Piasecki, Frank Nicholas
Inventor/Entrepreneur/EngineerEnshrined 2002 1919-2008
Not long after World War II, a young Frank Piasecki, delivered a helicopter prototype to one of his Navy clients. The machine was relatively plain in appearance except for the word “Navy” painted in tiny letters just below the rear rotor–and a large “Piasecki” flowing along the aircraft’s flanks. The officer informed the young entrepreneur that the paint scheme was unacceptable because it implied the Navy endorsed a private company. “I’ll have it fixed right away,” Piasecki said. When the prototype reappeared the word “Navy” had been removed.
- Aeronautical designer, engineer, pilot and founder of the PV-Engineering Forum in 1940 that developed transport helicopters and vertical lift aircraft.
- Flew the PV-Engineering Forum’s first helicopter, the PV-2, on April 11th, 1943. It was the second successful helicopter to fly in America.
- In 1945 he flew the world’s first successful tandem rotor helicopter, the first designed for the U.S. Navy.
- Was the first person to qualify with the Civil Aeronautics Administration (now FAA) as a helicopter pilot prior to receiving his fixed wing pilot’s license.
- Designed and test flew over 20 different rotary wing aircraft world wide.
- Developed the Flying Geep in 1958 and the Pathfinder in 1962.
- Developed and flew the Heli-Stat, a hybrid dynamic-static heavy lift aircraft.
- In 1994 he was engaged in improving the speed, range, maneuverability and agility of theAH-64 Apache and the AH-1W Super Cobra by adding a wing and his “Ring-Tail.”
During the first half of the twentieth century, Pennsylvania was a hotbed of aircraft activity. The state’s Delaware River Valley was home to some of the period’s top aircraft manufacturers and the city of Philadelphia was at the center of the American autogyro industry, a short-lived movement that combined both rotary- wing and propeller technologies. Growing up in the midst of all this aviation progress was Frank Nicholas Piasecki.
Born in 1919 in Philadelphia, Piasecki got his first taste of flight at age seven, when his father, a Polish immigrant, bought him a plane ride in a barnstormer. Ten years later in 1936, a teenaged Piasecki enjoyed an autogyro ride with America’s first licensed rotary wing pilot, Lou Leavitt. For Piasecki, the flight transformed what was already an intense interest in aviation into a burning desire to develop his own aircraft designs.
At the time, the hot topic in aviation was vertical flight. Although primitive helicopters had been developed, they lacked real practicality. Piasecki set out to change this.
Following his graduation from New York University in 1940, Piasecki founded the PV-engineering forum, a speculative engineering venture consisting of some of his former college classmates. The group made history April 11th, 1943 when Piasecki piloted their PV-2 helicopter on its maiden flight. That day the PV-2 became only the second American helicopter to fly successfully.
A promotional blitz for the PV-2 ensued and Piasecki was soon serving as pitchman for the PV forum. It was a position that suited the young engineer perfectly. Impeccably dressed and looking much older than his twenty-four years, the extremely self-confident Piasecki traveled the country trying to entice potential business partners. His efforts paid off in late 1943 when he convinced the U.S. Navy to grant the forum a contract to design a large tandem rotor helicopter.
The design came to life in the form of the HRP-1. In addition to being the world’s first successful tandem-rotor helicopter, the “flying banana”, as it is often called, also enjoyed the distinction of being the first chopper designed for the Navy. The HRP-1 later evolved into the H-21 Workhorse, which lived up to its name by setting world records in speed and altitude and providing nearly 40 years of military service to countries around the world.
In 1946 the forum reorganized and became the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation. A year before, the Navy had issued requirements for a compact utility/rescue helicopter. Piasecki’s answer to the call was the HUP. Designed to operate from the decks of Navy vessels, HUP helicopters were capable of performing live rescues without crew assistance via an electric hatch and rescue sling. In 1948 a HUP prototype was the first helicopter to complete an aerial loop, and later a HUP-2 would become the first production helicopter equipped with an auto-pilot feature.
Making its first flight in October 1953, the massive Piasecki YH-16 was designed in response to a U.S. Air Force requirement for a long-range rescue helicopter that could pick up downed bomber crews. With a rotor diameter of 82 feet and a fuselage large enough to carry three light trucks, the YH-16 easily attained status as the world’s largest helicopter. So big, in fact, was the machine that it had two separate engine rooms. A turbine-powered version of the helicopter, the YH-16A, went on to set an unofficial speed record of 166 miles per hour in 1956.
In 1955 Piasecki and a group of his employees left the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation. Despite his absence, The company continued to build on the technology that Piasecki had pioneered, and following a merger with Boeing, introduced the Chinook line of helicopters, arguably the most successful series of tandem-rotor helicopters in military history.
Meanwhile, Piasecki and his employees formed the Piasecki Aircraft Corporation. The new company focused its efforts on developing experimental forms of rotorcraft such as the PA-59K Airgeep, the PA-59N Seageep and the PA-59H Airgeep I for the U.S. Army and Navy. Despite promising results, cutbacks in military research funding shelved any further development of these prototypes.
Piasecki’s experimental designs continued with the 16 H-1 Pathfinder helicopter. Debuting in 1962, the aircraft was Piasecki‘s first single rotor helicopter since the PV-2 20 years earlier. The 16 H-1 combined exceptional vertical-lift characteristics with speed and maneuverability comparable to that of a fixed-wing craft. An improved Pathfinder, the 16H-1A, flew three years later, reaching speeds up to 225 miles per hour—extremely fast even by today’s standards. Such performance was made possible by the combination of a lift wing and a tail-mounted ducted propeller that Piasecki called a “Ring Tail.”
Pisasecki is currently employing this combination in the design, fabrication and flight testing of a compound helicopter for the U.S. Navy. Flight tests, which began in 2003, demonstrated the improved performance and lower operating costs attainable with Piasecki’s compound technology.
Frank Piasecki has been involved with rotary-wing aircraft for more than 50 years. His accomplishments have helped usher the helicopter from its humble beginnings as a near-novelty to its current, almost ubiquitous status. And through it all, he has done things his own way; never faltering in the face of adversity or bowing out because of the bottom line. He is one of the founding fathers of the modern helicopter and we are proud to enshrine him in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
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