A few years ago, I bought a small collection of early photographs of the Fort Collins Airport. Dedicated in 1929 and later renamed Christman Field, the airport was located at the west end of Laporte Avenue, about 3.5 miles from downtown. According Paul Freeman’s website, Abandoned & Little Known Airfields, the airport consisted “of a rectangular 200 acre sod field, within which were 5 runways, with the longest being a 3,000 foot northeast/southwest strip. The field was said to offer a hanger, minor services, and fuel.”
Shortly after I bought the collection, the Fort Collins Archive was doing something on the airport and I donated the collection to them. However, there was one very interesting photograph, which I scanned before delivering the material to Lesley Struc, curator at the Archive. It was a photograph of a strange aircraft and on the back was a penciled caption, “Exp. Airplane,” which I took to be an abbreviation for “Experimental Airplane.”
I did a little research at that time and found the plane was a class of aircraft known as gyrocopters, or autogiros, or autogyros.
Here is the image:
Here is the Wikipedia description of an Autogyro:
“An autogyro, also known as gyroplane, gyrocopter, or rotaplane, is a type of rotorcraft that uses an unpowered rotor to develop lift, and an engine-powered propeller, similar to that of a fixed-wing aircraft, to provide thrust. While similar to a helicopter rotor in appearance, the autogyro’s rotor must have air flowing through the rotor disc to generate rotation. Invented by the Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva to create an aircraft that could fly safely at low speeds, the autogyro was first flown on 9 January 1923, at Cuatro Vientos Airfield in Madrid. Under license from Cierva in the 1920s and 1930s, the Pitcairn & Kellett companies made further innovations.”
My intention was to end this post at this point but I kept poking around the Internet. First, by comparing my image to other images on the Internet, I found the make and model of my autogyro. It appears to be a Pitcairn PCA-2, an autogyro developed in the United States in the early 1930s. Then, as you can see in the close-up below, there is some advertising on the fuselage of the airplane.
You can see a capital “B” followed by the word “Nut.” Searching “Beech Nut” and “Pitcairn PCA-2” brought up a lot of information on Amelia Earhart and her adventures with autogyros.
Earhart was given the opportunity to try a Pitcairn in early 1930. After just 15 minutes of instruction, she became the first woman to fly an autogyro. On April 8, 1931, Earhart set an altitude record with the plane with a height of 18,415 feet.
On May 29, 1931, Earhart took off from Newark, NJ in Beech-Nut Packing Company’s vivid green Pitcairn in an attempt to become the first person to fly a gyrocopter across the county. Since the plane had to be refueled frequently, Earhart made many stops in small communities along the way, where the ungainly looking aircraft, with its stubby wings and 45-foot-diameter rotor blades, drew plenty of curious spectators. She reached Oakland, CA on June 6 only to find that John Miller, the first person to purchase a PCA-2, had completed the transcontinental trip two weeks earlier. She started a return trip but three “crack-ups” caused her to quit it early. Of course, I wanted to know if one of those stops was in Fort Collins, CO.
On the Internet, I found a model of the Pitcairn PCA-2, with the same advertising and the same identifying number, displayed in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. Then, I wanted to know why this particular PCA-2 was so important.
I have sent emails to the Amelia Earhart and the Smithsonian Museums with the hope that they can tell me why the plane was in Fort Collins and if Amelia Earhart was with it. I’ll report back to you when I hear something from them.
Until we hear differently, we can all hope that Amelia Earhart visited our town in 1931 and is lost in the crowd in the back of this photograph.
If you happen to know why this plane was in Fort Collins, please let us know by using the Comment Box below or by message me on firstname.lastname@example.org.