Date:21 September 2011
PM steps aboard a stylish flier in dodgy conditions. Story and pictures by Sean Woods
Although they’ve been around since the 1920s, gyrocopters have generally been regarded as a quirky tangent in the annals of aviation – until now, that is. Thanks to modern, high-tech designs, these efficient flying machines have finally achieved the mainstream legitimacy that their supporters maintain they’ve always deserved.
So when Theuns Eloff of AutoGyro-Africa invited PM to check out his company’s Calidus 09 (an exquisite-looking machine with a cosy closed cockpit) it was a no-brainer: of course we would. After all, we’ve been keeping a close eye on recent gyrocopter developments.
For a while, though, it seemed as if we were destined not to get airborne. When I arrived at Kitty Hawk Aero Estate east of Pretoria, where Eloff has his hangar, the bad news came that Van Reenen’s Pass was closed for the second time in a month due to heavy snowfalls. As a consequence, an unseasonal low-pressure system was battering the Highveld, bringing with it thunder and lightning, heavy rain and buffeting winds. To the southwest of Johannesburg, visiting PM deputy editor Anthony Doman watched open-mouthed as marble-sized hailstones and sleet peppered the area, leaving a layer centimetres thick in places. In short, the weather was lousy for fl ying.
Huddled under the shelter of the open hangar door, Eloff, his fellow fl ight instructor Dickie Hagerman and I dubiously scanned the horizon. The wind was gusting at 30 km/h, the cloud base was 305 metres (the absolute minimum height allowed for fl ying) and the ground temperature was 7 degrees. I asked Hagerman if we’d be able to fl y anytime soon. His response of “Um, the weather’s not quite suitable at this stage”, said it all.
Up, up and away
Eventually, the weather cleared just enough for us to do what we’d come there for. So I strapped myself into the back seat of the Calidus, Eloff took the controls and we headed skywards.
Having flown in gyros before and knowing what to expect, I was immediately impressed. The first thing that struck me was the reduced engine noise, courtesy of the enclosed canopy. On mentioning this to Eloff over our headsets, he replied jauntily, “When I use my cellphone to talk to someone on the ground they never believe it when I tell them I’m flying.”
The next thing I noticed was the lack of buffeting that’s typical of flying in an open cockpit. Then warm air from the Calidus’ heater began pumping its magic down the back of my neck… and I was completely sold.
Praising this gyro’s creature comforts may sound a tad wimpish, but consider this: when you’re not getting constantly battered by the elements you tend to be able to think much more clearly. This does wonders for your stress levels, especially when you’re flying in inclement weather like we were. Simply put, a clear thinking, unstressed pilot makes for a much safer pilot.
On the aeronautics side, the Calidus 09’s closed canopy and streamlined profile came up trumps, too. Both features help to reduce drag, which in turn makes the aircraft faster and lighter on fuel. Only minute inputs on the controls are required, even in heavy weather – making it much less stressful to fly. Plus, as it’s so much more aerodynamic than open cockpit variants, it’s much easier to land in crosswinds.
Of course, we didn’t just trundle around sedately. Once we had gained a decent altitude, Eloff brought the forward airspeed down to zero, and then performed side slips both to the left and right. By the time this was done, we’d lost a fair bit of altitude (when in auto-rotation mode, gyros descend at a controlled speed of about 10 km/h). So he applied power to gain more height, and then put the Calidus into a stable and stationary 360-degree spin. “Gyros can do 90 per cent of what helicopters can – without the added complexity or expense,” he explained via the headset, before breaking off to dart away low-level over the surrounding countryside.
When it was time to land, we touched down in the rain, and I got to experience first-hand what Eloff had previously mentioned about landing in crosswinds. He was right; I could hardly tell the difference.
Now it was time for me to climb into AutoGyro’s open cockpit MTsport so I could capture some aerial shots and video of the Calidus in flight. While strapping me in, Hagerman joked, “Okay, now you’ve experienced the Porsche, say hi to the Toyota Land Cruiser.”
No kidding! Although both machines are fundamentally the same (other than the closed and open cockpits, and the fact that the Calidus is fitted with AutoGyro’s improved second-generation rotor head) the difference between the two flights was as stark as night and day.
Thanks to the wind chill factor, to say it was freezing would be an understatement. My eyes and nose streamed in protest, I was buffeted about so much by the turbulent air that framing my shots became quite challenging (thank heavens for digital autofocus cameras!). And even though I was wearing gloves, my fingers felt frostbitten. I swear, if you’d taken an axe and lopped off my fingers immediately after the flight I don’t think I’d have noticed the difference.
After having a good laugh at my expense, Eloff sympathised. “If I have a choice, I don’t fly the open cockpit any more,” he says. “I’ve become spoilt. The Calidus is the most comfortable gyro I’ve ever flown.”
Safely does it
Thanks to their permanently auto-rotating blades, gyrocopters are legendary for their ability to handle turbulence and high winds. This is because the blade tips are travelling at about 600 km/h, so a 60 km/h wind only represents 10 per cent of the rotor’s flying speed. Besides that, as the rotor acts like a massive gyroscope, in gusty conditions these fliers remain extremely stable and don’t get thrown around like their fixed-winged cousins.
Another great advantage gyros have over other aircraft is their inability to stall, or put more bluntly, fall out of the sky.
Because forward thrust is generated by either a tractor or pusher powerplant – in this case an 86 kW rear-mounted Rotax 914 UL Turbo – all the rotor has to do to create lift is spin.
Where the moving air that provides lift comes from doesn’t really matter. It can be generated by the forward motion of the gyro, the air rushing up through the blades (in the event of an engine failure) or even strong, steady winds. Eloff elaborates: “If the wind’s favourable enough, say between 35 and 45 km/h, it’s possible to hover without losing any altitude. Actually, if the wind’s strong enough, you can even climb!”
Going the distance
One of Eloff’s favourite pastimes is heading off cross-country, and for this the Calidus 09 is perfect. It’s capable of cruising comfortably at 160 km/h for three hours (maximum speed: 200 km/h). Fit the longrange fuel tank and you can remain airborne for up to eight hours – now that really allows you to go places. For instance, Eloff has undertaken six Namibian trips. “Flying over the desert is unbelievable,” he says. “We travel over areas where roads are non-existent, so we get to see stuff we’d never be able to experience otherwise.” And last year a group of 17 gyros flew from the Kitty Hawk Aero Estate to Inhaca Island in Mozambique for a five-day stopover. “Since 2006, I have noticed that gyrocopter sales have been steadily increasing. Nowadays, when we organise a group trip so many pilots want to participate that it makes the logistics quite complicated.”
According to Eloff, the increasing interest in gyrocopters makes perfect sense. “Apart from the fact that many pilots are switching from small helicopters and type certified aircraft because gyrocopters are significantly cheaper to purchase and run, in my mind they are the safest form of light aircraft flying in the world.”
They’re convenient and practical, too. The Calidus 09 can fly at an altitude of 3 500 metres (fully fuelled and carrying luggage), which is enough height for it to be able to clear the Drakensberg. Because it has a take-off distance of 10 to 100 metres and a landing distance of 0 to 50 metres, you can put it down and get airborne again virtually any-where. It runs on regular unleaded petrol as well as avgas, and different grades of fuel can be mixed.
Sometime in the near future, Eloff and some of his fellow gyronauts plan to undertake a trip that’s never been attempted before – flying gyros from Auto-Gyro’s factory in Germany directly to South Africa. “We want to turn our adventure into a decent trip, so we expect to take over a month to accomplish it. We’re considering starting out sometime in the near future as there’s still lots of planning to do.”
If you would like to find out more about the AutoGyro Calidus 09, contact Eloff on 083 458 2233 or Hagerman on 082 752 9769, or visit www.autogyro-africa.co.za
Keeping the dream alive
Right from the get-go, when Spanish inventor Juan de la Cierva’s rotorcraft made its first successful flight in 1923, his brainchild – with its ability to fly safely at low airspeeds without stalling – showed huge promise.
However, its heyday wouldn’t last long. By 1936, the Germans had developed the first operational helicopter, and in 1942, Igor Sikorsky’s design went into full-scale production. Seemingly overnight, the gyrocopter was smothered by these complex, expensive machines with their vertical take-off and landing and hovering capabilities.
Kept alive by sport flyers, tinkerers and the like, the gyrocopter never vanished entirely from the aviation scene. It just became, well, marginalised. But by the 1980s, various homebuild gyroplane kits became available for those wanting to fly on a budget and inventive minds began “tweaking” their designs. Then manufacturers, noticing the exciting, albeit informal, developments taking place, began churning out high-spec production units – and the modern gyro was born.
Related video: PM takes a flip in a gyrocoptor