Head spinning

Learning to tame the other rotorcraft

Learning to fly a gyroplane was not a life goal. Not something that I’ve had my eye on for a long time or always dreamed of doing. No, this was a marriage of convenience. But even those can have a bit of love thrown in.

Flying a gyroplane

Photography by Chris Rose Unlike a helicopter, where pilots live by rotor rpm, flying in a constant autorotation means being able to largely ignore it in flight and focus your eyes completely outside. Frank Nierhoff at the controls. The author and Nierhoff's son Niklas (right). The Nierhoffs are widely known for their expertise and thoughtful training methods. Pictured are the author and Niklas Nierhoff pushing the gyrocopter into the hangar.

Somewhere midway through the pandemic, when confusion, upheaval, and vigilance gave way to malaise, I knew I had to go flying. Renting an airplane wasn’t an option, primarily because nothing was available. Where I was flying in Costa Rica, general aviation is robust, but aircraft rentals are not. I turned instead to the only aircraft reliably available for rent, and relatively cheaply at that: a gyroplane.

Gyroplanes are abundant in this part of the world, and for good reason. Distances are small, so the slow speed isn’t an issue, and gyroplanes handle the strong seasonal trade winds much better than an airplane. Throw in the availability of ethanol-free gasoline to run the Rotax; quality training; good support; and a growing community; and what once was a toy of the crazed weekend do-it-yourselfer has become a legitimate path to regular fun flying.

This is different

Gyroplanes have an image problem. Not quite as cool as a helicopter, not quite as useful as an airplane, most pilots consider them more as part of a niche ultralight community than the big kid airplane world. Which is fair, when you consider their history. Decidedly home-grown, early gyroplanes featured questionable aerodynamics and were nothing more than a frame with rudimentary rotors and an untested engine. Throw in the fact that many pilots were self-taught, and it was easy to predict their lousy safety record.

Today a new collection of manufacturers and pilots are coming into the community. Builders such as Autogyro in Germany, Magni in Italy, and ELA Aviation in Spain make beautiful, sophisticated aircraft that certainly rival the fit and finish of light sport aircraft, and in some cases, easily surpass it. The companies use reliable Rotax engines, have dedicated training programs, and in some European countries, offer full certification. In the United States, Autogyro has achieved primary certification for a few of its models, but everything else on the market is generally certified as an experimental light sport.

Costa Ricans are lucky enough to have several training options, but Frank Nierhoff and his son, Niklas, are two of the best. Frank has experience as an airline pilot in Germany and bush pilot in Canada, and he’s trained Niklas to the same standard. In other words, they run a professional, safety-focused operation.

The other rotorcraft

Open-cockpit flying presents a long list of environmental challenges. The simple panel sits low and includes only the most basic flight instruments. Unlimited visibility makes the gyroplane a great tool for aerial observation, and unmatched for low and slow fun flying. Flying a rotorcraft with nearly unlimited visibility, out in the open air, is a privilege I never would have experienced had I planned my aviation goals.

The professionalism is evident from the first lesson. Even though Costa Rica certifies the aircraft as ultralights, this wasn’t an ultralight experience. Frank meticulously explained every system on the MTOsport, demonstrated how to do a proper preflight, the safe transfer of flight controls, and more. Despite being small, gyros take as much time to preflight as an airplane.

There are flight controls, fuel, hydraulic system, radios, the engine (including the Rotax burp), propeller, tail, and especially, the rotor. Although, since the rotor is always in autorotation, it’s a surprisingly simple system. The two-blade, semi-rigid rotor system consists of nothing more than a teetering hinge assembly with a teeter bolt, tower, and a hub bar that holds the blades. Below this is a sprocket for pre-rotation, a rotor brake, and two pitch change links. It’s an entirely mechanical, unpowered system, save the pre-rotator.

The pilot flies the MTOsport exclusively from the front, and the seating area is wide and comfortable. Two pedals control the large rear rudder, and brakes are applied via a hand mechanism similar to that found on many LSAs. This takes a little getting used to for a traditional airplane pilot. The pedals rotate, not move fore and aft, so you keep your feet in the same position the entire time. Many lessons I added power to rocket down the runway, only to start veering off because I had slid my feet down off the nonexistent brakes.

The pedals are only one of many idiosyncrasies of a gyroplane’s ground handling. In fact, much of the transition training centers on managing the rotor during takeoff and after landing, and proper ground handling. Hull loss on takeoffs and landings are a significant problem for gyroplanes, and the cause usually lies squarely with the inattentive pilot.

After wiping down the prop and rotor blades (Frank says a clean prop and rotor perform better), we were ready to go. Starting is Rotax simple, and the 912 ULS usually fires at the mere breath against the key’s starting position. With a pointed nose in front, fantastic visibility, a stick in the right hand, and throttle in the left, you immediately begin to feel those childhood fighter pilot fantasies coming true. So what if you’ll only be flying 60 knots instead
of 600?

Taking off is the first big challenge. There are nearly a dozen steps that must take place—in proper order—between lining up and about 500 feet above the ground. Pre-rotation must happen before moving down the runway. Unlike a helicopter, which transfers engine power to the main rotor and tail rotors through a transmission, a gyro’s rotor spins freely in the breeze. Think front tire of a bicycle versus the back. Pre-rotation gets that rotor moving in order to begin providing lift.

On the MTOsport pushing a button on the stick contracts a cylinder that tightens a belt connected to the drive shaft. A series of rods sends that rotational energy up to a gear that extends into the ring gear below the main rotor blades, similar to the starter on an airplane engine. In the MTOsport, the rotor reaches about 180 rpm before the takeoff roll starts.

Upon reaching 180 rpm, the pre-rotator is released, the stick brought to full aft, and full power applied. The gyro surges forward quickly as the 5,400 rpm on the propeller immediately translates to acceleration. Then things begin to even out as energy is taken from the forward speed and translated to increased rotor rpm. Now the nose naturally rises, and must be kept in a controlled position. Imagine an umbrella being forced up on a windy day and you can understand why. Finally, the gyro comes off the ground at about 40 knots. When the aircraft is light, this all happens in as few as 300 feet.

Once in the air the gyro behaves similarly to a slow airplane, with one key difference—that big chunk of drag you’re carrying around on your head. Pitch up to go up, and you will for a few seconds, but then drag will take over and you’ll start slowing down and descending. Instead, altitude changes are led with power. Performance isn’t blistering. The 912 ULS on the MTOsport gives a climb of about 500 feet per minute when heavy, and a cruise speed of between 65 and 80 knots, depending on how much wind you want to contend with.
Three Katas

The Nierhoffs have an effective and creative training routine that focuses on repetition to reach proficiency. Taking a page from martial arts, they’ve developed three Katas—one each for air work, takeoffs and landings, and emergencies. The Katas include all the necessary maneuvers required to be a proficient pilot, and they are structured in such a way to give the student ample time and headspace to practice. For example, when flying with Niklas, the preflight briefing usually consisted of nothing more than, “We’ll do Kata 1 and then come back for some takeoffs and landings.” The first Kata is air work, and it includes climbs, turns, descents, climbing turns, descending turns, emergency descents, steep turns, and slow flight. Instead of the instructor picking skills at random, each is drilled within a sequence that feels like an aerobatic practice routine.

Normally I’m loath to practice emergencies with an instructor, primarily as a result of my own feelings of inadequacy. Answer a systems question wrong or blow by my chosen emergency landing field, and I feel like my core competencies as a pilot are rightly being questioned. There’s a lot of pressure, especially when you’re more experienced and a CFI. But emergency practice in a gyroplane is so fun it doesn’t matter. Helicopters are envied for their ability to make an emergency landing in nearly any clearing with minimum forward airspeed, but feared for the autorotation process that gets them there. Gyroplanes are always in autorotation, so cutting off power feels more like a normal airplane emergency approach, and minimal forward energy gives the machine helicopter-adjacent capabilities.

To be fair, the glide rate in the MTO is roughly 1-to-3, so take a moment to locate the nearest field, keeping in mind it may be close to you. But the glide is stable, the gyro completely controllable throughout the process, and inaction won’t result in a blade stall. In fact, even if you sit there like a statue after an engine failure, the aircraft will enter a stable descent at the airspeed your stone hand has chosen as the pitch angle.

Unlike an airplane, where being high on an emergency approach forces one to rely on flaps, gear, slips, and maneuvering, the gyro’s descent rate responds immediately and profoundly to a reduction in speed. The Nierhoffs train a creative and logical method that focuses on speed control. Ideally you arrive at your spot a little high. Park about 1,000 feet short of the intended touchdown point, slow down to 30 knots, and wait a few seconds. The descent will stabilize between 800 and 1,200 feet per minute, and any additional altitude can be scrubbed off with 90-degree turns left and right. At such a slow speed you never get far from the intended target, and there’s no need to judge whether an additional three-sixty or other advanced maneuvering is required. At 200 feet above the ground or more, pitch for final approach speed (about 55 knots), flare, and land. Although it sounds a bit complicated, I was routinely landing within 100 feet of my spot within only a few hours. And there are no big turns to judge, no need to turn completely away from the target, and no crazy cross-coordinated maneuvers. Best of all, if you are desperate to land short, you can theoretically do so at 30 knots. The descent rate is roughly the same as a Cirrus under a parachute. You may break the machine, but you’ll live.

Landings are relatively easy for an airplane pilot to do safely, but difficult to master. That’s because our typical full-stall, nose-high touchdown isn’t necessarily the most effective method. It can be done, but the timing must be perfect. Smoother landings come with just a bit of speed, more akin to a wheel landing. Using the rotor for drag, a progressive pull from main wheel contact will stop the gyro in mere feet, so a bit of extra speed when touching down isn’t dangerous.

What can be dangerous is thinking the flight is over. First the rotor brake must be activated and the hydraulic system properly charged (to increase brake pressure), all while making sure the rotor is being held into the wind. Beginning pilots should wait until it spools to fewer than 100 rpm, when gusts won’t be a problem. But more experienced pilots can immediately taxi if they are careful. Imagine a high center of gravity, a giant umbrella, and gusty conditions and you can see why. Like a floatplane or a tailwheel airplane, the flight isn’t over until the engine is stopped and you’re pushing the gyro inside.

Thanks to the regulations, I was required to train for a minimum of 20 hours, and flying once every two weeks, I easily made the minimum. The training is perhaps not as easy as you may expect, but it’s not difficult either. Let’s call it somewhere between a weekend seaplane add-on, and learning to fly a helicopter.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t fully predict our futures, and for that I’m grateful. Because flying a rotorcraft for $150 an hour, with nearly unlimited visibility, out in the open air, is a privilege I never would have experienced had I planned my aviation goals. A path to the sky was my only desire, which I believe is the case for thousands of pilots. For that kind of fun, it’s hard to beat a gyroplane.

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Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

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

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