If you haven’t flown in an open-cockpit aircraft it’s hard to fully convey the sensation. Depending on whether you’re flying a Waco or an ultralight, there are also large variations in the experience and the various sensations, the wind, and the noise.
The Autogyro MTOSport I’ve been flying for training fits somewhere between the classic biplane and the weed hopper. There’s a fuselage that’s almost high enough to rest your arms on, and a full windscreen to keep the bugs out of your teeth—although a few have managed to meet their untimely end on my forehead.
While the feeling of flying in open air is exhilarating, it can also be very unsettling. I think this is part of where feelings of gyro or ultralight pilots being crazy originate. Because it’s open-air it must be nuts, so the thinking goes. Yet most of the naysayers leave out the important bit about it being personally unsettling, and instead project those feelings by making larger blanket statements about the safety of the machine.
I understand the fear. Even though I found the open cockpit exhilarating, I also found it really unsettling. Like most things, I thought exposure would eliminate any fear I had been experiencing. Now, after 20 hours of flying, I can say with disappointment that it’s not completely gone. I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the feeling and I’ve come to a few conclusions.
- It’s illogical. By a certain age all kids know there aren’t any monsters in the closet, yet they continue to run into their parents’ room at the first hint of a noise. I know the gyro has been extensively tested, is well built, and is exceptionally well maintained, and I have full faith in the instructor. But that’s fear, isn’t it? You can take steps to manage the feelings, but you can’t force yourself not to feel it in the first place. I don’t choose to feel apprehensive or choose not to. But I do know that it’s just a feeling and not based on the realities of my safety.
- It’s worse when I’m tired. Or hungry. Or thirsty. My schedule has been to train twice a day. I fly an hour, debrief, and then fly again. The first few times I didn’t do anything between lessons but sit and debrief. Now I drink a lot of water, have a healthy snack, try and stay cool, and rest a bit. I noticed the first time after doing this new routine that I felt immensely more comfortable on the second flight. This is the first time I’ve noticed any real performance changes related to thirst or hunger while flying any sort of aircraft, and I think it has implications for all pilots as they go through training. Making sure you’re not hungry or dehydrated can make a significant difference on everything from fear to your ability to focus.
- Birds trigger it. I know that all flying involves risk of bird strikes, but it hasn’t ever particularly worried me. That was until I had to turn base around a column of 30 buzzards thermaling just off my right side. Birds have a much harder time seeing and avoiding rotor wing aircraft, and the small cockpit of the gyro makes it worse. Take away the cockpit enclosure and you’re left feeling very exposed. Being uneasy with heights, flying close to birds also gives a reference point that somehow triggers a more visceral sense of being 1,000 feet above the ground. A few things have helped with the birds. One is better learning their behavior. They tend to dive when spooked, so it’s safer to fly above them. And I’ve learned which birds are more maneuverable. Also, someone on a gyro Facebook page posted a video with a near miss and more than a dozen commenters said they had experienced a bird strike with little or no impact on the aircraft. Now I know so long as one doesn’t hit me square in the face, I’ll be fine.
- The right equipment helps. When learning to fly helicopters the instructor made it very clear that if we lost anything out the open door it was going to be a bad day. A chart, a pair of sunglasses, or a headset could be the end of the tail rotor, which would be a truly bad day. I’ve realized that with a spinning prop behind us, I have the same feelings about the gyro. Anything I drop has the potential to go through the prop, which means anything from bad vibrations to instant power loss. Knowing this I no longer wear a baseball hat, have researched helmets for communications in order to take away the potential loss of my headset, am very tentative to mess with anything like papers or cords in the cockpit, and even feel some apprehension with my clothes. I realized this one day after borrowing the instructor’s leather jacket. Having a material that stayed tight to my arm and took away the flapping was less fatiguing and less distracting, and also made me feel more secure (see illogical above). What you begin to realize is that the aviation pioneers not only looked great, they were practical. A leather jacket provided warmth and protection from the elements, and didn’t flap around. Similarly, a leather helmet kept wind noise down, and later, kept their headset on. I’ve read the scarf was to wipe off oil, but I can say from personal experience that below about 70 degrees on the ground, you’ll be glad to have it for warmth.
- It’s a good thing. Having a little trepidation, a small amount of fear, or that queasy feeling in your stomach isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re flying. I’ve found that I tend to get it more when I’m flying unfamiliar aircraft, going into unfamiliar places, or doing something I haven’t done in a while. Hard instrument flying, for example. I used to launch into IFR conditions without a second thought, but after not doing it for a few months I now get that uneasy feeling when entering an overcast soon after takeoff. I know I’m current and believe I’m proficient, but simply being a little less sharp than I’ve been in the past has made me realize that I’m a bit uneasy. I now take it as a sign that I need to be more alert, more responsible with my decisions, and more cautious about my approach. In other words, I use it as a positive.
Hopefully someday I’ll be able to hop in and launch off into the clear blue without any fear of hitting a bird, dropping something that finds its way to the prop, or God forbid, have a life-threatening emergency. But until then, I’ll make sure I’m well rested, have a snack and some water, put on my flying shirt, and have fun, despite the feelings.