HAI is saddened by the passing of Frank Piasecki, helicopter pioneer

February 14, 2008
piaseckiFeb. 14, 2008 - Helicopter Association International sadly reports the passing of a giant in the rotorcraft industry. Frank Nicholas Piasecki was a pioneer and inventor of the tandem-rotor helicopter. Piasecki was an aeronautical and mechanical engineer. He was born in Lansdowne, a suburb of Philadelphia on October 24, 1919, and lived most of his life in Delaware County. He was a man of great creative vision. Despite advanced age and strokes, Piasecki remained engaged in rotorcraft development for Piasecki Aircraft Corporation, the company he founded in 1955, and served as Chief Executive. Piasecki died February 11, 2008 after becoming ill in his home. He was 88.

Piasecki was the son of an immigrant Polish tailor. By the age of 20, he earned degrees in aeronautical and mechanical engineering from New York University. In 1936, Piasecki and a group of engineering students from the University of Pennsylvania formed the P-V Engineering Forum. In 1940, he joined the Platt-LePage Aircraft Company as an engineer, working on the XR-1. During this period, he and Harold Venzie started a small consulting firm called the Piasecki-Venzie Engineering Forum. Their first project was called the PV-1 helicopter, based on the NOTAR concept.

Venzie and Piasecki had studied engineering together at the University of Pennsylvania. Their objective was to build a helicopter that could affect Vertical Take-Off or Landings (VTOL). Piasecki soon left Platt-LePage and began to concentrate all his efforts on the P-V Engineering Forum's new project — a single-seater, single engine, single main and tail rotor model, designated the PV-2. The aircraft was outfitted with a 90 HP Franklin flat-four engine and a single-rotor (three-blade). It was test-flown on April 11, 1943, making Piasecki only the second American to successfully fly a helicopter of his own design. (Igor Sikorsky being the first). Piasecki was the first helicopter pilot to qualify with the Civil Aeronautics Administration (now FAA) as a helicopter pilot prior to receiving his fixed-wing license. He was the holder of the first Helicopter Pilot’s License.

Piasecki attempted to interest the U.S. Navy in his helicopter since the U.S. Army was already working with Sikorsky. Piasecki believed that a larger helicopter could carry more passengers, and be used for rescues missions. On October 20, 1943, Piasecki flew his new aircraft in front of a large crowd of military and government officials at Washington National Airport. The demonstration impressed the officials, who began to express an interest in Piasecki’s helicopter. Piasecki convinced the Navy to fund his prototype, receiving a contract on January 1, 1944, for a single heavy-duty transport helicopter.

Next up, Piasecki decided to build a two-rotor helicopter — placing one rotor at each end of the aircraft. There were several advantages to this configuration — more cargo space, better control, and better weight distribution. The new tandem craft, as it was called, was designated the PV-3 and made its first flight in March 1945. This helicopter had an empty weight of 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms), and when fully loaded, weighed less than 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms). The Navy designated it the XHRP-X (the “X” indicated it was not yet a U.S. Navy aircraft), but it became known as the “Dogship.”

The Dogship was the world’s first successful tandem-rotor helicopter. In 1986, Piasecki developed and flew a hybrid heavy lift demonstrator called “Heli-Stat.” This vehicle was the result of marrying four Sikorsky helicopters with the Navy’s largest blimp. His contributions also include improving the speed and range of the AH-1 W Super Cobra.

Piasecki was an original member of the institute of Aeronautical Sciences (I.A.S.). Now known as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Piasecki is a Fellow member. He is an honorary Fellow and past president of the American Helicopter Society, and the first representative of the helicopter industry to serve on the Industry Consulting Committee of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Piasecki has lectured before many notable technical societies in the United States, England, France, Canada, and Italy. He has testified before numerous U.S. Congressional Committees including Senate hearings pertaining to heavy vertical air lift.

On the first flight of PV-2 Piasecki was at the controls and managed to safely land, despite his complete lack of previous flight experience in helicopters. He had only fourteen hours of flight time in fixed-wing aircraft. Piasecki was the chief test pilot for the PV-2, chief engineer, and company president. The PV-2 was flown only for testing, for fears that an unnecessary mishap might jeopardize the project.

In 1986 President Ronald Reagan awarded him with the National Medal of Technology for the development of the tandem rotor helicopter (Flying Banana), and for his other contributions to the development of vertical aircraft. Piasecki was truly a man for all seasons. He was a gifted amateur photographer and an accomplished violinist and concertmaster of the orchestra when he was at the University of Pennsylvania.

At HELI-EXPO 2002, the HAI Board of Directors awarded Honorary Life Membership in the Helicopter Association International (HAI) to Piasecki. This award is the highest honor that HAI has given to individuals who have distinguished themselves to a significant degree through their efforts directed towards the advancement of the commercial helicopter industry. At the time Piasecki received this award, only 17 people had been so honored during the then 54 years of HAI’s existence.

Piasecki and his wife raised seven children. He is survived by his wife, Vivian, daughter Nicole, of Tokyo, is president of Boeing's operations in Japan. Two sons, Frederick and John, are vice presidents of his company, and Lynn Piasecki Cunningham, Frank, Michael, and Gregory.

HAI is grateful to Frank Piasecki for his contributions to the rotorcraft industry. HAI extends its sympathy to the Piasecki family, friends, and co-workers at Piasecki Aircraft Corporation. HAI President, Matt Zuccaro stated, “Frank Piasecki has had a rich history of involvement in the field of rotorcraft, I consider it an honor and privilege that I had the opportunity to meet and know him. He will truly be missed by an industry that he helped shape.”

A funeral mass will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday February 16, 2008 at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, 1723 Race St., Center City, Philadelphia.
More in this category: « Launch Party  |  50 Years in the Air »

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