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February 18, 2008

Frank Piasecki

Igor Sikorsky flew the first helicopter in 1941. In 1943, Frank Piasecki flew the second helicopter, the PV-2, built from junk auto parts in a Philadelphia garage. The PV-1 never made it past the drawing board.

The first PV-2 flight was rambunctious: Piasecki had only 14 hours flight experience in a small Piper Cub airplane. The PV-2 was tethered to a clothes line. The first flight was only supposed to be a couple of feet off the ground. The helicopter went up, the clothes line snapped, and Frank was winging it.

Piasecki attached the PV-2 to the back of his Studebaker, tail first, and not on a trailer, and drove to Washington. But the helicopter wheels had no bearings and rapidly overheated. Frank had to stop the car every 10 to 15 minutes to splash some water on the helicopter wheels to cool them down. One time during the trip, Piasecki hopped a fence to get some water, and was chased by a bull.

Arriving in Washington to demonstrate the PV-2 to the military, an inspector from the Civil Aeronautics Authority, the forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration, asked to see Piasecki's commercial pilot's license. Frank didn't have one. So the inspector wrote out the nation's first helicopter license.

Piasecki got the contract, whereupon he designed and built the first U.S. Navy helicopter, the XHRP-1 "Dog Ship," in 1944: the first successful tandem helicopter in the world, capable of carrying three times the weight of a conventional helicopter.

During his life, Piasecki would garner 24 patents.

Frank Piasecki was born in Lansdowne Pennsylvania, October 24, 1919, the only son of an immigrant Polish tailor. As a teenager, Frank worked at two local companies making autogyros, a lightweight precursor to the helicopter. Piasecki became a mechanical engineer, graduating with a B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering from the Guggenheim School of Aeronautics of New York University.

Starting out, Piasecki had deliberately kept his first company name vague: "P-V Engineering Forum," "because if you used the word 'helicopter,' people thought you were nuts," Frank said. P-V stood for Piasecki-Venzie. Harold Venzie was Piasecki's former classmate at the University of Pennsylvania, where Piasecki studied before transferring to NYU.

Single-rotor helicopter designs had trouble carrying weight because of their structure: the engine was under the rotor system; cargo unbalanced the aircraft, putting it off its center of gravity. Piasecki's novel design allowed great weight loading, and operational flexibility, leading to the first practical applications of a helicopter for critical Navy missions, such as search & rescue, anti-submarine warfare, vertical replenishment, as well as pioneering helicopter employment for for aerial minesweeping and vertical assault.

Piasecki's tandem rotor XHRP-X of 1945 was nicknamed the "Flying Banana," because its elongated fuselage curved up in the back to elevate the rear rotor over the forward rotor. The picture at right is the Flying Banana, with Frank at the controls; no clothesline in sight. The Flying Banana could carry up to 6,500 pounds of cargo, or about 10 people.

The 40-passenger YH-16, in 1953, was the first twin turbine helicopter, the world's largest transport helicopter at the time. The YH-16 led the development of the Army Chinook helicopters, well known for their role in the Vietnam War. The Chinook helicopter can haul 30,000 pounds or 44 passengers.

Through the years, Piasecki's companies produced helicopters for the U.S., Canadian, German, and French armed forces.

Piasecki was more engineer than businessman. In 1955, his board booted him as chairman. His helicopter company was sold to Boeing in 1960. Piasecki continued to work in research and development.

 In re Piasecki , 745 F.2d 1468, (Fed. Cir. 1984), reestablished the presumption of allowability, in a case where the patent appeals board had ignored evidence; a problem still too-common today.

The majority of the Board declined to give weight to rebuttal evidence which related only to "secondary" considerations. They considered such rebuttal evidence to be ipso facto insufficient to rebut a prima facie case of obviousness. We do not share this view of the law. In the wake of the instruction in Graham, infra, that considerations of a nontechnological nature are pertinent to the legal conclusion of obviousness, it is accepted that evidence of so-called secondary factors can shed light, and add weight, to the evaluation of obviousness under section 103. All the evidence on the question of obviousness must be considered. In re Sernaker, 702 F.2d 989, 996, 217 USPQ 1, 7 (Fed.Cir.1983).

When prima facie obviousness is established and evidence is submitted in rebuttal, the decision-maker must start over.... An earlier decision should not, as it was here, be considered as set in concrete, and applicant's rebuttal evidence then be evaluated only on its knockdown ability.  Analytical fixation on an earlier decision can tend to provide that decision with an undeservedly broadened umbrella effect. Prima facie obviousness is a legal conclusion, not a fact. Facts established by rebuttal evidence must be evaluated along with the facts on which the earlier conclusion was reached, not against the conclusion itself.... [A] final finding of obviousness may of course be reached, but such finding will rest upon evaluation of all facts in evidence, uninfluenced by any earlier conclusion reached by an earlier board upon a different record.

In the case at bar appellants submitted extensive evidence of peer recognition, long-felt need, and commercial interest. Yet the Board's treatment of the rebuttal documents impels us to the conclusion that the Board did exactly that which Rinehart warns against: they viewed each piece of rebuttal evidence solely "on its knockdown ability". Under the Board's approach the prima facie case took on a life of its own, such that each fact presented in rebuttal, when it was evaluated at all, was evaluated against the conclusion itself rather than against the facts on which the conclusion was based. The prima facie case remained "set in concrete".

This procedure, and the conclusion of obviousness flowing from this procedure, are thus flawed.

A test flight of Piasecki's experimental flying cargo ship, the Heli-Stat, took place July 1, 1986. The Heli-Stat was the length of a football field (343 feet), a million cubic foot Dacron bag, five times the size of a Goodyear blimp, attached by aluminum frame to four helicopters. Still close to the ground after takeoff, the Heli-Stat burst into flames and disintegrated, killing its pilot. The test flight occurred at the Lakehurst, New Jersey airfield, a half-mile from where the Hindenburg hydrogen dirigible had exploded in 1937.

Frank Piasecki died February 11 of a stroke. He was 86.

Posted by Patent Hawk at February 18, 2008 9:34 PM | Patents In Business


Do we still find this type of Everyman inventor among our ranks these days? I always thought the Flying Banana was quite unattractive, but had no idea it was a ground-breaking machine. Thanks for the nice biopic on Frank's works. I linked to this post in my blog entry for the Innovators-Network as a hope-inspiring example of success and moxie.

Posted by: Anthony Kuhn at February 25, 2008 11:34 AM