Boeing Frontiers
May 2003
Volume 02, Issue 01
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools


Rotary wing pioneer Frank Piasecki still making his mark on the industry


Frank PiaseckiApril 2003 marked the 60th anniversary of a remarkable engineering milestone that led to the creation of what has become Boeing Rotorcraft Systems, which is part of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.

When Frank Piasecki, Harold Venzie and other engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania formed the P-V Engineering Forum in 1940 to design and build a practical helicopter, they had little more than inspiration to guide them.

Although aeronautical engineers knew that rotary wing flight and the ability to hover were theoretically feasible, only two European aviation pioneers, Heinrich Focke and Louis Breguet, produced helicopters capable of limited flight in the mid-1930s. Igor Sikorsky would not lift off in the VS-300, the first successful American rotorcraft, until September 1939.

Piasecki's inaugural flight in the PV-2, the second helicopter to fly in the United States, came on April 11, 1943, barely three years after he completed college.

The forum's employees cobbled together the little craft with discarded aircraft and automobile parts. Despite its modest structure, the craft contained sophisticated controls and innovative rotor blades that greatly reduced vibration and improved control in flight.

Piasecki himself was the test pilot. Following Sikorsky's lead, Piasecki had anchored his single-seat rotorcraft to the ground, with a clothesline. The cord promptly snapped when Piasecki, with a grand total of 14 fixed-wing flight hours, took off.

The PV-2 landed safely, and Piasecki and his colleagues soon began demonstrating the PV-2's ease of control to military and commercial customers in Washington, D.C. Within a year, the company, renamed Piasecki Helicopter Corp., and later, Vertol, won developmental contracts for larger, tandem-rotor helicopter designs that have served the U.S. armed forces ever since.

Piasecki left the company in 1955 to begin another aeronautical research venture, Piasecki Aircraft Corp., and Boeing acquired Vertol in 1960. Both the founder and the business he built are still going strong.

Piasecki also has more than a historical link to Boeing; his daugther, Nicole, is vice president of Business Strategies and Marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Comparing the father's and daughter's organizations shows how much the aerospace industry has changed since the 1940s.

Business Strategies and Marketing encompasses analysis groups that cover future customers and markets, strategic management, brand and market positioning, and business operations and technology. More than 200 staffers and subject-matter experts from other company units support these activities. They provide detailed evaluations of airline economics, business and financial conditions, airplane product strategies, market positioning and creative services, among a wide array of complex capabilities.

In contrast, "Piasecki was pretty much a one-man band" when it came to marketing and sales in the early P-V Forum days, recalled long-time Piasecki Aircraft Corp. staff member Joe Cosgrove. "I don't know how he did it, but he was involved in just about everything—proposing and winning new contracts, selling helicopters, handling all the administrative work, and then he'd find the time to work with engineers at their drafting tables to refine new designs," Cosgrove said of Piasecki.

Some things, however, don't change. Today, 60 years after he made history in the PV-2's precarious first flight, Frank Piasecki still goes to his office at Piasecki Aircraft Corp. to supervise developmental projects that promise to enhance rotary wing technology.


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