When we talk about the first years of aviation, there are always the wright brothers as the first who managed to fly with an aircraft powered by an internal combustion engine, in late 1903. But as I have commented on other occasions, the story is not made by just two people. Moreover, the same invention may be discovered days apart in different parts of the planet by inventors without connection to each other. And normally, one invention gives rise to another that helps create a third.

The Wright brothers would not have succeeded without the first approximations of the English William Henson and John Stringfellow, who in 1843 and 1848 respectively launched a failed prototype and later an airplane that barely flew a few seconds. French also contributed Clément Ader with his 1890 steam plane or the Russian Aleksandr Mozhaiski with its monoplane also steam a few years earlier, in 1884. The list can be extended more and more with successive designs and prototypes, some more fortunate than others.

And if we go back, the first human flight that is recorded was the one made in a hot air balloon in October 1783 in Paris. Precisely, balloons and airships were the first flying machines that the human being would put in the sky. It would take more than a hundred years to get to the plane. And the same will happen for the emergence of another technology capable of flying, the helicopter, whose paternity is attributed to the Slovakian. Jan Bahyl, who patented his invention in 1895. However, it will not be until 1942 that the helicopter will begin to be produced in a chain, something that will make possible the Ukrainian (then Russian) Igor Sikorski.

But halfway we have the autogiro, an invention that combines the design of an airplane, with two main wings and a front propeller, to which is added a larger horizontal propeller that rotates freely, unlike the helicopter where it is the element that moves the apparatus.

The role of Juan de la Cierva

The father of the gyroplane was the Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva Codorníu (1895-1936). His first steps in professional aeronautics began in 1912, when he was sixteen years old and in collaboration with two friends, José Barcala and Pablo Díaz, he launched the B.C.D. Its first fruit will be the biplane plane BCD-1 with space for the pilot and a passenger.

As a curiosity, this first ingenuity was possible thanks to the engine and parts of a French type aircraft Sommer single-seater, piloted by the also French Jean Mauvais, and who had participated in the first Paris Madrid race. When the plane was practically destroyed, De la Cierva and his partners managed to get hold of it and thus create a new aircraft, better and faster than the original and that Jean Mauvais himself could pilot for two years.

Model of a Sommer monoplane. Source: Peter Rake

Although Juan de la Cierva studied Bridge and road engineeringAs a final project, he designed and assembled a trimotor plane using engines Hispanic Switzerland 220 hp. Built with private funds, it was to take part in a military aviation contest. The first flight, in 1919, went well, but the second ended with the plane being destroyed, although the pilot managed to escape unscathed.

De la Cierva attributed the accident to the pilot’s lack of experience with aircraft of that size, one of the first of its kind. Precisely, the confidence he had in his plane and that human error could cause problems, made him rethink the design of aircraft.

The birth of the gyroplane

Juan de la Cierva wanted to patent his idea of ​​a safe aircraft to fly at any speed. For this I would use the autorotationIn other words, the main breaker would move through the air and not through an engine. The patent for such an idea was granted to him in the late summer of 1920 with the number 74,322.

So he built his first gyroplane in Madrid in 1920. Called Deer C.1, was based on a French monoplane Deperdussin 1911 to which he added two four-bladed rotors. And for all this to move, an engine Le Rhone, also French, with 60 CV. This first prototype failed to fly due to the lack of synchronization between the two rotors. Although he tried to solve the problem with two more prototypes, the C.2 and the C.3, the solution would come with its first functional gyroplane, the C.4.

Deer C4. Source: Fiddlersgreen

The C.4 flew for the first time in Getafe in early 1923 at a distance of 4 kilometers at a height of 30 meters. The key to flying? Instead of using rigid blades like those of the time, he introduced hinges that allowed them to rise or fall with the air, something that De la Cierva called paddling joint and that served to make rotor flight possible, a problem that engineers who were betting on the helicopter.

The Golden Age

Although De la Cierva obtained public financing in Spain from 1923, for various reasons depending on the source consulted, in 1926 he decided to expand beyond its borders and created the society in the United Kingdom Cierva Autogiro Company with the financial help of a Scottish industrialist and aviator, James George Weir.

From that English society the Deer C.8 and many more, until its closure in 1975. Many of these gyros will be created in collaboration with other companies in the sector, such as the English one Avro, the German Focke-Wulf or the French Lioré-et-Olivier. After De la Cierva died in a plane crash in 1936, the gyro company will gradually convert itself to focus on the design and construction of helicopters, such as the Cierva W.11 Air Horse or Cierva W. 14 Skeetr of 1948. .

Pitcairn PCA-2 gyroplane from the United States licensed by De la Cierva. Source: Wikipedia

Spain, United Kingdom, Germany, France … The gyroplane also made the leap to the United States, this time by another Spanish engineer, Heraclio Alfaro Fournier, which in collaboration with the American Pitcairn Aircraft will create enhanced gyros with their own pre-launch engine for the rotor. Other improvements that will come from other engineers will be the direct command system, thus dispensing with ailerons and rudder, or the takeoff jump system, introduced by De la Cierva himself.

The arrival of the helicopter

Juan De la Cierva He managed to create a new type of aircraft on the way between the plane and the helicopter, but despite its advantages over the second, it did not achieve the necessary acceptance. Although he managed to make a place for himself in several countries such as those mentioned above, after his death, in late 1938 in a plane crash on a KLM flight from London to Amsterdam, the company he left behind was adapting to the needs of the sector .

The gyroplane arose at a time when aviation was very recent. In Spain, the first planes did not arrive until 1910. And the helicopter as such needed a lot of improvement, despite the good work of engineers like the French. Breguet brothersdanish Jacob Ellehammer or the Argentine Raúl Pateras, among many other names.

Modern gyro from the manufacturer Cavalon. Source: CW Hawes

Precisely, together with the successive previous improvements, the introduction of the single rotor He gave a big push in creating stable and functional helicopters. The first to introduce this improvement were the Russians Boris Yuriev and Alexei Cheremukhin. But as I said at the beginning of this article, it was not until 1942 that the golden age of the helicopter began as a reliable alternative to the airplane.

His manager, Igor Sikorsky, whose company Sikorsky Manufacturing Company It will begin to build helicopters in collaboration with the United States Army. Specifically, the first models will be Sikorsky S-42, nicknamed Clipper. Mainly the United States but also the United Kingdom will introduce the helicopter into their armies, so that the gyroplane will gradually be forgotten.

However, today we continue to find gyros, with more minimalist and lighter designs and with more affordable prices, focused on recreational and sports use. Other models, closer to modern helicopters, are used in different parts of the world for military or police surveillance use.


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