Move over, O’ sky and seagoing ships of Robur the Conqueror and Captain Nemo!
Make room for this funky looking modern day flying hull of a two-place, dual-control gyro called simply the JE-2.
JE stands for Jim Eich, which is straightforward enough. But Jules Verne had nothing on this guy. No sir. One glance at the ship that Eich built conjures instant visions of exotic vessels crewed by heroic argonauts in search of adventure.
If you will, imagine adding some curly mutton chops, a pirate’s bandanna tied around the forehead, and a broad red and white striped T-shirt (with a blue neckerchief thrown in for flavor), to the JE-2’s designer-builder-owner and the fantasy is complete.
The event where Eich and his odd-ball JE-2 gyroplane did their whirlygig thing was a summer fly-in gathering put on by the Popular Rotorcraft Association (PRA) in gorgeous Paso Robles, California, about a hundred miles up the coast from Santa Barbara.
Dozens of enthusiasts brought their lovely, ungainly gyrocraft out for a weekend of flyin’ and jawin’. Every kind of craft was there, from Bensens to Brocks to Air Commands to Vancraft to Barretts to . . . Jim Eich’s relic from another age.
The modern gyroplane or gyrocraft or gyro is a basic kind of flying machine. (Be sure you don’t call it a “gyrocopter,” or pioneering designer/manufacturer Igor Bensen will get after you with a broom that has the name “copyright” stamped on it.)
The craft are generally recognized as a kind of Gyro Gearloose affair; a freewheeling rotor blade riding atop a single slender mast; a pilot on a no-frills seat; a stick for pitch and roll; rudder pedals for yaw; a pusher engine right behind the pilot for thrust; and sometimes a horizontal stabilizer under the rudder for fuselage stability against the gyroscopic forces of the rotor.
There you have your basic generic gyroplane. Or craft. Or whatever . . . but don’t say gyrocopter.
Now let’s again view Eich’s lovable, eccentric JE-2 gyroplane. What’s this?
Why, the fuselage is covered. It looks like a good old tuholer (twin open cockpit) biplane . . . without the wing. There’s even a little windscreen in front of each cockpit. Cute. And . . . and the tail is upside down.
(Although at least it’s where it ought to be, at the back of the airplane.) And the bloody engine is up front. Wait a minute, didn’t we just say gyros have their engines at the back, pushing at all that air?
And there goes friendly Jim, giving yet another ride to an enthusiastic spectator. Hey, wait a minute. He’s smiling. Why, you’d almost think he enjoyed giving all those rides. In fact, that’s exactly the case with Argonaut Eich and his serendipity machine — he just loves to fly gyros.
“I decided to build my own gyro because of my son’s experience with the gyro glider he built and we both flew, starting back in 1965,” Eich remembers. “When I went to the Popular Rotorcraft Association fly-in at Rialto, California, in 1967, I chanced to meet Jerry Barnett (manufacturer of Barnett gyros).”
“He had one of his J-3 gyros there. I was quite impressed with it and thought that would be a good thing for me to build. The following year I finally broke down and sent for his plans, and constructed it. In fact, I still have it. I fly it once in awhile.”
“It’s a nice ship to fly, and I enjoyed the JE-2 gyroplane construction. In my younger days, before I went to work on the fire department, I was a machinist. So working with metal and especially aluminum, because it’s so easy to work, was a pleasure.”
“Then I decided to build my own design,” he says matter-of-factly. “I designed each part as I went along. I made sketches, and threw them away when I was done. But there’s been so much interest for the thing in the last few years, a friend of mine drew up some plans for it. We sell ’em for a hundred bucks a set.”
Boy, talk about a high pressure sales hype. You almost get the impression that machinists-turned-fireman Eich built this flivver just for the sheer love of building. Sort of reminds you what the homebuilt movement is all about, doesn’t it?
The JE-2 gyroplane was built in 1977, and took Eich about a year from first sketch to roll out. The fuselage skeleton is a simple truss of gas welded 4130 chromoly steel tubing, the homebuilder’s bread and butter.
The top is covered with aluminum sheet down to the longeron. The rest is conventionally applied dacron material covering. Control surfaces are sheet metal covered as well.
“I have a friend who’s an excellent welder,” he says with a smile, “and although it’s easy enough to learn how to weld one kind of material, it takes a hell of a lot of experience and years to learn how to weld all kinds of materials. That’s what makes a good welder. So my friend did most of it.”
The friend was also a fireman on the same crew, so it’s not surprising that most of the welding was done at the fire station. For stopping power, Eich outfitted mechanical go kart brakes on the main wheels. “They’re individually operated by hand,” the enterprising builder comments.
“Makes it less tricky to steer than a touchy nose-wheel. One of the bad things you can put on a gyro is very quick nose-wheel steering. They do have such a small wheel base, and with that top-heavy weight up there, you can jam in too much nose-wheel and flip the things over.”
Most gyros have spring-loaded nosewheels. Eich’s is fixed to the rudder, so it doesn’t turn very far.
“I have to get out and back it up brakes, but sometimes in order to turn around,” he laughs congenially, “I have to get out and back it up by hand.” The JE-2 gyroplane is pulled merrily along by a Continental 85. Originally, the craft started life with a Continental 65.
“When I built it, I calculated it would need 85 horsepower to perform well. But I borrowed a 65 from somebody — the motor mounts are the same. I hooked the darn thing up, and it performed so well on the 65 that I ended up buying it from the guy and left it on there for a long time.”
The 85 eventually went on to satisfy his curiosity about adding a little more power. “Now the ship will haul just about anything I put into it . . . although maybe not very well at times!” Eich has had almost 50 lbs. of people in there, which is heavier than the ship itself.
Translating those 85 ponies into directional force requires the services of the 70-inch prop . . . and of course, Jim Eich carved it himself. “Yeah, I got one of Bob Hovey’s propeller books years ago, and I’ve been using it ever since.”
The awkwardness of routing a prerotator takeoff drive from the front-mounted engine necessitated another bit of Eichian ingenuity. He came up with a nifty little add-on prerotator that’s nothing more than a little old chain saw motor adapted to the ground chore of running the JE-2 gyroplane rotor up to takeoff speeds.
The miniscule mill delivers a couple of horsepower, which is sufficient to get the big blades moving. “I’m getting old enough that my shoulders don’t work so good for turning it up by hand, especially with a 26-foot rotor.”
This from a man who spent several years standing up in the cockpit doing precisely that. “I wouldn’t attempt to fly it off this short runway with somebody on board without the prerotator anyway.”
In similar journeyman fashion, Eich “just hacked out” the JE-2 gyroplane rotor head assembly from his own skills and materials. “All you have to do,” he claims, “is have the rotor blades be able to move in all directions, have a bearing and have it spin around. I do have it set up so I could use a Brock, Rotordyne or Bensen head on there, instead of my own, though.”
The teeter in the blades is a little more pronounced than normal, says Eich. “The larger blade diameter cones up, and the center of gravity is a little higher. You’re supposed to teeter on the CG.” For the neophyte gyro enthusiast among our readers, teeter is the “flap” range of motion of the rotor.
Each rotor blade “teeters” for and aft as it comes into the relative wind. The advancing blade is allowed to teeter, or fly a little higher, which means it rises, reaches its apex, then drops as it’s going “downwind,” bottoms out, then the cycle starts all over again.
Does the pilot sense this, or have to adjust for it while he’s flying? No way, says Eich. “You don’t have to worry about that. Just point the JE-2 gyroplane stick where you want to go. It’s really a simple machine to fly.” Eich drew the self-construction line when it came to the rotor blades.
The JE-2 is carried aloft by 26-foot diameter Rotordyne blades. Flying the JE-2 gyroplane is done from the rear cockpit, and the pilot has a basic array of instruments on the panel to assist his aerial ministrations, notably engine instruments and an airspeed indicator.
There is one curious dial — a vacuum gauge. Hold on there. Don’t they use those for turbochargers? Right on, future chairpilot!
Eich explains. “When I had the 65 and wanted more power, I bought a turbo and put it on. That’s what the vacuum gauge is for. That thing sure would twist its tail with the turbo on it! It worked good, but a 65 is built to get rid of a certain amount of heat.”
“When you’re pouring that much fire through it, you just can’t get rid of the heat without going to pressure cowling and a lot more trouble to get the thing to work. And my little eyebrow cowling up there works fine, but the turbo had to go.”
Speaking of performance, Eich says the JE-2 gyroplane top speed is about 90 mph, while cruise is a comfy 70 with one person. Two people motor along at about freeway speeds, near 60. Take heart, JE-2 fanciers, with a bit of a tailwind, you’ll still be able to leave the cars below in your wake.
Eich describes the overall characteristics of his baby as being a little heavier and doggier, and not as quick in control response, as the general kit gyrocraft on the market today. “But I consider that a plus,” he adds, “because it won’t do something before you’re ready for it. It’ll do everything the other gyros will do, just a lot slower.”
Climb rate is in the neighborhood of 600 fpm with Eich, a robust, large-framed 200-plus fellow, at the controls. With two standard people in the JE-2 gyroplane, it’ll go up at about 400 fpm.
With Eich and about a 180 lb. person, that figure drops to about 200 fpm. “And I think it was down to about a hundred feet a minute with that big guy a little while ago!” he laughs. “But it’s a warm day. High density altitude.”
A nice bonus: Since the JE-2 gyroplane passenger sits on the teeter point, balance is not dependent on the payload.
The engine uses a little less than five gallons per hour, which will endear it to the hardy of spirit but sparse of cash. And Eich uses auto gas in his, which means about 85 cents a gallon as of this writing. Hardly a pittance for the erstwhile argonaut to survey his earthly domain.
Lest it seem as if home-conjured flying machines are a piece of cake for all and sundry, consider the following: The JE-2 gyroplane ship began its career with docile characteristics, and flew nicely.
But Eich had a little bit of a balance problem, so he changed the JE-2 gyroplane rotor head and adjusted the weight and balance, rather easily done on gyroplanes. In fact, since it was a little tail heavy, he just moved the rotor head back. It’s been flying more or less in that configuration ever since. But then there was the crash.
“Yeah, the control stick anchor point came loose.” Came loose? Yep. Eich had designed it for push and pull forces, but forgot it also went up and down. Result; it worked up and down anyway and broke in flight. Now it’s welded properly.
“It was a mistake in the JE-2 gyroplane design. When it came loose, the stick just floated up in the air. I had to bring the ship down to the ground by reaching up, grabbing the two control rods, and pulling down on them to level it out,” Eich says as if this kind of thing happens to aviators every day.
“I got it down in one piece, but I was heading right for one of those humps on the dry lake bed and went right into it. It wasn’t hurt too bad though. Notice that I now have a little safety cage over the JE-2 gyroplane stick control rod, though.” Just your average heavy breather aerial excursion.
What would it cost the prospective JE-2 gyroplane/owner to get into this quaint craft?
Eich says there’s probably 100-150 feet of tubing in the JE-2 gyroplane, roughly $300 cost. Engines vary from less than $1,000 up to $2,500 for a Continental 65, if you can find one. Rotor blades are getting increasingly expensive, from $600 or $700 up to over a thousand dollars.
Figure a decent prop will set you back at least a couple hundred bucks, don’t forget the wheels, instruments, fuselage covering materials, and it begins to add up. As with any homebuilt project, it all depends on how much you fabricate yourself. All told, you’re looking at $4,000 to $5,000.
Can we expect to see a fleet of the arcane craft gracing our skies in the near future? “Well, I know of a couple that were completed before the plans came out,” says Eich. “They just started building them from pictures. One is in Holland and one in Kentucky. About 30 sets of plans are out, and several people are fairly close to completion.”
All said in the amiable, non-assuming manner that reminds you of your friendly next door neighbor. Or the local, dependable fireman, for that matter. All of which brings us down to the actual experience of flying the beast.
One of Eich’s many passengers during the fly-in was Michelle Solvej, a lovely young woman from Salt Lake City who came out to the airport with a friend of Eich’s. She was offered a ride and eagerly accepted.
After the flight, she was asked about her experience:
“What’s it like flying something without wings?” “Hey, I’ve never even been up in a commercial plane before. Never been off the ground!” she answered, beaming. “What a great way to start. Were you scared at all?”
“Uh uh! No, I figured he’s not going to go up there with somebody if he thinks something’s going to happen.” “How’d you like the way everything looked from up there?” “Oh, it was neat! Yeah!” And that really says it all, does it not?
|Jim Eich JE-2 Gyroplane|
|Power||65 hp aircraft engine (Continental on prototype)|
|Useful Load||400 lbs|
|Takeoff Distance||500 ft|
|Landing Distance||50 ft|
|Maximum Speed||95 mph|