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More Spinning Wings Than Ever

By Randy Dufault

July 28, 2017 - According to Geoff Downey, rotorcraft operations chairman for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2017, this year’s fly-in set a record for the number of visiting experimental and ultralight rotorcraft.

Backed by a very mature kit industry, the number of rotorcraft, both new and old, increases every year.

“I think what lends to [the turnout] is that RotorWay has probably been here about 45 years, Safari has been here about 30 years, and Mosquito has been here approximately 20 years,” Geoff said. “Products improve year over year, and it’s just growing that much.”

To accommodate the expanding crowd of whirlybirds, Geoff arranged for the development of a new landing zone west of the ultralight runway and across Knapp Street.

“This year there are about 20 [rotorcraft] over there,” Geoff said. “I’d like to have them over here [by the runway] so everyone can see them … but I can’t put them all in this spot.”

The rotary-wing craft here in Oshkosh are a mix of helicopters, in which power from the engine connects directly to the rotor, and gyroplanes, in which rotor power comes from forward motion. The mix of helicopters and gyroplanes constantly changes, and over the more than 25 years Geoff (radio call sign “Rotor One”) has led rotorcraft operations, another shift has been in motion.

“It started out years ago that we had a lot of gyrocopters,” he said. “Then the helicopters came in for a very long time, and now, with the new breed of gyroplanes —and they are very nice, Ferrari-looking aircraft — they’re on the upswing. I get more and more of them every year.”

Geoff and his team have presided over more than 24,000 rotorcraft operations during his tenure, and their safety record has been excellent.

Geoff believes the long history of safe operation is a result of mentoring by pilots with AirVenture flying experience.

“We pay special attention to new people who come here to fly,” he said. “A lot of the veteran pilots [watch] out for the new person. … We show them the pattern, and we tell them about the operations. And then they hook up with a veteran, and maybe even go up in their ship, before they take their own up.”

Geoff takes a similar approach when it comes to training his operations team, although 10 years of experience is currently the shortest tenure for his dedicated group of volunteers.

It was a friend who originally got Geoff — whose military experience included air operations — interested in the rotor ops position.

“I came here with somebody who was running it many, many years ago,” Geoff said. “The show got over, and he said, ‘You live here. Why don’t you do it?’ That’s how it all started.

“I’ve enjoyed it all these years. You get to know all the pilots and their families; you watch their kids grow up — it’s a pretty close-knit group.”

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