The autopilot turns 100

June 18, 2014 by Mike Collins

It seems hard to believe, but the first aircraft autopilot was demonstrated 100 years ago today. On June 18, 1914, Lawrence Sperry let go of the controls of a Curtiss C-2 biplane, stood up in the cockpit, and raised his hands high above his head. The crowd below roared its approval as Sperry’s mechanic then walked out onto the airplane’s wing–and it remained in level flight.

This took place above the Seine River during France’s Airplane Safety Contest. A total of 57 “specially equipped” airplanes, featuring such innovative technologies as magnetos, self-starters, and carburetors–all still used today–competed for a prize of 50,000 francs (about $10,000). Sperry was the only one to demonstrate a gyroscopic stabilizer, and won the prize. In 2004, Aviation History presented an interesting article about the flight; it can be read online

Sperry’s father, Elmer, had developed the gyrocompass–at the time, a massive affair that had been installed on a number of U.S. warships.

Lawrence Sperry’s flight also marks the centennial of Honeywell Aerospace, which is one of four business divisions of 129-year-old Honeywell. Through organic growth, acquisitions, and mergers of legacy companies, Honeywell Aerospace can trace its heritage back to Lawrence Sperry (click the link and scroll down the page). The Sperry Gyroscope Company became Sperry Corporation, much of which moved to Phoenix in the 1950s and became the Sperry Flight Systems Company–today a part of Honeywell Aerospace.

Other firsts for Honeywell Aerospace include the first gyro horizon and directional gyro, cabin pressurization, the first gas-turbine auxiliary power unit, the first ground proximity warning system, and the first 3-D airborne weather radar. An interactive anniversary website details this evolution. Sperry’s accomplishment finds itself in good company a century later.

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