Autogyros of New York

9 Apr

“This year, 1938, will be the year that sees the first practical applications of the rotorcraft like our autogyro,” predicted Dennis Moon, the engineer and visionary. “And with your backing, Mr. Clark, it is going to happen right here in New York City.”

The older man, an experienced financier who had weathered the Great Depression with only limited losses, thought for several seconds before replying to the spirited enthusiast.

“It is always wise to think long and hard before making a major investment, I learned years ago. Timing is everything whenever innovation is involved. Yes, I agree with you that our country, the entire world, is ready to adopt the improved and perfected version of the gyroplane. This is the hour to be bold and seize the opportunity that comes once in a lifetime.

“I think that I can get many of my personal friends and several of the major New York banks to back an autogyro transportation system for our boroughs, with the central hub here in Manhattan. This promises to be exactly what all of them have been looking for.” Jacob Clark gave one of his rare smiles. “I intend to support you all the way, Dennis.”

Jacob Clark organized a conference of his Wall Street friends, partners, and associates at an exclusive Lower Manhattan club. After the group of twenty had lunched, he rose to address them.

“It is rare for a person to stand at a historical moment and look forward into the distant future, but I tell you that I can describe what is coming for all of us. The air over New York shall soon become a road for common carrier transportation, and it will be filled with the rotating propellers and rotors of advanced autogyros and rotoplanes. There is nothing that can stop this conquest of the city’s upper heights and atmosphere.

“It has taken almost two decades to develop fully a safe vehicle that can carry passengers short distances, but it now exists and flies. We have available for the first time a type of rotaplane with rear propellers that provide a pushing thrust forward. In the nineteen twenties, all models were propelled from the front, with a pulling force.

“But the man who has made the greatest improvements in this category of aircraft is sitting here with us today.” He pointed to Dennis on his right. “I ask Engineer Moon to explain the technical inventions that have made mass construction and utilization of the autogyro possible, with New York City becoming the world pioneer that will introduce this transporter of the future.”

As soon as the millionaire investment mogul sat down, the designer of the improved autogyro rose to his feet and began to speak.

“I am happy to report that the City’s Planning Department has studied and approved all of our plans for starting out with half a dozen landing sites on high buildings, four in Manhattan and one each in Brooklyn and the Bronx. They should be ready for take-offs and landings in a couple of months.

“It is worth mentioning that Mayor LaGuardia has shown interest and enthusiasm for the project. He is eager to be the first passenger on one of the autogyros.”

A polite laughter rose among the well-heeled listeners.

“The public can rest assured that these aircraft are safer and more maneuverable than the ordinary airplanes that carry our long-distance mail. The advanced autogyro has phenomenal safety at very low speeds, and can make slow, accurate vertical descents. It can land with precision on a small area marked out for it. Flat roofs in all parts of our metropolitan region are potential sites. Our city parks and the long stretches of our harbor docks are possible locations as well.

“I dare tell you that the prospects ahead for the modern autogyro and those to come are literally unlimited. Our imaginations have a hard time grasping the possibilities.”

Dennis sat down and turned to face his patron, Jacob Clark, who was beaming with confidence and hope. “I think that we will have a lot of support now,” he said in a whisper.

The New York newspapers were full of stories describing the plans to begin crossing Manhattan and the outer boroughs with autogyro stations and routes. Special attention arose within the young, expanding airline industry. What would success in the new area mean for the future of passenger service in conventional aircraft? A meeting of the chiefs of the four major air carriers occurred in the offices of a prominent law firm that was a leader in air law.

The four men present for this secret conference were: William Paterson of United Air Lines, Cyrus R. Smith of American Airlines, Juan Trippe of Trans World Airlines, and Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Air Lines.

Trippe began the discussion by reporting on what he had been able to learn about the dimensions of the plans to crisscross New York City with public autogyro traffic on a regular schedule. He quickly got to what he saw as potential danger to the major operating airlines.

“What if this turns out to be a big success? It could in time become a competitor against all short distance travel by plane. We have no way to predict at this time how extensively the network of autogyro flight might grow. That is still a riddle for all of us.

“But what if there are major accidents and many casualties in crashes? We all know that rotaplanes have never succeeded in escaping from the early history of disasters they suffered. What if the American people are frightened by a series of terrible failures and pictures of dead bodies fallen out of the sky?

“That could scare people from even thinking of taking to the air on lines like ours. I worry a lot about how these adventurers could set aviation back years with the risks they are about to gamble with.”

Smith and Paterson both agreed with him about the potential threat to their companies and the nascent airline industry.

Only Captain Rickenbacker voiced a different opinion from the majority.

“I don’t know what we could possibly do about competition from autogyros. Perhaps the time has arrived when they come into practical use. At Eastern, we have plans to use them for short distance hops carrying air mail for the Post Office. Our plans are to purchase just a few of the newer models that have better designs that those that were so dangerous in the past.

“If they work out for us, all of us may eventually be using these things safely when the distances are short and speed does not have priority.

“Who can foresee or predict what direction flight is going to take in future years?”

A short pause of silence followed, the four men exchanging glances between themselves.

“I propose that we keep our eyes on the New York Autogyro Company and watch whether it can realize any of its grandiose plans to fly New Yorkers around.”

The meeting soon broke up with nothing definite decided on.

Dennis Moon and Jacob Clark travelled to Long Island in the latter’s chauffeur-driven 1938 Packard Series Eight de Luxe Touring Sedan. Their destination was the assembly plant and test area of the New York Autogyro Company. The engineer had a technical innovation that he wanted to show his partner who was financing their enterprise.

Dennis explained the general theory of what he termed the new flapping hinges attached at the ends of the rotor blades of the advanced apparatus.

“The rotating blades generate the necessary lift like glider wings, by changing the angle at which the air hits as it moves upward and backward. This results in what is called autorotation: the blades of the rotor are angled and this accelerates the blade circular motion until the blades turn at a stable, uniform speed. The thrust and the drag are kept in balance and this creates what is called pitch control, tilting the rotor both forward and backward to a state of stability. There also comes about roll control that tilts the rotor from side to side. And, of course, there is the rear rudder to provide the craft its yaw control.

“But the newest invention that has been added are flapping hinges that connect each of the blades of the rotor to the central hub. Their function is to compensate for any dissymmetry that may occur to disrupt the production of the lift force. The left and the right sides of the rotor are delicately balanced through the effect of these moveable hinges on the blades.”

“This will make the autogyro fly better?” asked Clark.

Dennis grinned. “I had the idea of adding a tiny grab blade to the flapping hinge. It can move fore and aft, thus relieving any stresses on the blades from flapping motions that occur.

“The result of these additions will be safer vertical launching and descent. Our improved autogyro will be capable of landing on almost any flat-roofed building in the City.”

That afternoon, the two men watched a demonstration of the slow, stable ascent and descent of the new model with the flapping hinges on the rotor blades.

Returning to the City after the victorious experience at the Long Island field, the two saw the outline of Manhattan in the light of a shining red dusk. Both stayed quiet till Dennis started to express the surprising inspiration he had acquired that day.

“I feel confirmed and justified in what I have decided to do together with you, Jacob. The life of our great community will never be the same after we accomplish our mission. It will be as if we added an entirely new dimension to the New York landscape, an upward extension, into the sky, in the direction of the stars.” He gave a sigh. “I believe that you and I are about to elevate the imaginations and spirits of millions of people, as well.”

A campaign against public autogyro transportation arose and grew fiercely virulent. The newspapers daily ran technical articles and interviews with aeronautical “experts” raising doubts about the plans of the New York Autogyro Company and its directors.

Personal criticism of the record and activities of Jacob Clark on Wall Street became common everywhere. He began to be characterized as a “speculator” and “finance adventurer” who was close to being a confidence man of sorts.

“I am not at all worried when my enemies vilify me this way,” he told Dennis one summer day, as the public demonstration of the advanced model drew near.

“You believe that the airline companies and airplane manufacturers are behind this shameless attack on us?” asked the angry but puzzled Dennis.

“Who else can it be? Anything that promises such magnificent progress and improvement draws the hatred of those who are fearful of losing what they have. I am calm and secure about our dream of making air traffic safe and accepted over New York. No one has the power to stop it once we show the world what we have.”

From the start of their meeting in Lower Manhattan, it was clear that one of the four airline presidents was out of step with his comrades.

“I don’t at all agree with what has been going on in connection with the autogyro network planned for New York City,” said Eddie Rickenbacker, his face growing red with ire. “Not only is this press campaign sneaky and underhanded, it actually is throwing a public shadow of doubt over all aspects of aviation today.

“If we want the American people to accept the airlines as an ordinary, safe part of the nation’s public transportation, we cannot afford to raise suspicions about any of the areas in which aircraft can play a part, either today or in the future.

“I find this mud-throwing unacceptable. It has reached a depth nearly slanderous and shameful. Eastern Air Lines will have nothing to do with the dirty business.” He glared at each of the three other chieftains in turn.

“Do you plan to start using autogyros some day, Eddie?” inquired Juan Trippe, making a sour grimace.

Rickenbacker turned to him. “It’s nobody else’s business, of course, but Eastern may soon be making short hops carrying air mail using small rotoplanes. I just want to keep everybody’s mind clear about practical uses for these new vehicles, that’s all.”

The acrimonious conference broke up quickly.

The day set for the inaugural flight of passengers was brilliantly sunny. From the take-off point on top of a building near the Battery, this first scheduled transit autogyro was to fly a selected group who had participated in assembling the vehicle up Manhattan to the edge of Central Park.

Among the chosen crew of initiators was Dennis Moon and the associated engineering staff central to constructing this advanced, up-to-date model. Jacob Clark preferred to remain at the tip of Manhattan with the dignitaries present for the start of the first air trip uptown.

Mayor LaGuardia was there to give an introductory word praising those connected with the project and foreseeing prospects of great benefits for the city he ran. Several other municipal and financial dignitaries said a little. Then, the pilot and the first group of passengers climbed into the cabin of the autogyro.

Two field workers started the thrust propeller spinning. The audience of observers began clapping when the rotor turned and the autogyro started to rise upward.

The propeller spun faster, and the rotor commenced to rotate.

Vertical acceleration increased, and the aircraft turned northward, toward its designated destination.

Clapping turned into vocal cheering as a sense of success spread among the witnesses on the building’s roof.

Within seconds, the aircraft had sailed several blocks away, climbing all the time.

It was then that disaster occurred in less than a single second.

A sound of explosion and shaking filled the air, echoing in the ears of everyone watching from below.

Who could believe what their eyes and ears told them?

The shattered air vehicle crumbled into hundreds of falling parts.

This was destruction from which no one aboard had any chance of escape or salvation.

Metal and flaming materials, including inert human bodies, fell somewhere in the vicinity of Wall Street.

Jacob looked around at the helpless viewers of an historic disaster.

All at once, a familiar face approached him in the mass of confusion.

It was Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the head of Eastern Air Lines.

Jacob had not taken any special notice of his presence at the event.

Rickenbacker spoke to him in a hushed whisper.

“This is horrible, but it is not the end of autogyros, not by a long shot. In a few days or even weeks, I plan to come to New York Autogyros with a plan to use these vehicles in moving air mail short distances. Eastern Air Lines is going to become a purchaser of the new model you have created.

“But for now, you will have to wind down your passenger service here in Manhattan for awhile, till the public gets over its shock over this terrible accident.”

Rickenbacker gave the grief stricken financial investor an enigmatic grimace.

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