By Jim Schutze
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Today, a small, likable community of hobby fliers avidly chat about gyros on Internet message boards as if they never fell out of fashion. But the craft serves no practical purpose, and in the wrong hands, it can still be a deathtrap. Neal lost a friend in a crash, and he survived a close call some time ago. He'd rather not talk about that, though.
For the better part of the last decade, Neal has tried to address the hazards of flying a gyroplane. Even before he introduced his Super Sky Cycle, the Tennessee native worked to make the aircraft more stable and, thus, safer. He played around with the geometry of the aircraft so that the thrust line of the propeller is a tad below the center of gravity. In theory, that makes the craft less likely to dip or flip off course in the event of a sudden gust of wind. On his gyroplanes, Neal also has a horizontal stabilizer, sort of a fixed wing on the rear designed to steady the aircraft in case the nose pitches up or down.
There is a long-standing debate on whether these types of innovations really make gyroplanes safer. Some fliers will tell you that in the event of sudden turbulence, when a gyroplane, without the weight or stability of a fixed-wing aircraft, is most at risk, the best preventive measure is an experienced pilot. But even if this matter remains unresolved, Neal has etched a name for himself by trying to modernize the antiquated aircraft. One impressive thing he's done is just make them easier to land. Footage on Neal's Web site (thebutterflyllc.com) shows how his gyroplanes can drop on a dime as softly as a Ping-Pong ball falling on a pillow.
"He's made significant contributions to the safety of the gyroplane," says Rusty Nance, president of the Popular Rotorcraft Association. "He was one of the key players in changing the attitudes of gyroplanes by improving design, making them more forgiving...and making it an easier craft to fly."
Not everyone is willing to embrace the newer versions of this old aircraft as any safer than its predecessors. When it comes to the gyroplane, its reputation alone can keep it from becoming widely popular.
"You really have to have your act together to fly these things," says John Cotter, the interim chair of the Department of Aviation Technologies at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "They are very touchy, and they have very little inherent stability. It's very easy to get in trouble in a gyroplane."
"I was talking to God just like I'm talking to you now," he says.
Caught, by its very nature, between heaven and earth, an aircraft has to balance two competing elements: It has to be strong as possible and as light as possible. Different aircraft focus on one element at the expense of another. A gyroplane works solely because of its weight. A tiny propeller and a pair of rotor blades couldn't exactly lift a passenger plane.
So when Neal adds weight to a gyroplane by giving it the elements of a motorcycle—wheels, handlebars, brakes and aluminum beams—he's upsetting the very essence of its already troubled existence. Neal's Super Sky Cycle, at 600 pounds, is around 150 pounds heavier than a normal gyroplane. It has a far more powerful engine, which certainly helps. But Neal has also done everything he can to make his aircraft as aerodynamic as possible.
On all three motorcycle wheels, he has a finned fiberglass wheel pant that serves as a fender and looks like a giant teardrop. This helps the wheel cut through the air, and while on the ground, the wheel pant prevents the tire from kicking up dirt on the driver. Just about everything else on Neal's bike is aerodynamic, including the sleek rearview mirrors that dip off the handlebars, and the nose of the craft, which is as sharp as a plane. For style and function, he also has '50s-style taillights that can slice through the air in flight and look rather sublime on the road. Finally, Neal employs lighter scooter tires, instead of motorcycle ones.
The beams on the Sky Cycle are made of aircraft aluminum, which is both strong and light. So are the bolts, which bend but don't break.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to driving a rotorcraft on the road is what to do with the back propeller. You can't exactly have a vehicle on the street with an unprotected propeller in the rear, spinning dust and debris on other drivers. But Neal gets around this by using a variable speed transmission that turns the propeller on and off while driving the back tires. This isn't necessarily rocket science, but it's closer than you might think.