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

The Pitcairn PCA-2 autogiro of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum during its grand tour of the United States, when it was owned by Sealed Power Corporation. Anon. “Pohled na Ciervovu autogiro za letu.” Letectvi, November 1932, 310.

You came back, my reading friend? Really? Yours truly is touched, really. No pun intended.

You will remember that this week’s issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee will be concerned with the Pitcairn PCA-2 autogiro of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and…

You have a question, don’t you? Let me guess, and answer it forthwith. “Pohled na Ciervovu autogiro za letu” means “view of a Cierva autogiro in flight” in Czech.

And yes, the photo just above came from a Czech magazine. I must have told you at least once that the Canada Aviation and Space Museum had the best publicly accessible (in normal circumstances) aviation library in Canada. (Hello FSH and SB!) Its magazine collection is nothing short of spectacular, and…

Where were we? Ah yes.

You will remember that this week’s issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee will be concerned with the great journey of Donald “Don” Walker and the Pitcairn PCA-2 autogiro which ended up in the collection of the, words fail me, fantabulastic Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario.

You will remember that Walker was in Miami, Florida, to attend the 4th annual edition of the All-American Air Races, held on 7, 8 and 9 January. So, let us begin our quick overview of what happened afterward. Again, you will remember that Walker had been tasked with visiting up to 400 towns and cities in the United States, in order to promote the products of his employer, Piston Ring Company, a firm which changed its name to become Sealed Power Corporation during the first weeks of this journey.

So, let us begin our brief overview of said journey.

On 15 January 1932, Walker flew the mayor of Tampa, Florida, Robert E. Lee Chancey, to St. Petersburg, Florida, to pick up the mayor of that town, Henry W. Adams, Junior. The three men flew back to Tampa without incident.

The following day, Walker took part in an air meet held in Tampa as part of an early 1932 air tour of Florida which involved 30 or so towns and cities. Fred W. “Slim” Soule, the pilot of Horizon Aerial Advertising Company mentioned in the first part of this article, was there as well, with his PCA-2. These machines, and a third autogiro, a Kellett K-2 in all likelihood, owned by Tampa resident W.O. Goodrich, Junior, but flown by Tampa pilot George R. Pickenpack, simply stole the show. The slow speed gesticulations autogiros were able to achieve back then being simply jaw dropping, the good people of Tampa, and the bad ones too, were suitably impressed.

Walker and the PCA-2 spent a fair amount of time, slightly more than a month in fact, in Texas. Between early March and early April, they visited several / many towns and cities, offering brief courtesy flights to people whose names were seemingly suggested by the local distributor or representative of Piston Ring / Sealed Power. Several / many journalists also took to the sky with Walker.

At some point in April, Walker left Brownsville, Texas, right on the border with Mexico. When the American pilot arrived in Monterrey, deep inside this Latin American country, the crowd was so large that he had to stay aloft until the local police force cleared a space large enough to accommodate the PCA-2. As soon as the engine stopped, if not before, the crowd rushed toward the autogiro to have a better look at this strange machine the likes of which that had never seen.

Soon enough, Walker seemingly got ready to take up the first of several local officials on a list. Some of these officials were not quite as happy as the crowd, however. You see, the visa that Walker got before leaving Brownsville was a tourist visa, which was not the one he should have acquired. Said officials were about to have Walker put in jail when the latter pleaded that he had made been misled by people in Brownsville and that he was the first person to fly an autogiro into Mexico. The officials acknowledged the uniqueness of the situation. Walker’s offer to pay on the spot the cost of the correct visa improved the situation even more.

Walker put the puck in the net by offering to offer a free flight to the (high ranking?) official who had pushed for his arrest. Said official had, for some reason or other, been left off the list of people who would fly with Walker, an omission which had understandably annoyed him. There were now smiles all around. Walker accompanied the officials into town before flying back to Texas without a hitch.

For some municipalities, Walker’s presence was a big deal. After all, most of their inhabitants had never seen an autogiro and the local airfield, if there was one, may not have been buzzing with activity. Let’s not forget that the Great Depression still had the United States firmly in its grip.

In Chickasha, Oklahoma, for example, which was scheduled to welcome Walker on 16 April, the local newspaper, Chickasha Daily Express, promoted his visit with an entire page full of advertisements paid for by local businesses, as well as the local branch of J.C. Penney Company Incorporated. In Seminole, Oklahoma, which was scheduled to welcome Walker on 2 June, the local newspaper, Seminole Morning News, promoted his visit with an entire page of advertisements somewhat similar in appearance to the one published by Chickasha Daily Express.

Oddly enough, it looks as if Walker spent much / most of his time between the middle of April and the beginning of June in Oklahoma. Oklahomans are fine people but one has to wonder what the attraction was. It is of course possible that they were unusually good customers of Piston Ring / Sealed Power.

An otherwise unidentified Ford Tri-Motor accompanied Walker for a little while in July, during his travels in Kansas and Nebraska. The example in question of this very robust and reliable airliner was flown by a well-known Kansas pilot. Ben S. Gregory took advantage of the stir caused by the PCA-2 to offer brief flights, for a fee. (Hello EG!)

It was seemingly around that time that journalists reported for the first time that Walker had a 2-year contract with Sealed Power. If the PCA-2 was still airworthy by the end of that period, the happy pilot would get a $ 5 000 bonus – a sum equivalent to about $ 96 000 in 2021 currency. Given the cost of a new autogiro ($ 15 000, or about $ 2 888 000 in 2021 currency), the management of the firm thought than a bonus would encourage Walker to be extra careful, thus reducing its risk of having to buy a replacement machine.

Over the following weeks and months, Walker kept on flying – and the crowds kept on coming. At some point after 15 March, he alighted at the Continental Airport near Muskegon, Michigan, where the headquarters of Sealed Power were located. This was the end of the journey. Over a period of 15 months, Walker and the PCA-2 had seemingly covered a distance of approximately 160 000 kilometres (100 000 miles).

All in all, this journey had gone remarkably well. According to one source, however, the good people of Albuquerque, New Mexico, had been so thrilled that a number of them decided to return home with souvenirs. These souvenir hunters removed, dare I type tore, so many pieces of fabric and other small parts that the PCA-2 had to spend some extra days there, so that Walker and others could make repairs.

On another occasion, over Texas, Walker ran into a sandstorm whose winds blew at a speed exceeding 110 kilometres/hour (about 70 miles/hour). That flight was not a fun one.

Walker seemingly continued to pilot the PCA-2 for some time after their odyssey.

Sealed Power may, I repeat may, have sold the autogiro in 1935.

Sadly enough, the PCA-2 s whereabouts after that date are unknown. This being said (typed?), it was owned by several civilian operators until at least 1948. As was mentioned in the first part of this article, the PCA-2 may have become a PA-21 in 1946 when its engine was changed.

The Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association may, I repeat may, have loaned the PA-21, which was missing its rotor and fabric covering by then, to the National Aeronautical Collection, as the Canada Aviation and Space Museum was known back then, in 1967. The autogiro was acquired in February 1968.

The National Aeronautical Collection acquired a rotor in 1982, the very year it became the National Aviation Museum. Whether or not said rotor was the one originally fitted to the museum’s PA-21 is unclear.

Yours truly would be willing to bet a few pennies that this autogiro was acquired in order to paint it in the colours and markings of the PCA-2 owned by Hubert Martyn Pasmore, a gentleman mentioned in the first part of this article.

Given the importance of the grand tour it made in the early 1930s, it is this writer’s very personal opinion the autogiro of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum should be restored and displayed, at some point. More controversially, yours truly would not be opposed to the idea of considering the possibility of having this unique machine restored and displayed in the United States, under close supervision of course. There, I typed it. Fiat justitia ruat caelum.

Now, if you excuse me, I will run away and hide for a few days. Wish me luck.

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Rénald Fortier