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Flying Windmill The Gyroplane Story

Jeffrey Syken

The idea was first conceived as a simple child’s toy at least 1,500 years ago in China. Known as the “Chinese Top,” a simple rotor blade mounted on the top of a stick could be made to soar into the air by spinning the stick between the palms of the hands or pulling it with a string. Eventually, by the fifteenth century, the toy found its way to Europe. Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Flying Screw” concept may have borrowed freely from this simple “rotary-wing” toy. Man would first take to the air in the late eighteenth century in lighter-than-air balloons, but the quest for heavier-than-air flight would always include both fixed and rotary-wing aircraft from the get-go.

Fixed-wing aircraft would first take to the air in controlled flight on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. Still, inventors kept seeking a means to take to the air via Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL). Some tried to mimic the mechanical movements of a birds wings while others used hybrid designs which borrowed freely from established and conceptual aeronautical practice. Ultimately, it would be a brilliant mathematician and engineer named Juan de la Cierva who would achieve something very close to VTOL in 1923 in his invention; the Autogiro. In fact, it would be a crash in an experimental fixed-wing airplane (caused by a stall) that motivated the fledgling aircraft designer to conceive of a safer way to take-off and land in an aircraft.

Unlike a helicopter, which depends on the rotary wing for both lift and propulsion, Cierva’s Autogiro separated the two, using a traction propeller for propulsion and the rotary wing for lift. The advantage would be readily realized in the fact that the Autogiro (or Gyroplane) was capable of making very short take-offs and near-vertical landings via the principle of Autorotation (the same principle by which a sycamore maple seed pod floats gently to earth). Alas, the on-going development of the helicopter always cast a giant shadow over the development of the Autogiro and, by the close of WWII, had eclipsed it as the premier rotary wing aircraft for one main reason; the helicopter’s ability to hover – something the Autogiro could only do in a strong headwind. The Convertiplane seeks to combine the best of both helicopter and Gyroplane and its many advantages are reviving Juan de la Cierva’s old ideas about rotary-wing flight.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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