Historicity of Jesus: Class Notes

Some time ago I was asked to teach a short, informal class on “The Historicity of Jesus”. Was Jesus a real person who did and taught the things we read about in the New Testament, or did wishful believers just make all that stuff up many years after the deaths of the people who actually knew him?

I made up a handout to serve as notes for that class.  Four classes of documents are examined: Paul’s letters, the Gospels, the writings of other early Christians, and the works of non-Christian historians. I have edited that handout, and added some lengthy footnotes (endnotes) and an Appendix to deal with ancillary topics. It ended up being too long to work well as a regular blog post, so I posted it along with longer essays up at the top of this blog page. It is visible there, or you can just click to it from here: ” Historicity of Jesus

The contents are:

( 1 ) The World of Jesus and His Followers

( 2 ) Authenticity of the New Testament Text

( 2.1 ) Many ancient physical copies of New Testament have been found

(2.2) Quotes from New Testament books appear in other early Christian writings

( 3 ) Paul’s Writings: The Earliest Documents About Jesus

( 3.1) Galatians 1-2 : Paul visits other apostles just a few years after the Resurrection

( 3.2) I Corinthians 15 : Paul receives teaching about Jesus’ death and resurrection from other apostles

(3.3) Paul’s Portrait of Jesus

(3.4) The Significance of Paul’s testimony

( 4 ) The Testimony of the Gospels

( 5 ) Luke the Meticulous Historian

( 6 ) John the Accurate Geographer  

( 7 ) Differences Among the Gospels

( 8 ) Significance of Textual Variants

( 9 ) Settling of the New Testament Canon

( 10 ) Mention of Jesus Christ in Extrabiblical Literature

Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus


APPENDIX: Historical Accuracy in the Gospel of Luke



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Total Solar Eclipse Visible Across the U.S. on August 21

The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is inclined by about 5 degrees from the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, so only occasionally does the Moon come between the Earth and the Sun so as to cause a solar eclipse. The diameter of the Moon as viewed from the Earth is about the same as the apparent diameter of the Sun, so the Moon can just barely cover the whole disk of the Sun. Because the Moon’s orbit around the Earth is elliptical, most of the time when there is a solar eclipse, is only partial. It is only when the Moon is closest to the Earth that the Moon can completely block out the Sun and cause complete darkness for a few minutes of totality

As the diagram below indicates, the zone of total eclipse, where the Sun is completely blocked, is very small. Only about one in a thousand people ever witness a total eclipse.

You could become one of those fortunate total eclipse viewers, if you can get to a narrow swathe across the U.S. on August 21, 2017. Around noon that day, the path of totality will run from coast to coast. A map is shown below. The next total eclipses after this will be 2019 and 2020 in Chile and Argentina, 2021 in Antarctica, 2024 in Mexico/central U.S./ eastern Canada, 2026 through Iceland and Spain, and 2027 across North Africa. The next solar eclipse with totality passing over much of Europe occurs in 2081.


All of the contiguous 48 states, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico will be exposed to a partial eclipse on August 21. Faint orange lines on the map show the limits of 90%, 75%, and 50% solar occlusion. The path of totality is only about 70 miles (117 km) wide. Below is a zoomed-in section of this map.

This site has links to this interactive map by NASA and another map from Google, and also tables of eclipse times for cities in some states. New York City, Philadelphia, Houston and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Toronto will max out at about 70%-75% occlusion of the sun. That will be interesting to observe through eclipse glasses if the sky is not cloudy, but may otherwise be fairly unimpressive.

Totality is supposed to be a whole different experience. “Daylight is replaced by a mysterious dusk, and bright planets and stars become visible. Plants and animals act as though it were nightfall as flowers close up and birds return to roost. There’s a chill in the air because the temperature drops a dozen degrees or more. The brilliant Sun is replaced by a black orb surrounded by a ghostly halo. The colors of sunset ring the horizon…”. [1] “…When the shrinking visible part of the photosphere becomes very small, Baily’s beads will occur. These are caused by the sunlight still being able to reach the Earth through lunar valleys. Totality then begins with the diamond ring effect, the last bright flash of sunlight”. [2]

Here is a 1999 photo of the Sun being almost entirely blocked by the Moon. Solar prominences (in red) can be seen along the edge, as well as the extensive fainter filaments of the corona.

For this 2017 eclipse, totality will last about 2.5 minutes, but only near the center of the path of totality. Thus, it may be worth a little extra travel to move toward the central 40 mile wide strip. One should anticipate that many other people will be crowding into the same patch, especially if it is near a major highway, and therefore plan for traffic jams coming and going. It would also make sense to check the weather forecast a day or two before, and aim for locales expected to be less cloudy.

The safe and convenient way to look at the sun during the eclipse is with specially designed glasses.


These can be purchased for about a dollar apiece in some stores and on-line at Amazon or speciality sites   . Experts warn against looking at the sun through home-made filters.

A good science project for classroom or family is to make some sort of pinhole projector, which will project an image of the Sun’s disk and which will show it being occluded. This can be as simple as a piece of cardboard with pinhole held high above a sheet of white paper on the ground, or a more elaborate box affair. Here is how to make a largish box projector into which you put your head:


This  links to a short video showing how to build a small pinhole projector into a shoebox. I helped my daughter’s elementary school class make these many years ago for a partial solar eclipse. They turned out well, although the size of the projected image with this short box is pretty small. It is also possible to project a larger, clearer image of the sun using binoculars and a tripod.


[1] “Get Eclipsed” pamphlet, by Pat and Fred Espenak

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse#Viewing

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Listing of Articles on Science, Faith and Other

Here is a listing of some of the more popular articles on this blog, grouped by topic:


Grand Canyon Geology

Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils

“Unconformities” Showed Geologists By 1800 That The Earth Was Very Old

Soft Tissue in Dinosaur Fossils: Evidence for a Young Earth?

 The Cambrian Explosion (Reviews of “Darwin’s Doubt”)

 Assessment of Evidences for a Young Earth

        Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth

“Big Daddy” Chick Tract: The Most Widely-Distributed Anti-Evolution Publication   (Shows intermediate fossils between apes and modern humans)


Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates

Gorilla, Orangutan, Chimp and Human Genomes: Population Genetics and Intelligent Design

 Junk DNA, the ENCODE Project, and Intelligent Design: Facts, Hype, and Spin

       From Micro-Evolution to Macro-Evolution: Beneficial Mutations, the Pace of Evolution, and Increasing Genome Complexity   (“STAN 3”)

Assessing Limits to Evolution and to Natural Selection:   Reviews of Michael Behe’s “Edge of Evolution” and John Sanford’s “Genetic Entropy” (“STAN 4”)

        Link to “Science Meets Religion” site by David H. Bailey; tackles many evolution/ID issues, including genetics/information issues like irreducible complexity and generating novel genetic features

Theology/Bible Interpretation

Adam, the Fall, and Evolution

A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology

Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear

Early Church Fathers: Excerpts From Christian Writings, 100-200 A.D. (including observations on the natural world)

Was the “Expanse” Overhead in Genesis 1 a Solid Dome?

Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 2   (summarizes ways to interpret Genesis in the light of evolution)

 An Answer to the Intellectual Problem of Evil

        “The World’s Last Night”: C. S. Lewis on the Second Coming

Billy Graham on Evolution

History and Cultural Context of Creationism

Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism (traces the origin of Young Earth “Flood geology” to nineteenth-century Adventist cult prophetess Ellen White)

University of Washington Biology Professor Brags About Bullying Religious Students

Whatever Happened to Intelligent Design Theorist William Dembski?

A Creationist Speaker Comes to Town (I attend and assess a talk by Jonathan Sarfati)

       The Great Debate of 2014: Creationist Ken Ham versus Bill Nye the Science Guy

Was Darwin An Atheist?

Remarkable Healings

Engineer’s Wife Healed of Multiple Sclerosis

Healing of Nearly-Deaf Boy on YouTube

Healing Miracles in Mozambique: Medical Journal


Applied Technology/Economics

Folding and Electric Scooters and Bikes for Commuting the Last Mile

Comparison of Composting Toilets: Towards a Global Commode

       Fun Things to Ride: Stepper Bikes, Carving Scooters, Electric Unicycles, etc.

Fun Things to Fly: Powered Parachutes, Trikes, and Gyroplanes

Simple, Featherweight Alcohol Stoves for Camping

Overview of the U. S. Monetary System (What is money and how it is created; interactions of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and commercial banks; government and trade deficits)

High-Yield Investments


Work of the American Scientific Affiliation or Its Members

Some Highlights of American Scientific Affiliation 2015 Meeting

Brain, Mind, Faith: 2016 American Scientific Affiliation Meeting

A New Resource for Creationism: “The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth”

      How Science Can Inspire and Inform Worship: NASA’s Jennifer Wiseman

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N.T. Wright: If Creation Is Through Christ, We Should Expect Something Like Evolution

N.T. Wright is a leading biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and current Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews. He holds a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University and has written over fifty books. He was a keynote speaker at the Biologos Christ and Creation conference last month in Houston, TX .

Here is a link to a Biologos post which includes a 4-minute clip of his “Christ and Creation: Exploring the Paradox” talk, and a link to the full speech. A theme of this talk is that if creation is through Christ, we should (based on what the Gospels teach of the progress of the kingdom of God) expect something like evolution:

If creation comes through the kingdom bringing Jesus, we ought to expect it be like a seed growing secretly. That it would involve seed being sown in a prodigal fashion in which a lot went to waste, apparently, but other seed producing a great crop. We ought to expect that it be like a strange, slow process which might suddenly reach some kind of harvest. We ought to expect that it would involve some kind of overcoming of chaos.

…We ought to have anticipated that the Deists’ models of creation, conceived on the analogies of the early industrial successes, in the 17th and 18th centuries, might in fact be misleading. And that they would need correcting in the light of either of a better picture of the one through whom creation was accomplished—the Deists were keen to getting Jesus out of the picture—or in the light of fresh scientific research. No one in the late 18th or early 19th centuries was doing the kind of fresh work on Jesus and the gospels that would lead to this picture. But various scientists (not least the Darwin family a century before Charles Darwin), motivated by quite a different worldview—namely, Epicureanism—nonetheless come up with a picture of Origins that looks remarkably like Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom: some seeds go to waste, others bear remarkable fruit; some projects start tiny and take forever, but ultimately produce a great crop; some false starts are wonderfully rescued, others are forgotten. Chaos is astonishingly overcome.

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Though the Market Is a Winner, Most Stocks Are Losers

The U.S. “stock market” is represented by various collections of stocks, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average (30 stocks), the NASDAQ Composite (securities listed on the NASDAQ; weighted towards information technology), and the Standard and Poors 500 Index. The S&P 500 is an index of the largest 500 companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ, weighted by capitalization. The version of the S&P usually cited just takes into account stock prices. History shows that, over a reasonably long time frame, the U.S. stock market rises. Here is a chart, using a logarithmic axis, of the S&P from January, 1950 to February, 2016. It shows a rise in value by a factor of about 65 between 1950 and 2016.

S&P 500 daily closing values from January 3, 1950 to February 19, 2016
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%26P_500_Index

Another way to view market returns is to include the effects of dividends and of inflation. The long-term returns are still positive:


A lab technician I knew in my company in the 1990s took every bit of savings he had (about $50,000) and plowed it all into the stock of America Online (AOL). This was when the internet was just taking off, and AOL was a leading company in that field. My friend held on while his investment doubled, then had the conviction to hang on until it doubled again. He then cashed out with around $200,000, quit his job, got an MBA in finance, and ended up managing money on Wall Street.

With these sorts of success stories, and the (so far) reliable performance of the stock market, how hard can it be for the average small investor to pick a winning basket of stocks? Surprisingly hard, it turns out.

A study of the returns of U.S. stocks from 1926 to 2015 has been published by Hendrik Bessembinder, a business professor at Arizona State University. A draft copy is here . He works with total returns (stock price plus dividends).

He found that the rise of the S&P is entirely due to huge gains by a tiny subset of stocks. The average stock actually loses money over both short and long time periods. In statistical terms, this is an extremely skewed data set; the mean return is greater than the median. There is a sort of Darwinian selection that occurs in a market index like the S&P 500. The companies that are doing well tend to get more represented in the index as their stock prices rises relative to other companies, while the relative weighting of losers automatically diminishes.

This asymmetry between winners and losers is partly a result of the following math: If you invest $1000 in a company that then tanks, the most you can lose is $1000. But if that company is one of the rare firms that really takes off, you could make many times your initial investment. If you had put $1000 into Microsoft (MSFT) in 1986, your shares would now be worth nearly $700,000.

Half of the U.S. stock market wealth creation has come from a mere 0.33% of the listed companies. The top five companies (ExxonMobil, Apple, GE, Microsoft, and IBM) accounted for a full 10% of the market gain. Each of these companies has created half a trillion dollars or more for their shareholders.

Out of some 26,000 listed companies, 86 of them (0.33%) provided 50% of the aggregate wealth creation, and the top 983 companies (4%) accounted for the full 100%. That means the other 25,000 companies netted out to zero return. Some gave positive returns, while most were net losers.

The average stock which you might pick by throwing darts at the Wall Street Journal listings lost money 52% of the time in any given month, and 51% of the time over the life of the company. The lifetime of the average company was only seven years, with only 10% of companies lasting more than 27 years.

This helps explain why actively managed stock funds, where diligent experts analyze and select some subset of stocks in an attempt to beat the market, typically underperform the broad market indices. This also explains why about half the small-cap stocks I have bought over the years in my little recreational brokerage account have lost money. I had thought I was particularly inept at stock-picking. Turns out I was just about average.

The takeaway for small investors is that they will likely do better putting most of their money in a broad index fund like the low-fee Vanguard S&P500 ETF (VOO), than into individual stocks or specialized funds. That has become my baseline approach.

Two side comments here. First, there are some securities whose return does not depend so much on their price going up, but rather on their paying out a steady high yield of dividends. I find this attractive, since I suspect that the returns on stocks as a whole will be lower in the future than they have been in the past. With a slowdown in population and productivity growth rates, the growth rate of GDP (at least in developed countries like the U.S.) will be slower than in the past century. Corporate earnings generally don’t rise much faster than GDP for an extended period. A big part of the rise in stock prices since 1980 has been the steady decline in interest rates, which rationally drives an increase in the price/earnings ratio. However, it looks like this secular decline in interest rates has run its course; it’s tough to go much below zero percent interest.

For instance, “business development companies” (BDCs) typically make short term, high-interest loans to small, growing companies that regular banks would not lend to. One of the largest, most-stable BDCs is Aries Capital (ARCC) which currently yields 8.6%. I have described several other classes of high yield investments in Adventures in High-Yield Investing, such as real estate investment trusts (REITs) and closed end funds (e.g. ETV, yielding 8.8%) which sell options on stocks or which take advantage of the spread between short term and long term interest rates. FOF is a fund which holds a basket of these closed end funds and which currently yields 8.3% .

The prices of these securities can bounce around a lot, so it can be worth waiting to buy till they come down from their 52-week high, but on the whole I have found them to be worthwhile as a diversification from the main stock market. They might also be attractive as an alternative to, say, European or Japanese stock markets whose price gains do not seem to match those in U.S. stocks.

Second, if you are interested in broader topics like what is money and how it is created in our financial system, the relation between government deficits and trade deficits, how investment creates savings (not the other way around), etc., etc. – – – this article deals with all that stuff: Monetary System .


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Whatever Happened to Intelligent Design Theorist William Dembski?

Summary: Young earth creationists have knocked out of action one of the most effective advocates for Intelligent Design. This is symptomatic of the rift between these two anti-evolution movements which are both mainly composed of Bible-believing Christians.

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Among Christians who take the Bible seriously as revelation, there are three main schools of thought regarding human evolution and the age of the earth. Evolutionary creationists, also known as theistic evolutionists, acknowledge the physical evidence for common ancestry between humans and other primates (e.g. Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates ). They understand that the Bible, including the Genesis creation narrative, was given to teach spiritual truths (II Timothy 3:15-17), not physical history.

There is abundant and clear evidence that the earth is far older than the 6000 years dictated by a literal reading of Biblical genealogies. For instance, we can drill down into glaciers in central Greenland and Antarctica, and observe over 100,000 years of alternating summer/winter ice layers, with no trace of a global Flood. “Old earth” creationists accept the reality of this evidence, but typically reject the notion that humans evolved from other primates.

Young earth (YE) creationists reject both evolution and the notion of an old earth. They propose an alternate reality, in which the earth and the universe are only 6000 years old, and most sedimentary rock layers were laid down in a year-long global Flood. This Flood geology was developed in the early twentieth century by George McCready Price in obedience to the visions of Adventist prophetess Ellen White. John Whitcomb and Henry Morris appropriated Price’s geology while covering up its cultic origin , and published it in 1961 in The Genesis Flood. Weighing in with some 500 pages of dense, footnoted text and figures, The Genesis Flood seemed to offer scientific support for a literal six-day creation.  This evidence was all bogus, but that did not matter. The book became wildly popular among fundamentalists, going through 29 printings. For the century prior to 1961, almost no Christians, fundamentalist or not, held that a young earth and a six 24-hour day creation was justified either biblically or scientifically. By 1970, however, The Genesis Flood had established YE creationism as the standard position among conservative evangelicals in America, with growing numbers of adherents in Australia and the U.K.

The 1991 publication of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial sparked the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. ID advocates generally fall in the old earth camp. While recognizing the great antiquity of the universe, they attempt to find gaps in our current understanding of the history and mechanisms of evolution. They then use these gaps to claim that the intervention of an Intelligent Agent is necessary to explain today’s biota.

YE creationists are typically quite forthright in stating the religious foundation of their worldview. Their starting point is their particular interpretation of the Bible, and they fit all the physical evidence around that. The earth must be young and thus any evidence that it is old must be flawed. That accounts for their resolute denial of the facts (such as the annual layers in glacier ice) that are conclusive for everyone else.

ID advocates, on the other hand, are more coy about their motivations. They typically purport to be objective scientists who happen to discover evidence for design in the biological world, and who simply wish to broaden the education of schoolchildren by exposing them to “the controversy” over the adequacy of evolutionary theory.

The epicenter of the ID movement is the Discovery Institute in Seattle. A number of pedigreed PhD’s are on staff there, producing books and articles which are intended to withstand the scrutiny of the greater academic world. They are careful to not specify the identity of the Intelligent Designer who must have intervened somehow to produce new batches of plants and animals through the eons of geologic time.

However, outsiders are not fooled. Only God (or some super-intelligent, powerful and long-lived alien civilization) would be capable of making the sorts of repeated genetic interventions over millions of years needed to bridge the alleged gaps in natural evolution. Most of the founders and principals of the Discovery Institute are conservative Christians, and the leaked 1998 manifesto of the Institute, the “Wedge Document”  clearly articulated a religious goal: to “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

Relations were initially warm between YE creationists and ID theorists. The large, established YE creationist base helped provide venues for ID speakers, and the academic credentials of the ID scholars lent credibility to the anti-evolution plank of the YE platform. The ID folks minimized mention of their views on the earth’s age, and the YE crowd did not press them on it. In recent years, however, YE creationists have taken to vehemently denouncing old earth creationists as “compromisers”.

Some ID advocates write mainly about observable aspects of the physical world, such as fossils and mutations in DNA. It is straightforward to do basic fact-checking and to show that the conclusions asserted by those ID proponents are insupportable (see e.g. here  on Stephen Meyers’ treatment of the Cambrian explosion, and here  on Jonathan Wells’ “Icons of Evolution”).

The writings of William Dembski, on the other hand, deal with more intangible concepts like information theory. Dembski became a key figure in the ID movement in the 1990’s and beyond. His breakout book was The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (1998), which became something of a best-seller. In this and his other works, Dembski claimed to have demonstrated that the sort of increases in genetic information content required by unguided evolution were mathematically impossible. There is “no free lunch”; only the intervention of an Intelligent Agent can explain the observed “specified complexity” in the biological world.

Critics have published numerous articles denouncing Dembski’s work. They claimed to find inconsistencies and outright errors in his writings. However, due to the nature of the subject, both Dembski’s writings and those of his opponents are somewhat hard for nonspecialists to follow. Thus, his writings were often considered by anti-evolutionists to be unrefuted, and to be the final nail in the coffin of Darwinism.

Opponents of evolution were, of course, delighted to have such a smart and articulate guy confidently proclaiming the demise of Darwinism. For many years he was a golden boy of ID. Books and articles flowed from Dembski’s keyboard, and he was invited to speak in many venues. His face adorned the cover of WORLD magazine. He was a long-time fellow at the Discovery Institute. However, he is no longer is very active in the field. What happened?

He and some ID colleagues set up an ID think tank at Baylor University in 1999. That was soon quashed after an outcry by the other faculty members. In 2006, Dembski took up a faculty position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas, and continued highly visible activities promoting Intelligent Design. Dembski was clear with the seminary that he was an old-earth, not a young-earth creationist.

In 2009 he published The End of Christianity. In that book he attempted to reconcile the evidence from the fossil record that animal suffering and death occurred for millions of years before humans appeared, with the traditional theological notion that this suffering and death is collateral damage from man’s Fall. Western Christianity, following Augustine, has often held that the original peaceable, vegan animal world was plunged into carnivory as a outworking of man’s Fall and the subsequent curse on humans and their world. Dembski accepted this basic premise, and speculated that the effects of man’s sin may have (since God dwells outside of the linear time to which we are constrained) propagated backwards as well as forward in time. Thus, the carnage in the animal world during the eons before humans appeared was indirectly a result of the actions of those later humans. Towards the end of the book, as a sort of afterthought, Dembski mentioned the possibility that Noah’s Flood was actually a local flood in the Middle East, rather than a global deluge.

That, alas, proved to be his undoing. Hard-core YE creationists such as Ken Ham were incensed that Dembski would question the reality of a global Flood. They denounced him coast to coast and orchestrated letter-writing campaigns to his employer, demanding his ouster. Dembski was hauled before an inquisition at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was made clear that if he did not satisfy them on the global extent of Noah’s Flood, he would be immediately fired as a heretic.

This put Dembski in an agonizing personal dilemma. If he had been financially solvent, he would have simply resigned right away. However, he had a severely autistic son plus two other children to support, and had no other way to pay the medical bills. He therefore “finessed” it, issuing a statement with sufficient ambiguity to keep him his job, while allowing him to later clarify his actual convictions. He did seek, and find, alternative employment as quickly as possible, first at another seminary, and then (2013-2014) back at the Discovery Institute as a full-time research fellow. Here is how Dembski described this experience at Southwestern :

At the meeting with president, provost, dean, and senior professor, the president made it clear to me from the start that my job was on the line. “Job on the line” in this context does not mean finishing out the academic year and giving me a chance to find another academic job. My questioning the universality of Noah’s flood meant I was a heretic, or at least not suitable for teaching at Southern Baptist seminaries, and thus I’d need to be clearing my desk immediately—unless my theological soundness could be quickly reestablished.

With a severely autistic son, debts, and a family still upset about my experience at Baylor, I wasn’t about to bare my soul and tell this second star chamber (my first being Baylor’s External Review Committee) what I really thought. I therefore finessed it. You can read the statement I wrote for yourself, especially paragraph three, where I said just enough to keep my job, and just enough to give me room to recant, as I’m doing here.

If I had been feeling less vulnerable, if I had independent financial means, I would have said goodbye to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary right then and there. This is one of the things I find most destructive about fundamentalism, the constant threat that at any moment one can run afoul of the orthodoxy du jour, and be thrown under the bus because that’s the proper place for heretics.

This is a deeply unhealthy situation for theological education, leading to a slavish mentality among faculty, who must constantly monitor and censor themselves if they are to stay in the good graces of the fundamentalist power structures.

He remarks further:

Christian orthodoxy is one thing. A “canst thou be more conservative than I?” mentality is another. And this is what I saw emerging.

What’s behind this is a sense of beleaguerment by the wider culture and a desire for simple, neat, pat solutions. Life is messy and the Bible is not a book of systematic theology, but to the fundamentalist mentality, this is unacceptable. …Fundamentalism, as I’m using it, is not concerned with any doctrinal position, however conservative or traditional. What’s at stake is a harsh, wooden-headed attitude that not only involves knowing one is right, but refuses to listen to, learn from, or understand other Christians, to say nothing of outsiders to the faith. Fundamentalism in this sense is a brain-dead, soul-stifling attitude. I see it as a huge danger for evangelicals.

Dembski notes elsewhere that the young earth creationists

…were friendly to ID in the early 2000s, until they realized that ID was not going to serve as a stalking horse for their literalistic interpretation of Genesis. After that, the young-earth community largely turned away from ID, if not overtly, then by essentially downplaying ID in favor of anything that supported a young earth.

The Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky is a case in point. What an embarrassment and waste of money. I’ve recently addressed the fundamentalism that I hold responsible for this sorry state of affairs.

For Dembski, “…this entire incident left so bad a taste in my mouth that I resolved to leave teaching, leave the academy, and get into a business for myself, in which my income would not depend on political correctness or, for that matter, theological correctness.”

Thus, in 2014 he retired from active research and teaching in intelligent design, to focus on issues of education, human freedom, and technology. Dembski still believes that ID is correct, and will someday triumph over standard evolution. But his interests have largely “moved on”. In 2016 he resigned his formal associations with the ID community, including his Discovery Institute fellowship of 20 years. He currently supports his family by building educational software and websites.

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Fun Things to Fly: Powered Parachutes, Trikes, and Gyroplanes

A few months ago we joined in to buy a family member a remote-control (R/C) airplane that he liked. This Icon A5

Icon A5 Remote Control Plane. From https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cP10v03wQEs

Icon A5 Remote Control Plane. From

is a fairly heavy model plane, that can fly off the water. Here is a YouTube video of this guy having fun with one of these, flying it at the beach. This video includes pilot’s-view footage shot from the little camera mounted on the plane itself.

After I assembled the plane we bought and looked at the procedure to “bind” and tune the radio transmitter and receiver, and saw the complexity of the controls, I was pretty sure that if we tried to fly it we would quickly wreck it. We did locate a local R/C flying club that will offer help and extensive training when the spring flying season rolls around, but this experience got me looking for a cheap, simple, slow R/C plane that would be easy to learn to fly without the tension of possibly smashing an expensive toy.

I did find such a plane, the Parkzone Night Vapor, which has worked well, and which I will describe in an Appendix here. This experience with R/C planes got me looking at small, relatively inexpensive real flying machines, wondering if there are devices that are cheaper/safer/easier than regular airplanes for taking to the skies.   In this post I will summarize some takeaways from my web-browsing, on three classes of aircraft. People mainly just fly these for fun, like having a motorcycle to take out on the weekend, though ranchers also use them for tasks like inspecting fence-lines and monitoring livestock.

Powered Parachutes

A picture of a typical powered parachute (PPC) is shown below. A three-wheeled cart with 1 or 2 seats, an engine, and a propeller hangs below a gliding parachute canopy. Air is rammed into the front openings of the thirty or so cells which comprise the canopy to keep these cells stiffly inflated, which allows the canopy to keep its shape.

Powered parachute ultralight aircraft in sideview. Photo shot by Derek Jensen (Tysto), 2005-August-29. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powered_parachute .

Powered parachute ultralight aircraft in sideview. Photo shot by Derek Jensen (Tysto), 2005-August-29. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powered_parachute .

Powered parachutes are relatively sedate and easy to fly. They fly at a roughly constant speed of about 30 mph (27 knots). There are only two controls: the engine throttle (faster makes you go up, and slower makes you descend), and foot-operated pedals which tug on some of the support lines to make you go left or right. As you land, you push on both pedals at once to slow it down just before you touch down. That is about all there is to it. Once you are airborne, the PPC pretty much flies itself, so you can focus on enjoying the scenery below. Your hands are free to take photos. These are typically flown at low altitudes like 1000 ft (300 m).

These are flown out of large, grassy fields, not airports. It takes some minutes to lay out the parachute on the grass behind the cart before you gun the engine and start rolling, to pull the parachute along and get it inflated. Cost is about $14,000 for a new one-seater and $20,000 for a two-seater. (All prices here should be taken as approximate). They are small enough with the canopy folded to transport in a small trailer and to store in a garage.

PPCs have a small but devoted following. In the words of one enthusiast:

Why a powered parachute? …OK, OK, well, because:

  • It is probably the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
  • It is the easiest flying vehicle we know about – only two airborne controls….
  • It has an incredible safety record (despite the fact that mere humans are allowed to fly it).

Flying powered parachutes is the closest you may ever come to actualizing those childhood flying dreams. It is the closest you will ever come to soaring with the eagles. Another aircraft may never match the slow & low abilities of the powered parachute. It is an incredibly safe and fun way to sail-the-skies!

This five-minute video (screenshot below) demonstrates the ease of use and the great views.

Screen shot from “Powered Parachute” by Constance Grant, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC9f7NmLwhg

Screen shot from “Powered Parachute” by Constance Grant, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC9f7NmLwhg

Here is a map of the U.S. with markers and contact information for many PPC instructors and flying clubs.

Powered Parachutes vs. Powered Paragliders

The typical powered parachute (PPC) trike is fairly heavy and has a large motor, since it holds one or two people and pushes along a large, thick canopy overhead. A similar, much lighter vehicle is the 1-person powered paraglider (PPG) trike or 4-wheeled (quad) cart. This uses a thinner, elliptical, more aerodynamically efficient canopy, and is typically controlled by pulling on control lines with the hands. This canopy is harder than a powered parachute to get inflated and the keep inflated; wind gusts can temporarily collapse it, which can be unnerving and sometimes injurious.

Powered paragliding can also be done without a cart, by strapping the motor and propeller on your back and sprinting into the wind.

Trikes (Microlights)

2-person trike, AirBorne XT912 Tourer. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultralight_trike

2-person trike, AirBorne XT912 Tourer. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultralight_trike

A trike, often called a microlight in Europe, is a kind of powered hang-glider. A three-wheeled cart hangs from a pivot point on the triangular wing. The cart has one or two seats, an engine, and a pusher propeller. A steering bar is attached to the wing. The pilot controls the craft by pushing/pulling on the steering bar. For instance, if he or she pushes the bar to the left, the weight of the cart shifts to the right, tilts the wing, and the craft turns to the right. Pushing the bar forward makes the craft go up, and pulling it back toward the pilot causes the wing to tilt down. There is also an engine throttle to control the speed of the propeller.

This arrangement gives the user a degree of control similar to that of a regular fixed-wing airplane, but with much greater simplicity. No control sticks, cables, pulleys and hinged rudders or ailerons. This makes for low cost, high reliability, and easy learning.

Trikes come in one seat and two seat configurations. Different wings can be selected to give different flying characteristics. Some wings are designed for allowing swooping aerobatics. Smaller wings give higher speeds and improved handling in windy conditions. With a smaller wing, a trike can cruise cross-country at 80 mph (70 knots). People have circumnavigated the globe in trikes, hopping from airfield to airfield. Larger wings make for slower landings and even the ability to soar with the engine off, but more tendency to be blown around by gusts and turbulence.

Northwing ATF soaring trike. http://northwing.com/atf-trike.aspx

Northwing ATF soaring trike. http://northwing.com/atf-trike.aspx

The Northwing ATF soaring trike ($13,400) above is one of the lightest trikes. It has a large wing and a light motor to allow soaring on air currents with the engine off. Heavier single-seat trikes are available, with varying amounts of fairing and windshield, typically in the $15,000-$20,000 range. Two-seaters like the one pictured up above are often $40,000-60,000, though you can spend up to $100,000. North Wing, Evolution, Airborne, and Air Creation are some of the most popular manufacturers.

These machines are treated for most intents like a light airplane, taking off and landing on paved runways or smooth grass strips which are preferably at least 500 ft long. Landing speeds are around 35 mph. The wings on trikes can be folded and rolled into a fairly narrow bundle which is approximately 16 ft (5 m) long. Thus, a trike can be disassembled and transported using a trailer. Especially with the larger 2-person trikes, users often just keep them at an airstrip and drive there to fly them. These larger trikes fit in at small to medium sized airports, using radio contact with the tower as appropriate. These larger trikes tend to have fairly complete instrument panels, and function much like a small regular airplane.

Here is the first in a series of YouTube training videos by Paul Hamilton demonstrating how to fly a trike.


Gyroplanes, also called autogiros and gyrocopters, are a cross between regular fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

A helicopter has a rotor spinning overhead which provides lift. This rotor is pushed around by a shaft and engine attached to the body of the craft. That tends to make the body spin in the opposite direction of the rotor rotation. To counteract that spinning force, most helicopters have a long tail with a tail rotor, which must be controlled by the pilot. There is a complicated hub mechanism to vary the pitch of the rotor blades in various ways. The construction and piloting of helicopters are relatively complex, making them expensive to build and challenging to fly.

A gyroplane has an engine and propeller which drives it forward (similar to a fixed-wing airplane) and a rotor overhead which spins to provide lift. The rotor is not directly driven by a shaft, but is spun by the air rushing by from the craft’s forward motion through the air. That can be a little hard to visualize, so I will put the technical details of that in an Appendix. Anyway, it means that the rotor hub mechanism can be fairly simple, which means cheap and reliable. The controls are a control stick which tilts the rotor head forward/back/left/right, pedals for the rudder, and the engine throttle.

A gyroplane needs forward motion to take off, to stay airborne, and to land, so in that sense it flies much like a fixed-wing airplane. Photos of four different models of gyroplanes are shown below. They differ in appearance and some mechanical details, but the fundamental operation of all of these aircraft is the same.

Through a peculiarity in Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) certification, in most cases a new gyroplane can only be sold in the U.S. as a kit, where the owner must assemble at least 51% of it. This has been the case for decades. Thus, historically American gyroplanes have been made of easy-to-bolt-together metal tubing, with a lot of the mechanical parts left visible. This kit-build heritage is visible in the first two machines shown below, the Rotor Flight Dynamics Dominator and the Sportcopter Vortex M912. The steering/braking on the Sportcopter gyros give them superior handling on the ground, and the ability for extra short take-off rolls. Pilot protection is also outstanding. The Vortex M912 is exceptionally rugged and powerful, being tailored for ranching operations. With oversized wheels and a beefy suspension, it can land and take off in very rough fields, not just long runways and smooth turf. These models like the Dominator, Lightning, and Vortex are not fancy-looking, but have proven reliable over many years. You can find many YouTube videos featuring them.

Two-seat Dominator from Rotor Flight Dynamics. The long legs of the suspension allow for very long travel for shock absorption upon landing. http://www.rotorflightdynamicsinc.com/pictures/seace001.jpg

Two-seat Dominator from Rotor Flight Dynamics. The long legs of the suspension allow for very long travel for shock absorption upon landing. http://www.rotorflightdynamicsinc.com/pictures/seace001.jpg


The rest of the world has not labored under this kit-build rule. Thus, European companies like Airgyro and Magni have been making sleek-looking, more-enclosed machines and marketing them all over the globe. Most of these are two-seaters. The Airgyro MTO Sport below seems to be Europe’s best-selling gyroplane.

Airgyro MTO Sport. http://airgyro.com/page4/

Airgyro MTO Sport. http://airgyro.com/page4/

American companies now also offer options for a more enclosed feel for the pilot. The Dominator is offered with a more-complete cockpit enclosure. Sport Copter produces the fully-enclosed two-seat Sport Copter II shown below, and is developing a new tandem two-seater.

A single seat gyroplane such as a Dominator or Lightning can be had for around $25,000-35,000, depending on options. You can save money by having the kit parts shipped to you, and then you build it in your garage, following the directions. Comments on the internet indicate that this assembly is not very difficult, but it does take a while. Alternatively, you can travel to the dealer, pay a few thousand dollars extra for the help, and take 2 weeks to assemble it under the guidance of factory technicians. The machine can be test-flown and then shipped to you.

Most two-seaters with tandem seating run around $60,000-90,000, and the models with side-by-side seating cost over $100,000. These prices are about the same as lightweight fixed-wing planes, and around 1.5 times the prices for trikes, while servicing a similar market of recreational fliers.   So why do some folks choose gyroplanes over trikes or light fixed-wing planes?   Gyros have a number of advantages:

( 1) Very short distances are required for take-off and landing. Take-offs can be done in less than 100 ft (30 m), and landings in less than 50 ft (15 m). A really good pilot can set a gyro down with almost no roll. This widens the possibility of fields to fly in and out of, and can be a big safety asset in case of emergency landings in rough spots.

(2) Attractive flying characteristics: Gyros are immune to stalling, and can fly at very low speeds (e.g. 20 mph/ 18 knots) and also at 80-100 mph. They are very maneuverable, able to fling around the sky and to quickly reverse direction (see e.g. “Dominator Autogyro Being Flown Hard By an Expert” ). The Vortex is renowned for its capability to do extreme aerobatics like loops and barrel rolls. They can take up some of the duties of a helicopter, such as slowly circling for surveillance, at a much lower cost.

(3) They handle winds and turbulence far better than any other aircraft in their size range. The rotor has little surface for the wind to catch. This promotional video for gyros shows a jolly Brit flying in a brisk 35 mph (32 knot) wind. This short video shows another gyro landing in 30 knot gusts with no apparent effects.

Thus, in parts of northern Europe, Canada and the northern U.S., you can get out flying much more frequently with a gyro than with a powered parachute or most trikes, which are not normally flown with winds much over 10 mph. Even the overall winds are calm, thermal air currents can give a turbulent flight in a PPC or a trike during the middle portion of a sunny day.

Regulations for Ultralight and Sport Aircraft

An aircraft carrying only one person, weighing no more than 254 lb (115 kg), with a fuel capacity of 5 gallons or less, with a top speed of 55 mph, and having certain other features, is deemed an “ultralight” in the U.S. These do not require registration or a pilot’s license, and they do not need FAA-certified inspections or maintenance. They may not be flown over densely-populated areas. The philosophy here seems to be that you are free to kill yourself but not others. The lightest fixed-wing planes and single seat PPCs and trikes are classified as ultralights.

The other craft discussed here mainly fall into the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category. These include 2-seater powered parachutes, most trikes, many models of lightweight 1- and 2-seat fixed-wing planes, and some imported gyroplanes. Some parameters for a LSA are a maximum gross (loaded) take-off weight of 1,320 lbs (600 kg, top speed of 138 mph / 120 knots, and a maximum of two seats. These craft are registered with the FAA.

There are sub-categories such as Special (S-LSA) and Experimental (E-LSA). With an S-LSA (but not an E-LSA) you can rent it out or use it for instruction, but nearly all maintenance and the required annual inspection must be done by an FAA-certified repairman. With E-LSA, you can choose any mechanic for the maintenance or do it yourself, you can make modifications, and you can do the annual inspection yourself after taking a 16-hour course. Purchasers of trikes for their own use often choose to exchange the original S-LSA certification of their machine for E-LSA, to make routine maintenance less onerous.

The base case is that only daytime flying below the clouds (Visual Flight Rules) is permitted. Night flying and even instrument flying is possible, depending on the pilot’s training level and the aircraft’s equipment.

The other key category is “Experimental Amateur-Built” (E-AB). This can be practically anything that flies, as long the “major portion” was built by built by a person or group of persons solely for education and recreation. Maintenance can be done by anyone, and annual inspections by the original builder or an FAA certified repairman. Most gyroplanes sold in the U.S. fall in this category.

For all these LSA and E-AB machines, a Sport Pilot license is required to fly. Among other things, this entails classroom instruction, written exams and at least 20 hours (12 hours for powered parachute) of flight training. The total training can cost $5,000-10,000. However, this is less onerous than for a regular Private Pilot license (about 40 hours). It can save some money and inconvenience to take some of these instructional flight hours in a generic airplane at a nearby airport, to get the overall feel for flying and for airport tower protocol, before traveling to some distant airport to receive the more expensive training on your particular class of aircraft like a trike or gyro.

Most other developed countries have similar aircraft certification categories to make it easier for people to own and fly very small aircraft.

Comparison to Regular Planes and Helicopters

These flying machines seem expensive, but they are much cheaper than new regular airplanes or helicopters. Also, they typically hold enough value that you can sell them after ten years and recoup most of your purchase price.

To buy a new 4-seat regular, fully-instrumented fixed-wing plane like a Cessna Skyhawk or Piper Warrior costs over $300,000. These planes land at about 60 knots (66 mph). I have seen 2015-2016 kit-built replicas of the old (1939-1947) Piper Cub 2-seaters selling for around $130,000.  A new Robinson R-22 2-seat helicopter is about $250,000. One can, of course, purchase older used fixed-wings and helos for much less than new models. Refurbished original c. 1940 Cubs go for around $40,000-80,000.

There are many ultralight/light sport fixed-wing airplanes available. Wikipedia lists a number of 2-seat, enclosed cockpit planes which are mainly in the $50-150,000 range. Some are feathery ultralights, others look more like traditional planes. Phantom Aeronautics has long supplied popular ultralight-type planes in kit form. These cost about $25,000 for a one-seater and $35,000 for a two-seater.

Rotor FX supplies an ultralight (max 254 lb) fully functioning single-seat helicopter for about $42,000. This Mosquito XE is bare bones (no enclosure for the pilot), and requires no license in the U.S. to fly. Adding any options or going to upgraded models adds only modest cost, but the added weight tips the craft into a new category where a full helicopter license is required. Helicopter flying takes more training than fixed-wing.

The price range for gyroplanes is slightly lower than but similar to the prices for comparable (1-seat, 2-seat) light sport fixed-wing aircraft. Trikes are cheaper, and powered parachutes are the least expensive, for two-person capacity. In terms of ease of learning and use, the powered parachute (PPC) is the easiest, followed by trikes and then gyroplanes, which seem about as demanding to learn to fly as a small fixed-wing plane.

Here is a balanced comparison of fixed-wings, PPC’s, and trikes.  Here is a comparison of many types of ultralight (single person) flying devices, including hang gliders and clusters of helium balloons. Finally, here is a detailed, tabular comparison of various lightweight aircraft (trikes, PPCs, gyros, fixed-wing) with a lot of good information but with a bias towards trikes.

My Personal Takeaway

I hope the information collected here may be of use to someone who is considering getting into flying. I had not really thought about flying before, but all of this reading has boosted my confidence in the safety of these aircraft when they are piloted correctly.

After reading the raves about powered parachutes, I now plan to take a PPC ride in the next year somewhere. I am also mulling taking a training flight in a trike or gyro. Often instructors will let you have the controls once you are well above the ground. It would be a gratifying bucket list item to do some actual flying, if only for a short time.

List of Appendices

APPENDIX A. The Maverick: A Flying Car

APPENDIX B. How a Gyroplane Works

APPENDIX C. Safety Issues

APPENDIX D. Parkzone Night Vapor Remote Control Plane


APPENDIX A. The Maverick: A Flying Car

When reading about “flying cars”, which are street-legal cars that can transform into aircraft, I ran across the Maverick . This is a street legal dune-buggy which can do 0-60 mph in a blistering 3.9 seconds…

Maverick flying car (parawing furled and stowed). http://www.mavericklsa.com/index.html

Maverick flying car (parawing furled and stowed). http://www.mavericklsa.com/index.html

…and which can also sprout a parawing to fly at 40 mph:

 Maverick flying car with parawing deployed. http://www.mavericklsa.com/index.html

Maverick flying car with parawing deployed. http://www.mavericklsa.com/index.html

The parawing is supported by a clever telescoping mast, which helps get the parawing inflated without dragging it on the ground, and gives extra stability in crosswinds. It sells for $94,000 in kit form. This is much less than the $300,000 price tag for most other flying cars , and its simplicity and standard automotive engine make for low maintenance.   Since this is essentially a powered parachute, only modest piloting skills are required.

This flying car was developed by the Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center (I-TEC). This non-profit organization develops technology to meet the needs of indigenous peoples such as those in the Amazon basin. It was founded by Steve Saint. His father, Nate Saint, was one of five American missionaries who were killed in 1956 by the people that they made contact with in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. Two years later, Nate’s sister and one of the five widows went to live among this tribe and share the love of God with them. At age 10, Steve started spending summers with the tribe, and was later baptized in a jungle river by the man who had years earlier speared Steve’s father by that same river.

Steve went to the U.S. for education and settled in Florida. In 1995, at the request of the elders of the Ecuadorean tribe, Steve returned with his family to live among them for a year. There he realized the need for appropriate technology and training to allow indigenous peoples to better their lives with minimal ongoing dependence on outsiders. Steve’s ITEC organization does things like re-engineer dental and eyeglass equipment to make it more portable and affordable. They developed the Maverick as a means to e.g. deliver emergency medical assistance where there are no good roads.

APPENDIX B. How a Gyroplane Works

The blades of the gyroplane rotor have an airfoil cross-section, similar to an airplane wing. This creates lift as the rotor rotates through the air. For a gyroplane to climb or keep going in level flight, there must be an engine and propeller to push the craft forward. The plane of the rotor rotation is tilted slightly backward, so that there is a net airflow up through the spinning rotor disk. The blades are pitched so that the net force of the relative airflow keeps the blades spinning. This is called autorotation.

This may be hard to visualize. This essay by Jeff Lewis uses diagrams like this to show the forces on the rotor blades:

 Sketch of forces on gyroplane rotor blade. Source: Autogyro History and Theory , by Jeff Lewis http://www.jefflewis.net/autogyros.html#workings

Sketch of forces on gyroplane rotor blade. Source: Autogyro History and Theory , by Jeff Lewis http://www.jefflewis.net/autogyros.html#workings

I find it helpful to think of how a sailboat with its sail at the correct angle can actually sail into the wind. Perhaps the simplest case to think about is if the forward-driving propeller is turned off and the gyroplane is descending with no forward driving. This type of autorotation situation is how helicopters can land safely even if their engine stops. This Wikipedia article on autorotation gives insights here.

It gets a bit more complicated if you dig deeper into the rotor aerodynamics. The middle half of the rotor blade generates the net rotational driving force, and drives the outer quarter of the blade, which is where much of the lift is generated. Centrifugal force straightens out the droopy blades. The blade holder is hinged like a see-saw at the hub, so the blade that is advancing into the oncoming air can flap up, and the retreating blade flaps down. This equalizes the lift on either side. The bottom line is, once the blades are spinning and the rotors oriented so there is net air flow up through them, they will spin and generate lift.

Juan de la Cierva of Spain invented the modern “autogiro” in the early 1920s. Improved versions were produced in the U.S. by Harold Pitcairn’s Pitcairn Autogiro Company. These early gyroplanes looked like regular airplanes with stubby wings, and with a rotor added on top. Here is a photo of two of these birds (one autogiro in the foreground, the other far behind it) flying past the partly-completed George Washington Bridge over New York’s Hudson River in 1930.

“Pitcairn PCA-2 Certification flight over George Washington bridge (under construction) November, 1930. Courtesy of Stephen Pitcairn”. Source: brochure for conference “From Autogiro to Gyroplane: The Past, Present and Future of an Aviation Industry”, Hofstra University 2003. http://www.hofstra.edu/pdf/community/culctr/culctr_ag_regprog.pdf

“Pitcairn PCA-2 Certification flight over George Washington bridge (under construction) November, 1930. Courtesy of Stephen Pitcairn”. Source: brochure for conference “From Autogiro to Gyroplane: The Past, Present and Future of an Aviation Industry”, Hofstra University 2003. http://www.hofstra.edu/pdf/community/culctr/culctr_ag_regprog.pdf

These gyroplanes were seen as cutting edge aviation technology in the 1930’s, appearing in movies and adventure stories and on the pages of popular science magazines. With their short takeoff and landing capabilities, they were used for a U.S. mail shuttle from between the Camden, New Jersey airport and the top of the post office building in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Commercial interest in gyroplanes largely died out after World War II with the advent of practical helicopters which could hover and could take off and land vertically.

The gyroplane was reborn as a recreational aircraft when Russian-American Igor Bensen came up with a minimalist, easy-to-build design, with an engine and a pusher propeller mounted behind the pilot’s seat. Starting in 1955, thousands of enthusiasts purchased plans, mounted VW engines, and took to the skies in their home-built Bensen and similar “gyrocopters”.

Bensen model B-8M in Canada Aviation Museum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bensen_B-8

Bensen model B-8M in Canada Aviation Museum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bensen_B-8

It was exhilarating to swoop around like a bird and perch on a seat with no cockpit or wing to block the view. This 1970’s gyrocopter training film is like a time capsule – – it features one of these old-style gyrocopters and shows the pilot reaching up and getting his rotor spinning by hand, the old-fashioned way.

Unfortunately, many of these home-grown aviators were killed in accidents. This was partly because they often tried to learn to fly by themselves, without sound instruction. The other factor is that the gyrocopter designs of those decades often had serious safety flaws that the autogyros of the 1930’s were not subject to. If the thrust centerline of the pusher propeller lies above the center of gravity, a wrong move on the pilot’s part can lead to irrecoverable forward tumbling of the machine. Also, because they lacked a substantial horizontal stabilizer fin out on the tail, they were unstable toward disturbances like wind gusts. If a pilot overcorrected with the control stick in one direction and then overcorrected in the other direction, he could again end up putting the gyro into a tumble. All this gave gyroplanes a poor reputation for safety.

As these problems became known, gyroplane configurations were changed to correct them. All modern gyro designs have horizontal stabilizers and seat the pilot high enough to closely match the thrust centerline and center of gravity. Also, since gyros are too heavy enough to qualify as ultralights, new users now must get training as they go through the flight instruction for a Sport Pilot license. This is a video of an hour-long lesson in flying gyros.

For most aircraft, taking off is extremely easy: once the plane gets enough speed to leave the ground, you can commence climbing at a fairly constant rate. With gyros, there is a minor quirk — it is often necessary after the initial lift-off to bring the nose down, level out, and fly low for a few more seconds to build speed and to get the rotor revved up, before resuming a climb. This is demonstrated in this smooth take-off and landing on a runway in Quebec.

Modern gyros have pre-rotators to get the rotor spinning at close to take-off speeds, but usually it takes a bit of a take-off roll plus this brief level flight to rev the rotor up. I have looked at a number of YouTube videos of gyros crashing upon take-off, and most of them are due to pilot error in this regard. (The comments posted on gyro and trike crash YouTube videos usually analyze exactly what went wrong). Hauling back on the stick at low rotor speeds will not generate more lift. These crashes look spectacular, with pieces of broken rotors flying in the air, but since they are from low altitudes and since the gyro landing gear and rotor mast form a sort of roll cage around the pilot, pilots do not seem to get hurt.

A good pilot in a first-class machine can get away with revving up the prerotator to the max, and leaping into the air with almost no take-off roll. That is illustrated with a turbocharged Vortex M912 in this video. That video also shows the gyro plopping down to land in a rough field with almost no landing roll. With a gyro you can haul back on the stick at the last minute, and let the stored energy in the rotor stop the forward motion and lower you to the ground.

CarterCopters is working on advanced gyroplane technology which will allow fully vertical take-offs and landings , and also higher-speed cruising flight.

APPENDIX C. Safety Issues

I have mentioned a number of safety concerns here, but these should not be exaggerated. I have seen references to various studies indicating that owning and operating one of these aircraft is no more dangerous than having a motorcycle.

In general, these aircraft do not just fall out of the sky. Problems typically stem from pilot error on take-off and landing, or from a forced landing due to engine failure in flight. Engine failures seem more common with two-cycle than with four-cycle engines. Two-strokes are lighter and cheaper, and have fewer moving parts. However, they require frequent overhauls which may be neglected, and it is essential to take time to warm them up. Some users claim that if you stick with the premier Rotax brand two-stroke and keep it maintained, it is quite reliable.

A key rule here is to never fly where you cannot glide to a decent landing spot if the engine fails. This may involve flying higher in order to have a longer glide path to a distant field in the event of engine failure. This may confine low-flying PPCs to flat agricultural areas which always have a field nearby. There are numerous YouTube videos of engine-out landings in some farmer’s field with PPCs, trikes, and gyroplanes, and they usually end well. Trikes that fly cross-country over mountains and forests often have a rocket-assisted big parachute attached to the frame – if the machine has to descend but there is no level smooth place for a regular landing at 35 mph, deploying this parachute can bring the craft straight down fairly safely.

Some other safety practices are to keep people on the ground away from the invisible disk of the spinning prop, and to wear flotation gear when flying over water. Also, do not try to fly in winds that are too much for your machine and your level of skill. That is a good way to crash a PPC or trike on take-off or landing, though because the speeds are relatively low and the occupants are somewhat protected by the seat cage, serious injury is unlikely.

As noted above, in the past gyrocopters had a poor safety record, and they do take more skill and training to fly. However, I have read several comments by seasoned pilots stating that they regarded gyroplanes as the safest of all aircraft when flown properly. This is due to their stability in the face of wind gusts, and their ability in case of engine failure to glide down (the rotor will keep rotating) and set down in a tiny space.  This three-minute video illustrates this – the gyro pilot lost power shortly after take-off, and flutters down with a cliff on one side and a road with cars on the other. Only a tiny flat spot is available among the boulders, and he manages to set the gyro down there, undamaged. No plane or trike could have done that.

APPENDIX D. Parkzone Night Vapor Remote Control Plane

As noted above, part of what got me reading about inexpensive/light/slow sport aircraft was finding a high performance inexpensive/light/slow remote control (R/C) airplane. The Parkzone Night Vapor, available for about $125 from Amazon or a local hobby shop, flies well and looks nice. I’d recommend it for good clean fun, and as a present for any guy over age 8 or so. A 40-second video of it flying is here .

Parkzone Night Vapor lightweight R/C plane. From http://www.parkzone.com/Products/Default.aspx?ProdID=PKZU1100 .

Parkzone Night Vapor lightweight R/C plane. From http://www.parkzone.com/Products/Default.aspx?ProdID=PKZU1100 .

It only weighs 16.4 g (0.6 oz), and flies along at the pace of a brisk walk. That gives beginners plenty of time to make their moves on the controls without stressing. The slow speed does mean that you can only fly it in near-calm winds, or else indoors (e.g. in a gym or large garage). The large control surfaces give lots of maneuverability. The LED lights allow for flying at dusk or night. Unlike cheaper R/C planes which appear on Amazon, this plane has high-quality parts and uses the Spektrum DSM2 radio technology which is standard in the R/C world. With the Bind-n-Fly (BNF) version, you supply the transmitter (which is what you hold in your hands and has the control sticks). The Ready-to-Fly (RTF) version includes a transmitter.

As long as you keep it over grass, you can crash it innumerable times without damage. It will take off and land nicely on pavement, but if flown on pavement or indoors, at some point you will likely break the propeller shaft. Like all the parts on this plane, the prop shaft can be replaced, but you might want to pre-order a spare pair of prop shafts and props from Amazon. I ripped the wing cover away from the wing frame whilst retrieving the plane from a tree, and was able to re-glue it with a tiny thread of epoxy applied with a toothpick.

A couple of spare batteries with the ultra-micro connection will extend the flight time. I got larger-capacity batteries (125 mAh) for longer flights. I secure them in the airplane battery holder with a thin strip of masking tape. I also got a battery charger which plugs into a USB port. Other tips on getting the most out of the Night Vapor can be found on the internet.

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