Not lawn chairs
Gyroplanes are part of the eclectic mix of aircraft at AOPA’s home airport in Frederick, Maryland. On many a clear morning you can witness a gyroplane puttering along in the pattern. Local lore has it that a longtime gyro pilot had an engine failure and was forced to make an emergency landing in the nearby cemetery where Francis Scott Key, author of The Star-Spangled Banner, is buried. (The pilot was fine; Key remains dead.)
Until recently, gyroplanes at Frederick were represented by models that to the untrained eye resembled flying lawn chairs. I prefer the enclosure of a cockpit, no matter how little flimsy protection that might offer in the event of an off-airport landing. What was the allure of these things, anyway?
It wasn’t until 2017, when hangar neighbor Frank Noe showed me his new-to-him gyroplane, that I started to understand the attraction. Noe’s AutoGyro MTO Sport looked nothing like a lawn chair, but more like a race car or Olympic-style toboggan that happened to have a rotor on top.
Fixed-wing to gyro
Noe, a retired military pilot who lives in Frederick, flies for a regional airline and earned his pilot certificates in fixed-wing aircraft. He’d bought a Piper Cherokee for fun flying, but after only a few years of ownership, realized he wasn’t flying it that much. “The hourly expense was something I had to think about, and I wasn’t drawn to flying [the Cherokee],” he said.
Noe’s introduction to what he calls “open air flying” was with the 2008 purchase of a powered parachute. He liked the simplicity of it: no flight instruments, just some engine monitoring. A powered parachute is a slow but very maneuverable type of flying, he said.
The progression to a gyroplane felt natural. “It’s a lot of the same concept,” Noe said of the gyroplane. “It’s like a powered parachute that doesn’t have wind limitations, distance limitations, or fuel limitations.
“I can go across the country now, whereas I couldn’t with the powered parachute,” he said. Noe has flown from Texas to Maryland in a gyroplane, and while many consider the aircraft less than suitable for that type of travel, others clearly don’t: U.K. gyroplane pilot James Ketchell stopped in Frederick in 2019 on his way around the world.
Noe’s immersion in gyro culture is complete; he earned commercial and CFI certificates and offers gyroplane instruction (gyromojo.com).
Smiles for miles
Noe’s a social media evangelist when it comes to flying his gyroplane, and soon I succumbed to the fear of missing out caused by of all the smiling faces I saw on his Instagram. Our flight took place on a semi-overcast May morning.
Noe had already pulled the MTO Sport from its hangar for preflight. The tandem two-seater has an empty weight of about 600 pounds and sits squarely on three wheels. Like an airplane, it flies with a stick and rudder. The stick is used to tilt the rotor head, and the rudder is used to align the nose on the ground and in flight.
The 100-horsepower Rotax 912 engine is mounted, open and pusher-style, at the rear, where it provides thrust. The gyroplane holds 25 gallons of fuel and burns about 4 gallons per hour.
The rotor mast holds a two-blade, 8.4-meter (about 28 feet) rotor attached by a single teeter bolt that must be allowed to spin freely.
“Everything below the rotor mast is like any other light sport airplane,” Noe said. “The engine’s completely exposed, so I can do a much better preflight without removing the cowling.”
The rotor is not powered in flight, as a helicopter’s is. A pre-rotator—gearing from the engine that engages a belt—is used to spin the rotor on the ground fast enough to make it dynamically stable.
Noe checked the rotor and cleaned off bugs. “If you get too many bugs on one [blade] than the other, you can get an imbalance,” he said. That imbalance produces a minor shaking sensation that’s usually evident only to someone who flies gyroplanes a lot.
Noe was dressed for our flight in shorts and a T-shirt, but after rechecking the temperature—in the mid-70s on the ground—he added a quilted flight suit. He loaned me a bright-orange jacket—the better to increase our visibility to our fixed- and rotary-wing comrades—and we donned white flight helmets. A heated flight suit and gloves lets Noe fly in most kinds of VFR weather. He won’t fly when the temperature drops below 35 degrees Fahrenheit on the ground; colder than that requires bulky gloves that don’t allow him the manual dexterity needed to operate the controls.
Don’t skip leg day if you plan to climb into a gyroplane. You step onto the strut, and then onto the seat, but there’s nothing to grab onto to pull yourself up, so you need to rely on lower-body strength to get you where you need to go. It’s almost—but not quite—as bad as getting into a Piper Super Cub.
For this flight, I was in the backseat and Noe was up front. He’d be up front if flying solo to offset the weight of the engine, much as you’d fly a Piper Cub solo from the backseat.
Once situated and belted, I noticed the rear seat has access to the magneto switches. Noe has wired these shut so that nonpilot passengers don’t accidentally pull them in flight.
We started the engine and taxied to the runup area, but the rotor remained stationary; it would not come to life until we were on the runway.
Cleared for takeoff, Noe trundled the gyroplane onto the runway and activated the pre-rotator. For this aircraft, pre-rotation was accomplished with the stick full forward at 200 rpm. Noe then disengaged the pre-rotator and pulled the stick all the way back, which placed the rotor at a 17-degree angle. Power was added slowly, and as we started moving, air was flowing back up through the rotor, and energy was being transferred to rotation.
With the stick all the way back as the thrust and forward motion accelerated the rotor, the nose wanted to come up at about 15 knots, and Noe eased the stick forward a bit so that we continued down the runway with the nose about a foot off the ground and the mains still touching, now at 30 knots. Noe waited until we had enough rotation to fly in ground effect, and he accelerated in ground effect to 55 knots indicated. We were off the ground in well under 300 feet.
“That’s my everything speed,” Noe said. “Descent, climb—it’s a good, safe speed.” He’ll generally fly a fixed-wing pattern, but if the airport traffic is unusually busy he’ll fly a helicopter pattern. For a cross-country flight, he’ll plan 65 knots in cruise.
Noe wanted me to see how maneuverable the gyroplane is, but all I wanted to do was take in the scenery from 1,000 feet over farm fields.
A brown heron flapped below us, and we noticed how the recent rains had swollen the streams near the airport. In an enclosed airplane if you’re flying at 1,000 feet, you’re likely climbing or descending. In a gyroplane you’re lower and slower. Noe often flies low in familiar areas, but when traveling cross-country he will never go below 200 feet agl over open water or sparsely populated areas. It’s easy to see why: Power lines are almost invisible against the green fields.
The stick and rudders operate much as they would in a fixed-wing airplane, but the gyroplane is capable of much tighter turns—tap the rudder and the aircraft almost pivots. This makes the machine highly capable during an engine-out situation—you can turn almost on a dime to find a good place to land. Noe showed me a zero forward airspeed descent, in which he pulled the power to idle and held the stick back. With the rotor angled at 17 degrees, “you’re just kind of falling and your descent is what’s keeping the rotor spinning, not the forward motion,” Noe said. He recovered by lowering the nose and getting the forward motion back, then adding power and climbing.
Returning to the airport, Noe demonstrated a regular approach and landing. The touchdown was as soft as a feather. The gyroplane was stopped within a few hundred feet. “I’ve never had a really tough landing,” Noe said. “It’s very forgiving. It seems like it wouldn’t be, because as soon as you start to flare you start to lose rotor energy, and it’s hard to get it back.”
You can’t stall a gyroplane, but you want to avoid negative G or zero-G situations, Noe said. “You always want to keep a load on that rotor,” he said. “If you were to push the nose over and add power at the same time, you could go into a low-G condition and the rotor will slow down too much.” You can recover by pulling the stick back, but it’s not a place you want to be, he said.
Where to fly
With quieter engines and wallet-friendly gas consumption, gyroplanes are more widely flown in other parts of the world. In the United States they are somewhat of a novelty, and the rules that prohibit the commercial operation of experimental aircraft limit access. But there’s good news on that front: German manufacturer AutoGyro (autogyrousa.com) now makes three type-certificated models: the MTOSport 2017; the Calidus; and the Cavalon. Kit versions of these models remain available. As more certified models work their way into the United States, expect to get an opportunity to fly one.
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