Juan de la Cierva: Murcia’s Autogyro Genius
Juan de la Cierva, 1st Count of Cierva, was a civil engineer of some brilliance. Born in Murcia in 1895, he went on to design the world’s first rotating wing (or autogyro) aircraft in 1923. The autogyro was very similar to the helicopter (in many respects it was the forerunner of the helicopter). The main observable difference between the two kinds of flying machine was the fact that a helicopter used engine power to move its rotors and rotate its blades, which then revolved on a vertical axis above the cockpit itself. By contrast, Cierva’s brainchild, the autogyro, was an aircraft which achieved flight via the use of freely rotating rotors and a propeller which moved the machine through the air. As the vertical propeller moved the autogyro forward through the air, the blades of the main rotor were rotated, thus causing downlift and successful flight.
Cierva’s talents as an engineer and aircraft designer were apparent from a very early stage. He came from a very wealthy aristocratic background and as a child he lived on the family estate at Cabo de Palos on the Mar Menor. Cierva’s father was a lawyer and served for a period as the Spanish government’s Minister of War. He was able to provide his eight-year-old aviation-mad son with enough pocket money to experiment with building gliders in occupied sheds on the family’s Murcia estate. As a teenager, Juan de la Cierva also bought the wreckage of a French aeroplane and reassembled it into a working aircraft, using wood from a Spanish bar counter in order to create a new propeller.
Predictably, Cierva went on to complete a degree in civil engineering and by the early 1920’s he was creating prototypes of his revolutionary new autogyro machine. As is the case with many inventions, the autogyro proved to have some apparently intractable teething problems. However, in 1923, Cierva’s autogyro machine was flown successfully for the first time, at Getafe aerodrome, by Lieutenant Gomez Spencer. Further autogyro prototypes soon followed and in 1925, Cierva took his C6 autogyro prototype to England, where it was demonstrated with great success before various Air Ministry officials at Farnborough in Hampshire. From this point onwards, Cierva’s autogyro concept was really assured of commercial success. He teamed up with the powerful Scottish industrialist James Weir and with Weir’s backing, the Spaniard formed the Cierva Autogyro Company Ltd in London during 1926. Juan de la Cierva then began to focus almost exclusively upon rotorblade design and from 1928 onwards he travelled around the world piloting his autogyro machine at air fairs and other events. In 1928, he became the first person to fly from London to Paris in a rotating wing aircraft, during an exhibition tour which was extended to include the cities of Berlin, Brussels and Amsterdam. The Murcian born engineer and inventor was then allowed to fly his autogyro on to the lawns of the White House, in Washington, where he was officially greeted by Herbert Hoover, the US President at the time. Cierva also flew his machine at air fairs across Spain, but there was never enough financial backing and support to enable the construction of Spanish autogyro production plants.
During the early 1930’s, Cierva developed three more autogyro prototypes, the C19, C30 and C40. The inventor increasingly accepted the advantages offered by the development of helicopter technology and during 1936, he agreed to work with the British Air Ministry in designing rotor blades for a revolutionary new Royal Navy helicopter. Sadly, however, he was never to see this work come to fruition. On 9th December 1936, Cierva boarded a Dutch DC2 aeroplane at Croydon Airport, bound for Amsterdam. The flight had been delayed due to fog and shortly after take-off, the plane crashed into an unoccupied house near the airport and exploded. Fifteen crew and passengers were killed, including Juan de la Cierva and the former Prime Minister of Sweden, Arvid Lindman. At the time, this was the worst aircraft disaster ever to have occurred in the UK. Juan de la Cierva was not quite 41 at the time of his death and he left a widow and five children behind him.
The Murcian 1st Count of Cierva’s contribution to aviation technology was certainly a considerable one and it was recognised across the world. In 1932, he received the Daniel Guggenheim Medal for his aeronautical work and during the following year, he was given the Elliott Cresson Award for achievement in aeronautics, by the American Franklin Institute. In 1966, he was also posthumously entered into the American Aeronautical Hall of Fame. Fundamentally, his legacy can be observed every time one looks into the sky and observes the rotor blades of a helicopter flying by. In his home country of Spain, his reputation has been somewhat clouded by the fact that he obtained the plane which flew Franco from the Canary Islands to Morocco, at the start of the Spanish Civil War. In addition, Cierva’s brother was executed by Republicans during the same war. During 2022, the Governing Council of the Region of Murcia finally approved the renaming of Murcia’s International (Corvera) Airport, which in future will be called the Aeropuerto Internacional de la Region de Murcia – Juan de la Cierva.
Regardless of the Franco connection, Juan de la Cierva’s achievements in aviation technology probably make the renaming of the region’s main airport an entirely appropriate gesture.
(Adrian & Dawn L. Bridge, June 2022).