FIFTY AIRPLANES IN THE SKY AT ONCE, NO TOWER, NO CONTROLLERS, NO RADIOS, AND A THOUSAND DIFFERENT RUNWAYS?
…AT SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’S EL MIRAGE DRY LAKE, IT’S EVERY PILOT FOR HIMSELF
Many of the regular visitors to El Mirage are there in search of fun flying and a festive atmosphere. Powered parachutes are one new, popular form of ultralight flight here. At least half a dozen of these craft were flying from the lake bed the day we dropped by.
In my very first trip to Southern California about 25 year’s ago, one of the places I definitely wanted to see was El Milage Dry Lake. For years I’d been reading so much about the aviation goings-on at tills surreal site that I just had to see it all with my own eyes.
When I finally got there, I was so impressed by all the activity, I vowed to come back some day and make my home nearby. It was on a pleasant weekend during that trip that I first met the legendary Ken Brock of gyroplane fame.
He was out at El Mirage with a couple of his buddies and they were having a great time flying their gyroplanes. During one of his breaks, I went over, introduced myself and we had a pleasant chat. It was quite a thrill for me to speak with this renowned, but very amiable pilot.
Ken maintains a weekend home and a hangar at the west end of El Mirage Dry Lake, and he and his friends spend many hours in the air in their gyroplanes there. Other ultralight enthusiasts, ultralight club members and their families also meet there several times a month.
That day at El Mirage, I also saw a variety of other vehicles — motorcycles, racing cars, sand sailors, and Bonneville racers — flying though the timing traps. There seemed to be no regulations of any kind, so I figured that anyone who ventured on this extremely busy, huge expanse of dry lake did so at his own risk.
Although the term “dry lake” may not be familiar to some people who don’t live in the desert Southwest, a dry lake is a lake that dries up from time to time. During rainy times, water collects in these very shallow basins. Since it has no natural outlet, it just sits on the surface.
When the weather dries up and the hot sun starts to shine, the water evaporates, leaving behind a very hard packed clay-like surface that is incredibly smooth. Because it is so smooth, flat, and hard, this kind of surface is ideal for operating all kinds of recreational vehicles, airplanes included.
By now most everybody has probably seen at least one space shuttle landing at Muroc Dry Lake, which is part of the NASA facility at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It was from Muroc Dry Lake, part of the same dry lake system as El Mirage, that intensive secret testing of rocket planes and supersonic aircraft took place during the early 1950s.
It was from this lake that Chuck Yeager took off the day he broke the sound barrier for the first time in the Bell X-1. Well, El Mirage, located only 30 miles east of Muroc, is exactly the same kind of dry lake. The only difference is that El Mirage is open to the public.
Because the spring of 1993 proved to be one of the wettest in recent history, water stood on the surface of both Muroc and El Mirage for quite some time this year, and they remained very wet dry lakes for months.
When one of our space shuttles was scheduled to land at Ed wards AFB during this time period, officials were forced to choose between using the shorter landing area of the hard runway at Edwards or that near the launch area at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Even regular Sports Aviation users of dry lakes in Southern California were forced to wait until Mother Nature eventually dried up the lake. One of the benefits of our rains this past spring was that when the El Mirage lake bed finally dried, its surface, beneath the top l/8th inch layer of dust, emerged completely smooth and hard as concrete.
A joy of a giant runway to fly from. So, on the Sunday morning when the annual gathering of gyroplanes was scheduled, we drove out to El Mirage with great anticipation, eager to see what was new with our friends, the gyroplane pilots.
Arriving at one of the dozens of entrances to El Mirage, we began looking around for them. What we encountered was not just one gyroplane event, but a virtual shore-to-shore gathering of a wide variety of aircraft types.
In fact, there were so many different groupings of vans, motor homes, tents and trailers, we had to stop and check each of them to find the one we were looking for. The first group we encountered on the east end of the lake were the pilots of radio-control racing aircraft who were practicing for the upcoming Reno-Style Unlimited R/C Races.
In front of a dozen or so large vehicles, scale modelers were busy assembling the giant models for flight, while others had already launched their planes. Helpers were using a radar gun to check the speed of each aircraft as it transversed the area, first into the wind, and then with the wind.
By averaging out these speeds, pilots could determine which prop to use for best results, here and especially when it came time to race at the big Reno-Style Race in Madera, California, a couple of weeks later.
Saying goodbye to our modeler friends, we looked up toward the horizon and saw a huge cloud of dust rising and drifting toward us. (The prevailing wind in this area is from the west.) Surely this must be the gyroplane meet, we thought, as we headed very carefully in that direction.
When driving around on a dry lake where there are no marked roads, one must be extremely careful not to wander into the path of other vehicles. Imagine the consequences if you were to wander into the path of a jet-powered racing car doing 250 mph, or that of a father-and-son team on a quad runner doing 35 mph. So we drove very carefully.
As we progressed around the perimeter of the lake, we noticed an ambulance and its crew standing by at one area, ready to respond to any emergency. Unfortunately, on more than one weekend, there have been quite a few. This day, thankfully, we heard no sirens. Then we saw a number of aircraft rising out of the dust. Coming closer, we recognized the type.
They were Lazairs — six of them. We waited until they’d landed, then walked around and spoke with their owners. Each of these legendary Canadian ultralights was powered with two small, two-stroke engines mounted on the wings.
And each engine had two props, mounted back to back. Quite unusual. Well, this wasn’t the group we were looking for, so we headed southwest on the big dry lake (about three miles wide by 9 miles long).
Then we saw another large group of motor vehicles parked at the edge of the lake, with both gyroplanes and ultralights taking off and landing in front of the area. Thinking that this surely must be the gyroplane meet, we soon found we were wrong again.
It was a gathering of one of the local ultralight flying clubs, and the gyroplanes were just visiting. We stopped for a while and watched the interesting variety of early aircraft. There was a Vector, a Rally, an Eagle, a Weedhopper, a Raven, an Eipper, a CGS, and even some early Challengers.
We saw weight-shifts, spoiler-controls, and three-axis-control airplanes, all flying side by side. Not wanting to miss this opportunity to add to our collection of ultralight photographs, we ran through several rolls of film taking pictures of these interesting ultralights for future issues of Sport Pilot.
Climbing back into our van, we resumed driving around the perimeter of El Mirage, but we were fast running out of dry lake. When there was only about five miles left, we spotted another large group of campers and motor homes parked at the edge.
They all seemed to be rising out of a watery expanse. It was just a visual illusion, of course — and one of the reasons why this is called El Mirage. We made our way to the area, being careful to dodge the various aircraft, motorcycles, ATVs, sand sailors and racing cars which might be crossing our path.
At last, we found the gyroplanes — a very large number of them. The inventor of the gyrocopter who started all this — Igor Benson — would have been proud. The usual good-natured bantering was slightly subdued at this year’s event, though, because rumor had it that the FAA was going to start cracking down on two-place gyroplanes flown by non-licensed pilots.
Under FAA part 103, the weight-limitation rule of 254 pounds is the same for gyroplanes as it is for ultralights. Aircraft over that weight must be inspected and issued an “N” number. And a student pilot with a Third Class Medical may fly the aircraft with an instructor’s sign-off.
At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Last year, one of the pilots told us that, by his estimates (and according to FAA standards), about 95 percent of the pilots and aircraft were flying illegally. (I wondered what the percentage was this year.)
Most gyro pilots keep a low profile, discipline their own within the group, and fly very carefully. This hasn’t always been the case with gyrocopter pilots nation wide, though, because a disturbingly large number of them have been involved in accidents since their introduction.
It was at this gathering last year that I went on my first gyroplane flight. Steve Graves, originally from Tennessee, took me up in his almost certified Lycoming-powered, two-place BSH training air craft.
Steve is one of the few persons who has been allowed the privilege of granting rotorcraft, gyroplane, ratings to other pilots so that they may legally fly passengers in their certified homebuilt gyroplanes.
This is a valuable privilege. It’s been very difficult for a person to get the instruction needed to obtain a rotorcraft, gyroplane, rating because instructors with either a McCullough or an Air & Space-certified autogyro are few and far between.
Some years ago, it was thought by some that these two aircraft might be come an affordable replacement for helicopters. It was a valid concept, but neither aircraft company ever became financially successful. Those few gyro planes still in service are highly prized for their legal, two-place commercial value.
Knowing the hardships involved in getting everybody to fly legally, the FAA is attempting to grant rating privileges to certain qualified few pilots who possess the necessary qualifications and equipment which they deter mine to be safe for this purpose. Steve Graves was the first to be receive this FAA rating privilege.
The first gyroplanes, then called auto gyros or autogiros, were designed in Europe by Juan de Ciervo who was at tempting to build an airplane which would takeoff in a very short distance and land in even less space. Military officials soon realized their usefulness as battlefield transportation aircraft, or as observation planes.
During the early 1930s, almost every major country had been licensed to build one or another kind of autogyro. In the US, the Kellet Corporation, a large aviation company in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, bought the license, and the resulting product was on display for some time at their factory.
With the development and refinement of a practical helicopter toward the end of World War Two, autogyros were relegated to a role they still occupy today — inexpensive homebuilt vehicles.
How do homebuilt helicopters and homebuilt gyroplanes differ? A helicopter is equipped with an engine which directly powers its rotor blades and tail rotor, from which it derives its lift and its thrust.
A gyroplane is also equipped with an engine, but on a gyroplane, the engine drives a simple propeller just like you’d find on a regular fixed-wing air plane. All of the gyroplane’s thrust is created by this engine-driven propeller.
A helicopter, in contrast, has no such propeller. Its powered rotor blades provide the thrust. Unlike the rotor blades on a helicopter, the blades on an gyroplane are not powered. So before it can fly, a gyro plane must first develop some forward speed by making a short takeoff run.
The airflow coming up from under the blades then causes them to spin. Once they are spinning at a fast-enough speed, these blades become the wings of the aircraft. That is their sole purpose. So, while helicopters are able to hover, autogyros cannot. They must move forward or downward at all times in order to generate lift and keep the blades turning.
There are several types of gyroplanes. The first to appear were powered with very noisy, four-cylinder, two-stroke, drone-type McCullough engines. Their saving grace was that they had a great power-to-weight ratio, and they were cheap.
Today, a large number of gyroplanes are pushers with Rotax engines. Some gyroplane builders have tried VW conversions, while still others prefer certified engines. Steve Graves has a 150 Lycoming in his BSH gyroplane.
Most older gyros are single-place ones, but with the recent availability of larger, more powerful Rotax engines, the trend is toward two-place models. Some two-placers feature tandem seating, but most are side-by-side seaters. Some gyroplane enthusiasts also disagree about another component.
Should gyroplanes with pusher engines have a rudimentary horizontal stabilizer? Or does it only add weight while accomplishing little or nothing?
Those against the addition of a horizontal stabilizer claim that gyroplanes, which are equipped with that component, are involved in many more accidents than those which are not. Discussions are still going on.
It’s probable that, at sometime in the near future, some gyroplane enthusiasts may switch over to one of the newly emerging true homebuilt helicopters, like Dennis Fetter’s Revolution 500.
While we’ve seen the prototype 500 at several aviation events during the past few years, we’ve been told that production versions should be up and flying by next year. And speaking of helicopters, there was a very nice, older Scorpion helicopter at El Mirage this past Sunday morning.
One of the very first successful homebuilt helicopters, the design of the Scorpion is said to have been the inspiration for that of today’s excellent, very popular, Arizona-based Rotorway Execs and Exec 90s.
Most of the accidents in gyroplanes are caused when a negative force is applied to the blades, causing them to bend down and strike the rudder. When this happens, the blades stop spinning, the aircraft loses its lift, and the gyroplane plummets to the ground.
Many gyroplane accidents can be avoided by careful use of control inputs, constant vigilance, and caution. And with an ample amount of training from a qualified gyroplane instructor, almost anyone with the necessary desire and dedication to do so can learn to fly a gyro safely.
If your travels take you to Southern California, do plan on spending several days at these locations in the high desert. Visit El Mirage, Edwards Air Force Base and NASA, and Mojave Airport.
These are the homes of more different kinds of experimental aircraft than you ever dreamed there were. These locations are all very close to each other, and each provides the visitor with a widely diverse aviation experience.
To reach El Mirage Dry Lake from Los Angeles, take the Antelope Valley Freeway (14) from the San Fernando Valley (Interstate 5) exit at Palmdale, and drive due east on Highway 138, then highway 18. Go north on Sheep Creek Road, then east on El Mirage Road, and look for entrance signs.
Another route: Take Interstate 10 from Los Angeles, get on Interstate 15 north toward Barstow/Las Vegas, then exit on Route 395 toward Bishop. Once you get to Adelanto, follow the signs for El Mirage, which is to the west.
There is no charge for visiting El Mirage Dry Lake, but be forewarned; after seeing all the flying going on there with your own eyes, you may want to pack it all up and move on out. There are worse fates.