A “Sunday drive” in the sky—across the U.S.A.
What happens when a retired chief information officer and multiple-aircraft aficionado with a history of adventure meets a young professional flight instructor, aircraft salesman, and Taylor Municipal Airport board member?
They wind up barnstorming in a tiny, open-cockpit aircraft 2,290 miles from Taylor to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and back in two-hour chunks at 75 to 100 mph and at about the altitude of the 44-story 360 Condominiums in Austin.
The Dayton Flyer
Dayton Dabbs, 29, first became aware of the gyroplane as a youngster.
“I mean, who didn’t want to be James Bond?” he asks, referring to the autogyro featured in the film You Only Live Twice.
His dad flew helicopters for fun, removing the doors to instill in his son the thrill (after the initial terror wore off) of open-air flying. Dayton—his name an inadvertent nod to the Wright brothers’ birthplace—caught the incurable bug. He flew a helicopter at age 12 and asked for flight lessons for Christmas two years later. That granted wish required a promise never to fly experimental aircrafts. He soloed an airplane on his sixteenth birthday and obtained his license on his seventeenth.
But Dayton also is a hard-core student of aviation—he discusses the aerodynamics of various aircraft the way most people explain the route they drive to work—and he had read about instability and faltering engines in gyroplanes.
“The history behind the second generation spooked me,” Dayton admits. “Then one day during my senior year of high school, my dad said, ‘I’m about to go fly a gyroplane. Do you want to come?’” (Never mind that the third generation, while certified in European countries, is considered an experimental aircraft in the U.S.) “I immediately fell in love with it. Just the freedom. That’s when I knew.”
The Aircraft Junkie
John Craparo sat with rapt attention when his dad, a World War II Army Air Corps pilot who passed away when John was 14, shared stories and pictures of himself flying a P-40 Warhawk. Six months later, a hot air balloon landed on a country club fairway where John caddied.
“We thought it had crashed,” John remembers. “We ran out to help the guy, but he had just decided to land on the golf course. I started asking him questions, and he invited me to fly.” A few years later, John obtained his balloon license.
A hard-core student of everything that interests him, the trilinguist (including Spanish and French) has a bachelor’s degree in biology and finance, a master’s in management, another master’s in aviation science, and lacks only his dissertation to complete a doctorate of philosophy. His aviation repertoire grew to include powered parachutes, sail planes, airplanes, seaplanes, a book (You Can Fly Now)—and now gyroplanes.
The Bird Plane Aircraft
The third rendition of the gyroplane—technically not an airplane—dramatically improved the craft’s safety issues, with the design and equipment upgraded to include a larger tail surface, a weightier main rotor system, tweaks to the centers of pressure and gravity, and an actual aviation engine.
“The previous aircraft literally used chainsaw engines,” Dayton says incredulously.
The gyroplane, also known as an autogyro and gyrocopter, was invented in the 1920s to solve a dangerous aspect of flying a plane: stalling. Replacing the fixed wing with a rotating blade that acts as a pinwheel, turning and thus providing lift as air flows up through it, makes stalling impossible.
The engine provides thrust to the craft but not the blade. If it fails, the gyroplane will float to the ground as do maple seeds, the inventor’s inspiration.
Although the gyroplane’s aerodynamics are more complex than an airplane’s, the controls are much simpler. A glorified joy stick—a cyclic—controls the altitude and banking, a throttle controls the thrust, and rudder pedals keep the craft lined up in the desired direction of travel. The panel of gauges, switches, and screens is about half that of a conventional small airplane.
On a quest for adventure, to test their aircraft’s mettle and their own and to promote gyroplanes, the duo flew a Magni Gyro M-16 to AirVenture, the annual aviation convention that draws more than half a million people. They landed at twenty airports in seven states, flying five of the nine days they were gone.
It’s certainly not the fastest mode of transportation. John once covered six hundred more miles in only twice the time. On a bicycle.
“It’s going for the Sunday drive instead of taking I–35,” says Dayton, owner of Lone Star Magni Gyro, obviously preferring the former.
John concurs, recounting the thrill of smelling, from the air, freshly cut grass and seeing wonders such as the Bald Knob Cross of Peace in Illinois, the patchwork of orange roofs in Missouri, and Soldier’s Field in Chicago, on which an autogyro landed in 1932 and from which a balloon launched to the stratosphere in 1933.
Adventure tailed the pair, on land and in air. They came across Circus City—a. k. a. Hugo, Oklahoma—where several national traveling circuses winter. They dodged converging rain storms in Illinois, hitched a ride from a Wisconsin woman who “liked her beer and her men,” and landed at a former WWII aircraft bone-yard in Arkansas.
Of the 10,000 aircraft that flew in to AirVenture, only about a dozen were gyroplanes. Dayton and John want to change that.
“Having flown different types of aircraft, I think the gyroplane is the ultimate aircraft from a pilot’s perspective,” says John, touting its safety, ease, and low cost of operation, size, low flying altitude, and unimpeded view. “You look at the history of people imagining aircraft in everybody’s garage, zooming around like the Jetsons—I think this is the closest we’ve come to that.”