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Piasecki Helicopters

There are only two State of Pennsylvania historical markers within two blocks of Matthias Baldwin Park, the area I have been calling the Baldwin Park neighborhood. The first is at the northwest corner of the Park and honors Matthias Baldwin, the founder of Baldwin Locomotive Works. The second stands at 1937 Callowhill Street, and honors a pioneer of helicopter flight, born 100 years ago this month. Just as our neighborhood had been the hub of locomotive design and manufacture in the late 1800's, our neighborhood played a role in Philadelphia's reputation as the hub for autogyro and helicopter development in the 1930's and 1940's.

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State historical marker at 1937 Callowhill Street.

First, a brief digression into the history of helicopters.


Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century had sketched an image of a working rotor-powered aircraft with vertical take off/landing and hovering capabilities. Jules Verne included a massive such airship in his science fiction writings. The first semblance of a production rotor craft was an autogyro developed in Spain, for which the licensing rights in the United States were purchased by Harold Pitcairn. The Pitcairns, whose father John was a railroad and glass magnate, lived at 2008 Spring Garden Street, until moving to their new Cairnwood Estate in Bryn Athyn in 1895 shortly before Harold's birth in 1897. The family mansion is still there, now divided into apartments.

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The Pitcairn mansion at 2008 Spring Garden Street.
Harold Pitcairn flew the first autogyro in the United States in 1930.
His Pitcairn Aviation mail service would grow to become Eastern Airlines.

At Pitcairn Field (later Willow Grove Airport), Harold Pitcairn worked on improving the autogyro designs for which he had the rights. These autogyros had a non-powered rotor on top which would autorotate when the craft was moving forward, with the forward thrust provided by a vertically mounted conventional propeller. The rotors provided the lift, ridding the craft of the need for fixed wings.

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Famous photo from 1939. Eastern Airlines autogyros made five trips a day between the roof of the 30th Street Post Office and the Camden Airfield. Autogyros had a non-motorized horizontal propeller: the forward thrust of the front vertical propeller made the horizontal blades spin and thus provide lift without fixed wings. These autogyros were variations of the KD-1 models built by Kellett Autogyro.

Pitcairn had visions of autogyros replacing the family car, at least for those of means. Although the land area needed for takeoff and landing was less than with a conventional fixed wing airplane, especially with a headwind, the autogyro did not have true vertical lift off/landing or hover capabilities. Due to these limitations, autogyros never took off, so to speak.


See this one-minute clip from the 1934 multi-Oscar winning movie It Happened One Night for an example of a Kellett K-3 autogyro landing. The autogyro in the film has prominent wing-like stabilizer bars. A 6-minute video of the first flight of a Kellett KD-1 autogyro off the 30th Street Post Office to Camden in 1939 shows the improvements in just five years, especially in landing space needed.

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Pitcairn ad for an autogyro in every garage (for those who could also afford a chauffeur).

Philadelphia was a hotbed of rotary aircraft development, as the map below shows, and still is today. You can find a recent four-page review of this history here. The map below shows some of the names associated with this local history. It was this aeronautics milieu through which Frank Piasecki would ascend.

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The cradle of rotary aircraft development. 
Pre-1960 sites are shown as blue circles; present-day locations are shown as gray squares.

Frank Piasecki was born October 24, 1919, in West Philadelphia. After graduating from Overbrook High School, where he was President of the Aero Club, he began work with the Kellet Aircraft Corporation, which made autogyros, the forerunners of helicopters. He next worked as a cameraman for the Aero Service Corporation which did aerial photographic mapping. He then went off to college, where he studied mechanical engineering at Penn and finished his degree in aeronautics at New York University. Upon graduation he worked for Platt-LePage Aircraft in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, and then for the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company in northeast Philadelphia. All these companies were local to Philadelphia, which at that time was the world's epicenter of autogyro development.


In the summer of 1940, with former classmate Harold Venzie and a few others, he moved into a vacant storefront at 1937 Callowhill Street as a company called the P-V Engineering Forum. The location was close to the Philadelphia Free Library, which allowed access to research literature as well as bathrooms, unavailable in the "headquarters." A carpenter had a workshop in the back, about where the small dog park for the Granary Apartments would be today.


In the fall of 1941, P-V Engineering moved to 27th Street, and then to Ridge Avenue in Roxborough, scrapping together junked motors and metals from wherever they went. They assembled the single-engine, single-person PV-2 helicopter, making a successful demonstration on April 11, 1943, in Roxborough. This was America's second successful helicopter flight (the first having been done by Igor Sikorsky in 1940). See one-minute video of the first test flight here (terrifying to watch the assistants near the rotors) and of a more polished Piasecki flight later in 1943 here.

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Piasecki, aged 23, piloting the PV-2 in April 1943
The 90 horsepower single engine was behind the pilot and the single lift-rotor shaft. The vertical mounted rotor in the back counteracted the torque of the main rotor.

In January 1945, P-V Engineering and its 80 employees moved to Sharon Hill, just outside Philadelphia. There, under a Navy contract, Piasecki built the first successful tandem rotor helicopter in 1945, and its descendants still service the military and Coast Guard. The rotors spin in opposite directions, so no tail rotor is needed for counter-torque.

In 1946, P-V Engineering Forum brought in investors with the names Rockefeller and du Pont, in return for giving the money men a controlling interest. In 1947 the new Piasecki Helicopter Corporation and its 700 employees moved to a 55-acre site in Morton, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. By the end of the Korean conflict, there were nearly 5,000 employees filling the backlog of orders.

In 1955, in a managerial disagreement, Piasecki left the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation (later changed to Vertol and then bought by Boeing in 1960, now in Ridley Township) and moved with a few of his employees to the Philadelphia Airport as the Piasecki Aircraft Corporation.

As for his personal life, in 1958 Piasecki's engagement to Vivian Weyerhaeuser, of the Weyerhaeuser timberland empire, was announced in the New York Times (see here). Of their seven children, four are in the aerospace industry, including the two sons who today run Piasecki Aircraft Corporation.

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The tandem rotor HRP-1 was used for ocean rescues, troop transport, antisubmarine warfare, minesweeping, and aerial assault. Image is from The American Helicopter Museum and Education Center, 40 minutes from our neighborhood, which houses an amazing collection of helicopters and history.
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Looking east down the center of Callowhill Street from 20th Street in 1962, probably looking much the same as it did when P-V Engineering Forum was in the fifth structure from the left.
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From humble beginnings on Callowhill Street in 1940.... to this Morton, Pennsylvania, plant outside Philadelphia in 1947. A short 1951 Popular Science magazine article here describes this early Piasecki history.
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Current site of Piasecki Aircraft in Essington in 2019.
Both Matthias Baldwin and Frank Piasecki began their businesses in the Baldwin Park neighborhood and ended up one mile apart in Eddystone and Essington, respectively. Boeing Helicopter lies between these two locations.
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Those magnificent men in their flying machines.
Arthur Young, another local helicopter pioneer, had a farm 10 miles outside Philadelphia where he designed his helicopters. He designed the helicopters built by Bell that were used extensively in the Korean conflict and seen in the movie and TV show MASH.
Test flight here, apparently pre-OSHA. 

Another neighborhood connection is through the Franklin Institute. In the Franklin Air Show exhibit, beneath an original Wright brothers Model B airplane (formerly owned by the infamous local, Grover Cleveland Bergdoll), is a display commemorating the 1938 conference at the Institute that brought together those involved with rotary-wing aircraft design and construction. A 19-year-old Frank Piasecki was in attendance. For a seven-page summary of this conference, see here.

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This display at the Franklin Institute shows a Kellett autogyro propeller at the top, and a plaque below commemorating the 1938 conference. A close-up of the plaque is below.
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And one last neighborhood connection...

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One last Piasecki connection to the current neighborhood, via my wife.
My wife's grandfather, Mark DuPont (no relation to the 1946 Piasecki investors with the name du Pont), is pictured here leaning on the Piasecki P-V 2 helicopter in 1943. He helped design, build, and fly autogyros and later helicopters. His two sons, Mark Jr. and John, worked with him at Piasecki.
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My father-in-law, now 92, posing in front of a KD-1 autogyro as a teenager. His father and brothers were mechanics and engineers in the early days of autogyros. Like Frank Piasecki, his first flight at age 7 and his early exposure to aeronautics led him to a career in aircraft technology. Here is a 7-minute Story Corps video of his reminiscences.
Here's to you, Frank Piasecki, Harold Pitcairn, Arthur Young, the DuPont clan, and all the others with the genius, skills, and guts to make rotary flight possible.
authored by Joe Walsh, October 2019
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