Although the autogyro is almost seventy years old, gyroplane popularity is just beginning to find its place in today’s world of aviation
In the early 1920s, an inventor named Juan de la Cierva almost single-handedly developed and promoted the autogyro. Anyone who ever saw one of the early aircraft fly was smitten by its impressive positive performance figures. Here was the plane of the future.
Many countries obtained licenses from de la Cierva and proceeded to build their own fleet of autogyros. The names of the companies are legend in aviation history and the gyroplane popularity. In our country, there were Kellett and Pitcairn. In England, Roe, Avro, Cierva, de Havilland, Comper and Westland — all caught the fever to build the new autogyro.
Air Command offers several models, including a two-passenger gyrocopter which is very popular.
In the United States, thousands of spectators, including the President, watched as an autogyro landed on the lawn of the White House in Washington. Large companies purchased autogyros to use in their advertisements. Powers-that-be in our military ordered a small number, not altogether certain that they were, indeed, the plane of the future.
Still, they proceeded to make history. Admiral Byrd took a Kellett K-3 on his second expedition to Antarctica in 1933. In 1938, the US Army ordered seven Kelletts for use in experimental flights due to the increasing gyroplane popularity. In 1939, Eastern Airlines operated a Kellett KD-1B from the roof of the Philadelphia Post Office to the Camden, New Jersey Airport. Also in 1939, Kellett exported an autogyro to Japan.
A Japanese company named Kayaba then sold this autogyro to the Japanese Navy who utilized it for observation, anti-submarine patrol and for testing rocket-augmented rotors. The Japanese Navy operated their Kayaba Ka-2 from shipboard.
During the early years of WWII, most of the countries with autogyros used them to help with shoreline patrol. Although the military powers of all these countries had bought a few autogyros, just to cover the bases, they didn’t really believe that they were practical, even with the increasing gyroplane popularity.
Instead, they all pinned their hopes on the experiments of Igor Sikorsky who had developed and flown prototype helicopters. Sikorsky’s helicopters had the elusive ability to take off and land vertically, as well as the capability of hovering.
Under certain conditions, the simpler autogyro could also perform these maneuvers, but it was necessary for many other factors to be present, such as a great deal of wind from the correct direction.
The gyroplane popularity bought technical advancements such as prerotators which were added to the autogyro by most companies in the mid-30s only served to shorten the takeoff run. Halfway through WWII, the first of the operational helicopters arrived from the factory, thereby curtailing any serious interest by the military in future autogyro acquisition.
In spite of the wide acceptance of the helicopter, autogyro mania continued for some time after the war was over. Three firms in this country spent thousands of dollars in an attempt to capture the interest of pilots whose talents lay somewhere between fixed wings and helicopters.
The McCulloch Company managed to certify a 2-seat J-4 gyroplane, but by the time the J-4 had been put through the mountains of paperwork required by the government for certification, it was June of 1962, and the market had moved on. McCulloch had a hard time even giving away its autogyro.
That wasn’t to be the end of the J-2, however. In 1974, Aero Resources purchased the autogyro from McCulloch, and made some changes and improvements. The new model, made available with a 200-hp engine, was renamed the Aero Resources Super J-2. Super or not, it was even less enthusiastically received than the McCulloch.
In the meantime, the Umbaugh Aircraft Corporation developed the Umbaugh Model 18, a 2-seat, jump-start autogyro which first flew in 1959. Limited production followed, including the assembly and testing of five aircraft by the Fairchild Corporation in 1960.
In 1965, production of the U-18 was taken over by Air & Space Manufacturing and the aircraft was re-designated the Air & Space U-18A. Soon, the certified autogyro was ancient history — a victim of the development of the helicopter.
In the years following WWII, however, the chief research engineer at the Kaman Corporation in Connecticut, Dr. Igor Bensen, left Kaman to form his own company, Bensen Aircraft Corporation, to research and develop light-weight autogyros for the USAF. After several years of endorsing experiments with these autogyros, the military once again declined to continue its support.
It was then that Dr. Bensen realized there might be a market for an autogyro kit among homebuilders who could buy the kit, then assemble their own autogyro. So Bensen registered the name, “Autogyro” causing all other manufacturers of this genre of aircraft to call theirs “gyroplanes!’ Now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know the rest of the story – and so was the rise of gyroplane popularity.
As we enter this new decade, many aviation enthusiasts believe we will see a resurgence in the popularity of autogyros and gyroplanes. They’re simple to assemble, inexpensive, and the new breed of engines make them perform better than ever. An example is the WindRyder, a gyrocopter which could fly at 130 mph on a 100-hp engine. This is about 50 mph faster than the early Bell helicopter.
According to FAA reports, the modern gyroplane is the safest aircraft in general aviation, with no reported in-flight structural failures. Unfortunately, there have been many injuries and fatal accidents in gyrocopters because of pilot error, and this brings up a very serious warning: YOU SHOULD NOT ATTEMPT TO TEACH YOURSELF TO FLY A GYROPLANE.
Most companies which market gyroplane kits insist that you receive adequate instruction from a qualified instructor before you solo. While the gyroplane is easy to fly, it still requires some learned responses in order to fly it safely. The aircraft inherits some of the control reactions from fixed-wing aircraft, some from a helicopter, and quite a few — altogether different ones — from its own design.
Many fixed-wing pilots who have checked out in gyroplanes said that they also enjoy flying this type of aircraft, but almost without exception, they reported that gyroplanes did require unique input. The gyroplane popularity even had helicopter pilots who have checked out in gyroplanes report the same reaction. Great fun — but you’d better learn how fly it before you solo in it.
In addition to Bensen, there have been many other companies who have kitted their version of the gyroplane. Most utilize the same engineering basics, with variations of shape, blades, engines, seating and power appealing to the ever growing gyroplane popularity.
Anyone who is in the market for a gyroplane should join the Popular Rotorcraft Association, and study their publication, “Rotorcraft” for tips, information and purchase prices.
If you prefer to work directly with manufacturers, we recommend writing to every one of them who’s in the business, then comparing the contents of their literature and their prices. Engines and controls are very important considerations, as is the number of seats, and the licensing requirements. Become an informed shopper; it will always pay off.