The Italian Magni (shown) and the German Autogyro brands are available in the United States, but not as completed aircraft, even though that is how they are delivered elsewhere in the world.
It is difficult to find bigger fans of their aircraft than gyroplane pilots. Properly built gyroplanes offer stability, ease of flight, respectable speed and the ability to comfortably fly in winds that keep most sport aircraft on the ground. And all of this is possible for much less money than an equivalent single- or two-place helicopter.
You might wonder why we don’t see more of them flying than we do. The answer to that is complicated and, in some respects, political.
Gyroplanes developed almost exclusively as sport aircraft, with little government or military interest in the type (although this is changing). So gyroplane designs and improvements have come from dedicated designers and pilots working with small budgets compared to many airplane designers. That’s important because even though an individual airplane designer may not receive development help from the government, the overall body of knowledge grows from that kind of activity. There is a trickle-down effect that benefits those of us building our own aircraft not only from design ideas, but also from the support systems that are created. For example, I doubt that there is even one degree program at an American university for gyroplane design, but there are numerous programs for aircraft design.
The purely experimental aspect of sport gyroplanes resulted in some early design ideas that were not thoroughly thought out or tested before the kits went to market. That, in turn, resulted in accidents. The black eye that gyroplanes earned during the last half of the last century can still be seen on the faces of pilots whose first reaction to the idea of flying a gyroplane is fear.
As would be expected, this resulted in scrutiny by the FAA and its Rotorcraft Directorate, which focuses almost exclusively on helicopters with nearly no time spent on gyroplane designs. Indeed, back when the Sport Pilot rule was written, there was resistance to even including gyroplanes. For this reason gyroplanes became the only class of aircraft for which you can get a Sport Pilot license, but which cannot be produced and certified as Special Light Sport Aircraft (SLSA).
So even though there are both U.S. and foreign producers of SLSA airplanes, weight-shift-control trikes, motorgliders and powered parachutes, U.S. companies cannot manufacture an SLSA gyroplane.
The European Model
This is in stark contrast to what is going on in Europe, where aviation regulations and government intervention are often greater than they are in the U.S., and where gyroplanes are nonetheless thriving. They do so because gyroplanes are regulated much like the rest of sport aviation there. Authorities have allowed companies to build and sell fully ready-to-fly gyroplanes to customers. Designs are now offered from several countries including Italy, Germany, Spain, France and even Poland. As they become more popular, more countries are bound to join in.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., it is possible to get into a good gyroplane. There are American manufacturers as well as importers of the new-generation European designs. The difference in the U.S. is that none of the aircraft are offered ready to fly. All of the designs currently available are offered as Experimental/Amateur-Built. This means that in some cases, European manufacturers have to purposely not build a factory-complete aircraft so that an American owner can construct 51% to have a legally registered and certificated gyroplane. This bothers some European manufacturers who feel that selling partially completed aircraft is less safe. After all, they have quality-control programs set up in their facilities, and they cannot make sure that the aircraft meet their production standards if they can’t finish building them. The current situation is a workaround.
The Dominator is an American-built gyroplane, which, like all current offerings in America, is sold only as an Experimental/Amateur-Built kit.
A Glimmer of Hope
If you look at the regulations, the hope is hard to see. There, under 21.190, “Issue of a special airworthiness certificate for a light-sport category aircraft,” the first paragraph delivers the bad news:
21.190 (a) Purpose. The FAA issues a special airworthiness certificate in the light-sport category to operate a light-sport aircraft, other than a gyroplane.
Nothing like being singled out.
However, hope is found in the Sport Pilot preamble that was released with the rule in 2004. Despite language saying that the gyroplane industry is not “ready” for SLSA production, this olive branch was extended:
If the gyroplane community is successful in developing a design and performance consensus standard, and if service experience, including accident data, demonstrates a marked difference between ultralight gyroplanes and those that are built to that voluntary consensus standard, then the FAA may revise the rule to permit gyroplanes to receive the special airworthiness certificates in the Light Sport category.
The great news is that the gyroplane community has been working on these goals and has, in a sense, already met or surpassed those requirements. The first of the two was that a consensus standard be established. To that end, manufacturers have been working alongside other Light Sport Aircraft producers to establish an ASTM standard for LSA gyroplane production. It includes elements that other aircraft categories have developed.
The second requirement is that there be a marked difference between ultralight gyroplanes and those that are built to the voluntary consensus standard. Part of the FAA’s issue with gyroplanes was that, “The data show 70 fatal accidents in the years 1983 through 1994 with mechanical failures accounting for 12 of those accidents.” That means there would need to be a marked improvement from the 5.8 fatal accidents per year. Since 2004, the number of gyroplanes certified has increased each year, and the total number of fatal accidents from September 2004 (When the Sport Pilot rule became active) to October of 2011 was 16, an average of 2.3 accidents per year. That means fatal accidents are down 60%, which by anyone’s measure is a marked difference.
Moreover, that marked difference encompasses the entire fleet of gyroplanes, which means that older aircraft seem to have been improved to take advantage of new knowledge in the field. That success should pave the way for the promised regulation change so that SLSA gyroplanes can finally be offered in the U.S. Or maybe not.
This data, while appearing conclusive to many inside and outside the sport, may not satisfy the FAA, which wants manufacturers to show that the aircraft built under the consensus standards are making that marked difference. This seems silly, because as mentioned above, the entire fleet is showing an improvement. Moreover, the FAA hasn’t allowed aircraft to be built under the consensus standard (which by definition would involve completed aircraft), so how can anyone even measure to that detail?
So the FAA is demanding more data from the industry to prove that it is worthy of being allowed to build SLSA gyroplanes. What is frustrating is that the FAA didn’t require all kinds of data to preclude SLSA gyroplanes from being built. The Rotorcraft Directorate didn’t study gyroplane stability, didn’t survey what was going on in the community in detail and didn’t look outside the United States to see what other countries were doing. It simply looked at overall fatal accident statistics and said 70 fatalities in 12 years was bad. We need to see marked improvement. Now that the improvement has arrived, the FAA seems to be asking for additional information that it should have already been tracking had the information been deemed vital.
The worst of it is that even when the Rotorcraft Directorate figures out that gyroplanes are safe, a regulation change will take years to accomplish because of the bureaucratic nature of the FAA. A notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) will have to be drafted, it will need to be commented on by the public, and then it will have to be signed off.
But there is one more glimmer of hope for those dreaming of owning a new SLSA gyroplane. Owning and operating a gyroplane is still less expensive than owning and operating a helicopter, and so in the world of tightening local budgets, gyroplanes are being seriously considered by the Department of Justice for use in smaller towns as aviation support. Perhaps a friendly nudge from another federal agency can help motivate the FAA to free gyroplanes from regulatory purgatory.
Meanwhile, the best advice I can offer those of you who want to fly a gyroplane now is to work with an American kit manufacturer or gyroplane kit importer. It takes a little time to assemble the kit yourself, but you will learn a lot about your aircraft in the process. And despite the regulatory hurdles, flying a gyroplane is still one of the most fun things you can do in aviation.
Roy Beisswenger is the technical editor for Powered Sport Flying magazine (www.psfmagazine.com) and host of the Powered Sport Flying Radio Show (www.psfradio.com). He is also a Light Sport repairman and gold seal flight instructor for Light Sport Aircraft as well as the United States delegate to CIMA, the committee of the Fdration Aronautique Internationale (FAI) pertaining to microlight activity around the world.