31 January 1922: Inaugural flight of the gyrocopter

A later model of a Cierva autogiro made in the UK in 1927.
A later model of a Cierva autogiro made in the UK in 1927. / SUR
  • The aircraft was designed by an aeronautical engineer whose pioneering work on rotor dynamics made possible the modern helicopter

Pioneering civil engineer and pilot Juan de la Cierva y Codorniu made aeronautical history on 31 January 1922 when he made the first flight in an autogiro. The event took place at the Getafe Air Base (Madrid), one of Spain's oldest military airbases. However, the first flight lasted only three minutes and the aircraft reached a height of just 25 metres. The autogiro, or gyrocopter, is a single-rotor type of aircraft that uses an unpowered rotor in free autorotation to develop lift. Failure to compensate for dissymmetry of lift led de la Cierva to consider alternate means of enabling an autogiro to fly successfully. In 1923, he developed the articulated rotor, which resulted in the world's first successful flight of a stable rotary-wing aircraft, the Cierva C4.

Juan de la Cierva, who was born into a wealthy family in Murcia, developed an early interest in aviation and went on to obtain a civil engineering degree.

In 1920, the aeronautical engineer began designing an aircraft that could fly safely at low speeds. The Cierva C2 was an experimental autogiro built in 1921, following the failure of the C1 the previous year. Taking the fuselage from a Hanriot biplane, the engineer added a five-bladed single rotor, but work was interrupted when the project ran into financial difficulty. The C2 was completed in 1922, after his next design (C3) had already been built. Attempts to fly the aircraft resulted in repeated crashes, and the machine was rebuilt nine times before being finally abandoned.

His next attempt was with the C4, which, in 1923, flew at under the control of Alejandro Gomez Spencer. Later that year, the engine failed during flight and de la Cierva implemented refinements to the design that enabled the aircraft to safely autorotate to the ground.

The Cierva C4 was demonstrated to the military at the end of 1923, when the aircraft completed a flight of four kilometres in just over three minutes

In 1925, he took the C.6 to Britain and demonstrated it to the Air Ministry at Farnborough. The Farnborough demonstration was a great success and as a direct result, he founded the the Cierva Autogiro Company with Scottish industrialist James G Weir.

Juan de la Cierva died in 1936, when a plane he was travelling on blew up shortly after takeoff . His death prevented him from fulfilling his desire to design a reliable aircraft capable of vertical flight. However, it was his technology and visions that were used to achieve this goal. His pioneering work on rotor dynamics and control made possible the modern helicopter.

He was inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in 1966 for his innovation in rotor blade technology.