In 1993, my transformation from fixed-wing driver to gyronaut began with an old Bensen gyro-glider. For 19 wonderful years we were based at St. Merryn, a beautiful old wartime airfield on the North Cornish coast with 8 tarmac runways to play with – perfect for glider training. This is where I and many others learned about free-spinning rotor flight, courtesy of Chris Julian and Tony Philpotts. It was so much fun! Such painful irony that Chris, along with our friend Bob should’ve been killed flying another glider up-country, thanks to the stupidity of one particular individual who has never had the guts to say sorry.
Gyro-gliding should be mandatory for new gyronauts. Nothing else can match it for pure unadulterated rotor flight: no engine or instruments to worry about, all unnecessary distractions are removed – it’s just you and the rotor blades. Fly a gyro-glider and it will open your eyes to the sheer power of autorotation. You’ll learn to understand the rotors and their behaviour, how to read them without the need for instruments and discover the very heart of gyroplane flying. In the old days before the onset of two-seat machines, nearly every gyronaut began their training on a glider. Sadly, now that two-seat training is readily available, the glider has been largely forgotten by the ‘establishment.’ Considered an out-of-date-has-been by those with no clue, it still gives the best insight into rotor handling that no two-seater can match.
It’s a long time since I wrote the following piece, but what we did that day remains just as relevant to gyroplane training, and rotor handling in particular. In fact it’s even more relevant these days when newly qualified gyro pilots are so reliant on widgets and gizmos to tell them what they should really know by the seat of their pants.
The 2nd of September 2007 was quite a special day for a young lad who first flew the glider with me when he was only 12 years old. Now aged 15 and tall enough to reach the steering bar, Ed Weaver returned to St. Merryn to have another go. We had a good strong wind for him, blowing about 15 knots just a few degrees off the nose of the main north/south runway. To recap on what we’d done all that time ago, I parked the glider into wind and after going through the preflight inspection together, Ed started the rotors by himself and spent half an hour practicing feeding the wind into them, using the stick to regulate their speed by opening or closing the rotor disc to the airflow. The old RotorHawk blades were relatively tame and docile, but with quite a feisty wind coming in off the sea, Ed had his hands full to settle them down as random gusts blustered through, upsetting the blades and triggering flapping. He did very well and corrected the first kick of blade sail without any prompt from me – instantly shoving the stick fully forward to kill off the wind (a manoeuvre never to be performed in the air, by the way), letting the rotors stabilise before gently bringing the stick back, inch by inch to let them accelerate once more. Excellent handling practice.
Later we hitched up the 115 foot tow line and took the glider out to play on the main runway. The wind was slightly from the right, but no real problem. Ed brought the rotors up to speed, then followed through on the stick as we took off and flew down the runway about 10 feet high, settling down nicely at a respectful distance from the giant dung heap sprawled across the end. I showed him how to use the energy in the rotor disc to reverse the glider back and do a three point turn, as the tow car took up the slack in the line. Being towed back downwind is the worst part, bumping over ragged tufts of vegetation at 15 mph with no suspension on the glider – ouch! By the third take off, Ed was handling the stick on his own with only a few minor corrections from me, and 90% of the landings by the end of the first hour. For the second hour I was little more than animated ballast, and if the wind had been more on the nose and not so gusty, Ed could have soloed then if he’d been comfortable with the idea.
As it was we had to wait for the following Sunday, as the wind had gone to the other extreme with Saturday being flat calm. It was also westerly, which meant the shortest runway with more lumps and bumps of foliage breaking through the aged tarmac. The wind was about 8 knots maximum but a steady mild breath this time, so Ed could open the rotors up relatively quickly without setting them flapping. We did another short static session with the glider to recap again, but he’d mastered the starting bit easily, so I set him up with my gyroplane to show him the contrasting behaviour of different blade profiles.
My bird wears Dragon Wing rotor blades which are much lighter in weight and have a more streamlined, efficient aerofoil section than the RotorHawks – and they’re absolute pigs to spin up by hand! With Ed in the seat controlling the stick, I pushed the rotors round as hard as I could to see if he could get them to catch the wind and accelerate. There’s no way I’d even bother attempting it normally, but the wind was docile and steady enough not to seriously upset them, so I thought it’d be a good demonstration – and it was. Try as we might, despite hurling my entire 8 stone bulk behind them, and with Ed’s careful coaxing on the stick – we could not get those rotor blades to show any interest in picking up at all – whereas the tame old RotorHawks had settled easily on the light breeze with little effort. You only get to know a true feeling for the rotors by learning to start them by hand: a machine relying on mechanical drive and tacho’s can’t give you the same insight. It’s like trying to ride a horse without an empathic understanding of the feel of its mouth against the reins.
With another lesson under his belt, we hitched up and took the glider out for Ed to try some tamer conditions. Light winds mean towing at a faster ground speed to compensate the lack of airspeed, which I don’t like doing as we’re forcing the machine to fly. Luckily both Ed and myself are lightweights so we didn’t have to drag the glider along at an excessively fast pace to keep it airborne – which was a good thing as we didn’t have much runway to work with in a westerly direction. With two of us onboard we were lifting off just before the intersection with the main runway (a particularly rough patch to accelerate over), and the car had to begin slowing almost immediately, being some 100 feet ahead of us. Ed flew well, doing everything himself except the three point turn at the end, and after several runs he felt happy enough to attempt it solo.
I strapped him into the middle of the seat and positioned the glider on the threshold, aiming for the smoothest possible take off path between the weeds. I explained what was going to happen and questioned Ed as to exactly what he was going to do, making sure we both understood who was doing what, and no one was going to scare the pants off the other. All he had to do was repeat what he’d been doing all morning (which he’d now find much easier sitting in the middle of the seat) and remember to ‘plant’ the machine firmly on the deck as soon as the main wheels touched down. I gave him the traditional St. Merryn salute, pretending to bite my fist in mock terror (just as Chris had done to me all those years ago) getting a broad grin in return. Perched backwards over the passenger seat of the tow car, I could see the rotors were turning as fast as possible with the glider stationary, and we began the tow with a steady acceleration, increasing by 5 mph at a time. The nosewheel lifted nicely and my youngest student became airborne, flying sedately to the end of the runway and settling down to a text book landing. I ran back to join a relieved fledgling gyronaut on the seat, giving in to the obligatory high-5 (well, he’d earned it!) before reversing the glider round for the run back to the hangar. Ed’s beaming face told me all I needed to know.
What a great feeling it is when someone clicks with the machine like that – be it glider or powered gyroplane – and suddenly realises what it’s all about. Ed can be proud of himself: he has a skill that very few do these days. When new people come in to the sport, no matter what kind of gyro they choose to fly, they need and deserve to be taught the essential basics of rotor handling. And for that, you can’t beat a gyro-glider.
(Thanks to Ben Mullet for the photos)