P-V Engineering Forum Helicopter

Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Few may realize it, but fifty years ago eastern Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley played host to the development of rotor winged aircraft – known to most as the helicopter. The area’s technological base and talent were incomparable, and world-famous aviation pioneer Igor I. Siko­rsky (1889-1972), whose model VS-300 was the western hemisphere’s first practical helicopter, drew upon these resources while developing his craft. Arthur Young developed a flying model helicopter on his farm in Paoli and sold his design to New York’s Bell Aircraft. And Frank Pi­asecki developed his PV-2, the second successful helicopter, which first flew on April 11, 1943.

Frank Piasecki had been employed by helicopter companies in Philadelphia, but his knowledge, talent, and intuition were not appreciated, even when proven correct. In 1940, he formed a company from a pool of engineering friends, which he named P-V Engineering Forum. The company – of which P stood for Piasecki and the V for Harold Venzie, his closest friend – adopted the goal of melding ideas and skills for commercial development.

PV Engineering Forum’s first project was a single-seat prototype, which could be upscaled to a larger production model. This ultimately became the PV-2. Company employees operated on the proverbial shoestring budget, scraping together money for parts and sacrificing family and social life. From a brewery in Pittsburgh, they purchased a scrapped airframe from a Curtis-Wright CW-1 Junior, a light two-seat civilian aircraft, which Piasecki transported across the state atop his automobile. They modified a Franklin 90-hp, 4-cylinder air-cooled engine, used an oil pump from a Packard, a dutch from a Chevrolet, and an outboard motor lower housing for the tail rotor assembly. They covered the frame with fabric and the top of the cockpit with aluminum. The cyclic control (for direction) was a lever suspended from the ceiling of the cockpit, and the collective (for lift) was mounted from the left side of the cockpit floor. The aircraft reached speeds of up to one hundred miles per hour and altitude of fifteen hundred feet.

From this successful prototype, the company went on to develop the PV-3, a tandem rotor aircraft, which increased the volume and weight of the aircraft’s center of gravity, leading to the famous “Flying Bananas” and eventually to the world renowned Chinook.

The only model ever constructed of Frank Piasecki’s PV-2 is a centerpiece of the exhibits at the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center (AHMEC) in West Chester, a recent addition to Chester County’s history community.

Founded to preserve the origins and developmental history of helicopters in the United States, AHMEC offers visitors a firsthand look at vintage rotorcraft, artifacts, equipment, photographs, and documents. The museum celebrates the aircraft, technology, and milestone contributions of rotary-wing flight to the nation’s aviation heritage and traces the roots of America’s helicopter industry to the Delaware Valley. Because of Philadelphia’s role as the hub of early development in vertical flight – and such innovations as autogiros, converta-planes, and helicopters – three of the four helicopter manufacturers in the United States today can trace their corporate lineage to the Delaware Valley.

On display are a number of historic rotorcraft, among them the only Sikorsky XR-4 in existence, the prototype for the world’s first mass-produced helicopter; the Bell model 30, number 3, the earliest surviving Bell helicopter; and a Bell H-13, familiar to television viewers in its M.A.S.H. configuration. Several of the helicopters are on long-term loan from the National Air and Space Mu­seum of the Smithsonian Institution.

For more information, write: American Helicopter Museum and Education Center, 1220 American Blvd. Brandywine Airport, West Chester, PA 19380-4268; or telephone (610) 436-9600.


The editor thanks Donald A. Wambold Jr., of West Chester, who contributed to this feature.