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- What are "personal
Q - Will my middle-class income be enough to participate in this sport?
Q - I know what a helicopter is. What's a "gyrocopter?"
Q - How high can they fly?
Q - How fast can they go?
Q - How far can they travel?
Q - Where can I see personal rotorcraft fly and get an intro flight?
Q - Where can I buy a personal rotorcraft?
Q - Why are so many small rotorcraft built from kits?
Q - Why are most personal rotorcraft called "experimental?"
Q - If I build it myself, do I need a license to fly it?
Q - Are experimental and kit aircraft safe to fly?
Q - Where can I find training?
Q - I can't find experimental rotorcraft available for rent. Why?
Q - There are many "rotorcraft" groups. Which one should I join?
Q - What are the costs of membership in these groups?
Q - How is URA different from PRA?
Q - How is the URA related to PRA chapters?
Q - Why are most personal rotorcraft organizations focused on gyroplanes?
Q - Are there organizations which specialize in personal helicopters?
Q - What is the Rotary Wing Forum?
Q - Where can I learn more about personal rotorcraft?
Q - Have more questions? Send them to us!
- What are "personal rotorcraft?"
A - "Personal rotorcraft" is a compound term. "Rotorcraft" are a class of aircraft which generate lift using wings which rotate independently of the rest of the structure of the aircraft. The two most common types of rotorcraft are helicopters and gyroplanes. "Personal" refers to rotorcraft which are generally considered to be within the financial means of ordinary working people. The focus of the organizations referenced in this FAQ is generally experimental rotorcraft which can be bought and completed for under $200,000. Most cost considerably less.
- Will my middle-class income be enough to participate in this
A - One reason URA exists is to support those who are building their own helicopters and gyroplanes as a means to achieve their educational goals and dream of rotary-winged flight within middle class household budgets.
A new, basic, Robinson R22 helicopter starts at about a quarter-million dollars US. Add modern avionics and a heater and you're over the price of the average new home in Utah. There are obviously many other new helos with costs running into the millions. Hourly maintenance and training costs for certificated helicopters can be prohibitive for many hobbyists. At the other end of the scale, builders with good skills and contacts have assembled single-place gyroplanes for less than $10,000. It's all a matter of prioritizing and goal-setting. What do you want to fly?
If you watch a busy highway any weekend of the summer, you'll lose count of the families driving by who have obviously invested $25,000 or more in all-terrain vehicles, camping trailers and powerboats. There are brand new gyroplane kits which can be purchased for the price of a new Harley, and used ones available for significantly less. The customer base of recreational vehicles is expected to yield thousands of new Sport Pilots if gyroplanes are granted status as Special Light Sport Aircraft in the US, which would make them available in factory-built form.
The one constant cost among all forms of rotorcraft, and one for which you must budget if you're to fly safely, is training. If you're starting from scratch, expect to need a minimum of 20 hours of dual instruction to safely fly gyroplanes, possibly more for helicopters. Instruction in the US is typically available for $140-180 per hour in gyroplanes, and $200 and up in small piston helicopters. [-Top-]
- I know what a helicopter is. What's a “gyrocopter?”
A - “Gyrocopter” (originally a trade name for Bensen Aircraft's kits starting in the 1950s) is sometimes used interchangeably with "Gyroplane," the generic term adopted by the FAA to refer to rotorcraft which do not use their rotors as a primary means of forward propulsion. (Depending on region, you may also see the terms “gyrokopter,” “autogyro,” or “autogiro.”) Most gyroplanes have rotors which are unpowered, and completely free-wheeling in flight. A front-mounted ("tractor") or rear-mounted ("pusher") powerplant creates thrust to move the aircraft forward, in the same manner as traditional airplanes. Aerodynamic forces acting on the rotorblades cause them to spin passively, producing lift.
The gyroplane was invented to eliminate major causes of accidents in early aviation - aerodynamic stalls, and mistakes on landing while speeding across the ground. Because a gyroplane's rotor tips are always moving at about 300 MPH, even when the aircraft has slowed to zero, landings can be made at very low ground speeds. And unlike an airplane, a gyroplane can be pulled back to zero airspeed at any altitude without drama. The machine will just enter a controlled, vertical descent, and can be put back in forward flight by lowering the nose and/or adding power.
Because the continued spinning of a gyroplane's rotor requires that the aircraft continue to move horizontally or descend, most gyros require a takeoff roll like an airplane, while the blades are brought up to speed. They also cannot hover, since falling below a specified minimum airspeed will start a descent.
These limitations are what brought about the helicopter, which made the gyroplane commercially obsolete by the 1940s. By using engine power to spin the rotor, and tilting the rotor to allow using part of its downwash to create thrust, a helicopter can take off vertically and hover, and does not require a conventional tractor or pusher prop to move forward.
The downsides of the helicopter are complexity and cost. To counteract the torque on the airframe produced by powering the rotor, (which would otherwise cause the fuselage to spin in a direction opposite that of the rotor,) helicopters usually employ a tail rotor, a sideways-facing propeller which is used to counteract the effect of the torque applied to the rotor. The transmission which splits the engine's power between the main and tail rotors is flight-critical, requiring robust design and rigorous maintenance and inspection. The main rotor must have a means to adjust the lift generated by the blades, through changing their pitch, necessitating a collective pitch control lever and associated linkages. In place of the gyroplane's airplane-like rudder, the pedals in a helicopter control the collective pitch of the tail rotor's blades, allowing the pilot to vary the sideways force at the tail to either hold the machine straight, or yaw to the left or right.
Despite its considerable complexity and associated expense, the helicopter has had the commercial, law enforcement and military markets to itself for decades, mainly because buyers cannot envision doing without the ability to hover. Today, as governments struggle with budgets, many are rethinking the cost/value equation for that capability. But for now, the gyroplane remains primarily a recreational flying machine.
Some gyroplanes have been built using collective pitch controls for their rotors, which can allow over-speeding the rotor with no pitch before takeoff, then adding pitch to allow a vertical "jump takeoff." None are currently available in kit form to US builders.
Despite the gyroplane's place on the helicopter's family tree, the two machines are markedly different to fly, and have unique and exclusive appeal. Helicopter pilots understandably consider gyroplanes a less-capable form of aircraft, but most gyroplane pilots do not appear anxious to transition to helicopters, even when their budgets might allow it.
If you achieve an FAA Private (or higher) certificate in the category/class of either Rotorcraft/Gyroplane or Rotorcraft/Helicopter, getting the other class added to your certificate requires no set minimum number of hours, only training to a level of proficiency needed to pass the FAA Practical Test.
There are also some esoteric hybrids between the two classes. "Gyrodynes" or "rotordynes" are rotorcraft which take off and land vertically using powered rotors, but are configured like a gyroplane during normal flight. "Compound helicopters" are full helicopters which get added forward speed from the addition of a propeller, but could fly without it. A number of designs, including the Carter Copter, have used small airplane-style wings to provide some of the lift in forward flight, allowing slowing of the rotor for more efficiency. These craft have sometimes been called “heliplanes.” In-depth discussion of these hybrids is beyond the scope of this FAQ. [-Top-]
- How high can they fly?
A - Gyroplanes have flown above 20,000 feet MSL (above mean Sea Level), and with the appropriate powerplants and rotors they might go significantly higher. Flying above 18,000 feet MSL, classified as Class A airspace by the FAA, requires special permission and clearance from air traffic control, and brings the additional risks of flying a 90-knot rotorcraft in an environment dominated by 500-knot jets.
From a practical standpoint, climbing to these altitudes would be a waste of fuel in the typical small rotorcraft mission, and expose pilots to unnecessarily severe cold. Supplemental oxygen is required by law for any flight above 14,000 feet MSL. It can also be a little boring to fly for long periods without awareness of movement across the ground, a factor for flight in any slow aircraft at high altitudes.
Personal rotorcraft generally attract enthusiasts of scenic flight at low altitudes, and their design over the last 90 years has been optimized for such missions. [-Top-]
- How fast can they go?
A - Small rotorcraft which use two-bladed, teetering rotor systems (the most common for reasons of simplicity and low cost) typically are limited to about 90 knots, about 100 MPH, although they can be designed to fly as fast as about 120 knots, or about 140 MPH. The limiting factor is usually the maximum speed at which the rotor system can compensate for a side-to-side dissymmetry of lift, although some aircraft have other parts of their structure which limit safe speeds. [-Top-]
- How far can they travel?
A - Personal rotorcraft pilots have made transcontinental flights across North America. Norman Surplus, an Irish adventurer, has attempted to circumnavigate the globe in an AutoGyro MTO3. Due to their limited cruising speeds relative to comparable fixed-wing aircraft, personal rotorcraft are not usually chosen for long cross-country flights. Even when they're taken by their owners to distant aviation gatherings, rotorcraft are usually transported by highway on trailers. [-Top-]
- Where can I see personal rotorcraft fly and get an intro flight?
A - For an introduction to gyroplanes, the best option in warmer months is to seek out an active gyroplane flight instructor. If there is no training available in your immediate area, an active PRA chapter or other local rotorcraft group may be able to provide a ride in a two-place gyroplane. Small training helicopters such a the Robinson R22 are widely available, and introductory flights with an instructor can usually be arranged easily. [-Top-]
- Where can I buy a personal rotorcraft?
A - Personal rotorcraft are available in the US as new kits from a number of suppliers, or in pre-built form on the used market. Used machines may be based on popular kits, fabricated from purchased plans, or one-of-a-kind original designs of unknown stability and reliability. If you buy a used machine, be sure to involve a mentor or professional inspector who can help you evaluate the airworthiness of the aircraft. Contacts in an active local PRA chapter can be very helpful at such a time. Helicopters require special attention due to their added complexity. If you're buying a machine which was built from a popular kit or plans, ask the kit manufacturer for tips on assessing the condition and value of the machine. [-Top-]
- Why are so many small rotorcraft built from kits?
A - The process of getting a new aircraft certified in the standard category through the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) typically costs tens- or hundreds-of-millions of dollars. Personal rotorcraft in the US currently represent a market small enough that no manufacturer in recent decades has concluded a business opportunity exists to sell them factory-built in quantities adequate to cover the investment in regulatory and development costs. Since 2005, the Special Light Sport Aircraft (SLSA) segment has lowered these cost barriers and made less expensive fixed-wing aircraft available, but helicopters are not eligible due to the complexity of their control systems, and gyroplanes are excluded by arbitrary FAA policy.
This leaves enthusiasts options to buy a used aircraft already built by someone else, either from plans or a kit, or to build a new aircraft from a kit or plans. New kits are the most common choice. [-Top-]
- Why are most personal rotorcraft called "experimental?"
A - Rotorcraft built from plans or kits for personal use are generally registered under the FAA's Experimental Amateur Built (EAB) category because its unique restrictions are usually a good match to non-commercial missions, and because it allows the builder to obtain a Repairman Certificate, enabling him to do his own annual condition inspections. To qualify for EAB, a builder must be able to document that 51% or more of the fabrication and assembly tasks were completed by amateur builders. [-Top-]
- If I build it myself, do I need a license to fly it?
A - Any civil aircraft operated in the United States is regulated by the FAA. An appropriate pilot certificate is required to fly, regardless of who owns the property under the airspace in question, or who built the aircraft. The only exception is a operation which qualifies under Part 103 of the Federal Air Regulations. Commonly called "ultralights," these aircraft must be used or be intended to be used for manned operation in the air by a single occupant, must weigh under 254 pounds, and are limited to five US gallons of usable fuel capacity and a top speed of 55 knots, or 63 MPH. They may only be used for sport or recreation.
The FAA does not consider ultralights to be "aircraft" in the official sense, instead calling them "ultralight vehicles." Such vehicles face no FAA registration, airworthiness, inspection or maintenance requirements, there are no required markings, and no pilot certificate or documentation of formal training are required by the FAA. This does not mean ultralights can be flown successfully or safely without training! In some ways they can be more demanding to fly than some heavier rotorcraft, especially during takeoff and landing, and they often have marginal performance. Since you will need to get training to fly your ultralight safely, it is a questionable value decision to avoid the little extra work needed to qualify for a pilot certificate. Ultralights also face additional restrictions in controlled airspace, and their operations may be banned at some airports. [-Top-]
- Are experimental and kit aircraft safe to fly?
A - They can be as safe as any comparable aircraft from a major manufacturer. It's up to you.
Experimental Amateur Built aircraft built from reputable kits do not have a significantly higher accident rate than comparable aircraft with standard FAA airworthiness certificates earned under Part 23 or Part 27, once they complete their Phase I tests (typically the first 40 flight hours following construction). But unlike major manufacturers, which conduct all their testing on prototypes and then essentially clone them for sale, nearly all amateurs deviate in some way from the plans. Fabrication and construction skills will obviously vary. This means every experimental will be slightly different, and may encounter its own unique problems during testing.
Cessna lost two of its 162 Skycatcher LSAs during spin testing before arriving at the version finally sold to the public. Boeing was three years late delivering the first 787 Dreamliner, in part because of structural problems with tails and wing-attach points, and electrical problems which caused an in-flight fire during testing. But once these early problems are resolved in the prototypes, the exact clones sold to customers are very reliable and safe.
When you build an aircraft from a kit, it will not be exactly like any other aircraft. Major changes such as choice of powerplant, and even seemingly minor changes such as choice of instruments or even paint and finish can affect safety. Your homebuilt will not be a perfect clone of a known safe prototype, so you're likely to encounter your own unique set of issues during flight tests. So, how do you maximize safety?
First, choose a reputable design. Neither kits nor their sellers are held to any FAA standards, and the builder is legally considered the aircraft manufacturer. (That's you!) So it is essential to become immersed in the community before you choose. Especially among gyroplanes, certain older kits are associated with higher accident rates, and the engineering reasons are known. Ask questions, and not just of the salesman!
Second, follow the plans or include only proven modifications, don't be in a rush, take advantage of the experienced help available through URA, PRA and EAA, and take the Phase I test requirement seriously. If you discover something you've done differently from the plans will lead to degraded engine cooling, or result in a loss of engine power when you key the radio, you want to find it out over a runway, not over a wooded hillside ten miles from the nearest road.
Third, don't assume that, because you spent less than you would have for a certificated aircraft, this is somehow a "toy." Get the proper training before you fly, stay current in your qualifications, and accept that defying gravity carries greater risks than driving a car.
It can be extremely valuable to study the NTSB accident database. Nearly all accidents, including those blamed on mechanical problems, are the result of a chain of human decisions. [-Top-]
- Where can I find training?
A - Training in light helicopters is widely available in every state in the US, usually from multiple, competing flight schools. The only current commercial source of full-time gyroplane training in the Northwest/Mountain and Western/Pacific FAA regions is Airgyro Aviation (info) in Spanish Fork, UT. There is limited training available for purchasers of Sport Copter kits from an independent instructor (info) at Scappoose, OR. There may be training available from itinerant instructors at certain times of the year. There are presently only about 20 active gyroplane flight instructors in the US who also have two-seat gyroplanes which are FAA approved for training. It is not uncommon to have to travel to get needed instruction. [-Top-]
- I can't find experimental rotorcraft available for rent. Why?
A - Small helicopter rentals are suppressed by limited availability of insurance. The FAA expressly prohibits the rental of experimental aircraft, with certain very limited exceptions, which includes most gyroplanes. One of the exceptions is flight training, for which an instructor can obtain a LODA (Letter of Deviation Authority) to use his two-seat gyro for training. Due to insurability issues, instructors will rarely allow a student who has reached the point of proficiency to advance to solo flight to fly the training aircraft alone, since damage to the gyro would entail both repair costs and lost business. It is therefore a practical necessity for gyroplane students to have their own aircraft ready at the time they are authorized to solo. [-Top-]
- There are many "rotorcraft" groups. Which one should I
A - The various rotorcraft groups vary in their purpose and focus. Most committed students and enthusiasts belong to more than one. Membership is a personal decision based on an assessment of costs and benefits, and support for activities which may advance the sport or aviation in general.
The Popular Rotorcraft Association (PRA) was started in 1962 by Dr. Igor Bensen, developer of the original Bensen Gyrocopter (a brand of gyroplane), as a lifestyle marketing group for his dealers and customers. Over time, PRA became inclusive of all makes and models of gyroplane. It is now headquartered at the PRA Mentone Airport in Indiana, which it now owns, and where it hosts its annual convention in late July. In addition to maintaining the airport, PRA maintains a small paid staff to assist members, seeks to promote the sport, and has a standing Regulatory Affairs Committee to represent enthusiasts of personal rotorcraft in dealing with the FAA. PRA publishes a monthly electronic magazine, Rotorcraft E-Zine, which is available free regardless of membership status. PRA also offers an economical online ground school course to prepare participants on the FAA's Sport Pilot / Gyroplane knowledge test, and provides space at Mentone for a small museum.
Individual PRA chapters are authorized affiliates of PRA, serving as the organization's representatives in local areas. Active chapters in the Northwest/Mountain and Western/Pacific FAA regions are based in the following areas:
PRA Chapter 1, Ken Brock Rotorcraft Association, El Mirage, CA.
PRA Chapter 2, Greater Salt Lake City area, UT.
PRA Chapter 15, Arizona Rotorcraft Club, San Manuel, AZ.
PRA Chapter 31, San Diego County Rotorcraft Club, CA.
PRA Chapter 38, Colorado Rotorcraft Association, Colorado Springs, CO.
PRA Chapter 73, Great Northwest Sport Rotorcraft Association, Scappoose, OR.
The Utah Rotorcraft Association, which at one time was the formal name of PRA Chapter 2, became a completely separate organization in 2011. URA is now incorporated as an IRS-recognized 501(c)(3) tax-exempt not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing educational and training resources to personal rotorcraft enthusiasts in Utah and the western US. Social and fraternal activities have been left to PRA and its individual chapters, while URA concentrates on media support services for itself and other rotorcraft groups in the west, (including this website and the Western Rotorcraft regional electronic newsletter,) coordinating educational and training resources at the annual Rotors Over The Rockies regional meet, and providing a platform and on-location equipment for conducting online meetings and educational programs for itself and other groups.
Many personal rotorcraft enthusiasts also belong to more general aviation organizations such as the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). [-Top-]
- What are the costs of membership in these groups?
A - Membership in URA is currently $24/year. PRA dues are $42/year, or $49.95 for dues plus a printed digest of content in Rotorcraft E-zine. Most PRA chapters have dues of about $25 per year. [-Top-]
- How is URA different from PRA?
A - URA has no paid staff or real property, maintaining a tight focus on education and training. Unlike PRA, URA, Inc. may solicit donations which become tax-deducitble for donors. PRA has greater freedom to engage in social and fraternal activities, regulatory activism, and other areas not allowed under 501(c)(3) of the US Tax Code. [-Top-]
- How is the URA related to PRA chapters?
A - There is no formal relationship between URA and PRA or any of its chapters. URA supports local rotorcraft groups in the western US in improving education, training, and media resources which can widen access to history and best practices. Such support is not limited to PRA chapters. [-Top-]
- Why are most personal rotorcraft organizations focused on
A - These groups were all started by and remain dominated by gyroplane interests. The gyroplane segment is much larger than the helicopter segment, even though single-seat helicopter kits have become quite economical. The machines attract their own unique followings. Helicopter fans understandably view gyroplanes as less evolved, yet gyroplane fans don't usually migrate to helicopters even when their budgets allow. The two classes offer different flying experiences.
The emergence of the Sport Pilot certificate in the US has further isolated the two groups, since it is available for gyroplanes, but not for helicopters. The change further separates the agendas of those who would represent us before the FAA. [-Top-]
- Are there organizations which specialize in personal helicopters?
A – Not on a national level, as far as we can tell. It has been suggested to us by several helo enthusiasts that “helicopter people aren't joiners,” as one phrased it. We'll keep looking, and encourage our members and readers to let us know if you find such an organization. In the meantime, URA will seek to serve helicopter enthusiasts in our region to the extent their participation permits. [-Top-]
- What is the Rotary Wing Forum?
A - The Rotary Wing Forum (RWF) is a non-commercial online community for the worldwide exchange of information. Started in October, 2003 by Todd Powell, a firefighter and gyroplane enthusiast in Spokane, WA, this forum now has thousands of registered members and many more unregistered readers, and hundreds-of-thousands of posts on tens-of-thousands of topics. As with any forum, new members often ask old questions, so use the search function to find previous discussion threads to avoid duplication. There is no cost to join, but informal, voluntary contributions are accepted by Todd each April to help defray operating expenses. (RWF is completely independent, and not affiliated with URA or PRA.)
When it was started, RWF quickly attracted most of the former members of a previous gyroplane-oriented forum which had just closed down, and it remains dominated by gyroplane topics. [-Top-]
Q - Where can I
learn more about personal rotorcraft?
A - The best way to start learning about personal rotorcraft is to read all the available published material, join organizations which meet your individual needs, and attend as many related events as you can. Most newcomers, even if they're experienced in other forms of aviation, find they know too little to even ask useful questions about small rotorcraft. This all becomes easier once you get past the "drinking from a fire hose" stage.
PRA's Rotorcraft E-Zine, URA's Western Rotorcraft, and the Rotary Wing Forum can all be read at no cost. All three have event calendars which offer details on the larger personal rotorcraft meetings and events, which are opportunities to see a variety of machines and talk to many other enthusiasts. [-Top-]
Have more questions? Send them to us!