Gyrocopters, they go by a number of different names such as autogyros, autogiros, gyrocopters, gyrodynes, rotaplanes and the more common FAA designation of gyroplane where they fall under the broader FAA category of rotorcraft. When the gyrocopter was first introduced to the public it was often referred to as the windmill plane.
Autogiro was the term used and trademarked by the Cierva Autogiro Company. Gyrocopter was first used by E. Burke Wilford, a Pennsylvania inventor who created a small, single seat open cockpit gyrocopter the WRK after the initials of Wilford and two German engineers whose patents and ideas the gyrocopter was designed and built. It first flew in August, 1931. Later, the name gyrocopter was adopted and trademarked by Igor Bensen for his line of gyroplanes.
A gyrocopter is neither an airplane nor a helicopter but in a class of its own. It uses a propeller for propulsion that can be mounted tractor style like an airplane on the front of the fuselage or in a pusher configuration at the back of the fuselage. The pusher configuration is most common now.
Unlike an airplane it does not have a traditional wing. Rather than a wing it has a rotor. But unlike a helicopter, the rotor on a gyrocopter is not powered but free spinning sort of like a windmill.
The rotor blades are shaped like a long thin wing. So as they rotate they develop lift. So if they are not powered what makes them spin? The forward motion of the gyrocopter forces air up and through the rotor causing it to spin. In a helicopter, the air flows downward through the rotor. The rotor of a gyroplane is tilted backwards while that of a helicopter is tilted forward.
To help get the rotor spinning, a gyrocopter has a device known as a pre-rotator that takes power from the engine to initially drive the rotor. Once the rotor is spinning at a speed sufficient to make the rotor blades rigid from centrifugal force, the pre-rotator is disengaged and the aircraft is driven down the runway by the propeller allowing more air to flow through the rotor blades spinning them up further to the point they can develop sufficient lift for the aircraft to fly.
A gyrocopter is maneuvered with a control stick, rudder pedals and a throttle. To a limited degree, the control stick can adjust altitude and the throttle airspeed but that is not their primary function. The control stick positions the rotor head, to which the rotor blades are attached, in the direction you wish to travel. The position of the rotor head is also primarily used to determine your airspeed. The rudder pedals position the nose of the aircraft and are used when taxiing to steer the gyrocopter. The throttle is primarily used to control altitude and get the gyrocopter moving down the runway so the rotor can spin up.
Most gyrocopters are registered by the FAA as Experimental aircraft. The Experimental designation has been around for quite some time. It restricts the use of the aircraft for non-commercial, recreational purposes such as education or personal use.
An advantage of an experimental aircraft is that if an individual builds at least 51 percent of the aircraft, the builder can receive a repairman certificate and perform their own maintenance. Additionally, the builder can make modifications without having to go through a lengthy FAA approval process. Most gyrocopters are available in kits (where some of the aircraft is already fabricated).
While they are registered as Experimental, most gyrocopters also meet the requirements to be considered a Light Sport Aircraft. Thus, you can fly a gyrocopter with only a Sport Pilot certificate.
Gyroplanes were originally conceived to be a safe aircraft that could be easily flown by any aspiring pilot. This was being driven by the many fixed wing crashes that were occurring during the early days of aviation. Two individuals on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Juan de la Cierva from Spain and Harold Pitcairn from the U.S., independently pursued this ideal but it wasn’t until they combined forces that the safe gyroplane was born.
While no aircraft is 100% safe, gyroplanes have features that make them markedly safer over their fixed wing cousins. They take very little distance to take off and land. Once you start the flare during a landing your forward velocity is very little. You can land a gyro in far more places than an airplane.
They have excellent visibility, no wing to impede your view. They are also far more maneuverable than an airplane.
One amazing fact is the gyroplane rotor, despite its low solidity (ration of blade area to total disc area), allows the gyroplane to descend slower than a parachute of the same diameter carrying the same load.
Their most noted feature is they cannot be stalled. That is, unlike the wing of an airplane, the rotor blades continue to develop some degree of lift regardless of pitch angle and continue to rotate in what is known as autorotation. The wing of an airplane once it reaches a critical angle of attack will no longer develop lift and the nose of the airplane will pitch down rapidly.
Most accidents involving gyroplanes occur due to improper landing or take off techniques typically the consequence of poor training that results in the gyroplane rolling over. Fortunately, the rotor mast acts as a roll bar protecting the occupants. Few airplanes are designed that can provide such equal protection.
Gyroplanes have been around since the late 1920’s. Technology used in gyroplanes have continued to evolve making today’s, what are termed second generation gyroplanes, extremely safe provided the pilot is properly trained. These are not the gyroplanes you remember from the cover of Popular Mechanix or Popular Science of years ago.
If you already have an FAA certificate, transitioning to a gyroplane is very easy under the Sport Pilot rules.
Today’s gyroplane’s can effectively compete against a fixed wing LSA in price, performance, and operating costs. They are certainly cross country capable aircraft. One even flew around the world.
If you are thinking about helicopters a portion of your gyroplane training and experience can be applied to the minimum requirements for a helicopter rating saving you considerable money.
If you are already a fixed wing pilot, transitioning to a gyroplane is quick and easy since the gyroplane uses conventional aircraft controls unlike a helicopter. Flying a helicopter requires entirely new piloting techniques.
Other than vertical takeoffs and landings along with hovering a gyroplane can do everything a helicopter can do. Landings, while not completely vertical, are close to it. Takeoffs require little room and helicopters once they are off the ground rarely continue to climb vertically. Once a gyroplane leaves the ground it can climb quite rapidly. It was envisioned that gyroplanes would fly from roof to roof in the congested cities. In the 1930’s this actually happened where gyroplanes were used to pick up and deliver mail to the roof of the Philadelphia post office.
Because a gyroplane can fly very slowly it is possible to hover in a headwind. Even without a headwind you can hover over a spot for a short period since you will lose altitude in the process. However, the gyroplane is so maneuverable it is possible to have extremely tight turns around a point.
When it comes to price, performance, and operating costs a helicopter cannot compete with a gyroplane except for very specialized missions. Maintenance costs alone on a helicopter make a gyroplane an extremely cost effective alternative. From a safety perspective, a helicopter must transition into autorotation in the event of an engine failure which is a very exacting maneuver whereas a gyroplane is always flying in autorotation.
But the most important reason why a gyroplane? You’ll find they are extremely fun to fly! Gyroplanes are very popular in Europe and are catching on here in the U.S. so come join in on the excitement. You’ll be joining a very select group of pilots.