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Saturday 19 February, 2005
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Flying high
HORSHAM – What better way to kick off the opening of a museum dedicated to aviation than to bring back a craft that was considered revolutionary in the 1930s?

Just before 11 a.m. Stephen Pitcairn son of the first man to build and fly autogyros in the United States cut through the cloudy skies above the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in an autogyro of his own as part of the grand opening of the Harold F. Pitcairn Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum.

When my dad started building these this was just a grass strip Pitcairn said. Im thrilled to be here.

The autogyro looks like a cross between a helicopter and an airplane. The rotary blades provide the lift for the craft a job normally done by the wings of a traditional plane but the blades are not powered Pitcairn said. They spin as wind passes through them while in flight.

Harold Pitcairn built the autogyros for his company at the site that would later become the naval base. He even had an agreement with the U.S. government for autogyros in 1943 but federal officials decided to go with a little thing called a helicopter.

Pitcairn said the weather was perfect for flying. Many autogyros have become pieces in museums such as the Smithsonian. Pitcairns plane called Miss Champion is the only one he has and is kept at the Robbinsville Airport in New Jersey.

This was the only one I could buy the only one I could fix up and the only one I could keep flying he said.

More than 100 people attended the event at the base. The autogyro made one pass in the sky. As it was towed to a grassy area all heads turned to get a glimpse of the machine.

The interest in the autogyro was perfect for Retired Maj. Gen. Ron Nelson president of the Delaware Valley Historical Aircraft Association the volunteer force behind the aviation museum.

The museum contains more than two dozen display cases each telling its own story of an era of flight – World War I women in aviation and space exploration.

A Messerschmitt 262 the first jet propelled fighter dominates the center of the museum.

Nelson went beyond the autogyro to point out the many different aircraft around the museum and stressed the need to protect them as historical artifacts.

Our restoration team can take a pile of junk and turn it into a beautiful aircraft he said. It is no surprise that being in the elements these planes are deteriorating as fast as we can restore them. We have to get these planes indoors in a controlled environment. This is our project This is where we are going.

Nelson announced the state House of Representatives approved a $6 million matching grant to expand the museum.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf R-12th District was one of many state and federal legislators attending the event.

He said he grew up in the area and has seen the planes gracing the side of Easton Road for 60 years.

I hope this is just the beginning of the long steps to preserving history Greenleaf said.

Chalfont resident Watson Lapp said hes a plane aficionado and has been to many events to see special planes.

The autogyro is why I came down here. I really wanted to see it up close he said. I remember seeing them being built here and flying overhead. I remember Amelia Earhart flying here.

He said the museum is amazing.

The museum is located along Route 611 before the entrance to the base and is free and open to the public. Hours of operation are 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

For more information or to become a member call (215) 443-6039 or visit

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