The advent of aviation in the early 20th century meant that society no longer had its feet on the ground. It revolutionised transport and trade and finally fulfilled the dream that humanity had been pursuing since time immemorial: to fly. What some of our ancestors had come to consider a challenge for the gods became a reality thanks to feats such as that of the Wright brothers, whose piloted aeroplane gave society wings in 1903.
Spain, started the century trying to recover from the great imperial crash of 1898. Therefore there were no aeroplanes in Spain until 1910. However, this did not prevent the wealthier Spaniards from investing part of their resources in development and the avant-garde.
Is it a bird?… Is it a plane?… It’s a Spanish Engineer!
In this ABG Story, we are celebrating the centenary of the autogyro patent, so we approached the Air and Aeronautics Museum in Madrid, where we talked to the Chief Colonel of the Cuatro Vientos Air Base, Fernando Roselló, about the work and personality of Juan de la Cierva and Codorníu.
The inventor of the gyroplane was born into a family of prominent businessmen and politicians of the time, in Murcia in 1895. By the age of 15, he was already immersed in a business venture called B.C.D., which was created with two friends, José Barcala and Pablo Díaz. The trio achieved their first success in 1912: with a two-seater bi-plane, which was named BCD-1. However due to its red colour it quickly earned the nickname of El Cangrejo.
It has gone down in history as the first Spanish aircraft to manage to remain stable in the air for a considerable period of time.
The trajectory of the B.C.D. was short. Only one other project was released under its acronym: the BCD-2 monoplane. Juan de la Cierva left his colleagues to focus on his studies.
The figure of “Juanito”, as he was generally known, took off in a big way in 1919, the same year as he got his degree as a Civil Engineer. For his final career project, he built a biplane and three-engine plane which, on the day of its official presentation, was named the largest plane in the world. The design set a precedent by placing the tractor propellers at the front. The debut ended up leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. Even though the first flight proved to be a success, the second was the opposite. A low-level manoeuvre destabilised the wings and the engineer’s project ended up being scattered over the ground.
“That accident was a turning point in Juan de la Cierva’s career. From that moment on, he became obsessed with finding an alternative that was more stable, easier to fly, as safe as possible and not dependent on flying speed”, Colonel Roselló states.
In search of an alternative, the engineer devised his own theories and merged with was known in aviation. In 1919, Juan de la Cierva’s career was linked to that of the Argentine Raúl Pateras Pescara, who completed the first totally controlled flight after a vertical take-off. The Buenos Aires aristocrat is considered to be the father of the helicopter, thanks to the patent called Hélicoptère Rationnel (No. FR 533.820) which was granted to him in February 1920.
In spite of the parallels, Juan de la Cierva had a different concept in mind, one that did not involve the use of fixed wings. The self-rotating system with articulated blades that he developed guaranteed flight even when speed was low, leaving the device to the mercy of the wind instead of the work of the engines. The concept was transformed into the gyroplane. The Greek etymology was eventually adapted to the commercial canons of the time and the artistic name of the invention was shortened to autogyro. It was patented on 27 August 1920 (No ES 74 322) and registered as a word mark a month later (49 038 – the mark was applied for in February and published in the Official Gazette on 1 April 1923, p. 67).
Fourth Time Lucky
The granting of the patent did not bring instant success. The first gyroplane models, known as the C.1, C.2 and C.3, tipped over before taking flight because the blades were so rigidly attached. Little by little, Juan de la Cierva improved the gyroplane’s capabilities until he found the key: adding hinges to achieve greater flexibility of the blades and better support of the apparatus. The updates were patented (No. ES 77.569, ES 78.362, ES 81.406 and ES 84.684, among others).
In January 1923, the C.4 model arrived. The new gyroplane made its debut with a flight that covered several metres at different speeds and ended with a successful vertical landing. The repercussions of the event led the Spanish authorities to begin to show interest in the work of Juan de la Cierva, who had financed his first five prototypes with private funds. Colonel Roselló explained that until the launch of the C4, all expenses were paid for by the family. His father agreed to pay for all the equipment on one condition: that Juan did not fly.
In 1924, the Spanish Military Aviation built the first models of the C.6 gyroplane, which had up to four variants.
The first, known as the C.6A, has gone down in history as the first gyroplane to complete a flight. It took place between Madrid’s Cuatro Vientos and Getafe airports, separated by a distance of 10km, and the aircraft flew successfully in just over 8 minutes.
The performance of the C.6A was recorded and screened during the 9th Paris Aerodynamics Exhibition, held in the French capital in the mid-1920s. Juan de la Cierva monopolised all the spotlight and laid the foundations for the Anglo-Saxon stage of his promising career.
In 1926, he moved to the United Kingdom. Colonel Roselló told us the “move” had a compelling reason: private capital. “In Spain, nobody believed in the gyroplane. Nobody wanted to invest. The British were the first to put up capital which among other things, made it possible for the British Air Ministry to order gyroplane models“.
It was in London that Juan de la Cierva founded the Cierva Autogiro Company together with the Scottish businessman, James G. Weir, and the aircraft manufacturer, Avro. The list of achievements grew with new developments and the sale of manufacturing licenses to countries such as France, Japan, the United States and Germany.
Juan de la Cierva reserved all the rights for Spain and gave licenses without charge, to all those who wanted to make gyroplanes.
The Cierva Autogyro Company manufactured notable models such as the C.8, in which the inventor crossed the English Channel in 1928 and the C-19, the first light, two-seater autogyro manufactured for commercial purposes.
The American Conquest
Juan de la Cierva’s fame crossed the Atlantic in 1929, when he linked himself with the American manufacturer, Pitcairn Aircraft Company, giving rise to the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company of America.
In a matter of days, he found himself combining morning meetings which included personalities such as businessman Henry Ford with long sleepless nights, spent implementing innovations. The fruit of his success for the endless days of work and insomnia: the vertical take-off and other inventions were protected by the means of patents (No. US 1,692,082 or US 1,278,935, among others).
The reputation of the gyroplane rose in parallel. With the release of the C.30 model, it reached a new peak of popularity worldwide. The exterior structure of the gyroplane stood out for the absence of wings, while the star of the interior was the direct control. A single lever made it possible to control and move the rotor in any direction. Up to 160 gyroplanes were produced in series and exported to several countries. There were other projects that, despite not achieving the success they deserved, at their launch, made a mark on the history of aviation. Such as the case of the PA-19 model, built in 1934. During its short life, it could boast to being the first closed-cabin gyroplane and of having a special version designed for sanitary purposes. Inside the first gyroplane ambulance there was room for four passengers and a stretcher.
The End of a Dream
On December 9 1936, at Croydon Airport (UK). Juan de la Cierva was a passenger on a KLM plane scheduled to fly from London to Amsterdam. Unfortunately, a fatal collision on the runway prematurely ended the dreams of Juan de la Cierva forever.
The ironic fate deprived a person of a future whose past had been marked by an obsession to achieve the most absolute air safety.
New gyroplane models were produced after his death, such as the C.40 in 1939. However, after the end of World War II the invention fell into decline in favour of the helicopter. Even so, nobody can deny the influence of Juan de la Cierva on the direct competitors of his gyroplanes. Even Igor Sikorksy, the father of the modern helicopter, for a fee on several occasions used the Spanish engineer’s patents. Thanks to this, the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation avoided being affected by the Lane decision, which in 1967 condemned the US Government to compensate the Autogiro Company of America and the descendants of Juan de la Cierva for patent infringement when they acquired helicopters manufactured without payment of licences during World War II.
Juan de la Cierva was a high-flying visionary whose contribution transcended the limits of science. Without him, Hitchcock‘s cinema would have been left without 39 Steps and Batman‘s comics without the Batgyro.
In the 21st century, the importance of the engineer remains thanks to figures such as Colonel Roselló, a firm defender of the work of Juan de la Cierva. The passion of this member of the Spanish Air Force for gyroplanes has not only allowed these devices to continue flying, but also break records. In 2009, the colonel managed to beat two international records between the town of Rota (Cádiz) and Gran Canaria, by performing: the longest non-stop flight over the sea in an autogyro (1,307km in 8 hours and 7 seconds) and the average speed (161km / h). Both the Guinness Book and the Aviation Aeronautical Federation (FAI) echoed the feat.
Our special thanks to the Chief Colonel of the Cuatro Vientos Air Base, Fernando Roselló for his help in producing this article, and to Colonel Juan Andrés Toledano and his team at the Museum of Air and Aeronautics in Madrid, for their effort and for the use of the graphic material.