A Spanish Pioneer

An inspired inventor and canny businessman, Juan de la Cierva’s autogiro offered a simple solution to the problem of short takeoffs and landings.

© Spanish Aeronautical Museum

Juan de la Cierva was a Spanish pilot and engineer whose name remains intimately linked to the success of the autogiro.
In 1920, de la Cierva was just 25 years old when he began working on this strange aircraft: an airplane whose wings had been replaced by a freely rotating rotor driven by the relative wind.

From this moment on, the notion of rotary wings had taken flight. De la Cierva’s first prototype, the C-1, was lifted by a double propeller with four semi-rigid, free-turning blades.
The engine was not powerful enough for the aircraft to take off under its own steam, but this prototype demonstrated that it could remain airborne when towed by an airplane.
From a technical point-of-view, de la Cierva now knew that he was on to something. Built in 1922, the third prototype (C-3) managed to take off all by itself and, from then on, progress was swift.
De la Cierva understood that a hub with drag and flapping hinges for the blades was now needed, and he added drag dampers on the hub to prevent resonance phenomena.

In January 1923, autogiro No. 4 flew a four kilometer circuit around Madrid and, over the following months, the demonstrations delighted both the general public and specialists alike.
The autogiro showed its capability to land and takeoff over very short distances, and it also proved with ease that a rotary-wing aircraft could land in autorotation.
While continuing to perfect his aircraft, de la Cierva patented his inventions and exhibited his autogiro all over the world. He created “La Cierva Autogiro Company” in Great Britain and sold licenses to several aeronautical manufacturers, including Lioré et Olivier in France; Focke-Wulf in Germany; and Pitcairn, Kellet and Buhl in the United States.

The US military saw the potential in the autogiro for an aircraft that was easy to fly, discrete and reliable: perfect for observation duties on the battlefield. Several years later, the French military also jumped on the bandwagon.
On 9 December 1936, de la Cierva boarded a DC-2 belonging to the Dutch company, KLM, which was meant to take him from London to Amsterdam.
The aircraft crashed on takeoff, claiming the life of the young and successful inventor among its passengers.
With the success of the helicopter, which quickly became predominant after the Second World War, the days of the autogiro were also numbered.
Paradoxically, de la Cierva did not believe the helicopter would be a success. In his opinion, it was too complex to get off the ground.


© Spanish Aeronautical Museum


Juan de la Cierva was working with the company Talleres Loring when the autogiro performed its maiden flight in 1923. Created by Jorge Loring that same year, this aviation company developed autogiros before manufacturing fixed-wing aircraft, and then helicopters in the 1960s, under the name of Aeronautica Industrial SA. This company was then taken over by CASA in 1995.

© Spanish Aeronautical Museum