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.
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.
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).
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.
20 March 1937: After completing repairs and preparation for the second leg of her around-the-world flight—Hawaii to Howland Island—Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E, NR16020, was moved from Wheeler Field to Luke Field on Ford Island on 19 March to take advantage of the longer, fully paved runway.
Paul Mantz had warmed the engines at 5:00 a.m., 20 March, then shut them down. He would not be aboard for this flight. Amelia Earhart, Captain Manning and Captain Noonan boarded the Electra at 5:30 a.m. and Earhart restarted the engines. At 5:40 a.m., she began to taxi to the northeast corner of the runway. Weather was good, with a ceiling of 3,000 feet, visibility 3,500 feet in pre-dawn darkness, and wind from the south at 2 miles per hour.
At 5:53 a.m., Amelia Earhart accelerated for takeoff. A United States Army Board of Investigation report describes what happened next:
On reaching the end Miss Earhart turned and after a brief delay opened both throttles. As the airplane gathered speed it swung slightly to the right. Miss Earhart corrected this tendency by throttling the left hand motor. The airplane then began to swing to the left with increasing speed, characteristic of a ground loop. It tilted outward, right wing low and for 50 or 60 feet was supported by the right wheel only. The right-hand landing-gear suddenly collapsed under this excessive load followed by the left. The airplane spun sharply to the left on its belly amid a shower of sparks from the mat and came to rest headed about 200 degrees from its initial course. There was no fire. Miss Earhart and her crew emerged unhurt. The visible damage to the airplane was as follows:- Right wing and engine nacelle severely damaged, left engine nacelle damaged on under side, right hand rudder and end of stabilizer bent. The engines were undamaged. The oil tanks were ruptured. . . .
FINDINGS: . . . after a run of 1200 feet the airplane crashed on the landing mat due to collapse of the landing gear as a result of an uncontrolled ground loop; the lack of factual evidence makes it impossible to establish the reason for the ground loop; that as a result of the crash the airplane was damaged to an extent requiring major overhaul. . . .
—excerpts from PROCEEDINGS OF A BOARD OF OFFICERS CONVENED TO INVESTIGATE THE CRASH OF MISS AMELIA EARHART AT LUKE FIELD, 20 MARCH 1937
The Electra was extensively damaged. There were no injuries, but the Electra was sent back to Lockheed at Burbank, California, aboard the passenger liner, SS Lurline, for repair.
At the time of the accident, NR16020 had flown 181 hours, 17 minutes, total time since new (TTSN).
19 March 1937: After her record-setting 15 hour, 47 minute overnight flight from Oakland, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E Special NR16020 was placed in a hangar at Wheeler Army Airfield, Honolulu, for maintenance and repair. During the flight, a propeller pitch change mechanism had failed. Inspection revealed that both propeller hubs were badly galled “due to improper or insufficient lubrication.” They were overhauled by the Army Air Corps’ Hawaiian Air Depot at Luke Field, then re-installed on the Electra.
At 11:15 a.m. on the 19th, Paul Mantz and two friends took the Electra for a test flight, then repositioned to Luke Field on Ford Island, with its longer, hard-surfaced runway, for an early morning takeoff on the second leg of the around-the-world flight.