so, the throttle is carefully opened to 1300 rpm on the
engine, where the rotor will be turning about 90 rpm.
Then there’s some sleight of hand required as the
parking brake is released, the rotor starter disengaged,
and the throttle opened. As the Pitcairn accelerates the
rotor rpm increases, until at about 115 to 120 rpm the
wheels leave the ground and a climb speed of 58 mph is
established. Right now the climb rate is less than we’d
like because the prop is over pitched (there were no
specifications available), but a new prop is on order
that should take care of this.
The rotor rpm will increase a bit in flight and generally
settles down at about 135 to 140 in cruise. The rotor
doesn’t react much to speed, but is more dependent on
the load on it, so that if you pull a few g’s, it speeds up (the
most I’ve seen is 154). You try not to unload it, but if you
did, it would slow down.
“If you were to have an engine
failure over bad territory, or
were to fly inadvertently into
a fog bank, you could simply
close the throttle, pull the
stick gently back to the stop,
and the ’giro would descend
vertically like a parachute.”
It’s hard to compare the Pitcairn to modern gyroplanes or any kind of fixed-wing aircraft. A gyro pilot
would recognize the uneven rhythm the aircraft sends
back into the pilot’s seat and the sensation of autorotation. Yet for the most part the PA- 18 flies more like
some variant of vintage biplane than modern rotary-wing aircraft. The stick and rudder pedals work the
same as in the biplane, through ailerons, elevator, and
rudder, and the rotor, being fixed in angle of blade incidence and angle of rotor head, is more like an extra
wing. But, one that won’t stall, and that of course is the
wonder that Juan de la Cierva invented in the 1920s.
It would be hard to hurt yourself in the Pitcairn
(although it can be quite easy to hurt it). Short of
diving it into the ground or somehow turning it
upside down in flight, it’s likely that you will walk
away from any arrival on earth. If you were to have
an engine failure over bad territory, or were to fly
inadvertently into a fog bank, you could simply close
the throttle, pull the stick gently back to the stop,
and the ’giro would descend vertically like a parachute. Then you could wait for everything to come to
a stop, climb out, and walk away.
In cruise flight at about 70 mph the controls are
quite well-harmonized, and the ailerons at that speed
are amazingly effective and quick, one of the bigger
surprises I’ve found. The Pitcairn’s not unstable, but it
won’t fly hands-off, so refolding a map in flight can be
an interesting exercise. (My rigid set of beliefs forbids
using a GPS in a 1932 Autogiro!) In turbulence the
Pitcairn rides like a boat on the waves, and sometimes
has a “loosey-goosey” feeling like an airplane that was
put together with all of the bolts one size too small.
Cruising along over the American Midwest in the
Pitcairn on a sunny day is a fantastic experience,
watching your shadow crawling across the farmland
like some crazed whirling insect.
LANDING/ Everything above 5 or 10 feet is pretty
straightforward, but operations near the ground can be
another matter, especially landing. Approach is steep at
45 to 50 mph indicated, and I carry a little power to
help with directional control on touchdown. Because
the Autogiro uses aerodynamic control surfaces for
pitch, yaw, and bank, you gradually lose control effectiveness as you slow to a landing speed of 20 mph or
less, and the ailerons lose all authority before touchdown. Because of this and the fixed rotor, the Pitcairn
and its like have little crosswind capability, maybe 3 to
4 mph. It’s top heavy, and even with the wide landing
gear, if you touch down with much drift it’s likely to tip
over. Open the throttle at the last second and you
might make the situation worse, so you better be in
pretty good shape passing through 10 feet. If you time
it right, you can flare to get the tail down and load up
the rotor at about 3 feet, and the PA- 18 will plop down,
roll about 40 feet, and stop. If not, you might roll on a
bit and go 100 feet before stopping, still not too bad.
It’s hard to land consistently well.
Every so often old ’1267B does something it never
did before, and I think, “What was that?” On one takeoff, just as we broke ground, the whole craft made a
hard whipping motion as if somebody had bolted a
piece of lead to one rotor blade. Before I could chop the
power and dump it back down, the ’giro smoothed out
just as suddenly, so I cautiously continued, and it never
happened again. All we can figure is that one blade
wasn’t quite flying but that three were enough to get it
off the ground until the fourth one caught up.
All in all it’s been a fascinating experience flying
the Pitcairn, and I have to thank Jack and Jim for
allowing me the privilege of being the pilot of this
fantastic flying machine.
How Did You Get That Job?
People often compliment me on what
a beautiful restoration the Pitcairn
Autogiro is and I have to confess that
I had nothing to do with the rebuild.
The bystander’s next words are usually,
“How did you get that job?” often spoken
with a tinge of envy that helps me to
appreciate the wonderful opportunity
that has been afforded me.
Although the chance to fly the Autogiro
was unexpected, it was the culmination
of a lifetime spent chasing experiences
flying vintage aircraft. I grew up around
Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in
upstate New York, and thanks to the
generosity of Cole, Bud Dake, my father,
and others too many to name, I was
given lots of opportunities to fly old, odd,
and varied flying machines. These experiences have opened many doors for me
in the ensuing years, the most recent
example when Jack offered me the
incredible chance to fly the Autogiro.
We knew that the Autogiro would fly
more like an old airplane than a modern
gyroplane, and I had a wide variety of
experience in old unusual types, plus I
had known Steve Pitcairn and had been
acquainted with Johnny Miller, who’d
flown Autogiros for years, and I sought
their advice. One of our greatest disappointments is that neither lived to see
this PA- 18 fly again.
I did need an FAA rotorcraft gyroplane
rating. I found an instructor, Dofin Fritts
in Brewton, Alabama. Twice I drove from
Virginia to Alabama to spend time with
Dofin zipping around in his RAF 2000
gyroplane and completing the various
cross-country and solo tasks to finish the
rating. At the end of the second visit, in
December 2006, I passed my checkride.
Then it was a matter of waiting for the
Pitcairn to be ready.