So farewell 2019, and most enjoyable it was too. Highlights being the successful culmination of the Brookland Rotorcraft project: a rare Mosquito gyroplane preserved for posterity, and the place of Ernie Brooks now officially cemented in British autorotational history. Well done, Trevor and Peter! How do we top that…
It goes without saying, two wonderful trips to Bois de la Pierre to reunite with my Delta-J and make sure the Pyrenees are still there. Helping out with another safe and successful annual Gyro Club rassemblement is an essential part of every year. We had all kinds of weather: dramatic thunderstorms, torrential rain and howling winds to searing heat and skies of clearest blue. Delicious flights over a panoramic landscape with the song of the rotor blades in my ears, made even more special when shared with friends. How did I get to be so lucky?
August saw the 20th anniversary of Thenac aerodrome, near Bergerac. It was a pleasure to be part of the celebrations, despite the relentless heat that flattened the two visiting Brits! A fun weekend of feasting and ultralight flying in great company. Congratulations to Marie and Martial, ably abetted by the Patrouille de Thenac.
It was during that weekend that I was treated to the wildest ride I’ve yet experienced in a gyroplane. Actually, I’m not sure it’s possible to get any wilder and still use the aircraft again afterwards. Ye gods, I enjoyed it thoroughly – afterwards – when my brain had caught up with the rest of me! Wow. Having flown with Patrick at Sainte Foy in 2012, I had an idea of what to expect, but that was a gentle stroll in comparison. He has an aversion to flying straight and level in his immaculate M16, and routinely pushes normal flight parameters.
Unlike me, Patrick is a very skilled and assured gyronaut. We’re total polar opposites. He knows his machine inside out and exactly what it’s capable of. The fact he has survived pulling those manoeuvres for all these years is confirmation of his excellent piloting skills, and a real testament to the strength and quality of Magni engineering. No way would I strap myself to a stainless steel airframe to be flown like that. Personally though, I’d be happier if he allowed himself a little more of a safety margin – especially when down in the dirt!
The very generous intention had been to let me take the controls in the front seat, but short-arse here couldn’t reach the rudder pedals and moving them back proved to be a little more problematic than anticipated. Patrick had been busy giving flights all morning and it was getting close to lunchtime, so I was happy to take the back seat, although he still insisted on bolting on the rear control stick for me to play with – not that I had it for long!
Snug in the rear of the high-sided pod, clad only in T-shirt and shorts, headset and sunglasses (no crash helmet), I fastened the lap strap as tightly as it would go. It’s a big regret that I didn’t have time to grab my video camera, what a film that would’ve been. All that remains of that epic flight are the snap-shot images in my head, such as peering straight down at the ground barely a rotor’s length away, with the disc bisecting the horizon at ninety degrees! But what a ride.
The temperature was a stifling 32 degrees C, with barely a breath of air to ruffle the windsock: my little Cricket would have struggled horribly in such conditions. A powerful beast is that M16, and Patrick didn’t waste any time. Barely attaining 300 feet on climb out, he stood it on its tail and pivoted the big machine through a 180, powering back in a low pass along the runway to swing up over the field of sunflowers at the end. We went up, we went down, fast and fluid, our wheels seemingly inches above the dry earth as we blasted between the trees at impossible angles, accompanied by the heavy beat of hard-working rotor blades. No roller coaster could ever produce such a thrill. Supremely confident and smooth on the controls, Patrick was in his element as he handled the big Magni like a jet fighter, twisting round in his seat to give me a beaming thumps-up, which I was delighted to return.
Back over the sunflowers again, we roared down the runway at a matter of inches, using the momentum to swing up and stand the machine on its tail for the obligatory hammer head. Poised in mid air, nose to the sky, the airframe spun like a compass needle beneath the span of rotor disc to point back from whence we came, floating in for a gentle touch down as the rotors expended their energy in triumphant song. Hell yeah – that was absolutely awesome!
Flying as an ‘Ulmiste’ in the south of France is very different to being a gyronaut in the UK. Gyroplanes are a class apart under British regulations: a very special class, which automatically excludes them from any concession granted to other flavours of homebuilt aircraft – and always for a very good reason that no one can actually explain. They don’t understand us so they trap us in a time warp, unable to evolve and barely tolerated. Such a huge contrast in attitudes.
French gyroplanes fall into the microlight (ULM) category – even the big factory-built machines qualify. What a world of opportunity this presents! The freedom to investigate and explore: to try out ideas and improvements, to nip down the local hardware store and gather all you need without certificates, batch numbers etc, and the inflated aviation prices that come with them. It took a long time to get used this new approach after 20 years of negativity and heavy over-engineered 1960s gyroplane designs – I just couldn’t believe it was all so simple – surely there was a catch? But it never came.
When I took my Cricket down there in 2009, it was the first time they had seen a British designed single-seater, and without fail she drew the same three reactions in exactly the same order. First impression, the exclamation invariably ‘How small and cute she is!’ (like her pilot. Ahem). The French machines are as half as big again, with tall masts to accommodate large propellers. A second glance, the glaring deficiency is all too obvious: ‘Why do you not have a stabiliser?’ Basically because our authorities are still in the dark ages where gyroplanes are concerned. I’ve yet to see a French autogire without one and our distinct lack of tail feathers caused great consternation among our new friends, a fire which continued to burn unabated until I was later able to join them in the 21st century.
The third reaction without fail was total conviction that the British are quite insane. And who could argue? Fastened inside the pod of my machine – my tiny single-seat open cockpit flying machine as per British regulations – is a ‘No smoking’ sign. The hilarity was absolutely justified. They do not allow a horizontal stabiliser, yet you MUST have a No smoking sign??!! I couldn’t explain it either. (10 Years on, British gyronauts have now been permitted to bolt a cumbersome and inelegant flat plate to the tails of their Crickets. The ‘No smoking’ bit still applies.)
Flying down there is very different. I don’t pretend to know all the ins-and-outs, my understanding of the French language remains at a very basic level despite all efforts to improve. My friends credit me with far more intelligence than I actually possess, and regardless of attempts to understand pertinent ULM web sites, I still rely heavily on them to keep me on the straight and narrow. I’ve always hated radio and have struggled to cope with it ever since fixed-wing training. While the jargon poses no problem, the mental block to get the words out and broadcast to one and all across the frequency is an almost insurmountable challenge – a hang-up deeply rooted in my general inadequacy with verbal communication. I’m sure I was a mouse in a previous life (still got the teeth), preferring to remain hidden and not draw attention to myself, anony-mouse as it were, but it’s very frustrating at times.
Any attempt to transmit in the French language therefore (as used exclusively on the more informal ULM frequencies), is highly likely to cause some potentially dangerous confusion. And there’s also a minor matter of not possessing a French radio licence. Instead, I rely on observational skills, steering well clear of airstrips to avoid conflicting traffic and only fly alone over places where we have previously been accompanied on club excursions, hopefully ensuring that we don’t infringe anyone or anything. It limits our range somewhat, but just to be in the air and autorotating is pleasure enough – and of course – a tremendous privilege. I never forget how lucky I am.
During the week, the aerial prerogative over the plain belongs to the Armée de l’Air. I’m not too comfortable flying on a weekday! It’s not uncommon to be happily minding our own business at the club, only for the peace to be shattered by an unearthly roar and dark shapes ripping through the circuit, sometimes a fleeting glimpse of fiery jet pipe barely 200 feet above. And they’re always in pairs. The Patrouille de France take no prisoners either. Nine Alpha Jets blasting through the area at minimal height, at least two of them directly through our circuit. A hapless gyronaut would be chewed up and spat out before they even knew what hit them. Even their wake turbulence would be enough to ruin your day.
Climb high enough to possibly avoid being ingested by a passing Mirage, and you could well encounter one of the large military transports that habitually traverse the plain. While these are considerably more leisurely than the jet fighters (and much easier to spot!), you certainly don’t want to argue with them. Having been encouraged to aviate one pleasant Thursday evening by Jean Marie, who casually refuted my nervous queries that nothing fast and dangerous was likely to spoil the moment, I was therefore alarmed by the dark bulk of an A400M sliding across the landscape below us. It was right where I was about to position ready to rejoin the circuit. Well to be fair, it wasn’t jet fast, but it would have certainly spoiled the moment…
So we have Mirages, Rafales, Alpha Jets and their ilk at 200+ feet, the transports slightly higher, and above them a whole host of commercial heavy metal heading in and out of Toulouse Blagnac, a mere 40km away as the A380 flies. Toulouse of course, is the home of Airbus and the remarkable Guppy and Beluga transporters, so we’re basically in their back yard. Stir in a smattering of light aircraft, helicopters and ULMs from the many surrounding aero clubs, and we can have just a little too much excitement for my liking.
Don’t go too high, my friends warn after persuading me to partake of the week-day sky. They habitually fly around at 400-500 feet, which seems like hedge skimming as I look down from the relative safety of 800 feet. My flying opportunities are very limited being based some 800 road miles from my aircraft (depending how many detours the satnav finds), so confidence levels diminish accordingly with lack of hours. I prefer a decent bit of altitude beneath us, a few extra seconds of safety margin to compensate for my lack of practice should anything untoward occur.
Although we wear the same Rotax 582 engine as several other single-seat machines at the club, they (being unencumbered by draconian regulation) sport unique configurations able to accommodate much larger propellers and rotor blades. My gyro being based on a heavy 50 year old design, only has room to wear a petite 52 inch propeller, which coupled with our lightweight 22 foot diameter rotors cannot hope to match the performance of our French companions. Only a complete restructure would solve it. Consequently they don’t understand my reluctance to fly in the high temperature and light wind conditions that persist from late May onwards – we just don’t have the same oomph! On squadron fly-outs, the others casually breeze past and disappear into the distance leaving us to flounder in their wake, my poor engine screaming in protest, temperature gauge nudging the red as we struggle for a morsel of lift in the tropical haze. So yes, I’m wary. If we venture up on a hot day, I’ve learned to stay downwind of the airfield and not stray too far, so we can pick up some lift (theoretically) on our return into wind. It’s not a good feeling when your rotor blades have nothing to bite.
Wind shear is another interesting phenomenon thanks to our proximity to the mountains and those wonderful rolling hills that border opposite sides of the plain. The windsock by the runway is no indication of what’s happening aloft, which is generally the case anywhere and certainly on the narrow Cornish peninsula, but here it seems amplified. Frequently we’ve been teased by the wind coming at us from varying quarters, suddenly losing lift on the nose, only to be booted up the rudder by an impatient gust from behind. One particular time it came out of nowhere and rapidly got very uncomfortable.
We had flown about 25 minutes in clear calm conditions, not a cloud in the sky or anything else to suggest a hint of what was in store, when a couple of sharp gusts gave us an unexpected slap round the chops as an aperitif. Suddenly we were being battered from all sides. I immediately reduced power and slowed down, trying to make sense of what was going on: it felt so abnormal that I thought something had come adrift – but no – the controls were answering. The rudder pedals held firm against my feet even though it felt like the tail was flapping, and engine gauges were all reassuringly normal so mechanically we appeared to be fine, except that the altimeter and airspeed indicator were fluctuating wildly.
This was not the pleasant thermally bounce that we often enjoy over the sun-baked plain: this was a rough and random pummelling that hit us from all angles. There was nothing friendly about it at all. Having deduced that the bronco ride wasn’t down to a disintegrating gyroplane, all I could do was point her nose towards home and gingerly make our way back as invisible forces continued to vent their displeasure on the airframe. The windsock drifted casually at its pole as we skimmed over the airfield and settled on the runway in great relief. The deceitful sky appeared calm and inviting, not a cloud to mar the innocent blue. It sure had me fooled…
One pleasant Sunday afternoon returning from an autorotational amble, we tracked along the runway at 950 feet in a gentle descent ready to turn crosswind over the threshold – only to shoot up almost vertically to just short of 1300 feet. Where had that come from! There was no other traffic around, so nose up and throttle back to trickle slowly into the circuit pattern, almost hovering in attempt to bleed off our excess height. But despite extending downwind, we were still at 700 feet turning onto approach and she wasn’t showing any inclination to come down. I always bring her in higher than normal when using runway 31, as once over the village in the lee of the hill there’s also a thick wooded area to clear on the brow behind the threshold – not a good place to get caught if the elastic snaps. But even allowing for our safety margin, we were still too high.
It was at this point that I spotted Gerard’s Air Copter heading in from the west and knowing he was one of a flight of four, decided that discretion was the better part of valour (us being non-radio) and cleared off out of their way. Scooting back over the plain, I was reluctant to power up too quickly after the long spell of low revs in the circuit, except that I was now getting the horrible slipping sensation that occurs when the rotors lose their grip on the air. Easing up to full throttle as fast as I dared, we were barely holding at 400 feet. All the lovely lift that had given us such an unexpected boost on that same heading only a few minutes ago had vanished with impeccable timing. What the heck?!
I’m not at all confident in my hedge hopping abilities should it all go quiet at the back, and it felt uncomfortably low as we skidded out over the fields searching all points of the compass for an elusive breath of wind. The poor engine worked overtime to compensate lack of lift as we clung to the air by our finger tips, watching and waiting for a chance to rejoin the circuit, finally haring home for a straight in approach, grateful to put the wheels on solid ground. It’s a well-worn cliché, but it really is better to be down here wishing to be up there!
Norman Surplus is a very brave man. Having overcome a life-theatening battle with bowel cancer, he went out and learned to fly a gyroplane, shortly after which, in 2010 he promptly set out to fly it around the world. After many setbacks that would have thwarted a lesser individual, Norman and G-YROX returned safely to the playing field in Larne, Northern Ireland, from where they had taken off on their epic adventure, five years earlier.
I will never forget being glued to the little dot that represented Norman’s GPS tracker, watching it cross from the American continent to Greenland, all the way down the coast of that inhospitable terrain and over the dangerous waters of the north Atlantic, willing it on to the relative safety of Iceland. I was at my desk supposedly at work, flicking rapidly between the multiple databases of military logistics and Norman’s website, unable to tear myself away from the magnetic pull of his progress. Then the long awaited final stretch, down from Iceland to Scotland and back across to Larne, triumphant!
All alone around the world. A microscopic dot above the heartless expanse of oceans, mountains and tundra, wholly dependant on a single engine in an open cockpit machine with the gliding ability of a house brick. To say that Norman Surplus is a very brave man, doesn’t do him justice.
It was hell of a trip that he made, setting several world records in the process, but due to political and bureaucratic complications, pieces of the puzzle were missing. There were unavoidable gaps in his achievement. But not anymore. Accompanied by another gyroplane pilot who is trying to equal their success, Norman and G-YROX have crossed the vast expanse of Russia and this week they have reached the Pacific coast. Fantastic effort! And they’re not done yet.
Norman is raising money and awareness for his cancer charity. Please support him and give a donation to the cause.
Chris Julian was killed on the morning of May 17th 1997.
Sunday the 18th of May 1997 was a beautiful day, bright and sunny with blue sky. As usual, I went outside and sat on the wall to look at the weather and the wonderful view of Cornwall stretching away into the distance, watching the windmills turning through the tears in my eyes. The familiar scene gave no clue to the tragic events of the previous day, the only difference was that Chris Julian didn’t come out to join me as he often did. We would watch his two dogs playing in the field, while waiting for our new friend Bob Bond to arrive on his motorbike from Exeter. After the obligatory cup of tea, we would all pile into Chris’s old car – me in the back buried under three lots of flight gear, tools and crash helmets – and hurtle off to St. Merryn laughing and joking all the way and often completely on the wrong side of the road. It was very quiet on Sunday the 18th of May.
Chris was a legend in the British gyroplane world. Many of us gyronauts survive because he taught us how to do so. It’s sad that so few remember him now, or even know who he was. I’ll add to this in time, but tomorrow is May 17th, a particularly poignant day to remember Chris Julian, and also Bob Bond who died beside him when the rotor assembly detached in flight.
Everyone knew Chris back then, or knew of him. Larger than life and always laughing, he was a proper character – and helluva gyroplane pilot. Partnered by Tony Philpotts in the tow car, Chris tutored many hundreds of student gyronauts in the art of autorotation, patiently hauling back and forth on the gyro-glider over and over again and loving every minute of it. Learn rotor handling first and everything else will fall into place. I wonder what he would make of it all now.
I was watching some of the self-styled ‘new generation’ in action recently: hammering the pre-rotator with the disc held flat until the last moment (even though there was a cracking bit of wind right down the runway), then flogging the poor machine to climb out on the back of the power curve. What’s all that about? As for the chap with the navy blue Cavalon, turning the propeller while stood right inside the prop arc with his arms draped around the blades – that doesn’t bear thinking about. Chris would have put them all straight, in no uncertain terms.
The picture above means so much to me, and Chris loved it too. We made a poster of it which he pinned to the wall in our hut at St. Merryn. By sad coincidence it turned out to be our last flight together. It was a beautiful Easter Monday, a quiet day at the gyro’s nest for once, just the pair of us out to play. We spent a leisurely couple of hours in the sunshine, cleaning and checking over our gyroplanes, happy just to be there doing what we loved. Later we flew across to Bodmin to enjoy an excellent lunch, sat outside the clubhouse chatting about everything and nothing and watching the flying on that lovely grass airfield. It was a lazy sort of day, the colours bold, green grass, blue sky, bright sun. Chris wanted to treat me to an ice cream but I was too full to manage any more, so he bumbled off to order one for himself. Returning to our table, he realised his head was sunburnt: I fished a duster from the pocket of my gyroplane and he fastened it around his head with the two miniature bungees that he used to attach his radio in flight, thus Lawrence of Bodmin was born. When his ‘bocker-nocker-lorry’ arrived (he couldn’t pronounce knickerbocker glory!), the image was complete. I had to get a photo, never dreaming how poignant it would become. As he drove us home later that evening, he looked across at me and said reflectively ‘You some dear little gyrocopter pilot really, Shirley.’ – and reached over to squeeze my hand – after wiping his nose in his palm!
So who was Chris Julian? Rosy of face and cheerful demeanour, his bald head framed by a shock of unruly white hair, this dumpy figure clad in open-necked shirt and corduroy trousers could easily be dismissed as a quintessential yokel – the country bumpkin persona thrice enhanced by his broad Cornish accent. I remember we had stopped by at Bodmin Aero Club for a cup of tea one time (Chris never went far without a cup of tea), when a group of young RAF cadets were in residence. Chris in his tatty old pullover was chatting amiably and chuckling away as usual, and I could see the cadets looking down their noses at him and sneering between themselves. ‘Stupid old fool’ – you could almost read their minds. But Chris was no fool. It was a shame we were visiting by road as had we flown in that day, they would’ve seen just how wrong they were in their assumptions. Chris was a virtuoso of the free-spinning rotor blade: there was nothing he couldn’t do within parameters and even a few things beyond. The Wombat was his pièce de résistance and in the skies above St. Merryn he made her sing. Poetry in motion, they were a joy to watch – from a suitably sheltered vantage point where you couldn’t be dive-bombed! He was a terror for that, the old devil.
While only the best was good enough for the Wombat, Chris’s old cars were something else and driving with him was never dull. He always referred to my mum as ‘Mother,’ which tickled her no end. Once when she was down for a visit, he decided to treat us to a cup of tea at one of his favourite local watering holes. Chris never touched alcohol, incidentally: his chosen haunts were greasy-spoon cafes and roadside snack bars. So we piled into the back of his old Ford Granada, with Chris and Judy in the front. Chris did his usual out-of-the-gate speedway start, at which point the bench seat on which we were perched shipped its moorings, upending Mother and me onto our backs, knees in the air! Twisting round to look over his shoulder, Chris was mortified, but we couldn’t move for laughing and his anguished cry of ‘Ooh ell Mother!’ only made it worse! Too funny. We never knew what the day would bring.
He had a unique method to avoid stopping at junctions in the dark. Barrelling along narrow country lanes at warp speed with wing mirrors brushing the dry stone hedges that boxed us in on either side, instead of slowing down towards an intersection, he would switch off the headlights and plunge the road into darkness! The theory was that this kamikaze method would reveal the lights of any approaching traffic: if darkness prevailed, nothing was coming (he hoped) and we would hurtle across without pause. Any unfortunate soul on a bicycle would have been flattened. Chris was a demon behind the wheel when the mood took him. Speed was everything and he was fearless.
It was a different story with the gyroplanes. When in instructor mode, student safety was paramount and his concern was absolutely genuine. He taught me everything about rotor handling, and our only instrument was a piece of string. It never lies: the batteries never fail, the readout never goes blank. Learn rotor handling first – proper manual hand-start rotor handling – and everything else will fall into place. 26 Years of flying with a bit of string and yet to ding a rotor blade. That’s because of Chris Julian, faithfully assisted on the glider by Tony Philpotts.
One of the lovely characters to come into our world at St. Merryn immediately became known as Brian the vicar – and yes – he actually was. He had bought a part built Everett Cricket after succumbing to the charms of the gyro-glider and Chris was finishing it off for him in the workshop. Brian loved flying the glider with us and became a popular member of the crew, always making the effort to pop down between Sunday services. To give Chris his due, he did try hard to curtail his language out of respect for a man of the cloth, but Brian was completely unfazed which was just as well as Chris had more than a few lapses in his good behaviour! Poor Brian, he needed a sense of humour with us lot. His Cricket was registered G-BWHT which I couldn’t resist naming God Be With Holy Terrors. It was Tony’s fault really, a habit that he had started after working out that my Delta-J stood for Better Visibility for Damsel Jockeys. Not sure about the damsel bit, though…
I was at St. Merryn with Chris as an extra pair of eyes, when Brian started the early stages of groundwork and getting acquainted with the machine. In those days we tuned our radios to 123.45 to talk between ourselves, being in the back of beyond it didn’t seem to upset anyone. So with our Holy Terror strapped into his pride and joy, burning and turning for the first time and beaming from ear to ear, Chris began to instruct him over the radio, complete with gestures and arm waving which grew even more animated as Brian remained sat there grinning happily from the cockpit obviously not hearing a word. Eventually Chris ducked under the spinning rotor blades and yelled his instructions in Brian’s ear, which had the desired effect. Chris scuttled clear and got back on the radio as Brian slowly taxied away and headed off down the runway, but there was still no response over the airwaves. After a while, the rattle of an idling Rotax grew louder and in due time Brian happily trundled past, completely oblivious to Chris’s increasingly earthy transmissions – and just as well really – you shouldn’t say things like that to a vicar! Getting more and more agitated, Chris finally managed to flag him down, only to find that Brian’s radio was indeed switched on and functioning correctly on 123.45, whereas his own set had one digit astray. Instead of 123.45, Chris had tuned to 123.40 which happened to be the tower frequency of nearby RAF St. Mawgan! Luckily they hadn’t picked up his broad Cornish expletives, although some of them had certainly been loud enough without the aid of radio. Chris was totally unabashed as always. Oooh ‘ell! he chuckled. Brian got on well after that.
Postscript. I also pay tribute here to Robin Morton, who sadly succumbed to illness earlier this year: a very clever man who had many an aviation string to his bow, including those of gyroplane inspector and enthusiast. At the 1997 PFA rally, stunned British gyronauts gathered from around the country, still reeling in shock two months after the double fatality. We were all in denial. No one could believe it: not Chris – not in a gyro-glider. The latest issue of Rotor GazetteInternational had been dedicated to him, featuring my unpolished outpouring. I don’t remember much about that weekend, but I’ve never forgotten how an emotional Robin approached me that day and clasped both my hands in his. ‘You must write, my dear’ he implored, eyes bright with tears. Holding my hands close in mutual sorrow, he repeated softly ‘You must write.’
In this excerpt from Short Hops, we enjoyed the most exceptional day at St. Merryn, playing with a pair of gyro-gliders in a wind so powerful that we were pulling the tow cars instead of the other way around. I’ve never known anything like it.
It was a cracking autumnal day of October 1995; an ice-white sun glaring in the pale sky and a howling wind from the south west that snatched the breath from our lungs. Perfect kiting weather for gyro-gliders! Normally the glider needs to be towed forward to gain lift, but with a wind speed like that it could be tethered and flown from a stationary point. No one would dream of flying in such conditions in the fixed-wing world, and as a newly qualified convert in the art of autorotation, I have to admit that I would’ve thought twice had our veterans, Chris Julian and Tony Philpotts not been with us.
There were five of us eager to play, so we dusted off Tony’s old gyro-glider as well to blow the cobwebs out. Chris Shilling settled into the seat as we hitched up to the car, and Tony pulled them out to the start of the Gyro runway, directly into wind. With Old Faithful tied onto my car and Derek installed at the wheel, I hopped onboard clutching my video camera and strapped in alongside Chris, as Derek began to drag us out into the teeth of the gale. Away from the shelter of the hangar it was difficult to move upwind, and even more difficult to stop going downwind – I was almost taken off my feet! Chris-S was already in position with his glider at the threshold, the car parked a tow rope’s length away with Tony wisely sheltering inside. Our ears were blasted by a seething tide of air, plucking the speech from our mouths and scattering words like paper in the wind: we had to shout to be heard.
Derek went to help Chris-S spin up, while I hung onto the stick ready for the difficult task of trying to coax the rotor blades into life as Chris began to push them round. It wasn’t easy. Chris and Derek were pushing like crazy, striving to give the blades enough rotation to cope with all that oncoming airspeed, while Chris-S and me grimly nursed the bucking control sticks, trying to stabilise the rotors long enough to form a disc in the relentless 35-40 mph wind. Perseverance eventually paid off, Chris-S being the first to lift with his lighter weight. Chris had joined me on the seat to help hold us down until the rotors had settled, and now I gingerly slid off and fought my way over to the centreline to do some filming, as Chris fastened himself into the middle of the seat. When he was ready he let the stick come back and freed the furiously spinning blades to the wind. The glider immediately sat back on the tailwheel, straining against the rope until Chris closed the disc a fraction to kill off the drag, and rose rapidly into the air. Synchronised kiting – you don’t see that every day!
The wind was shoving me in the back, threatening to bowl me over like a tumbleweed as I struggled to hold the camera steady and keep a pair of delighted Chrisses inside the viewfinder as they bobbed gleefully on the roaring torrent of air. Derek scrambled onboard with Chris-S when a brief lull settled the machines gently back to earth, but the extra weight proved too much and they couldn’t rise more than 5 feet, while Chris on Old Faithful waved mockingly from above, casually swinging his hands and feet. He yelled at me to come back, and planted the glider firmly on the deck for me to climb on. Our machine had longer rotors than Tony’s, so although our combined weight probably wasn’t far from that of Derek and Chris-S, the extra bit of rotor disc made all the difference and we rose easily.
Once into clean air, freed from the restraining influence of the ground, the glider went up like a lift as the wind blew even stronger – awesome!!! Chris let it climb to the full extent of the tow rope then handed over to me. The stick bucked in my hand and the airframe pulsed as the rotors fought against the constraint of the tow rope, and looking down its length to my little car some 50 feet below, I sincerely hoped Derek had put the handbrake on properly! Chris made a game of testing me, seeing how accurately I could position the glider where he wanted, being careful not to jerk the rope with visions of my car coming up to meet us, so powerful was the pull of the rotor disc above our heads. What terrific fun! Chris-S was happily floating alongside, so I gave control back to Chris and picked up my camcorder to do some air to air shots as Derek and Tony began to tow us very slowly down the runway, adding to the entertainment.
Chris-S crossed our path with some enthusiastic wide turns and steep banks as I tried to keep him in camera range from my own soaring perch that throbbed with the beat of the rotor blades. They were a rough fibreglass set of doubtful integrity that bounced enthusiatically at the best of times, and now they were spinning furiously. The cars crept down the runway in first gear, straining against the enormous drag of the rotor discs. When at last they reached the end of the line, instead of turning around to take us back to the start as with a normal gyro-glider run, Derek and Tony switched off their engines and surrendered to the forces of nature. It was brilliant! We opened the rotors to the wind and flew the gliders backwards through the air, pulling our cars along with us, how good was that! We played our new game for hours: kiting, then creeping forwards, kiting again before reversing back up the runway to kite once more, I remember it like yesterday – it was such brilliant fun!
I swapped over after a while to fly with Chris-S and take some film of Chris from Tony’s machine. That one had a shorter tow boom and tended to fly tipped back on its tail, so we had to hold the stick forward all the time. It also wore a rough set of home-made plastic blades, which unfortunately didn’t improve the precious recording of a memorable day – but at least it captured the spirit. The autumn chill began to make its presence known after several hours of riotous autorotation, creeping inside collars and cuffs through gaps in flight suits, numbing cold feet and fingers until we reluctantly called a halt and returned to the hangar, tired and stiff and absolutely elated. That was without doubt, the best gyro-gliding day ever!
Sitting here on a deserted Cornish airfield, I feel totally at peace; deeply connected to those who have gone before, their echoes never leave. The sky above is deep blue, gently fading to paler shades towards the horizon, decorated by a few feathery wisps and blobs of cloud. The faded windsock barely stirs in the warm breath of air and hangs limply from its pole like a wilted flower. Directly overhead, the sun is briefly filtered by a passing cloud, a fierce white orb burning through the depths of downy fleece. All is quiet except for the drone of insects going about their business, the cheerful twitterings of skylarks feeding on the wing and crickets chirping in the grass. Hay bales dot the fields between the runways, silent sentinels waiting patiently for collection. Rabbits creep into vision from burrows deep inside the bramble thickets, cropping the sun-browned grass ever shorter. The brambles that shield their homes are heavy with ripening blackberries, almost covering the blockwork of the old air raid shelter in front of me.
Delta-J is parked beside me, her bright red pod a splash of colour amid the late summers day. Her tank is full and she’s all checked out ready to go, but I’m in no rush to fly, happy just to be here in the place I love beyond all other, enjoying the solitude. The old tower building which houses our hangar stands tall behind me, empty sightless windows gazing out into the infinite blue. It’s too nice to spoil the moment with engine noise, the spell would be broken. Respect the silence while it lasts. I hate the thought that one day this precious oasis of mine will be gone, all the history destroyed by voracious construction, buried under carpets of tarmac and concrete. Greedy eyes covet this wonderful open space and dream of filling it with caravans, holiday homes or supermarkets. Sacrilege. Leave it alone, true to the purpose it was made for. What it is with humans? Ravaging the Earth, hell bent on destruction, never satisfied until the last square inch has been plundered and desecrated, lost forever. I hate my species.
Around the side of the tower, a microcosm of time triumphs over us puny creatures. It restores my balance and I treasure it, a shield to ward off the inevitable fate. Nature has all but reclaimed what was once the signal square, a thick carpet of ivy bars my path, choked with briar, gorse and nettles. A hurried rustling in the undergrowth as rabbits take fright at my footsteps and bolt for the safety of their holes. Rusted iron rings that once secured the bracing wires of the signal mast are still embedded in the concrete beneath the derelict red brick tower – if you know where to look amongst the foliage which has encroached a good ten feet over the past few years. Homo sapiens are insignificant in the great scheme of things, our existence a mere blink of the eye, a virus on the face of our planet to be shrugged off like a dose of the flu. Nature will prevail, time is on her side.
It’s hot now. The turbines on the hill overlooking the airfield turn half heartedly like unwound clocks, each one pointing in a random direction as if uncertain of which way to go. The huge blades move lazily as if the effort of turning is all too much. St Eval church squats on the horizon to the right, the spider web of aerials marking St Merryn’s wartime twin, not yet under the threat of destruction – not since the war anyway. Fields of russet and green patchwork the land in between, rising up to meet the perfect blue of the sky. Lines of golden hay bales dot the landscape like giant swiss rolls. It’s too peaceful to fly today. Let it be.
I’ve never seen a French gyroplane without tail feathers. Look at the variety and innovation, while us Brits have barely progressed from the Bensen. They’re having a wonderful time, yet none of these machines would get off the ground in the UK – except the little red one without a horizontal stabiliser…
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 if he wanted.
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 80 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.
I wrote this in 2015, after an idyllic afternoon with my gyroplane on a special day. It was only meant as a private musing but it’s from the heart, so I’ll put it here in tribute to those who have been part of our autorotational journey.
G-BVDJ is 21 years old today. It was exactly 21 years ago on a Sunday afternoon at St. Merryn, when Chris Julian took her into the air for the very first time. The pile of metal we had carefully cut, shaped and bolted together now transformed, the process of creation hadn’t been in vain. I still remember how elated I was, how pretty she looked in the sky – how impossibly tiny. There were teething troubles naturally, little niggles to be ironed out over the following months, but now I owned a real flying machine. How cool was that!
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that 21 years later (29th May 2015 to be exact) we would be in the south of France, stirring the air together under the imperious gaze of the Pyrenees. Back then I had rarely left British shores and certainly had never ventured abroad by myself. To actually drive alone, some 800 miles on the wrong side of the road in a language I can barely speak, not to mention towing the most important part of my life behind on a trailer – nah, don’t be daft! Yet here we are, and it’s all because of gyroplanes.
21 years. That little red machine changed my life completely. With the encouragement of the late, great Ken Wallis, I left my home and moved 200 miles to be near our beloved airfield at St. Merryn, where a small group of veteran gyronauts patiently kept me the right way up as they shared their wisdom with the neophyte. ‘She won’t fly’ said the critics, ‘girls don‘t fly gyros.’ ‘She flies’ said my mentors, ‘like a bit of silk.’ And thanks to them and the gyro-glider, I did. They’re all gone now, the gurus whose autorotational roots traced back to the 1960’s, but the memories we made together and the skill they gave me to survive lives on, encapsulated in Delta-J. The little red machine they helped me to create and to master exists because of Chris Julian and Tony Philpotts. Along with Bob Partridge and Les Cload, their knowledge and friendship remains a vital part of the fabric that made me a gyronaut. They fly with us always.
As does the man who has done (and continues to do) more for the ordinary British gyronaut than any other – the unassuming and unsung hero that is Tony Melody. He took this gyro-glider fledgling who some said would never fly, and defied expectations by moulding a bundle of nerves into a qualified gyro pilot. A female one at that. Whatever next! And not forgetting Mark Hayward, who with his yellow Bensen lead us on many adventures, helping to build this new gyronaut’s confidence in straying from the local patch. Tony and Mark, to share your experience and great sense of fun has been an honour and a pleasure. You too will always be part of us.
That little red machine changed my life. Cursed with shyness, it’s almost impossible for me to make friends. People don’t notice you when you’re shy, normally I’m invisible. Delta-J defines me: with her, I become someone. People see who I really am and want to talk – ‘What is it? How does it work? Do you fly it?’ Since I took my first step on the autorotational path in 1990, all the friends I have are the direct result of becoming a gyronaut. People all over the world – many of whom I have never met – but brought together by the love of my little red flying machine. There are people who have travelled many miles to trust me with their lives, learning vital skills while enchanted with the magic of the gyro-glider; even now they keep in touch. I’m truly privileged.
The pioneering spirit that infused St. Merryn no longer survives in Britain these days. Any sign of enthusiasm for the homebuilt gyro is immediately crushed by the ignorant, and with it dies the innovation and curiosity to evolve. My veterans would be saddened by what we’ve become. Individuality is frowned upon and commercial clones have no soul. Even the basic skills are gone, the essential now re-labelled ‘old fashioned’ by those with no clue. But cross the English Channel and a whole new world of possibility opens up, and it’s here that Delta-J and me have rediscovered what we thought irretrievably lost.
21 years of memories, the strong roots that hold us firm as we begin our new incarnation with the friends who have become as important to me now as those of old. On this beautiful grass airstrip of Bois de la Pierre, the Gyro Club Toulouse has embraced our lost soul and given us new purpose. A positive attitude does wonders, innovation and ingenuity are alive and flourishing. The spirit of adventure and shared passion for gyro flight binds us in a strong community that’s joyful to be part of. The few commercially built machines co-exist in harmony with the homebuilts, just as it should be. If only the Brits could be so open minded.
So it’s nicely fitting that Delta-J should commemorate her 21st birthday with a flight from Bois de la Pierre today. A very different landscape from that where we began: huge open countryside with no sparkle of ocean on the horizon, just a colossal barrier of snow capped mountains to the south. It was an emotive flight through an overcast sky as we celebrated her coming of age and remembered all those who had made it possible. She’s more than just a machine, you see, every part of her holds a memory.
Sometimes I just can’t believe how lucky I am – and it all stems from Delta-J. I can’t imagine where life would’ve led me if I hadn’t discovered gyroplanes, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be a patch on this!