By Matt Hardigee, Jalopnik
TOMBALL, Texas — The last thing you want to hear before you climb into an open aircraft with no doors is how cheap it is to fly, but that’s the first thing the police chief tells me before strapping me into the back seat of America’s first police gyroplane.
Conceptually, a gyroplane (or autogyro) is an old idea. Get the motor spinning and use a rear-mounted propeller to gain speed. As you travel forward an angled, unpowered overhead rotor utilizes the air pushed into the blades to create lift.
Tomball is hardly alone in looking for less expensive alternatives to helicopters. The Tulare County (California) sheriff’s department recently added a light sport aircraft to its fleet because the airplane offers much of the same utility of a chopper without the cost.
A gyroplane is not quite so cool as Airwolf, but still a novelty in Tomball. As the chief shows me around the hangar, a FedEx truck pulls up. The driver is shocked to see the silver Auto-Gyro MTO Sport aircraft with a TPD badge on it.
“I remember when we just had three squad cars,” he says.
The MTOsport needs roughly the length of a football field to take off, climbs at 13 feet per second and can hit 115 mph. It’ll hover at a relatively low speed, allowing it to mimic a helicopter circling an area under observation.
I’m strapped into the back seat. A German training pilot by the name of Guido (pronounced ghee-dough) is up front. My gear consists entirely of a harness and a helmet, as if I’m climbing into a spec Mazda Miata racer.
We head for the runway. I hear Guido asking the tower for permission to take off. I’m comfortable enough to ask a few questions. I start by asking how fast the rotor, which is connected to the engine just long enough to get it spinning, must spin to achieve liftoff.
I barely finish my question and we’re climbing. It’s just that fast. You’re on the ground and then, suddenly, you’re in the air. The answer to my question is 80 to 120 RPM if you’re curious.
The area around the airport comes into view. We’d easily spot anyone trying to flee the police. For the moment, though, I see only cattle and the occasional car. As we climb higher, Guido angles the nose up and hits the Rotax engine behind us, allowing us to sort of hover.
Guido says something about how the unpowered rotor makes the aircraft safer than a helicopter because you’re already in auto-rotation. In a helicopter, the pilot has to nose the craft down and hope autorotation starts before the chopper hits the ground. If we lost power now we’d simply glide down.
I’m trying not to think about crashing. I’m trying to enjoy the view. We’ve only been airborne a few minutes, but it feels amazing. It feels more like flying than any other small plane or helicopter I’ve been in.
We make another pass around the airport before Guido, without much preparation or warning, makes a diving charge for the ground. One moment we’re in the air; the next, we’re on the runway.
I’ve gone much faster in car, of course, but the open cockpit and lack of doors — coupled with a lack of reference points other than the ground — makes the TPD gyroplane feel much faster than it is. It’s like a roller coaster without the tracks.
The big advantage is, of course, cost. A modern police helicopter ready for service can run anywhere from $1.5 million to $4 million. They’re also expensive to operate, averaging around $1,000 per hour with a two-pilot crew.
The Auto-Gyro MTOsport loaded up with radios and painted costs about $75,000 and about $50 an hour to operate, due in part to the fact that it burns regular pump gas. That’s roughly the cost of buying and operating two top-of-the-line squad cars.
A gyroplane has its limits, however. It’s best flown during the day, it doesn’t carry thermal imaging FLIR cameras or big spotlights, and it’s no fun in foul weather.
But Tomball can’t justify the cost of a helicopter program, so it has to rely upon Houston or Harris County when it needs one. Coordinating the flight and lining everything up can take an hour or more, if a chopper is available at all. But an officer on standby can have the MTOsport airborne in about 10 minutes, including the pre-flight check. That can make a big difference in a metropolitan county with about 4.1 million people.
“By putting a trained pilot and a trained tactical flight officer in this aircraft up over the city of Tomball and the surrounding area, we’re able to essentially deploy the equivalent of 20 police officers,” Haulk says.
The autogyro is a pilot program, if you’ll pardon the pun. The goal is to rack up 300 hours of service to determine the cost, benefits and best practices of using such aircraft to augment police department resources.
Photos: Matt Hardigree and Adrian Melendez/Jalopnik