In The Museum: A Helicopter in Every Garage

In The Museum: A Helicopter in Every Garage

“Any intelligent person who can learn to drive a car will be able to fly a postwar helicopter after a few easy lessons,” Frank Piasecki confidently told the Los Angeles Times in 1944. Piasecki’s PV-2 is shown here on display at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, top. Dane A Penland

The PV-2 helicopter was the mechanical equivalent of a Victorian crazy quilt. The fuselage was made from a Curtiss-Wright Junior found abandoned in a Pittsburgh brewery. A Packard from a junkyard contributed an oil pump, a rusted Chevrolet supplied a clutch, and roofing tin covered the rotor mounting. The left landing gear was graced—for no apparent reason—with a car horn.

The brains behind the contraption was the P-V Engineering Forum, founded in 1940 by engineers Frank Piasecki and Harold Venzie, along with a few of their former college classmates. The Philadelphia-based organization had planned to develop appliances such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines, but in a burst of confidence decided instead to design a helicopter. But not just any helicopter.

The engineers wanted to create the aerial equivalent of the family sedan.

By April 11, 1943, the group was ready to conduct the first tethered tests of the PV-2. Because they were unable to afford a test pilot, Piasecki volunteered to sit in the experimental aircraft himself, even though he did not have a pilot’s license.

“Unfortunately,” says Roger Connor, the National Air and Space Museum’s curator of vertical flight, “they hadn’t bothered to hold it down with anything better than clothesline, which broke.” As tethered test changed abruptly into free flight, Piasecki managed to control the runaway helicopter and land it safely—impressive for someone who had a mere 14 hours of flying time, all in a Piper Cub.

Piasecki had been trying to interest the U.S. military in the PV-2 for more than a year, even though a single-seat design had few useful applications. But in the fall of 1943, after a Senate investigation forced the U.S. Navy to search for a new helicopter, the forum gave the aircraft a smarter look by covering its bare fuselage with doped muslin sheets painted maroon and silver, and headed to Washington, D.C., for an exhibition flight.

Renting a flatbed truck to transport the helicopter was out of the question; the company had run out of money. So Piasecki hitched the tail of the PV-2 to a Pontiac and towed it the 135 miles from Philadelphia. “Its wheels didn’t have bearings,” says Connor, “so they rapidly heated up after a few minutes of travel at even fairly slow speeds, and Piasecki had to stop frequently and throw water on them from any handy roadside ditch. On one occasion, a ditch wasn’t handy, so Piasecki hopped a fence in a cow pasture to get to a pond, but had to deal with an angry bull.”

After the adventure of getting the PV-2 to Washington, demonstrating it to the U.S. military was a breeze. On October 13, 1943, wearing his trademark Homburg and bow tie, Piasecki completed several exhibition flights. In an added flourish at the end of the performance, a Civil Aeronautics Administration inspector presented Piasecki with a helicopter license—the first granted to someone who didn’t already have a fixed-wing license.

The Christian Science Monitor reported that the display was a success: “Demonstrations before military officials have aroused interest in possible war use for helicopters. P-V is working on a helicopter with a pay load of more than one ton and a range of 400 miles, for possible use for military rescue work, liaison, invasion, antisub activity, and other war purposes.”

The next day, Piasecki invited film photographers to meet him in northern Virginia, to show off the PV-2’s potential in the civil market. The resulting newsreel segment, An Air Flivver in Every Garage, showed Piasecki backing the PV-2 out of a garage, topping off at a nearby gas station, then flying to a golf course for a few rounds. (The film needed some creative editing, since the PV-2 couldn’t hold both a pilot and a golf bag.)

The newsreel was wildly popular, bringing investors to the company and paving the way for Piasecki to become the premier maker of transport helicopters. On January 1, 1944, the forum received a Navy contract for the XHRP-X Dogship, the world’s first successful tandem-rotor helicopter (which went into production as the HRP-1).

Having aptly demonstrated the company’s ability to design a practical helicopter, the PV-2 was basically retired, flown occasionally on company anniversaries and important milestones. On July 6, 1965, Piasecki donated the PV-2 to the National Air and Space Museum; it’s now on display at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia.     

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