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Gone West: Aviator John M. Miller

Accomplished Pilot, Rotorcraft Pioneer Was 102

Aero-News is saddened to report that accomplished pilot, engineer and rotorcraft pioneer John M. Miller left us Monday morning, at the age of 102.

If you're not a gyroplane enthusiast, you may not have heard of Captain Miller before... and that's unfortunate. He contributed much to aviation in general, and served as a feisty example of how to enjoy one's golden years.

Miller said last year that he still remembered, if not clearly, the moment when the aviation bug bit him. It was May 29, 1910. John was 4 years old, and he saw Glenn Curtis fly down the Hudson River to claim a $10,000 prize offered by the New York World newspaper for a flight to New York City from the state capital in Albany. His later introduction to aerobatic flight, and witnessing of Charles Lindbergh's departure on his transatlantic record flight, cemented his life's course.

After becoming a mechanical engineer and barnstormer, John became interested in the autogyro's potential, and ordered a Pitcairn PCA-2 (type shown below) in 1931. He would name it "Missing Link," which turned out to be prophetic of the gyroplane's role as a stepping stone in the development of the helicopter. John planned a transcontinental flight to demonstrate the machine's capabilities.

When he discovered the factory had bumped his production slot to get a machine to Amelia Earhart first, for her own transcontinental attempt sponsored by the Beechnut Chewing Gum Company, he made arrangements to get checked out in another, experimental gyro, knowing that Amelia was waiting to get checked out in her own machine.

The decision allowed him to depart the moment his aircraft was delivered. He reportedly got the machine, made five test hops, and headed west, breaking in the Wright 330 radial along the way. He left Poughkeepsie, NY on May 14, 1931, and arrived in San Diego on the 29th... beating Earhart's attempt by 10 days, and setting a record time which would stand for 72 years, until Andy Keech broke it flying a modern tractor gyroplane in 2003.

Miller later talked Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt into testing airmail deliveries by autogyro between the roofs of post offices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Camden, New Jersey. As part of the test, he got all weather limitations written for fixed-wing aircraft waived for all rotorcraft, a distinction which survives largely intact to this day. He completed the year's test with a perfect dispatch record, although another gyro pilot he trained suffered an accident while taxiing.

John called "Missing Link" an "absolutely excellent aircraft." He bragged that it needed only an oil change after the transcontinental flight in 1931, and was sold after 2400 hours with the original air in one of the tires.

The autogyro faced extinction with the development of the first stable helicopters. John served as a captain for United Airlines and later Eastern Airlines, flying the DC-2 and DC-3 and the Boeing 247. He served a test pilot for the Grumman J2F5 "Duck" amphibian, worked as an active flight instructor well into his '90s, and was still flying his 1969 Bonanza at age 102. He complained that the FAA required him to fly with a safety pilot in his last few years, refusing to believe anyone his age could have passed a legitimate medical exam.

Miller was very active in the American Beechcraft Society. He served on the first ABS Board of Directors in the late '60s and continued active involvement through the next 40 years. Many tales from Miller's aviation past are featured in his book, appropriately titled "Flying Stories."

The Monday edition of the Poughkeepsie Journal quoted Miller's daughter, Trish Taylor, as saying John died of natural causes after a two-day stay in a hospital, and had never used prescription medications of any sort until the very end. Miller requested that his body be donated to the Anatomy Gifts Registry, for use in medical research.

After a life filled with remarkable experiences and accomplishments, and no shortage of funny quips, his last words reportedly were, "I guess my flying days are over." John, with all due respect... we doubt that very much.

FMI: www.dmairfield.com/people/miller_jm/index.htm, www.bonanza.org



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