Frank Piasecki, a Pioneer in Helicopters, Is Dead at 88
By DENNIS HEVESI
Published: February 15, 2008
Frank Piasecki, an inventor of one of the first helicopters and the first to develop a tandem-rotor helicopter — the so-called Flying Banana — capable of carrying large cargo loads or troops into combat, died Monday at his home in Haverford, Pa. He was 88. The cause was a heart attack, his son John said.
In the early 1940s, Mr. Piasecki developed the PV-2, a small single-seat helicopter with a three-blade rotor capable of a top speed of about 25 miles per hour. When the PV-2 took off from a field outside Philadelphia on April 11, 1943, with Mr. Piasecki at the controls, he became the second successful American helicopter engineer. (Earlier models had been designed in France and Germany.)
“He was one of the three primary progenitors of the American helicopter industry,” Roger Connor, curator of vertical flight at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, said in an interview on Wednesday. “One is Igor Sikorsky, who developed the modern helicopter and placed it in mass production. Another is Arthur Young, who built the first commercially sold helicopter. And the third was Piasecki.”
That first flight by Mr. Piasecki was, in a way, more successful than intended. When he stepped into the cockpit, Mr. Piasecki had only 14 hours of flight experience, in a small plane, a Piper Cub. The PV-2 was tethered to the ground by a clothes line and was supposed to rise only a foot or two. “The line broke,” Mr. Connor said, “and he was free-flying this totally untried aircraft with no training.”
Soon after, with about 10 hours of helicopter flight experience, Mr. Piasecki attached the PV-2 — tail first, and not on a trailer — to the back of his Studebaker and drove to Washington to demonstrate its capabilities to War Department officials. But the helicopter wheels had no bearings and rapidly heated.
“He had to stop the car every 10 to 15 minutes and splash some water to cool them off,” Mr. Connor said. “One time, he had to hop a fence to get some water and was chased by a bull.”
The demonstration was successful, and soon Mr. Piasecki’s company, PV Engineering Forum, which he started in 1940 with Harold Venzie, was receiving government contracts. That led, in 1945, to Mr. Piasecki’s major breakthrough: the tandem-rotor XHRP-X transport helicopter.
While Sikorsky was the first American to develop a practical helicopter, his early designs had only one engine beneath a single rotor in front; any additional load to the rear could throw it off balance. Mr. Piasecki’s XHRP-X had two rotors, one in front and a higher one in the rear. It was called the Flying Banana because of the bend in its fuselage.
PIASECKI AIRCRAFT CORPORATION
A Flying Banana helicopter, in an undated photograph, with Frank Piasecki at the controls. The craft first flew in 1945.
At just under 48 feet long with rotor diameters of 41 feet, the XHRP-X was far larger than the early Sikorsky helicopters. By today’s standard, it was small, but at the time it was significant advance. It could carry up to 6,500 pounds of cargo, or about 10 soldiers. Today, the largest tandem-rotor helicopter, the Chinook, can carry up to 30,000 pounds or 44 passengers.
In 1946, the company’s name was changed to the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation, which later became the Rotocraft Division of the Boeing Corporation. In 1955, Mr. Piasecki formed the Piasecki Aircraft Corporation, in Philadelphia. By then, the company was challenging Sikorsky as the predominant manufacturer of military helicopters.
An airplane “must have landing fields,” Mr. Piasecki told The Saturday Evening Post in 1957. “A truck needs roads; a train has to have tracks. Even a ship needs wharves and channels. But a helicopter, all a helicopter needs is a clearing.”
Mr. Piasecki’s company suffered a serious blow on July 1, 1986, when one of his inventions, the Helistat, crashed in Lakehurst, N.J. The Helistat was a 343-foot-long, 1-million-cubic-foot Dacron bag — about five times the volume of a Goodyear blimp — attached by an aluminum frame to four helicopters. Designed for the United States Forest Service, it was intended to transport 25 tons of lumber. The crash, a half mile from the site of the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, killed one of the pilots.
Frank Nicholas Piasecki was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 25, 1919, one of two sons of Nikodem and Emilia Lotocki Piasecki, immigrants from Poland. His father was a tailor.
Besides his son John, Mr. Piasecki is survived by his wife of 49 years, the former Vivian O’Gara Weyerhaeuser; two daughters: Lynn Cunningham and Nicole Heymann; four other sons, Frederick, Frank, Michael and Gregory; and 13 grandchildren.
As a boy, Mr. Piasecki was assembled dozens of model airplanes. In his teens, he worked for a company in Philadelphia that made autogyros, a predecessor of the helicopter that looked like an airplane with a rotor on top.
After studying mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Piasecki transferred to New York University where he received a bachelor of science degree in 1940. In the fall of 1940, with Mr. Venzie and several other friends from the University of Pennsylvania, he started the PV Engineering Forum. They avoided using the word “helicopter” in its name, he said, because “people would have laughed.”
There was another first in Mr. Piasecki’s career. On Oct. 20, 1943, after his arrival in Washington to demonstrate the PV-2 to the military, an inspector from the Civil Aeronautics Authority (forerunner to the Federal Aviation Administration) asked to see his commercial pilot’s license. Mr. Piasecki did not have one, and he received the first helicopter license issued to someone who did not already have a license to fly a fixed-wing aircraft.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 4, 2008
An obituary on Feb. 15 about Frank Piasecki, a pioneer in helicopter design, misstated the significance of the helicopter license he was issued by the federal government on Oct. 20, 1943, when he arrived in Washington to demonstrate his first helicopter. It was the first helicopter license issued to someone who did not already have a license to fly a fixed-wing aircraft; it was not the first government-issued helicopter license. (C. L. Morris, the chief test pilot for Igor Sikorsky, another helicopter pioneer, had received the first helicopter license, in March 1942.)