Who are all those people driving hundreds even thousands of miles towing home-made or modified boat trailers filled with bug-like, rotarywing aircraft? We’ll tell you who they are—members of the Popular Rotorcraft Association.
Once each year, they aim at the hub of their universe, Raleigh-Durham Airport in North Carolina, for a summer fly-in under the aegis of their mentor, Igor Bensen. But, really who are they?
Well, there’s a Martin Decker machinist who saved his vacation this year to tow a trailer load of three bugs cross-country from Anaheim, California. His name is Ken Brock, and both his gyrocopter and his flight suit are solid black; he and “Black Beauty” really put on a buzzing show.
Ken’s ability to make precise spot landings and takeoffs, and the wild darting up and downwind won the 1966 Best Performance, Man and Machine Trophy. The two sister machines on that trailer belong to fellow members of the California Chapter which regularly holds fly-ins at their base, El Mirage Dry Lake.
One, Ed Nielesky of Downey, took home the coveted Pilot’s Choice Trophy. The other, Bob Fisher (will you believe it . . . a guitar-playing Canadian cowboy?) pulled out of the competition to help hop passengers.
Then there’s a fire chief, a science professor, a housewife or two, a 16-year-old who has been the youngest gyrocopter pilot for the past couple of years, and he flies his dad’s hydrocopter, too. His name is Danny Cudney. And a conductor for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad who, on the side, manages a trailer park in Peru, Indiana.
That’s Paul Sunday, an ex-paratrooper and helicopter mechanic in the National Guard. He and his wife, Betty, a retired nurse, are bug-flying enthusiasts and built their first machine, a Bensen Gyroglider, inside their home, a 10 by 50 foot trailer.
“It takes teamwork to build a Gyroglider,” Paul said. “One person holds a piece in place while the other consults the construction manual and puts in the bolts.” Then, it takes a team to learn the Bensen method of flying, too.
One drives the tow car while the other learns the basic maneuvers of the machine while it is still hooked to a rigid boom and the automobile’s bumper. “Igor’s manuals are complete and simple,” Paul adds. “If you follow them, step by step, both with construction and learning to fly, you can’t have any trouble.”
“Igor says—” You quickly realize that most of these bug pilots take the word of Bensen as the final word. Perhaps with justification, for Russian-born Igor Bensen spent eleven years as head of research for jet propulsion, helicopter engineering, inventor, and scientist for General Electric.
He formed the world’s first helicopter club in Schenectady, then he moved to Kaman as research chief for their copters. Along came the Korean conflict, and “that seemed an ideal time to go into my own copter business,” says Bensen, “because suddenly helicopters came into their own.”
“I took over the barn” — that really is what his factory looks like, an elongated barn with green skylights — “went into debt and peace came. Naturally, all of my defense contracts were canceled. There I sat with a copter factory, lots of machinery, and no orders.”
Just about then, a boys’ magazine published a picture of a single-place glider type rotorcraft Bensen had built in his spare time. This ski version of today’s gyroplane was constructed of pipes, and boys all over the country wrote in for directions. Bensen Aircraft Corporation was back in business.
Nothing is quite that simple, of course. From the original B-6 in 1954 came the B-7, still basically a single-seat glider gyroplane. A gyroplane and an autogyro are the same types of rotorcraft, by the way, and obtain lift from a freely turning non-powered rotor.
In a gyroplane, the rotor tilts backwards in forward flight rather like the wing of an airplane. Bensen’s engine-less gyroplanes, called Gyrogliders, are extremely simple and weigh only a little over 100 pounds.
The B-7, then, in quantity came out of the Bensen plant in every stage from the $1 indoctrination, consisting of a three-way drawing and picture up to several hundred dollars’ worth of completed machine.
Another project at this same time had the spin-off of a surplus 40 horse Nelson drone engine, and Bensen bolted that behind the seat of his basic B-7 glider. Up popped the first Gyrocopter! Soon the Nelson factory closed, and lightweight, inexpensive engines were hard to come by.
One of Bensen’s dealers — Umbaugh by name—insisted the company try Continentals, Lycomings or some other well-known engine. But he drove into Bensen’s yard with a 72-hp McCulloch. Umbaugh paid a farmer $35 for this engine which had been retrieved from a shot-down drone.
The McCulloch went on the B-7M (M for motorized) and the basic Gyroglider became the B-7Mc. That, in essence, is the family tree of today’s machine. As Bensen says, “Then I came up with what the military services call ‘A System.’ The frame of the old B-7M really needed beefing up for the heavier engine, so beef it up we did and that design is the B-8.”
As a first step in the system, the B-8 is a Gyroglider. With floats it becomes a Hydroglider towed behind a boat or a Hydrocopter when the McCulloch is added. With wheels, the B-8 with the power of either a 72 or a 90 horse engine becomes the B-8M Gyrocopter. And it has sold from a $200,000 Bensen revenue in 1962 to pushing a million dollars this year of 1966.
Back to how our trainman Paul Sunday and his wife got where the action is. Three years ago, he purchased a B-8 Gyroglider and put it together. “it took nearly a year of spare time since I didn’t have the correct tools and had to borrow things like a drill press.”
“I could build one in a week now.” So, the two Sundays built their Gyro and Paul tested the controls for long hours, only getting a few inches off the ground, and with one foot on the ground through the rigid boom connection.
“I’m not a young man,” he admits. “Do you know that it takes a repetition of 7 times for anybody to learn a new reflex?” Soon, though, he progressed to a short tow rope and eventually graduated to sailing along, tethered to 100 feet of rope, behind the car.
Jeremiah McGonigle, 38, a Master Chief Electronics Technician in the U.S. Navy, received 2nd Place Award for Best Workmanship—the prize a 90-hp conversion kit for his 72-hp McCulloch 0-100-2.
Construction required $1200 and 6 months work; first flight was in July ’65. Rotor diameter 21 ft, chord 7-in; length 136-in, height 6-ft; empty weight 254-lbs, gross 600; max speed 90-mph, cruise 60, landing 10; climb 1000 ft/min; service ceiling 16,500-ft; range 250 miles.
Last year, Betty and Paul Sunday hooked up a modified boat trailer and drove cross-country to the PRA Annual Fly-in. When they left, they were more enthusiastic than ever, and they took home the trophy for the best Gyroglider performance of the meet.
They also took home a new McCulloch, a gas tank, and the modification instructions to make their old standby a powered machine. This year, they drove back to Raleigh from Peru with “The Sunkist,” a bright orange Gyrocopter, the grown-up-to-power version of their first flying machine.
Paul, recently out of the hospital after a knee operation, felt he lacked experience to compete in the spot landing or bomb dropping contests. But the Sunday Sunkist won the trophy for the Best Workmanship, Static Display, Gyrocopters in this year’s shindig.
The majority of the bugs flying this year are built exactly according to the Bensen manuals. Bob Nesbit’s “Bandido,” which won the trophy for the Best Operating Gyrocopter, is an excellent example of the standard design.
Bob admits it took him nearly two years of spare time work to build the colorful Bandido, and at a cost of nearly $1000. The average Gyroglider takes approximately a month of spare time building and costs run around $300.
With the addition of powerplants seems to come the incentive for modification. For instance, “Tweetie Bird,” owned by Jeremiah McGonigle of Virginia Beach, sports Piper Cub wheels and tires, twin gas tanks, and a rotor tachometer.
How exactly does this work? Well, a bright blue Gyroglider perched inside the hangar with a can of wax beside the nose wheel. This machine had no engine but it had a gas tank neatly strapped into place.
Most often, it seems to happen this way. A buyer purchases a raw materials Gyroglider kit for $369. That’s all the money he has at that time, so he spends several weeks putting it together and flies it for several more months.
Since a Gyroglider needs no license, neither does the pilot, our buyer’s only additional expense came from gasoline burned in the tow car. Now, this fledgling likes swooping along behind that car, or, on windy days, tethered to a post, he can go kiting.
But he has the urge to be free of the one-foot-on-the-ground approach, and he wants power. With another $100 saved, he chooses — let’s say — a gas tank, the fuel lines, and some other odds and ends. Even with those installed, he can still fly his machine as a glider.
Later, $300 will buy a surplus and reconditioned McCulloch. Remember, those engines as built for target drones have some parts with a life expectancy of only 25 hours — and no carburetors! They need work before taking John Q. Public aloft.
If our budding bug pilot is well-heeled, he can purchase a new McCulloch of 90-hp, retrofitted for human flight by Bensen, for $995. Now, bug-boy has a machine which must be licensed by the FAA. To date, Gyrocopters can only be licensed in the Experimental category.
Often the mandatory 51% or more of the machine which must be amateur built for “education and recreation” is a difficult criteria for assessment since this judgment falls on option of the local FAA inspectors, and each of those men sees things differently.
The Gyrocopters probably are the only machines in the world which people can build, have licensed, and fly with no dual instruction. But, with the powered machine, the pilot must have a Student Pilot Gyroplane Rating.
This consists of a physical, three take-offs and landings in the presence of any kind of a flight instructor (not limited to helicopter instructors), and evidence of being able to taxi, brake, and stop the machine. With the easing of regulations concerning these machines and the pilots, the front door blew wide open on Gyrocoptering.
This is when it became evident an organization, such as PRA, needed to be formed. PRA, with Igor Bensen as founder and president, came into being in 1962 as a voluntary, non-profit organization “whose members are dedicated to the advancement of knowledge, public education and safety of privately owned non-commercial rotorcraft.”
Said Bensen then, “Briefly, it came into being to stimulate and organize the grass roots movement in rotorcraft building.” Spending a day with PRA quickly shows this is not a fly-in such as Reading or Las Vegas. Instead of business suits, white shirts and neckties, you see Bermuda shorts, helmets and goggles.
Instead of hearing discussions of transponders, radar and DME’s, you hear the merits of using industrial, therefore less expensive, wheels and tires and where you can buy heat-treated aluminum alloy. Cost per seat per mile? Tax deductions? Oh, no.
Instead you hear how heartbreaking it is to run a wheel in a gopher hole, break the rotor, and have to give up flying for six months before it could be replaced. At the end of the first year, Popular Rotorcraft Association had a total of 850 paid members. The first fly-in in Jun e 1963 was considered a resounding success.
Fifteen bugs appeared, and two Gyrocopters and three Gyrogliders flew! Of course, 50% of those belonged to Bensen Aircraft. But they figured it a great start. June 1966 brought the Fourth Annual Fly-in with half a hundred bugs flitting into the sky.
By the afternoon of the second day of the meet, 472 takeoffs had been recorded and this didn’t count the endless stream of passenger-riding Gyro-glider takeoffs and landings. Nearly 1000 members and wives attended the fly-in and they came from twenty-one states and three foreign countries.
PRA membership rolls reached 4100, making it the world’s largest rotorcraft organization, passing the American Helicopter Society which is nearly six times as old. In the past ten years, Bensen Aircraft has sold 5000 kits for gyroplanes.
The majority of these went to American addresses though quite a number of completed machines have been delivered to foreign countries. Of the twenty Bensen dealers, five are in England, France, Canada, Africa.
What of the future? Still relegated to amateur-builders, the Bensen Gyrocopter, with an Experimental license, cannot be purchased as a completed machine in the United States. At a recent meeting in Washington, the Bensen group and the FAA agreed that for the Gyrocopter to receive an Airworthiness Certificate, standards must be met—safety standards.
FAR 27, Rotorcraft Airworthiness, seems much too stringent for the small single-seated Gyros; however, this is the closest set of standards available. FAA men agreed that not all of FAR 27 applied to Bensen’s machines, and several requirements, such as the standard for duel ignitions, were deleted.
W. E. Koneczny, Chief of Regulations Staff, Engineering and Manufacturing, FAA said, “The FAR 27 regulations applicable to Mr. Bensen now are appreciably less. We realize it is an effort in time, manpower, and money, but he can file and start showing compliance for a Type Certificate now with the Southern Region.”
“Of course, any aircraft of rotorcraft manufacturer may have difficulties fitting into the safety standards, but I do not anticipate any troubles for Mr. Bensen.” Igor Bensen talks of the many thousands of dollars which may be needed for compliance with the standards and he questions how far his company can afford to go.
Usually, certification runs to a million dollars, he says, and he swears he cannot and will not spend more than $30,000 in the effort. “If certification is still far away when the money runs out, then we’ll have to give up and put our hopes in the Ultralight Plane certification ruling which is now in the hands of the FAA.”
Somehow, that man Bensen doesn’t have “give-up” in his soul. He and his disciples quit? Not now—the bugs are buzzing, enthusiasm is high, and the FAA is politely listening to the sport-shirted, bruised-thumb do-it-your-selfers.