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Born Free - My Life In Gyrocopters

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Chapter 11
Panic Attack

     When I became a flight instructor Docko worried that a student might panic and over-power me on the controls, and cause a double fatal accident. That was always a possibility given the sensitive nature of the gyro and the fact that a panicked person seems to have great strength.

     That very scenario happened with the Parsons two-place gyro trainer. When the instructor and student turned into the wind at altitude, the gyro ballooned up, and the student panicked and pushed the control stick full forward. The instructor was not able to overcome the student's grip on the control stick. The student and instructor were both killed.

     Over the years of my gyro flying, I had three students panic during flight instruction. The first was a young man who had convinced himself that he was a natural born gyro pilot and that he would be able to control the gyro perfectly in no time at all.

     He expected to be Joe Super Pilot from the first moment he took the controls, but he was in for a rude awakening. During his second hour of instruction he made a take off but failed to keep the gyro headed straight down the runway after lift-off. We were about eight feet above the surface and flying diagonally across the three hundred foot wide paved area when he panicked.

     He froze on the stick and throttle and I couldn't budge either one. I had to keep us from gaining more altitude and the only way I could do that was to shut the engine down, which I did. The loud silence woke him up. Letting go of the controls, he yelled, "What? What?" I landed the gyro with no problem.

     After a cup of coffee and some time to settle his frazzled nerves we resumed the student's instruction. This time his approach to learning was more receptive and less macho. The gyro had gotten his attention. Once he got into the learning mode the young man learned to fly the gyro well, but it didn't happen instantly as he had expected.

     Even though he may have a good grasp of gyro flying, it usually takes awhile for the student to be comfortable with the friskiness of the light gyro as another student learned. The student was an airplane pilot/owner. We were doing airwork on the second day of his flight training. He was doing very well and flying unassisted except for when I needed to demonstrate something for him. We were at eight hundred feet altitude and he was flying when we caught a gust that popped us straight up. He didn't reduce power so I pulled the throttle back to idle and still we went up.

     The sudden ascent was too much for the student and he panicked. He yelled, "JJEESSSUSS CCHRRIISSSTT!" and let go of the stick and throttle and grabbed the seat frame with both hands. Thanking my lucky stars that he hadn't shoved the stick forward, I took over and brought the gyro down for a landing.

     I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for the student, with an instructor beside him, to safely learn about the natural response of the gyro to gusts and thermals and what the pilot should do to control the gyro. Unfortunately, the student was too panicked to appreciate the educational value of the moment. For both of us, it was most fortunate that in his panicked state he grabbed the seat frame instead of pushing the control stick forward. That happened with a student several years later.

     Of the three students who panicked during my years of instructing, by far the worst case was the fifty-something-year-old gentleman who pushed the stick full forward and locked on it when we were 30 feet above the surface. I thought that for sure we were going to buy the farm.

     His flight training had been interrupted by rain. He had accumulated 19 hours of instruction by then and although he was doing well generally in other areas of flying, he was still having difficulty in maintaining good control on take off. I felt he wasn't near ready for solo, because the pilot must have positive control of the machine when it leaves the runway, and he didn't. So when his instruction was interrupted by rain, he said, "I will call you for an appointment to resume training when the weather clears."

     I didn't see or hear from him for one year. The day when be did show up and ask to resume flight training he had his gyro and had been taxiing on the dry lake. I suspect he had scared himself that day by trying to fly and found that he wasn't ready and that's why he wanted more instruction. I learned later that he had been observed that morning, standing on the seat of his gyro attempting to hand start the rotor blades with the gyro engine running. Not a smart thing to do!

     A few days later we resumed his flight training. He did fairly well considering it had been a year since his initial instruction, but he did seem to be a bit spacey, and I had to repeat instructions a number of times. His attention seemed to be elsewhere. I was convinced he had scared himself on his own gyro a few days before and that was the reason for his lack of concentration that morning. I thought to myself, "he just isn't with the program and there is no use doing more flying today." I decided that the next flight would be our last one for the day. How prophetic that thought, considering that just seconds later the student panicked and shoved the control stick full forward!

     I had directed him to take off and fly across the lakebed at an altitude of 30 feet above the surface. I told him that when we reached the edge of the lakebed where the sagebrush began, that I would take over and fly the gyro in for the landing on the dirt strip where we were based.

     The air was usually bumpy over the sagebrush and also there was a power line across the middle of the dirt strip where we would land. With his lack of concentration, I didn't trust him to handle either the bumpy air or the wire across the strip. He made a take off, his best one all morning. As he lifted off we caught a small gust that lifted the gyro gently up to 30 feet. He didn't react to the gust and he maintained the desired altitude nicely as we flew across the four miles or so of lakebed. I was riding with my hands and feet lightly on the controls just in case.

     The flight was going along nice and smooth as we approached the edge of the lakebed when he suddenly jammed the control stick full forward and locked on it. I tried with all my might, but I couldn't budge my control stick because of the force with which the student was gripping his stick. I yelled, "Let go! Let go!" He held on. I jabbed him with my elbow several times; still, he held the stick forward in an extremely tight grip. He had not locked on the throttle, so I pulled it back to full idle. Meanwhile, the ground was coming up fast! I was still yelling at him to let go and he was still holding the stick forward and totally oblivious to everything.

     When the nose wheel was no more than a foot off the ground, the situation finally registered with him. He yelled, "OH NO!" He let go of the control stick and threw up his hands. I hauled the control stick back and rammed the throttle wide open, hoping to keep the nose wheel from digging in. Miracle of miracles, the nose wheel didn't touch, but the mains did. Hard.

     We bounced 10 feet back into the air. I couldn't believe that the prop hadn't contacted the keel, that things weren't banging and clanging and falling off the machine. But, second miracle of the day, the gyro was intact and flying. Because of the hard contact with the ground and possible damage to the gyro, I landed immediately. Turning to the student, I said, "That's the kind of thing that gets people killed." "Well, I can see why," he answered. Then I asked him, "Why did you do that?" With a look of complete astonishment on his face he asked, "me? What did I do?"

     He had absolutely no recollection of panicking, pushing the control stick forward and very nearly causing a fatal accident.

     He had blacked out completely and the last few minutes were a complete blank to him. After some quiet reflection on the situation, he decided it was in his best interest not to continue with gyro flying. He indicated that he would never be sure that the same thing wouldn't happen again. I'm sure his decision to give up the gyro made his wife happy because she didn't want him involved with gyros. She had said, "I hope he flies the thing once and then gives it up."

     As for me, I am convinced that he had experienced a severe fright the day he taxied his gyro on the dry lake. Then, I believe the small gust we encountered on the last take off triggered his deep-seated fright, resulting a panic so severe he simply blacked out.


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