Helicopters Keep Piasecki Name Flying Through Time
Haverford Piasecki family keeps 70-year-old Piasecki Aircraft Corporation flying through aircraft industry.
Helicopter Model XHRP-1, or "the flying banana"
A man heads out the door on a Saturday for a round of golf. In his garage, he unfolds the rotor blades, stows his clubs in the cockpit of his helicopter, and takes off. After landing to fuel up, he takes off again for his tee time.
Dressed in a pinstripe suit, a homburg and a bow tie, Frank Piasecki is the star of this ingeniously concocted 1943 newsreel segment, dubbed “An Air Flivver in Every Garage.” As recounted in Jay Spenser’s 1998 book, Whirlybirds, Piasecki’s single-seat, single-rotor helicopter became the nation’s second such machine to actually fly as advertised.
In truth, his PV-2 could fit a pilot or a set of golf clubs—not both. That made Piasecki a bit of a fibber, along with being a consummate showman, salesman and storyteller. A pioneer in the vertical-aviation industry, he remained chief executive of Piasecki Aircraft Corporation along the Delaware River in Essington until his death in 2008 at 88.
Today, PiAC is run by two of five Piasecki sons. Among seven children, four have remained in the aerospace industry, furthering their father’s legacy in flight. His widow, Vivian Weyerhaeuser Piasecki, turned 84 in October. The heiress to one of the world’s largest private timberland companies, she still maintains their Haverford home.
"Pi" receives National Medal of Technology and innovation from president Reagan in 1986
Thanks to Vivian’s husband and others with his interests, the Delaware Valley has been a cradle of rotary-wing development, and it’s certainly no coincidence that the American Helicopter Museum & Education Center is in West Chester, about 20 miles from PiAC headquarters. “Pi,” as he was known, earned 24 patents, perfected the first dynamically balanced rotor and developed the first practical tandem-rotor helicopter. In 1986, President Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. He also received the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. “I never heard him reflecting on past accomplishments,” says Vivian today. “He was always forward thinking.”
Today, PiAC clients are involved in national defense, medevac transport, oil exploration, rescues, the delivery of humanitarian aid, and more. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would’ve never been able to be fought without helicopters,” says John Piasecki, PiAC’s CEO and president, who now pilots the company with his brother, Fred, its chairman and chief technology officer. “But those wars also pointed out deficiencies—and PiAC is playing a role in that response.”
Since 1986, the Piaseckis have worked out of the same pre-war building. Built in 1939, it’s filled with outdated office furniture and other vestiges of the ’50s. Metal filing cabinets abound. “Historically, Dad didn’t put money into brick and mortar—it went into aircraft,” John says. “But there’s a mistaken idea of innovation. It’s not a locked white room that remains locked until someone screams, ‘Eureka!’ It’s about identifying a problem and creating a solution—and realizing that the solution, no matter how creative, never works the first time.”
In Frank Piasecki’s industry, the key to advancement was a balanced rotor; the size of helicopters was limited without it. He later realized the industry’s biggest lift—literally—would come from the tandem (two-rotor) system. The opposite-direction rotation cancelled the torque that created instability and allowed for the full availability of horsepower to induce upward motion.
Within 13 months of Piasecki’s discovery, his company—then called P-V Engineering Forum—was awarded a defense contract in 1944 to design a helicopter with three times the lift capacity. It was a Navy contract. Initially, the Navy didn’t understand the need for helicopters, so Piasecki appealed to the Coast Guard. It was there, while sitting with the man responsible for rotary-wing design, that Piasecki saw a cartoon in which two boat oars were rotating in opposite directions. “It was essentially a lifeboat that could fly,” says John. “Dad knew he was in friendly waters.”
The Coast Guard went to the Navy, and the latter conceded.“The pressure from Congress notwithstanding,” says John.
A little more than a year later, Piasecki was test-flying the XHRP-X, dubbed the “Dogship” in-house. Following World War II and the slaughter of thousands on foreign beaches, the Navy wanted a copter that could lift 1,800 pounds—the weight of a torpedo—and rescue injured fighters. The helicopter was no longer an aerial sideshow. “If Frank Piasecki is to be known for anything, it’s for taking the curiosity in helicopters and developing them into practical, useful machines,” says John.
By the mid-1950s, longtime competitor Igor Sikorsky—the first to successfully fly a helicopter—was slipping, due to his stubborn refusal to move away from single-rotor designs and tail rudders. Meanwhile, Piasecki continued to advance tandem-rotor machines. “Pi would be the first to tell you how important that was,” John says.
In 1946, gross sales for P-V Engineering Forum totaled almost $1.5 million. Net profit, however, was just $16,413. Once production began, the number of P-V employees doubled in four years, and back orders totaled $4,769,807.
Sales nearly doubled in 1948. But still, after-tax profits were $65,657. Then came the Korean War. By 1953, $86.7 million in gross profits reaped a $1.2 million net. (All numbers come from Spenser’s book.)
But, for Frank Piasecki, it was never really about the money.
The Piasecki team in the early years
There was no single inventor of the helicopter. It was a collaboration of first-generation rotorcraft pioneers that progressively adapted the autogiro, another invention with local ties. In 1928, Bryn Athyn’s Harold Pitcairn piloted his Cierva C.8, and E. Burke Wilford’s gyroplane was first flown in Paoli in 1931. Col. Robert Leaming Montgomery owned one of the first U.S. autogiros, flying it between his fabled Ardrossan estate in Villanova and the family’s Georgetown, S.C. retreat.
Before World War II, there were some 300 autogiros in existence. But they couldn’t hover or fly vertically—and they were all but extinct by the end of the war.
Philadelphia hosted the first international Rotary Wing Conference at the Franklin Institute in 1938 and again in 1939, uniting autogiro and helicopter pioneers. The original minutes from the conference are in a PiAC safe. “Credit Pitcairn,” says John Piasecki. “He planted the seed, then this area became a magnet.”
John’s father had one of four pre-1950 rotorcraft companies, along with Sikorsky, Bell (the work of Paoli’s Arthur Young), and Hiller on the West Coast. Piasecki rallied former college roommates to found P-V Engineering Forum in 1940. All had jobs, so P-V work was confined to evenings and weekends. Any product was fair game, but Piasecki’s primary interest was the helicopter—which he saw as the family car of the future.
The PV-2 was built with adapted automobile and bicycle parts, an outboard motor, even his mother’s clothesline. It was gifted to the Smithsonian Institution in 1965. His pursuit, Piasecki told author Jay Spenser, was “total envelopment, a constant. There was a natural feeling that, if we were successful, somehow the world would repay us.”
On April 11, 1943, four days short of his 24th birthday, an unlicensed Piasecki took the PV-2 up for the first time. He eventually became the first licensed helicopter operator who wasn’t already an airplane pilot. Painted maroon and silver, his favorite colors, the PV-2 was Piasecki’s auto in the air. It even had a bulb-shaped horn. Later, it was towed on the back of a partner’s Pontiac to Washington, D.C., for its official airport launch on Oct. 20, 1943. “She was a sweetheart,” said Piasecki in a 2010 documentary made by his daughter, Lynn. “She could do anything.”
Apparently, so could he. Always dapper and well dressed, Piasecki had boundless energy, foresight and confidence—all of which was buoyed by successes like the Navy contract for the XHRP-X, the world’s first transport helicopter. It flew on March 7, 1945.
XHRP-1, or the "Flying Banana"
The XHRP-1—the true Navy prototype popularly known as the “Flying Banana”—followed. Then came the HRP-1 in late-summer 1947, the year the company moved from Sharon Hill to a 55-acre site in Morton. At one time, P-V also occupied space in Ardmore.
Piasecki’s signature tandem-rotor designs led to the development of the Marine Corps’ primary assault helicopter, the CH-46 Sea Knight, and the Army’s CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter—both built by Boeing in Ridley. “The Chinook will be in production for another 50 years,” John predicts.
Desperate for capital following post-WWII military cutbacks, Piasecki brought in Felix du Pont and Laurance Rockefeller, a move that backfired. By Jan. 1, 1953, he was no longer president, and he eventually moved on. “That’s when dad departed,” John says. “He left to do what he loved to do—create.”
Upon leaving in 1955, Piasecki still owned stock in the company he founded. But when he left to form PiAC, so did technical staff. Orders dropped. The company’s value plummeted. Rockefeller and du Pont became anxious for a sale, which Piasecki helped engineer with Boeing in 1960. The company is now the Mobility Division of Boeing Military Aircraft.
rank Nicholas Piasecki was born in Lansdowne, the only child ofPolish immigrants Nikodem Piasecki, a tailor, and his wife,Emilia. He graduated from Over-brook High School, studied mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania’s Towne School, then transferred to the Guggenheim School of Aeronautics at New York University, where he graduated in 1940 with an aeronautical engineering degree.
What little extra money his parents had went into music lessons, which turned Frank into a concert violinist. He was also a fabulous dancer. One day, his father discovered the model airplanes he’d been building, chopped them up, and demanded a career choice.
His path was already obvious. At 7, his aerial interest soared with a barnstormer ride. As a 17-year-old member of his high school aero club, he flew in an autogiro with Lou Leavitt, America’s first licensed rotary-wing pilot, in 1936. Later, while working at Platt-LePage Aircraft Company, he predicted a crash that helped save Leavitt’s life.
Piasecki’s first marriage proposal to an aviation experimentalist crashed and burned when he couldn’t get her dad’s approval. Vivian was a blessing. “Mom’s dad was a World War I aviator,” John says.
Vivian’s high-profile philanthropic work stands on its own. She met Piasecki during a wedding party at Washington, D.C.’s exclusive Sulgrave Club, where he cut in on her. “I thought it was a little fast,” she says now.
By night’s end, he still didn’t have her name. “So he couldn’t find me,” she says.
Two years later, he found her in New York. “I’d say he was still brash,” she says. “Confident, yes, but I could tell he was a little nervous, which made him human.”
They married in 1958, having seven children in nine years. The oldest, Lynn, was born in 1961. The youngest, Greg, arrived in 1970. Nicole and Fred, who is 50, were born 11 months apart. John, 47, has a twin brother, Mike. The fifth son is Frank. Each has worked for PiAC, and all are stockholders.
At PiAC, John handles the contracts and the business and strategic planning. Fred is responsible for engineering, fabrication and flight-testing. John and his wife, Gretchen Sprafke, live in Bryn Mawr. Fred and his wife, Cathy, live in Haverford, as does Mike, whose Dragonfly Pictures plays to his dual interests in cameras and helicopters. His small, unmanned 500- to 600-pound helicopters mostly serve the Department of Defense for reconnaissance work. PiAC subleases space to him in Essington.
Though married, Nicole has kept her father’s last name. “The Piasecki name
does have a professional utility to it,” admits John, who was a freshman at Yale University when Nicole, another Yale grad, took a job with Sikorsky. “It was like a Ford going to work for GM.”
Once the president of Boeing Japan, Nicole is now vice president and GM of the Propulsion Systems Division of Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Seattle. Like her father, she’s a pilot.
Influenced by her father’s love of photography, Lynn is a documentary filmmaker in New York. Frank, the namesake son, is president of ACTIV Financial, a Wall Street firm. Greg also went to Yale, then the Wharton School. He now leads Weyerhaeuser, the timber company his maternal great-great-grandfather founded.
All the boys attended the Haverford School, though one left for a New England boarding school. The girls attended Agnes Irwin, then boarding school. It’s one disagreement Nicole remembers her parents having: Piasecki thought the Main Line’s finest schools were fine enough. Both agreed the children should decide their own career paths. “And they did decide on their own,” Vivian says.
Frank Piasecki next to his PV-2
Piasecki was as demanding on his kids as he was on his employees. PiAC was open six days a week. Even the children went to the office on Saturdays. “We grew up with the smell of jet fuel,” Nicole says. “When the offices were at Philadelphia International Airport, we’d sit outside the hangar, waiting to go home, and watch the planes. He was deeply happy (that some of his children continued in aviation). He’d have been happiest if all seven of us had, but he also respected that you should follow your own dream.”
Vivian says her husband was intensely focused to a fault. “But he was growing the company, and he had so many ideas,” she says. “He was absorbed in what he was doing. He was a very powerful man, and a good father.”
Once, Piasecki called the Haverford School and asked if his boys (two of them football co-captains) could be excused after school daily to come home and study. “He didn’t want them to participate in other sports, either, but they did,” says Vivian. “He never noticed, of course, because he wasn’t home to notice.”
Nicole’s current position in a diverse career in the commercial airline industry gets her closest to the work her father did. “I miss his wisdom, but I feel like he sits on my shoulder still,” she says. “He’s a force, so I miss everything about him. I miss the ability to call and put a problem in front of him. He always so clearly provided a solution.”
John majored in history at Yale, then changed to philosophy. “I suppose you’re going to open a philosophy shop,” his father quipped.
When Piasecki was in a serious car accident John’s junior year, he joined PiAC after graduation. “Dad asked me to help him,” he says. “Once here, I was astonished at how little innovation was actually going on in the industry. It was moribund. Most were making the same machines over and over. At that rate, technology was never going to make it to the warfighter—and that disturbed me.”
In 1994, Piasecki had a stroke while dining with John. It affected his hands, eyes and legs, though he insisted on walking Nicole and Lynn down the aisle at their weddings. And his mind remained sharp. “After the stroke, he became more of a mentor, and he played that role to the end,” says John. “He died on a Monday. That Friday, he’d called me about an idea he planned to submit to the Army. He was still coming to work every day. But in many ways, he was trapped in his body.”
Vivian says her husband was never more courageous than in the 14 years following his stroke. “He was not one to talk about his inner thoughts—or, at least, they weren’t known to me,” she says. “I don’t think he would’ve shared them with anybody—and I can’t explain why.”
PiAC has pioneered numerous, highly innovative rotorcraft designs, including the Path-finder Ring-Tail High-Speed Compound Helicopter, the Sea Bat Unmanned Helicopter Drone, and the AirGeep flying car (a father’s auto vision realized). There have also been a few setbacks, like the Helistat, a heavy-lift hybrid aircraft that crashed during a test flight in 1986, killing one of the four pilots.
Most recently, PiAC has been testing the X-49A SpeedHawk VTDP Compound Helicopter—a modified Black Hawk and a reconfiguration of a 1960s Piasecki design, with both a propeller and wings—and various unmanned designs for the Department of Defense. Though 90 percent of PiAC’s work is motivated by national defense, “there are commercial spin-offs,” John says. “We occupy a unique niche.”
Right now, there are 50 employees at PiAC, significantly less than the 400 during its Vietnam-era peak. “Small, lean, agile,” says John.
Piasecki’s progeny includes others. Jack Fetsko, now 86, arrived on a Piasecki assembly line in his mid-20s in 1951, and finished his career 18 years later in sales and marketing. Later, he launched his own aviation company.
From his home in Media, Fetsko still works on projects that could, one day, net him a patent or two. “I’m always trying to improve things,” he says. “That’s the way Frank was. He taught me that, if you hit a wall, you go another way.”
These days, it takes 25 years to get an American helicopter into production. That means the X-49A may not arrive until 2025. “We’re our own worst enemy,” John laments.
Meanwhile, the $40 million X-49A project pushed Sikorsky to begin work on its own version, and Europe has developed a kindred prototype. John, for one, is fine with PiAC being a catalyst for innovation and competition. “This is the phenomena I’m after,” he says. “It’s why I stayed—to shatter that quasi-innovation that I first saw. I don’t mind going head-to-head or losing a noble fight. What’s not noble is having a huge corporation sit still and suppress innovation. I have no regrets. I love the creative process. Innovation is such a precious thing.”
A Piasecki would know.