"Jikes!" says the editor to the photographer, whose dilated eyes are looking skywards: "I've probably been boasting a little bit there." Above, in the blue sky above the unpronounceable little Hungarian place Fertöszentmiklas, the 29-year-old extreme-sport/adventure pilot Andreas Siebenhofer from is propelling around in his two-seater gyrocopter, giving demonstrations. It is not exactly leisurely, with 60 or 70 things in smooth, clear orbits around the Meidl sport airfield, something you would gladly join to enjoy the sunny autumn view out across the Lake Neusiedel. On the contrary, at around 180 km/h, sometimes only a metre above the turf, they zoom in radical loops, evil-looking ascents and diagonal descents with the broadside at the fore and the vertically spiralling nose pointing downwards, a crash appearing imminent.
The best way is to hide your somewhat pallid nose behind the helmet visor, grit your teeth and get into the cockpit. But you can't really speak of getting "into" this thing: the gyrocopter – or gyroplane as it is also called – is more open than the Olympic doubles at the Winter Games, a go-kart of the air, a bob-sled with an Austrian 115 Horsepower turbo engine by Rotax, which surprisingly does not propel both of the four-metre long rotor blades above the head like a normal helicopter, but instead the giant ventilator behind the co-pilot's back-rest. This "ventilator" sees to the forwards thrust and generates an airstream. The airstream in turn sets both of the front rotor blades, positioned slightly upwards, in motion and the gyrocopter takes off at 30 km/h. According to the pilot, you can practically take off vertically into the air on days with windspeeds of over 30 km/h. Just like a normal helicopter.
So why is it not just a helicopter? What is the purpose of this bemusing system that uses airstreams as thrust? "I can show that best when we are in the air", grins Siebenhofer. My heart misgives me. Finally, Andreas Siebenhofer is that boy, who three years ago made headlines the world over because he landed in the "courtyard" of John Paul II in the Vatican on a motorised paraglider, so that he could personally bring him the signatures of 2000 Gulf War opposers. To him, nothing is too crazy for a good show!
As I board the cockpit, the next seconds of shock set in: the only thing that straps you in to the already very airy seat in this gyrocopter is a standard airliner-belt for passengers. A small comfort: there is clearly more leg room than in economy class!
As the wind is completely still, both rotors will be raised above us with the help of a revving shift mechanism. As soon as the machine is moving, 300 rotations per minute keep us perpendicular without the aid of a motor. Ten seconds later we are in the air. The length of a tennis court would easily have sufficed as runway. In the following gastrointestinal manoeuvres Andi flies so low that I can see our photographers on the ground derisively smiling behind the cameras. You cannot do a loop-the loop with such a machine, but anything else goes – including stopping still at a height of 2000 metres, which is a wonder to most after a few steep curves.
And then the absolute nightmare of every helicopter pilot: our engine cuts out! A helicopter pilot has around half a second to separate the gear axle that is coming to a standstill from the rotors. If not, the machine crashes like a stone. The gyrocopter, however, whose rotors function in a similar way to the winged seeds of the maple trees, which “whirl” from the trees in autumn, descends in a fast but smooth dive. Andi lands the machine as smooth as velvet on the ground and, whilst I still catch my breath, says: "That is what I wanted to show you..."
Gyrocopters are actually not a new invention and were already used without engines in the Second World War as look-outs for surfacing submarines. Currently, thanks to new technology in Germany and the USA, they are going through a boom. They cost as much as a better middleclass car to manufacture and are like a motorbike in terms of maintenance. Up til now there have been just 2 examples in Austria, which according to Andreas Siebenhofer, who is also doing his pilot training one-hour from Vienna, will change very quickly in the next few years. Further information is available on the Internet at www.gyro.at