1987: Dennis Fetters of Air Command located at Excelsior Springs, Missouri, always knew he wanted to run a gyroplane fly-in.
The nearby city of Higginsville plus Fetters’ own Air Command Manufacturing company and months of work by himself and his employees came together on the Memorial Day weekend, May 22 to 24, to complete the dream: The First Air Command International Fly-in.
Dennis Fetters would have been pleased with more attendance, but the 30 gyroplanes that appeared, their pilots and the accompanying families contributed to a successful event with an international flavor.
Although Fetters has talked for several years about sponsoring a rotorcraft event, final decisions on a date and location were made too late to get advance publicity in long-lead-time publications (such as KITPLANES).
Yet the support of the city of Higginsville (especially Chamber of Commerce Executive Secretary Jack Coats and Higginsville Airport Manager Roy Johnson), plus area FAA inspectors and local gyroplane pilots . . . all combined to produce an excellent first-year event.
Fetters’ idea is to promote rotorcraft flying in general and gyroplanes in particular with a regular midwest event to complement the several Popular Rotorcraft Association (PRA) fly-ins held around the country. To that end, Fetters made it a point to emphasize that all sport rotorcraft pilots and manufacturers were welcome.
He even offered his competitors free ramp space to display their wares. He invited Igor Bensen, developer of the Gyrocopter sport gyroplane, plus Ken Brock, who manufactures gyroplane kits, to display at the event.
Homer Bell, who sells RotorWay Exec helicopter kits, was also invited to attend with a commercial display. Also welcomed was WindRyder of Boulder, Colorado, the company that will be kitting the new composite Wind Ryder gyroplane.
Of Air Command’s competitors, only WindRyder participated at Higginsville. (Ken Brock noted that attendance at a PRA event to be held two weeks after the Higginsville fly-in would prevent him from attending; he is national PRA president.)
One of the pilots flying a modified Bensen Gyrocopter said he thought the Air Command name in the title of the event discouraged competing commercial exhibits.
Nevertheless, numerous Bensen gyros were present, and one of Ken Brock’s dealers participated. The longtime business that has put Higginsville on the map, as least for radio controlled model fans, Ace R/C, displayed some of its equipment.
Ace R /C has been in business in Higginsville since the 1950s and may be the only remaining U.S. company manufacturing radio control systems. Ace stays competitive with its Asian competition by offering custom equipment in kit form, plus innovative and inexpensive aircraft models.
Despite a lack of commercial rotorcraft displays, the variety of people and flying machines on the ramp and in the air at Higginsville, plus safe flying, indicated a successful fly-in.
Scheduled events included a fun-fly contest with trophies, two evenings of bring-your-own-meat barbecues that included free beer and soft drinks (plus plenty of hot dogs for those lacking something else to burn on the charcoal), all of it provided by Air Command.
Among the guests was Wing Commander Ken Wallis, RAF retired, who has designed, built and flown 23 different gyroplanes, mostly for research into aerial sensors and other scientific projects.
The subject of an hour-long BBC television special some years ago, Wallis was seen flying his rocket-firing “Little Nellie” gyro in the James Bond movie, “You Only Live Twice,” where he stood in for Sean Connery in the flying scenes.
Ken Wallis advice on flying gyros
The machine needs to be ridden with sympathy. You don’t impose your will on it.” Wallis, who flew Lancaster bombers during WW-II and the B-36 after the war, is a delightful gentleman of 72 who still flies his own gyros regularly for various research projects.
Dennis Fetters brought Ken Wallis from England to address the Sunday-night banquet, which hosted more than 100 people at a delicious meal at the Higginsville American Legion hall. Banquet tickets were a bargain at $8. Other guests included an aspiring gyro pilot from Denmark and another who is flying Air Command gyros actively in Puerto Rico.
Andy Keech, an Australian currently living in Washington, D.C., also attended. Keech’s photo essay books on sky-diving, titled Sky’s Call, are classics in the field Then there was Earl Miner from Marshfield, Missouri, with his Flying TRAG.
The non-flying TRAG, it turns out, is a three-wheeled, eight-horsepower tricycle that was designed by Miner and is being used in third world countries for transportation and agricultural duties.
A full-time employee of the United Methodist Church, Miner said his job is to design simple products that can make life better for people in poor nations. Plans for the TRAG tractor, for example, are given to potential manufacturers in third world countries.
The Flying TRAG, which had not yet flown during the Higginsville meet, is intended to be a slow aerial workhorse. With a planned payload of up to 300 pounds, the gyroplane should be capable of jobs ranging from delivering mail to transporting a litter patient.
Miner compared the cost of a popular medivac helicopter ($1.75 million) to his Flying TRAG, which he says he can produce for $10,000. “Helicopter Ed” Alderfer, a well known gyro designer and long-time writer for PRA, was at Higginsville and is responsible for some of the features of the Flying TRAG.
He will test-fly the new machine, which is powered by a Rotax 532 65-hp liquid-cooled engine. Like all of the Air Command gyros and many others at the event, the TRAG uses McCutchen Air Wheels composite rotor blades.
Ed Alderfer’s own gyro design, which he flew at the event, is called a GyroChopper II. Power is from a VW engine he converted. Oldest gyro pilot at the event was Harry Vanderford of Kansas City, Missouri, who is now 83.
He delighted the crowd by flying his 22-year-old Bensen B-8 Gyroglider, which is towed behind a car. He noted that his original wooden rotor blades lasted 17 years until a friend damaged them in a non-injury accident. Vanderford’s craft flies now on metal blades.
Among the machines creating the most excitement at the fly-in was the latest version of the WindRyder gyro. A sleek fully enclosed cockpit is complemented by a tail featuring three vertical fins.
Developed by a group including rotor manufacturer Jim McCutchen, the WindRyder has evolved into a sleek and obviously fast gyroplane. The WindRyder looked good on the ground and in the air at Higginsville. Kits are expected to cost about $13,000.
One non-injury gyro accident marred the three-day fly-in’s safety record, but not for long. A spark plug wire came off one of the two-cylinder Rotax engines.
On partial power, the pilot put his gyro down in a ditch on the west side of Higginsville’s paved runway, where a rotor tip struck an embankment after a soft, zero-speed touchdown.
The rotor mast broke and the rotor was destroyed. The incident must have cost the pilot $1200, but after appropriate test flights, he had his repaired gyro in the air the next day for the contest.
About a dozen pilots competed in four events: balloon bust, slow flight, bomb drop and spot landing. A steady cross wind helped Air Command’s Tony Stone launch helium-filled balloons into the path of oncoming gyros, but the accuracy events, particularly the spot landing event, was affected by the wind.
Winners were Carl Schneider of Fort Madison, Iowa (bomb drop); Ron Menzie from Beebe, Arkansas (slow flight: seven seconds to cover 100 feet); Tom Bolinger of Paducah, Kentucky (balloon bust in a fly-off; three pilots initially broke two of their three balloons); and Jerry Cobb (spot landing).
One injury occurred: mine
Trying to be helpful, I was unloading a gyro from a trailer early Friday morning when I tripped on a tie-down pad on the ramp and badly sprained a foot. X-rays determined no break, but a trip to a local drug store was needed to rent a pair of crutches.
A miraculous overnight recovery permitted normal mobility the rest of the weekend. Bucking the national trend, I have steadfastly refused to sue anybody. All gyro pilots but one transported their flying machines by trailer or truck.
The exception was George Gregory of Springfield, Missouri, who flew his highly modified Bensen in from Marshall, about 30 miles to the east. An Air & Space 8A certificated gyro from Farrington Aircraft, Paducah, Kentucky, was expected but did not appear.
Farrington’s gyroplane instructor, Tony Bolinger, was present, however, with an Air Command two-place trainer. Paying a small donation, people lined up to fly with Bolinger. Farrington Aircraft is one of the few places in the country where a pilot can qualify for a private or commercial gyroplane rating.
Most gyro pilots fly with only an instructor endorsement for their gyros and are therefore precluded from carrying passengers. Some fly with student licenses and must be endorsed by an instructor every 90 days in order to remain legal.
Other pilots are flying their gyros as ultralights. No license is required, but the machines must weigh no more than 254 pounds empty. Only the lightest gyros such as the Air Command 447 and Ken Brock KB-3 qualify, and the owner probably can’t add accessories like pre-rotators and wheel brakes and stay under the weight limit.
Aware of this restriction, local FAA inspectors showed up on Friday, the first day of the event, to weigh some sample ultralight-category gyros. The three scales they borrowed from the Missouri Highway Patrol were less than ideal; one inch on the scale represented about 2000 pounds.
Yet it appeared that the gyros they weighed, all of which included accessories, were overweight. No citations were issued. The FAA people were genuinely friendly and helpful, but they noted they didn’t want to see the overweight gyros fly.
The direct crosswind that hampered contest results blew almost constantly. The condition was no hindrance to safe flying by experienced gyro pilots. But I was somewhat reluctant to renew my brief acquaintance with Air Command gyros.
My last gyroplane solo was more than a year ago, and my training course by Ken Brock is now a couple of years behind me. The result of this reluctance was a lot of Air Command taxi time late Saturday afternoon after most pilots had headed for the barbecue and free beer.
In my brief experience, taxiing a gyro is much more difficult than flying one, but you’d better get the taxi drill down solidly (following two-place training with a qualified gyro instructor) before flying solo.
So I bumped along Higginsville’s smooth, paved runway, trying to balance on the main wheels. After maybe six taxi runs, I finally added enough power to get airborne in the “crow hop” mode: takeoff, low flight and landing without turning.
After a few runs like that, it was time to commit to a full pattern, which I found delightful. The rather heavy forward stick force needed to hold the gyro on its main wheels during taxi completely disappears as the craft gets airborne.
And crosswind landings, made at a low airspeed, are even easier than in an airplane. Early Sunday morning, with an even more vigorous crosswind, I opted to skip the taxi drill and fly. What fun!
Like a helicopter, a gyroplane is sensitive and not well disposed to ham-fistedness. It’s easy to see how some pilots trying to teach themselves to fly their new and possibly out-of-trim gyros have managed to do themselves in with pilot-induced oscillations and/or the deadly zero-g and negative-g regime where the rotor quickly decelerates.
Understanding the principles of gyro flight should convince anyone considering flying these aircraft to get adequate training. With that background and if discipline can be maintained as euphoria rises with experience, gyro flying can be about the safest type sport flying available.
The Sunday morning flights reminded me just how easy gyro landings can be. Because of the 10-knot crosswind, I elected to land 90° to the runway. On each of two flights, I set the machine on the taxiway throat with no more than three feet of ground roll.
The technique was to stay high enough that an engine failure would have allowed a landing on the runway, not in the ditch short of it. After a few flights like this, it’s easy to see how people become addicted to gyros.
Following a Monday (Memorial Day) cleanup, Dennis Fetters gave his people a well-deserved two days off. He says he expects the Air Command crew will be back at Higginsville next Memorial Day. Watch our Calendar section next spring for confirmation.