If things had gone differently, the name of Air and Space would be as familiar as those of Cessna and Piper, according to two enthusiasts who are reviving the 18A gyrocopter in Florida. What are their chances of success?
The fuselage on the Air and Space 18A begins to tremble as Brandon Blacker brings in the power. For nearly a minute, we sit on the taxiway at Florida’s Bell Glade Airport while the main rotor blades spin faster and faster.
When the tachometer tells us we have 370 RPM, Brandon, who is sitting directly in front of me in the captain’s chair, gets very busy preparing this strange-looking craft for flight.
With the brakes locked he disengages the clutch to the main rotor, allowing it to spin on its own. Simultaneously and automatically, all of the Air and Space 18A engine’s power is transferred to the aft-mounted pusher propeller behind the cabin.
The 18A has it roots in the Pitcairn autogyro that enjoyed a brief success in the United States in the 1930s.
The tachometer for that prop now jumps from 2,300 to 2,700 RPM. With the engine roaring, he hits a little button on top of the throttle which pivots the main rotor into eight degrees of pitch and eases back on the stick as he releases the brakes.
Almost as if we are being hurled by a giant sling-shot, we lunge forward about ten feet, the nose comes up and we sail into the air. The ground drops away and we skim over the sugar-cane fields, north of the sleepy little landing strip.
The view in this tandem-seat Air and Space 18A aircraft is spectacular. The cabin is nearly all plexiglass, which affords a clear view in almost any direction except through the cabin floor and directly to the rear.
With the side-entry door removed for this flight, you can lean out into the airstream to get an even better view of the ground below. And there is plenty of time to observe anything of interest.
The 18A can go into a near hover, making slow turns around any point that needs an extended inspection. The specification sheet says the minimum level-flight speed is 27mph, so with a 15mph headwind it would be possible to crawl along over the ground at 12mph.
After playing around for a few minutes, Brandon asks if I would like to “give her a try”. I grab hold of the Air and Space 18A stick that is in front of me in the rear seat and come up on the rudder pedals.
The control response is, in a word, “unusual”. Making gentle turns and straight and level, the Air and Space 18A handles a lot like a heavy Piper Cub, but in a steep turn it is like nothing I have experienced.
Steering to the right requires a very healthy shove on the rudder pedal while the stick forces remain rather light. To the left requires nearly no rudder input, while the stick force is about the same as for the right turn.
(A call to a gyroplane expert later reveals that this strange state of affairs is due to the gyroscopic effect of the rotor blade.) As a result, my turns are rather sloppy with the impression that it is skidding a good deal as well as turning.
I suspect that after a few hours of practice you could find the right combination to make perfect swaths in the sky, but do not assume you will to be able to treat it like a fixed wing aircraft or a helicopter.
The Air and Space 18A combines a little of both technologies and that is why the factory advertises it as a “heliplane”. But while “heliplane” may sound sexy in the ad copy, it is technically imprecise.
The 18A is in reality a gyroplane and at this writing is the only certificated one being offered for sale. Its history is as unusual as the craft itself. The 18A has it roots in the Pitcairn autogyro that enjoyed a brief success in the United States in the 1930s.
It was a large machine, looking a lot like a Waco aircraft fuselage with a huge wire-braced helicopter style propeller above its two open cockpits. In the late 1950s, aviation promoter Ray Umbaugh began touting the autogyro concept.
He obtained a Pitcairn from a museum and began giving demonstrations of what the old bird could do. Umbaugh was convinced that if he could get sufficient financial backing he could make major improvements in autogyro technology and produce a new aircraft.
Many of the people who saw the old Pitcairn do its thing were more than a little impressed and put deposits down to buy Umbaugh’s promised aircraft and become dealers for his company. Gilbert De Vore was hired to design the dream into reality.
Among the possibilities are police observation, border patrol, crop dusting, aerial photography and personal and business air transportation that is free from the constraints of landing at an airport.
A 180hp Lycoming was chosen to power the Air and Space 18A gyroplane, a supplier for Bell Helicopter agreed to fabricate the rotorblades, and a constant speed Hartzell pusher propeller was selected for the rear-mounted powerplant.
Tricycle landing gear made for easy ground handling and a distinctive tail with three vertical stabilizers set it apart from nearly anything else on the local airport ramp. In 1961, the Air and Space 18 passed government tests and was awarded a US type certificate.
But despite the engineering accomplishments, the project was in deep financial trouble. Some of the investors, worried about production delays, thought they might lose their money. A few filed lawsuits and as the money stream went dry Umbaugh declared bankruptcy.
A sale of stock a few years later brought new life back to the ailing company and by 1965 the firm managed to start making deliveries. There was a huge backlog of orders — some 3,500 Air and Space 18A gyrocopters of which nearly 200 were fully paid contracts.
Just as the future was looking bright, the Federal Government got into the act with an investigation of the company’s issuance of stock. Although a jury trial cleared the firm of any wrongdoing, public confidence had vanished and after producing only 68 aircraft the factory shut its doors for the last time in 1968.
It was pity, because after an investment of nearly $6 million a fine little aircraft was being produced that had almost all the performance of a helicopter at a fraction of the cost. The story might have ended right there, but for the untiring efforts of two of the men who tried so hard to make a go of Air and Space back in the 1960s.
Don Farrington and John Potter were dealers and they were convinced that had circumstances gone differently the Air and Space name would be as familiar today as Cessna or Piper. In 1972, they joined forces and began purchasing as many of the old Air and Space 18s as they could find.
They set up shop in a Paducah, Kentucky, under the name Air and Space America and began completely remanufacturing the aircraft and offering them for sale. Today, the average price of an Air and Space 18 is about $110,000 and that includes a basic radio package, collective trim system, cabin heater and an intercom.
Company literature claims a comparable equipped Air and Space 18A is $27,025, less expensive to buy than a Robinson R22 helicopter, and an additional saving of $17,990 over the Robinson is realized for every 800 hours of operation.
What you give up in the Air and Space 18A is the ability to hover. A helicopter can do that; a gyroplane must be on the move to keep its rotor spinning. The 18A that I flew was on loan from Air and Space America to Air Crop Care in Belle Glade, Florida.
Air Crop Care pilots were conducting an evaluation to determine whether it holds promise in the role of a crop-duster. The evaluation process continues, with an experimental, agricultural version of the aircraft being put through its paces.
If the concept proves successful aerial applicators could save big money with its lower operating cost compared to a helicopter, but based on our flight I suspect that hauling a big load of chemicals is not going to be easy.
We discovered that on a hot Florida day the climb performance in the certificated version of the Air and Space 18 was wanting. The most we could get from the craft was around 250 feet per minute and that was with two on board and less than half a tank of gasoline.
To be fair, I should point out that the Air and Space 18A climb data was from an altitude of 500 feet while the initial climb rate from the ground seemed to be adequate to operate from just a few hundred feet without obstructions.
The specification sheet calls for a useful load of only 485 pounds, which after filling the tanks leaves under 300 pounds for two people and their baggage. Leveling off, we set the power at 24 inches of manifold pressure and 2,400 RPM.
That produced an indicated cruise of between 80 and 85mph while burning about ten gallons (US ) an hour. The factory claims a 92mph cruise at 75 per cent power, and with its standard tank with 28.3 gallons (US) it has a range of 200 statute miles with reserve.
Airplanes equipped with the 180 hp Lycoming may produce dramatically better performance, but if the engine quits, the Air and Space would be my first choice for a powerless descent. Once again at the controls, Brandon climbed to 1,000 feet and brought the motor to idle and we simply started a gradual descent.
With its slow forward motion, any open space not much bigger that a good sized backyard would be a safe haven in a deadstick landing. Company officials say that with no forward airspeed a safe descent can be made from as little as 300 feet. In cruise, a deadstick is possible from any altitude.
Bringing a little power back in Brandon began a normal landing descent that is initiate d at around 500 feet and about 50mph. The trick is to plan the approach so that the landing area does not move from a set position in the windscreen.
Airspeed is reduced to 40mph at an altitude of around ten feet and a gentle pitch-up flare is made to dissipate almost all of the forward motion. We gently plopped onto the grass in the Air and Space 18A beside the runway and came to a stop in about 75 feet. The meager ground run probably could have been shorter if Brandon had not gone so easy on the brakes.
My impression from my brief stint at the controls is that a fixed-wing pilot of average ability could easily adapt to the special requirements of flying the 18A. I have been badly embarrassed during the few times I took the controls of a helicopter and tried to point it in the proper direction during hover.
The Air and Space 18A gyrocopter must maintain forward motion to provide lift to its free-spinning propeller and that forward motion makes its control inputs more like those of an airplane which also needs forward motion for the wing to generate lift.
In addition to remanufacturing the Air and Space 18, Air and Space America operates a gyroplane training center on its own airfield in Paducah, Kentucky. Private pilots wishing to add a gyroplane rating can expect a minimum of 15 hours and a flight check to get the unusual rating on their license.
Persons without any flight time can expect a 40 hour course to get their private pilot gyroplane license. The 18A rents for $100 solo. What does the future hold for the 18A? Well, company officials readily admit that they have a problem with its weight-lifting capabilities and a fix is in the works.
John Potter told me the 18 was originally designed to be a trainer and a personal aircraft. Don Farrington added that the design is capable of a 2,500-pound gross weight with a cabin seating four, but to lift that load they will have to go to more powerful engines.
With its slow forward motion any open space not much bigger that a good sized backyard would be a safe haven in a deads tick landing.
The candidates under consideration are the 200 and 230 hp Lycomings. They are also taking a look at a turboprop powerplant. Going in the other direction, a lightweight kitbuilt version is also in the works.
The kitbuilt Air and Space 18A prototype has accumulated about 40 hours. To date, about 20 of the old 18s have been made ‘like-new’, with the latest copy going to South Africa. Orders have been placed for three more.
As the company continues to remanufacture the remaining 18As, it will begin to run out of parts to recycle and suppliers are being lined up to produce totally new aircraft. Don and John see a number of uses for the 18A and its subsequent models.
Among the Air and Space 18A gyrocopter possibilities are police observation, border patrol, crop dusting, aerial photography and personal and business air transportation that is free from the constraints of landing at an airport.
Like two old preachers, they are waiting for a revival…but theirs will not have a piano, singing or clapping; only the whop…whop…whop of a gyrocopter blade.