Into the Wild Blue Yonder

Written by Nathan Winfrey in the August 2010 Issue

A favorite mode of transportation for Batman, James Bond, and the Ghostbusters, the gyroplane is an odd-looking, but exhilarating way to fly.

“It’s difficult to define the sense of freedom that you have in that machine,” says Paul Patterson. “They have a very, very high fun factor.”

Patterson lives in Edmond with his wife, Elaine. He is a sport pilot and the only certified gyroplane instructor in Oklahoma. Patterson has been in the gyroplane business for seven years. “I was getting ready to retire and I decided this might be interesting – I never realized I would get this deep into it,” he said.

As an instructor, Patterson builds upon his experience as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, where he flew Hueys in “ash and trash” missions – extractions, insertions and medevac extractions. Patterson flew two tours, with total rotary wing time at 4,000 hours and a fixed wing time of 1,000 hours.

Flying a gyroplane is different than flying a helicopter or airplane. The controls are different, but there are some strong similarities. Also called autogyros, gyrocopters or rotaplanes, the machines were invented in Spain by Juan de la Cierva in 1923. Although they’ve been around for nearly 90 years, gyroplanes are still considered an experimental aircraft, but certainly not a weekend toy.

The rotor on top of the gyroplane is completely free-spinning, with no power going to it. To create lift, the machine forces air through the rotor system. It develops thrust from a propeller powered by a conventional automobile or aircraft engine. Gyroplanes handle extremely well in high wind.

As an experienced pilot, Patterson says the judgment in the air essentially has to be the same with both a gyroplane and a helicopter. “That is what’s difficult about being an instructor – teaching students judgment. I try to emphasize that, above all, safety is paramount.”

Patterson’s students come from all over the country. “There are very few gyroplane instructors,” he said. “There are probably less than 50 in the United States, probably less than 150 in the whole world.” Patterson says there are no instructors in nearby states like Texas, Kansas and New Mexico.

Patterson says gyroplanes have suffered high accident rates in the past because people buy them in kits and assemble the machines themselves. Then they try to fly them without proper instruction.

“Flying an aircraft and building an aircraft have no relationship to one another. Just because they built it, they think they can fly it,” Patterson says. “In gyroplanes, you move in three dimensions. Accidents generally occur because the pilot lets the aircraft get ahead of him and, once that happens, something’s going to bite you.”
Gyroplanes typically seat one or two people. They fly low and slow, and with only 2.5 hours of fuel, they aren’t made to fly cross-country. With a maximum safe speed of 100 mph and a service ceiling of 10,500 feet, Patterson rarely flies much higher than 2,500 above sea level. This equates to 1,000 to 1,500 feet above Oklahoma soil where he typically cruises at 65 mph.

Patterson usually requires his students to spend 25-30 hours in the air before they can receive their licenses. This is stricter than Federal Aviation Administration guidelines require, but he wants to be sure his students become safe pilots.

“You have to meet proficiency, and in order to develop proficiency, it takes time,” Patterson says. “Good judgment comes from experience.”

Patterson also says it’s important to not space lessons out over too much time. “You have to fly consistently because consistency is the key,” he says. Each lesson consists of 50-60 minutes of flight time, with 15-20 minutes of ground school.

For more information on Paul Patterson’s lessons or gyroplanes in general, visit the Popular Rotorcraft Association website at www.pra.org and look under the Rotary Wing forum. Or e-mail Patterson directly at [email protected]

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