Article source: Popular Mechanics
Gyroplanes fire our imagination like no other aircraft.
Before there were helicopters, newsreels featuring the
Autogiro—invented by the Spanish aviation pioneer Juan de la Cierva—dazzled
audiences with images of the craft's hummingbirdlike maneuvers. The
public clamored to know more about this amazing flying machine.
Newspapers and magazines, including Popular Mechanics, obliged.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, articles fueled fantasies by
predicting that gyroplanes would become the automobiles of the sky.
Future commuters would roll them out of their garages, take off from
their driveways and land on the roofs of their factories and
offices. Then, in 1955, something very unexpected occurred. Igor
Bensen made the futuristic dream come true. For only $999, you could
buy a prefabricated kit for his Gyrocopter. A used Volkswagen engine
and about 40 hours of shop time built a "poor man's helicopter" that
turned the sky into your personal highway.
Although gyroplanes never shook the foundations of aviation, the
public's imagination had been captured and the gyroplane revolution
had begun. Today, dozens of companies whose owners were inspired by
Bensen and de la Cierva sell plans, kits and ready-to-fly
Four Gyroplane Myths
Along with inspiring dreams, gyroplanes also have created their own
mythology. Before you spend $150 for a set of plans or $40,000 for a
ready-to-fly gyroplane, you need to be able to separate gyroplane
fact from gyroplane fiction.
The first and most insidious of the four great myths is that
gyroplanes are safer than conventional aircraft. For this, Amelia
Earhart is partly to blame. In 1929, Earhart agreed to test a
Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro. "The Autogiro has wonderful
characteristics of safety and ease of control," reported the
world-renowned aviator after landing in Willow Grove, Pa., a few
miles north of Philadelphia. "The automatic stability of the
machine, as well as its peculiar properties of safe vertical
descent, make it of immense utility."
Earhart was correct in that the aerodynamics of gyroplanes makes
it impossible for them to stall or to spin, potentially deadly
situations in fixed-wing aircraft. "Gyroplanes are safe, but you
have to be careful," says Martin Hollmann, America's premier
gyrocopter designer. A retired engineer, Hollmann designed the first
two-passenger gyrocopter, the Sportster, over the span of several
years in the early 1970s. Nearly a decade later, a back injury
sustained in the crash of a fixed-wing plane prevented him from
lifting the Sportster's 65-pound rotor over his head and onto its
spindle. While recuperating he designed the Bumble Bee, the first
ultralight gyroplane. It had a rotor he could lift.
"Gyroplanes got a bad rap because people were told they could
teach themselves to fly," Hollmann tells PM, addressing the second
great myth. "You cannot teach yourself to fly, you have to go to
school," he says. The need for proper training is borne out in crash
statistics. Over the past five years, between January 1996 and April
2001, there were 19 deaths in 55 gyroplane crashes, according to the
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Mention of the FAA, the government agency that regulates
aviation, raises the third myth, that you can legally fly a
gyroplane without a pilot's license. If you have your eye on a
two-place machine, the answer is a resounding no. You need a
license. For single-seat gyroplanes, the answer is not as clear-cut.
The determining issue, says an FAA spokesman, is not what you fly,
but how much the plane weighs. If it is 254 pounds or less, it
qualifies as an ultralight and, under current regulations, can be
flown without a license.
A word of caution if you select a design that is at the edge of
the limit: Monitor the weight as you build, and be especially
careful of creature-comfort options that can tack on invisible
The fourth gyroplane myth also involves a number—the hours needed
to build your gyroplane. Plan and kit sellers tend to low-ball their
estimates. Depending upon whether you build from plans or from a 51
percent kit, you should set aside weekends for at least a year.
Learn To Fly
Regardless of whether you select an ultralight, single-place or
two-seat design, you will need flight training. Every gyroplane
supplier that PM interviewed recommends beginning with a visit to
your local flight school to learn the rudiments of handling a small
fixed-wing aircraft. Plan on about 10 hours of training.
Fixed-wing training teaches more than basic airmanship skills. It
gives you a feel for navigating the sky in a lightweight aircraft.
Although a gyroplane may look like a helicopter, its controls are
more like those of a fixed-wing craft. Both are controlled with a
stick and rudder. Moving the stick produces a slow, coordinated turn
as the gyroplane's tail causes the fuselage to weathervane in the
direction of travel. Using the rudder increases the turn rate.
At least, that is the theory. Making it all come together takes
practice, the sort you can get only in a two-place gyroplane. Moving
from a fixed-wing airplane to a gyroplane is more about training the
muscles than the mind. It is more akin to learning to ride a bicycle
than learning to drive a car. For this reason, the amount of time
needed to master gyroplane flight depends mostly on how quickly your
body learns new tricks. Hollmann tells PM that two of his fastest
learners were an 11-year-old boy and a 78-year-old retired tightrope
Build Or Buy
Selecting the right gyroplane is a matter of time versus money. It
is important to know that gyroplanes are slow, noisy, low-flying
machines. If you have a need for speed, consider building a
fixed-wing plane ("Sign Of The Zodiac," Aug. 1997, page 46). But if
the experience of raw flight is what you are after, any of the
gyroplanes shown here can become your magic carpet.
For those who cannot wait to get airborne and impress passengers,
there is only one choice: the Magni Gyro M-16 Trainer, a
factory-built gyroplane imported from Italy. Recently approved for
sale in the United States, this partially enclosed, tandem-seat
machine won the Best Gyroplane prize at Sun-N-Fun 2000 air show in
Florida, and a slew of other awards. Powered by a reliable 115-hp
Rotax 914 engine, it has a top speed of 115 mph and has a useful
load of 617 pounds. Brace yourself before reaching for your
checkbook. Your final price will depend upon exchange rates, but it
will be near $40,000.
The Air Command International Command Elite Tandem and the
Aircraft Designs Sportster, designed by Hollmann, are also partially
enclosed, two-place gyroplanes. Powered by a 160-hp Lycoming engine,
the Sportster has a 120-mph top speed. The Tandem can handle a 67-hp
Rotax, 110-hp Hirth or 160-hp Mazda engine, so top speed ranges from
90 to 120 mph. Air Command says that adding fairings and side panels
to improve aerodynamics can increase cruising speed by as much as 15
mph, to 100 mph. You have to build both gyroplanes. Aircraft Designs
sells Sportster plans for $250, but does not offer a kit. Air
Command offers only a kit. It costs $15,030 and includes the Rotax
The twin-seat Shadow from Vortech Inc. adds a touch of luxury
with a fully enclosed and upholstered cabin. Powered by a Lycoming
engine, this gyroplane has a top speed of 100 mph. The kit sells for
$15,750, minus the engine and instruments.
If you do not plan on carrying passengers, you have the option of
flying a tractor- or pusher-style aircraft. The Little Wing
Autogyros LW series and North American Rotorwerks Pitbull hearken
back to the early days of gyroplane flight by putting the engine and
prop in front of the pilot. Little Wing gyroplanes sell for $175 and
a prewelded fuselage costs $2500. Front mounting means they can
accept most small engines. A Subaru EA81 or comparable engine powers
the Pitbull. The kit sells for $5900 plus the cost of the engine.
Performance varies with engine selection.
The Sport Copter Vortex and Winners Circle Engineering H-1 Racer
offer two variations on the classic single-place pusher-prop
gyroplane design. The Vortex follows the more conventional gyroplane
design of putting the pilot forward and near the ground. The Racer
raises the fuselage, permitting the use of a 60-in., three-blade
prop. Both have about a 400-pound load capacity and a maximum speed
of 100 mph. You can build the Racer from a $150 set of plans or a
$6000 kit, excluding the engine. The Vortex sells only as a $19,500
kit, with the engine purchased separately. Or, you could follow the
lead of Carl Schneider of Fort Madison, Iowa, and design your own
Space permits us to show only a sampling of the more than 40
different gyroplane designs that are currently on the market in the
United States. The exact number changes as new designs evolve and
others are retired. A full listing of suppliers whose gyroplanes
pass muster with the Popular Rotorcraft Association can be found
with the online version of this article at www.popularmechanics.com/science.