It's a bird, it's a plane, it's autogyro!
Ever consider commuting to your office in the Cities using your personal helicopter? What about a quick trip to the Ozarks for a weekend getaway? How about that fishing trip to northern Ontario? Maybe you've always wanted to get out to Burning Man in the high desert.
There is now a company, Great North AutoGyro, owned by Cedar Lake resident Jay Schrankler, newly located at the New Richmond Regional Airport, that could make all those dreams and more come true.
If you (or you and a group of curious friends) can come up with at least $75,000, have access to another $2,500 ti $5,000 each (depending on your skill level) for training, have access to 200 feet of flat grass, gravel or pavement, and $5,000 to spend annually on maintenance, you could own an autogyro (also known generically as a gyroplane or gyrocopter).
Schrankler got his first taste of flying in high school when he took lessons. However, It would be many years before his passion for flying would overtake his passion for business.
"There was so much opportunity on the business side, I kind of slid over that way and enjoyed every minute of it," said Schrankler.
Schrankler, an electrical engineer by training, made a name for himself at Honeywell where he was executive of their $1.5 billion building automation business before cutting his teeth in the aerospace industry developing guidance and navigation systems for GPS satellites.
After 26 years at Honeywell, Schrankler left for the University of Minnesota where he has spent the last 10 years as Director of Technology Commercialization helping enterprising faculty obtain and license patents resulting from their research, strategizing startups and raising capital for those new businesses.
Four years ago, Schrankler began flying again and arrived at a decision.
"I'd put it this way. My passion for flying is about being in an aircraft and teaching people. I made a decision that my next venture was going to be having some businesses in aviation of my own. So I spent the better part of a couple years doing an analysis of where the growth opportunities were, what was going to be hot and in what areas," said Schrankler.
Schrankler's research revealed several interesting trends.
First, there is a massive and growing shortage of pilots.
"It's hundreds of thousands of pilots that the world will be short over the next 20 years," said Schrankler.
The explosion of pilots starting at the end of WWII and pushing into the 1960's is aging out. The luster of the industry wore off as young people encountered a career that could rack up substantial debt in education (as much as $100,000) and poor compensation once you were flying. Students could not afford to become pilots. Schrankler noted that dynamic is beginning to change today. Demand is driving more competitive wages often accompanied by signing bonuses and that is bolstering recruitment for institutional aviation programs at colleges, technical schools and the military. Schrankler characterized that trend as the professional path in aviation.
The other path Schrankler identified was recreational, the path Schrankler decided to pursue.
"I'm dealing with people who are looking at it as a real source of enjoyment, an interest and passion. The growing segment in this specific demographic is in an area called light sport. That is a category in general aviation that is growing fast," said Schrankler.
The Light Sport classification does not require a medical for the pilot and aircraft typically cost considerably less than a regular fixed wing small plane to purchase (example: Cirrus SR20, a regular small plane classification is $565,000 to 863,000; AutoGyro Cavalon light sport aircraft is $110,000)
Hands-on experience guided Schrankler to his next decision. In the course of working for Pipistrel, a dealer of small fixed wing aircraft, Schrankler learned the market was home to more than 150 manufacturers worldwide, making it crowded and too competitive. Enter Autogyro.
Part plane, part helicopter
An autogyro incorporates a rotor like a traditional helicopter but unlike a helicopter, the rotor is unpowered. Autogyros use a rear engine-powered propeller to provide thrust which creates airflow which spins the rotor, causing lift, a process called autorotation. For all those reasons, despite looking a good bit like a helicopter, an autogyro cannot hover. It can however, land and take off on a very short, as little as 200-foot, runway. Autogyros are small with a stylish molded carbon fiber body roughly 17 feet long by 6 feet wide by 9 feet high weighing in the neighborhood of 600 pounds, without fuel or pilot and passenger. They typically hold between 18 to 26 gallons of unleaded gasoline and can cruise at an average speed of 90-100+ mph although they can fly as slow as 15 mph.
"Most aircraft flight times are determined by the human bladder. But set that aside and the aircraft we have here in the hangar (New Richmond), depending on weight, has a 4-5 hour range in terms of flying time. If you take that times 100 mph, your range before you have to refuel is 4-500 miles," explained Schrankler.
Most autogyros are flown at an altitude of 3,000 feet or less because their pilots like to get a good look at the scenery beneath them, although they are capable of flying considerably higher. Autogyros are classified as experimental aircraft by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the United States.
If you are starting to conjure up a flickering black and white image of a topsy turvy flying machine more likely bound for history than the great blue beyond, that could not be further from the truth.
Maybe the most comforting and persuasive characteristic of an autogyro is that it is a very safe aircraft to fly, considerably safer than a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft.
According to Plane & Pilot Magazine, because an autogyro flies in perpetual autorotation "an engine failure in a gyroplane is a nonevent. The craft will float down in autorotation like a parachute. Most gyroplanes can fly as fast as a helicopter or general aviation (GA) airplane (about 100 knots) and can be flown in winds that would ground a helicopter or GA aircraft. Thus, the gyroplane is an exceedingly stable flying platform, unlike helicopters. That virtue makes gyroplanes extraordinarily safe."
Schrankler opened Great North AutoGyro last July to become the ninth US Dealer for the AutoGyro line of Gyroplanes. AutoGyro USA is a wholly owned subsidiary of AutoGyro GmbH, the mother company founded in 1999 in Germany. With 3,000 aircraft flying worldwide, AutoGyro is recognized as a world leader in autogyro technology controlling an estimated 60 percent of the U.S. market. AutoGyro had the resume and produced the type of quality product that attracted Schrankler.
Since undergoing a technical renaissance in the 1980's, autogyros have taken off in the European market and are now starting to make inroads in the US. Plane & Pilot summarized why.
"A gyroplane, however will provide 90 percent of the capability of the helicopter for 1/10th the price. The gyroplane simplicity makes it as easy to maintain as a motorcycle. Also, you can fly them under sport-pilot rules with a 'driver's license' medical. Combine non-stall design with extraordinary maneuverability, near-hover slow flight, unmatched stability, good speed and low cost, and you can see why those who have discovered gyroplanes are smitten."
"We're not quite there yet in the U.S. and I think it's a matter of awareness. This is a new industry in the U.S. Where it's starting to grow now in the U.S. is fixed wing pilots are transitioning to autogyros. It makes sense that the first ones into it are people who are already into aviation. The industry's growing rapidly by double digits every year. Great North AutoGyro handles the upper midwest (sales territory). The sale cycle is one to two years. It's a $100,000 purchase for people. I have 17 people on the waiting list to take lessons right now. Here's what people typically say, 'I really want that, but let me take lessons first.' That's what I did. And that will then lead to a sale," said Schrankler.
In addition to the recreational flyer, Schrankler expects to expand into additional new markets including law enforcement, wildlife management and agriculture.
"We have several police forces around the U.S. that are buying these for law enforcement. The biggest one is outside of Houston. The sheriff's department is using them there so I know that's going to happen. It makes sense," said Schrankler.
Currently it takes three months from order to delivery. The autogyro is delivered to AutoGyro USA in Maryland as a "kit" about 49 percent assembled. Owners are required by law (because of the experimental classification) to participate in the assembly of their aircraft. It takes about nine days for owners working with two professionals to finish assembling an autogyro. In the case of Great North AutoGyro, it would then either be flown or transported to the New Richmond Airport.
"Today, the FAA does not have a certification category for gyro planes. So they all have to be classified as experimental. Although it's 49 percent built in the factory, you have to participate in finishing the assembly, so it is amateur-built. It's a technicality. It means you can't do flight training in it without a special waiver from the FAA. We have applied for that waiver as have all the other dealers," said Schrankler.
Schrankler expects all three AutoGyro models to be certified in the U.S. by spring of 2019. He will no longer need the waiver to conduct flight training at his New Richmond location. He also expects the U.S. to join the rest of the world in allowing Autogyro to sell the autogyro as a regular production aircraft in the new few years removing owners from the assembly process.
"But in the spring, the aircraft you're going to see here will be a certified aircraft," said Schrankler.
Schrankler intends to offer sales, training and maintenance from his New Richmond location. He will be able to train students at the New Richmond Airport once he receives his waiver from the FAA which he expects to happen by the end of this year.
An experienced fixed wing pilot can expect to spend 10-20 hours between instructor and aircraft to acquire the additional rating to fly an autogyro. At $250 per hour that adds up to $2,500 to $5,000 in training expense.
A novice can expect to spend 5-6 months in training flying a few times a week and will be required to pass both
an FAA written exam and practical flight test with an examiner in the air.
When Schrankler was considering where to locate his new business, the New Richmond Airport stood out. Its proximity to the Twin Cities and even Chicago puts him within range of a good population of pilots and a market that can afford an autogyro. And even though the New Richmond Airport is close to the Cities, it does not fall under the purview of the Metro Airport Commission (MAC) which brings with it burdensome requirements for establishing a flight school. The airport also has a long 5,500 foot runway which enables students to practice up to five takeoffs and landings in a single pass accelerating their training time. The Wisconsin location also frees Schrankler of the 1.5 percent sales tax he would have to pay in Minnesota.
Hats off to Mike
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, is the professional attitude and entrepreneurial climate associated with the airport under the administration of Airport Director Mike Demulling.
"Mike, as a manager of an airport, it doesn't get any better. Not only is it safe and professional first and foremost, but it's also entrepreneurial in the right way. The investment opportunities at the airport including EPS provide a financial ecosystem. I'll never have that at another airport. In every sense of the word, phenomenal. This is really special and we want to be a part of growing that," said Schrankler.