January 6, 2008 Simple to build, easy to fly, faster than helicopters and arguably safer than anything else in the sky: gyroplanes are a long-overlooked segment of the personal aviation industry, but as innovators like Sportcopter bring the entry price down to family car levels, these fun little aircraft are finally starting to get some of the popularity they deserve. Sportcopter's highly anticipated Super Sport 2-seater is currently undergoing flight testing - and with its 2.5 litre Subaru engine producing 190hp and propelling the agile little gyroplane to well over 100mph, it should be a real winner.

Gyroplanes, although they’ve been around since the early 1920s, are some of the best kept secrets in the affordable aviation game. These fun little devices use an unpowered, free-spinning top rotor and a simple thrust propeller to deliver a flying experience that's somewhere in between a plane and a helicopter.

Powering the gyroplane forward using the front or rear-mounted thrust propeller causes air to flow over the top rotor, which begins spinning and develops enough lift to get the vehicle airborne. This doesn't take a long runway - as little as 40 feet is needed to develop enough upward lift to get off the ground, and it's possible using aftermarket kits to perform jump-style takeoffs with no ground roll at all.

Gyroplanes can cruise at roughly the speed of a helicopter, or float along so slowly you'd nearly call it hovering. The powered top rotors of helicopters cause a torque reaction that necessitates the use of a sideways-mounted tail rotor to control rotation – which makes them mechanically complicated, expensive and quite tricky to fly. The gyroplane's design is so simple that you can buy one for less than the cost of a touring motorcycle, build it and maintain it yourself.

Perhaps the key to the growing popularity of this segment, though, is the fact that gyrocopters are incredibly safe. Because all lift is provided by a top rotor that's completely unpowered, engine failure or running out of fuel simply results in a pretty much normal landing. The free-spinning rotor is far more effective than a parachute in ensuring a slow and safe descent.

The Sportcopter Super Sport is a roomy, weatherproof, fully enclosed twin-seater with space behind the seats for cargo. Each seat has a full set of controls and instrumentation, making it an ideal training craft. As it's significantly heavier than Sportcopter's earlier Vortex and Lightning models, it's been fitted with a long-travel suspension kit for soft and cushy landings, even in rougher fields.

A range of between 300 and 400 miles from a 30 gallon tank full of ordinary 87 octane unleaded makes the Super Sport a good day tripper, and it should be good for thrills as well with a top speed in excess of 100mph.

Future designs in the works at Sportcopter include a larger 4-seat gyroplane with retractable landing gear, and an extra-quick, super sleek speedster dubbed the "velocity" featuring a nose-mounted prop and either two or four seats.

The gyroplane concept is perhaps the best type of simple aircraft to look at converting for a combination of highway and skyway use – like Larry Neal has done with his road-registered flying motorcycle kit. All you need to really do is drive the rear wheels and find some way to keep the main rotor out of the way, and you've got yourself a vehicle you can fly, drive and park in a garage. We'd love to see Sportcopter start experimenting with this angle on future models; quite apart from our obsession with flying cars, a simple version would mean a huge boost in convenience for hobby aviationists, who could drive it slowly to the airstrip and eliminate hangar and transport charges from their cost of ownership.

Sportcopter will release details on pricing and availablility as soon as it comes to hand; meanwhile, they're building up a global distribution network, and are interested in talking to potential dealerships around the U.S. and the world.

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