Paso Robles Gyrocopter Fly In 1986

paso robles pra fly in

September/October 1986

To rotorcraft fans it was Oshkosh, the Paris Air Show and Christmas morning all in one four-day event. It was the 24th Annual International Fly-In of the Popular Rotorcraft Association (which insiders always call “PRA”), the organization of homebuilt rotorcraft fans – a gyrocopter fly in.

Unlike the EAA convention at the easy-to-find airport at Oshkosh, the PRA event was discovered by only a few hundred people who treked into the rolling hills of Paso Robles, California.

More famous for its wine than its aviation, this spot in the Upper Salinas Valley was the place for unwrapping new ideas, new flying adventures and exciting new aircraft. It was really big on the scale of rotorcraft events, with more whirling wings chopping away in one spot than a swarm of dragonflies.

If you have ever wondered why you saw so few rotorcraft on the field at Oshkosh, it’s mainly because the PRA boys an girls have their once-a-year fling separately (they’re the only substantial branch of recreational aviation which has not been absorbed by the EAA).

This big PRA Fly-In reminds you of the early days of the EAA. PRA is a small organization, full of ideas, spirit and enthusiasm, now in a period of explosive growth. Rotorcraft are now one of the fastest developing kinds of recreational aircraft as seen at the gyrocopter fly in.

gyrocopter fly in line up

A long line of gyroplanes waits on the flightline for the chance to take to the air over Paso Robles, California.

With the introduction of the Air Command gyroplane just two years ago, the rotorcraft movement has begun picking up converts like a preacher at a country revival. For the first time this year, the Air Command machines dominated the PRA Fly-In, with about one-third of the machines there bearing the Air Command eagle-and-lightning insignia on their sporty plastic tails.

These machines came with engines of all sizes, ranging from the air-cooled Rotax on the Commander 447 ultralight machines to the liquid-cooled Rotax 532 on the licensed machines. Along with these trend-setting Air Command machines, the folks at Paso Robles gyrocopter fly in had the rare opportunity to see the very first ultralight gyroplane, the Hollman Bumblebee.

This machine, introduced in 1984 shortly after the Part 103 ultralight regulations were released by the FAA, was flown by its designer, builder and manufacturer, Martin Hollman.

With its original Kawasaki engine now replaced by the popular Rotax 447, the Bumblebee is in limited production from Hollman’s garage, which explains why you aren’t tripping over these little yellow hummers on the flight line at your local airport.

Like most Hollman designs, the Bumblebee is different, with light fiberglass rotor blades, a windshield and instrument panel, an unusually tall mast and a unique pop-off tail that disconnects for transportation and storage.

While Hollman’s is the oldest ultralight gyroplane, one of the newest is Ken Brock’s KB-3. The prototype of this machine was flown by several experienced pilots, all of whom came back with smiles on their faces.

They’ve all seen Brock performing his impressive air show maneuvers in his McCulloch-powered KB-2 gyroplane, and they were discovering how it feels to fly an ultralight version of that machine. The KB-3 is powered by a Rotax 532 with lots of the special refinements you’d expect from Brock’s in-house engine shop.

While it has a superficial resemblance to Brock’s air show machine, the KB-3 is loaded with engineering developments designed to make it simpler (and that means cheaper!) to manufacture.

Brock has not yet announced a final price and availability of this machine, but judging from the bug marks that show many hours of shakedown, the KB-3 appears to be about ready for a production startup.

Suppose your ultralight dream is not of the open-frame, wind-in-your-face and bugs-in-your-teeth variety. Then you would love the new Vancraft gyroplane rolled out by Chuck Vaneck. With a full windshield and a fiberglass body, this is one of your more respectable-looking ultralight whirlybrids.

It obviously impressed quite a few people, including the judges who awarded it the trophy for the Outstanding New Design. The Vancraft, like nearly every other ultralight gyroplane, uses a Rotax engine, but from there the similarity fades.

It has a unique offset spindle-type rotor head equipped with an “Armstrong” prerotator (you turn a crank while in the pilot’s seat to get the rotor blades going), an ultra-light-style gravity-feed plastic gas tank which appears to use the latest milk jug technology, and an interesting no-trim, no-springs setup that allows you to fly hands off at a variety of speeds.

The Vancraft ultralight obviously flew well in the hands of Jim Vaneck, Chuck’s son, who set it down so close to the line in the spot landing contest that he literally blew the linee off the runway. Chuck Vaneck is no newcomer to gyroplane design but, like the other shops, this is his first venture into the ultralight market.

You don’t have to be a big time manufacturer to produce a top-notch ultralight gyroplane. That’s what we learned from Henry Abbott, one of the long-time veterans of Bensen gyrocopters and recently an Air Command dealer.

Abbott’s SnoBird ultralight gyroplane prototype, though not finished down to the last piece of fiberglass, is completely engineered for marketing. Not only is Abbott prepared to sell a complete Rotax 503-powered machine, he is ready to supply conversion kits for existing Bensen and Brock machines to mount the Rotax engine and a lightweight shock-absorbing wheel system.

Looking at these new designs at the gyrocopter fly in, it’s obvious that the ultralight movement has gotten a strong foothold among rotorcraft. One-fourth of the machines on hand at this fly-in were of the unlicensed variety.

But the licensed gyro fliers are also benefitting from this ultralight innovation. The judges awarded the Best Operational Rotorcraft trophy to a machine with N-numbers on the tail, but with a combination of traditional and ultralight components. Dick Goddard, the builder of this prize winning machine, described it as a “Bensen/Brock/Fetters/Goddard Gyroplane.”

Goddard took his old square-tube Bensen/Brock machine, pulled off the McCulloch engine, replaced it with a Rotax 532 and a big three-bladed propeller, added a Fetters-style plastic tail and shock absorbing wheel system, and came up with what was judged the best rotorcraft on the airport.

dennis fetters two place air command gyrocopter

Dennis Fetters buckles up to give one of his many passengers a taste of gyro flight in his new two-place Air Command machine .

In the air, Goddard did things you can only do with a great machine and a great pilot, executing high-bank wingovers, hovering flight, high speed flight, and a new maneuver that surprised this crowd that’s used to seeing Ken Brock’s famous engine-out landings.

Goddard switched off his engine in midair at the gyrocopter fly in and began the silent swishing maneuvers that looked like a setup for a dead stick landing.

But as the crowd gathered to see if Goddard would set the machine down in good shape on the runway, he simply reached for the handle over his head, pulled the starter cord to restart his engine and flew away, leaving the onlookers with their mouths open.

Now you know why Dick Goddard has his old McCulloch engine for sale—cheap! The Rotax is the first widely accepted new engine for gyroplanes since Igor Bensen first mounted the McCulloch drone engine in 1957.

While the Big Mac engines are still alive and well and pushing their owners with more power than the Rotaxes, it is apparent that the new engine from Austria is changing things in the rotorcraft world.

With its low fuel consumption, good reliability and the engineering problems well worked out, the Rotax was found on more machines than any other kind of engine at the PRA Fly-In. All the major manufacturers either have switched to the Rotax exclusively or are adding it as an option.

That doesn’t mean you should throw out all other engines with yesterday’s coffee grounds. No indeed. The McCulloch engine still powers some of the best performing machines in the air. The Volkswagen engine can be found on some of the oldest and some of the newest machines.

And Continental and Lycoming engines swiped from factory-built airplanes can provide a lot of reliability on a cross-country flight – just ask Bob Aspergren, who flew his Barnett J-4M gyroplane 266 miles to Paso Robles to take the trophy for the longest distance flown in.

While nearly all of the McCulloch and Rotax drivers brought their machines in on trailers, Aspergren’s Continental engine made him comfortable in completing a long cross-country flight over hilly, wooded and otherwise unfriendly terrain.

Not only could you see all these engines and machines at the PRA gyrocopter fly in, you could see something else: You could see those fantastic rotorcraft people doing what they do best—having fun.

You could see a spirit of adventure that shows on these creative, independent people like Macho shows on Sylvester Stallone. You could see a closely knit assortment of old-timers and newcomers for whom nobody is an outsider, so long as they’re interested in rotorcraft.

If you were there, you could have felt for yourself the transcendental experience of rotorcraft flight that gets into these folks’ blood. For a mere five dollars donation to PRA, you could take a ride in an open-frame gyroplane.

Bill Parsons, whose two-seat, engine-powered gyroplane trainer received an award for the outstanding contribution to the rotorcraft movement, spent most of his time at the controls of his tandem machine showing people firsthand what it’s really like.

And judging from the uncontrollable grins on his passengers as they stepped back onto the ground, these folks will never be the same. Parsons learned to fly the way it’s been done for thirty years, by risking life and limb teaching himself on a single seat powered machine.

But now, with this first practical trainer that duplicates the open cockpit gyroplane experience, new pilots can learn to fly with the safety of dual instruction. It’s no surprise that Parsons’ training schedule is booked nearly solid every weekend in Lake Monroe, Florida.

So he has begun providing machines for other instructors across the country, opening the door wide for new folks to enter the rotorcraft world as easily as they could learn to fly fixed wing airplanes.

The newest two-place at the fly-in was Dennis Fetters’ side-by-side Air Command machine. Looking like a Rotax 532-powered Commander Elite with a three-bladed prop and a red upholstered dual seat, this new machine also gave quite a few people their first taste of gyro flight.

With dual control capability, the Air Command two-seater adds another answer to the need for the safety of dual instruction in rotorcraft. Now that we have the Parsons tandem machine, built around the Bensen/Brock design, and the Fetters side-by-side Air Command machine, you have no reason to delay getting started in either one of these two major types of gyroplanes.

There are at least two other dual-seat trainers out there, one a side-by-side Bensen-type machine built and operated by lady gyronaut Marion Springer; another a dual-seat enclosed cabin machine flown for years by designer Martin Hollman, called the Sportster.

Neither of these machines was on hand at Paso Robles gyrocopter fly in, but their designers were there answering all questions. Some two-place machines are not built for training, but are just for a single seat powered machine.

But now, with this first practical trainer that duplicates the open cockpit gyroplane experience, new pilots can learn to fly with the safety of dual instruction. It’s no surprise that Parsons’ training schedule is booked nearly solid every weekend in Lake Monroe, Florida.

So he has begun providing machines for other instructors across the country, opening the door wide for new folks to enter the rotorcraft world as easily as they could learn to fly fixed wing airplanes.

The newest two-place at the fly-in was Dennis Fetters’ side-by-side Air Command machine. Looking like a Rotax 532-powered Commander Elite with a three-bladed prop and a red upholstered dual seat, this new machine also gave quite a few people their first taste of gyro flight.

With dual control capability, the Air Command two-seater adds another answer to the need for the safety of dual instruction in rotorcraft. Now that we have the Parsons tandem machine, built around the Bensen/Brock design, and the Fetters side-by-side Air Command machine, you have no reason to delay getting started in either one of these two major types of gyroplanes.

There are at least two other dual-seat trainers out there, one a side-by-side Bensen-type machine built and operated by lady gyronaut Marion Springer; another a dual-seat enclosed cabin machine flown for years by designer Martin Hollman, called the Sportster.

paso robles gyrocopter fly in

Chuck Vaneck’s two-place Vancraft doesn’t have dual controls, but it does have everything else: A respectable-looking fiberglass body with a passenger seat behind and below the pilot, handily lifting two grown men in tandem around the pattern on a Volkswagen engine.

While streamlining is generally the last thing on rotorcrafters’ minds, this Vancraft two-seater is aerodynamically slick. The body curves smoothly around its occupants and tapers to a gradual conclusion behind them. The rudder is pre-set at an angle that eliminates the drag of trim tabs. And get this—even the rotor blades are streamlined!

The Vancraft rotor hub is enclosed in a clever round piece of fiberglass that no doubt calms down the airflow around this normally angular collection of rotating hardware. The area of the blades next to the hub is enclosed in a large airfoil well suited to the lower speed of this part of the rotor disc.

The rotor blades are made of a solid wood core with a steel spar and aluminum skin, a very unusual and tough combination. The Vancraft two-place machine is so different from the average gyro that you’d think it’s completely new.

Amazingly, it’s a refined version of a design Vancek first flew in November, 1960—almost 26 years ago! To further convince you that dual-seat gyros have been around for a long time, take a look at the strikingly rainbow-colored two-place tandem gyro designed and flown by Jerry Barnett.

This veteran designer, famous for decades for his J-3 and J-4 machines using type-certificated aircraft engines, was on hand with as good an example of a practical gyroplane as you’re ever likely to find. Completely enclosed under a large canopy, this machine shields both of its occupants from any inconvenience due to wind, rain, bugs or noise.

Seeing this beauty, you have to wonder why the popularity of the Barnett machines has been concentrated on the West Coast. The sight of this and a couple of other examples of Barnett’s designs made the trip to California worthwhile for lots of people.

If you took a poll of which two-place rotorcraft caused the most heads to turn upward, you’d probably be pointed at Jim Eich’s distinctive two-place tractor autogyro, the JE-2. Here’s a rotorcraft that’s really unique, with its 85-horse Continental tugging out in front of a squared-off two-holer fuselage ending in a tail that looks like it got — bitten off during a dogfight.

This flying machine reminds you of a lop-eared mongrel pup that’s so ugly it’s cute. And “cute” is just the word the pretty young ladies squeal as they clamor around Jim Eich to fill that empty second seat (which never stays empty for long!).

People like to call Eich’s machine an “autogyro” because of its resemblance to the front engine rotorcraft of the 1920s and 30s. But this machine is no throwback.

It’s actually the result of decades of recent development by an unsung gyroplane design loner named Arliss Riggs, whose, ideas were captured and developed by Eich in his modern machine. And fly? Does it ever!

Flying, in fact, is the main activity among rotorcraft folks. Unlike Oshkosh, where flying hours are severely restricted for rotorcraft, the PRA Fly-In allowed everyone to fly from the moment the morning haze lifted to the last tinges of evening twilight, And fly they did.

It would be hard to find any machine on the grounds at the gyrocopter fly in that did not take to the air sometime during the event. It’s not like the old days when partially completed or static machines sometimes filled up the field.

Unlike Oshkosh, the air show at the PRA Fly-In is informal—and continuous. There’s no highly regulated traffic pattern, just a Xeroxed diagram that shows where to take off (from a taxiway that’s plenty big for gyros).

And there are just a few cautions about where not to fly (“don’t fly over the boys’ reformatory. Your unsheilded ignition is blocking out the guard’s walkie-talkies and the boys are starting to go over the walls”).

Also unlike Oshkosh, the emphasis is not on the big name pilots, but on folks you probably haven’t heard of, like Jack Sievers of San Diego or Steve McGinnis of El Paso.

Sure, Ken Brock was there, but instead of his crisp Oshkosh airshow routine, you found out what he really likes to do, like chasing Ron Menzie in an aerial dogfight, making tight turns inches off the ground, even hovering in the wind for about half a minute right in front of my camera at an altitude of about six feet with a suspicious grin on his face!

Everybody got in on the flying, thanks to the predictable changes in the Paso Robles weather. There was always a near dead calm in the mornings for the low time pilots to fly in without any gusty surprises, and a 20- to 30-mph wind in the evening that gave the more experienced boys something to play in — always under a cloudless blue sky.

It was neither too hot nor too cold, and you could fly in anything from Carl Rambo’s fancy yellow flight suit to Dennis Fetters’ airy cutoffs.

There’s an important difference in the homebuilt rotorcraft movement of today—everybody flies. With the wide range of machines available now, and with the ultralight category cutting out the need for lots of construction work and no need for a license, people are spending more time in the air and less time on the ground getting ready.

The result is a quantum leap in flying proficiency. Nowadays, the average pilot can do the maneuvers that used to draw a crowd a few years ago: Slow flight, vertical descents, steep turns, zero rollout landings.

Brock kb-3 vaneck vancraft gyrocopter

LEFT: Brock KB-3.
RIGHT: Vaneck Vancraft Gyrocopter.

When the wind whipped up to 25 or 30 mph atthe gyrocopter fly in — even when it was a crosswind — you didn’t find the sky empty and the flightline full, as was the case at the ultralight airplane hangar across the field.

The gyro pilots jumped at the chance to play in the strong wind, hovering in one spot over the runway, flying sideways, doing flip-flop downwind turns and having a great time. You can see it plainly: Today’s rotorcraft pilots are good—and so are their machines.

No doubt about it, the rotorcraft movement has come of age. The dream of gyrocopter inventor Igor Bensen to create an Everyman’s Flying Machine is finally arriving, thanks to an increasing variety of affordable machines and the growing availability of powered dual-seat training.

It’s hard to say exactly how this happened, but a recognizable turning point was the introduction of the Air Command machine just a couple of years ago.

With its strong eye appeal, ultralight qualifications and highly effective sales promotion, the Commander gyroplane series has become the fastest-selling rotorcraft, and a contender for the fastest-selling recreational aircraft of any kind.

It was the most popular aircraft at the PRA Fly-In, and its designer, Dennis Fetters, appropriately received the highest honor awarded by PRA, the “Man and Machine” Award, based on the votes of his fellow pilots. But to say the rotorcraft movement is headed in only one direction would be flatly wrong.

Now, more than ever, you can take your choice of slingwing machines that suit your fancy: Ultralight or licensed machines, sporty open-frame machines from a variety of designers or comfortable enclosed cockpit machines, two seats or one, expensive or cheap.

Just think of anything you can see at Oshkosh and add a set of rotor blades—that’s what you’ll find in today’s vigorous, expanding, exciting world of rotorcraft. And you saw it all at the 24th International PRA gyrocopter fly in!

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT GYROS?

Are you interested in finding out more about gyroplanes? Want to know what it’s like to fly a gyrocopter? How to learn? What are the risks?

The answer to almost any question you could ask about gyrocopters and similar light gyroplanes can be found in a new edition of the book, The Gyrocopter Flight Manual, just released. In 62 pages with lots of photographs, this is an update of the book that has become the standard reference on gyrocopters and light gyroplanes since its introduction nearly ten years ago.

Written by veteran gyrocopter pilot Paul Bergen Abbott (who wrote this report on the rotorcraft fly-in), this new 1986 edition has the latest information on these sporty little aircraft, all in an easy to read style that’s comfortable for anyone from the mildly curious beginner to the veteran gyronaut.

The Gyrocopter Flight Manual includes a brand new Pilot Report chapter that gives you the closest thing to the feeling of flying a gyrocopter that you’ll ever find without leaving the ground. It also has an introduction by gyrocopter inventor Dr. Igor Bensen.

bill parsons gyrocopter trainer

Another eager rider climbs aboard behind Bill Parsons for a thrilling open-air flight in Parsons’ new two-place gyro trainer.

Summary
Paso Robles Gyrocopter Fly In 1986
Article Name
Paso Robles Gyrocopter Fly In 1986
Description
Yet another interesting story of the early days of the PRA gyrocopter fly in, this time at Paso Robles. With Air Command, Ken Brock, Hollan Bumblebee and the Barnett J-4M gyrocopters attending.
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