8 April 1931

Amelia Earhart with Pitcairn Autogiro Co. PCA-2 #4, X760W, at Pitcairn Field, Warrington, Pennsylvania, 8 April 1931. (Purdue University)
Amelia Earhart with Pitcairn Autogiro Co. PCA-2 #4, NX760W, at Pitcairn Field, Warrington, Pennsylvania, 8 April 1931. (Purdue University)

8 April 1931: Amelia Earhart, flying a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro, reached an altitude of 18,415 feet (5,613 meters) ¹ over Warrington, Pennsylvania. The duration of the flight, her second of the day, was 1 hour, 49 minutes. She landed at 6:04 p.m.

A sealed barograph was carried aboard to record the altitude for an official record. Following the flight, the barograph was sent to the National Aeronautic Association headquarters in Washington, D.C., for certification.

08 Apr 1931, Pennsylvania, USA --- Original caption: Miss Amelia Earhart in two altitude tests with an autogiro plane, at the Pitcairn Airfield, Willow Grove, Pa., soars to height of 18,500 feet in the first, and surpasses that mark by 500 feet in the second. If her barographs correspond with those marks, she in all probability will have established a world record for men as well as women. She is the only woman who ever piloted one of the "windmill" types of craft. Photo shows Amelia Earhart handing Major Luke Christopher, her barograph after her first flight. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Amelia Earhart, in the cockpit of a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro, handing a barograph to Major Luke Christopher, National Aeronautic Association. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

An autogyro is a rotary wing aircraft that derives lift from a turning rotor system which is driven by air flow (autorotation). Unlike a helicopter, thrust is provided by an engine-driven propeller. The engine does not drive the rotor.

The Pitcairn Autogyro Company’s PCA-2 was the first autogyro certified in the United States. Operated by a single pilot, it could carry two passengers. The fuselage was constructed of welded steel tubing, covered with doped fabric and aluminum sheet.

Amelia Earhart with the Pitcairn PCA-2 aurtogyro, NX760W.
Amelia Earhart with a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro.

The PCA-2 was 23 feet, 1 inch (7.036 meters) long, excluding the rotor. The low-mounted wing had a span of 30 feet, 0 inches (9.144 meters), and the horizontal stabilizer and elevators had a span of 11 feet, 0 inches. (3.353 meters). The overall height of the autogyro was 13 feet, 7 inches (4.140 meters). The PCA-2 had an empty weight of 2,233 pounds (1,013 kilograms) and gross weight of 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms).

The four-bladed rotor was semi-articulated with horizontal and vertical hinges to allow for blade flapping and the lead-lag effects of Coriolis force. Unlike the main rotor of a helicopter, there was no cyclic- or collective-pitch motion. The rotor system was mounted at the top of a pylon and rotated counter-clockwise, as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the right.) The rotor had a diameter of 45 feet, 0 inches (13.716 meters). The blades were approximately 22 feet (6.7 meters) long, with a maximum chord of 1 foot, 10 inches (0.559 meters). Each blade was constructed with a tubular steel spar with mahogany/birch plywood ribs, a formed plywood leading edge and a stainless steel sheet trailing edge. They were covered with a layer of very thin plywood. A steel cable joined the blades to limit their lead-lag travel.

The aircraft was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 971.930-cubic-inch-displacement (15.927 liter) Wright R-975E Whirlwind 330 nine-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 5.1:1. The R-975E produced a maximum 330 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. at Sea Level, burning 73-octane gasoline. The engine turned a two-bladed Hamilton Standard variable-pitch propeller through direct drive. The engine weighed 635 pounds (288 kilograms).

The PCA-2 had two fuel tanks with a total capacity of 52 gallons (197 liters). It also had a 6½ gallon (24.6 liter) oil tank to supply the radial engine.

The PCA-2 had a maximum speed of 120 miles per hour (193 kilometers per hour). It had a service ceiling of 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) and a range of 290 miles (467 kilometers).

Pitcairn Autogyro Co. PCA-2 NX760W at East Boston Airport, October 1930. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)
Pitcairn Autogyro Co. PCA-2 NX760W at East Boston Airport, October 1930. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)

¹ Most sources state that Earhart set a “world altitude record” on this flight. The National Aeronautic Association, which certifies aviation records in the United States, has no such record in its files. Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) records show that Earhart set three world speed records in 1930, and a world distance record in 1932. She is not credited with an altitude record, or any flight record in an autogyro.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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2 thoughts on “8 April 1931

  1. There is a display in the National Air and Space Museum that indicates that she did accomplish that record. And Pitcairn Airfield, though it may have been listed as Warrington at some point, is actually in Horsham, and would later become the Willow Grove Naval Air Station.

    1. Thanks, bobbymo. Several years ago when I was doing the original research for this article, I contacted Mr. A.W. Greenfield, Secretary of the National Aeronautic Association Contest and Records Board and asked him to confirm Earhart’s altitude record. He searched NAA’s files and found no such record.

      There could be several reasons for this, including that the documents may have been lost during the intervening 86 years.

      The curator of the the Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum at Horsham, Pennsylvania, Mr. David W. Tonkin, is a daily reader of TDiA and we communicate often.

      TDiA strives for accuracy. I hesitate to write that someone had established a world or national record if I cannot prove the claim with official documentation.

      Thank you. Input from our readers is always welcome.

      —Bryan

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