Harold F. Pitcairn: Aviator, Inventor, and Developer of the Autogiro

by Carl R. Gunther, Bryn Athyn College Press, Pa., 2009, $29.95.

Harold Pitcairn’s brief entry in the Aviation Hall of Fame, written a quarter century after his death, fails to effectively showcase this American aviation innovator’s many invaluable contributions. And Frank Kingston Smith’s 1981 Legacy of Wings: The Story of Harold F. Pitcairn, which has long served as the standard reference for Pitcairn’s life, reveals only part of the story, as does Peter Brooks’ 1988 book Cierva Autogiros. Happily, Carl Gunther’s new book on Pitcairn superbly fills this void.

Gunther paints a rich portrait of this forgotten innovator through correspondence, a biographical method that serves him particularly well, revealing the depth and complexity of a pioneering aviation life. His book describes in delightful detail, for example, Pitcairn receiving the 1930 Collier Trophy from President Herbert Hoover at the White House, as well as Pitcairn’s ventures into airmail and his airplane and autogiro designs.

There are minor quibbles: Gunther persists in claiming that Pitcairn’s first meeting with Cierva was in 1924, while Brooks convincingly quotes a Cierva letter claiming it was actually 1925—reinforced in a Pitcairn letter that Gunther reprints but seemingly ignores. Gunther also misidentifies the PCA-1A, the second 1930 experimental Pitcairn Autogiro, as “the first American-built Autogiro.” But these errors don’t detract from the book’s overall significance and unique contribution.

Gunther’s is the first biography to describe Pitcairn the man, including his religious and political views. Since he also manages to convey the excitement of the early days of American aviation, his book provides an essential view of a previously forgotten inventor and aviator.


Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here