This Month in North Carolina History
In August 1957 Igor Bensen landed a “roadable” gyrocopter at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh and then drove it to Cameron Village to do some shopping. Later his wife met him in a station wagon. They then packed the gyrocopter in the back and went home. The unusual flying machine was designed and manufactured by Bensen Aircraft Corporation, located near the Raleigh-Durham Airport, and the colorful stunt was typical of Bensen — scientist, engineer, inventor, test pilot, and priest.
Igor Bensen was born in Russia in 1917. Fleeing war and revolution, his family moved first to Czechoslovakia, where Bensen received his early education, and then to the United States. Bensen began his training in engineering in Belgium and completed it at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey in 1940. For a number of years he worked for General Electric, taking a leading part in designing and testing everything from air conditioning units to electron microscopes.
The work that interested him the most, however, was the development of rotary-wing aircraft. As a child, Bensen had drawn a picture of a “flying chair” and had been deeply disappointed when his father told him it wouldn’t work. As an adult, Bensen spent most of his life designing, building, and testing helicopters and gyrocopters.
For General Electric Bensen studied the application of jet propulsion to helicopters, but increasingly his personal interest focused on gyrocopters. A gyrocopter, also called an autogyro, looks like a small helicopter but operates in a very different way. The rotating blades of a helicopter are powered by the aircraft’s engine. The blades of a gyrocopter are set spinning by the flow of air as the aircraft moves forward. A small engine and propeller, mounted either in the front or rear, give the gyrocopter its forward thrust. Once the blades are spinning, however, they serve as the gyrocopter’s “wing,” providing the lift to fly.
In practical terms this means that while a helicopter can take off straight up, a gyrocopter needs a short run along the ground to become airborne. It also lands more like a conventional aircraft, but needs very little stopping room once it is on the ground. Bensen believed that there was a great future for the gyrocopter as a sports aircraft. He also looked on it as an airplane for everyman — easy and safe to fly, inexpensive to build and maintain.
The first gyrocopter Bensen built in Raleigh was made from parts he picked up in local hardware stores. Bensen Aircraft developed a number of different models of gyrocopters and sold them for the most part in kits. An active and imaginative promoter of his aircraft, Bensen encouraged the organization of gyrocopter enthusiasts into clubs and associations.
In addition to his business interests, Bensen remained active as a scientific researcher and inventor. He came to believe that human beings were the weak link in the increasingly intricate modern technological system. He thought that scientists should pay more attention to the human side of the equation. For him this came to mean increased participation in the activities of the Greek Orthodox Church in which he became a deacon and ultimately a priest.
Bensen’s gyrocopter never became the personal airplane of the people as he had hoped. Sales began falling off in the 1980s. In 1988 Bensen Aircraft closed and twelve years later Igor Bensen died. The gyrocopter may not have caught the popular imagination, but Bensen left behind a small army of gyrocopter owners who maintain their “flying chairs” with care and fly them with enthusiasm.
North Carolina People, Places, and Things database. Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC.
“Bensen Gyrocopter” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.
“[Popular Rotorcraft Association, Raleigh, N.C.]” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.