Posted By RichC on June 14, 2005
Our EAA chapter was hosted by Jack and Kate Tiffany in their Spring Valley, Ohio shop last Sunday afternoon. (June 12, 2005) Jack and his two talented partners, Don Siefer and Herman Leffew, have been rebuilting an extremely rare Picairn PA-18 Autogiro from the 1930’s. If I were ‘twitcher‘ this ‘bird’ would be considered a ‘lifer.’ 🙂 Our visit to his shop was educational and super interesting; thanks Jack!
The short and ‘no’ runway aircraft have been the Holy Grail in aviation for many years. Pitcairn originally got a start building biplanes that flew much of the US Airmail in the 1920s and was very successful in securing contracts with the US government. Harold Pitcairn decided to move forward and make an investment of some $600,000 dollars in 1929 from Juan de la Cierva, the Spanish aviation pioneer that developed the autogiro. (history) The Pitcairn company then began development of the handful of autogiros in the Pitcairn series. Eventually the contract was not awarded to Pitcairn and the technology was shared with other companies. A long drawn out court battle between Pitcairn and the US Army lasted for years. (finally settled in favor of the Pitcairn estate) Jack recommended the book Legacy of Wings if we wanted the full Harold Pitcairn story.
Unfortunately I don’t do the full Pitcairn story justice and will have to rely on remembering the information that Jack and his talented partners shared. Below is the slightly larger PCA2 flying over Philidelphia; notice the flex in each of the wooden ribbed, cloth covered rotor blades. Unique to say the least.
Between these two was the PA-18 that we saw being restored in Jack’s out of the way’ shop. (the slippery drive up the slope made for an interesting place to be restoring antique airplanes. 🙂 )
Below is an original photo of Jack’s PA-18 Autogiro (NC12678) at Wings Field, Ambler, PA. It was owned by Anne Strawbridge of Philadelphia who is sitting in the front cockpit.
Our visit started with a bit of history as Jack explained how he acquired this rare bird and the excitement that ensued in the on again off again deal. The fairly intact autogiro was pack up along with another plane and trucked in from California. The three partners did an exceptional job of photographing, removing and cataloging every part removed. Jack continued to relay interesting stories about traveling to New Jersey to visit with Stephen Pitcairn (son of Harold Pitcairn) who also restores old Pitcairn airplanes. Interestingly, Stephen Pitcairn owns a PCA-2 known as “Miss Champion” that was originally purchased by the Champion Spark Plug company. This aerogiro will be flown this July to “Airventure” in Oshkosh, Wisconsion and will then reside permanently in the EAA museum’s Pitcairn Hanger at the Pioneer airport. (It made one past appearance at the Oshkosh airshow in 1986) It will be hangered along with a Mailwing biplane and a one of a kind Pitcairn PA-38.
Once we had a handle on the history of both the autogiro and Jack’s current project, we had an opportunity to see the almost completed plane. (and do I like to touch, feel and question … oh, and photograph.)
His project is coming along beautifully and is being restored to original condition at great pain and expense. Finding things like the special flat head rivets and matching colors precisely are all part of the process. Interestingly there have been a few safely improvements since this PA-18 will be flown. The first flight will be by our own EAA Chapters Red Stewart Field’s Emerson Stewart III. (I’ll try to update this fall) I recall one of the improvements was to replace the spot welding technique that was originally used to attach each of the rotor ribs to the single spar; the partners chose to epoxy each to the spar after noticing many of the spot welds had failed.
The engine has been fully restored and is being stored at the airport hanger, but from the photo alone, it is an impressive looking piece of hardware. I thought it looked extremely heavy, but Jack said it was about 300 lbs. and developed 160 hp.
The most unusual part of the autogiro is perhaps the number of cables and rigging and mast structure. Nothing is square as the rotors must be at 2 degrees from vertical. Obviously what makes the autogiro unique is the 4 ‘wings’ (rotors) that rotor at 120 rpm and develop enough lift to keep the PA-18 in the air iand shorten the takeoffs. Their are still short wings that develop the balance of the lift and ailerons/rudders that control the extremely smooth flight. Jack joked that he plans on flying it with a mohawk haircut as the rotors develop lift but don’t have a downwash like today’s helicopters. Below is a photo of one of the very flexible rotor wings in the paint booth.
The workmanship was exceptional and I can see that these three would be swamped if they took on many outside projects. For them this is obviously a project of love. The years of work and patience is evident.
In case you are reading this, thanks for having our chapter and including us in the select group of ‘lookers’ to a very rare restoration. I look forward to the first ‘official’ flight and someday sharing the story ‘that I was there’ when that museum quality restoration of a Pitcairn PA-18 Autogiro was being completed.