Lying just to the east of Fulton County lies the ordinarily sleepy town of Mentone. But the second weekend of August each year, hundreds of people descend on the small Kosciusko County community to congregate with other flying enthusiasts for the annual Popular Rotorcraft Association International Convention, dubbed “The World’s Greatest Gathering of Rotorcraft.”
Originally engineered in the early 1920s by Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva, early rotorcraft were developed as military bombers to combat the problem of stalled engines. Technological development of the concept for military purposes continued throughout the next few decades, but the idea really “took off” after World War II, when American Igor Bensen, a Russian immigrant, worked to perfect the aircraft for both Air Force and civilian use.
Bensen eventually founded the Popular Rotorcraft Association, in 1962, to support and teach people how to fly the machines. Rotorcraft, or gyroplanes as they are often called, differ from helicopters in that they are generally smaller in size and require short runways for takeoff and landing rather than relying on vertical ascent and descent.
The PRA boasts chapters in most states and many countries, but actually purchased the Mentone Airport in the mid-1990s and considers it the organization’s headquarters.
Each August, 50-60 rotorcraft of varying designs come to Mentone for the annual convention. Enthusiasts travel from across the country for the gathering, which includes vendors, a swap meet and aircraft sales. Flying lessons are available from several trained and licensed instructors, as well as rides for the curious and thrill seekers.
Paul Polster of Illinois served as the air boss for this year’s event, working ground and air traffic control with a handheld radio, near the runway. He emphasized safety for the aircraft, pilots and people on the ground during the weekend. He pointed out the various types of rotorcraft at the event, ranging from handmade units and kit planes to sleek production models that resemble miniature helicopters.
Most rotorcraft have regular aircraft engines, although some home-built units incorporate modified car engines. Each unit has a rear-mounted propeller as well as a rotating wing mounted horizontally above the aircraft, making it visually similar to a helicopter. In the event of engine failure, however, unlike in a helicopter, the rotary wing can serve as a fixed wing to glide the aircraft to the ground.
Steve McGowan of Macon, Ga., has been flying rotorcrafts since 1982. He says that it is an extremely easy thing to do as the aircraft are forgiving, “to a point.”
Training requires repetition and understanding the physical applications of flying. The open-air rotorcraft that he brought to the show was a hand-built unit that he jokingly considers a “Model A, compared to some of the Corvettes” that could be seen nearby. He said that home-built units could be constructed for as little as $7,000. Top-notch assembly line rotorcraft retail upwards of $100,000, with kit planes falling anywhere in between.
“These aircraft are like women,” McGowan deadpanned. “You have to build a relationship with them, but if you do something unexpected you’re liable to get your head knocked off.”
PRA President Doug Barker of Layton, Utah, comes to Mentone every year for the convention.
“Gyroplanes are the best kept secret in aviation,” he said. “The are absolutely the most fun aircraft to fly. The goal is to get into the air and have fun. There’s nothing better in the world.”