By Ken Zurski
On April 8 1931 at Pitcairn Field in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, the most famous woman pilot in the world stepped into an autogiro, a horizontally propelled winged aircraft she had been testing with other pioneer aviators for more than a year.
Her name, of course, was Amelia Earhart, who in 1928, had become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Now several years later, a large appreciate crowd was on hand to see her attempt another record. This time an altitude peak in the mostly untested autogiro, a prototype for the modern day helicopter.
She would not disappoint.
Introduced in the 1930’s, the autogiros was considered a more practical and efficient alternative to the airplane. It was also unstable and unproven. There were, however, striking differences in flight. Autigiros could take off from a relatively small space and fly just as high and as long as its front-propelled counterpart. But unlike the airplane, it could also stop on a dime and seem to float in the sky. Landing was simply lowering itself to the ground. The blade on top was free spinning and powered by air from an engine-propelled rotor on the side that also provided thrust.
Today, a smaller version, called a gyrocopter, is similar to the original design without the wings. So when you talk about the pioneer fliers of the autogiro, or the forerunner of the helicopter, one person must be recognized.
One you famously know.
The aforementioned Amelia Earhart.
So in 1931, with a large contingent of press on site, Earhart in her thick insulated overalls gave it a go. Her first attempt failed. Perhaps as some noted, she was testing her own capabilities. Maybe she would abandon the next attempt, the press speculated. She answered that question by going up again, this time reaching a height of 18,415 feet and breaking – or making –a new record. She safely brought the craft back to the ground.
She was lauded in her efforts, but wanted more. So did the press. They figured she would try a transcontinental trip in an autogiro, the first of its kind, which she did successfully. But her efforts were overshadowed by another pilot named John Miller who quietly attempted the same feat without the fanfare or publicity that Earhart demanded. He completed the route first, although both pilots had no idea of the other’s intentions.
That same year in 1931, Earhart crashed her autogiro at an airshow in Detroit. Her husband, George Putnam, was the first to arrive at the wreckage: “I saw Amelia emerge from the dust and wave her hands in the air,” he said. “She was unhurt.” But Putnam was on the ground, writhing in pain. In his haste to reach the wreck site he tripped, fell and cracked three ribs. “Never had I run so fast,” he described afterwards, “until one of the guy wires caught my pumping legs exactly at the ankles.”
Unaware of her husband’s injury, Earhart happily acknowledged to the crowd.
While she was glad to walk away unscathed and Putman’s predicament was just an unfortunate accident, it would be her last call with the autogiro.
She went back to an aircraft with wings and a propeller in the front.
Tragically, six years later in 1937, over the Pacific, her legacy as it is known today would begin.