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how to fly autogyros

Bensen's design

Bensen type autogyro

The Bensen Gyrocopter, the prototype of many post WW2 gyroplanes, actually consists of three versions, the G-6, G-7 and G-8. All three were designed in both unpowered and powered forms.

The basic design is a simple frame of square aluminium or galvanized steel tubing, reinforced with triangles of lighter tubing. It is arranged so that the stress falls on the tubes, or special fittings, not the bolts. All welds or soldered structural joints should be inspected.

The rotor is on the top of the vertical mast. The outlying fixed wheels are mounted on an axle (of tubing). The front-to-back keel (more tubing) mounts the forward wheel (which casters), seat, other tubes, engine and a vertical stabilizer. Some versions mount seaplane-style floats and successfully land and take off from water.

It is common for the vertical stabilizer to drag on the ground unless it is cut away. This is also why many frames have a small wheel mounted on the back end of the keel.

The rotor is not symmetric as in some helicopters. It has a true wing shape. Most light gyroplane rotors are made from aluminium, though aircraft-quality birch was specified in early Bensen designs, and wood/steel composite is still used in the world speed record holding Wallis.

Flight Controls

There are only three flight controls: a control stick, rudder pedals and a throttle.

The Bensen pattern control stick drops down from a hinge that mounts the main rotor's bearing to the vertical tube. This is not the flap hinges on the rotor, but a separate, third hinge used to manage aircraft roll. The hinge lets the rotor tilt forward or backward. When the Bensen control stick is pressed forward or backward, the rotor precesses like a gyroscope causing the vehicle to roll left or right. The hinge has limits to prevent the rotor from hitting the ground when it is moving slowly.

Modern designs typically use a between-legs control stick instead, and the precession is handled by a mechanical linkage so that left and right stick motions are more intuitive than Bensen's simple design.

Another control is a simple set of rudder pedals that move the hinged back half of the vertical stabilizer, similar to a rudder on a fixed wing aircraft. This lets the pilot keep the craft lined up in the desired direction of motion. The stabilizer is mounted behind the pusher propeller, so one can steer the craft on the ground and during takeoff. Some builders use a pushrod between the rudder bar and stabilizer. Others use cables.

Some simple autogyros, including Bensen's G-6, do not use controllable-vertical stabilizers at all. They are fixed - this works for towed gyro gliders, but not for powered gyros.

The throttle and choke are usually levers mounted where convenient- often under the seat.

The rotor generates more lift on the leading side and less on the lagging side, and this causes the rotor to tilt backwards with forward airspeed (helicopters tilt their rotor in the opposite way as they use their rotor to drag the vehicle through the air, whereas a gyrocopter's blades are unpowered). This increases drag and has a lot to do with the relatively low top speed that Autogyros can reach.

Flight characteristics

Autogyros are often regarded by fixed-wing aircraft pilots as "dangerously unstable", which is certainly true if one tries to fly an autogyro using fixed-wing principles. Piloted properly, a autogyro is slightly safer than a fixed-wing aircraft because it cannot stall. A "stall" does not mean an engine-out event, it means a fixed wing aircraft is travelling too slowly for the wings to produce lift. Since the rotor of a autogyro is always spinning, it cannot stall. If forward airspeed becomes zero, the autogyro will slowly drift to the ground, rotor still spinning. A vertical landing in this manner will not critically damage most autogyros.

One weakness in certain types of autogyro is pitch instability (pitch is the tilting up or down of the craft as viewed from the front or the back). Pitch instability can be a problem because autogyros lose rotor control authority in negative-G forces (positive-G forces push people into their seats; negative-G forces make people float out of them, such as driving over a hump back bridge at high speed in an automobile). Negative-G forces "unload the rotor" and rotor control authority is lost. A flying autogyro hangs from the rotor much like an object hung from a string. As long as the plane is hanging from the rotor, stability is maintained. The instant zero or negative-Gs are introduced, rotor speed begins to decay and the forces stabilizing the plane are lost.

Negative-Gs can be caused by Pilot-Induced Oscillation, or PIO. PIO happens when a pilot adjusts his pitch too much too quickly, then makes a countering control input to bring the pitch back. The countering input often overcompensates, and the autogyro begins to buck like a bronco. You can see a similar effect when some learner-drivers are doing kangaroo-hops in a car with a stick shift and clutch. This is most likely at higher engine throttle settings. If the pilot continues to fight the plane, the rotor (which is flexible) can slow down due to the lack of positive G force, and can flop down and strike the spinning propeller, which destroys both and sends the autogyro into an uncontrolled fall. The way to avoid this during an incipient PIO is to apply gentle back pressure on the stick (to raise the nose in pitch) and cut engine power. Note that this is the exact opposite of what fixed-wing pilots are trained to do when in trouble, which has led to some unfortunate accidents and the autogyro's undeserved reputation for being "dangerous."

Another danger is "bunting over" or a Power Push-Over (PPO). An autogyro's vertical airspeed (climb or sink rate) is directly coupled to airspeed. Increase forward airspeed, increase rate of climb. In order to maintain level flight at high engine throttle settings, the pilot must tilt the rotor forward to prevent climbing and maintain level flight. The rotor thus becomes more nearly horizontal, and the control stick becomes more sensitive.

Too much forward stick, and the autogyro's rotor can aim down towards the ground. When this happens, negative-gees occur, rotor speed drops too low to provide lift, and a high-thrust line autogyro is then pitched forward by the propeller thrust and tumbles end-over-end in a somersault. It is virtually impossible to regain control after a full PPO.

Two factors can lead to pitch instability: no or too small horizontal stabilizers (h-stabs) on too short a tail and high thrust line propeller placement which destabilises the force diagram. A large h-stab, ideally in the prop wash (where the propeller blows on it) will reduce the tendency of an autogyro to bunt over as a result of improper control input by damping the control response.

If the propeller thrust line in an autogyro is high -- meaning the axis of propeller power is above the centre of gravity for the aircraft -- the autogyro tends to pitch forward under sudden power application (see PPOs above, as for why this is Bad). (Unfortunately, Bensen-type autogyros have a notably high thrust line.) If the thrust line is low, the autogyro tends to pitch up under sudden power application, which is harmless. It's difficult to have a low thrust line without a really tall autogyro (such as a "Dominator" style) however, so most autogyro designs simply try to get the thrust line as low as possible though still being slightly above the centre of gravity.

In spite of these dangers, most autogyros are designed to reduce them. Also, the majority of autogyro pilot training involves avoidance of PIO and PPOs.

Autogyro rotors usually feature a teeter-hinge in the middle. Picture a autogyro or helicopter from above, rotor spinning clockwise. If the aircraft is flying forward, the rotor tips on the left are travelling faster than the aircraft, while those on the right are actually going backwards relative to the craft. If the rotor blades were fixed, this would produce uneven lift -- more lift on the left side, since those blades are travelling faster. The teeter hinge on each blade lets it "flap" up and down. As the blade swings on the left, the increased speed makes it flap up with a greater angle of attack to the relative wind. This increases drag and reduces lift. As it swings to the right, it's now going slower, relative to forward speed. This reduced drag lets it flap down and get a better bite into the air, increasing lift.

Pitch is controlled by a conventional joystick coupled to the rotor. Pulling back on the stick tilts the rotor back, increasing lift and decreasing forward airspeed. Pushing forward on the stick decreases lift and increases airspeed, as long as it is not pushed much beyond horizontal (see PPO above). The plane's direction is controlled by rudder pedals.

not all autogyros leave you in the open: this is the RAF 2000