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

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 .

Powered parachute ultralight aircraft in sideview. Photo shot by Derek Jensen (Tysto), 2005-August-29. From .

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. As illustration of how easy PPC’s can be to takeoff and land, this PPC accidently took off without a pilot, and landed itself in some woods essentially unharmed. (See also actual footage of another pilotless PPC accidently taking off and flying away).

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,

Screen shot from “Powered Parachute” by Constance Grant,

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, so you need to be extra cautious about trying to land or take off downwind of some obstacle like a row of buildings or trees where the wind can form a vortex (rotor).

Powered paragliding can also be done without a cart, by strapping the motor and propeller on your back and sprinting into the wind. If you have a strong back and strong legs, this seems to be the cheapest, most convenient way to get into the air. You can load your gear into the back of an SUV or truck and drive to any open field where you have permission, strap it on, fire up the engine, take a short sprint into the wind and be airborne. All the other (wheeled) flying machines described here require a  dedicated trailer or hanger space and a fairly long, smooth runway (grass or paved).

Trikes (Microlights)

2-person trike, AirBorne XT912 Tourer. From

2-person trike, AirBorne XT912 Tourer. From

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.

Northwing ATF soaring trike.

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.

Two-seat Dominator from Rotor Flight Dynamics. The long legs of the suspension allow for very long travel for shock absorption upon landing.

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.

Airgyro MTO Sport.

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. However, unless they are taking off into a stiff headwind, gyros have a very slow initial rate of climb, so if there are trees or power lines at the end of the runway, they may need more like an 800 ft runway to fly safely. If bush flying with routine short takeoff and landing on turf is your primary concern, you might be better off with an inexpensive lightweight conventional airplane like the kit-built Zenith 750. This is a 2-seater with an enclosed cockpit.

(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 very turbulent flight in a PPC or a trike during the middle portion of a sunny day. This makes gyros by far the best choice if you have some utilitarian need for flying, such as hopping to some distant area of a ranch or commuting to an island, where you don’t want to be held hostage to the wind.

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-seat 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 comparison of many types of ultralight (single person) flying devices, including hang gliders and clusters of helium balloons. Also, 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. All of the types discussed in this article can be disassembled with moderate effort (e.g. remove and roll up trike wing or remove gyro rotors) so they can, at least in theory, be transported and stored in trailers, unlike conventional fixed-wing aircraft which usually are tied to airports.

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.

If I lived out in farm country, a PPC would be quite attractive — they look very easy to fly, and if the engine died or some other in-flight emergency occurred, you could set it down in some field. Trikes seem almost as easy to fly as a PPC, and are more maneuverable, which makes them more fun to fly, and would help if you had to aim for some smaller landing patch. They also have a faster cruising speed and use less gas per mile than a PPC. Adding a ballistic parachute makes trike flying extra safe. If I wanted to just buzz around in the air in fair, calm weather, a trike seems the most attractive. If I wanted to be able to fly in more windy conditions, or do more aerobatics, I’d go with a gyro, even though in the U.S. that would likely mean having to invest a couple of weeks in building one from a kit.

So I am 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).

Maverick flying car (parawing furled and stowed).

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

 Maverick flying car with parawing deployed.

Maverick flying car with parawing deployed.

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

Sketch of forces on gyroplane rotor blade. Source: Autogyro History and Theory , by Jeff Lewis

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.

“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.

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.

Bensen model B-8M in Canada Aviation Museum.

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 (“bunt-over”) 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. This 4-minute inside-the-cockpit video by “Henry GyroLife”  demonstrates the pilot’s actions during gyro takeoff and landing (the “cyclic” is the main control joystick).

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 sufficiently. 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 ususally do not seem to get hurt in this sort of take-off crash.

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 (obviously skilled) 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 .

Parkzone Night Vapor lightweight R/C plane. From .

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.

About Scott Buchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, theology, folding scooters, and composting toilets, at . Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas. Now retired and repurposed as a grandparent.
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3 Responses to Fun Things to Fly: Powered Parachutes, Trikes, and Gyroplanes

  1. Jim Thinnsen says:



    “Christianity has fought, still fights, and will fight science to the desperate end over evolution, because evolution destroys utterly and finally the very reason Jesus’ earthly life was supposedly made necessary. Destroy Adam and Eve and the original sin, and in the rubble you will find the sorry remains of the son of god. Take away the meaning of his death. If Jesus was not the redeemer that died for our sins, and this is what evolution means, then Christianity is nothing.”

    G. Richard Bozarth, “The Meaning of Evolution”, American Atheist,

    “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled Atheist”

    Richard Dawkins, Famous Atheist

  2. Hi Jim,
    First, I understand where you are coming from and respect your motives.
    Second, I am not at all attacking God’s word. I am pointing out the errors of a particular interpretation of God’s word, like Galileo did in pointing out the errors of another literalistic interpretation of the Bible.

    Third, I do not choose to let opponents of Christianity like Bozarth and Dawkins dictate my theology. Hundreds of millions of Christians, from Billy Graham to the Pope, do not hold that the evolution of humans from other primates somehow obviates the mission of Jesus.

    Finally, yes, I am aware that doing carbon 14 dating on dinosaur fossils often gives dates of 20,000-40,000 years old, and that trying to date things like graphite and diamond often give dates of around 50,000 years old. That is exactly what we expect when a dating method is pushed to its limits and beyond. The amount of C14 in the (modern) atmosphere is only about one C14 in a trillion other carbons. For older samples, the amount of C14 declines and declines until at around 50,000 years it is at the limit of practical detectability. Part of the “practical” caveat is that the air, the water, and the ground are swimming in modern levels of C14, and it takes only the merest bit of modern contamination to make something that is a million years old look like it is 50,000 years old. And it only takes a little more modern C14 contamination for a semiporous dinosaur fossil which has been in contact with water laden with modern carbonate ions and organic compounds to return a date of 20,000-40,000 years. (I know folks try to remove modern contaminants, but you can’t get them all).

    So there are known, intrinsic problems with trying to date really old things (especially things buried in the ground) with C14. The carbon dating method is working with vanishingly small amounts of C14, contamination with modern carbon is unavoidable, and the effects of that contamination are larger for more ancient samples. We are essentially guaranteed to come up with an apparent “date” of 10,000-60,000 years, no matter how much older the sample actually is. That is the simple physical reality of carbon dating, which young earth creationists do not want to admit.

    In contrast, radioactive dating of the rock layers (e.g. Hell Creek formation in Montana, using Rb-Sr or U-Pb dating) where many dino fossils are found does not suffer from these problems. (a ) There are reasonably high concentrations of the parent and daughter elements to work with, and (b) there is little chance of contamination from the environment. For instance, the air and water around us environment is not chock-full of Rb or Sr or U or Pb , and so there is not much of a chance that adventitious Rb or Sr or U or Pb will penetrate into the minerals that contain these elements enough to alter the radiogenic dates. (Not to say this cannot possibly happen, but it is extremely unlikely; the fact that different dating methods nearly always give the same date for a given rock show that they are reliable). Ar is present at appreciable concentration (1%) in the atmosphere, but the Ar39/Ar40 method can detect whether atmospheric contamination has taken place.

    Furthermore, the old dates from radioactive dating of rocks are supported by many other physical observations such as lake varves, annual layers in glacier ice cores, the positions and current movements of the earth’s crustal plates, rock formations like unconformities, etc. etc. (see )

    So – – we have one dating method with known, unavoidable problems for dating really old things, giving results which are at variance with a whole battery of other methods which are good at dating really old things. I am not going to debate this further here (I know the YE creationists try to dispute all this), but as a courtesy I am just letting you know why practicing scientists do not regard the C14 results on dinosaur fossils as indicative of their actual dates.

    Best regards…

  3. Pingback: Listing of Articles on Science, Faith and Other | Letters to Creationists

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