Brent Drake knows the pastime to which he has devoted 40 years of his life to may seem a little crazy — and more than a little dangerous — to the average person.
A gyrocopter instructor in Shelbyville, Indiana, Drake has spent thousands of hours in the air in the small, two-passenger copter he bought 18 years ago, living a dream first kindled when he came across the aircraft while leafing through the back pages of Popular Mechanics magazine in the late 1960s.
“I thought, ‘I gotta do that,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘I wanna try it.’ ”
Drake wouldn’t get his chance until the late 1990s, but since then, he has spent two decades flying gyrocopters.
“You’re up there looking down on God’s country, and it’s beautiful,” said Drake, who spends the rest of his time running several distribution and rental businesses. “I can have so much stress from the businesses I run, and I can go fly for 15 minutes and all that stress is gone.”
Every week, he teaches two or three other aspiring pilots who are similarly captivated by the small, often open-air craft that provide a much closer simulation of true flight than sitting in a plane.
When you’re flying in a commercial airplane, he explained, “You’re flying inside the bird. When you’re sitting in a gyrocopter, you’re flying outside. You are the bird.”
Gyrocopters made a jarring entry into the consciousness of many New Orleanians last week when a Metairie man and his 13-year-old neighbor died after crashing at St. John the Baptist Parish Airport in Reserve.
An eyewitness said the copter flown by Darren Mahler, 47, banked westward just after taking off the evening of Sept. 21 when the wings folded up and the gyrocopter crashed into West Canal, killing Mahler and passenger Payton Wilt instantly.
Mahler’s young son was said to be in a nearby hangar, awaiting his turn to fly.
Federal aviation officials are trying to determine the cause of the crash. The lead investigator said that in addition to the testimony from the eyewitness, a notable find was corrosion discovered on the fractured end of the control rod that runs from the cockpit to the overhead blades.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Andrew Scott cautioned, however, that the corrosion was not necessarily the cause of the crash. He said he won’t finish his preliminary report for at least another week, and it will be even longer before the NTSB’s five-member board comes to any conclusions about what caused the crash.
Until that happens, the families of Mahler and Wilt will be forced to come to terms with what happened that Sunday evening, while others will wonder how zipping through the sky at up to 60 mph in a cockpit that can look like a golf cart with an unpowered blade spinning overhead can seem like a good idea.
Drake said he has come across that disconnect quite often over the years.
“Every day,” he said.
Classed as experimental
Gyrocopters — sometimes called autogyros or gyroplanes — belong to a class known as “experimental aircraft.” The category also includes ultralights, the airplanes that resemble go-karts with brightly colored overhead wings.
There are 14 airmen with experimental aircraft licenses in Louisiana, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and efforts to reach some of them were unsuccessful.
“There are probably only a couple thousand of us (gyrocopter pilots) in the entire country,” said Drake, who is vice president of the Popular Rotorcraft Association.
“They’re not very common, mainly because they’re not useful for many things other than to build them and fly around locally,” said Mike Saladino, president of the Reserve chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association. “You can’t fly across country in them; they’re not that practical of an aircraft.”
Drake said a two-person model can be built in a couple of hundred hours, and gyrocopters can be bought used for as little as $25,000 or new for up to $200,000.
Gyrocopters have a rear-facing, engine-powered propeller behind the cockpit to provide thrust, with an overhead rotary blade that relies on the passing air to spin it. Early models needed to have the blade spun by hand before takeoff, but many models now have a small engine to get it spinning just fast enough to catch the wind at takeoff.
The pilot controls the speed with the rear-facing propeller and the lateral movement known as “yaw” by the fins through which the propeller blows air. Overhead, the spinning blade forms a virtual disc that is tilted by the pilot to adjust the aircraft’s vertical movement, called pitch, and its banking turns, called roll, through the control rod.
Experimental aircraft pilots and advocates interviewed for this story said proper construction, regular maintenance and responsible piloting are crucial to safe flying, and that there are regulatory safeguards in place to ensure that it all happens.
A private pilot’s license for an experimental aircraft requires 40 hours of training, and aircraft inspections are required by the FAA every year or every 100 hours of flight time, whichever comes first.
Logbooks for maintenance and flight time are to be meticulously maintained, down to a tenth of an hour, said Dick Knapinski, national spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association.
While pilots are always subject to surprise inspections, some of those interviewed conceded that it is still possible for an aircraft to be improperly maintained.
If it does turn out that the accident was caused by a corroded control rod, those interviewed said, it won’t be hard to understand the connection.
“Corrosion is definitely the enemy of an aircraft,” Knapinski said.
“One thing about aviation, it doesn’t tolerate neglect,” agreed Gene “Bever” Borne, whose Reserve company Air-Tech sells ultralights, does repairs and manufactures aircraft parts.
Borne and Drake pointed out that a key component of official experimental aircraft inspections is that a certified airman can perform the repairs himself only if he built at least 51 percent of the craft. If not, Drake said, “you can change the oil, put air in the tires and change the spark plugs, and that’s pretty much it.”
Borne said there are two things humans can’t do: breathe underwater and fly in the sky.
“When we partake in that activity, the equipment has got to be right,” he said. “You can’t fix it in the air, and you can’t fix it in the water. That’s why maintenance is paramount on that stuff.”
Drake said that whatever the public perception of experimental aircraft themselves, the accidents that happen to them boil down to the human component in one way or another.
“Every accident that I have seen had something to do with pilot error or builder error,” Drake said.
“You need to go over everything from A to Z before you climb into it to fly it.”
Experimental aircraft pilots say one of the issues with how they are perceived has to do with the term itself. “Experimental,” in a general sense, refers to any craft that has not yet been fully proven in flight, but within the industry it is simply a term imposed by federal regulation.
“Every airplane is initially an experimental airplane,” Saladino said.
‘Lawn chair on a wing’
Saladino said he can understand public squeamishness about flying something “that looks like a lawn chair on a wing.”
“On a personal level I would say, ‘Do I really want to fly in that?’ But I know people who fly them who think they’re a perfectly safe aircraft. I don’t think they would fly in them if they didn’t. I will tell you most pilots are more comfortable flying their own airplanes than in the back of a commercial airliner as a passenger.”
Borne points out that for years Lancair International made a kit plane that has since been bought by Cessna and is now manufactured.
“Just because it’s got the word ‘experimental’ or ‘amateur-built’ written on it … the guy who owns the plane bought a set of plans or he bought a kit where the critical stuff was done and he assembled it.”
“The guy that’s building it, he’s not building it to see if it’s going to work,” Borne continued. “It’s already a proven design.”
Drake said that in this day and age, when gyrocopter crashes can easily be called up on websites like YouTube, it’s easy to consider the aircraft unsafe. He called the Reserve crash a terrible tragedy, but he said he considers them “very safe to fly.”
Borne said it is the nature of aircraft accidents to stand out in the public imagination.
“What do they say? ‘There’s way more airplanes in the ocean than there are ships in the sky.’ ”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.