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Why do Gyros Crash?

February 27, 2018

On left-downwind, the instructor informs me that we will be simulating an engine failure. The throttle lever goes to idle and I turn onto final approach – way too high. I instinctively start flying S-turns to lose some height, like a good fixed wing pilot should. 

 

 

 

 

 

I plant the gyrocopter somewhere in the middle of the runway, not too bad considering this is my first flight in the contraption. 

We do another circuit. This time the instructor says he has control, throttle goes to idle and he makes a bee-line for the threshold. Like me, he ends up overhead the runway at FL460, and in my mind, there is no way that he is going to land this gyrocopter on the runway below us. But the next moment I see the airspeed needle move to zero, and the rate of descent needle goes down. I start saying my prayers. 

At about 500 ft AGL the airspeed increases to 65 mph and we do a greaser of a landing, metres from the threshold. I’m hooked on this machine!

Perception is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: “The way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted.” The perception about gyros is that they are unsafe to fly, unstable to manoeuvre, piloted by people who like taking chances and will catch fire at the slightest sign of an accident. These are perceptions of which I took note, but have now dismissed, having spent some hours in the machine. 

And then you receive news of a friend who has died in a gyro accident. A friend with whom you trained and knew as a stand-up guy who sticks to the rules and who you consider to be a responsible pilot. You can’t help but wonder if the perception may indeed be the truth, and if you too could find yourself splattered on the ground because of this gyro contraption.

Digging through the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) Accident records made for some interesting reading in respect of gyro accidents. From September 2000 to January 2017, there were a reported 61 accidents involving gyros, 14 of the 61 accidents proved fatal and a total of 19 people lost their lives. 

Using the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) occurrence categories as developed by the Common Taxonomy Team allows you to classify occurrences and that permits a high-level analysis of data. An important element of the occurrence category design is that it permits the association of multiple categories with an occurrence. Meaning, for example, if an engine failure occurred, AND loss of control followed, the occurrence would be coded in both categories.

Looking at the gyrocopter accidents that resulted in fatalities, it would appear that the biggest killer is colliding with wires. In one of these fatal accidents the pilot ran out of luck, as in a previous accident he was involved in, he attempted to do a touch-and-go on a beach. He and his passenger survived that accident, but he was not that lucky the second time when he hit telephone wires while (obviously) flying very low. 

The second biggest killer is servicing or conducting maintenance on the gyro by the owner. Three of the fatal accidents occurred because of gyrocopter owners conducting mechanical work/repairs themselves. In two of the three accidents, the rotor blades departed the machine, resulting in loss of control in flight – not to mention loss of lift. Incorrect fuel and lack of compliance with a service bulletin resulted in a further two fatal accidents. 

The remaining fatal accidents were attributed to: Flight into Instrument Meteorology Conditions (IMC); in one accident the pilot suffered a heart attack; and the remaining three were due to the controversial use of gyrocopters in commercial agricultural application.

These three agricultural application accidents involved commercial pilots, all in their twenties, and all of them with in excess of 200 hours total flying time. The accidents  sparked a huge debate as to whether gyrocopters are suitable to be used in the so-called crop-spraying domain. 

The first accident occurred while the pilot was still training on the gyro, and according to the report, executed a low-level manoeuvre at low speed and with a tail wind, which resulted in impact with the ground. 

The second accident occurred a year later. The gyro was observed arriving at the intended area of operation flying at tree-top height. The pilot made a steep turn to avoid rising ground, the rotors impacted trees and the gyro then impacted the ground. 

The third accident took place five months later when the gyro, after conducting crop-spraying, departed from the area of operation. Some 500 metres away from the plantation, the rotor blades made contact with trees, which resulted in the gyro impacting the ground. 

What do these accidents have in common? Is it that they were all conducting crop-spraying? Well no, they weren’t. The first accident happened while still training, the second occurred before crop-spraying started and the third following the conclusion of crop-spraying. 

What they do have in common is that they were all flying particularly low. Although all three pilots held commercial pilot ratings and had over 200 hours each, significantly not one of them had more than 30 hours total time on gyros. 

South African Civil Aviation Regulation requirements for an agricultural pilot rating is 300 hours flight time, which must include not less than 30 hours in the case of aeroplane, and 10 hours in the case of helicopters, of flight experience in aerial application under supervision. But, under Part 96 which regulates commercial operations of non-type certified aircraft, the requirements are either 300 hours flight time on gyrocopters or 200 hours pilot in command of an aeroplane of which 100 hours must be on the same category for which Part 96 authorisation is sought.

Looking at the accidents that did not result in fatalities, the statistics tells us that more than 50% of gyrocopter accidents occur during takeoff and/or landing. Not a ground-breaking discovery as these phases of flight are infamous for catching out pilots in any type of aircraft. 

In almost all of the gyro accidents that occurred during takeoff and landing, mention is made in the accident reports of windshear being a factor. Tailwind takeoffs could also be part of the issue. I have experienced a 10-kt tailwind takeoff (under controlled conditions, i.e. no obstacles and a 5 km long runway) and was surprised at just how long the rotor RPM took to spool up and the resulting takeoff distance was incredibly long compared to into wind. Climb out was, of course, slower than normal and had there been any obstacles in the takeof path I would have been part of the statistics.

Similarly, in many of the accidents that took place during landing, abnormal runway contact, or hard landings resulted in the gyro rolling over or departing the runway and then colliding with either obstacles or terrain. 

A total of nine accidents can be attributed to loss of control while the aircraft is on the ground. In the words of my instructor: “These rotors become a beach umbrella when a gyro is on the ground, so best you keep it into wind.” As with any other aircraft, the flight is not over until the aircraft is shut down and parked. 

In 56 of the 61 accidents the gyro rolled, that is, it ended on its side, and in more than a quarter, being 15 of these 56 cases, the gyro was consumed by post-impact fire. 

So, are gyros unsafe? Do these machines kill people? I believe the answer to that question, or part of it anyway, can be found in the regulation governing training for future gyro pilots. With no current pilot licence, a newbie will qualify to be the holder of a National Pilot Licence after just 15 hours of dual and 15 hours of solo flying time. 30 hours from zero are required to be legally allowed to transport a passenger. 

If you are the owner of a licence under Part 61, then all you need is 10 hours of instruction and 10 hours of solo flight time. 20 hours and you are legally allowed to transport a passenger. Compare that with the requirements for a Private Pilot License (PPL). You need a whopping 45 hours total flight time of which at least 25 hours must be dual and 15 hours must be solo. 

Who decided, and based on what, that you only need two thirds the time to master the art of flying a gyro versus flying a Cessna? 43 of the 61 accidents involved pilots that had less than 100 hours flight time on gyros; 41% had less than 50 hours flight time on gyros.

I want to use the word ‘perception’ again. Can it be that gyros are viewed as microlights? Can it be that we believe piloting a gyro is less complicated than say a Sling? Has the perception that gyros are nothing more than lawnmowers stuck to a chair allowed us to miss the fact that these machines are in fact a tad more complicated than we believe? Should the minimum requirements not be increased and the training syllabus expanded?

As for which machine is more prone to kill you, there is no clear answer. 21 of the accidents were in Magni gyros, 15 in Chayair Sycamores, 11 in Autogyros, 8 in the ELA gyros and 4 in RAFs. Does this translate to Magnis being unsafe? No, not if you take into account that there are more than a 140 of these machines flying in South Africa. Without knowing how many hours are flown by which aircraft type, one cannot make a deduction in respect of which machine is safe and which is not.

So the gyro’s worst enemy is itself. It loves to be thrown around and likes to fly low. It wants to go into a ‘hover’ and wants to fly slow. The machine allows a very inexperienced person to do these things. With the relative low hourly cost of the machine and the very low number of hours you need before you can fly it all on your own, a gyro rating makes for a very attractive entry into flying, or an alternative to flying fixed wing aircraft. The average age of the 60 pilots that had accidents is 46; in fact, only four of the pilots were in their twenties.

I am of the opinion that gyros do not kill people, people kill gyros. 

Stay away from flying at tree top height, do not do maintenance on your gyro if you are not an approved person, watch the windsock when you takeoff and remember that you have a beach umbrella stuck to your gyro when you land.

According to these accident statistics, it would indeed appear that we do not re-invent clever ways of killing ourselves, but just repeat someone else’s mistakes.

Gyros do not mysteriously explode or fall apart in mid-air, they do not roll over on landing just because they want to, nor do they inadvertently fly into the ground. And they most certainly are not less prone to biting you if you mistreat them. 

There is a difference between having an accident and being negligent.

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