by Gavin Richardson
As most of you would understand, your first solo is a big deal. The emotions, nerves, confidence and premature elation is consuming and fatiguing in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the event.
On the day of my first solo, the weather was perfect, the traffic was quiet, and it all seemed to be ‘falling’ into place as if it was meant to be (no pun intended).
I had 17 hours dual time under my belt and had been flying well with my instructor—’like a demon’ he had said. I had bought a second-hand gyro four months prior and I could smell the end of my training. The dream of flying my own machine whenever I wanted to was so close I could nearly touch it. Here lies the first problem—I was getting impatient. I was constantly looking at my gyro itching to fly it, and getting itchier!
I had a good night’s sleep and hit the airfield at 0800, with the plan for my instructor to fly it first, followed by some ground runs and then the solo. As mentioned earlier, the weather and traffic were favourable—it was going to happen today! With the pre-flight done, my instructor performed a few ground runs and a few circuits. It was so exciting to see my machine in the air doing circuits, being put to the test of its capabilities, with sharp turns and graceful landings. Upon completion of his check flight, he advised that the gyro wanted to move a bit right when the nose wheel was off the ground, and I would need a bit more left rudder than what I was used to in his machine. He also said it was a bit ‘twitchier’ than his. Advice that I took on board—or so I thought.
The question was asked that morning whether I wanted to do some dual time first before I went solo, but I decided to just go straight for mine, with the rationale that I didn’t want to be distracted by the differences between the two machines. Here is the second problem—I should have got my head back in the zone of how to actually fly a gyrocopter—something which I later completely forgot.
As I climbed in the seat my confidence was high. I began to taxi and started to spin the blades up and with a different pre-rotator setup, I didn’t expect the whole machine to lurch left as the blades started up. It required a pulse on pulse off as opposed to leaving them on until they reached 100 revolutions per minute (RPM). Whilst taxiing I noticed severe stick shake which I remember discussing in my training as ‘blade flap’. I had obviously never experienced this before as my instructor knew how to avoid it. I corrected it and felt both proud that I fixed the problem, but slightly nervous that it had occurred.
I persisted with a few ground runs, getting it light in the front and anticipating the right jump so to get use to steering it with more left rudder, all while trying to get the blades to the right speed. Here was the third problem—no rotor RPM gauge. My instructor’s machine had a rotor speed gauge and I was used to this luxury and knew when I was at flying RPM. My machine did not have such a gauge, so I was trying to learn the speed of the rotors by listening and watching. I had bought a rev tacho and it was sitting in the hangar, not on my machine. I should have installed it. The blades were yet another new sensory input that I needed to learn, process and act on, together with the twitchiness and wanting to jump right and pulsing the pre-rotator. The rotor gauge would have been one less problem. It cost me sixteen dollars.
After several ground runs, I felt I was getting this thing pretty straight, and after a brief chat with my instructor, I advised I was going for it. He supervised from the middle of the runway with his hand-held radio. My radio comms were poor as we had found a problem earlier with the design of the aerial. But that only made my transmissions a bit scratchy. I could still receive OK.
I pre-rotated and started rolling but soon developed blade flap again which I managed to recover from—a combination of too much ground speed with the rotors not spinning fast enough. Could that have been fixed by the rotor speed gauge? Yes.
My next decision was the biggest mistake I made. I had recovered from the blade flap and sat looking down the rest of runway 34 thinking, ‘I have enough runway left to start from here’. I should have back tracked. My instructor thought I was going to as well, but I didn’t. That, on top of all the completely new sensory inputs I was experiencing, was creating a Swiss cheese effect.
I started again, got it light and eventually I was off—but it kicked hard to the right. I gave it lots of left pedal, but it didn’t behave like I wanted it to. It still didn’t come around, so I tried to use the stick, which only made things worse. I was still climbing slowly—barely—and I was flying all over the place out of control. Before I knew it, I was at the end of the runway and looking at landing on the Illawarra Highway with four lanes of traffic at a height of possibly 50 feet. I was allegedly also cycling the throttle, panicking. Mistake number four—I didn’t give it full power. I made the decision to put it down before I left the perimeter of the airport. To avoid crashing into vehicles I pulled the stick back and became a boat anchor. Mistake number five—at no point did I look at the engine RPM or indicated air speed (IAS). In my gyro, all the gauges were in a different spot to what I was used to.
Landing on all three wheels on the bitumen (narrowly missing the grass unfortunately) I felt my back break on impact. The gyro then rolled over onto its right side and with the rotors and prop still turning, beat itself to death, self-destructing into the tarmac. I undid my seatbelt and could smell fuel, so I quickly turned the ignition off. I removed my helmet and despite my backpain, could not help but put my hands on my head and say sorry. Sorry to my instructor and the gyro fraternity for now contributing to yet another image-damaging incident that I have spent so long defending. It wasn’t the fact that I was injured, or my machine was dead, I could only think about negative publicity.
I was soon met by three fellas who witnessed it from the hangar. The first one consoled me as I cried in his arms. Men aren’t supposed to cry. I did. He reassured me that he had also had an incident, which helped me slightly in that time of embarrassment, devastation, disbelief. It’s interesting to note the things that people say in these times and how well we remember words despite all that’s going on. That man said other kind things that I remember. However, another person said, ‘You should have died and had your head crushed’—not so helpful.
Soon after, the cavalry arrived. Four varieties of police and detectives’ cars, two fire appliances and an ambulance (with colleagues of mine)—all of who were helpful, non-judgemental and just as relieved as I was to be walking.
The result was four fractured vertebrae, thankfully all stable. I was alive and walking.
We are not experts in what we say in traumatic times. Those who witness traumatic events are also human and also suffer the effects of adrenaline and disbelief, and they are often untrained in their response. Witnesses may not escape the effects of the traumatic event. It is just as important for the witnesses to ensure follow-up medical and mental health assessment as they too may bear scars in the future.
After much processing, I recall all of my mistakes quite clearly and for days would spontaneously shake my head as the flashbacks kept coming of those critical moments. Hindsight revealed there were too many new sensory inputs to process and too many differences between the two machines for an inexperienced pilot, which were compounded by my inexperience in decision making. I returned to the airport holding my wife’s hand on day six post event and was coincidentally met by my instructor with a fellow student flying above me. I walked the runway to retrace my steps, looked at my pile of uninsured twisted metal, had another cry then closed that chapter. I will now focus on a new chapter—getting back in the air.
I learnt multiple lessons that day of the crash and in the following days, not just about aviation and gyrocopters, but about life—valuable life lessons about relationships, priorities, values and myself. I am grateful for the incident and as a religious man, I have given thanks for it. My wife is encouraging me to complete my training and getting another machine, but not just yet. I have a new appreciation for flying. It even rekindled my love for my job as a paramedic—simply by being a patient for once. Race car drivers crash cars, horse riders fall off horses and student pilots have close calls. We all make mistakes, and we need to show others, especially our kids, that we aren’t quitters.