Air Command 532 Two-Place Gyroplane

air command gyrocopter

Come Along For The Ride As Gyro Expert, Paul Abbott, Checks Out In The Air Command Dual Commander 532

Want to go flying with me in my gyro?’ For thirty years that was a question nobody took very seriously. That’s because gyrocopters have been nearly exclusively single-seat machines since they were first de­veloped in the mid-1950s.

With only one seat, you couldn’t take a gyro ride no matter how much you want­ed to. And nobody in their right mind would have strapped themselves into that lonely seat and taken off into the wild blue yonder, just to feel the thrill of this ultimate open-air form of aviation.

fetters air command dual gyrocopter

“Go away with your camera — we don’t want to come down!” Obviously enjoying their flight in the Air Command two-place gyroplane are Tony Stone (left), just arrived from England to join the Air Command organization, and Dennis Fetters.

But now the invitation to “Come fly with me” is real. Now you can find out for yourself what it’s like to fly in one of these light whirlybirds —thanks to the new two-seat gyro-planes. The newest of these dual-seat gyros sits in a workshop in the rolling hills of western Missouri.

This is the prototype Commander two-place gy­roplane, which, over the past couple of weeks, has launched about 400 people into the world of gyro flight, one at a time. It’s just back from a couple of fly-ins in Florida where Dennis Fetters, who is president of Air Command Manufacturing, Inc., has been demonstrating his latest new aircraft.

Introduced just a year ago at the national rotorcraft fly-in at Paso Robles, California, the prototype Air Command two-place gyroplane has already survived what Fetters reckons to be nearly 1,000 passengers. If you were one of these thousand, you probably already know most of what I’m going to tell you about this dual-seat whirlybird. But if you’re not one of those thousand, you’re about to find out what you’ve missed so far.

The Air Command two-place gyro­ plane is a new type of aircraft. Sure, it’s basically your standard Com­mander 532 Elite machine with a double-wide seat added. But it’s mak­ing a big change in public interest in light rotorcraft.

In a world of only single seat gyros, the airport visitors were more interested in the airplanes —the Breezies, the Variezes, the cute little Crickets and the big ugly Bamboo Bombers—and, by default, the rotorcraft end of the field seemed empty, neglected and basically out of it.

But the two-place gyroplane has reversed the flow. Now the lines are at the rotorcraft end of the field and the conversation has changed from ailerons and rib stitching to rotor blades and Rotaxes, open seats and fun flying.

air command two seat gyrocopter

LEFT: Tanks a lot. Two fuel reservoirs are built into the double-wide seat, providing about 5-1/2 gallons of fuel.
RIGHT: There’s two of everything. Double rudder pedals, control sticks and throttles provide full dual control for training.

The comments have changed from “I wouldn’t want to go up in one of those funny-looking gyros” to “Where is the end of the line for a ride?” And the flood gates have been open­ed, releasing one of the best-kept secrets in sport flying: That the light gyroplane is one of the most exciting flying experiences this side of the Mile High Club!

But introductory rides are not the reason Fetters developed his Com­mander two-place gyroplane. “The sole reason that our two-place air­ craft was developed is for training,” explains Fetters, emphasizing the word “training” as he says it.

Fetters knows the difficulty of learning to fly a gyroplane the hard way. He learned by the method that has been used for three decades, getting his only dual instruction aboard a two-seat unpowered “gyro glider” pulled on a rope by a car.

Then, having learned from an instructor how to handle the rotor blades and control stick, he hopped aboard a single-seat McCulloch powered Bensen gyrocopter and proceeded to handle the controls, rudder, and co­ ordination of all the controls. It was so difficult and risky that very few people learned to fly this way.

Actually, the Commander two-place gyroplane is not really a new idea. It goes back many years to the dreams of a young boy growing up in western Missouri with a dream of some day becoming a builder of air­ craft.

air command gyrocopter tail

A Tail of Two Sitters! The two-place gyro is effectively stabilized by the same single all-flying rudder used on the single-place machine.

While his friends were out having fun, the young Dennis Fetters was busy making anything that might fly, from bazookas shooting projectiles to airplanes that were remote controlled or flown on a con­trol line.

Today, Dennis Fetters looks like a successful young entrepreneur. He speaks in the enthusiastic tones of a former appliance and automobile salesman (not used cars, he emphasizes!). He throws around engineer­ing terms and tolerances like a former tool and die maker, all the while directing a team of uniformed employees like a military school captain and ex-Army officer.

Dennis Fetters is all of these things and more. He is a creative developer of aircraft, whose Midas touch has put his Commander line of gyroplanes at the top of the list of best selling sport aircraft, starting from scratch just four years ago.

The walls of his private office are covered with detailed engineering drawings of a jump takeoff device, most dated December 24 and 25, re­vealing a Christmas holiday shared with a sudden inspiration. Obviously, he has an understanding wife, Lisa, to whom he attributes a great deal of his success.

In the early 1980s, the first roots of the Air Command series of gyroplanes began to sprout. Working against the grain of the McCulloch powered square-tube airframe that was the standard in those days, Fet­ters began experimenting with what seemed like wild new ideas—like using a funny little converted Bom­bardier snowmobile engine called a “Rotax”, building the airframe with round tubing that hadn’t been seen since the 1950s and designing a gyroplane that could qualify in the newly-emerged ultralight category.

It was in those early years, during the development of what has become the world’s most popular light gyro­ plane, the Commander 447, that Fet­ters recalls planning the two-place machine. “The two-place machine was designed at the same time as the first Commander,” Fetters says. “All this was designed as a package deal to make literally the most versatile gy­roplane in the world. All the rough designs of the two-place were made right when the first Commander was being put together.”

Fetters introduced the ultralight­ category Commander 447 in 1984, following it with rapid-fire introduc­tion of larger engines mounted on the same airframe: The Rotax 503 and the liquid-cooled Rotax 532.

Fetters emphasizes that the two-place gyroplane is not another model of the Commander series, but rather an added upgrade to the single-seat machine. “We don’t sell a two-place ma­chine,” Fetters says. “We sell a 532 Commander Elite. Then you can purchase a two-place upgrade. We won’t even sell it to somebody unless they have 50 hours logged on the sin­gle place Commander—50 hours!” he emphasizes.

double gyrocopter rudder pedals

Get your kicks right here. These double rudder pedals are smoothly linked to the nosewheel steering. The round pedal on the left side actuates main wheel brakes.

The reason for this requirement is safety. We don’t want people to say, “Oh gosh, we can buy this two-place gyro and go play around with it the way we can with a two-place ultralight airplane,” Fetters explains. “Until gyroplanes become more pop­ular and people understand them the way they do fixed wings, I’d rather not have the novice buy a two-place and go out there and get his friend into trouble, too.”

Fetters insists on this policy of selling the two-place upgrade only to experienced fliers. To date, the more than thirty sales of the dual­ seat gyros have been primarily to Air Command dealers for training pur­poses.

But he recognizes that some individual pilots will want the double-wide whirly bird as a more versatile recre­ational vehicle. “I was just going to sell the two-place to dealers and training centers when it was first going together,” Fetters says. “But then, after the dogonned thing came out and I saw the way it performed, we sold some of them for public use.”

Fetters wants to be certain the cus­tomer knows the machine’s limita­tions. “I really make sure he under­ stands that this is a compromise type aircraft,” he says. “It can get you into a power situation where you might be in trouble if you’ve got the aircraft grossed out.”

There are limitations to your use of any two-place gyroplane. The FAA regulations also prevent you from using any experimental aircraft for commercial purposes. And even if you have the right FAA paperwork, you probably won’t be able to get insurance to cover you and your passenger.

Converting a single-place Commander 532 Elite to the two-place machine is a simple matter, accord­ing to Fetters. He lists only three basic changes:

  1. Change the cheek plates, the two slabs of sheet aluminum that hold the rotor head on top of the mast, so as to move the rotor head three inches forward. This compensates for the change in center of gravity resulting from the heavier hunk of hu­manity hanging on the front of the machine.

  2. Mount the double-ivide seat, a formed fiberglass unit contain­ing two gas tanks holding a total of just under six gallons. Some drilling, cutting and pasting is required.

  3. Mount the dual controls, in­cluding the extra control stick, a second set of rudder pedals and a second throttle control.

  4. A fourth change, which is an op­tion, is to switch from the standard 23-foot diameter rotor blades to an extended 25-foot unit. This change is expensive, requiring a completely new rotor and hub system. But for training purposes, the longer rotor is probably worth it, since it oper­ates like the shorter blade of a single place machine, according to Fetters.

“With two people aboard, the regular 23-foot blade has to turn faster rpms to produce more lift,” Fetters explains. “That results in a quicker response to the stick. But the longer 25-foot blade slows the rotor speed down to the normal flying rpms, so the response time is the same,” he says, adding, “and its coning angle will be lower, since the shorter blades cone a little more.”

With his policy of selling the two-place option only to experienced pilots, Fetters thinks that changing from standard length rotor blades is not a requirement. There is no change in the airframe and no change in the rotor head to handle the heavier load.

Converting to a two-place con­figuration will take approximately three to four hours, Fetters estimates, when done for the first time. Once the two-place mod is installed, however, Fetters says the machine can be converted back to a single place bird in less than two hours.

“A guy has the option,” he says, “Say, this weekend he’s going to take some friends for a ride on Saturday. He can turn it into a two-place on Friday night. Then on Saturday night he converts it back into a single place. Now he’s got his hot rod back.”

dennis fetters two seat gyrocopter

LEFT: After nearly 1,000 passengers, Dennis Fetters and his two-place gyroplane take a break at Air Command headquarters, near Liberty, Missouri.
RIGHT: One head is better than two. The same rotor head is used in the two-place conversion, but is moved forward three inches. An extra gear is added to the bendix which pre-rotates the rotor blades.

While this change probably can be made rather quickly by an ex­perienced aircraft builder, keep in mind that this is not a snap-in/snap-out installation, but rather the care­ful assembly of critical components such as the rotor head and control system. It’s not exactly easy to change, but at least you’re not com­mitted to either the single- or dual­ seat configuration.

Do you wonder whether the air­ frame is strong enough to carry double the load? Then you should have been there when the Commander two-place was hang tested for balance. While dangling 2-1/2 to 3 feet above the ground with two 200- pound men aboard, the rope broke!

“It went ‘Smack!’ into the ground,” says Fetters, “and I thought, ‘Well, there went the two-place!’ But we got off, and we couldn’t find one item that was bent, warped or stressed whatsoever!”

Not many gyro builders would want to put 400 pounds in the seat of their machine and drop them 2-1/2 or 3 feet, but it’s nice to know that when somebody did, the machine survived. The Commander two-place ma­chine also survived some other unplanned tests of its strength.

When a big passenger showed up — I mean a BIG passenger, who would make the Refrigerator look like Pee Wee Herman—Fetters seized the oppor­tunity to demonstrate just how many pounds of protoplasm his aerial pack mule would haul.

“He said he weighed 330, but I think he was more,” Fetter says. “He was so massive his belly was right up against the control stick and I couldn’t move it all the way. I took off with him—after using up nearly the whole runway—but it was gusty and I didn’t have full control, so I landed it. We flew with at least 200 pounds more than the design weight limit!”

The load limit of the Commander two-place is set at 420 pounds, at sea level with ambient temperatures of 58 to 59 degrees. “Anything over that and the performance is starting to suffer,” Fetters says.

“When you get it up to the maximum load of 420 pounds, the power is just barely adequate. But with lighter guys, the performance is amazing. If you just carry two 180-pound guys, it flies like a dream. Yes, you can do tight little turns and stop and drop 30 to 40 feet and pull out.”

The Commander two-place is the newest of the dual-seat machines, but not the first. As long as 25 years ago, Chuck Vanek put a second seat behind and below the pilot of a modified gyrocopter and lifted both with McCulloch power.

gyro pilot joy flights

Dennis Fetters takes Marilyn Thomas (a Kentucky Swift – owner/pilot) for a ride in the Dual Commander 532 gyrocopter.

Over the years others experimented with two seaters, including Igor Bensen, whose dual-seat design of the 1960s was never released. Probably the first practical two-seat homebuilt gyro­ plane was the Sportster of Martin Hollman. This was an enclosed, side by side machine with dual controls, powered by a standard aircraft en­gine.

In 1975 the Sportster convincingly showed that two could wing it as easily as one, so long as there was plenty of horsepower. Other one-of-a-kind two seaters have appeared in recent years.

But then the break came. Bill Parsons, a Florida-based gyroplane innovator, developed a highly suc­cessful tandem two-seater. It resembled an expanded Bensen gyrocopter airframe powered by Parsons’ own super McCulloch engine, developing well over 400 pounds of static thrust.

Parsons was the first to begin train­ing new pilots in a powered two seater on a large scale, and was rec­ognized with a special award from the Popular Rotorcraft Association. Several additional Parsons two-seat­ers are now in service around the country launching new rotorcraft fliers with unprecedented speed and safety.

Soon thereafter the Air Command two-seater came along, giving dual­ seat training a new twist—a sideways twist. While the Parsons dual trainer placed instructor and student in tandem, one in front of the other, Fetters chose a side-by-side arrangement for his dual trainer.

two place gyro with cabin

“It was the only way to convert a small and compact single-place aircraft without major changes,” Fetters explains. “A tandem arrangement is more CG critical to the weight you put in the front seat. But with my two-place, you can pile weight into it until it simply won’t get off the ground any more and you won’t change the CG.”

Both the Parsons and Fetters two-seaters use an intercom system to allow instructor and student to com­municate over the rush of wind and engine noise. Both are also equipped with an instructor-priority control system, allowing the instructor to overpower the student’s movements of the control stick in an emergency.

Parsons has mounted a spring in the student’s control stick, which flexes whenever it’s moved in conflict with the instructor’s stick. Fetters uses a bend away system that allows the student’s stick to fail in any direction if it is forced opposite the instructor’s stick. The instructor can then land the machine and make a very emphatic point with the stu­dent. Replace one part and the machine is ready to go again.

It looks like the Commander two-place gyroplane has everything you need in a realistic training platform for new gyro pilots and a reasonable two-seat recreational vehicle: A sturdy airframe, a hefty power plant, an instructor-priority control system and a machine that is a virtual duplicate of the gyro you may fly as a solo pilot. That’s just about every­ thing a person could want.

And the price? It’s $800 (EDITOR: 1987 prices!) for the two-place upgrade kit. Added to the $6800 price of the single-place Commander 532 Elite, you have a com­plete two-place gyroplane for $7600. Now right about now I sense that all but about a thousand of you are beginning to wonder about the accuracy of this report, since it all sounds too good to be true.

And now’s when I need for that thousand of you who have actually flown in this machine to stand up and verify what I’m about to tell you, as we go for a flight in the Commander two-place gyroplane.

Picture this: A quiet little country airport just two hills away from the west edge of Missouri City, Missouri. It’s Liberty Landing, the world head­ quarters of Air Command Manufacturing, Inc., where the two-place Commander is being readied for a flight.

After surviving the pre-flight scrutiny of no less than two uni­formed members of the Air Com­mand team, the machine is again checked by the Captain himself. Fet­ters notices a glitch in a rudder cable, looks it over closely and pronounces it safe for today’s flying but at the top of the squawk list to be fixed after the flight.

EDITOR: I was ALWAYS taught – fix first, fly second – EVERY TIME!

Practiced hands feel a slight drag in the movement of the rudder pedals, and a couple of squirts of WD-40 are summoned as a field expediency. “Let’s go flying!” says the Captain, and the workshop doors open to release this bird from its roost.

As the pilot and crew roll out the machine, you notice a change in Fet­ters’ voice. His words come faster, his hands move as he talks, he smiles a lot. Can it be that this 1400-hour gyroplane pilot, with nearly a thousand passenger rides behind him — can it be that this man who lives and breathes rotorcraft all day, every day, is excited about one more flight?

You ask him. “I still get excited every time I fly a gyro, just as much as when I first started,” he confesses. “Amazing!” you think. Maybe you’ve finally found the one great experience that doesn’t wear off!

gyrocopter instructor flights

Maneuverable and responsive handling allow an instructor to demonstrate the performance capabilities of a light gyroplane.

You begin to consider that point, but your thoughts are interrupted by the burbling sound of the starter rope being pulled to prime the en­gine. Then “Switch on!” and after two or three pulls, the cold, tired engine altitude, the wind is again coming strongly from the front and you’re flying again.

Then, because Fetters knows you have flown gyros before, he treats you to a couple of things you’ve only seen done with one person aboard: A couple of sideways slides, a flat turn and a nearly 90 degree bank – (lets say 88 degrees!). In the hands of Fetters this two-seat gyro is performing well, maintaining altitude and maneuvering nearly as sharply as a single-seat gyroplane.

Now the intercom says, “You take it!” And without hesitation, your feet slide onto the rudder pedals and your hand grasps the control stick. It feels smooth and solid, much like the vibration-damped stick of a commercial helicopter.

It reminds you of the time you took the stick of a big, heavy Air and Space 18-A factory-built gyroplane, even though the machine you’re flying, with 375 pounds of passengers, weighs only a little more than 700 pounds.

dennis fetters air command gyrocopter kit

Staying on top of his rotorcraft, Dennis Fetters shows how strong the Air Command two-place gyroplane is.

And that’s where you’re fooled. Compared to your experience in a single-seat gyrocopter, the heavier fiberglass rotors respond to the controls more slowly than your light­ weight metal blades, but the airframe swings nearly as fast. The result is the distinctive nose up/nose down swing of PIO, “Pilot Induced Oscil­lation.” You are porpoising!

Despite your many hours in the air in a single seat gyrocopter, you are experiencing that dreaded char­acteristic of all aircraft, the one you warn beginning gyro pilots about. And like a new pilot, your instinc­tive control movements are wrong for this machine. But with a conscious effort not to overreact (and a little subtle help on the stick from Fetters), you get things settled down to smooth and level flight.

On the ground, Fetters speaks regretfully of not being able to make his two-seat control system inhibit porpoising the way it does on the single-seat machine. Describing the single-seat machine, he says, “The Commander control was designed to buffet out porpoising. The more you move the control, the less function goes into the rotor blades. So if you move the stick a little bit, she works really fine. But the farther you move it, the less the push rods actually work.”

“On the two-place,” Fetters con­tinues, “due to its heavier weight below its horizontal CG, and due to the weight being farther back and the rotor head being farther forward, the two-place will porpoise about as much as a Bensen.”

“That’s great!” you think, per­spiring under your helmet. “I hope every beginning pilot finds out what porpoising feels like, so they can rec­ognize and respect it the way air-plane pilots are taught to recognize and respect the onset of a stall/spin situation.” Porpoising is the closest thing a gyroplane has to a deadly flight characteristic, and, as I found out that day, it is something any gyroplane pilot can experience in an unfamiliar machine.

With that humbling experience out of the way, we could get back to finding out how the machine feels in a left bank, and right bank, a climb and a descent. Whatever you do, it’s fun. And wherever you point that machine, you enjoy a one-of-a-kind view of the world below you from that solid ferris wheel seat.

It’s comfortable, secure and breath­ taking. The machine performs well. It’s definitely not as responsive as a single-seat machine, but it feels more than adequate for training and for sensible recreational use.

I don’t know how the machine be­ haves when heavily loaded on a hot, humid day, and I don’t want to find out. Nobody who flies one of these Commander two-place gyros should find out, either. Leave it to Captain Fetters to do that kind of testing and to recommend what the safe limits should be. That way, you won’t treat your friends to the wrong kind of excitement aboard your two-seat flying carpet.

new aircommand two seat gyrocopter kit

New version tall – centerline Aircommand two seat gyrocopter kit

Abruptly the intercom crackles and the Captain announces he’s back in control, ready to take it home for a landing. You watch your feet do one more maneuver in front of you, tilting to a 45 degree bank while the world makes a couple of turns and you spiral down to the runway.

The approach is familiar. You fly, gyro-style, right down within a few feet of the runway at full cruising speed. The throttle comes smoothly back, you flare, and the machine kisses the ground in a rolling touch­ down.

It wasn’t exactly the steep zero-touchdown-speed flare of a single-seat machine that you like to compare to jumping seat first into a big marshmallow cushion. But those 25-foot rotor blades obviously have enough lifting power to set two peo­ple down gently.

With the ride over, the closely-held secret shared by only a thou­sand people is out: The Air Com­mand two-seat gyroplane is hardly the marginal performer you might have suspected. With a reasonable load and reasonable weather conditions, it is maneuverable, adequately powered and, most of all, a double dip of flying fun.

There’s no better description than the words of Cheryl Pence, the Air Command Girl Friday, after her flight in the two-seater, “I loved it — and I don’t even like flying!”

Cheryl is one of those thousand people I keep talking about. But that number is growing as more and more Commander two-place gyro­ planes go into operation. Let’s hope that soon you will be one of the expanding number of people who have accepted the invitation, “Want to go flying with me in my gyro?”


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Summary
Air Command 532 Two-Place Gyroplane
Article Name
Air Command 532 Two-Place Gyroplane
Description
In the early days when Fetters cared about safety and safe gyrocopter design, these amazing little gyroplanes were a buzz every where across the USA.
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