By Jim Schutze
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Neal made it 15 feet off the ground, about 5 feet higher than the rim of a basketball hoop. He received a special pilot license after a Federal Aviation Administration representative watched him take off and land three times. After he took it home to Tennessee, he flew it high over the hills and valleys of the Cumberland Plateau. In 1978, he built his own gyroplane with the engine of a Porsche and soared 3,000 feet into the air.
By 1985, after Neal had begun his career as a homebuilder in Texas, he had a revelation that defines his life today. His beloved gyroplane, long dismissed by aviation aficionados, could function as a road vehicle. He knew it could be done. He just had to figure out how. Mainly, he had to think of a way to fold the rotor blades and disengage the propeller.
For years afterward, Neal would work with and fly gyroplanes on Saturdays, figuring out how to make them safer and more reliable in the event of pilot error or a sharp, sudden gust of wind. He also traveled across the country, flying this strange-looking aircraft at experimental air shows. Among the devoted, obsessive enclave of small rotorcraft enthusiasts, Neal developed a reputation as a leader.
"In the world of aircraft, gyros have a bad reputation," says Robert Fiveson, a gyro pilot in Virginia. "We're kind of like the bikers of the general aviation world. We're perceived to be outside the norm, we're bad boys and risk takers. Larry is trying to legitimize the sport. So, yes, Larry is respected."
In 2003, with money in the bank and a plan in his head, he flipped his job for his passion for flight. Most people would admit to some trepidation as they dumped a well-paying job for a pesky and dangerous dream, but not Neal. For a man whose work is governed by the rigid parameters of engineering and aerodynamics, it seems odd that his outlook is guided exclusively by a voice in his mind. Then again, maybe the gyroplane, with its unforgiving aerodynamics, is not for those guided by reason alone.
"The spirit of God has shown me I'm going to be building and designing the flying cars of the future," Neal says. "I don't worry about dying. Fear is not a part of my life. Faith is."
More or less, that's how a gyroplane appears as it flies, with or without E.T. in the passenger seat. Gyroplanes, which look a bit like a futuristic soapbox car, are powered by a spinning propeller in the back. As the vehicle gathers speed on the ground, air rushes through the rotor blades, causing them to spin. When the gyroplane hits a certain speed on the ground, which can be anywhere from 25 to 40 mph, the blades start rotating fast enough to lift it into the air. The propeller, meanwhile, provides the thrust to push it forward. The gyroplane is guided like an airplane with a stick and rudder.
Unlike a helicopter, a motor does not spin the gyroplane's rotor blades. Natural air currents do that. As a result, the aircraft lifts into the sky rather slowly and smoothly, like an egret taking flight from a lake. People who fly gyroplanes can barely describe how majestic it feels to take off and float hundreds, if not thousands, of feet into the sky. A joystick can change the tilt of the rotor blade, forward and back and side to side.
"When you get up, you don't feel the speed at all," says Jennifer Gilmore, who works for the Popular Rotorcraft Association in Indiana. "You are just floating with the birds."
The gyroplane itself is a rather odd-looking vehicle. Some appear rather primitive and clumsy; others stylish, sleek and yet still strange. The gyroplanes that Neal makes and sells look, well, incredibly cool. There is no other way to describe them. They're simultaneously anachronistic and futuristic.
In fact, there was a time when gyroplanes seemed on course to be the aircraft of tomorrow. In the '40s, the U.S. Postal Service used gyroplanes to deliver the mail from one post office to another at a handful of cities in the Northeast. Kit manufacturers advertised them in the pages of aviation magazines. But the evolution of the helicopter more or less pushed the gyroplane to the brink of extinction. Not as fast as a plane and unable to hover like a copter, the gyro was, for want of a much better analogy, neither fish nor fowl. In their early days, especially, gyros were dangerous, particularly to those who thought they could build flying machines from a kit in their backyard.