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Who Was Flying The Predator?

By Vance Breese, EAA 705840, for Light Plane World

Vance Breese

I recently had a very strong experience while flying my Predator gyroplane, and I have talked to other pilots who also feel they were watching someone else fly. I felt I had been watching someone who knew what they were doing without thinking about it or struggling with it emotionally. The timing was impeccable and the control precise. Whoever it was I want to fly with them again.

We had been working hard to get ready for a trade show in Cincinnati, Ohio, and it seemed too nice a day to stay on the ground. I checked the Santa Maria (SMX) ATIS; winds were light and variable after a week of big winds. I called the San Luis Obispo (SBP) ATIS, and winds were also light and variable. SBP is 22 nautical miles to the northwest of SMX; from my office in Nipomo, California, I could see the cloudless sky over both airports.

I made a late commitment to fly to the San Luis Obispo for lunch, and my mind was on how to make up the work time. It was almost noon when I fired up the M Roadster, dropped the top, and headed the 13 miles to SMX. The challenges of the day seemed to fade in the rearview mirror as we motored along. There wasn't much traffic and the five traffic lights were all green.

The Predator gyroplane
The Predator gyroplane

When I rolled back the hangar door, The Predator looked pristine and ready to go. I worked my way through the preflight list in a casual but methodical way. I felt no pressure to hurry and did a final check after rolling her into the sun.

I called Lockheed Martin for a standard VFR briefing from SMX to SBP direct leaving at 19:50Z flying 1,000 AGL, 42 minutes en route returning at 23:10Z. The briefer was professional and shared an AIRMET for moderate turbulence to the south of our course and an AIRMET for IFR conditions to the east.

I suited up and climbed in working my way through the start-up list. The Predator started at the first touch of the button, and with a little mixture adjustment, settled into an even idle. Oil pressure in the green, alternator on, transponder on, radio on and ATIS Quebec had the winds light and variable landing and departing runway 30.

I felt strangely dispassionate as I called ground from alpha 9 for a taxi to runway 30. The airport wasn't busy, and the ATC seemed pleased to have someone to talk to. I studied each of the flaccid wind socks as we rolled past on taxiway alpha. We taxied a little slower and kept the front tire on the line without trying. The run-up went well and I worked my way down the list. Transponder to mode C, switched to tower frequency, and put SBP ATIS on the flip flop. Released the rotor brake and called the tower for a straight out with a slight right. I felt like I was watching someone who knew what to say and whose hands knew what to do. It seemed strangely effortless. ATC crackled in my headset: "Experimental gyroplane 142 Mike Golf, 30 clear for takeoff slight right approved."

I felt the excitement of a new adventure as we crossed the hold short line and began to prerotate. We were at 100 rotor rpm as we reached the centerline and started accelerating quickly as I came back with the cyclic. The front wheel came up gently as I watched my hands flip the switches for landing lights, navigation lights, and anticollision lights. Everything seemed smooth as she lifted off and climbed out at 1,200 feet per minute. Halfway down the runway I started backing off the power without thinking about it and leveled off at exactly 800 feet MSL, 500 feet AGL.

Valley fields en route to San Luis Obisbo
Valley fields en route to San Luis Obisbo

My spirit rose with the aircraft as we entered the enchanting world of aviation. The chaos of Santa Maria off to our right seemed tranquil from 500 feet AGL. The wind rubbed her belly a little as we danced across the valley's fields, heading toward the Nipomo water tower shining bright in the clear air. Over the Nipomo bluff I checked SBP ATIS, and the winds had picked up to 270 degrees at 11 knots. I called ATC at 1,300 feet and 13 miles to the southwest for a left downwind for 29. Without trying, we maintained this altitude within 20 feet as we headed for Pismo Beach.

The flying felt effortless and everything seemed to fall into place. I felt enchanted by the beauty that surrounded us as we followed the descending terrain. As we neared the coastline over the city of Grover Beach at 1,100 feet SBP, ATC let me know there was an unidentified aircraft at my 10 o'clock, a mile off shore and descending through 2,200 feet. I found it without consciously searching. It was a Piper Arrow setting up to land at Oceano, high and off pattern, but my eyes located her in an almost magical way. As we cleared the edge of Grover Beach it was time to descend to 500 feet and turn north, up the beach. I didn't think about what to do, and it felt as if I was watching someone else fly. I mentally checked off the boxes: steady descent, good altitude control, nice heading, and smooth throttle as though I was giving a check ride. I found the beauty distracting. The white water gave contrast to the deep blue of the Pacific. The sea air filled my lungs.

Flying the Predator along Pismo Beach
Flying the Predator along Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach seemed a little empty as we played our shadow along the sand. The Pismo Pier seemed busy with several people waving. Their waves became more enthusiastic when I added power and circled around returning the wave. As I pulled the power back I noted we were still at exactly 500 feet.

I could see the beach coming to an end, and I added a little power and climbed to 700 feet abeam the cliffs at Shell Beach. I usually feel trepidation as we head out over the ocean; today I felt only joy as we left the beach behind and drew closer to the Avilla Pass. I could feel the usual turbulence from hills, but my ground speed and heading seemed unaffected by the fluctuating air speed. The VSI was unmoved.

I began to worry a little about my effort disconnect and tried unsuccessfully to escalate my involvement in operating the aircraft. My altitude and speed control were the best they had ever been, and again I felt I was giving a check ride. We had had some rain and the hills were starting to turn green. I found the colors added depth and detail to our wonderful panorama and added to my enchantment. I could smell someone mowing the wet grass below.

The Predator continued serenely through the pass with what seemed like very little effort on my part. We encountered a little turbulence just before I turned inbound, and I was briefly reminded I was the pilot-in-command without actually having to make any corrections. That was the last time I consciously imposed my will on the flight. Downwind abeam we were number two behind a Twin Comanche on a 3-mile straight in. I usually lose them in the ground clutter, but this one stood out. I responded, "Experimental Gyroplane 142 Mike Golf number two behind the Twin Comanche, runway 29 clear to land, Comanche in sight."

The wind sock was casually at about a 30-degree angle to the runway. I watched as we descended nicely and then encountered a swirl that left us a little slow too high. Without thinking about it I added exactly the right amount of power and touched down so gently it felt like I was reaching out to touch the runway; first the left tire and then the right caressed the runway. I taxied to restaurant parking and wondered who had been flying The Predator.

I felt I had been watching someone who knew what they were doing without thinking about it or struggling with it emotionally. The timing was impeccable and the control precise. Whoever it was I want to fly with them again when I get back from Cincinnati.

Vance Breese is an engineer at heart and the son of a famous test pilot, Vance Breese Sr. Doctors predicted he would never walk or talk again after suffering a traumatic brain injury in 1995 when he crashed at 260 mph trying to set a land speed record for motorcycles. His recovery to the point of becoming a certificated pilot in 2008 could be an inspiration for other brain injury victims. Watch this video of his remarkable story.

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