Amelia Earhart, the Pioneer Pilot of the Helicopter Prototype

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By Ken Zurski

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On April 8 1931, Amelia Earhart , in full pilot jumpsuit mode, stepped into an autogiro, a horizontally propelled winged aircraft she had been testing with other pilots for more than a year.  Earhart, who two years earlier had become the first woman to fly an airplane solo over the Atlantic, was trying to break another record,  an altitude peak, in the mostly untested autogiro.

At the time, an autogiro, was considered an unstable and unproven contraption. But there were advantages.  It could take off from a relatively small space and fly just as high and as long as its front-propelled counterpart. Unlike the airplane, however, It could also stop on a dime and seem to float in the sky. Landing was simply lowering itself to the ground.  A large rotor blade sat on top and provided lift. The blade was free spinning and powered by air from an engine-propelled rotor on the side that also provided thrust.

Introduced in the 1930’s, autogiros, was considered a more practical and efficient alternative to the airplane, if only they could be as reliable. Today, a smaller version, called a gyrocopter, is similar to the original design, minus the wings. So when you talk about the pioneer fliers of the autogiro, or the forerunner of the modern day helicopter, one person must be recognized.

One you famously know.

The aforementioned Amelia Earhart.

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With a large contingent of press on site and an appreciative crowd, Earhart in her thick insulated overalls gave it a go. Her first attempt failed. Perhaps as some noted, she was testing her own – and her aircraft’s – 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.

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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 waved 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 airplane.

Tragically, six years later in 1937, we all know how her story ends.

 

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