“‘Flying Windmill’ here on Wednesday”: The great journey of Donald Walker and the Pitcairn PCA-2 of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, part 1

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The Pitcairn PCA-2 autogiro of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum when it was owned by Standard Oil Company of New York. Anon., “Advertisement – Standard Oil Company of New York.” Aviation, May 1931, 22.

Greetings, my reading friend. May I wish you a happy International Workers’ Day? Yours truly must admit that I rather like union people, the gentlepeople who gave me paid holidays, a retirement pension, a reasonable work week and many other things I often took / take for granted, but I digress.

As you may perhaps have noticed, I am also quite fond of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum of Ottawa, Ontario, one of Canada’s national museums. You may have been amused, or irritated, by the many adjectives used to describe its stupendous collection but the truth is that said collection is pretty darn good.

As you may have imagined, many items in re-said collection cannot be put on display for lack of space, which is sad and should be corrected. This being said (typed?), as you may also have imagined, not everything in the collection is presentable. One such non-displayed and non-presentable / unrestored item is the museum’s Pitcairn PCA-2, or PA-21, a designation this 3-seat autogiro acquired when its engine was changed in 1946, unless it was at some point in the 1930s, and…

Do you know what an autogiro / gyroplane was / is? You should, having read the October 2017 and / or February 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee where this type of flying machine was / is mentioned. You did not read them, did you? Sigh. An autogiro, say I, was / is a less complex and expensive cousin of the helicopter developed in the 1920s by Spain’s Juan de la Cierva y Codorníu. Its rotor was / is not powered by an engine and rotates freely. An autogiro could not / cannot take off or land vertically, nor hover in mid-air, but it could / can operate from very small landing areas, but back to our Pitcairn.

This PCA-2 was built in 1931, in the United States, in the factory operated by Pitcairn Aircraft Incorporated, a firm which had acquired the American production rights of de la Cierva y Codorníu’s machines. To be more precise, said rights were acquired by a firm created for that very purpose, Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company, which later became Autogiro Company of America.

Pitcairn Aircraft’s first autogiro, the PCA-1, had flown in October 1929. It was a subtle blend of American technology (modified Pitcairn airplane fuselage) and British-made Spanish technology (Cierva Autogiro Company rotor). Only a few PCA-1s (3?) were made.

The improved PCA-2 first flew in 1930. Pitcairn Aircraft / Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro made 20 or so of these machines, which were the first commercially available autogiros in North America.

One of these was registered in Canada, in July 1931, by Hubert Martyn Pasmore, the founding president of Fairchild Aircraft Limited of Longueuil, Québec – a well-known Québec / Canadian aircraft manufacturing firm mentioned several time in our blog / bulletin / thingee since August 2018.

Would you believe that Godfrey Webster Dean, the British-born Fairchild Aircraft test pilot, was at the controls of this autogiro, in October 1932, when he performed the very loop the loop ever made by a rotary winged aircraft, near Willow Grove, Pennsylvania?

That autogiro was withdrawn from use in May 1935.

A brief digression if I may. For the longest time, yours truly though that the expression British Consols painted in the side of Pasmore’s PCA-2 referred to a brand of cigarettes. Nay. A British consol was a perpetual bond issued by her / his majesty’s government. The first ones were issued in 1752, while the last ones were redeemed in 2015, and…

What is it, my reading friend, and why are you smiling? British Consols was a brand of cigarettes? Get outta here. Seriously?

A second brief digression if I may. Johnny MacDonald “Johnny” Miller, a well-known and respected American pilot, pointed out before his passing that he had looped an autogiro in 1931, in secret, perhaps more than once. He was planning to perform this maneuver at the 1931 edition of the National Air Races (NAR), held in Cleveland, Ohio, between 29 August and 7 September. The management of Pitcairn Aircraft and / or the organisers of the NAR, one of the major aeronautical events of the interwar years, who did not know that Miller had already done the deed, politely refused to entertain the idea, but back to our PCA-2, again.

The first owner of this machine was Standard Oil Company of New York, one of the great, well, major, American oil companies of its day. Socony, as it was often called, acquired the PCA-2 to help with its research on aviation products, primarily gasoline and motor oil.

And yes, Socony was one of the (in)famous “seven sisters,” the international oil cartel which dominated the Earth’s oil industry between the end of the Second World War, in 1945, and the 1973 oil crisis, but I digress.

Socony sold its test aircraft no later than December 1931, to a well-known and respected American manufacturer of piston rings for automobile (and aircraft?) engines. Within months, if not weeks, of this sale, Piston Ring Company changed its name to become Sealed Power Corporation.

It looks as if Piston Ring / Sealed Power intended to use its autogiro to test some of its piston rings – a world first. While this might not have sounded like a good idea, the truth was that an autogiro was probably the safest way to test engine piston rings in flight. Indeed, an inflight failure would not necessarily have resulted in a crash, as might well have been the case with an airplane.

Anywée, Piston Ring hired an experienced pilot with The Detroit News-Herald to fly its new autogiro. And yes, Donald “Don” Walker was the pilot of the PCA-2 acquired in 1931 by this daily newspaper from Detroit, Michigan, to take aerial photographs of a quality that surpassed anything achievable from an airplane.

Would you believe that the PCA-2 once owned by The Detroit News-Herald was on display at the Henry Ford Museum, at Dearborn, Michigan, as of early 2021?

Within days of moving into his new position, Walker was given an assignment: fly to Miami, Florida, where he would demonstrate the PCA-2 at the 4th annual edition of the All-American Air Races, held on 7, 8 and 9 January 1932. On his way to this event, he was to stop in a number of locations in order to promote Piston Ring’s products. The firm’s manager for the southern United States, John H. Smalley, would travel ahead of Walker to meet the heads of the various firms who sold said products in each location visited before, and after, the All-American Air Races. He was seemingly replaced by a colleague, W.J. Sheldon, no later than August 1932.

Indeed, after the All-American Air Races, Walker was to move into a second assignment, and a daunting one it was: visit up to 400 towns and cities in the United States, again in order to promote Piston Ring / Sealed Power’s products. No autogiro pilot, and no autogiro, had been given such an assignment before. Actually, no autogiro pilot, and no autogiro, may have been given such an assignment since.

Incidentally, the words Sealed Power visible on both sides of the PCA-2’s fuselage were seemingly painted before Walker set out on his quest.

Yours truly does not know when Walker left wherever he was to go to Miami. He did, however, stop in Indiana, at Indianapolis and Evansville. The first stop for which I have a modicum of information is the one in Nashville, Tennessee, where Walker arrived on 15 December. He may have made the odd demonstration flight. He may even have offered free flights to a few local people. Bad weather seemingly prevented Walker from leaving.

The PCA-2 and its pilot arrived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on 22 December. Walker took up 30 or so local people during that day, 1 or 2 at a time.

Walker attempted to fly to Atlanta, Georgia, on 23 December but bad weather forced him to turn back. He chose to go to Atlanta by train, to spend Christmas with some friends. Stored in a hangar at the local airport, the PCA-2 was the centre of attention. Several hundred people actually made the trip to Lovell Field to see it.

Walker flew to Atlanta on 26 December. He may have made the odd demonstration flight there. He may even have offered free flights to a few local people. Walker left Atlanta on 29 December.

Walker’s whereabouts for the next few days are a tad obscure.

On 2 January 1932, Walker alighted in Orlando, Florida. Countless people flooded onto one the city’s main arteries to watch the PCA-2 and another pair of Pitcairn autogiros also on their way to the All-American Air Races, in all likelihood PCA-2s as well, fly slowly over them. This was quite a sight, as no other machine of this type had graced the skies of the city before.

Incidentally, one of the autogiros belonged to the aforementioned Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro. It was flown by the firm’s chief test pilot, Charles “Jim / Jimmy” Faulkner. The other one was flown by Fred W. “Slim” Soule, the pilot of Horizon Aerial Advertising Company, a small firm specialising in aerial advertising.

Faulkner and Soule left Orlando on 3 January. Walker tried to leaver as well but misjudged the distance between his autogiro and the tall pines which fringed the airfield. Unable to climb above them, he had to make a quick landing in a clump of palmettos. A number of people rushed to the site to see if Walker was injured. He was not and damage to the PCA-2 was minimal, a broken cable from the looks of it.

Earlier in the day, Walker had taken off with newly elected (1 January) mayor of Orlando, Samuel Yulee Way, and one of his daughters. The half hour flight over central Florida was uneventful. Both Ways were quite thrilled by the experience.

Oddly enough, yours truly could not find any information on the flights made by Walker in Miami at the All-American Air Races

And now comes the time to pontificate about Walker’s multi month journey across the United States. Aghast at the number of towns and cities visited by this gentleman, I would like to limit said pontification to a number of highlights. I therefore wish to offer my apologies for the residents of the municipalities that will not be mentioned in this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

This being said (types?), let it be known that Walker and the PCA-2 visited towns and cities in 40 or so states of the union, or so it was claimed, including Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia, between January 1932 and March 1933. Mind you, I have a feeling Walker may also have visited Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and South Carolina.

Are we not all very fascinated, if I may paraphrase, out of context, a genetically enhanced raccoon, 89P13, who calls himself Rocket? No? You are only mildly interested in hearing (reading?) more about Walker’s great journey? Oh. Very well, then. You can wait until next week.

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Rénald Fortier