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Flying Windmill Makes Appearance at Oshkosh!

By H.G. Frautschy, Editor, Vintage Airplane Magazine

If you’ve been on the fence about coming to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh this year, I can solve that dilemma right now. It’s been more than two decades since a Pitcairn Autogiro has flown in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during the annual EAA fly-in convention, but with any weather luck at all, we may very well get to see the last flying PA-18 Autogiro tool around the pattern here in Oshkosh. How about that? Is that enough to make you throw your tent and sleeping bag in the airplane or car and point the nose toward Oshkosh? Even if the weather doesn’t let the Pitcairn fly (at this stage in its post-restoration career, it is very dependent on having light or non-existent winds), when was the last time you saw one of the first production Autogiros built by Harold Pitcairn’s pioneering company, the Autogiro Company of America?

This particular PA-18, with an original price tag of $4,940, was one of 19 built. It was constructed in the Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, factory of Pitcairn Aviation in 1932 and became the personal aircraft of Harold Pitcairn, the company president and founder. He flew it until it was sold to 53-year-old Anne Strawbridge, heiress to the Strawbridge and Clothier department store fortune. An active pilot, Strawbridge came to genuinely like the little Autogiro, and her attachment, along with a stubborn refusal to sell it in 1940 to the Pitcairn-Larsen Company so it could be converted into a newer version for the British military, would eventually preserve it long enough to survive World War II. It was eventually sold to six owners, one of whom, Ted Sowirka, stored it for 42 years. Forlorn and decaying as it lay disassembled, it eventually wound up in the collection of Al Letcher. Letcher lived in the perfect spot to preserve such a relic—the Mojave Desert. Finally, in 1997, in a story that included some great aeronautical sleuthing by Jack Tiffany’s stepson, Nick Hurm, the whereabouts of the remaining PA-18 was revealed, and a lifelong quest to find and restore one was actually going to happen for Tiffany. There’s a lot more to that story, which we’ll tell in a follow-up article in Vintage Airplane magazine, but suffice it to say that the journey to get to the first flight of the restored ’giro was often two steps forward and one step back.

Thanks to the men and women of Leading Edge Restorations in New Carlisle, Ohio, the PA-18’s eight and a half year restoration culminated in a flight on July 10, 2008. It seemed that with any luck, it would be sling-winging its way to Oshkosh later that month.

Andrew King, who is the only pilot to have flown the PA-18 since its restoration, had this to say on the Rotary Wing Forum website at www.RotaryForum.com about flying it: “The PA-18 does fly quite well, and handles well at cruising speeds. I was amazed at how effective the ailerons were at 70 mph indicated; however, at landing speed they don’t do anything, so everything has to be just right at that point. So far it has only been flown in very light winds. I knew Steve Pitcairn for 25 years, and talked to Johnny Miller a couple of years ago for three hours about Autogiros and stuff, so [I] did glean a lot of information from them, which helped, but the first takeoff and subsequent flights were easily one of the highlights of my 30 years of flying….”

Unfortunately, an incident where a rigging change resulted in damage to the rotors nixed the Oshkosh trip idea for 2008, but by the spring of 2009 the Pitcairn was ready to fly again, and Andrew once again delighted in making the test flights, eventually running the time on the restoration up past five hours.

Andrew’s trip to Oshkosh tripled his time in type for the Pitcairn, with just more than 15 hours now on the restoration. I have to say, seeing it in person is a spine-tingling, goose-bumpy experience. You just can’t help yourself; you have to grin as it motors along, the mid-sized Kinner exhaust popping off as the four-blade main rotor rotates at a sedate 120 rpm. You have to see this in person!

The PA-18 does not have an articulated rotor head (that’s a bit of a misnomer; the PA-18’s blades can rise and fall, and lead and lag as they are driven by the rotor head); it does not have a directly controlled rotor head that would work in the same way a helicopter rotor head controls flight. That means only the aerodynamic controls on the fuselage and stub wings actually influence the direction the Autogiro flies. So while rudder and elevator perform their usual functions, the ailerons, which are mostly out of the slipstream from the prop, are only effective when the Autogiro is moving forward. Crosswinds are particularly treacherous for the PA-18, which is why Andrew and the owners are very cautious about flying it in any appreciable wind. If you’re at AirVenture, look for announcements regarding possible flights for the PA-18, which if they happen, will take place first thing in the morning on a couple of days of the fly-in, before the wind picks up.

Okay, did that do it? Did you say to yourself, “I gotta see this thing!”

We’ll see you on the flightline!

Here’s more on the PA-18, including a photo gallery and newly edited video of the Pitcairn’s arrival, which includes a brief conversation between EAA Founder Paul Poberezny and the Pitcairn’s pilot, Andrew King.

Pitcairn PA-18 Autogiro Statistics
Crew: 1 pilot
Capacity: 1 passenger
Length: 19 feet, 5 inches
Wingspan: 21 feet, 3 inches
Main rotor diameter: 40 feet
Main rotor swept area: 1,260 square feet
Powerplant: Kinner R-5, 160 hp
Gross weight: 1,900 pounds
Maximum speed: 100 mph
Cruise speed: 85 mph (Andrew King reports 75 mph, at least until a new lower pitch prop is installed)
Range: 360 miles
Service ceiling: 12,000 feet

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