Pitcairn PA-6 Mailwing
Single-engine single-seat biplane mailplane

Archive Photos1

Pitcairn PA-6 Mailwing (NC15307, c/n 159, 1935) on display c.1998 at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, Rhinebeck, New York (John Shupek photos copyright © 2002 Skytamer Images)

Pitcairn PA-6 Mailwing (NC15307, c/n 159, 1935) on display c.2004 at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, Rhinebeck, New York (Photos by John Shupek)

Pitcairn Aircraft Company (Overview) 2

The Pitcairn Aircraft Company was an American aircraft manufacturer of light utility aircraft. An early proponent of the autogyro, the company, later known as the Autogyro Company of America among other names, would remain in business until 1948.

History 2

Harold Frederick Pitcairn, the youngest son of PPG Industries founder, John Pitcairn, Jr. founded Pitcairn Aircraft Company. The business started with the formation of Pitcairn Flying School and Passenger Service on 2 November 1924 which later became Eastern Airlines.

In 1926, Pitcairn started Pitcairn Aircraft Company initially to build aircraft for his growing airmail service. He purchased a field in Horsham Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and built Pitcairn Field No. 2.

The first aircraft, a Pitcairn PA-1 Fleetwing was built at the Bryn Athyn field. In 1927, Pitcairn brought aboard a friend and designer from his apprenticeship days at Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, Agnew E. Larson. Larson left the Thomas-Morse Aircraft company to join Pitcairn. In June 1927, the state of the art Wright Whirlwind powered Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing was introduced for airmail service. The plane proved popular and was bought by thirteen other companies. In 1928, Pitcairn purchased a Cierva C.8W and the American manufacturing rights from Juan de la Cierva for his autogiro designs for $300,000. In 1929, Pitcairn formed a separate patent holding company to build autogiros, the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company, which was later renamed the Autogiro Company of America. Kellett autogyros competed with, and eventually licensed production rights from Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company for $300,000. As a part of the licensing agreement, Pitcairn used Cierva’s copyrighted variant of the name autogiro as opposed to the currently more common spelling of autogyro which was initially used to bypass his copyright.

In 1929, three prototypes were built with one being demonstrated in the 1929 Cleveland Air Races. Following a fire in November 1929, The first PCA-1 was built and tested the same month. In June 1929, Clement Keys personally bought all the shares of Pitcairn Aviation for 2.5 million dollars, and resold them two weeks later to North American Aviation, which renamed the company Eastern Air Transport, and finally Eastern Airlines. From this point on, Pitcairn focused on autogiros.

In 1931 the company was renamed to the Autogiro Company of America (ACA). In 1931, The Detroit News made history when they bought the first Pitcairn PCA-2 for use as a news aircraft due to it ability to fly well at low altitude and speed, land and take off from restricted spaces and semi-hover for better camera shots. This PCA-2 was the ancestor of today’s news helicopters. Also in 1931, pilot James G. Ray landed an autogiro on the South lawn of the White House. Harold F. Pitcairn, the pilot and three other company members of the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro Company were present to receive the Collier Trophy for their development of the autogyro.

In 1932, autogyro inventor Cierva was greeted by U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who predicted in the future we would have large transport autogyros. Amelia Earhart borrowed a company Pitcairn PCA-2 model. She arranged for the National Aeronautics Association to monitor the flight. Members of the New York press and Movietone News were invited to watch. On her second flight, she remained airborne for about three hours and set a woman’s autogiro altitude record of 18,415 feet. Later she toured the country for Beech-Nut Packing Company in a bright green autogiro. On the return trip she crash landed in Abilene, Texas earning her a reprimand from the United States Department of Commerce. A second crash at the Michigan state fair, caused an unintended injury of her husband’s ankle as he ran to the scene.

In 1933, the parent company and conventional aircraft manufacturing arm, Pitcairn Aircraft Company merged with the autogiro arm, following the end of Mailwing production, and contract air-mail flights.

On December 9, 1936 Juan de la Cierva died in a crash of a KLM Douglas DC-2. As a member of the board of directors of the Cierva Autogiro Company, Pitcairn was shocked to learn shortly afterward that the company had also licensed technology in Europe to the German Focke Achgelis Company creating competition to the autogiro with a practical helicopter, the Focke-Wulf Fw-61.

In 1938, the company was renamed to the Pitcairn-Larson Autogiro company, and again in 1940 to the AGA Aviation Corporation.

In 1942, Pitcairn sold his airfield and facilities to the United States military for $480,000, forming the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove. AGA Aviation was now renamed to G and A Aviation, and became part of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. Pitcairn reduced royalties for 19 in house patents and 145 licensed patents to subcontractors of the government during wartime. After 1946, other manufacturers continued to produce helicopters without paying royalties. The company was dissolved in 1948. Pitcairn continued to pursue litigation for use of the patents by other firms in 1951 that stretched into a 1977 Supreme Court Case awarding Pitcairn’s estate 32 million dollars.

Military Operations 2

Pitcairn Mailwings 3

The Pitcairn Mailwing family was a series of Mail Carrier and Sport aircraft produced in the U.S.A. from 1927 to 1931.

Design and Development 3

The Pitcairn Mailwings were developed by Pitcairn to carry Air Mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Of simple and robust construction, they also had relatively benign flying characteristics.

They were constructed using Chrome-moly steel tube and square-section spruce spars with spruce and plywood built-up ribs. The fuselage was faired using wooden formers and covered with fabric. The tail sections were built up from steel tube and fabric-covered. The Pitcairn Mailwing had a ground-adjustable fin and in-flight adjustable tailplane, features not often seen in other aircraft.

The undercarriage was of outrigger type with oleo-spring shock absorbers and disc brakes on the main wheels. All models looked very similar; changes were minor, with several fuselage extensions being the most obvious.

The mail was carried in a fireproof metal-lined compartment forward of the pilots cockpit. The Mailwings were flown extensively by the U.S. Air Mail service from 1927 until the end of dedicated Air-Mail routes.

Pitcairn also built the same aircraft in sport versions for private use. These Sport aircraft had the mail compartment removed, and a side-by-side 2-seat cockpit was fitted.

Variants 3

Operators 3

Specifications (PA-7) 4




Tail Unit


Power Plant








  1. Photos: John Shupek
  2. Wikipedia, Pitcairn Aircraft Company
  3. Wikipedia, Pitcairn Mailwing
  4. Bridgman, Leonard. (editor). Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft 1931, Sampson Low, Marston & Company, Ltd., London, 1931, page 307c

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