Short Hops

Short Hops was born in 1997, written after a senseless and entirely preventable gyro-glider accident which robbed me of two good friends. One of them was also my mentor in all things autorotational. This was in the days before two-seat gyroplanes were available and every student was old school, taught on their own single-seater from the ground up, with good use being made of the gyro-glider. I wanted to try and record at least some of knowledge in the way that it was passed onto me (and many, many others), the fun that we had in learning our new skills and in doing so, maybe benefit new students from my experiences. Writing it helped me to deal with the trauma of the accident, a pain that could never be expressed in words.

Although the story concerns single-seat gyroplane training (the only kind back then) it’s just as relevant to a two-seat machine in the present day, the same fundamentals apply. They’re both subject to the unique characteristics of the wind-powered rotor blade, regardless of what kind of airframe is dangling underneath. I seriously wonder how many of today’s new two-seater graduates would be able to fly a gyro-glider, without all the whistles and bells to tell them what’s going on.

It’s true that autogyros, gyrocopters, gyroplanes – whatever you want to call them – have an undeservedly bad reputation: take short cuts in training and you’ve every chance of adding to the statistics. I’ve lost more friends since that terrible day in May 1997, but my love of gyroplanes doesn’t falter. Every flying machine has its own envelope regardless of wings fixed or rotating, and every aircraft can show fangs. As with any aspect of life, it’s as dangerous as you let it be. Learn about the dangers, be aware of them and above all – respect them – and you will avoid putting yourself and your machine into a situation where they can harm you.

People ask with some incredulity, Why a gyro? Well that’s easy. A fixed-wing aircraft is an inert lump – albeit a strategically shaped lump – but inert none the less. Stick the pointed end into wind, ram the throttle open and off it goes. Boring. If you can achieve some element of equilibrium amongst the mass of whirling mechanicals crammed into a helicopter, they will obligingly screw themselves into the air while sandblasting everything beneath. All brute force and no finesse, not pretty.

In contrast, a gyroplane’s wings are alive: we can’t force them to fly. When the rotor blades are tethered, they’re merely sleeping. Push them into rotation, gently coaxing the wind to breathe life into them and a sublime – almost wondrous – transition occurs. Two inert planks merge to become the powerful living entity that is the rotor disc, yet only the lightest touch on the stick is needed to tame this whistling blur of pure energy and harness the gift of flight. That’s why I love the gyro-glider so much; no mechanical drives to sully the magic of waking the blades. Rotor flight in its purest form. As one previously very nervous student cried in wonder as we surfed the blustering tide of wind, ‘This is not possible! It shouldn’t work – but it does!’ He loved it. They always do.

Such a personal form of aviation: you wear a gyroplane and it becomes part of you, each control an extension of fingers and toes. I love the almost instant reaction to the smallest inputs, more by telepathy than physical contact. I love drifting on the wind like a dandelion seed, the busy flutter of the rotor blades singing in my ears – you don’t get that from any other aircraft. A single-seat gyro is the most wonderful form of flight imaginable and to tame one is both a pleasure and an achievement, but don’t be fooled by their simple appearance: they have unique characteristics which demand respect, and will bite the unwary.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU ATTEMPT TO TEACH YOURSELF TO FLY .

The days when self-training was the only option are long gone. Instructors are plentiful now – almost too plentiful in truth – churned out to justisfy the expense of their factory-built machines. So look for experience and choose carefully. Insist on learning old-school rotor handling, as in manual spin-up – it’s the key to everything, which is why I’m putting a truncated version of Short Hops online to help those who were never taught the basics. Forget all your computer simulations and fancy gadgetry. All you need is a gyro-glider (or any machine with a short mast) and a nice bit of wind. You don’t even have to tow it. You might be surprised just how much it can teach you. Enjoy.

Note: this is a work in progress. Whether it’s actually possible to transplant the diagrams from my files in MS Word without everything scrambling into an unintelligible mess, remains to be seen. But I like a challenge and if everything was easy it wouldn’t be any fun – just like flying a gyro really!

Rotor Handling – meet the gyro-glider

For the best introduction to rotor flight, a gyro-glider can’t be beaten. Basically a Bensen airframe, it’s naturally akin to its powered cousins. The two-seat gyros are all very well for an air experience flight, but even the superb Magni M16 can’t reproduce the sensitive behaviour of a small Bensen or a Cricket, because larger diameter rotor discs don’t react as swiftly as a 22 or 23 foot disc. The RAF 2000 is fine for students who want to fly their own RAF machine, but it’s as totally removed from the feel of a single-seat gyro as a Cherokee or Cessna. The tandem gyroplanes are too easy to fly, but on none of the dual trainers can you learn to hand start the rotor blades, omitting a valuable lesson in the quest for gyro flight.

Chris Julian was the most experienced advocate of gyro-gliding in Britain. He always said that when a student was competent on the glider, rotor handling would come naturally on transition to the powered machine. He was absolutely right. I first flew the gyro-glider at St. Merryn back in the summer of 1993: a bored fixed-wing rookie with some 110 hours in my log book, I had had seen the light courtesy of Wing Commander Wallis and his famous Little Nellie. Bits of Cricket already nested in my garage, and I was keen to learn the mysterious ways of rotor flight. Chris along with towing partner Tony Philpotts, showed me over the glider and explained its workings. They genuinely loved their sport and were so keen for me to enjoy myself that I could barely wait to strap in. After a careful check of the machine and tow rope, the lesson began.

Facing the glider into wind as indicated by a tatty piece of string tied to the bracing wire, I held the control stick fully forward so that the rotor blades were flat to the breeze with no angle of attack as I prepared to start them turning. Reaching up to push on the trailing edge with my left hand while trying to hold the stick down with my right, was hard work – I wasn’t quite long enough. Slowly the rotors began to move. As instructed, I pushed each blade until they began to turn too quickly, then pushed once every rotation. Chris explained that trying to force wind through the blades by bringing the stick back before they were spinning fast enough, would result in blade sail or flapping. When the rotors are turning at speed, think of them as a solid disc above your head rather than as two individual blades. The rotor disc can’t support itself until the blades reach flying RPM (indicated by the nosewheel lifting) when centripetal force pulls them into a slight upward cone. Until they reach this stage, the rotor blades are still supple and capable of sailing if you try to rush them. They will flex violently out of control, banging against the stops: the stick will fight and kick in your hand, causing severe damage if not corrected in time. Should you find yourself in this situation put the stick forward immediately, and if taxying stop the machine at once.

Judging that we had sufficient rotor speed, Chris told me to bring the stick back a little, increasing the angle of attack and so opening up the rotor disc to allow more air through. It was (and always is) a fascinating transition. The rotor blades seemed to reach a point where they suddenly woke up to the breeze and began to come alive with the power of flight, swishing round ever faster as I cautiously edged the stick back to its limit. Although the rotors were now turning under their own steam, we could still cause sailing by moving off too quickly, which would force more air through them before they were spinning fast enough to cope with it. This was a critical point, which I’d have to remember when it came to the powered machine: for now though, our ground speed was controlled by the tow car. With the stick centred in line with the string wind indicator and held fully back against the stops, we steadily accelerated as Chris talked me through my first take off.

The rotor blades were a whistling blur as the nosewheel began to rise, indicating that they were ready to lift. Now it was safe to put some forward speed on. With the stick right back, the rotor disc was fully open, creating maximum drag and acting as an airbrake. To overcome this I had to move the stick forward enough to reduce the drag but still keep the nosewheel off of the ground, balancing the machine on its main wheels. This was my introduction to two-wheel-balancing, the take off and landing attitude of a gyroplane. Holding this position as we reached take off speed, the glider suddenly lifted itself into the air – with apparently little help from me! I loved the floating sensation at once. Control movements were the same as a fixed-wing: left to go left, up and back to climb etc, but the lightness and response were a joy. Lack of rudder was a temporary distraction, the tow rope provided directional stability instead. All too soon we had reached the end of the runway and the car was gradually reducing speed. Centring the glider behind the car, we were gently lowered back down as airspeed decreased. Holding a steady nose down attitude until we had sunk to just above the ground, Chris told me to bring the stick right back to flare the machine which obediently settled itself onto the runway, the rotors speeding up under the load with a loud whopping sound. There was no forward roll at all: with the stick held right back, the drag from the fully open rotor disc provided a huge airbrake and halted us in our tracks. How brilliant was that!!!

Taxying back downwind, I had to keep the stick held back and in line with the string wind indicator, meaning that the disc was completely open to the airflow in order to maintain rotor speed. On reaching the other end, Chris taught me how to keep the rotors stable when turning back into wind – a manoeuvre which could result in the machine being blown over if executed badly in gusty, or crosswind conditions. As we slowed ready to turn, I pushed the stick forward to close the disc to the wind, then as we turned, moved the stick into the direction of the turn – like steering into a corner on a bicycle. This movement is to guard against any gust of wind getting underneath the rotor disc and tipping the gyro over – the rotary equivalent of holding down the into wind aileron on a fixed-wing aircraft. The faster the blades are spinning, the more resistance they have to the wind as the rotor disc becomes more ‘solid.’ This is when the danger of being tipped over by a gust is at its greatest. As the blades drop below flying speed and lose momentum, the wind is able to pass through the disc once more and the situation is less critical. Imagine a slatted window blind. When closed, the slats overlap to form a solid barrier through which the breeze can’t pass, so it pushes against the blind, blowing it around. When the blind is opened, the slats are well spaced offering little resistance to the breeze, which passes easily between them.

Parked into wind facing down the runway again, I aligned the stick with the string and after visually checking the speed of the rotor blades, steadily brought the stick back to open them up again. As they were spinning well it was safe to move off straight away, I could hear them picking up speed as our forward motion increased the airflow through the disc. The nosewheel lifted, indicating that the blades were ready to fly: stick slightly forward to reduce drag and go into two-wheel-balancing: another 10 mph increase in ground speed and the glider took itself into the air. Superb!

Stick movements when on the ground or during slow flight are larger than those needed in normal flight, but GENTLY is the key word in flying a gyroplane – powered or glider. It takes relatively little pressure on the stick for the machine to answer, you don’t need to be a Schwarzenegger to fly one. Even in gusty or thermal conditions that would ground the beefiest microlighter, there’s no need for any white knuckle arm wrestling – I’m an eight stone wafer and I love playing with turbulence. Invite the machine to respond rather than try to force a reaction, as you could get more than you bargained for. A good tip for the inexperienced is to fly the gyro as if you’re not strapped in.

Heavy handedness can result in an encounter with one of the gyro nasties, the fabled Pilot Induced Oscillation or PIO. The airframe of a gyroplane dangles from the rotor disc in a similar manner to a pendulum. The disc reacts almost instantly to a control input on a single-seater, but it takes the airframe a moment longer before the pendulum effect swings it back into position under the rotors. For example: in a left turn, the rotors tilt to the left as the stick moves left, but the airframe remains level for a fraction longer before following into the turn. It’s best to concentrate on flying the disc and leave the airframe to sort itself out. When there’s apparently no effect after making a control input, the temptation is to move the stick a bit more instead of giving the airframe time to catch up with the rotors. The stick controls the disc – not the airframe – and as the rotors already have a head start, the second input merely increases their lead. The airframe now has further to travel in order to catch up, resulting in more of a reaction from the machine than is required. This in turn leads to an over correction on the stick to try and get things back in line, but the stick movements are no longer synchronised with the pendular swing of the airframe and you suddenly find yourself on a roller coaster ride where the rotor disc is flying you, instead of the other way around. Chasing the stick is a bad move – don’t try to keep correcting it, you’ll only make things worse. Once the machine has got away from you, centre the stick and ease it back a little, raising the nose and so reducing airspeed: hold it still, wait for the airframe to catch up with the disc and the gyro will stabilise itself. Be careful not to let the airspeed decay too much if you are close to the ground, as the machine will start to sink and you may not have enough height left to recover in – a situation I once found myself in with Delta-J (more of which later).

The lag between rotor and airframe response is brief in a single-seater with a small diameter rotor disc, but it’s more pronounced in the larger machines whose 28 to 30 foot discs bestow them with a more fixed-wing like response. In more enlightened parts of the autorotational world where developing safer machines is actively encouraged, the vast majority of gyroplanes wear a horizontal stabiliser of some description, which helps to dampen out any pitch instability such as PIO. But this being the UK where we’re actually obstructed from enjoying globally accepted safety mods, it wasn’t until around 2003 that a trickle of homebuilt machines are beginning to sprout rudimentary tail feathers. If oscillations do start in your horizontal-less single-seater, they can escalate rapidly and it’s quite an alarming experience (been there, done that!). Whatever you do don’t panic – recognise what’s happening and go through the recovery drill – keep that stick centred! Believe me it works. In a way it’s good to encounter PIO, as you’ll find that although it’s unpleasant and must be respected, it’s both controllable and avoidable. Pilots who have corrected oscillations rarely have to do so a second time. Once is enough to learn the lesson.

Back to 1993 and on the gyro-glider, I was about to get a demonstration on the effect of power. Guided by Chris, I flew the machine straight and level a few feet above the ground. On his signal, the tow car rapidly increased speed and the glider shot up into the air, swiftly reaching the limit of the tow rope. Impressive! Maintaining the straight and level attitude, we began to descend as the car slowed down again. Chris told me to try and hold our position a couple of feet above the ground, next time that the car accelerated. Keeping the nose stuffed down, I just managed it – the glider still wanted to climb as airspeed increased. It was a good illustration of how height is controlled by power.
This time after we climbed up high, I had to maintain altitude as the car slowed. Unable to add power, I subconsciously brought the stick back, trying to pull away from the ground but I could feel that this was wrong as we were sinking, nose high. Had I been in a powered machine, I would now be on the back of the power curve: full throttle, nose high and sinking into a vertical descent with no more power available to overcome the drag of the rotor disc. We had lost airspeed in the nose high attitude and full back stick meant maximum drag on the disc (remember two-wheel-balancing) so the correct procedure was to put the stick smoothly forward to decrease the rotor drag and lower the nose to regain airspeed. Suitably chastened, I was given a second chance. This time I put the stick forward, lowering the nose as we began to sink to get as much airspeed as possible to keep the rotors lifting. The attitude was strange – flying straight and level with our tail in the air – but the rotors felt good this time, holding their lift. The differing airspeeds also highlighted an effect on handling. The glider felt sluggish and responded lazily to the stick at low speed, needing larger inputs than normal. Acceleration seemed to bring it to life: the faster airspeed made the rotors more sensitive, reacting swiftly to the controls and inputs had to become more delicate to avoid over controlling.

Back at the hangar I parked the glider with its tail into wind, slowing the rotors by depriving the advancing blade of airflow. Putting the stick forward to close them down, I followed the reverse of the starting procedure – patting the leading edge of the blades once every rotation, until they had slowed enough for me to be able to catch each one and eventually bring them to a halt. There’s some power in those rotors and attempting to slow them too soon could easily result in being hurled into the next field. Securing the front blade to the airframe with the tie down, I then turned the glider’s nose into wind – a habit to acquire ready for the powered machine, whose rudder can be blown around and damaged if not parked properly. After two, hour long sessions, Chris asked if I felt ready to solo. I was loving every minute of it, but natural caution dictated that I fly one more hour with Chris beside me – after all he was twice as heavy as me – a lot of ballast to lose in one go!

So we went out to play some more, varying on what I’d learned so far by describing shapes in the air as we flew. There was the box: flying low to the left, climbing vertically, crossing high to the right, descending vertically and low back to the centre again. The Vee: climbing diagonally up to the left, descending back to the centre, climbing diagonally up to the right and back down to the centre: and the circle – which saw us describing a spiral through the air as the car pulled us forward, drawing vertical circles as we went. The James Bond run was my favourite. Tony snaked us back and forth across the runway and I had to hold the glider in position behind the car, swinging the machine from left to right and back again, chasing the car to keep the rope taut. Great fun! The hour passed all too soon and it was time for the obligatory tea break once more. I was having the time of my life – and so apparently, were Chris and Tony!

Refuelled with mugs of tea and Tony’s legendary peanut butter and marmalade sandwiches, I felt ready to face the glider alone. Chris strapped me in to the middle of the seat, just as it would be in my Cricket with one leg either side of the stick. As he started the rotors for me, he explained that the machine would feel much lighter with only one onboard, and would take-off and fly at a slower speed. For the first run I was to keep it straight and level and simple – and with that last instruction, Chris pretended to chew his nails in fear, grinning broadly before scuttling back to join Tony in the tow car. The rotors picked up well and we moved off straight away. The glider was feather light in my hand and the nosewheel popped up almost at once: I caught it with forward stick and had barely balanced on the main wheels before the machine lifted smoothly into the air on its own accord. It was so much easier flying from the middle of the seat and I felt perfectly at home, floating like a soap bubble as the runway passed markedly more slowly beneath. Chris was hanging precariously out of the passenger door, laughing and shouting, but watching my progress like a hawk. Coming to the end of the run, I allowed plenty of time to coax the machine back down: it seemed to hang in the air reluctant to descend and forward speed was almost zero when it finally settled onto the ground. Brilliant!!! Chris burst from the car crowing with delight, and Tony’s face was beaming as he manoeuvred around to take up the rope. I felt well pleased as they towed me back for another go, watching the rotor blades for signs of slowing as we went. I’d been nervous of going solo and afraid of disgracing myself, but it felt totally natural on my own and I wasn’t worried at all anymore. We finished off the day by going through all the exercises again, but this time solo – Chris hanging out of the car waving his arms around, directing me to fly where he wanted like a mad conductor. Terrific fun. Already I was handling the rotors without thought: opening them up to the wind when they slowed, dipping them into a turn on the ground. It was priceless experience.

The next time I went up, Chris sat beside me again. All of my lessons had been performed in a headwind so far, now it was time to try crosswind handling. With the rotors spinning, taxying crosswind meant holding the stick into wind to prevent a gust getting under the disc and blowing us over. When the blades looked like slowing, I had to open up the disc enough to let the wind through by moving the stick towards where the string was pointing. Once they’d regained momentum, the stick went back over enough to dip the rotor disc into wind again and keep the machine stable – the into wind aileron manoeuvre. Maintaining this position for the take off roll, Chris talked me through as we accelerated into two-wheel-balancing, at which point I had to centre the stick in order to lift off squarely. The wind caught us as we left the ground, pushing us away from the runway centre line and again it was stick back into wind to counteract the drift. My fixed-winger’s feet twitched for rudder pedals to straighten the glider out, the crooked attitude didn’t feel right at all but it kept us on course.

Crosswind landing presented another potential trap. Chris explained that while it’s preferable to touch the main wheels down together, there’s no disgrace in landing one wheel first – providing that it’s the into wind wheel. For example: with the wind coming from the right, touching the left wheel down first means that the weight of the machine is being pushed against it, and the wheel could dig in. With the machine tilted to the left, the wind can get under the rotor disc and flip the lot over. Touch the right wheel down first – it may drag a little bit, but it will be going with the wind and the momentum will naturally bring down the left wheel. Also the machine is correctly tilted to the right in the into wind aileron attitude. The same principle can be applied to crosswind take off if necessary, the wheel on the ground should always be the upwind wheel, so for take off – holding the stick into wind will lift the downwind wheel first.

Operating in these conditions revealed another rotary quirk – the downwind sink. Airborne again, Chris told me to fly the glider left and right across the runway which would illustrate the difference in flying the rotor downwind. Lifting off into the 15 mph wind coming from our right, I let the machine be drifted over to the left side of the runway until we reached the limit of the tow rope. Crossing back to the right again, the glider wanted to climb: this was because although the airframe was travelling sideways, the advancing blade was flying directly into the oncoming wind and gaining lift. Chris said to let it climb as we would lose height going the opposite way. Changing direction to the left, I could feel that the rotors weren’t biting the air anymore and seemed to be skidding. We were also descending. Again the airframe was going sideways, but this time the advancing blade was flying downwind in relation to the airflow, and losing lift. Flying downwind meant that we had to exceed the wind speed before we would get any lift. Say we were flying at 25 mph – the first 15 mph would be cancelled out by matching the wind speed, meaning that we were only gaining 10 mph worth of lift. No wonder we were sinking! Chris explained that this would be something to watch out for with the powered machine, as turning downwind too low or too slow could result in an unscheduled (and embarrassing) return to earth. Always have plenty of height in hand to allow for sink, and watch the airspeed in a downwind turn. If you must turn low, be sure to keep the airspeed well up to help the rotors get lift.

There’s a school of thought (I learned many years later) that basically says an aircraft travels in a moving block of air much like a passenger in a train carriage, and so remains unaffected by its relation to wind direction. I’ve tried to get my head around this, I really have – but my rotor blades tell me otherwise. To those who subscribe to this particular theory, I have but one question: if wind direction has no relevance, why does everything take off and land into wind? Just asking.

As before after a good dual practise, I went through it all again solo. Even when the lessons had been repeated many times, I never got tired of flying the glider – partly due to Chris and Tony, who positively bubbled with enthusiasm and took such delight in my progress. We flew just for the sheer fun of it, chasing Tony with the glider as he snaked back and forth over the runways. Slow flight – barely clinging to the air with wheels teetering inches above the tarmac, trying to remain aloft without accelerating. Or when blessed with an abundance of wind, the joys of kiting were there for the taking. We hitched up to the stationary car needing no forward speed, relying on wind strength alone to support us as we hovered cheerfully on the end of the rope. Such happy times: we had no idea it would all go so horribly wrong.

A word or three about starting the rotor blades in strong wind conditions, as it can be tricky and requires patience. It’s a common misconception that a strong wind blowing up your disc is a good thing – and in the right place at the right time it certainly can be advantageous – but not necessarily when you want to start the rotors. These days the majority of gyroplanes wear pre-rotators which makes life considerably easier, but it’s good (what am I saying – it’s essential!!!) to know how to start them by hand, as it gives you that extra in-depth understanding that’s otherwise lost by relying on the mechanical drive. Hand starting in a strong wind is an excellent illustration of how autorotating blades behave, and shows you exactly why they can’t be forced to fly before they’re ready. Although the machine is stationary, the airspeed is already high – say 15 mph for example – because of the wind strength, so the danger is that the rotors will be taking too much air before they are spinning fast enough to cope with it. You must get the blades turning as fast as you can with the stick held forward before attempting to open them up to the wind, even then bring the stick back very carefully and be ready to put it forward straight away should the rotors threaten to sail. In strong wind conditions the rotors will quickly lose momentum when taxying down or crosswind. For the same reason as previously mentioned in downwind sink, you need to exceed the wind speed before the blades can get any lift, which means fast taxying to keep them turning safely (unless your machine has a spin-up drive fitted). Also, taxying downwind means that the wind behind you is blowing on top of the rotors, helping to slow them down. Obviously you need to be alert to any loss of rotor RPM, and slow the machine accordingly to avoid getting into blade sail. Be extra careful when turning back into wind: put the stick forward and dip the rotors into the turn to guard against gusts, and be wary of bringing the stick back too quickly unless the rotors are well up to speed.

Manual spin-up: the Armstrong method

Today, as I now occupy Chris’s place on the glider, I always attempt to demonstrate incipient blade sail in a static lesson with the machine chocked on the runway, so the student can learn to recognise the symptoms and take appropriate action to stop things escalating to the drastic stages. Often I’m foiled by the gentle mannered RotorHawks accepting the abuse, and riding out the extra buckets of air I’m trying to force through them – while my student sits there wondering what all the fuss is about! Don’t be fooled I say: even these placid old blades have their moments and should they decide they’re not happy, you’re soon going to know all about it if you’re not paying proper attention to them.
It starts with a small kick back through the stick about once per second, accompanied by a knocking sound from the rotor head. Normally I’d correct it straight away by putting the stick forward and letting the blades settle before attempting to open them up again, but I want to show you a little more of the potentially destructive power we have turning above our heads, and so I do the WRONG thing and bring the stick back a bit further, sending more air into the rotors. The advancing blade rises up steeply and forces its partner down, the stick kicks harder in your hand and the rotors bang loudly against the head stops. And this is just the beginning. Already it takes both hands to get the stick forward and kill off the wind – and we’re just parked here, going nowhere. Believe me, you DO NOT want this to happen when the machine is moving.
Never try to force the blades up to speed, and never ever, ever try to fly before they’re ready to go – always wait for that nosewheel to lift. It’s a natural fail-safe. Unless you’re flying an enclosed machine (in which the cabin reduces sensory contact with the blades), forget rev counters, tachos, fancy instruments that simply add another element for potential error – the rotors themselves will tell you if they’re happy or not and you need to know how to read them. There is absolutely no reason why you should let your rotor blades bite you.

Static rotor handling: excellent practise

If you don’t have access to a gyro-glider, you can still practise hand starting and natural aerodynamic spin-up with your own machine – unless you have Dragon Wings fitted of course! Choose a moderate steady wind to start with until you get used to it, and always wear a crash helmet. Just coz you’re parked up doesn’t mean that you can’t be flipped over. A gyro with rotor blades turning must only be approached from the front: make sure anyone around you understands this completely (although your instructor should be on hand) and never leave the rotors turning unattended. Chock the gyro facing into wind (engine off), and follow through the starting procedure exactly as you would in a glider. You might be surprised at just how much you’ll learn without using a pre-rotator. You can even do it to a limited extent with a two-seater. Instead of driving the blades up to speed, just start them off mechanically keeping the stick fully forward, then disengage the spin-up and feed the wind into them as I’ve described. It even works with Dragon Wings too. Don’t begin to start taxying until you’ve got them turning as fast as they’ll go by wind speed alone – remember no matter how well they seem to be going, continue to feed them steadily until the nosewheel rises – only then should you fully open that throttle.

So that’s a summary of gyro-glider training. Flying the glider gave me the best possible insight to rotor handling, and gave me a good working knowledge of what to expect when I first climbed into my Cricket. It’s also darn good fun! In 26 years of gyro flight, I have yet to ding a rotor blade – a record which I attribute to Chris and Tony’s dedicated instruction with the gyro-glider.

Ground Work – the scary bit

Apart from glider flying, all my training was done with my Cricket, Delta-J. Converting from fixed-wing back then, I only needed to do 20 hours and it wasn’t worth waiting for a two-seater, which was lucky as at the time there was only one poor example of a poor species around. I’m proud to be a purely single-seat fledgling. All the lessons described in the following account were done without the aid of a spin-up, but thanks to good initial training on the gyro-glider, it was no problem at all. I used a second hand pair of 23 foot RotorHawks, which were easy to hand start and docile in the air. All airspeeds given relate to Delta-J. Our all up weight with full fuel is around 540 lbs (depending on how many heavy duty jumpers and industrial strength thermals I’m bundled up in) so heavier machines will need higher airspeeds than those recorded here. Obviously the more fuel you have onboard, the more weight you’ll be carrying (1 imperial gallon = approx. 7lbs).
Your instructor will advise you of the speeds relevant to your own machine.

The 28th of May 1994 saw my first time in control (in the loosest possible sense!) of my new bird, when I put the engine through its running in procedure, and did a bit of taxying to get the feel of her. The following day with Chris in the seat, I almost burst with joy as I watched Delta-J sail into the air on her maiden flight. My very own flying machine! Chris found several things in need of tweaking, teething problems inevitable with a newly built machine. The engine was over-revving but that was easily solved by coarsening the pitch of the propeller until the correct rev range was achieved. The main worry was the rotor blades. Delta-J was wearing one of the first sets of Dragon Wings to have been imported from America, and they were proving a right pickle to start by hand.

The first hint of difficulties came when we fitted them to the glider, so that I could get used to their behaviour. The wind was far gustier than when Chris had tried them on the Wombat, and we had an almighty fight trying to get them going – I couldn’t push them anywhere near fast enough to settle them down, and even Chris was struggling. They seemed more flexible than our docile old RotorHawks, the advancing blade whipping up viciously on ill-timed gusts, which the Hawks would’ve just ridden over with a stretch and a yawn. We eventually managed a few flights, but every time we finished the tow back downwind the blades were all over the place and threatening to sail with almost rubber like contortions. My brief taste of them in the air proved more than satisfactory, but we decided it was too much like hard work! The Dragons most certainly weren’t going to fly before they were ready – although that’s true of all autorotating blades – but where more placid types will accept a carefully judged nudge of encouragement, a similar encouraging nudge to a sensitive pair of Dragons could well end in disaster. They demanded a lot of respect.

A pre-rotator (or spin-up drive) would solve the starting problem, but I needed to keep the remains of my dwindling savings to cover training costs, so consequently fitting a pre-rotator would have to wait. Meanwhile Chris and Mark had completed my bird’s test flying program and Mark was interested to see how the Dragon Wings would behave on his Montgomerie Bensen – which had a pre-rotator. Only one way to find out! Mark flew in to St. Merryn one fine Sunday and we switched his 23 foot RotorHawks for my 22 foot Dragons (increasing the tension on the trim springs to maximum), and away they went. Mark came back beaming, well impressed by the improved performance of his machine and suggested a mutually happy deal which would solve my immediate problem of having a pair of hand workable rotors. Sorted.

We took the rotors off again, and Chris told me to get used to how the gyro handled on the ground. It was straightforward enough and I spent half an hour taxying round; stopping and starting, turning circles and figure eights. I found that turns to the right needed more room than those to the left because of the steering damper, but no great problem though. The next step was to do it all again with the rotors tethered, which was more difficult than it sounds – the dead weight of the blades seemed to rest on the stick and the machine felt top heavy. The momentum of turning swung the rotors against the tie down strap, and it was hard work trying to hold the stick steady. Now for the moment of truth, time to free the rotor blades! I had to wait until the weather was suitable with a steady wind straight down the runway, it was far too soon for me to be dealing with crosswind complications. I knew that a smug minority were so sure that I would roll it up in ball, purely for the fact of being female – and large wet raspberry to them, by the way! I was determined not to give them the satisfaction, yet by the same token, I was half expecting to mess it up myself.

By the nature of the beast, there’s going to come a point where you’ll find yourself alone in your gyroplane with everything whizzing round above and behind for the very first time. The familiar runway will have grown huge and intimidating, and you’ll probably feel a bit vulnerable and lonely. You may even be scared witless like I was! Don’t worry about it. Anyone who doesn’t feel nervous stepping into a new and potentially hazardous situation probably shouldn’t be doing it – they’re the type that get hurt. Apprehension means that you understand the risk involved, and respect the teeth that a gyro can show. And believe me – they bite. Don’t be rushed onto the next stage if you’re not totally happy with what you’ve learned so far. You are the one in the seat – only you know how it feels. Learn to be at ease with your machine and build your confidence – but not too much! – getting cocky is dangerous. When the time is right, everything will click into place and you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. I did a good 20 hours of groundwork before I felt ready to fly – Chris was beginning to swear at me! I don’t regret those hours, I needed them to build my confidence, but most important of all Delta-J always went back in the hangar unscathed.

After a careful pre-flight check, I was ready to spin my rotor blades for the first time in command. Parking into wind, I cleared a few stones away from the prop arc to prevent any damage when the engine started. Remembering my glider training, I kept the stick forward and began to push the blades into life, steadily bringing it back as they picked up momentum. When the stick had reached its limit the rotors were turning fast enough for the oncoming breeze to maintain their RPM, so there was no danger of them sailing for the moment and it was safe for me to climb into the seat. Strapped in and ready to go, Chris told me to taxy out slowly, limiting ground speed according to rotor RPM – moving off too fast could result in blade sail. I started the engine and let it warm up, then throttled back before releasing the parking brake and cautiously moved off. It was much easier to taxy with the rotors spinning as the air was supporting some of their weight: the stick felt lighter in my hand and the machine was more stable. I was pleased to find that I could still hear the swish of the rotors picking up speed over the noise of the engine. Watching them intently, I was careful to tilt the disc into the corners as we turned, and parked on the threshold facing into wind with the stick fully back to keep the rotors going.

Chris instructed me to do a few runs up and down at 15 mph, and get used to combining throttle control with rotor handling. If the rotors slowed when coming back downwind, I had to stop and turn around into wind to let them pick up speed again. If they sailed, I should put the stick forward immediately and stop the machine. If I felt out of control at any time, all I had to do was switch off the engine and stop. All straightforward, and no need to panic.
The rotors were spinning well in the steady breeze and I had to keep dipping the stick forward a little to close the disc, as the drag was pulling us backwards like the wind blowing into an open umbrella. Starting the engine again, it took more throttle to move off against the drag of the disc and I began to learn about striking a balance between engine power and rotor drag. Dipping the stick forward to decrease the drag got us rolling without adding excess power: conversely, bringing the stick back to increase the drag meant that the gyro could be brought to a halt without reducing power, or using the wheel brake. Prop wash was pushing against the tail and swinging Delta-J to the right, which meant counteracting with left rudder to keep the nose pointing down the runway centre line. Holding the stick right back as I’d been taught on the glider, I steadily opened the throttle until 15 mph registered on the airspeed indicator. The machine felt light and bouncy as if the nosewheel was going to lift: I know now that we were way too slow for this to happen, but at the time with each run a new experience, I was afraid of leaving the ground before I knew how to cope with it.

Turning slowly at the end and taxying back downwind, I kept the stick in line with the string wind indicator to give the disc maximum airflow, and repeated the exercise several times until Chris called me in. I remembered to park into wind to keep the rotors going while he gave me my next task. After ensuring that I was happy with it, Chris told me to take the speed up another 5 mph and do the same thing again, reminding me to switch off the engine should I get into difficulty. At 20 mph the rotors were whipping round and seemed almost ready to fly: the nosewheel felt as if it was bouncing up and down. I tried to start two-wheel-balancing but found it difficult to tell what was going on from inside the pod – it’d been easy to balance the open frame glider. Bobbing about, we covered the length of the runway half a dozen times until Chris called me back once more – now for some earache, I thought. I couldn’t understand why I could balance the glider but not my Cricket, and felt very disheartened. Surprisingly though, I wasn’t in trouble. It seemed like we had been bouncing all over the place, but Chris told me that although the nosewheel was getting light, we needed another 5 mph increase before it would lift properly. Despite the rocking horse gait, I’d managed to keep Delta-J on a straight course down the centre line, which Chris reckoned was difficult for a beginner to do. He explained that the bouncing would be cured by bringing the speed up to 25 mph, when the rotors would lift and I would be able to stabilise into two-wheel-balancing. Well, that was the theory. I was nervous of the extra speed, but Chris assured me that it still wasn’t fast enough to fly, although a gust of wind might result in a small hop. Somewhat sceptical, I started the engine ready to try again.

Slight forward stick to reduce the drag combined with easing on the power got us moving again. Bringing the stick right back to open up the rotor disc, I increased power to overcome the drag and carefully accelerated towards 25 mph indicated airspeed. The resistance of the disc was a tangible force. Suddenly the nose reared up and Delta-J sat back on her tailwheel. The angle felt quite alarming and I had a sudden irrational fear of the retreating blade striking the ground (centripetal force was well in control of the rotors by that stage and the disc was safely coned up out of harms way). I put the stick forward too much and dropped back onto the nosewheel. Moving the stick forward also decreased the drag, which meant that airspeed would increase if I didn’t reduce the power. As I brought the stick back to raise the nose again, the drag came back with it to slow us down and I had to add power to maintain airspeed. It was quite a juggling act to begin with and I was glad of my glider lessons, as I was handling the rotors instinctively while concentrating on power and airspeed.
Having the pod around me was definitely a hinderance in the early stages. I was used to seeing the nosewheel on the open-frame glider, but in the Cricket it was more difficult to judge the right attitude for two-wheel-balancing. I knew when the nosewheel was down as the machine sat level with the runway, but once it had lifted I couldn’t tell how high it was off the ground, or how much room it had left to come up. Instead of starting from the front limit and rocking along trying to guess where the rear limit was, the answer was to find the rear limit first and take it from there. As the nose lifted I let it come right up until we were resting on the tailwheel – that gave me the rear limit and as I knew where the front one was, all I had to do was hold it in between and we would be balancing. Simple!

I lined up for another go. Nosewheel on the centre line; check the engine temperature; rotors up to speed; stick right back; add power to overcome the drag, and accelerate steadily. The nosewheel popped up on cue and I let Delta-J rock back onto her tailwheel: the drag of the disc slowed our forward speed and it was on with the power to keep us rolling at 25 mph. Concentrating furiously, I eased the stick forward to come off of the tailwheel, at the same time compensating the reduction in drag by taking off some power – a bit too much power and the nosewheel touched back down. Curse! Back with the stick and onto the tailwheel again. This time as I put the stick forward, I left the throttle alone and suddenly the machine felt stable – I was ‘flying’ the nosewheel, properly balanced on the main gear. Hardly daring to breathe, I managed to hold the attitude as we travelled along the centre line to complete the run. Chris’s face told me that I’d done something right as he capered at the side of the runway, grinning from ear to ear. A piece of the jigsaw had clicked into place.
Now I knew what I had to do. By practising coming off the tailwheel and getting used to the attitude of the Cricket, I soon learned to bring the nosewheel up and hold it off the ground without rocking right back. With practise came the first seeds of confidence and I subconsciously began to relax a little with my gyroplane, but although I’d cracked the first stage I was still uneasy about getting my arse off the deck. I could happily accelerate straight up to 25 mph and balance there, trusting now that we wouldn’t fly without adding power. Chris nagged at me to take the speed up to 30 mph and do some hops, but I refused to be bullied and stayed on the ground.

Obviously travelling along into wind with the nose in the air is a vulnerable attitude should an unexpected gust come along (as they tend to do) and we did get picked up a couple of times. Again, if you find yourself lifted vertically don’t panic and DON’T close the throttle. Keep the stick where it is – don’t pull back – and let the gyro settle back down on the main wheels. It can be quite startling the first time it happens, and feels like you’re up ten feet or more when it’s actually more like one or two, but it lasts just seconds and the machine will ride it out if you let it. This is why it’s important not to two-wheel-balance in crosswind conditions, especially in the early stages of training. A gust from the side is a different matter altogether and can flip you over if it gets under the rotor disc at the wrong moment, causing an expensive and totally avoidable accident. When things go wrong, they can go wrong fast – a few seconds is all it takes to turn your pride and joy into a thrashing pile of twisted metal. If you feel things aren’t going well or you aren’t sure of something, always play it safe. Stop, take a break and talk things over. If you still feel out of sorts, put the machine away in one piece and go back to it another day. So you lose a day or maybe a few weeks until the next training session – that’s nothing compared to rolling your gyroplane.

Back with Delta-J, I knew from the glider that if I held the two-wheel-balance attitude and nudged up the airspeed we would lift off, and providing I didn’t increase the power any more, settle back down on the main gear after a short hop. I knew all of that: I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not yet. Several times the wind had puffed and almost taken us off: the main wheels patted the ground side to side, and looking back I can see that overcoming the dangling sensation was the most difficult hurdle I had to clear. With the fixed-wing Cherokee, sturdy wings supported the cockpit and it was like sitting on a big solid bench as it took to the air. The gyroplane on the other hand, with the airframe hanging from the rotor disc by the teeter bolt, was more like sitting in a bosun’s chair suspended from a cable crossing between two ships at sea.
The barely adequate airspeed I was operating at meant that we were literally wobbling into the air rather than lifting cleanly. If I’d put on a little extra airspeed – gone up to 30 mph like Chris wanted – my machine would have been much more stable as she left the ground and I wouldn’t have been so unnerved by the dangling feeling I was experiencing at 25 mph. As it was with Delta-J skittering between her main wheels like an excited puppy, it felt as if we were going to tip over and I was afraid to go faster – yet airspeed was the cure for the wobbles. A vicious circle that I had to learn to break if I was going to make any progress. Plenty of folk could explain the theory to me, but no one could actually do it for me. It was something that I had to work through for myself.

Hopping – the why didn’t I do that in the first place bit

May 1995 found us three hundred miles from home at the airfield of Enstone in Oxfordshire, where I was to continue my training under the expert eye of Tony Melody. Despite Chris’s vast experience, my time with him couldn’t be logged towards the licence as he didn’t have a piece of paper to say that he was an instructor. Regardless of paperwork, he’d given me the best start I could’ve hoped for. I felt ready to confront my demons and conquer the dangly bit. Again wind conditions had to be favourable: straight on the runway and steady between 10-15 mph. If the wind was too light, it meant operating at a faster ground speed in order to compensate. Delta-J balances at 25 mph: in a 15 mph headwind for example, only 10 mph ground speed is needed to combine with the wind to equal 25 mph airspeed. A 5 mph wind however, would mean doubling the ground speed to 20 mph in order to achieve the same airspeed. It’s best to keep things slow and safe in the early stages and avoid high ground speed, where events can rapidly get out of hand.

Initially there were only two of us training in the early part of the year, but Tony had half a dozen students under his wing, and a great camaraderie developed over the summer as we watched and learned from each other. At times there could be up to four of us trundling along on various parts of the runway, with the more advanced students occasionally dropping into our midst to keep things interesting! Tony would trot alongside brandishing the first aid box, making us laugh and easing taut nerves. Chris had travelled up to keep an eye on me for a few days, and he advised me not to train in the crosswind that persisted during that week.
Simon had done some two-seat gyro flying in America, but had only acquired his single-seat Brock a few days earlier. Despite this and undaunted by the crosswind, he chose to begin his training and quickly got the knack of two-wheel-balancing, swiftly progressing onto his first few hops. Watching from the sidelines I could see exactly what I should’ve been doing, but when my turn eventually came I still couldn’t seem to improve. By now I was expert at two-wheel-balancing and although the next step was fixed clearly in my mind, my hand always froze on the throttle when it was time to add enough power for a hop, and Delta-J still skipped between her main wheels. Seeing Simon fly the length of the runway after only a few hours with his machine was very disheartening, I began to wonder if I really could master my gyroplane – the glider had been so easy to fly. Yet already we had unwittingly hopped a few times aided by slight gusts, but they’d been so soft and without change in attitude that I hadn’t realised we had left the ground.

In the end it really was no big deal – as everyone had been telling me all along! Again when the time was right, it all clicked into place. During one of our two-wheel-balancing sessions everything felt good and nudging on the power for a hop just seemed to happen naturally, and a few inches of daylight showed beneath the main wheels. After several more runs I began to find it easy, and wondered what had taken me so long – but that’s the way it goes with a single-seater. You have to sort things out for yourself: no one can do it for you, but that’s part of the achievement. Don’t rush it, it will happen in the end.Now I’d progressed at last, I began to enjoy myself more. Squeezing on the power just enough to lift off from two-wheel-balancing and holding the attitude resulted in several docile hops down the runway. I learned to steady the machine as the main wheels touched by using the drag of the rotor disc, and balance again before another hop.
Lifting off at 30 mph airspeed, I increased the power to maintain level flight in the two-wheel-balance attitude, still keeping it slow and safe at 35-40 mph and only a couple of feet above the deck. Landing was just a matter of reducing power slightly and letting the gyro sink back onto the main wheels. Short hops a few feet high and several yards long gradually evolved into extended hops of 5-10 feet high and several dozen yards long, until we were soon flying the runway in one luxurious bound. It was magic and I loved it!

Two-wheel-balancing is an excellent training exercise (no matter what the CAA think), but with practise you’ll find that your take-offs gradually evolve into one smooth rotation. You’ll know when the machine is getting light and begin to open the throttle simultaneously as the nosewheel lifts, instead of pausing on the main wheels before adding power. Two-wheel-balancing is basically a slow motion take-off. Often, experienced gyronauts find that they can’t hold their machines on the main wheels anymore, as they’ve grown so used to performing a continuous acceleration and lift off. For me and Delta-J, the next stage was to start climbing higher and learn how to land properly. Hopping in the two-wheel-balance attitude as I’d been doing so far kept things slow and safe in the early stages, but essentially it’s the wrong way to fly a gyro. Now I’d gained some experience and a pinch of confidence, it was time to progress once more.

PIO – close encounters of the privet kind

Basically, flying in the two-wheel-balance attitude means that the gyro is in a too nose high attitude causing loads of drag from the rotor disc, which needs extra power to shove it through the air. This is not efficient and it puts the machine on the back of the power curve – the engine can be at full throttle and still not have enough power to overcome the drag. The correct way is to lower the nose after take-off, so reducing the drag of the disc and allowing airspeed to build up without the need for excess power. For a good demonstration of drag, try this simple exercise the next time you travel in a car: put your hand out of the window with your open palm facing the wind, and feel the resistance of the airflow pushing against it. Imagine that your hand is a rotor disc: this is how it drags against the wind when the stick is held right back. Now turn your hand through 90 degrees so that your palm faces the ground, as if the stick has been put forward closing the disc to the wind and reducing drag – see how much easier it cuts through the air.

The first bit was easy enough: I took off as before and lowered the nose until we were climbing at 50 mph, levelling off at 30 feet. That was where the problem started. I couldn’t seem to get the nose down far enough to maintain airspeed in level flight and Delta-J felt as if she was dragging her tail. I was still landing on the back of the power curve but as we were now dropping in from a greater height, the approach speed was too slow and meant that I was using power to cushion the touch down and prevent an axle bending arrival. I could tell it wasn’t right but didn’t seem able to correct it. Again I had come up against a brick wall, but this time it wasn’t entirely my fault – although it took an encounter with PIO to bring the problem to light. I had already flown a couple of hours that day, still trying to get the approach speed right without compensating on the power. It was very hot and a large patch of turbulence had parked itself over the runway, lurking just about where us fledglings were beginning our descents. Engrossed in coaxing our machines back to earth, we were each caught in turn and tossed back into the air like a set of juggler’s clubs.

Buzzing along 30 feet up, getting progressively more annoyed with myself for not improving, I put the stick firmly forward as we were bounced aloft and checked back on the power to set up an approach – perfect until a spilt second later the buoyant cushion of air spat us out and all the lovely lift vanished. I could feel the difference at once. The blades scrabbled furiously above my head trying to get a grip on the air like Wile E. Coyote in pursuit of Road Runner, realising he’s just charged off the edge of the canyon, running in mid air going nowhere just before he falls. We were falling too. Dropping too fast, too close to the deck, I opened the throttle and we shot back into the air. The nose came up again: now we were too high and the runway was getting shorter. Throttle and stick weren’t co-ordinating anymore and the airframe hadn’t caught up with the rotors: I had overcorrected and Delta-J began to porpoise, the oscillations accelerating with alarming speed. I recognised it instantly, the dreaded PIO! No problem, I knew what to do: ease the stick back and slow down to let it stabilise – except we were only about 25 feet above the ground by now, and just to make it interesting, hurtling towards the hedge at the end of the runway. If I pulled back we would lose lift in the sultry air and start to sink with very little room left to recover airspeed before the hedge arrived.

A warning from my mate John popped into my head. He had started training some months before me and had got himself into a situation (although not with PIO) which found him with too much height in hand and little runway remaining. His solution was to close the throttle: his machine had lost airspeed and sank rapidly. He had almost recovered it, but landed hard and rolled over. I could hear him telling me if you run out of room and can’t get in, for Christ’s sake don’t take the power off! Guidance from my fixed-wing days was also to mind: you can’t make a good landing out of a bad approach. I knew I didn’t have time to stop the oscillations and settle down for an approach in the space that was left – I was too inexperienced – we would end up in the hedge. I remember very clearly, rationalising the options in what must have been but a few brief seconds as we swooped and climbed with ever increasing severity towards the runways end.

There was no choice, I had to get some height under us before I could safely sort things out – it had to be a go around. Actions were totally instinctive from then on. Opening up the power to 6000 RPM while easing back on the stick gave an instant response: the gyro stabilised and rocketed over the hedge, climbing effortlessly. I hadn’t used the engine much above 4500 RPM before and was startled by the thrust of the propeller. It felt as if we’d been fired from a catapult. Chris was in my head, telling me to watch the downwind turn; get height under us and keep the airspeed on. Not having been briefed on circuits yet, I held the climb until the altimeter showed 250 feet, and wary of getting too far outside the airfield boundary, turned tightly downwind keeping parallel with the runway and steaming along at an enthusiastic 70 mph! After an initial reaction along the lines of $#**!!! I now had a few moments to take stock of the situation. Delta-J handled like a dream, just as sensitive and manoeuvrable as the glider – this was brilliant! I wanted more and was sorely tempted to play, but a glance down to my right revealed a group of anxious faces staring up at us. Behave yourself. Reluctantly, I began to think about getting back down.
Watching for circuit traffic, I decided to maintain height until we were lined up over the gyro half of the runway and keep all of the descent on a steady heading with plenty of time for corrections. Delta-J turned on the proverbial sixpence and I was thrilled with my little flying machine as we centred ourselves over the runway for a long straight in approach. Reducing some power, I put the nose down as best I could until 45 mph showed on the airspeed indicator and we began to slip back towards the ground. On passing 40 feet, I nudged on a few more RPM and slid back into the straight-and-level-above-the-runway position where I was supposed to have been all along – to land yet again cushioned with power, nose in the air. Aaaaaaargh!!!

Collective relief was much evident as I taxied sheepishly back to the fold, and we couldn’t help laughing as Tony feigned heart failure. I was well chuffed by the brief taste of my Cricket’s performance, but at the same time disgusted with myself for having got caught out by PIO and could imagine the earful I was going to get from Chris when I told him. But as it turned out, he couldn’t entirely blame me.
Before he went home, Chris had flown Delta-J and trimmed her to where he thought the stick pressure would be right for me. Not knowing any different, I’d accepted it without question and had been struggling along fighting to get the nose down, believing it was my own incompetence that was impeding progress. Talking things over with Tony, the answer suddenly became very simple, and Tony wound off most of the tension on the rotor head trim springs. Chris, bless him, weighed a hefty 16 stone while I’m 8 stone wringing wet: “you’m only a wafer” he used to tease me. With Chris in the seat it was his weight keeping the machine level, but being only half the size and strength, I couldn’t overcome the pull of the trim springs and was constantly pushing forward against the stick as Delta-J naturally wanted to climb. I wasn’t such a failure after all – merely a wimp. Encouraged, I strapped in for another go while the local populace took cover. Leaving the ground, we climbed again to 30 feet and I was delighted to find that the stick pressure no longer fought back, and Delta-J settled easily into level flight. Now in the correct attitude with the nose dipped, the rotor disc was creating less drag and enabling us to stay in the air without using excess power. We were flying properly at last. Wicked!

NEGATIVE G – a VERY important bit

During the next part of the tale, we start to climb higher and begin learning about power off landings. As this involves putting the machine into some steep nose down attitudes, before I go any further we should have a word or three about the other far more deadly gyroplane nasty – Negative G. Unlike PIO which is controllable and can teach a good lesson should you get into it, NEGATIVE G IS VERY DANGEROUS TO A GYRO and your first encounter with it could well be your last. You must understand this so that you’ll never put your machine into a potentially fatal situation.

Our rotor blades are kept turning by the airflow passing up through them in a positive direction and carrying the weight of the airframe. You can demonstrate this in normal flight by increasing the Positive G loading on the rotors. In a tight turn or flaring to land for example, the Positive G force multiplies the weight of the airframe so that the rotors have to work harder to support it – you can hear them beating up as they automatically increase speed to cope with the extra loading.
Now take the exact opposite scenario. In a Negative G situation – say pushing the stick abruptly forward from a nose high attitude you’ve closed the rotor disc to the wind and the airflow is no longer passing directly up through it. The airframe is lightened in the reduced gravity, which decreases the load on the rotors: the wind is now blowing on top of the blades: they quickly lose momentum and therefore lose lift. Insufficient rotor speed means that centrifugal force can no longer support the coning angle and the blades become flexible again, capable of sailing in the air. In the worst case the retreating blade will flap down striking the propeller and tail. Needless to say, this situation isn’t recoverable.

DON’T MESS WITH NEGATIVE G. Anytime you put the stick forward, do it gently. If you get into a steep nose high attitude, ease off some power (providing you have plenty of height in hand) and gradually lower the nose to regain airspeed, smoothly increase power again. If you don’t reduce power as you lower the nose there’s a risk of getting into a power push over, when the thrust of the propeller literally pushes the machine over the top of the climb, and Negative G will strike. Alternatively, use stick and rudder to roll the machine out of its nose high attitude into a turn.
ALWAYS KEEP POSITIVE G ON THE ROTOR BLADES. If you ever feel yourself becoming light in the seat, that’s a sign of approaching Negative G and you MUST reload the rotors – pull into a climb or bank into a turn for example. Negative G is like the guard dog behind the fence – you know it’s there so you keep away and don’t get hurt, you’ll only get bitten if you cross the line. Talk to your instructor and be absolutely sure that you understand the danger. When you have it clear in your mind, you will fly safely.

S Turns and Landings – bumps-a-daisy!

Landing is a small matter of getting the approach speed right, and touching down in the two-wheel-balance attitude. In the gyro-glider, landing happens from a relatively slow and flat approach because the machine is so light: the heavier powered gyroplane needs more airspeed to support its weight, so the approach is faster and steeper.

Reducing some power, I put the stick forward to lower the nose and maintain 50 mph. Approaching from 40 feet didn’t take long, and when we were down to about 6 feet I carefully checked back on the stick to raise the nose, slowing until the main wheels were inches above the ground, then put the stick right back to bring us to a halt, simultaneously closing the throttle. With full back stick, the inertia in the rotors will often sit the gyro back on its tailwheel after touch down. After a session of landings from 50 feet, we were given a real treat in the afternoon when the local flying club closed for the rest of the day, allowing us to use the full length of the runway. Along with Kieran who had reached the same stage with his thunderous Bensen B8V, I now climbed to 100 feet to practise power off landings.

Chris always maintained that power off landings should mean exactly that, and tried very hard to get me to switch off the engine. I wish I could say that I’ve had the guts to do it – but I can’t. I always try to land with the engine at idle and not touch the throttle (2600 RPM is the minimum before everything starts to rattle), but it doesn’t work every time. One day I’m going to have to do it for real because there won’t be any choice. Tony wasn’t as demanding as Chris, however, and my instructions were to reduce as much power as I felt comfortable with, use the rudder to wag the tail about and see how the machine behaved with less prop wash over the tail – and as always – watch the airspeed.

I still wasn’t using full power for take-off, 6000 RPM seemed more than adequate and Delta-J reached 100 feet in no time at all. Levelling off above the centre line, I brought the engine back to idle while carefully putting the stick forward, lowering the nose to get airspeed on. Prop wash was negligible with the engine ticking over, so when I closed the throttle Delta-J wanted to pivot to the left. Normally prop wash pushes on the tail and swings us to the right, so I’ve always got left rudder on to keep us straight – now the resistance on the tail had gone there was nothing to correct – I didn’t need left rudder.
The other difference was that without the aid of power, I found I had to put the nose way down before the airspeed began to rise. This was slightly unnerving! The attitude was steep and it felt as if I was standing on the rudder pedals looking down over the nose – it took some getting used to. I tried to ignore the view by concentrating on holding the airspeed between 45 and 50 mph, adjusting it by use of the stick to raise or lower the nose accordingly. Once past 50 feet I began to relax a little – I’d done this bit before – but was determined to complete the landing without adding power, although my hand rested by the throttle just in case.

I said earlier that landing is a matter of getting the right approach speed and touching down in the two-wheel-balance attitude: the tricky bit is learning to judge when to flare or round -out into that attitude. Bring the stick back and flare too soon, you will lose airspeed and drop the last few feet vertically. If this happens be quick to put the power on to cushion the landing and avoid bending the axle. Come in too fast or flare too late and the gyro can bounce back into the air – again put the power on to cushion the landing. Approaching with too much airspeed can result in ballooning. Flare from a fast approach and instead of slowing down and settling onto the runway, the rotor blades still have enough energy to lift the machine into the air again. If this happens get the power on, watch your airspeed and level off to approach again. If the worse comes to the worst, fly out of trouble and go around: ask your instructor to brief you on going around before you start the exercise – always better safe than sorry. During my practise of reduced power landings, I must’ve managed each and every variation of the previous examples! I remember stubbornly resisting the temptation of the throttle in all but the direst of cock ups, resulting in several arrivals of seismic proportions. We thumped, dropped, bounced, walloped, thudded, ricocheted, and – just very occasionally – settled down light as a feather. It didn’t happen often, but when it did it felt oh so good. Looking back at the video of my efforts, it amazes me that Delta-J still wears her original axle. Ouch.

As a variation on a theme for the next hour long session, we combined landing lessons and experiments with S turns. Apart from my unscheduled circuit, everything up to now had been done in a straight line (some straighter than others) and we were ready and eager to try some new directions. After fixed-wing flying co-ordinating stick and rudder just happened naturally, but Delta-J was so much lighter and responsive to handle that it was an absolute joy to be in the air.
Right turns for example, are just a matter of moving the stick over to the right until you have the required amount of bank, while pressing enough right rudder to balance the machine in the turn. As always watch your airspeed: keep the nose dipped otherwise the machine will slow down and start to sink, so keep an eye on the altimeter as well and maintain height by adding power. Have a good look around before you start turning – be sure that you’re clear of other traffic. Practise gentle turns until you get used to it. Gradually increase the angle of bank: the steeper the turn, the more power you will need to maintain height and you’ll feel Positive G pushing you down into the seat.
Stick and rudder have to work together in order to turn correctly. Try turning with rudder alone and the gyro will skid through the air like a car on ice: you’re turning the airframe, but the rotor disc is still in level flight. It needs to be banked into the turn. Imagine going round a corner on a bicycle without leaning it into the turn – the principle is the same. Use the stick alone without rudder and you have the exact opposite: the disc is banked into the turn but the airframe is still trying to go straight. The gyro is unbalanced, the nose yawing away from the direction of the turn.

With a deserted airfield to play with, we indulged ourselves chasing each other back and forth across the runway, snaking from side to side and revelling in the superb manoeuvrability of our gyroplanes. Dropping down for landing practise at the end of each flight, we turned around and fast taxied back up the side of the runway to keep the rotors spinning, leaping into the air again at the other end. It was tremendous fun! I couldn’t remember fixed-wing training ever being so enjoyable. It was like the freedom of riding a motorbike after driving a bus for ten years. There is one similarity though. After a successful practise you may feel that you’ve got the landings sorted and can’t put a foot wrong – yet the next time you go up, you won’t be able to land properly no matter how hard you try. There’s no rhyme or reason for this phenomenon, but it happens to just about every pilot in every kind of aircraft. It certainly happens to me! So if one day it seems like everything has gone to pieces after it was all going so well, don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal. Spooky, but normal.

To round off a brilliant day’s training in which I managed over 5 hours of flying, I finished with a real circuit to celebrate. Having done it once before it was a bit of an anti-climax, but this time I climbed to 400 feet before turning crosswind and made a better pattern, flying the downwind leg at a more sedate 55 mph, culminating in a power off landing – except that I mucked it up, flared too soon and had to use the engine again.
Can’t win ‘em all.

Crosswind Handling and Slow Flight – a most excellent bit

There followed another session of reduced power and almost-but-not-quite on the spot landings, but this time with a crosswind to contend with. For take-off I held the stick dipped towards the wind, keeping the disc tilted over to prevent any gusts getting under it and tipping us up. As the wheels left the ground I let Delta-J weathercock with the wind by releasing pressure on the rudder, correcting for drift with the stick to track along the centre line. Basically we were going sideways – flying straight along the runway but pointing to the left. You can reduce the crosswind component by starting the take off roll from one side of the runway and head diagonally across.
Close the throttle on a crosswind approach and the gyro will weathercock, so be ready to catch it with the rudder. For crosswind landing, there are several methods depending on the situation. There’s the sideways approach, nose into wind: kick the machine straight with rudder just before the main wheels touch and dip the rotors over into wind once down. Or if you have room, approach into wind and land across the runway, (but let other traffic know what you’re doing). This is good spot landing practise and braking with the rotor disc will halt any forward roll. As mentioned in the gyro-glider section, you can safely land the upwind wheel first: keep the machine straight with rudder, hold off any drift with the rotors until the up wind wheel touches, and the gyro will naturally settle the downwind wheel onto the ground. Don’t let the downwind wheel touch first as it could dig in, and you may be tipped over: if it should settle before the upwind wheel though, move the stick into wind straight away to put the upwind wheel firmly on the ground, and close the disc to any gusts. Again, for take-off lift the downwind wheel first if necessary – the wheel on the ground should always be into wind.

My next treat on the agenda was to discover the delights of slow flight and hovering. Once again we were lucky in that the airfield had been abandoned by our neighbours, so we had a free hand to explore the capabilities of our machines without disturbing other traffic. Pig out time! If an aeroplane travels too slowly it will stall and refuse to fly: not so a gyroplane. Circling above the grass, I climbed Delta-J to the dizzy heights of 700 feet to begin slow flight. Levelling out parallel with the runway facing into wind, I reduced power to 5000 RPM and began to ease back on the stick to raise the nose. As the airspeed dropped I kept an eye on the altimeter, and when we started to lose height added some power to arrest the descent. The machine began to wallow: the controls felt mushy and unresponsive needing greater inputs to evoke a reaction. When the airspeed indicator showed 35 mph and the altimeter was steadily beginning to unwind, I cautiously eased the stick forward to lower the nose and regain airspeed while gradually adding power to climb back to 700 feet and do it again.
Several times we climbed up for another go: each time I gradually let the speed drop lower and lower, until finally the stick was right back and airspeed no longer registered on the ASI. Although the engine was giving full power it could no longer overcome the drag of the disc to keep us in the air, and we were slipping into a vertical descent. The attitude was steep. I felt as if I was on my back looking up at my feet on the rudder pedals, and I couldn’t see forward as the pod blocked the view ahead. We had zero airspeed and the altimeter steadily unwound. I had to be very careful now: the spectre of Negative G was waiting to pounce on the ham fisted – but I’d been too well taught and had no intention of stepping into its trap. As the altimeter hand approached 450 feet I gently started to lower the nose, reducing power as I did so to prevent us being pushed over the top too abruptly. Once we hadregained a level attitude, I smoothly brought the power back on to stop us descending, still easing the nose down until airspeed began to rise again and we were safely moving forward once more. You couldn’t do that with a Cherokee!!!

I started to track along the edge of the runway, flying as slowly as possible without losing height before pulling into a vertical descent and recovery at the end. Steadily raising the nose to reduce airspeed and increasing power to maintain height, we dawdled through the air finding that 35-40 mph with the engine working hard was about the minimum airspeed (in those wind conditions) before we began to sink. Delta-J doesn’t have a vertical speed indicator, but I would guess depending on the wind, that we come down around the 600-800 feet per minute mark with full power and zero airspeed. With the engine idling it’s more like a 1200-1500 feet per minute descent: not unpleasant at all, certainly no worse than travelling down in a lift. Apart from being great fun, vertical descents are very useful for landing in confined spaces or bleeding off excess height before an approach. In the event of engine failure you have the added choice of fields immediately below or even behind, should the wind be in favour. Unlike the fixed-wing pilot who has to circle round to his chosen field, thereby possibly losing sight of it while fiddling with levers and flaps, a gyro pilot can turn into wind and sit directly above any suitable area, descending vertically for an approach.
However, a gyroplane can’t land vertically like its helicopter cousin, and you MUST allow enough height to recover airspeed once you’re sure that you can get in safely: without power the descent will be around 1500 feet per minute so don’t leave it too late. Put the nose down and gain at least 50 mph, the more airspeed you have in hand the better (the engine’s quit remember) – you can always bleed it off when in position, but once it’s gone that’s that. The gyro must have forward speed to flare and land normally: continue the vertical descent to the ground and your machine will go home in a wheelbarrow. It won’t do you any good either.

One of the many endearing characteristics of the gyroplane is that they possess the gliding capabilities of an oven ready turkey. I haven’t personally had the pleasure of engine failure yet, but it’s only a matter of time and those who know better tell me that the descent angle is about 45 degrees. Depending on wind conditions, the area level with the gyro’s nose is generally whereabouts you’ll be deposited should it suddenly all go quiet in the horse power department. That’s why I never fly out to sea!
Back at Enstone, the wind picked up during the day and became strong enough to support us in a hover. Slowing to zero airspeed, I balanced Delta-J against the wind finding that point of equilibrium between thrust, lift and drag which allowed us to hang stationary in the air – something I never get tired of doing. Reducing power a little allowed the wind to gently drift us backwards above the grass, floating like thistledown on the breeze. Fantastic! I found that I was sensing the behaviour of the machine rather than relying on eyes and instruments to tell me what was going on. I could feel the rotors biting against the wind and the push of the propeller behind me: I began to know speed and attitude by the way that Delta-J was handling and the movement of air around us. I was flying by empathy and had finally relaxed enough to become one with my gyro.

And there you have it. While that about covers the training basics, Short Hops continues to record more adventures after qualifying, in what would sadly turn out to be our last few years at St. Merryn, thanks to an ex-student/mate of mine who wanted the whole airfield to himself. On that note, I strongly advise anyone taking a gyro down there to check the validity of paperwork before allowing any flight by third party. Be sure to keep a written record of the specific work you want done, plus written agreement of timescale and estimated cost upfront, otherwise you’ll waste a lot of time and money funding someone else’s hobby. One word: sociopath. Just remember it’s YOUR machine.

Stay safe, and if you can’t do it for yourself, think of those you leave behind. They’re the ones you’ll hurt the most.