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18 September 2008

On this day in history: first crossing of the English Channel in an autogyro, 1928

In January 1923, the world's first successful rotorcraft, the Autogiro, successfully completed its maiden flight. The Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva designed the aircraft, which later became known as an autogyro. Like a helicopter, an autogyro gains lift from rotating rotor blades, but unlike a helicopter there is no power applied to the rotor, rather it spins due to a phenomenon known as autorotation. This enables the craft to fly at slower speeds, a problem that dogged Cierva's earlier designs for a bomber.

In 1926, following a demonstration of an autogyro to representatives of the British Air Ministry the year before, he moved to England where he set up the Cierva Autogyro Company funded by the Scottish industrialist James G. Weir. Cierva continued to refine and develop his designs culminating in the C.8 design, which he entered in the 1928 Kings Cup Air Race. Despite its retirement from the race the C.8 completed a three-thousand mile tour of Great Britain.

Spurred on by the success of the tour, Cierva then decided to fly the C.8 to France. At 10:00am on 18th September 1928, he departed from Croydon Airport at the controls of his autogyro accompanied by a Farman Goliath aeroplane of the French Air Force. Around 35 minutes later he landed at Lympne in Kent, and after a brief rest he set off across the English Channel - the first attempt to do so in any rotorcraft. He landed at St. Inglevert near Calais at 11:15am where he refueled the C-8 and had lunch.

At 12:35pm he took off on the next leg of the journey, arriving in Abbeville at 1:40pm. At 3:10pm he took to the skies for his final destination, Le Bourget Airport in Paris, where he arrived at 4:15pm to the delight of the large crowd that gathered there to greet him.

While the London to Paris flight went completely according to plan, Cierva was not so fortunate a few days later: he crashed his autogyro during a demonstration at Le Bourget. Undeterred, he repaired his aircraft and set off on a tour of Europe visiting Berlin, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Eight years later, Cierva set off again on a flight to the Continent from Croydon Airport, but this was to end in tragedy. The Dutch DC-2 stalled on take off, hit the roof of a building at the end of the runway and burst into flames. An ironic end to a man who dedicated his life to solving the problem of stalling aircraft.