I enrolled in the Ohio State University. I had several months before I started. I went home to assemble an autogyro I bought when I was in the Army. I saw it in boxes in a stall at Markin Farm when I got home from Vietnam, but didn’t put it together. It cost a third as much as an automobile. It was a one-seat aircraft that arrived in many packages. I set up a drill press and a workbench inside an unused concrete block building on Peterloon Farm. It was named the Apple Barn. Apples were processed in that building. At one time there were orchards everywhere. When the apple trees started to die no one planted new ones. No one harvested apples anymore. The building was not used.
An auto gyro has a freewheeling rotor that is permanently set at zero pitch. It can’t do vertical take off or landings. It cannot hover like a helicopter. The spinning rotor is the wing. Auto-rotation describes how it flies. When a seed from a Silver Maple tree twirls to the ground that is auto-rotation.
The engine on this aircraft turned a push propeller like an airboat. Propeller thrust gave it foreword movement. A 72 horsepower two-cycle engine weighed nearly as many pounds as it generated horsepower. For that reason it was a very suitable engine. The U.S. military originally designed the engine for unmanned “drone” aircraft used in target practice. It was “re-manufactured” with longer life rod bearings and a few improvements that took into consideration it would be a significant part of a manned aircraft.
As it moved foreword faster and faster the rotor would spin faster and faster. A person sitting in the driver’s seat would change the entire plane of the spinning rotor with a hand held control lever. That created lift. There was rough movement on the ground. Then there was a transition to smoothness. When that change occurred I knew I was flying.
I had about ten hours of total flight time before I crashed the second time. I was like “Goofy” in the cartoon where Goofy is flipping through the pages of an instruction book as he is speeding down the runway about to leave the ground. The pages are blowing in the wind.
There was no experienced pilot advising me. I learned all I knew from the manual, however I didn’t take it with me in flight. It was too windy.
The manual covered all the peculiarities of the aircraft. I understood “pilot induced osculation” and the importance of avoiding a zero gravity condition where the rotor had no load and the engine thrust would invert the aircraft with obvious results. I was aware of these things and many others but the book didn’t spell out the importance of avoiding areas where there were fixed objects on the ground I was preparing to leave.
My first crash happened on take off when the right wheel hooked on a pile of pipes in a new industrial park. I spun around and rolled gracefully into a large concrete drainage ditch thirty feet across. That incident destroyed a set of rotor blades. I was in that industrial park because it was after 6 a.m., and I had to leave the airport when it opened at 6 a.m. At the airport I flew the autogyro with power off like a glider. Some friends pulled it behind our farm jeep. I got the feel of rudder control. Then under its own power I went up and down the runway. I practiced nose wheel steering at slow speed. I had not flown yet, and it was at that point on my way home with the thing on a trailer behind me that I saw the nice wide straight industrial park road going off to the right. There were no trees or overhead wires or buildings. It was a new development and I was going to fly out of there, or so I thought.
I had to cope with very little regulation. I built the autogiro myself and so it was classified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as an experimental aircraft. I applied, and received an “N” number from the FAA. I requested the number N8300 and they gave me that number which had very few digits compared to most N numbers. At some point I had to get an “air worthiness certificate”. That required that I fly “around the flight pattern” of an airport while a FAA official verified that the thing could fly. Then there was a catch that I never had to deal with because I never got that far. The catch was that to fly for an airworthiness certification I had to be a licensed pilot, but to be a licensed pilot I had to fly a certified aircraft. Meanwhile, I flew out of a field on the back of Peterloon Farm. I was going to get properly licensed after I flew it several hours. I got new rotors and repaired other things. I was practicing “dead stick landings” in that field when for a second time the rotor blades and other things got destroyed. I almost got destroyed too. I gave it up after that day.
The first time I left the ground and went up in the sky I didn’t realize I had mistakenly installed the wrong cheek plates. The craft was extremely out of balance. I had the glider cheek plates holding the gimbal head that attached the mast tube to the rotor. It didn’t fly right, but it did fly. I was flying out of the little airport where I practiced in the early morning. As I left the ground I had to keep full throttle and the rotor all the way back. My forward movement in the air was very slow. I saw the people wave that came with me. I needed some more room so I kept going. I must have been going up significantly. After a short while I sat back and looked down at the runway. I was so high that it was a half an inch long. I did my first 180-degree turn and started to go down toward the airport.
The only instrument in the kit was a simple air speed indicator located up front by the tow hook. The book stressed the importance of not exceeding a certain air speed. I could tell when I got there because the entire aircraft started to shudder. After I felt that I started to look at the air speed indicator more often. When the little red ball said I was near maximum air speed (somewhere below 130 kilometers per hour) I moved the rotor back very carefully and the craft effectively slowed down.
It so happened I was making what helicopter pilots in Vietnam called a “short final”. That was a steep approach to avoid bullets. I wasn’t concerned with bullets. I should have been concerned with the dismal prospect of “auguring in”, but that wasn’t on my mind either.
An autogyro has to have a glide path. Theoretically, I could go around and make another attempt if things were not right. The aircraft was descending a whole lot better than it went up. It seemed things were either up or down. Level flight seemed to be a very fine line between ascending and descending. I was going to land the first time.
I wanted to avoid gliding past the runway and flying through someone’s picture window while they were having their morning coffee. On the other hand I didn’t want to make contact with the ground before I got to the runway. As I got closer the paved surface seemed nice and long. When I got past all the white lines I was going about as fast as an automobile on an expressway.
When a duck lands it glides and then “flares out” at the last moment before it touches the water. Rotor revolutions per minute (RPM) are reduced when flare out occurs. The manual emphasized the importance of either being very close to the ground when rotor RPM drops or else being way up there. It takes several hundred feet to regain rotor RPM.
As I flew over the runway I made a series of small flare outs to reduce my forward speed. When I made my last flare out I was still to high and I had no rotor RPM left. I landed hard. The gyroscopic effect of the whirling rotor kept the craft upright. The keel tube got bent. The nose wheel hit the ground hard.
Once I came to a stop on the airport apron I reached up and shut the engine off. When the rotor stopped spinning I unfastened my seat belt and stood up. I took my helmet off, and looked at the bent tube. Several people who I didn’t know came up and said how great it looked and one person kept asking if that was really my first flight. He was a traffic reporter for a radio station. The helicopter he used for his job was at the airport. He went on and on about how terrific it looked. Then I showed him the bent keel tube and he changed his tune. In aviation circles they term my landing “a controlled crash”.
I knew I had put the thing together with the wrong pair of cheek plates and I changed them. I installed a new tube. The aircraft manual had described a hang test whereby the craft is suspended by the “teeter bolt” and the measurement of degrees from the plum line says something. If I had done that test I would have known the wrong cheek plates were installed. I didn’t do that test because I had center punched and drilled each hole exactly. I thought the test was redundant which it was. I failed to learn beforehand that redundancy is a big part of aviation. When the W-1 I knew in Vietnam forgot something he would joke and say, “mistakes like that get you killed in combat.”
There was a television program by that name, “Combat”. When I was putting the autogyro together I went through the TV room at home and was horrified to see on television people being riddled with bullets. Some of my siblings were glued to the television watching that happen. It was pretend, but it still seemed obscene. As they watched their faces were expressionless. They were being anesthetized. I didn’t say anything. It was me alone. I thought it must be okay since it was regular programming. Now I wonder if for the same reason a person in a twenty million-dollar piece of hardware has no problem dropping bombs on people?
The next time half throttle was all that was necessary to maintain a level cruising speed. It was easy to fly. The pressurized fuel tank held enough gas to last one hour. It was red; the type made for outboard motors on boats.
The average amount of time I was in the air was half an hour. During those times I did mostly “contour” flying which means flying close to the ground. I flew higher when I went ten or fifteen miles from the place where I took off.
One bright sunny day there were white fluffy clouds in the sky. There weren’t that many of them. One was here and one was there. One small cloud was all by it self. Considering all the clouds it was the smallest one. It was near. I had felt the turbulence in commercial airliners going through clouds, but this one was tiny. It was half as big as a football field. There was no wind. It was just floating up there all by itself. I wanted to go up there closer. I knew how Icras felt.
I was in a field beside the autogyro eating lunch. I quickly finished my sandwich and carefully poured a can of gasoline into the gas tank. The engine had a magneto ignition. A while earlier I had taken a piece inside the magneto called the “rotor” to be “charged” which means it was re-magnetized. That made the engine start easier. On the first or second turn of the propeller it started. There was no battery or starter motor. Those things were superfluous and heavy. I got in the driver’s seat and buckled up for safety. A little gasoline engine got the main rotor spinning so less ground would be needed for take off. The whole mechanism was called the pre-rotator.
The kit came with wood rotors and instructions on how to glue them together (a person had to find their own glue). When I realized everything hung on that rotor including me I didn’t want the last thing I ever saw to be my rotors coming unglued. I always had factory made aluminum rotors. The set I had then was the second pair I had bought. They weren’t inexpensive. I think they cost about half as much as everything else put together.
Once the main rotor blades got maximum speed from the pre-rotator I opened the throttle steadily until it was wide open. As the aircraft started to move forward the rotor blades spun even faster from the propeller blast (prop wash).
The push type propeller was made of wood. It was bolted to a hub made of a high strength steel alloy. I know it wasn’t regular steel because I tried to enlarge the holes in it with a drill bit. I couldn’t do it and had to take the hub to a machine shop. They had a difficult time getting it done. That was almost thirty years ago and I have never worked with steel that hard since.
The hub was fastened to a tapered spindle that stuck out the rear side of the engine case. The spindle was an extension of the crankshaft inside the engine. It turned very fast. The idea was to make the shaft turn.
There were connecting rods inside the engine that connected the crankshaft to four pistons. The pistons moved back and forth in a straight line and they made the shaft going out the back of the engine spin. Reciprocating movement was converted into revolving movement. Those parts moved
faster than the eye could see. The place of connection inside the engine, the journal on the crank shaft and the wrist pin on the other end of the connecting rod, had to be slippery and required constant lubrication. Mixing oil with the gasoline did this.
The aircraft consisted of primarily three square tubes named the keel tube, the axle tube, and the mast tube. I sat in a woven rope seat bolted to the front of the mast tube. The engine was bolted to the back of the mast tube.
After a short distance I moved the rotor nearly to the level position and it continued to spin faster. As the craft was being propelled forward I had to compensate for the engine torque with the left rudder pedal. Steering was done with the rudder pedals. Staying on the airstrip and traveling in a straight line was necessary to taking off.
Pegs on each side of the castoring nose wheel were used to steer the craft when positioning it for take-off or when moving slowly on the ground after landing.
Very soon after the angle of the rotor was changed I was off the rough ground and into the smooth air. The field had no crops that year. Either soybeans or corn was planted one year or the other. Some years clover was planted because it replenished the soil by putting some nutrient back in the ground that the other crops took out.
My undefined airstrip in that field went in the same direction as the rows. The crop was gone. No till farming was the practice then.
The short time I flew I stayed near open land in case the propeller stopped turning. Landing with no propulsion wasn’t a problem as long as there was a good place to land within gliding distance. When I flew close to the ground I stayed near open space and if I had to set down in a tree I had plans for maximizing my chances of survival by selecting a soft tree. My options were greater when I was up higher. I could glide longer distances.
The day I went up to see that cloud I spiraled up and up directly over that field. The cloud was as low to the ground as clouds ever are. When I got up there I flew around it one time. It wasn’t any bigger than it seemed from the ground. I wanted to fly through it for some reason. I went away from it, turned around, and headed back in that direction.
There was a fraction of a second as I got closer that I had a second thought. Flying into something I couldn’t see through was very much like flying into a wall. It got closer and closer then I was inside. I froze on the controls. I had no visual reference. I was in that cloud for four or five seconds, but it seemed much longer. There is an instrument called an artificial horizon that indicates what an aircraft is doing in relation to the ground when the pilot has lost visual reference. I didn’t have that instrument or a compass which would have helped some. A person with their eyes closed who is turning right or left on the ground feels centrifugal force. They know which way they are turning. There is no such sensation when traveling through the air in man made aircraft.
If an extremely radical right or left turn is made in the air a person won’t know which direction they are turning but they will know something is happening when they feel the increased gravity straight down through the center of their body. Thankfully, I didn’t feel any increased G’s (gravity). I understand this now but I didn’t know that phenomenon existed until I became painfully aware of it that day.
When I came out of that cloud I was still traveling in a straight line and my altitude was constant. I thought so much for little white fluffy clouds in the sunshine. I didn’t enjoy being in there one bit. I flew back to the ground, and trailered the thing home.
Soon after that, I moved to Columbus, Ohio where I enrolled in the Ohio State University. At that point the autogyro was still in one piece. When I went home on the weekends I would fly, and it was one of those weekends when it suddenly ended.
I wanted to learn how to land when the engine stopped in midair. If that happened the only place to go was down. I would have to pick out a place on the ground quickly, and land there. The less ground space that was needed the more places there were. Extreme flare out reduced the ground space required. I read that some pilots can touch down without rolling very much. I was doing that kind of landing repeatedly with the engine on idle. The last time I tried it the rotor deflected when the little trail wheel touched the ground and the rotor blade struck the ground behind me. The entire rotor, gimbal head, control rods and a broken off piece of mast tube went whirling fifty feet away. A stranger who was watching from the edge of the field said he saw a burst of aluminum in the sunshine. He made it sound beautiful to see. I would have much rather been there watching with him. The topside of the rotor had rectangular pieces of aluminum fastened to the spar. When the rivets popped he saw those pieces fluttering in the sunlight. The remaining part of the aircraft went over on its side. I was strapped to the seat. When the propeller struck the ground the idling engine stopped. There was silence.
I unfastened my seatbelt and stood up not feeling much of anything. I was wearing a motorcycle helmet that belonged to my brother. I took the helmet off. As I was regaining my senses I felt something wet on the back of my neck. I put my hand back there like I was brushing off a fly and when I brought it back my fingertips were bright red. Then I remembered my head shot forward when it happened. My body didn’t move but my chin went instantly against my chest. In my mind I reconstructed what happened. When the mast tube broke off it hit me in the back of the helmet. However I could not understand why the shell of the helmet seemed undisturbed and so did the padding inside the helmet. The place in my skin where the blood was oozing out was strange also. It was like a cut, but it wasn’t a cut. It was opening about 10 millimeters long. It was in my scalp in the back of my head just above my neck. I could feel it with my fingertips, and it felt like a break in my skin where the edges were blunt or undefined. It didn’t hurt in the slightest bit.
No other person was consulted about what happened. Several weeks later I looked very closely at the helmet again, this time under bright light. When I did that I could see a tiny place in the white shell where there was a crack. I could barely see some exposed hairs used to make fiberglass. They are called fiberglass rovings. I still could not explain the hole in my head. The padding was intact. No matter how hard I looked, the padding seemed intact. If my bare head had been hit I would have been killed instantly. The force must have been considerable.