Are gyroplanes airborne death traps or flying fun machines? There’s only one way to find out.
Helicopters and gyroplanes: it’s a contentious family rivalry. Both have spinning rotors and are highly manoeuvrable at low speed. Gyros were invented in the early 1920s, but ever since helicopters were introduced in the 1940s, they’ve upstaged their older cousins.
The main difference is that gyroplanes are unable to take off and land vertically. But fans say gyros have many other admirable qualities – they’re mechanically simple and cheap to operate, for example. It’s time, they argue, for a new appreciation of this long-overlooked form of fl ight. Detractors, however, are having none of it. They say gyroplanes are death traps.
In order to find out which of these diametrically opposed views is correct, I travel to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to meet Dofin Fritts, one of only about 35 gyroplane instructors in the United States. He has been teaching for 17 years, and I figure that if he’s survived that long, he can make it through a few more gyro flights with me. We meet at the town’s sleepy, rural airport, where Fritts introduces me to his vehicle of choice, the Rotary Air Force 2000.
Like all of today’s gyroplanes, it’s available in the US only as a kit. Yet for a homebuilt craft, the RAF looks reassuringly snazzy, with shiny purple push-rods and a doorless bubble canopy. Anyone with a rotorcraft sport pilot’s licence can operate the two-seater, which is equipped with a 97 kW Subaru car engine that powers a three-blade pusher propeller.
Like a helicopter, a gyroplane generates lift with a set of spinning rotor blades. But in a helicopter, the engine spins the rotor. In a gyro, the engine is connected to a propeller, which pushes the craft forward. That forward motion spins the rotor blades like a pinwheel. The outer edge of the blades generates lift, and that keeps the gyro in the air.
We strap in, and Fritts starts the engine. Pushed by the blast from the prop, we taxi to the edge of the runway, where Fritts talks me through a procedure called pre-rotation, which gets the rotor blades spinning by temporarily connecting them to the engine. With the engine at idle, I squeeze a lever to engage the clutch. Whoosh… whoosh… whoosh. I squeeze tighter to increase power. The blades spin faster. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh. I let go of the clutch, release the wheel brakes and add power to the propeller. We roll out on to the runway. Throttle to full! Whooshwhoosh-whoosh. Now the only thing driving the rotor is the flow of air from our forward motion. The blades accelerate to a blur. Rolling along at 80 km/h, the gyroplane abruptly lifts into the sky, climbing much more steeply than I’m used to in the small fixed-wing planes that I normally fly.
We level off at 300 metres. The cockpit swings beneath the rotor blades as we bump along in the afternoon thermals. Fritts asks me to take my hands off the controls. I do, and the RAF putters along straight and level all by itself. Next, I try some gentle turns, left and right. Although it looks like a helicopter, the gyro flies like a supernaturally agile plane. Fritts takes the controls and pushes the stick hard to the left. As we shoulder into a steep bank, it feels like we’re not so much turning as pivoting in place.
The crucial task in flying a gyroplane is managing the energy of the rotor. If you fail to keep air flowing through it, its speed drops, and so does the rotor’s ability to provide lift. Careless pilots sometimes find themselves in this situation when they climb too steeply, lose airspeed and try to gain velocity by pushing the stick forward. This can result in something called a power pushover, in which the aircraft lurches violently forward and plunges into the ground. Hence the death trap reputation.
But in other ways, gyroplanes are actually safer than fixed-wing aircraft. They can’t stall – that is, undergo the catastrophic loss of lift that results from flying too slowly. To demonstrate, Fritts asks me to fly straight ahead, then gradually reduce engine power as I pull back on the stick as if to climb. The airspeed indicator slides down past 60 km/h, 50, 30, all the way to zero. The landscape is frozen in the windshield, then starts to move in reverse. We’re being carried backwards by a headwind as we sink through the air, our spinning rotor acting like a parachute. We could ride all the way to the ground like this. We’d hit hard, but the impact would be survivable.
To restore lift, Fritts takes the controls and adds power, gently pushing the stick forward. Then we head back to the airfield to practise landings. The approach is steep, but at the last minute Fritts pulls the nose up; the gyro touches down like a bird settling on a perch. Compared with fixed-wing aircraft, gyros can make ridiculously short landings. With the right wind, you can stop within the width of the runway.
Which brings us back to the original question: are gyroplanes death traps or overlooked marvels of the air? True, gyroplanes have a relatively high accident rate. But with proper training, the risk can be minimised. Brian Pagán, a graduate student in engineering at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, has analysed 20 years of gyroplane crash statistics. “There was nothing in my fi ndings to indicate that gyroplanes are particularly dangerous,” he says, “as long as you follow the rules.”
During our second flight together, Fritts heads west of the airport, then eases us down to low altitude to follow a winding stream that cuts across the rural patchwork of farm fi elds. We bank left and right, following a corridor through a canyon of trees. We ease down lower and zoom along at stepladder height, dodging and weaving around bushes, then crank around in a steep turn and head straight for a gap between two stands of trees that’s barely wider than we are.
I only have an instant to think – impossible! – before we’re through, the green whipping by so close I could reach out and grab a branch. Then we’re climbing, banking to the left, veering downward again. “Want the stick?” Fritts asks. And that’s when I know I’m hooked.