Monday, August 25, 2008

Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines

"If they built a plane, would you fly in it?"

I've heard that phrase for years now, mostly in reference to a particular brand of motorcycle. The phrase took on new meaning for me when we all drove down to the annual Popular Rotorcraft Association Fly-In in Mentone, IN. In this case, "Popular" means "for the people" and if regular folk are owning and operating rotorcraft, that generally means that they're building those helicopters and gyrocopters themselves.

I know one such person. In fact, I'm related to him — and he's the reason I wanted to go, to take him to see the gyros fly around. See, my father-in-law built his own gyrocopter when he was 18. He ordered it as a kit, and spent countless hours building it. Shortly after completing it, he was drafted.

He's never flown it.

He'd never even seen one fly. Until now.

We didn't know exactly where the Mentone airport was. We knew it was roughly south and west of Mentone, so we drove down in that general direction, and watched the skies. Sure enough, little spindly craft started appearing, arcing lazily through the sky like dragonflies on a hot summer day, and it wasn't hard to figure out where they were all coming from.

Happily, there wasn't much to separate us common folk from the men and their machines, and we spent a good number of hours walking between the aircraft, talking to owners, builders, manufacturers, and sellers. ($7500 buys you a gently-used gyrocopter. I thought about it.)

The cool thing, of course, was watching them fly.

You mean to tell me that this thing flies?

Oh. I guess it does!

Regular rules about distances in flying don't seem to apply... but then, they were doing an exhibition, so maybe things are different for those.

Navigating around Mentone by air apparently involves being able to discern the difference between corn and soybeans at an altitude of 100 feet.

How often do you get to watch aircraft this close? When was the last time you got to actually watch airplanes take off and land at an airport?

A big part of the fun, for me, was to hear the reports of what my father-in-law was doing and saying as he ran around, talking to people and looking at aircraft. At first, I didn't think he wanted to go — he kept saying things like, "Oh, I can't go rebuilding my gyrocopter, I'm living on savings, and I have to be responsible..." but only later did I realize he was saying that to contain his excitement!

This, right here, is the real reason we came: so my father-in-law (right, in red) could meet people, see gyros, and rekindle an old dream.

This 1966 Benson is virtually identical to the one my father-in-law has tucked away in a trailer. It had pride of place in the gyrocopter museum.

This one in particular captured my FIL's imagination. This is a new, clean build, and features things like a seat that doubles as a gas tank. I suppose I'd object to the safety of such an arrangement, but then, I regularly go riding with a gas tank between my legs, so who am I to say? There's a certain irony in a motorcyclist complaining about the safety of... well, anything.

One of the editors I was working with a year or so ago, Micah Ross, told me that most people that fly airplanes also ride motorcycles. You would have been hard-pressed to disprove that at this show; I saw as many two-wheelers on the ground as I did gyros in the air. The same spirit of cheap innovation was applied to the bikes I saw, too.

Yes, those are mailboxes attached to each end of a Honda Ruckus.

The Wright Brothers were originally bicycle mechanics. This apple didn't fall far from the tree.

And after the day was done, and we were driving back home with the kids, I had to wonder... If I built a plane, would I fly in it?

1 comment:

Jonadab said...

> When was the last time you got to actually watch airplanes take off and land at an airport?

Depends on the airport. Your chances are best at an airport large enough to have regular flights (so there will be some coming and going while you wait for your flight, assuming you arrive early) but small enough to have only one terminal. Where there are multiple terminals they tend to be parallel, so your view is typically blocked by the next one over. Also large airports tend to have other junk all over the place obstructing the view, e.g., large parking garages for the car rental companies.

Port Columbus is an excellent example of an airport where you would routinely be able to see other flights taking off and landing while waiting for your own flight to board. Columbus is a big enough city, and the nearest large airports (Cinci and Hopkins) far enough away, that there are flights in and out all the time.

But it's a leaf node, i.e., it pretty much just handles flights for people whose initial departure point or final destination is Columbus. No layovers, no switching planes, etc., that stuff goes through Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, or Chicago. So there aren't as many terminals as a big airport would have, not as much other infrastructure to get in the way, etc., and you can clearly see the runways (both of them) out the windows.

So, it depends on the airport.