Why Autogyros Aren't an American Thing

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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.

Reading List

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.

Comments (18)

A few years back an ex-neighbor of mine discovered one of the very pitfalls of autogyros Paul mentions when, following a couple of tight 360's over our homes, he too-rapidly unloaded the disc on rollout. Seconds later he had firmly & fatally planted himself and the autogyro into the street a couple of hundred feet from my front door.

Notwithstanding this unfortunate demonstration, I have always wondered why they are so rare in the American fun-flying universe. As noted, they are relatively simple both conceptually and construction-wise yet offer a unique blend of fixed wing and helicopter features.

Posted by: John Wilson | April 5, 2015 4:40 PM    Report this comment

Are you sure that meeting the weight requirements is enough to get it legal to fly without a medical? I'd always understood that operating under the sport pilot rule - which is what you're doing when you fly anything but a sailplane without a medical - required that the aircraft meet the definition of a light sport aircraft, which, as you note, excludes rotorcraft.

Posted by: Jay Maynard | April 6, 2015 7:02 AM    Report this comment

Yes. That's what everyone in the light sport segment is telling me and, in fact, what a lot of owners are doing. If it's not legal, the FAA hasn't said so.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 6, 2015 8:33 AM    Report this comment

Nice recap of the world of autogyros. As a kid looking at the Bensons and old movie clips, I always thought they would be an excellent source for local flying. I couldn't do that at the time but did wind up in helicopters for "many" years. I'm thinking the autogyro may be worth looking into once again.

Posted by: Andrew Dulay | April 6, 2015 8:52 AM    Report this comment

In the 1930s the large Pitcairn autogyros were going to be the future of aviation, landing on skyscrapers and football fields and delivering VIPs here and there. Amelia Earhart flew one for Beech-Nut chewing gum and later crashed it in Abilene Texas (and like your example she walked away unhurt). The late great John Miller also had some significant time in these machines and was a self-taught autogyro test pilot. He used to write about it in his columns and was still writing until about 2005 even though he first soloed in 1923!

But then, like the dirigibles of the time, they seemed to disappear until the Bensen designs appeared during the 50s/60s. They are interesting birds, glad you finally got a ride in one Paul.

Posted by: A Richie | April 6, 2015 9:15 AM    Report this comment

Jay, you got me thinking about the reference here so I actually, you know, looked it up. According to the rule, experimentals can be flown by sport pilots if they need the CFR 1.1. You can Google that and it gives the list of requirements.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 6, 2015 9:16 AM    Report this comment

Hey Andy! Great to see you here. Haven't heard from you in a million years.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 6, 2015 9:18 AM    Report this comment

Thank you for that second video link of Gyrocopter Girl! I'll use that video for further research into gyrocopter/human aerodynamics.

Posted by: CRAIG MAIMAN | April 6, 2015 9:56 AM    Report this comment

WRT your Part B reference to the B-52, as a brand spanking new avionics technician I worked on the H model way back in 1972 when that model was already an ancient 10 years old. I was working on an airplane that was half my life at the time. The HF radio weighed almost as much as me (wish that were true today). I had the opportunity to visit most nooks and crannies of the plane. I was only on the H model for a year when I was sent to Southeast Asia. They told me before I left the US I'd been working on the Cadillac's. I didn't know what they meant until I climbed aboard my first D Model. Wow. Not sure how the aircrews stood the smell of hydraulic fluid for hours on end. Payload wise the H Model couldn't match the conventional load the D carried. They were both B-52s but so different in many ways. It appears I'll retire before my old airplanes.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | April 6, 2015 3:00 PM    Report this comment

Paul, Congratulations on your first gyrocopter flight. I took the plunge at Mentone last year. In case anyone is curious, there is a gyrocopter fly-in in Mentone, IN the week after Airventure. I had the opportunity to fly the MTO Sport and Cavalon. These are quite impressive machines. One benefit is that they are good in turbulence. I flew on day with some building cumulus. I would have bounced around pretty significantly in my GT 500 but the gyrocopters are not affected by turbulence in the same way. They are also flown in higher winds than other light aircraft. The blades cut through the air. Gyros are highly maneuverable as one the pilots demonstrated. He did couple of 180 turns which only consumed about 10 feet lateral distance from 50 mph. Also, we did a maximum performance landing. The ground roll was about 10 feet with a slight headwind.

A friend flies for a major airline and owns several types of helicopters, sport planes and WWII military airplanes. His favorite flying is in an open flight gyrocopter (Dominator). For him, its the safest aircraft he flies. As long as there is energy in the blades (and he never violates this rule), an engine failure is a non-event.

I became interested in gyrocopters last year at Airventure. I was looking a Cavalon and made a comment to a buddy that you couldn't take one cross country. A gentleman behind us said "oh yes you can" and proceeded to tell us about all about gyrocopters and the reasons why they got such a bad reputation. The bottom line is that changing the thrust line and adding horizontal stabilizer to gyros significantly improved stability and reduced the accident rate. We could tell he had been flying Bensons for many, many years. Gotta love the people you meet at Airventure.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | April 6, 2015 5:34 PM    Report this comment

To save interested parties the trouble of looking up the definition of "light sport aircraft" in 14 CFR 1.1:

Light-sport aircraft means an aircraft, other than a helicopter or powered-lift that, since its original certification, has continued to meet the following:
(1) A maximum takeoff weight of not more than--
(i) 1,320 pounds (600 kilograms) for aircraft not intended for operation on water; or
(ii) 1,430 pounds (650 kilograms) for an aircraft intended for operation on water.
(2) A maximum airspeed in level flight with maximum continuous power (VH) of not more than 120 knots CAS under standard atmospheric conditions at sea level.
(3) A maximum never-exceed speed (VNE) of not more than 120 knots CAS for a glider.
(4) A maximum stalling speed or minimum steady flight speed without the use of lift-enhancing devices (VS1) of not more than 45 knots CAS at the aircraft's maximum certificated takeoff weight and most critical center of gravity.
(5) A maximum seating capacity of no more than two persons, including the pilot.
(6) A single, reciprocating engine, if powered.
(7) A fixed or ground-adjustable propeller if a powered aircraft other than a powered glider.
(8) A fixed or feathering propeller system if a powered glider.
(9) A fixed-pitch, semi-rigid, teetering, two-blade rotor system, if a gyroplane.
(10) A nonpressurized cabin, if equipped with a cabin.
(11) Fixed landing gear, except for an aircraft intended for operation on water or a glider.
(12) Fixed or retractable landing gear, or a hull, for an aircraft intended for operation on water.
(13) Fixed or retractable landing gear for a glider.

Posted by: George Kaplan | April 7, 2015 8:11 AM    Report this comment

Thanks George. This is probably a really dumb question, but will ask anyway: If the principal benefit of LSA operation is that no medical is required to fly it, what would be the purpose of an LSA glider since a medical is not usually required for a glider anyway? Is there another benefit I am missing?

Posted by: A Richie | April 7, 2015 8:51 AM    Report this comment

Re: LSA glider benefits

- Easier certification (for S-LSA) or flight test (E-LSA)

- Different maintenance rules vs. certified aircraft

- Possibly different pilot training requirements vs. a traditional glider rating

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | April 7, 2015 9:34 AM    Report this comment

Thanks Bob. Always something to learn on this blog.

Posted by: A Richie | April 7, 2015 10:20 AM    Report this comment

Ah, that's what had confused me. I had remembered "other than a helicopter" as "other than a rotorcraft". Gyroplanes are in the rotorcraft category, but not the helicopter class. Usually, the rules define what's included, not what's excluded.

Posted by: Jay Maynard | April 16, 2015 6:30 AM    Report this comment

Safety improvements. Teetering rotor heads fly out of control in a negative-G environment (gyros and helicopters alike), so the early gyros earned a bad reputation because they had a high-mounted engine (thrust line) and a low drag line, which meant at around zero-G they would tend to 'power push over' with fatal consequences. The modern designs have three-bladed props and a kink in the tail boom to allow low-set engines ... problem mostly solved. An extremely simple design with very manageable flight limitations, not unlike all other aircraft that become a poor but entirely controllable glider when the fan stops.

Posted by: Stuart Hutchison | December 7, 2016 1:56 AM    Report this comment

Safety improvements. Teetering rotor heads fly out of control in a negative-G environment (gyros and helicopters alike), so the early gyros earned a bad reputation because they had a high-mounted engine (thrust line) and a low drag line, which meant at around zero-G they would tend to 'power push over' with fatal consequences. The modern designs have three-bladed props and a kink in the tail boom to allow low-set engines ... problem mostly solved. An extremely simple design with very manageable flight limitations, not unlike all other aircraft that become a poor but entirely controllable glider when the fan stops.

Posted by: Stuart Hutchison | December 7, 2016 1:57 AM    Report this comment

The bensons and some of the other earlier models did OK until they put bigger engines in them. At that point, a huge flaw in the design was discovered when pilots put full power when the gyro was slow or slightly unloaded. The more powerful engines showed that the prop was ABOVE the vertical center of gravity. One strong push and the gyro tipped forward and then inverted. DOA. A number of years back, an aviation [educated] found the design flaw and pointed it out to designers. Now they are all centered correctly and this has almost disappeared from the list of unforeseeable type of accidents. Full power actually will just push you forward and reload the blades.

Posted by: Richard Harkness | March 18, 2017 5:48 PM    Report this comment

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