August 1957: Igor Bensen and the ʺGyrocopterʺ

This Month in North Carolina History

Bensen Gyrocopter

In August 1957 Igor Bensen landed a “roadable” gyrocopter at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh and then drove it to Cameron Village to do some shopping. Later his wife met him in a station wagon. They then packed the gyrocopter in the back and went home. The unusual flying machine was designed and manufactured by Bensen Aircraft Corporation, located near the Raleigh-Durham Airport, and the colorful stunt was typical of Bensen — scientist, engineer, inventor, test pilot, and priest.

Igor Bensen was born in Russia in 1917. Fleeing war and revolution, his family moved first to Czechoslovakia, where Bensen received his early education, and then to the United States. Bensen began his training in engineering in Belgium and completed it at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey in 1940. For a number of years he worked for General Electric, taking a leading part in designing and testing everything from air conditioning units to electron microscopes.

The work that interested him the most, however, was the development of rotary-wing aircraft. As a child, Bensen had drawn a picture of a “flying chair” and had been deeply disappointed when his father told him it wouldn’t work. As an adult, Bensen spent most of his life designing, building, and testing helicopters and gyrocopters.

For General Electric Bensen studied the application of jet propulsion to helicopters, but increasingly his personal interest focused on gyrocopters. A gyrocopter, also called an autogyro, looks like a small helicopter but operates in a very different way. The rotating blades of a helicopter are powered by the aircraft’s engine. The blades of a gyrocopter are set spinning by the flow of air as the aircraft moves forward. A small engine and propeller, mounted either in the front or rear, give the gyrocopter its forward thrust. Once the blades are spinning, however, they serve as the gyrocopter’s “wing,” providing the lift to fly.

In practical terms this means that while a helicopter can take off straight up, a gyrocopter needs a short run along the ground to become airborne. It also lands more like a conventional aircraft, but needs very little stopping room once it is on the ground. Bensen believed that there was a great future for the gyrocopter as a sports aircraft. He also looked on it as an airplane for everyman — easy and safe to fly, inexpensive to build and maintain.

The first gyrocopter Bensen built in Raleigh was made from parts he picked up in local hardware stores. Bensen Aircraft developed a number of different models of gyrocopters and sold them for the most part in kits. An active and imaginative promoter of his aircraft, Bensen encouraged the organization of gyrocopter enthusiasts into clubs and associations.

In addition to his business interests, Bensen remained active as a scientific researcher and inventor. He came to believe that human beings were the weak link in the increasingly intricate modern technological system. He thought that scientists should pay more attention to the human side of the equation. For him this came to mean increased participation in the activities of the Greek Orthodox Church in which he became a deacon and ultimately a priest.

Popular Rotorcraft Association, Raleigh, N.C.
Popular Rotorcraft Association, Raleigh, N.C.

Bensen’s gyrocopter never became the personal airplane of the people as he had hoped. Sales began falling off in the 1980s. In 1988 Bensen Aircraft closed and twelve years later Igor Bensen died. The gyrocopter may not have caught the popular imagination, but Bensen left behind a small army of gyrocopter owners who maintain their “flying chairs” with care and fly them with enthusiasm.


North Carolina People, Places, and Things database. Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC.

Image Sources:

Bensen Gyrocopter” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

“[Popular Rotorcraft Association, Raleigh, N.C.]” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

July 1813: Otway Burns and the Snap Dragon

This Month in North Carolina History


In July 1813 Otway Burns of New Bern, North Carolina, applied to the United States government for a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, thus launching the career of North Carolina’s most successful privateer.

Burns was a shipmaster in the coastal trade sailing between New York and New Bern with occasional trips as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as the Caribbean. Returning from such a voyage in 1813 he learned that war had broken out between the United States and Great Britain. Burns formed a joint stock company with several businessmen in New Bern to arm and outfit a ship to prey on British commerce. Finding a suitably fast and maneuverable ship in New York, he purchased it and renamed it the Snap Dragon.

With the receipt of his Letter of Marque, Otway Burns became a privateer. Since the 13th century, European and, later, American countries had commissioned private citizens to attack their enemies in time of war. The United States Constitution specifically empowers Congress to issue such letters.

A Letter of Marque (also called a Letter of Marque and Reprisal) allowed a private ship owner to use his vessel to capture enemy shipping. The Letter set down the rules under which this could be done. A captured ship had to be taken to an American port where a United States District Court would decide whether it was in fact an enemy vessel and whether the Letter of Marque was valid. If the court decided in favor of the privateer, the ship and its cargo were condemned and sold at public auction with the proceeds being divided between the owner and crew of the privateering vessel.

Supporters of the privateer system argued that it allowed a country with a small navy dramatically to increase its naval power in wartime. Opponents of the system argued that it was little more than legitimized piracy, and in fact several well known pirates had obtained dubious Letters of Marque as a cover for their criminal activity.

American privateers as a whole did substantial damage to British shipping in the War of 1812, capturing, by one estimate, more than 1300 British ships. Burns and the Snap Dragon contributed their share to that total. There is no complete record of the career of the Snap Dragon, but one authority estimates that she engaged 67 British vessels, capturing 42 of them. Another authority states that on one voyage Burns captured ten ships, with 250 prisoners and cargo valued at more than a million dollars.

Although Burns’ primary target was the British merchant fleet, he was involved several times in scrapes with enemy war ships. Burns made three voyages but was prevented by rheumatism from sailing a fourth time in May 1814. On this trip, under Captain W. R. Graham, the career of the Snap Dragon ended when she was captured by the British sloop-of-war Martin.

After the war, Burns turned to mercantile interests and ship building. He began a political career in 1821 and served in a number of General Assemblies, until 1835. In that year he was one of the few votes from eastern North Carolina in favor of calling a constitutional convention to consider increasing the political representation from the western part of the state and the popular election of the governor. The vote ended his political life but earned him much gratitude in the west. Burnsville, the seat of Yancey County in the North Carolina mountains, was named for him.


Battle, Kemp P. “Otway Burns, Privateer and Legislator,” North Carolina University Magazine, Old Series 32:1 (October 1901).

Robinson, Jack. Remembering a local legend: Captain Otway Burns and his ship Snap Dragon. Wilmington, NC: Lulu, c.2006.

Image Source:

Burns, Walter Francis. Captain Otway Burns, Patriot, Privateer, and Legislator. New York, 1905.

Wonderful Revelation

A recent email question led me to the discovery of a fascinating little book in our Vault Collection describing a visit to Heaven. Luzene Chipman, a Quaker from Guilford County, North Carolina, was “taken sick” in April 1877. After about two weeks she apparently passed into a coma and was believed to have died. According to her descendants she regained consciousness after she had been laid out for her wake. Chipman believed that she had indeed died and been taken to Heaven by an angel, who guided her through the gates and for a brief time showed her the New Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Eventually she was told that she must return to earth to bear witness to what she had seen. I can think of many books in our collection in which folks describe close encounters with death, but A Wonderful Revelation of Heaven is the only one I have seen giving a first hand account of the world to come.

Come and Get It

For a mouth-wateringly good read try the News & Observer‘s article on the 25 tasty dishes that define North Carolina, at least in terms of food. Barbecue, fried chicken, banana pudding, and pork chop sandwiches are all there. I particularly approved the authors’ plug for fried chicken gizzards which, along with fried chicken livers, you can’t hardly get no more. What a shame. I suppose this just goes to show that the real fun is coming up with a list of your own. What’s on your menu?

Just Horsing Around

According to a recent article in the News and Observer, North Carolina now has a state horse. Called mustangs by the General Assembly but banker ponies in our clipping files, our new state horse has been around for quite a while on the Outer Banks. Many believe these smallish steeds descend from horses which escaped from Spanish explorers in the 16th century. They join a growing list of official state things. I wonder if there is a state blog?

June 1791: George Washington Visits Salem, NC

This Month in North Carolina History

“Old Tavern Where George Washington Was Entertained In 1791, Winston-Salem, N.C.” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill. View in the digital Durwood Barbour collection.

In the spring of 1791 President George Washington began a tour of the southern states, not only to learn first hand about the condition of the country but also to give the citizens of the young United States a chance to meet their first President. The tremendous enthusiasm with which Washington was greeted as he journeyed to New York after his election must surely have revealed to him the great admiration in which he was held.

A proponent of the new constitution and determined that the government created under that constitution be firmly rooted in the support of the people, Washington saw the advantage of linking his popularity as closely as possible to the new government. As president he tried to remain a national symbol, staying as much as possible above political strife. His tour of the southern states, as well as visits to other parts of the country, also helped to strengthen the growing sense of American union.

Washington’s travels during his presidency were also a testimony to his remarkable physical stamina. In his late fifties at the time of the southern tour, with years of military campaigning behind him, the rigors of travel in America at the end of the eighteenth century had little impact on him. His day often began well before dawn, and Washington would cover as much as fifteen miles before breakfast. In bad weather he traveled in a carriage, but if the day was fine he was in the saddle.

Washington must also have felt the stress of being the most popular figure in the country. Wherever he went Washington was lionized. People poured out to see him in cities, towns, and villages all along his itinerary. Meeting and greeting, speeches, dinners and entertainments were all part of the routine. With as many as a dozen toasts at a dinner, Washington either had an amazing head for alcohol or took very small sips.

Washington first traveled south through the eastern parts of the Carolinas and Georgia and then returned to Virginia by a route that took him farther to the west. He entered North Carolina on the return trip late in May near Charlotte. Passing on through the state, Washington intended to spend the night in Salem, and word came to the town to expect the President in the afternoon of May 31st.

It is easy to imagine that Washington’s visit to Salem, while it was certainly the occasion of much enthusiasm was also the cause of a bit of anxiety. Throughout the south Washington’s tour was a celebration of the Revolution. He was hailed as the Father of his Country. Speeches and toasts memorialized his service in the war against Britain. Many of those who greeted and entertained him had been his fellow soldiers in that war. Salem was something of an exception.

The Moravians of Salem and the surrounding countryside — the old tract of Wachovia — had, at the time of the American Revolution, a tradition of pacifism going back more than three hundred years. When hostilities began between the British government and its colonial opponents the Moravians asked to be left alone. The official diary of the Moravian settlements records simply, “It does not accord with our character as Brethren to mix in such political affairs, we are children of peace.” To patriots or loyalists, who were sacrificing much for their cause, this was hard to accept. The Moravian settlements were persecuted by both sides as they tried to maintain their religious commitment.

Whatever concern there may have been, the meeting between the President and the Moravians went smoothly and pleasantly. We are fortunate to have several accounts of Washington’s visit to Salem, the most important ones being the diary of the President himself and the official diary of the Moravian community. Washington was impressed with the neat orderly appearance of the town as well as with the demeanor of its inhabitants. He considered it a well governed, hard-working community. The people of Salem were impressed with Washington’s simple, friendly manner, particularly with children.

The Moravians loved music, and Washington was so pleased with the band which played for him on his arrival that he asked if he could have music to accompany his dinner. The next day, June 1, Washington toured Salem, visiting its workshops and Choir houses. He was particularly taken with the waterworks. In the afternoon the leaders of the community made a formal address to the President to which he responded. Governor Alexander Martin arrived late in the afternoon, and he and the President attended a “singstunde” with singing and instrumental music. At four o’clock on the morning of June 2nd, the presidential party left Salem and on June 9 crossed back into Virginia.


Alden, John R. George Washington: a biography. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, c. 1984.

Henderson Archibald. Washington’s southern tour, 1791. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923.

Fries, Adelaide, ed. Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Vol. V. Raleigh, NC: The North Carolina Historical Commission, 1941.

Image Source:

“Old Tavern Where George Washington Was Entertained In 1791, Winston-Salem, N.C.” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Worlds That Might Have Been

Recently we found in the stacks a “Parking Facilities Study” for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill done by the Office of the University Engineer in 1961. Parking is a sore subject for most of us, and for those of us working in Wilson Library the parking proposal in this study looked like a little bit of heaven. The proposal was for a parking deck to be built on the south side of South Road, behind and to the west of the Bell Tower. The deck would be below ground with its top at about ground level for the Tower. The top was to be landscaped and planted with bushes and shrubs and even a tennis court. This conjured up visions of walking out of Wilson at the end of a spring day and taking a short stroll over to our car in the new deck. But before driving home we might take a walk around the deck’s roof garden or, for the more athletically inclined, perhaps a game of tennis. Dream on.

April 1960: Creation of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee

Demonstration at Brady's Restaurant, Chapel Hill, February 11, 1964
Demonstration at Brady’s Restaurant, Chapel Hill, February 11, 1964

This Month in North Carolina History

In February 1960, when four African American students from what was then the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina defied the law and custom of the racially segregated South by sitting down to be served at the lunch counter of the Woolworth store on Elm Street in Greensboro, they sparked a protest movement that rapidly spread from North Carolina through the rest of the South and the United States as a whole. The “sit-in” movement affected every part of American society, but it particularly galvanized black students. Realizing the potential in this outpouring of youthful energy, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under its executive director, Ella Baker, convened a meeting of local and regional student activists in Raleigh, North Carolina, at Shaw University, Baker’s alma mater, April 15 through 17, 1960. Representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality, among others, lobbied the assembled students to align themselves with one of the established civil rights organizations. From the very beginning, however, there was a strong sentiment in the meeting for the creation of a grassroots coalition run by students themselves. Many felt that the mainline movements were not radical enough and that the student led sit-ins had broken new ground in the fight against segregation. This was echoed in strong speeches by James Lawson and Martin Luther King, Jr., criticizing the more conservative elements in the movement. In the end, the meeting voted to create a separate entity, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to pursue a new vision of civil rights protest.

SNCC (pronounced “snick”), while it was rooted in African American civil rights protest, shared many of the goals and aspirations of the radical culture of the 1960s. SNCC attempted to create democratic decision making, emphasizing consensus building from the ground up. Both men and women participated in the organization in its early years, and many white students joined. In many ways SNCC became the cutting edge of a new civil rights militancy. SNCC provided many of the “Freedom Riders” on the integrated bus trips through the South sponsored by the Congress on Racial Equality in 1961. SNCC volunteers also participated enthusiastically in voter registration drives throughout the South. In all of these activities SNCC volunteers dealt with verbal abuse, physical violence, and the threat of death. In the mid-1960s SNCC had the largest staff of any civil rights organization in the South and had become a force to be reckoned with.

Increasingly in the late 1960s SNCC moved in the direction of Black Power, eventually rejecting its nonviolent roots and its racial inclusiveness before it faded from the scene in the 1970s. Its impact on the civil rights movement, however, was important and lasting. SNCC was a key element in shifting the movement away from a legalistic vision of reform to a direct, if nonviolent, confrontation with the segregated system. It provided what some have called the “shock troops” of this direct confrontation in some of the most difficult and dangerous times of the civil rights struggle. Former president Jimmy Carter is supposed to have said that if you wanted to scare the white people of the South you only needed one word – SNCC.

Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, c.1995.

Lewis, Andrew B. The Shadows of Youth: the Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.

Image Source:
“Demonstration at Brady’s Restaurant, Chapel Hill, February 11, 1964,” in North Carolina County Collection (P0001), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.