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Gyrocopter enthusiasts share their passion in Mankato

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Denis Schoemaker's gyrocopter
Guests check out a gyrocopter built by Denis Schoemaker, center, during an open house at the Mankato Regional Airport in Mankato, Minn.
Pat Christman | AP

They look like mini helicopters but gyrocopters have some key differences.

"The engine pushes it forward and the rotor is driven by the wind, there's no motor on it," said Tom Patterson, of MN Gyronauts.

"They're a simple machine. Easy to fly."

John Louis summed up the machines by saying, "They're flying chairs."

Gyrocopter enthusiasts were on hand at the Mankato Airport on a recent Saturday to share their passion with the public, The Free Press of Mankato reported.

Denis Schoemaker grew up and still lives next to the Mankato Airport and was fascinated with flight as a kid, watching the planes take off and land. Later in life he almost finished his pilot license training but decided it was too expensive to pursue. Then he found out about gyroplanes a few years ago and has been hooked ever since.

"I'd never want to fly a fixed wing plane now. It'd be boring, like riding in a minivan. This is like riding a jet ski."

Denis Schoemaker flying
Denis Schoemaker flies his gyrocopter during an open house at Mankato Regional Airport in Mankato, Minn.
Pat Christman | AP

Patterson, too, has always been fascinated with flying, but he said flying planes is expensive and he couldn't get a license anyway because of a health issue. The smallest gyros don't require a license to fly, but a sports pilot license — something Patterson is working toward — is needed if you want to carry a passenger.

After retiring as the New Ulm Public Works superintendent Patterson built and began flying his two gyroplanes.

"There are no factory-made gyroplanes in the U.S., you have to build them. There are plans on the Internet and you can build it and there are several kit makers where you can buy and build them." He said the costs can range from around $15,000 to as much as $100,000.

The three men share a hangar at the airport to store their five machines.

Supporters of gyros — called gyroplanes, gyrocopters or rotaplanes — say they cannot stall or spin out and are thus inherently safer than fixed-wing ultra-lights.

Gyrocopter landing
Denis Schoemaker brings his gyrocopter in for a landing at the Mankato Regional Airport in Mankato, Minn.
Pat Christman | AP

The three men said the fact the rotors keep automatically spinning if there's engine or some other failure means they can still be landed safely.

Patterson and Schoemaker have had experience in doing just that.

"I've had numerous unexpected landings, but never had any problem. You land smooth," Schoemaker said.

In fact, he learned about unexpected landings on his first solo flight. "I was up and the engine started sputtering. I went around to find a good place to land and I was right over my place and landed on my driveway and pulled it into the shop," said Schoemaker, who owns Prairie Automation, located next to the airport.

Patterson last spring was flying his two-seater when the crank shaft broke and he lost thrust. Last month in his single-seater he lost power. Both times he landed, smoothly he said, in corn fields.

"You put the nose down to keep flying fast enough then when you land you pull up. It comes down with a soft landing, no problem. It's very forgiving," Patterson said.

They said they try to avoid larger groves and fly in more open areas where a quick landing spot is easier to find if needed

An AP Exchange feature by Tim Krohn, The Free Press of Mankato