THE WINGS SWING AT PRA’S ANNUAL ROTORFEST
It was the biggest aviation event of its kind in history — but with out a single airplane! The 1987 convention of the Popular Rotorcraft Association (PRA) brought together more homebuilt rotor craft than have ever before been assembled in one spot.
Gathering at Hook Field in Middletown, Ohio, a total of 122 rotorcraft filled the flight line be tween July 25 and July 28. Crowding around all those machines was an uncounted horde of onlookers that probably exceeded ten thousand for the four-day event.
The numbers were impressive: There were 117 of the type of rotorcraft most people would call “gyrocopters,” the unpowered-rotor flying machines that have sprung from the work of homebuilt aircraft pioneer Igor Bensen.
There were also five helicopters, including two Rotorways and an unusual machine called a Hummingbird, along with a couple of Hiller choppers. These machines represented a broad piece of geography, including 32 states and Canada.
Sure, there were some factory-built aircraft on the field. But except perhaps for one McCulloch J-2 gyroplane (a sort of big, two-place factory-built gyrocopter), nobody paid much attention to the Cessnas and Pipers. With over two hundred rotor blades stirring up the southern Ohio air, a fixed wing didn’t have much chance of attracting attention.
In case you came in late, you need to know that rotorcraft are one of the fastest-growing parts of sport aviation. This year’s PRA convention attracted more than double the number of machines that appeared at last year’s event in Paso Robles, California.
The variety of new rotorcraft, once restricted only to Bensen machines, now extends to a growing number of manufacturers and types of whirly birds. At this event you could see single-seat machines, dual-seat machines, open-frame gyrocopters, closed-cabin gyroplanes, helicopters and some rotary-wing aircraft that seem to defy classification.
At the PRA convention you could also see for yourself what each of these machines can do. In one place within just a couple of days, you could see every major type of sport rotorcraft take to the air. Without even a hint of an airshow or a loudspeaker narration, the sky was filled with maneuvers that would fascinate even the most casual observer.
The normal flying routine for these rotorcrafters not only includes straight and level flight, but also side ways flight, zero-airspeed flight, in credibly slow flight, zigs and zoops and maneuvers you’d have to see for yourself.
The flying capabilities of these machines were demonstrated daily, hourly and constantly. And it’s obvious that the piloting proficiency of today’s rotary wing pilots continues to improve, demonstrated by the way they handle these aircraft competently and safely. (There was not one accident in four-plus vigorous days of activity, which included about 150 miles of group cross country flying.)
Not only could this PRA convention show you the variety of machines that, exists today, you could also see the people who are designing and building these exciting machines. You could walk right up to Dennis Fetters, the captain of the Air Command operation, and ask him what’s new.
Or you could step over and say ‘Hi’ to Ken Brock, possibly the world’s most famous gyroplane pilot and the manufacturer of gyroplanes, aircraft parts and a major contributor to the round-the-world Voyager project.
Want to talk to one of the veterans who started the homebuilt movement back in the fifties? Over there is Jerry Barnett, the designer of a line of single and dual-seat gyros that has been flying with cross-country reliability for three decades.
And how about one of the new guys? Well, sitting there on a barrel watching the flying is Jim McCutcheon — you know, Plastic Man? He’s the guy who makes all those fabulous composite rotor blades. Did you see his new gyro? Want to ask him about it?
Or how about Dick Wunderlich, the guy whose prerotators have made hand patting your rotor blades a quaint custom? Or Larry Ramel, who has recently become a full-blown gyro manufacturer? Want to talk gyros with these guys? Want an autograph? Want them to buy you lunch? There they are — just ask!
The fight line at the PRA convention is a place where you can be a beginner, even just a looker, and mix with the veterans. In fact, for a ten dollar donation to PRA, you could go for a ride in one of those open-frame machines, piloted by the designer of the Parsons tandem-seat trainer, Bill Parsons, or by the new PRA president, George Charlet.
If you prefer, you could get the feel of one of the new Air Command side-by-side two seaters flown by Tony Bolinger, one of the gyroplane instructors from Farrington Aircraft in Paducah, Kentucky, or by Harry Albert, who donated his personal machine.
Lots of folks took advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to taste gyro flight. Four dual-seat machines were kept busy from sunup to sundown taking up people ranging in age from an eight-year-old boy to a silver-haired lady whose age you’d never dare to ask. With few exceptions, none of these people had ever been up in a machine even remotely like a gyrocopter.
In case you ever wondered how you would react to such an experience, take heart: Bill Parsons reports that not one of his passengers was less than thrilled. I saw the looks on their faces and I think Bill was putting it mildly. One lady admitted she was going up for her fourth ride that day, and figured her forty dollars had bought a bargain compared to what she could get at nearby Kings Island theme park!
The rotorcraft folks like to emphasize the dual-seat rides for a good reason: These two-seat machines are one of the biggest reasons for the recent surge of activity in rotary-wing flying. In just the last two or three years since two-seaters became available as training vehicles, more people have learned to fly gyros safely and easily than in many years preceding.
Want to take gyro lessons? Now you can get them just like airplane lessons, sitting next to an experienced instructor who lets you take complete responsibility for the machine, and who can save you if you do something dumb. You find out right away whether this kind of flying is for you, just as 187 folks did at the rotorcraft convention by going up in a two-seat gyro.
Come to think of it, this aviation event had more gyros of the two-seat variety than some conventions have rotorcraft of all kinds. All of the dual-seaters on hand were one of two main designs: The Persons machine, with the occupants lined up one in front of the other in tandem, and the Air Command machine, with both folks sitting side by side.
This year we weren’t just seeing the factory prototypes of both these dual-seaters, but also some examples built by us regular guys. A superb Parsons machine, built by Man and Machine Award winner Ron Menzie, made its first public flight during the convention. And you could watch an Air Command two-place gyro actually being built during the event by Dick Wunderlich.
Several other two-seat designs exist around the country, and a couple of other models were on hand at the rotorcraft event. One was a closed-cabin machine built by Walter “Skip” Tyler based on the Hollman Sportster. This classy gyro easily lifts two people on its big 180-hp Lycoming aircraft engine, and it spent a lot of time doing just that.
Another enclosed dual-place machine was the J-4B-2 of Jerry Barnett, who brought his machine all the way from California. This tandem two-seater is the latest result of Barnett’s work in designing gyros that use traditional Continental and Lycoming air craft engines, resulting in bigger and presumably more reliable aircraft.
This was a rare opportunity to see one of Barnett’s exceptional gyros away from the West Coast. Barnett shared the Longest Distance Traveled award with Bob Aspergien, a Californian who flies the single-seat Barnett, a J-4B.
Of course, there were two seats in each of the three homebuilt helicopters that were there. This included two Rotorway machines, one the classic Scorpion of “Helicopter Ed” Alderfer (one of the organizers of the event), the other the latest model called the Exec. Homer Bell really made that Exec dance, using the skids to pick up objects from the ground and doing other sensitive maneuvers that won the award as the Best Flying Helicopter.
But the ’copter that generated more ooh’s and ah’s than any other was the meshing-rotor machine of Dick DeGraw, called the Hummingbird. Unlike most helicopters which have only one main rotor, this machine has two rotors placed so that their paths cross several hundred times a minute, kind of like the beaters on a Mixmaster.
This neutralizes torque on the fuselage and eliminates the need for a tail rotor. While this kind of fancy engineering is usually bypassed by the folks at Sikorsky and Bell and Hughes, Dick DeGraw made it work on his first try at building any kind of a flying machine.
And, as if to prove this is more than just an experiment, DeGraw flew his machine to the convention site in southern Ohio from his home in Jack- son, Michigan. The DeGraw machine, winner of the grand champion rotor craft award at last year’s EAA bash at Oshkosh, modestly took its place on the PRA flight line among the many other great ideas that have been turned into flying machines.
Okay, you say, those helicopters are nice, but you’re more interested in gyrocopters? You say you’d rather have the sport performance of those free wheeling-rotor machines, with their windy pilot seats and their more comfortable price tags? Then step right up to the PRA flight line, because you can get your fill of gyrocopters, right here in Middletown!
At the PRA convention there were examples of just about every major gyroplane design, from the early fifties’ Bensen machines to the latest models, which were still being developed as you watched them fly.
If you wanted to go way back, you could look at recreations of the earliest Bensen designs, the B-7 gyros designed and flown by Igor Bensen in the early fifties, before most of you were even born. Glenn Bundy has built authentic examples of these pioneering machines as the start of what he hopes will become a rotorcraft museum, and he had them on exhibit.
These early gyros look more like converted backyard swing sets than like today’s sleek machines, but they are unquestionably airworthy, and they show how it all started. They show how Igor Bensen used World War II technology developed by the British and the Germans, adapting their one-man towed rotary-wing gliders to engine power.
Prior to that, of course, the gyroplanes of Cierva and Pitcairn, called “autogiros,” had been developed to a high degree of perfection in the 1920’s and 30’s, but were abandoned when each of these pioneers met an untimely death in non rotorcraft accidents.
So if you wanted to convince your better half that the gyro you want is not some wild new idea, but rather the proven result of a long history of development, you had the evidence right there on display at the PRA convention. And if you wanted to know about the contents of the gyroplane history books, you had folks there who could quote chapter and verse.
Along with the old machines, there were lots of new ones. But unlike last year’s PRA convention in California, which was almost entirely populated by the newest designs, this year’s event in Ohio drew a preponderance of Bensen-based machines.
What that shows is not entirely clear, except to emphasize that Ben- sen’s nearly three-decade-long position as the most popular homebuilt aircraft has left its mark. Even though Bensen Aircraft closed its doors earlier this year to allow Igor and his venerable staff to retire, a lot of folks obvious ly like the Bensen design.
In fact, I counted six examples of machines equipped with a Bensen-style over head control stick, an upside-down device that works like the bar of a weight-shift hang glider. This was the type of control stick used on the original Bensen gyrocopter (as well as on both the Cierva and Pitcairn controllable-head gyros).
Regrettably, this was the first PRA convention not attended by Igor Bensen, now retired. Bensen obviously meant it when he talked earlier about passing on the rotorcraft movement to a new generation. And the younger guys have obviously picked up the ball.
You could still see a few all-Bensen machines at the PRA event, but there were lots of machines that are spin-offs of this design. One of those is the machine manufactured by Ken Brock. While Ken started out with a pure Bensen gyrocopter, he finally added enough of his own developments to rename it the Brock KB-2 gyroplane.
Today this machine still has a square-tube frame like the Bensen machine, but just about everything else on it is pure Brock. There’s the seat tank (a Brock invention, now a virtual standard for gyros), a sculptured metal tail, lightweight wheels and other hardware, an easy-handling Brock-designed joystick control, and a set of smooth-running aluminum rotor blades. Ken prefers to power his gyro with the hairy McCulloch engine, though he also can set you up with a Volkswagen power plant.
Unfortunately, Brock’s own KB-2 didn’t arrive due to a truck breakdown during the transcontinental run from his home in California, but you could still find an example of the KB-2 on the PRA flight line. The truck breakdown also prevented the PRA folks from seeing Brock’s new KB-3, which looks a lot like the KB-2 with all the necessary changes to get the best performance out of a Rotax 532 engine.
It’s not hard to understand why you see the Bensen influence in today’s rotorcraft: Just about every rotorcraft designer I can think of started in a Bensen gyrocopter. That is true of Brock, Fetters — even B. J. Schramm of Rotorway helicopter fame and Ray Umbaugh, the developer of the famed Air & Space 18A factory-built gyroplane.
One gyro manufacturer who freely acknowledges the Bensen background of his machine is Larry Ramel. His Silver Eagle gyroplane (reviewed in August ’87 Sport Pilot) looks a lot like the Bensen gyrocopter in which Ramel learned to fly.
Ramel showed up in his factory prototype machine, newly equipped with a dual-carb Rotax 503 engine. Besides manufacturing these new ultralight gyros, one of Ramel’s main activities is producing kits to convert Bensen machines to Eagles by mounting a Rotax engine and making other changes.
You could see a couple of examples of the Eagle at Middletown, operating as ultralights by using lightweight components that include light wheels, a special composite tail and an Eagle seat tank. Ramel’s own machine flies on composite rotor blades, though some of his Bensen conversions are flying well on metal blades.
Another designer who started out in a Bensen gyrocopter is Dennis Fetters. He was one of the first to abandon the McCulloch engine and develop an ultralight-capable machine around the Rotax power plant. The result, today’s growing stable of Air Command gyroplanes, was conspicuously displayed, both on the flight line and in a big tent, complete with an impressive video show.
By now you’ve seen the famous Commander 447, that best-selling ultralight gyroplane with the unique profile derived from the use of round tubing, custom-shaped rudder pedals and other hardware, and that unmistakable red plastic tail with the flying horse decal.
On hand were several examples of Air Command machines of the ultra light variety, though they were out numbered at this flying event by Commanders with the bigger Rotax 503 and 532 engines. With federal license numbers on their tails, these higher performance machines continue to demonstrate new flying capabilities derived from their high-inertia compo site rotors and their all-turning rudders.
A good example was the formation flying being practiced by a new factory team of two Air Command gyros. This multi-machine approach is really fun to watch, and has the promise of generating some enthusiastic public attention at air shows.
Last year’s prototype Air Command two-place gyro is now obviously fully operational, with several examples of this design operating through out the convention. As you read in July ’87 Sport Pilot, this is actually a Commander 532 Elite gyro with an extra wide seat, dual controls and a few other changes to adapt it to the heavier passenger load.
Aiming at new pilot training, Fetters restricts sales of this two-place upgrade to flyers with experience in his single-seat machines. It extends the Air Command line to four gyro models, the widest assortment available from any manufacturer at the convention.
And if you wonder what’s coming next, in the Air Command tent you could spy on the Commando, a military-oriented machine that looks like a G.I. model of the Fetters line of gyros, with some added touches like a couple of extended range fuel tanks and a jump takeoff device, still in development.
Imagine the havoc you could create with a swarm of these G.I. gyros in a Rambo movie! Vroom! Here they come, swooping down out of the sun, machine guns blazing! Zoosh! One fires a rocket, and it explodes into an enemy em placement with an awesome fireball of destruction.
Then, over the horizon comes a formation of 300 Commando whirlybirds, led by Rambo himself. Around him roars the heart-stopping thunder of all those fire-breathing Rotaxes, as Rambo growls orders into his helmet intercom. “Follow me!” he yells, and the mass of McCutcheon rotors flails toward the enemy, scaring them into immediate mass surrender.
Then, in a final dramatic moment, Rambo slowly takes off his helmet to reveal his true identity — not Sylvester Stallone but none other than Dennis Fetters! The Captain strikes again!
Meanwhile, back at Middletown, Ohio, aerial fantasies like this come easy when you’re looking at all those colorful flying machines.
You get the idea that the PRA folks can make just about anything fly, that there’s nothing to it. Take, for instance, the TRAGonfly (The TRAG part stands for TRansportation AGriculture). No way should this thing fly! It looks like a converted livestock watering tank, with an engine stuck on its nose, a tail hanging way out in back and a pilot straddling a big box that can carry anything from your living room furniture to a person lying down.
The TRAG shows that there’s a lot yet to be in vented in the rotorcraft world. It’s built by Earl Miner based on a flying prototype by “Helicopter Ed” Alderfer, and is designed to work like an aerial truck for missionaries operating in remote locations.
Now, for something completely different: That resonant hum you hear in the air is coming from a machine that doesn’t look anything like a Bensen gyrocopter. With a profile that resembles an F-16 fighter, this machine looks almost supersonic.
It’s the Wind Ryder, an enclosed-cabin machine developed by Kurt Shaw and Jim McCutcheon as a high-performance gyroplane. It’s equipped with a set of McCutcheon’s famous SkyWheels rotor blades, naturally, and is almost entirely made of plastic composite construction.
You probably read about the Wind Ryder, but at the PRA convention you could see it for yourself. It’s currently powered by a Rotax 532, but Shaw and McCutcheon are talking about trying out an even stronger power plant, which should boost the performance of this machine even beyond its current scorching over-100-mph top speed. It impressed the PRA folks enough to select it as both the Best New Design and the Best New Idea in Rotorcraft.
With so many gyrochoppers around you’d expect things to get kind of hectic on the flight line and in the air. But the rotorcraft blended smoothly with the fixed-wing traffic on the main run way at Hook Field, mixing in with corporate jets, private planes and even one P-51 Mustang.
The whirly birds hardly needed the mile-long runway, as was clear when the Mustang made a forced landing, stopping in the middle of the runway and closing the air port for a while to airplane traffic. The gyros hardly paid any attention to an obstruction a full 2000 feet away, popping on and off the ground with plenty of room to spare!
All this activity was managed, not by a control tower, but by the Cincinnati chapter of PRA, one of the largest rotorcraft groups in the country. Bernadine Alderfer, the president of that chapter, saw to it that everything ran smoothly.
A flag-equipped field control station was constantly manned (and womanned) by the Ohio folks, under the direction of Roger Wood. (Wood is famous as the inventor of the “Wood Loop,” a maneuver he performs at air shows in his gyrocopter to the astonishment of everyone who knows that no one has ever looped one of these machines and lived to tell about it.
Wood says it’s actually a very, very steep wingover, but you’d swear he goes upside down. (No wonder Wood got the convention’s award as the Best All- Around Pilot!) Flying is not the only activity for this rotory club when these aviators and their families get together. The evenings featured a corn-on-the-cob roast, a country rock band, a pitch-in supper, and lots of hangar talk.
Despite its growing size, the rotor craft convention has the feel of a small town Fourth of July picnic. It’s a family event, with the kids and adults entertaining each other without regard to their roles outside of flying.
It doesn’t surprise you to see a gorilla flying by in the rear seat of George Charlet’s gyro, because that’s just the kind of thing these people do. That gorilla might be a corporate president or a janitor in his day-to-day life (it was actually Glenn Bundy), but when the rotors start spinning, you, the gorilla and everybody else are buddies.
The rotorcraft folks have been quietly getting together like this for 25 years now. But the quiet of past annual PRA conventions is gradually disappearing. Each year the machines and the people change, innovate and improve. And by now they’ve come far enough to start attracting a crowd.