Combining gyroplanes and helicopters in one buyer’s guide has been the traditional KITPLANES® approach over the years, and it seems to work because, well, these two types of aircraft look sort of alike, the FAA kind of lumps them in together, and of course they both have those big spinny things on top. However, they really are two completely different machines with different regulations and different manufacturers producing them.
For example, a lot of the new gyroplane manufacturers in Europe do not come from a helicopter or even rotorcraft background. Many of them instead come from a weight-shift-control trike background, and many of those manufacturers come from the hang-gliding world. Quite a different pedigree from the helicopter purists. Perhaps some of these new gyroplane producers will be designing helicopters 10 years from now…who knows.
Helicopters also have “favored nation” status within the FAA. It is easy to see how that might happen because most rotorcraft professionals come from military or civilian helicopter backgrounds, and it is human nature to gravitate toward what we’re familiar and comfortable with. In the end, it certainly makes for an interesting market.
Everything Is Experimental/Amateur-Built
Long ago, in an economics course, I learned something that stayed with me. During a discussion of supply and demand came the subject of “other market influences.” The big market effect that is becoming bigger every year is government influence. The government can make anything easier or more difficult with its rules, subsidies and other impacts on the marketplace. In the rotorcraft world there has been a little of each recently, making things both easier and more difficult.
The first impact is born out of bureaucratic intransigence from the FAA’s Rotorcraft Directorate. While countries in Europe continue to produce fully built and safe gyroplanes that are becoming increasingly popular with pilots there, the FAA doesn’t have a cost-effective way for manufacturers or importers to do the same in the United States. There was an opportunity to bring gyroplanes into the Light Sport Aircraft rules when those rules were introduced a few years ago, but the Rotorcraft Directorate balked, and obstacles continue for those in the U.S. who would like to make it possible to produce gyroplanes this way.
That leaves gyroplane companies with the option of either certifying their aircraft as Part 27 rotorcraft or as primary category aircraft. Both are expensive propositions that even major manufacturers find challenging to afford. Or there is the less efficient (and some say less safe) option. Companies in Europe can “reverse-manufacture” their gyroplanes and offer them in the U.S. as Experimental/Amateur-Built kits, and that is what we are seeing for the time being. Of course, if you want a new, low-cost helicopter, the only way to go is with an E/AB kit.
The good news is that 51% today doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing it meant just a few years ago. Actually, the regulation has always read the same way, but interpretation was left open to FAA safety inspectors. Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft are defined as aircraft whose major portion “has been fabricated and assembled by persons who undertook the construction project for their own education or recreation.” Some inspectors (those with airplane roots) thought it was mandatory that homebuilders do some fabricating of parts as well as the assembly. This is frankly more challenging for rotorcraft builders who may not have much to build in the way of wings or control surfaces.
Well, the FAA finally addressed this issue when it developed new 51% checklists for all categories of aircraft. For gyroplanes and helicopters, it is now possible to build 51% of your aircraft without fabricating parts, which is good news for builders who don’t have welding, composite or machining skills. Airframe, engine, rotor, electrical, instrument and other assembly skills will do just fine now.
The bottom line is that if you want to own a new rotorcraft and you don’t want to spend mega bucks, you are going to be turning some wrenches.
Easy Does It
Unfortunately, caveat emptor is the Latin term that will save you money and grief in the aviation world. As with so many other acquisitions, manufacturer web sites usually look good, and rare is the salesman who will say, “Our product stinks, and we rarely deliver.” If you don’t do your homework, you may find yourself in trouble and with more than just a lightened wallet.
A great approach to making any purchasing decision is to fly before you buy. That means you may have to visit a factory or a dealer or an instructor in a perhaps not-so-close state. Don’t pinch pennies here: Make the trip. If you want to try to judge stability by just looking at a gyroplane, it is possible to get a rough idea by examining what kind of tail section it has. Like an airplane, it should have a stabilizer that has plenty of surface area and is located well behind the center of gravity of the loaded aircraft. The smaller the stabilizer, the farther back it needs to be. There is math involved, but we are talking rough estimates here. Flying is the best test. Gyroplanes are easy to fly, if they are built right. If the pilot won’t let you take controls, or if those controls feel really tricky, it may be time to move on.
So What’s Out There?
There aren’t large changes in overall numbers. Last year we listed 33 gyroplane models and 16 helicopters. This year the total number of rotorcraft is 66, 44 of which are gyroplanes, along with 22 helicopters. We have to be a bit careful about characterizing this growth, because the updating process revealed some designs that should have been designated as current that weren’t, and some that should’ve been listed as no longer available that were still in the current column. For example, the Honeybee designs (four of them) were somehow omitted from last year’s buyer’s guide. Rotor Air Force SA Pty. Ltd. (now known as Rotary Air Force Marketing, Inc.) was also left out. (Also, though it doesn’t affect the numbers, CHR International, Inc., which makes the Safari heli, was renamed Safari Helicopters, but that had not matriculated into the data.) Still, there has been some growth in this segment over the past year.
New gyroplane models seemed to come from importers bringing in mostly European designs. All but one or two of the kit helicopter producers are from domestic manufacturers. The complete list of rotorcraft can be seen in the Online Buyer’s Guide, but let’s talk about the newer stuff!
Oshkosh/AirVenture saw the U.S. introduction of the Austrian ArrowCopter AC20 from FD Composites GmbH. FD Composites is a structural parts company that also makes Formula One race cars. This aircraft was designed and is manufactured using some very up-to-date technology. The aircraft is built out of carbon-fiber composites (prepreg parts), and it is not a case of building a composite shell onto a main metal keel tube. The primary structure is built out of carbon-fiber composites. This is not an inexpensive way to build an aircraft. Before a mold was ever built, the aircraft was modeled using finite element analysis, a computer-intensive way to design structures that takes into account the forces acting on them. The benefits are a light aircraft that is strong where it needs to be strong and light where it can be light. A lot of specialized equipment is brought to bear to manufacture such an aircraft, too. Clean rooms, autoclaves, laser cutting and CNC milling are all used. Even the quality-control process is state of the art. Machined parts are compared with the digital design drawings using a tactile measurement process.
The ArrowCopter comes with a 90-mph cruise speed and a $150,000 price tag. The U.S. importer is planning to have builder-assist and flight-training programs for those wanting to transition to gyroplanes. The ArrowCopter has staked out new territory on the premium side of the gyroplane price spectrum.
Of course, you don’t have to drop six figures to enjoy a great gyroplane. In fact, the rest of the offerings don’t cross that six-figure threshold unless you dress them up with some very nice options. Indeed, gyroplanes can be a relative bargain in both the upfront cost of the kit and the hours you need to spend assembling it.
Rotor Flight Dynamics, Inc., manufacturer of the Dominator line of gyroplanes, is a true Experimental/Amateur-Built kit that has options for all sorts of powerplants including the Viking engine (Honda Fit), Yamaha (they call ’em Yamanators) and others. Since the largest single line item cost for a gyroplane kit is the powerplant, you can keep costs down by going with an alternative engine. Of course, with that kind of savings, you also take on other challenges. That’s why the company also offers Rotax engines with all of their aviation reliability and a commensurate price.
Another option that has been available for a couple of years is the German AutoGyro brand. The company has both open- and enclosed-cockpit models that are powered by Rotax 912 series engines. When I say “available for a couple of years,” I mean available to the U.S. buyer. AutoGyro is well established in the European market with sales in Germany that are greater than even domestic airplane manufacturers like Flight Designs.
And the first European import, the Magni brand, is still going strong in America. This Italian-made line is considered by most to be the top of the line and certainly the trendsetter for the rest of the Eurogyros, though Autogyro and ArrowCopter are two imports that will give them a run for the money.
Air Command International Elite 582.
Chesapeake Sport Pilot is primarily an airplane training center in Maryland that entered into the gyroplane market as a distributor partly because of interest from law-enforcement organizations. The Department of Justice has figured out that gyroplanes are much more cost effective as aviation assets, especially for smaller rural organizations with tighter budgets.
Other than the new FAA Experimental build list, the helicopter rules are pretty settled. The biggest regulatory challenge can be getting approval for alternative engines, if the alternative engine is a turbine. It seems that more and more Experimental helicopters are being built as kerosene burners, and that takes one very cool toy and makes it even cooler.
The two brands that I see regularly at major shows are the Safari and the Mosquito. The Safari folks have put a lot of work into updating their design and kits, and they show a lot of pride in their work. Their builders are regular award winners at Oshkosh and Sun ’n Fun.
Eagle R&D Helicycle.
The Mosquito folks build a single-seater, which, delivered stripped down, is legal as an ultralight. However, a lot of builders prefer them with the enclosure that’s offered. This adds to both the price and the weight, the weight forcing them into the E/AB category.
Another nice kit is the Helicycle. Turbine power on a ship that small is just a joy, and the complete kits can be downright beautiful. That is, if you can find a helicopter to be beautiful, and I can!
Vertical Aviation Technologies introduced a new four-seat helicopter, the Hummingbird 300LS, powered by a GM LS7 engine. The company says this was in response to customer queries about an engine that would run on auto fuel. This V-8 option is especially designed for the Hummingbird and is not a stock engine, and the camshaft and exhaust are custom for this installation. Wide-band O2 sensors allow for the use of 87-octane auto gas to 100LL aviation fuel.
Vertical Aviation 300LS.
RotorWay is still offering kit helicopters, with the two-seat A600 Talon being the newest of the breed. It is a complete redesign with an all-glass cockpit by MGL Avionics. The FADEC system has a secondary FADEC as a clone to the primary. Power is from a 147-hp RI 600N engine.
Over the Event Horizon
In general, the best way of forecasting what new gyroplanes we may see in the U.S. is by watching what new gyroplanes are being produced in Europe. Since European rules are more settled and manufacturers are able to bring products to market for a reasonable price, they are doing so. For them, America is an “additional market” rather than the primary market.
Innovator Mosquito XET.
What is interesting to observe is exactly who is bringing these gyroplanes over. Some of the importers are rotorcraft people, but not all of them. A true sign of growth in the industry is that importers with primary experience in airplanes, weight-shift-control trikes and even powered parachutes are looking to jump on what looks to be the next big wave.
For those who are already here, look at Magni and Autogyro to build on their success and continue to add dealers in different parts of the country. (Magni has discontinued two of its designs, the M-14 and M-18.) J-RO is a gyroplane built by DTA, a French company with a strong background in weight-shift-control trikes. Silverlight Aviation is looking to spin up operations in Florida. Its Cabriolet is enclosed and has a profile that is reminiscent of the Autogyro Calidus. However, unlike the Calidus, the company designed the gyro to fly with or without the doors, a nice touch since open-air flying is one of the great things about gyroplanes.
The ArrowCopter deserves another mention here because despite a respectable showing at AirVenture and an appearance at the annual PRA (Popular Rotorcraft Association) convention, much of the company’s plans are still plans. A building and training center is planned for the West Coast, which will be a welcome addition for the gyro fans out there. But in 2012, the fleet of ArrowCopters in the U.S. was one. That should increase this year. Other models in Europe are just waiting for importers, which makes it an interesting time in the gyroplane world.
However, gyros aren’t the only ones with something new brewing. Composite Helicopter International, Ltd. has put together a kit to beat all kits, a turbine-powered composite helicopter that seats six! The KC 518 Adventourer is designed and built in Auckland, New Zealand, and the manufacturer says that it is first being offered as a basic kit. The company is also considering a quickbuild kit in addition to pursuing certification of the design.
Composite Helicopter International has had inquiries from the U.S. about distributing the Rolls Royce-powered helicopter and would like to establish at least eastern, western and central distribution centers in America. Ideally, the distribution centers would also offer quickbuild kit options and builder-assistance programs.
The kit price is $395,000, and as of right now, those who wish to build one (the first adopters) will be working on their projects in New Zealand, which may narrow the prospects (or maybe improve them, hard to tell).
Where to Go from Here
If you are ready to make the jump to a rotorcraft, manufacturer and distributor web sites are a good place to learn more, and are highly recommended. But the best bet is to climb into the rotorcraft of your choice with an instructor and fly it. And fly as many different types as possible. That may be a challenge because it is hard to get all of the designs together in one place, but the annual PRA convention in Mentone, Indiana, is a good place to start. Held each August, it, along with the other major airshow events, is a great place to chat with pilots about the rotorcraft they fly and why they fly them.
After that, it’s up to you. I talk to people who dream of flying for years and then finally get around to it. The biggest complaint from them is that they should have started 10 or 20 years earlier. Don’t be one of those guys. Follow your dreams and get into the air. It’s warm (in the right season), and flying rotorcraft is fun!