Why Autogyros Aren't an American Thing
My first experience with an autogyro was not auspicious. I was a newly minted private pilot waiting to take off from what was then Baltimore Airpark, north of Baltimore. Number one for the runway was a Bensen Gyrocopter of the sort I’d seen a million times in Popular Mechanics ads, but never in the flesh.
Off it went down the runway—I can’t say charged because it sort of crawled. It lifted off, wobbled and sliced through the tops of trees at the end of the runway, after which a wispy column of black smoke—or was it dust?—wafted up. Uh-oh, I thought, have I just witnessed my first fatal crash? But no, a few minutes later, the uninjured pilot emerged from the tree line helmet in hand, none the worse for wear. Can’t say the same for the Bensen.
I also can’t say it put me off autogyros, basically because unless you were willing to build one, access to these unique aircraft was essentially non-existent. Forty years later, that’s still true in the U.S., although in Europe—why is it always Europe?— a vibrant renaissance in autogyro technology is underway, picking up where Pitcairn left off during the 1930s. Every time I go to Aero in Friedrichshafen, the place is just lousy with autogyros of all kinds—tandems, side-by-sides, single-place, open cockpit. The variety is considerable. Autogyro GMBH builds about 300 a year and that’s just one company. That’s more airframes than Robinson shipped in piston helicopters and about what Cirrus sold last year.
And every year, I’ve tried and failed to get my mitts on the controls of one of these things. No joy, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on my part. Finally, at the Sebring Sport Aviation Expo, I flew with Bob Snyder in one of his Autogyro Calidus models. Once strapped into the seat, I’ll admit to thinking about that Bensen crash, but the Calidus is no Bensen. It’s built to modern light sport aircraft standards and the workmanship and detail suggest quality. Of course, you can only judge that by looking at what you can see and surmising that the underlying engineering, materials quality and construction match the shiny surface. I paid particular attention to the rotor system because as in a helicopter, that’s the Jesus link; if it goes, you’re fresh outta lift.
But there the helicopter comparisons end, because an autogyro is a whole ‘nuther thing. As you can see and hear in the video, flying an autogyro is all about managing the energy in that rotating disc, energy that comes not from the engine, but from air passing through it from below. You have to take care not to let the rotor RPM drop below the point where the disc won’t generate sufficient lift. A passage in the POH illustrates how counterintuitive this can be for a fixed wing pilot: “Any maneuver resulting in a low-G (near weightless) condition can result in a catastrophic loss of lateral/roll control in conjunction with rapid main rotor RPM decrease. Always maintain adequate load on the rotor and avoid aggressive forward control input performed from level flight or following a pull-up.” The reason is that this reverses the airflow over the rotor blades from below to above, essentially reversing the energy input. It’s likely to be unrecoverable.
And that’s just one reason why it’s a good idea that transitioning to an autogyro requires a category rating and 10 to 12 hours of training. And personally, I wouldn’t think of skipping that myself. Yet the accident record shows that many would-be autogyro pilots have gone the DIY flight training route. The lucky ones, like that Bensen pilot I witnessed, live to tell the tale, but many have not.
But the concepts are hardly unlearnable and the flight experience is unique. The German-based Autogyro is advancing autogyro technology in terms of flight dynamics, construction methods, safety and practicality. I found the Calidus pleasant to fly, with superb visibility above and below. Like the Cub, it’s ideal for low-altitude sightseeing and at 90 knots cruise speed, it’s suitable for leisurely cross countries like this nice little tour of Europe by Gyrocopter Girl. And this video would suggest there’s some attraction in flying an autogyro without a stich of clothing. For her, I get that, but personally, I’d prefer to have something between me and those whirling blades. And not just clothes.
And that gets us back to access to these unique flying machines. In Europe, there’s an approved rotorcraft section in the microlight regulations that are similar to the U.S. light sport rule. That means that Autogyro and its competitors are free to sell fully assembled, ready-to-fly autogyros, which explains why we see so many in Europe. But in the U.S.—you guessed it—you can’t do that. As with electric airplanes, the U.S. light sport rule doesn’t have a rotorcraft section and it’s unclear if it ever will. However, because most autogyros meet the light sport weight rules, they can be flown without a required medical. But that still means you’re likely to be flying an experimental. There are a handful of certified gycrocopters (the McCulloch J-2 is one), but certified gyros were never a significant market in the U.S.
The experimental gyrocopter market hardly lacks for choice. By my count, there are at least a couple of dozen designs out there, either gyros or copters, not including the offerings from Europe, of which the Autogyro models are just one company’s examples. There are lots on the FAA registry, although I’m not sure of the active total. Still, for whatever reasons, gyros seem to be more of a European thing and maybe they always have been, by predilection and cultural preference. In one of the odder turns of history, during World War II, some German U-boats carried their own collapsible gyrocopters, the Focke Achgelis FA-330. The gyro was stored in a tube on deck and could be assembled to launch an observer who was then towed behind the boat, whose forward speed spun the rotor. At up to 400 feet, the gyro extended the crew’s range of visibility up to 25 miles. It wasn’t considered successful because when attacked by aircraft, U-boats had to submerge quickly, with not nearly enough time to recover the gyro pilot.
But the FA-330 had one intriguing feature modern gyros lack and perhaps could use: a parachute. The 330’s blades could be ejected in flight and the pilot could separate and deploy his own parachute. For obvious reasons, full aircraft recovery parachutes aren’t common on gyrocopters, although one manufacturer, Matto, does offer such a system. Free-spinning rotor or not, I’d take one.
I’d also support the argument that LSA ought to include gyrocopters. They’re fun and not difficult to fly and, with thorough training, probably as safe as any other aircraft. It seems to me that it’s a little niche in the flying machine market that we’re just ignoring, for no compelling reason.
Find out more at Bob Snyder's website.
As we've reported, at AirVenture this year, the U.S. Air Force will be displaying a B-52 for the first time. If you've never seen one up close, put it on your must-see list. And if it's not roped off and the bomb bay doors are open, take a peek inside. You'll wonder how the thing could get off the ground with all the ordnance they could—and did—stuff in there.
Ahead of that, recommended reading is B-52 Days Remembered, by Phil Rowe, who was an electronic warfare officer in the early days of the Strategic Air Command. It's a quick read and is a series of vignettes and war stories stitched together to give a broad portrait of how this massive airplane was deployed in its early life and how flawed it was, as many designs often were. There's a fascinating description of how the engines were started, including something I didn't know: They could be started with a variation of Coffman cartridges; basically big shotgun shells that shoot pressure into the pneumatic ducts used to spin up the engines.
Available for the Kindle, the book is definitely worth a read.