in General Aviation / Features

The small aircraft paying big dividends

Posted 4 May 2020 · Add Comment

Gyrocopters – also known as autogyros – have become a notable fixture of the African aviation panorama. Erwan de Cherisey reports.

Cheap and sturdy, gyrocopters offer much greater flexibility than fixed-wing ultralights and provide several features found in helicopters at a fraction of their cost.
These include short take-off and landing distances and an ability to climb, almost vertically, once in flight.
These strongpoints make the gyrocopter an attractive proposition, not just for recreational flying, but also to fulfil a growing number of commercial and public service duties.
It is little wonder that the number of these platforms in service has steadily increased in sub-Saharan Africa, where air support is often in short supply and funding constraints are an ever-present challenge, notably in such domains as public security, as well as wildlife and infrastructure protection.
Several companies have made notable headway on the African market. These include Poland’s Flyargo, which has taken over marketing and manufacturing of the Xenon family of autogyros, originally developed and sold by Celier Aviation.
The Xenon is one of the leading products found on the African market and is noteworthy for being in service in Burkina Faso, which procured four Xenon 2RST ECO in 2009. These are used in the air surveillance role in support of police and gendarmerie forces, although they are operated by the country’s air force.
A company spokesman explained, the Xenon and its successor, the Argon 915, offer much greater cost-effectiveness for such operations as air surveillance, medical evacuation or aerial spraying, than helicopters.
Where the latter use aviation fuel, gyrocopters employ standard gasoline, which is available from any petrol station and is, thus, both cheaper and easier to source, allowing the aircraft to operate from almost anywhere, instead of having to fly from an airport.
The Xenon family’s turbocharged Rotax 912 engine, which is used on many ultralights and autogyros, is another plus-point, since it is a highly proven, simple and robust design, which can be easily serviced with minimal infrastructure.
Last, but by no means least, the training of gyrocopter pilots is much cheaper and easier than that of helicopter aircrews. Flyargo even has its own school in Poland and can train a Xenon pilot in as little as three weeks.
Aside from Burkina Faso, Flyargo is present in several other African countries, including South Africa and Namibia, although in both cases customers are primarily commercial or private operators using the aircraft for recreational purposes.
Other notable stakeholders on the African gyrocopter market include Italian company, Magnigyro, which is present in South Africa and Senegal, with a growing footprint in the recreational segment.
Senegal’s National Parks Directorate is also a gyrocopter operator, having acquired a single example for surveillance and liaison duties, which is believed to be a Magni M16.
In Kenya, Wildlife Works, a conservation management company, operates a Magni M24 for air surveillance and anti-poaching duties in support of its Elephant Protection Trust project to monitor the Kasigau wildlife corridor between Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Park.
The aircraft is used to monitor elephant movements, act as deterrent against poachers, and pinpoint the presence of intruders so that ranger patrols on the ground can be directed towards them.
South Africa is, by far, the country with the largest gyrocopter fleet in sub-Saharan Africa and, understandably, one where local development and manufacturing is now taking place.
The flagship of the country’s gyroplane industry is Wagtail, which has developed a range of autogyros conceived specifically for the demanding African environment.
The company’s main product, the Trojan, is a twin-seat design, which was developed to meet a South African special forces requirement, notably to support surveillance operations against poachers in the Kruger National Park.
As Braam Hechter, Wagtail’s chief operating officer, explained, while the aircraft proved satisfactory, the special forces programme was eventually cancelled after extensive testing.
The project still left Wagtail with a proven platform, which the company sees as unique compared to existing competitors. It has a maximum all-up weight of 800 to 1,000kg, a payload of 300kg to 500kg, a sturdier assembly, larger cord and longer rotor, as well as a more powerful 260HP turbocharged Subaru EJ 25 engine driving a custom-designed five-blade pusher propeller.
The aircraft’s design offers significant room for customisation, as Hechter highlighted: “We can optimise the platform in a commercial or military configuration. Commercial activities can be from spraying for malaria and mosquitos to agricultural usage.
“In the military environment, the gyroplane can be used as a platform for surveillance and patrol. It can interdict where any type of conflict occurs, from cattle theft to armed interference.”
While the Trojan is currently Wagtail’s star product, the company is also working on other models. These include a three-seat design, known as the Trooper, powered by a 300HP Subaru engine, which was also being developed for the special forces in close cooperation with Denel and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
Following the cancellation of the special forces project, the focus for this model has now moved to the commercial market.
The Light Delivery Gyro (LDG) is, meanwhile, intended as a transport aircraft with the ability to lift up to 300kg of cargo, two passengers, or a litter.
Hechter added: “We are also working on an autonomous [gyrocopter] drone that is currently in the proof-of-concept phase.”
Wagtail is also outfitting its Trojan with weapons, and has carried out live-fire tests using a pair of Denel SS-77 7.62mm light machine-guns mounted on each side of the airframe, as well as rocket launchers.
Self-protection systems, including flare launchers, have also been integrated.
This solution, which provides a powerful punch in a relatively inexpensive aircraft, could prove an attractive proposition for African military users and is not without precedents, Botswana having successfully outfitted Bat Hawk fixed-wing ultralights with light machine-guns several years ago.
Wagtail is moving forward with international sales efforts and, according to Hechter, is already present in Botswana, Mozambique, Sudan, Tanzania, and Nigeria.
In the latter, it is aggressively marketing its designs to the police force, which is heavily committed to a string of internal security operations, including in the Niger Delta, to fight off oil theft, and in several northern states, where cattle rustling remains a major issue.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is also reportedly interested in the Trojan, although details remain unavailable at this stage.

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