Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Small Wonder: World's fastest autogyro

I recently came across a story that intrigued me and at the same time lifted my spirits. It concerns a small flying machine called Woodstock.

But first some background. I've been interested in aircraft at least as far back as my first transatlantic flight (in a Bristol Britannia operated by B.O.A.C. ). That was when my father was on his way to work for the Renfrew Aircraft company in Canada, where we lived for the year that I was six. When I was 10, he and I went on a church outing to Heathrow Airport (my folks belonged to a pretty cool church). We had a guided tour of the Boeing maintenance facilities (where I learned that each of the four engines on a Boeing 707 are held on by just three bolts).

My brother and I got my our first helicopter ride when I was 11 and he was 6. Many years later he completed his training for his helicopter license while staying with Chey and me in San Francisco.

I made an effort to pass along the joy of flying to my daughter by arranging a helicopter flight in Los Angeles where the pilot let her take over the controls of a Bell Jet Ranger over Hollywood. So, I'm interested in aircraft. And I am particularly interested in unusual aircraft. My father worked on the thrust ducts for the Harrier "Jump jet" and I remember him poring over the blueprints and talking about the engineering challenges they posed.

One particular class of aircraft intrigues me more than most: autogyros. These rotating wing machines preceded helicopters and played a major role in the history of aircraft technology. On April 8, 1931, Amelia Earhart set a world's altitude record for autogyros, climbing to 18,415 feet (5,615 meters). Autogyros can land vertically, like the Harrier, and take off either vertically or in a very short distance. On July 6, 1939, Eastern Air Lines began the world's first scheduled air mail service by a rotary winged aircraft, using a Kellet gyro to fly from the roof of the Philadelphia Post Office to the airport at Camden, New Jersey. Much like a helicopter can autorotate in the event of engine failure, an autogyro can descend safely without power (but controlled descent may not work when the craft falls off a talk building, which apparently happened in Philadelphia).

Autogyro is just one of many synonyms and/or trademarks for this type of rotorcraft, alone with gyrocopter, gyroplane, and rotaplane--see Wikipedia article for loads of detail. And they come in many shapes, sizes, and configurations--as seen here. Many of the autogyros seen in popular culture are "pushers" with an engine and prop behind the pilot, pushing the craft forward, one of the best known being the Wallis Autogryo, created, and flown in the James Bond movie "You Only Live Twice,” by the amazing Wing Commander K H Wallis MBE, DEng (hc), Ph.D (hc), CEng, FRAeS, FSETP, FlnsTA(hc), RAF (Ret'd).

Early autogryo designs, and the one used commercially for mail delivery in New Jersey, were "tractors" in that the engine was in front and pulled the craft forward. This design has several advantages, ably exploited by Ron Herron of Little Wing Autogyros and owner/pilot Andy Keech who decided to build an autogryo that would prove its worth by breaking some records. Without any major sponsorship, working just for the thrill of it, they spent five years building "Little Wing" and in 2003 they proceeded to rack up world records, 29 of them so far! The craft, named "Woodstock" after the Peanuts comic character, has set the three transcontinental speed records for autogyro class (east to west, west to east, round trip) as well as world class records for speed, altitude, climb, and distance; becoming the only rotorcraft to ever to hold all those records and one of only two aircraft of any kind to do so.

You have to admire an effort to expand our boundaries like that. And while folks like Fossett and Branson have grabbed most of the record-setting headlines over the last five years, Herron and Keech have set a lot more records. Which just proves you don't have to be a millionaire to make your mark.

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