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Gyrocopters prove their mettle in a hazardous environment

Frank Nierhoff is as anxious as a new parent. He’s made a number of high-speed taxi runs and the problem persists. The local mechanic, Genro, gets out the differential pressure tester and gets to work. It’s a scene played out at shops all around the United States, except that Nierhoff is German and we’re in Aranjuez, Costa Rica.

Fly with us

Photography by Chris Rose in the traditional sense, Fly With Us’ facility at the Aranjuez Aero Club houses the business, a small classroom, and an expansive porch. It’s all creatively built from a shipping container and bamboo, which Frank Nierhoff sought for its renewable properties. Niklas and Frank Nierhoff make a statement with their choice of rides. What experienced pilot Frank used to think of as only a toy, their gryocopter proves to be a reliable and capable machine for the demands of Costa Rica’s high winds and mountainous terrain. Now he and son Niklas fly it all over the Central American republic. The AutoGyro MTOsport 2010 easily fits inside the hangar. The modern gyrocopter operates with a Rotax 912 or 915 engine, can land in a backyard, take off from a football field, loiter for hours, cruise at 65 or 70 knots, and take an unmatched level of wind.

Nierhoff’s baby is an AutoGyro MTOsport 2010, a modern two-place gyrocopter from his home country. Today it’s not running at peak form, but the otherwise reliable machine is Nierhoff’s steed in commercial service in this peaceful and relatively affluent country in Central America. In a place where tourism and environmental protection are top priorities of the government and a big engine of revenue, Nierhoff’s humble gyrocopter business is perfectly positioned to help.

Aranjuez is near Costa Rica’s western Pacific coast, north of the port city of Puntarenas. Surrounded by sugar cane and rice fields, the low-lying agricultural area is a part of the country few tourists get to see. The airport features a 2,600-foot grass strip, and there’s a respected maintenance facility; some tenants; and Fly With Us, Nierhoff’s operation. Fly With Us’s office looks like it belongs on a movie set. The main portion is a shipping container. Inside, the floors are original, but a bamboo roof and bamboo-paneled walls have been added. Desks were made from a local tree that came down in a tropical storm, and outside is an especially welcoming porch made of bamboo and poured concrete. There’s an outdoor shower, and a homemade cooling system draws cold air from a nearby stream and wafts it through the container.

Other than the shipping container Nierhoff and his son, Niklas, built everything. Frank is tall and thin. His head is shaved; his smile is large. He wears heavy black pants with suspenders, a white tank top, and combat boots. It’s almost 90 degrees and 85 percent humidity. He commutes from his finca on a Royal Enfield with custom-made period leather saddle bags on a motorcycle conceived in Britain, built in India, and imported to Costa Rica. Globalization personified, Nierhoff has strong opinions on the bike, as he does with many things. There’s climate change (it’s happening, but deforestation is the culprit), government regulation (a necessary but unfortunate system), yoga and meditation (it was great before the Instagram generation ruined it), electric propulsion (it will never happen and hydrogen is the future), and bamboo (the best and most sustainable building material). In a life that’s taken him from learning carpentry in Germany, to flying for an airline, to Canada for bush flying, and finally Costa Rica to open one of the early meditation and yoga retreats, his interest and knowledge of gyrocopters is as relatively new as it is deep. Nierhoff believes the gyroplane, long seen as a fringe recreational toy, is perfectly suited to his environment, and as in many things, he’s right.

To understand why the gyrocopter is such a great tool here, it helps to understand the country’s topography and weather. About the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica is home to dozens of microclimates. Throughout its interior, mountains rise to more than 12,000 feet. There are 67 volcanos, six of which are active. And in the span of only a hundred miles the climate can go from West Texas-like desert to lush cloud forest. In general there are two seasons. From May to November it dawns clear and calm, but by midday it may be raining at a rate of a few inches an hour. For the rest of the year it may rain only a little, or not at all. That’s because the trade winds come south, and they blow continuously at 30 to 40 knots for months.

Biodiverse Costa Rica

Costa Rica's vast biodiversity is one of the country’s major economic drivers, bringing in billions of dollars every year in ecotourism. The Nierhoffs estimate that by flying gyrocopters just 1,000 hours a year, Fly With Us could protect the parks from illegal mining, hunting, and encroachment. Approximately a quarter of the country’s area is protected by 30 national parks. Costa Rica's fauna is as diverse as its flora.

Half of Fly With Us’s business in Aranjuez is training. Affluent customers make the two-hour drive from the country’s population center in San José to fly with Frank or Niklas in pursuit of their certificate. Niklas has been in Costa Rica fulltime since 2011, a year after the business began. He soon earned his pilot certificate and instructor rating, and under Frank’s watchful eye, he has been doing much of the teaching. Unlike in the United States where an instructor is let loose before the ink is dry on his or her CFI certificate, the Nierhoffs believe in the apprentice system where one learns under an experienced teacher and mentor.

The benefits of a gyrocopter are obvious when you study their design—a perfect mix of capabilities between an airplane and a helicopter. They can’t hover, but they can loiter very slowly and in a tight area. They aren’t as fast or as comfortable as an airplane, but they experience less vibration and a smoother ride than a helicopter. And the amount of wind they can fly in is astonishing.

During dry season the deadly combination of dry ground and strong winds means that fire season can be devastating. A gyrocopter is no heavy water bomber. “We could carry maybe 20 liters of water,” Frank jokes. But it is good at observing. Although the Nierhoffs do some active fire spotting, the gyrocopter’s best place is as aerial coordinator and post-fire spotter. In the coordinator role they will fly with an official from the fire department. They loiter near the edge of the fire, directing the ground crews to properly position as they do the backbreaking work of clearing brush, chopping trees and bamboo, and creating the important firebreak. Frank said Costa Rica doesn’t have extensive fire suppression tools like you would see in the United States, but they do a great job of preventing the spread of fires. The country’s expertise at fire prevention is internationally renowned, and the fire service has trained Canadians and others on the benefits of their work.

Fly With Us has done a bit of this work alongside helicopters, but Frank said the helicopter would have to land due to strong winds while he could stay on the fire for hours longer. The worst fires happen in the northern part of the country, in the area of strongest winds. And close to the fires the turbulence and winds are worse, which would keep the helicopters down. The AutoGyro has a direct crosswind limitation of 35 knots, and turbulence is much easier to handle. “It’s only out of limits in a hurricane,” he said. “If we get a strong gust, our autorotation speeds up and we simply go up. My rotor is like a damper for gusts.”

If you look at a map of forest fires and their damage in Central America, Costa Rica stands out as having a fraction of the impact that neighboring countries endure. A big reason is the gyrocopter’s other fire mission. Once the fire is out Nierhoff will fly with a fire official and survey the damage. They fly low and slow, taking detailed photos and creating GPS maps of the damage. The flying is remote, it’s often 90 degrees or more on the ground, and the mountains produce punishing turbulence. “At the beginning I thought, What am I doing? I’m not helping anything, just seeing where it has burned,” he said. “And then learning about firefighting and prevention I thought, This is the most important job that you’re doing because this is how we can prevent fires for the next year.” The areas are too large for a drone, the images needed too detailed for an airplane, and the weather too iffy for a helicopter. Fly With Us is the only operator in the country that can do this sort of work.

It’s not unlike the Nierhoffs’ other personal interest: flying for environmental protection. Costa Rica has 30 national parks, making up roughly a quarter of the country’s land mass. The parks range from small and heavily trafficked—such as the Arenal Volcano—to remote and inhospitable, such as Corcovado on the southern Pacific coast. Fully patrolling the parks on the ground is impossible. And in a country where the per capita gross domestic product is about $13,000, money from poaching or illegal logging can be a big deal. To help mitigate these impacts the Nierhoffs fly with a park ranger, surveying mostly the edges of the parks. Because the big parks are so vast and remote, most of the illegal activity occurs at the fringes. That includes farmers who clear land to expand fields. On the ground, rangers aren’t allowed to pass through the farmer’s private property to investigate. A trek through the forest may take a week. But the gyrocopter can quickly spot the incursion, and if work in the area is active, a judge will grant a direct ground-based investigation.

Nierhoff estimates that each hour of flying patrols equals 150 hours of work by car, ATV, or horse. And for 1,000 hours a year, he estimates Costa Rica could have full national coverage to the point of deterrence. The time savings is one of the biggest benefits of operating the gyrocopter. Fly With Us charges the same rate to students as it does to the government. Even with high fuel prices, newer aircraft, and all the overhead, the fee is $230 an hour, all in. That’s a massive bargain compared to a helicopter.

The edges of the parks usually have good off-airport landing sites. But a few years ago the government wanted a survey of damage from a hurricane, which required Nierhoff to fly through the middle of various parks. “If you go down there, you need six weeks to get out,” he said. “Engine failure is no option.” To protect themselves the Nierhoffs and the ranger wear anti-mosquito clothing, and they bring a small survival kit. “What kills you in the jungle is not snakes or tigers, it’s the insects.”

The modern gyrocopter operates with a Rotax 912 or 915 engine, can land in a backyard, take off from a football field, loiter for hours, cruise at 65 or 70 knots, and take an unmatched level of wind. There aren’t too many aircraft that can teach a new pilot in the morning and do a fire patrol in the afternoon. But then, there aren’t too many pilots who practice meditation; build their own facilities; and who can riff knowledgably about microclimates, future fuels, and climate change, either.

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Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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