Sport Copter’s New Vortex Kicks the Gyroplane Revolution into High Gear!
Worn… Gee… Neat… Holy Smokes…
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All these words (and a few more that we shan’t repeat here…) were recently spoken during the first flight test of a new gyroplane that truly sets the single-seat, rotary-winged kit industry on its ear.
Jim Vanek, President of Sport Copter, has been giving me hell for the last year about my lack of a visit to his neck of the woods so that I could test fly his latest aircraft… and as usual, I find that there was a good reason I should have gotten my buns motivated into getting to Scappoose, OR, sooner… namely, the fact that Vanek seems to have built the ultimate single-seat gyro.
Gyroplanes are amazing creatures… seemingly part helicopter, part magic carpet, part go-cart. I have been fascinated by these creatures since I first saw one of Igor Bensen’s early incarnations in the back of a “Popular” magazine as a kid and have become even more fascinated now that I actually get to fly the beasts. They are far more docile, far more obedient, and far more safe than many suspect, but more to the point, these things are truly loads of laughs, offering a lot of fun flying for very little money.
There are some interesting facts to consider the next time some pseudo expert yo-yo tries to tell you how unsafe gyros are: Gyroplanes are the only naturally stable rotorcraft known to man (your average helicopter is a wholly unstable construct), and the gyroplane is always in autorotation, making every descent and landing child’s play.
Since the rotor system is always in a position to carry out a landing with minimal correction – it is always in a state of balance (unless the pilot changes this!). Most gyroplanes have no collective pitching mechanisms that are used in flight (though some have them to aid pre-rotation or to offer jump take-off capability).
The bad rap that gyros have got ten is simply due to the fact that since the early days, licensing has never been heavily promoted and two-seat training gyrocopters were, until recently, a mite rare.
As a result, many early gyronauts tried to teach themselves to fly… and often rolled their machines into little balls. The fact that so many gyro flyers were able to learn to fly with less- than-optimal instruction is a testament to the rugged nature and benign stability of the average gyro.
Adapted to rotorcraft use, the Key West instrument package is bright, easy to see, even easier to use, and looks rather stylish, to boot. It fits into the front of the cabin, pedestal-mounted, like many “whirlybird” style systems… and definitely spruces-up the front end. More important, it works well and is easy to access as long as you don’t tighten your shoulder straps unnecessarily.
The all-new Sport Copter Vortex is very neat-looking, with a partial composite cabin enclosure, tricycle gear, and composite tail feathers. It was introduced in the fall of 1994 and there are 12 kits under construction and two currently flying.
Some standard features on this craft include toe-operated hydraulic brakes, a shock-isolated rotorhead, independent nose wheel suspension, and an all-new suspension system.
You can even put this gyro on floats; this is one of the few gyros that has had some success in this area (and without doing a “Red October” imitation, no less).
This gyro stands 8’4” tall and is 12’ long. Cabin dimensions aren’t bad, with 32” of cabin width, 44” of headroom from the bottom of the seat to the top, and 44” of legroom.
Empty weight of the Vortex is 300 lbs and it has a nice payload capacity of 460 lbs (one of the better payloads when it comes to gyros).
The rotor is 25’ in diameter with a disc area of 490.8 sq ft. Rotor chord is 8”. The propeller is a Warp Drive three-blade, ground-adjustable prop, which is 68” in diameter.
The Vortex may be powered by 65- to 100-hp engines, including the Rotax 582 or 618 and Subarus within that range.
With a 65-hp engine, you’ll get 80 mph for a cruise speed and a top speed of 100 mph. If you think that’s good, just imagine what a 100-hp engine would do!
Fuel capacity is 10 gal, giving you a range of about 170 miles. Rate of climb is an impressive 1200 fpm with the low-horsepower engine. Service ceiling is 13,000’.
The Vortex has a host of subtle-but-revolutionary features that bode well for the future of the gyroplane industry, since many of them will, no doubt, be copied in short order. Many of them are performance-related, but even more seem to be designed to enhance pilot comfort and safety… possibly making this machine one of the safest gyroplanes in the sky.
The most noticeable feature of the Vortex is its sleek composite enclosure… a structure that keeps the wind out of one’s face, reduces drag considerably, and really spiffs up this bird’s appearance. The fuselage pod has a one-piece Lexan windshield thick enough to keep from bowing or distorting at high speeds.
The entry and exit are somewhat en-cumbered by the presence of the fuselage (you might have to duck a bit as you slide into the seat); this is not too difficult to deal with and the first time you get caught in the rain with this machine, you will bless the enclosure repeatedly.
The bird can also be equipped with optional side doors and a heater for cold weather.
One really nice feature is the inclusion of Key West Control’s wonderful little control panels.
Adapted to rotorcraft use, this instrument package is bright, easy to see, even easier to use, and looks rather stylish, to boot.
It fits into the front of the cabin, pedestal-mounted, like many “whirlybird” style systems… and definitely spruces-up the front end. More important, it works well and is easy to access as long as you don’t tighten your shoulder straps unnecessarily.
One of the more unusual facets of this design is Jim Vanek’s “Cyber Seat”… no, this is not the command chair from Captain Picard’s Enterprise, but a very novel exercise in pilot comfort and safety.
The Cyber Seat is a very comfortable, molded seat, which is lined with a high-impact cushioning material that has been previously engineered for ejection seat usage.
This material molds itself to your body shape in short order to produce a very comfortable seat without the usual hot-spots or hard points to cause you undue aches and pains.
The seat extends all the way from the base of the neck to mid-calf (on most normal-sized folks) and the impact resistance offered by this material also serves as an additional safety feature in the event of untoward impact or roll-over.
And yes, for those of you who may be interested in such a machine for non-recreational pursuits, there are Kevlar-lined Cyber Seats for law enforcement usage (you don’t see many bullet-proof gyros these days, do you?).
Jim is currently finishing the final engineering of a fuel cell that will fit behind the seat but will not be a part of it (the seat) like many other gyros. This fuel tank is designed to offer some impact resistance and to isolate the fuel system from the pilot as much as possible (i.e., no more sitting on your fuel). A metal substitute was in place on the test vehicle but we look forward to seeing the new tank assembly shortly.
Quite a bit of attention has been paid to landing gear design and geometry. The nose wheel is an independently-steered system that is not connected directly to the rudder as are some other gyros (creating some potential consternation in crosswind scenarios). The nose wheel is free-castering and differential braking (via a set of quite dynamic hydraulic brakes) steers the whole works smartly in tight confines (a pretty important consideration when you’re swinging a big rotor).
This assembly also sports a shimmy dampening system, which achieves additional stability in high-speed operations (not the forte of many gyros; the initial take-off, if accomplished with a high rate of forward speed, can often be a mite squirrelly—the Vortex tends to avoid this).
The main gear is a wide, triangulated structure incorporating a shock absorbing suspension system that does wonders to soak up residual energy that might be experienced in a poor landing (which, of course, I demonstrated solely to check out the system… I think). A number of other assemblies further isolate landing and taxi loads from the rest of the airframe and offer excellent rough field capability (for a machine of this type).
The overall effect is one of smooth, stable, solid ground handling… and one of the best rides in the gyro biz… even on unimproved surfaces. The main gear assemblies, by the way, offer adjustable tow-in and tracking capabilities.
The frame itself has also been designed to offer maximum protection to the cockpit area in the event of a high-impact landing. The entire framework has been designed to fail with the intention of protecting the seating area, while the rotor mast is also a multi-unit triangulated affair that offers substantial roll-over protection and integrity in case of a rotor strike. By the way, there is a novel detachable rotor mast option available for those who need to store your gyros in confined areas… a neat idea.
The control assembly is nearly a work of art… designed to offer a smooth, friction-free interface between man and machine. A huge rotor-head was incorporated to handle the loads imposed on gyros in normal and abnormal flight conditions; this assembly seems ready to take whatever you might be able to dish out. (It’s a stout monster.)
The rotor-head is equipped with built-in bumper stops made of a replaceable polymer that keeps the rotor-head from beating itself to a pulp and smoothing overall control efforts under aggressive maneuvering scenarios. The lack of these stops in a number of other rotor head designs leaves these heads vulnerable to cracks, dents, and potential failure from abuse and hard maneuvering.
The rotor itself is shock-isolated from the rotor-head by a compression style shock mount assembly using polymer and Teflon bushings compressed and attached with stainless retainers, bolts, and caps. The resultant lack of vibration and shock transfer can only add to the longevity and durability of this assembly… and offer a lot of peace of mind, to boot. Face it, friends: Take care of your rotor system… and it will take care of you.
The nosewheel is an independently-steered system that is not connected directly to the rudder as are some other gyros (creating some potential consternation in crosswind scenarios). The nosewheel is free-castering and differential braking (via a set of quite dynamic hydraulic brakes) steers the whole works smartly in tight confines (a pretty important consideration when you’re swinging a big rotor).
The actual control system is similarly distinguished. Careful engineering has been done in order to produce a smooth interface that dampens the many overt control sensitivities found in many modern gyroplanes. Normally motivated by a series of push-rods and linkages, often with high ratios of response to even the most minute stick in put… a recipe for possible over-control if there ever was one (most new gyro-pilots, especially those transitioning from fixed-wing aircraft, have remarked on this at length).
Vanek’s control system has been designed to moderate these responses to produce a far more linear control response (in terms of actual control input), as well as a more sturdy mechanism by which one motivates the system. The total effect is very impressive, as I am one of those who enjoys fairly high control response ratios (i.e., I don’t mind a sensitive control system); therefore, I was surprised to find that I really liked the system, mostly because of its smoothness and nearly deadbeat linearity.
But how does it FLY???
Darned well. Entry and exit are a mite cumbersome because one has to deal with both the center control stick and the fuselage frame, so you have to twist slightly on entering and swing your leg over the control stick. Once there, though, everything falls right to hand, as the left side throttle quadrant is well-placed, the center stick is forward enough to allow tubbies like yours truly a little “gut room”, and the rudder pedal positioning is actually adjustable!
Four-point restraint systems are standard and once one is belted in, there is still plenty of room to reach all applicable controls and instruments. The pre-rotator control is mounted on the quadrant alongside the throttle and I found this to be very convenient.
The Rotax 582-powered version pull starts easily, and the real forte of this gear becomes known as the Vortex shows that it possesses excellent, authoritative ground handling. Braking action is excellent and the turn radius is very tight.
The modified Wunderlich pre-rotator spins the rotor up quickly to 200 rpm… about 100-150 rpm short of normal flight speeds… but this is not much to worry about, because as soon as one guns the throttle and starts running more airflow through the rotor, flight comes quickly as the rotor gets motivated.
With a solid 200 rpm already stored in the blades, a proper take-off can get you airborne in well under 100’… and even less if there’s any wind to help get things spinning. I highly approve of the selection of the McCutcheon Skywheel composite rotor system, by the way; its heavier construction results in much higher mass inertia and, to me, a very pleasant feel. However, Jim does manufacture his own style of high-lift blades, which I have not yet had the chance to sample on this machine… though I look forward to that soon.
The aircraft offers very agile response right from the get-go… as soon as I was off the deck, I was rewarded with authoritative and quite smooth cyclic control and a rudder that pointed me the way I wanted to go—right now! The power of this beast is phenomenal, and the first impulse one has on take-off is to throttle back, as the climb angle seems a mite extreme as compared to others of this type.
Firewall the beast, though, and you are in for one heck of an elevator ride. The Vortex climbs at all of 1200 fpm at speeds of approximately 45-50 mph… and the resultant deck angle is extreme. I’ve seen very few gyroplanes that can sustain the climb angle the Vortex can. Cyclic control forces are light and linear throughout the speed envelope.
The Vortex boasts little control slop (well… virtually none that I can find, anyway), moderate damping (especially in sudden inputs… quite the plus for such birds), and good physical properties in relation to the stick’s position relative to the cabin and passenger (too many of the newer gyros leave the stick too close to the passenger… making it difficult to haul back on the cyclic during landing flare if you have a coat on… or a “pilot gut”).
Throttle positioning is quite well-placed and power application offers only modest pitch inputs with significant power alteration. More modest power changes are ameliorated quickly by the fixed. horizontal stabilizer.
Full power really produces a rush of speed and the gyro adapts well to this regime with a minimum of pitching or hunting in the fore/aft cyclic range. The Vortex will sustain speeds of up to 100-105 mph… but seems to be pretty happy to putt-putt at 70-80 mph… and about 5000 rpm.
In-flight visibility is, of course, quite good, and the partial enclosure keeps most of the bugs and gremlins at bay. The feeling is a mite more secure than the usual open-seat gyro (a feeling that I perversely enjoy), but the enclosure is not the least bit restricting… so you get a little bit of the best of both worlds.
Landing chores are immeasurably eased by the fact that since the Vortex has a fuselage, slipping this machine offers a far more significant descent rate (and drag) than many other non-cabin-equipped gyros. And boy, will this thing slip! Lay it hard over on its side and you will see an easy 1500 fpm (or more, if you’ve got the guts), thereby getting rid of altitude in a hurry.
The high inertia rotor system sheds energy reluctantly and allows for long, luxurious flares that can often result in zero-airspeed touchdowns in the lightest wind conditions. With 45 mph over the fence and a closed throttle, the final 2 to 3′ are simply a matter of milking the flare carefully, to avoid ballooning higher as the bird decelerates through the final approach. With a little practice, the resultant touchdowns are about as smooth as a guy could ask for… even on the grass alongside Scappoose’s taxiways. Nicely done… and a heck of a nice flyer.