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The President And The Autogyro

March 2023
1min read

IN THE August/September 1981 issue the article “An Airplane in Every Garage” traced the career of the stubborn American conviction that swarms of private planes would soon be taking the citizenry into the air, just as the automobile had put an earlier generation on the road.

One high point in this stillborn revolution occurred when, in August of 1936, a test pilot landed a strange craft in downtown Washington, emerged to fold back its rotor blades, climbed back into the cockpit, and drove off. The machine was an autogyro, and we gave the pilot’s name as John Ray.

Now Donald Gallager of Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, writes to tell us that the pilot’s name was James—not John—Ray, and that this was not the first time he’d landed an unusual plane in the capital.

James G. Ray, a Texan who learned to fly in World War I, joined up as chief pilot for Harold Pitcairn when the Pennsylvania aviation pioneer formed his own company in 1924. Pitcairn was particularly interested in helicopter design—eventually his firm was awarded no fewer than 270 basic patents for vertical lift and rotary wing aircraft—and on a 1928 trip to England he saw a Cierva C-8 autogyro being built under license by the Avro Company. He promptly ordered one shipped to the States and the next year bought the rights to manufacture it in America.

Convinced that this was where the future of flight lay, he sold Pitcairn Aviation (which managed to struggle along all right with conventional aircraft under its new name of Eastern Airlines) and, with Ray and his other associates, bent all his future efforts to developing the helicopter.

In 1930 their work gained them the National Aeronautical Association’s prestigious Collier Trophy. And so, in 1931, James Ray buzzed down out of the Washington skies to come to light on the White House lawn, where President Hoover himself stood in the shadow of the curious aircraft and handed over the prize.

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