My Flying Adventures – Bart O’Brien
Like many people, I had always dreamed of flying. My Dad was a pilot when I was young, but never took me up in an airplane. I only heard about it – suspect my Mother talked him into quitting.
After I graduated from Carnegie Mellon business school with an MBA and returned to Florida to start working in my high technology career, I became friends with Mark Robinson, a very adventurous guy who was a champion windsurfer and ultralight pilot. With his help, I purchased a used American Aerolight Eagle for $2,500. I put pontoons on it and planned to fly it around the beaches of St. Petersburg, FL, where I grew up.
My flying lesson consisted of having Mark tow the plane behind a ski boat so I could learn how to lift off the water. This didn’t work very well, so for my second lesson, I simply started the engine and took off. Under the FAA ultralight rules, you didn’t need a pilot’s license or training so, it didn’t seem that hard.
Surprisingly, even though this little plane only had a 35 hp engine, it climbed at 850 ft/min. Which meant in 20 seconds I was 300 feet above the water, which is when I realized that I did not have a good idea of how to land. Not good.
I started to back off the throttle to stop climbing at 850 ft/min, but this type of plane has a long lag time between the throttle input and when the plane starts to react – probably 2 seconds. So while waiting for the plane to react, I kept backing off the throttle further, until suddenly I was in a dive towards the water. I faced the difficult choice of either trying to continue diving towards the water and figuring out how to recover from the dive and land it, without much altitude, or give it full throttle in the hopes I would pull out of the dive before I hit the water at full speed. I opted for the latter and fortunately pulled out of the dive and started climbing at 850 ft/min again. Of course, I repeated this a few times – this is called Pilot Induced Oscillations and is one of the ways pilots die. I finally was able to land back on the water after about 5 minutes of a truly frightening flight.
Very aware that I just had a near-death experience, I was shaking with fear. My right leg was literally oscillating up and down. But I had the thought that if I did not fly it again immediately, that I would never fly it again, and that my self-image demanded that I fly it again, even if it killed me. So I started the engine and took off again, this time getting up to about 1500 feet in controlled flight. Just as I started feeling comfortable flying, the engine quit. So I glided back down to the water and thanked God I had survived.
I transferred to Paradyne’s San Francisco sales office, and decided to bring my 1973 Eldorado Convertible, my ultralight aircraft, but sell my beloved 1954 Jaguar XK-120M roadster because garage space was in short supply in SF. I flew the ultralight in CA near San Pablo in the East Bay, where I would hang out with a lunatic bunch of guys flying extremely dangerous and unstable flying machines. Finally, one day I got a call that my ultralight had gotten wrecked in a windstorm because I had not tied it down properly. I was not sad. As I later stated, I knew that flying that ultralight was stupid, but I wasn’t smart enough to stop. That storm may have saved my life, as it was later reported that the company went out of business because of repeated wing failures that killed several pilots.
I decided that the next time I flew, that I would wait until I had the time and money to do it properly. As it turns out, I was 60 years old when that happened. In the meantime, I had plenty of time to study the different ways you could fly, and understood the difference between fixed wing conventional aircraft, helicopters, and the little known gyroplanes (gyrocopters).
My goal in flying was not transportation, but the thrill of flight itself. I was interested in “low and slow” flying where you had the time to look around and explore, sometimes at very low altitudes such as 20 ft off the ground. My first gyroplane was a Monarch Butterfly single place gyroplane with a 65 hp Rotax engine. I had spoken with the founder of the company a couple times, and was planning to buy a kit from him and assemble it myself (under FAA rules, you couldn’t buy them pre-assembled – go figure).
I was lucky enough to find one fully assembled, but only test flown, for the price of the kit alone. The owner had assembled it, but it scared him too much to fly it, so he sold it to me for $17,500. I found a wonderful flight instructor, Dr. George Woods, an anesthesiologist, sky diver, helicopter instructor, and gyroplane instructor. I spent about $2,500 on lessons, and for a total investment of $20,000, I was flying in the air.
I thought this was amazing. For the price of a used car, I could fly up and down Napa Valley, out to the Sonoma Coast, and even across the Golden Gate Bridge. Wow!
After 2 years, I then wanted to upgrade to a larger machine that had more range and stability. Several companies, mostly European, make 2 seater machines with more powerful engines and 200+ mile range.
I settled on the leading brand, AutoGyro, which were made in Germany. There were only about 150 or so in the US, but most of them had bodies and windshields on them. However, AutoGyro made a special model called the MTO Free, which had no body or windshield. I hunted one down and contacted Chris Lord, who was the COO of the company and had the one I was looking for in his hangar in Illinois.
I traveled to Illinois, met Chris, both took my final flying exam and my test flight in the MTO Free, which was a demonstrator, and immediately bought it. A few repairs were needed to be made, and Chris promised to have it delivered to me in about a month.
Very sadly, Chris was killed 2 weeks later when the new gyroplane he was flying on a demonstration flight lost a flight control bolt and Chris and his passenger died in a fiery crash.
This wonderful machine has added enormous joy to my life. I have flown it at 14,500 feet over Mammoth Mountain, over Halfdome in Yosemite, and over the Golden Gate Bridge numerous times. About once a week I take to the skies for adventure and fun. I record my flights with a GoPro 9 camera mounted on the mast below the blades, and capture the beauty of what I see.
I now have a custom made trailer that allows me to take the gyroplane on vacation trips such as the one Barb and I took to Utah. Flying around Moab and Canyonlands was an experience!
I plan to go to Europe and get a European license this summer hopefully, or next.
Enjoy the videos. Most of them are unedited, full flight videos, so you can get a sense of what it is like to fly a gyroplane. You can speed them up if you like.
Let me know if you ever want to go flying with me.