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Can a heli pilot be convinced by Gyros?

It’s fair to say that Rachel ‘Rotor’ Ramsay is not 100% wild about gyrocopters – but flying is flying – and she is willing to be convinced otherwise. So, after a turn in a Magni M24 Orion and a M16 has she been won over? All is revealed…

Back in April I got myself into a smidgen of trouble with the gyrocopter community when, tongue firmly in cheek, I stated on one of FLYER’s AERO Friedrichshafen videos that I would ‘take some convincing that gyrocopters aren’t the worst of both worlds’. 

By this, I meant that these strange little helicopter fixed-wing hybrids appeared to offer none of the advantages of helicopters (what’s the point in having rotors if you can’t hover, go sideways / backwards or take off vertically, and can’t take them to hotels?) – and, conversely, the disadvantages of fixed-wing (mainly that you need a runway). 

Flying around in permanent autorotation also seemed unappealing.

That said, I’ll happily try virtually any form of flying, so I was pleased when Steve Boxall of Gyrocopter Experience got in touch offering to change my mind about gyros.

Rachel flanked by the Magni 24 Orion (left) and the Magni M16

As a result, I found myself at Popham Airfield in Hampshire, preparing to fly not one but two of them. Steve, a former balloon pilot with stacks of interesting stories, was a man on a mission and, when I arrived, he had both closed and open cockpit versions sitting waiting for me. In the nearby hangars, no fewer than 15 gyros were neatly slotted in – a fair chunk of the 350-odd machines currently in the UK.

While most people probably know them as ‘gyrocopters’ – I note that Steve calls them ‘gyroplanes’ – and on querying the correct lingo, he tells me that the latter is how the regulators refer to them, but the former is used more widely. When they were invented, in the 1920s / 1930s, they were known as ‘autogyros’, which is still in occasional use.

The varying terminology is an interesting reflection of their hybrid nature, and I was curious to find out whether it’s the -copter or -plane suffix that’s most pertinent. Despite having rotors, they’re a lot simpler than helicopters, drawing air from below to generate lift and using the propeller on the back to provide forward thrust.

Our first chariot of the day is the Magni M24 Orion (headset sockets: the fixed-wing variety; pilot’s seat: left-hand side). Its enclosed cockpit is comfortable and modern, with side-by-side seating and a decent instrument panel that includes a Garmin G5. There’s also a FLYdat electronic display showing all the information for its Rotax 914-UL engine, as well as an electronic rotor rpm monitor.

In many respects it resembles any light fixed-wing cockpit, with one or two differences. Firstly, the control column doesn’t move around evenly, instead going up and around when it’s on the ground, where it’s held in place by a piece of wire for taxi.

There’s a secondary handle affixed to it which you might think was a brake of some sort, but is in fact the ‘pre-rotator’… which I’ll come onto shortly. The throttle is to the left, with a wheel brake attached to it, and there’s really just one reassuringly familiar feature for the heli pilot: a rotor brake.

Start is as easy as a quick press of a button, and with such a (comparatively) simple design there aren’t a huge number of checks to run through before we can begin our taxi to the runway.

The rotors stay motionless for the (ground-based) taxi, and it’s only when we’re lined up on the runway that they finally get their time to shine. 

Airborne in the Magni M24 Orion, which is modern, comfortable, and is equipped with a decent instrument panel

To start the blades turning, it’s a squeeze on the pre-rotator and a wait for them to get up to speed before releasing it. This takes only a few moments, and after a quick power check it’s full power on.

We’re airborne in no time, and at only a few hundred feet Steve does something surprising… takes his hands off the controls and lets the gyro fly itself.

It’s completely counterintuitive for a helicopter pilot, but his point is that the aircraft wants to fly, and releasing the controls allows it to settle into the right attitude. When I take control for some general handling, I note how heavy the controls are – almost like flying the R44 hydraulics off. No wonder it’s so stable!

Steve Boxall of Gyrocopter Experience, sets out to convince Rachel of the benefits of flying gyrocopters

The visibility is incredible, with a low instrument panel and the gullwing doors enabling panoramic views, including directly below. I get a unique perspective on this view when Steve talks me through a vertical descent, which is apparently a common technique for getting into a landing site.

Slowing down to 20-30mph and cutting the power, we descend swiftly, and with no downwash, there’s no vortex ring to worry about.

Of course, if the engine goes, we’re already in autorotation, so it just means we lose forward thrust. When we practise an engine failure, I’m amazed at how much time we have to plan where to land, and how easily we make it into our chosen field.

Back at the airfield, it’s a steeper approach than I’m used to even in a helicopter. I find it easy to land (beginner’s luck?), although I was surprised to come to a complete standstill almost immediately on landing.

On the taxi back, it’s on with the rotor brake and a pause, before nearing the hangars, for them to come to a stop aligned down the middle of the aircraft so they don’t hit anything.

It's 'tandem time'… exposed to the elements – and free as a bird!

After lunch, it’s the turn of the open cockpit Magni M16, which, according to the Magni promo material, is the company’s best-seller. It has tandem seating and requires the wearing windproof gear and helmets, which I find somewhat unflattering, so it loses a point…

Like other forms of open cockpit aviating, it feels a very raw form of flying, exposed to the elements and free as a bird. With a relatively low cockpit ledge separating me from the ground, I expected to feel nervous, but I find I feel enclosed enough to feel secure even when Steve demos some ridiculously tight turns.

The same is true when he performs a 360° descending turn on short final – a ‘confined area approach’, which is a great way to lose height rapidly while maintaining energy. Not something you’d ever do in a fixed-wing or helicopter! We do a couple more circuits so that I can have a go at some more landings, and these are as smooth and easy as the first.

I’ve come away with the conclusion that gyros are neither the best nor the worst of both worlds – they’re in a world of their own. Personally, in view of my limited budget, I would use an aeroplane to go from A to B, and a helicopter for short, special hops to hotels and other nearby off-airfield sites.

The gyro is slow, so not ideal for long distances, and although you can get it into microlight strips, you’re basically limited to airfields when you use it for days out.

But it comes into its own for the pure joy of flying… so I am happy to hold my hands up and admit it… I was wrong.




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