From the reader submission files I bring to you this front page article about George Green and his homemade “Gyrocopter” from the Oct. 22, 1965, Journal Gazette. And to writer Allan Keith, while I appreciate the tip, you only get paid once.
As long as there have been small towns there will also be small garages. And inside those small garages are dudes who need to retreat from the pressures of the modern world and into a private space with a workbench, a beat up radio, and a cooler of Mug Root Beer, all for the purpose of building something that everyone’s going to think they’re crazy for working on. Sometimes you didn’t even need a shed: Growing up in Cooks Mills, me and my buddy Russ, who lived on the other side of the Kaskaskia, would run around his yard with plastic machine guns as young boys did back then, usually ending up on the outer boundaries of the property staring at the primered hulk of his dad’s Ford Ranchero forever parked underneath a small tree as if it were a lost monument from another time. Did it ever go anywhere? Heck if I know, but he was always going to work on it again…someday, once he got the time.
And that’s how it goes with such things; we order parts, buy blueprints, and even shake up a can of WD-40 but the results are usually a half-built skeleton frame that quickly has a paint-spattered drop cloth thrown over it because we realized there was some part we needed but didn’t have and couldn’t track down because ebay wasn’t a thing yet. Which makes Green’s accomplishment all the more impressive when you think about it, especially back during a time when, if you needed a specialty part like, say, freaking gyrocopter blades, you actually had to consider making them yourself unless you wanted to order them out of some arcane leather-bound grimoire of scrap parts.
Having grown up in the ‘80s, I can tell you what a renaissance it was for helicopters. Seems like every time you went to the movies or turned on the T.V. there was a whirlybird disgorging hi-powered ammunition out rotating Gatling gun barrels. I’m sure we all remember the “classics” of the genre, right? Roy Scheider as the LAPD helicopter pilot on the run in a stolen prototype super-copter in 1983’s “Blue Thunder”; or Jan Michael Vincent as (ahem) “Stringfellow Hawke” in the TV series “Airwolf,” a show which had a kicking opening theme, but sadly never lived up to the promise of its cool logo.
I don’t know how it ever came to pass but I went through a phase where I was obsessed with reading about helicopter accidents. Morbid as it may sound, and it does, I think it was because it highlighted the obvious: Helicopters are incredibly dangerous machines. I’ve always heard that, the way the physics of flight operates, planes tend to “want” to stay in the air. Fair enough, but when a helicopter blows its rotor, folks, not only do you have the fall to look forward to, but you’re probably also going to get cut. And don’t get me started on what happens if one of the landing struts fails and the whole thing tips over while you’re getting on board, like what happened to film director Michael Findlay in 1977, an incident I was floored to find made the front page of the Journal Gazette when it happened, even though no mention was made of Findlay being the director of such films as “Snuff” (“filmed in South America”) or “Shriek of the Mutilated.”
What’s what you say -- you physics experts out there? Gyrocopters don’t work like that? Well I’ll be…looks like it pays to actually read the article. Turns out gyrocopters don’t have a motor for the blades, which are kept spinning by the movement of the air up through them, as opposed to a helicopter where the powered blades push air downwards.
The article mentions that Green had already taken his version of “Little Nellie” on several “towed” flights by that point, which again, I had to look up because I didn’t understand if it was possible for a gyrocopter to take off on its own. And if any of you experts out there, like the helpful folk who fact checked my M*A*S*H* column, feel like filling me in: please don’t. I’m cool.
My favorite part is where Green mentions that “chances are slight” that a gyrocopter could crash, because, assuming I understand this right, since the blades aren’t powered it would just float downward if the engine conked out. Still, that’s a whole lot of faith to put in gravity, a force which has a tendency to always win. Friends, I’m not particularly scared of flying but I have been in a two-seater prop-plane once in my life and so frightened was I when I realized that (a) I was steering it without knowing it, and that (b), we were being held aloft over the dense forest by what was essentially a lawn mower engine, that after we landed and the pilot shook my hand on the runway, he promptly exclaimed, “Your hands are soaking wet!” in front of my friends, thus ruining my cool “Top Gun” moment.
Assuming that my archival research is correct, George Green passed away in 1993 at the age of 70. According to the obituary I found, he was a World War II veteran, was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart and helped establish a local Civil Air Patrol. No mention is made of the gyrocopter. Personally, I’d like to imagine that at this very moment it’s under a drop cloth somewhere, ready to go the minute a brave grandson or granddaughter gets the notion to take it up again…someday, once they get the time. So if you’re out and about and you hear a buzz followed by the shadow of a strange contraption in the air, friend, you just got a flyby from “Green Thunder.”