless KD-1, Miller often accompanied him on trips to Washington, D.C., where they lobbied members of Congress to provide funding for an experimental rooftop operation to expedite mail delivery. “I’d land the autogiro in streets and parks throughout the capital, taking up senators and congressmen on flights all over the city,” Miller remembered. “I even shuttled some of them to their golf courses. Only the White House was restricted. Everywhere else–no permission was necessary.”
Their efforts paid off, albeit sparingly. Miller recalled that he “leaned over President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s shoulder as he signed a bill into law providing $63,000 for the rooftop mail operation. It wasn’t much money even then. In fact, it was a very modest amount.”
Miller’s reward was unemployment. The Kellett company did not wish to be an operator; it was strictly a manufacturer licensed to develop the wingless autogiro. Fortunately, Miller’s lobbying skills bailed him out again. In early 1939, he convinced Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, then president of Eastern Airlines (and a decorated World War I flying ace), to take over the autogiro mail operation for publicity purposes.
Miller was at the controls on the morning of July 6, 1939, for the first flight. “We had a one-year contract to fly the mail from the rooftop of the Philadelphia Post Office to Camden Airport in Philadelphia (and later, Philadelphia International Airport),” Miller said. “I guaranteed Captain Rickenbacker that I would make at least 75 percent of the scheduled flights. The operation was flawless, performed with a perfect safety record.” Miller exercised an option in his contract to stay with Eastern at the completion of the one-year mail contract.
At the outbreak of World War II, Igor Sikorsky successfully hovered his newly developed VS-300 helicopter, a development that led the military to drop the autogiro. Miller, meanwhile, was still flying full time for Eastern and, on his days off, operating Miller’s Machine Works from his basement. Applying his engineering skills, Miller manufactured small parts for the Columbia Aircraft Corporation, located near his home on Long Island.
They say history repeats itself, and in late 1941 the president of Columbia Aircraft asked Miller to lead the test-flight program for another strange-looking hybrid–the Grumman J2F Duck, originally developed by aviation pioneer Grover Loening. Part airplane, part boat, the Duck was as agile in the air as it was comfortable in the water. The Navy Department had requested Grumman to free its facilities for the manufacture of vitally needed F6F Hellcat fighters, and to transfer the production of 330 J2F-6 Ducks to Columbia Aircraft.
The amphibious Duck not only was capable of taking off and touching down on land or water but also was sturdy enough to be used with an arresting gear for aircraft carrier landings. Its wheels and struts retracted upward by means of chains and sprockets into a single huge float faired directly into the lower fuselage.
The Duck was powered by a 1050-hp supercharged, 9-cylinder radial engine. Miller recalled that although engine failures during flight testing were infrequent, “they always seemed to occur at the worst possible time.” One such incident occurred as Miller was flying 16,000 feet above Long Island, above a solid cloud overcast. Reaching down into the cockpit, Miller switched the fuel flow from the auxiliary tank. The engine suddenly died.
With a 400-foot ceiling, Miller was forced to make a dead-stick instrument approach through the cloud cover. Miraculously, he was able to land safely at Floyd Bennett Field, a former naval base in Brooklyn.
Columbia’s contract was canceled at the end of the war. That placed the Duck, and subsequently Miller’s test-piloting career, on the brink of extinction. However, four Ducks can be seen today in museums across the country. In addition, two planes Miller flew during his commercial career are now displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
“They’ve got a Boeing 247D that I flew with United, and a DC-3 that I captained when I was with Eastern,” Miller pointed out with his customary dry wit. “I figure when I croak, they’ll freeze-dry me and put me in one of them. It’ll have to be in the DC-3 because I didn’t save my United Airlines uniform.”
Miller embarked on another aviation excursion after his mandatory retirement from Eastern at age 60. He started his own helicopter air charter service, flying a Bell 47G three-seat helicopter. Miller sold the charter service in 1971 and retired (again), but he remains active within the aviation community. Currently he is serving his seventh term as president of the United Flying Octogenarians (UFOs). Billed as “the most exclusive organization in the world,” this unique aviation group recognizes active pilots age 80 and above. The club was founded in 1982 and has more than 120 active members. In addition to his leadership role with the UFOs, Miller lectures regularly and attends numerous airshows and conventions each year.
During the past few years, Miller has received several awards for his material role in the development of rotary wing aircraft. He was awarded the annual Sikorsky Award for his part in the evolution of the helicopter, and received a Certificate of Honor from the National Aeronautic Association for his contributions to aviation.
Another signal honor for Miller was his honorary fellowship in the Society of Test Pilots, for having “promoted the moral obligation of the test pilot to the safety of the aerospace world.” Miller joins an elite group of past recipients, including General Jimmy Doolittle, Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh and Igor Sikorsky.
Miller views the awards with his normal self-deprecating style: “I think it’s just that these organizations were looking at the history of the helicopter, and said, ‘Gee, this guy Miller is getting kinda old. We’d better give him some awards before he kicks!'”
Pondering his own remarkable flight through the chapters of aviation history, Miller is comfortable with an epilogue that simply records his legacy of hard work and dedication to the advancement of aviation: “I didn’t go after records or the publicity. I just went out and did the work.”