A DREAM TO FLY
Paper written for, and presented at, the International Conference on the Autogiro, Hofstra University, April 2003
The concept and spirit of Ikenga has been a pivotal creative canvas in my life since the mid-sixties; acting through me on this terrestrial journey like an inner seed growing and straining towards birth in the material realm. Often I’m asked why I embarked on such a venture and usually give a variety of valid intellectual or poetic answers, evading the fact that the catalyst was an unbridled inspiration that has no definition in logic or reason.
Firstly let me introduce to you the essence of Ikenga.
The name Ikenga has its origin in the Igbo culture of eastern Nigeria and has an important connection to the spiritual and psychical dimension of the culture and the individual; it is timeless and is perceived as a psychic force that underscores success. There is the interpretation that Ikenga is the destiny, which an unborn soul works out for itself with the help of its Chi before it incarnates in the physical realm. In this case the creation and consecration of Ikenga would be the process of activating this destiny and living it out.
While this article addresses the interests of visitors to the International Conference on the Autogiro, it is primarily your introduction to me as an artist and self-taught aircraft builder who used the autogiro as a canvas and, as the process unfolded, became an entrepreneur learning to build a kit-plane business based on these creations.
Of the many people who are responsible for the successes gained on this journey into the world of flight I acknowledge four individuals who provided the wind in my sails.
Wing Commander Ken Wallis, who I met during a fashion photography assignment for Queen Magazine in 1965 that featured his Little Nellie autogiro, which was made famous in a James Bond movie. Our meeting was the catalyst of a 23-year gestation period in the development and flight of my Ikenga 530Z autogiro in 1988, six years prior to apogee when the aircraft was accepted into the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s collection.
Shioban Gradenwitz, an entrepreneur and marketing specialist whose company underwrote the cost of the Ikenga Wind Dancer proof-of-concept autogiro in 1985, enabling me to begin the demanding educational journey towards becoming an aircraft designer and builder.
George Hinson-Rider was my mentor and is an accomplished aviation engineer who taught me to use a lathe, coached me on my drafting skills, gave me free reign of his workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, financially supported many aspects of the project, gave me my first flight instructions in a Cessna 152, and gathered the initial investment team that underwrote the Ikenga 530Z aircraft and launched my aircraft design studio, Gyro 2000.
Mark Hallet, my beloved friend, was test pilot and evaluator of the Ikenga 530Z flight program. Mark demonstrated the aircraft at our high altitude base in Espanola and Santa Fe, New Mexico and at the 1988 PRA International Rotorcraft Convention in Middletown, Ohio, where it was awarded The Best New Idea in Autogiro Design.
From my earliest recollection I have had a love of flying, perhaps due to my childhood fascination with seagulls at our local beaches on Long Island, NY, or my first view of a huge Mitchell Flying Wing flying over our home in Brooklyn with an escort of a dozen tiny fighter aircraft. The roots of my passion for flying are warmly remembered when recalling the dramatic radio exploits of Buck Rogers or the more “down to earth” Sky King. These glimpses into the world of flight were reawakened while globetrotting in my adult years and encountering the phenomena of Unidentified Aerial Craft and non-human intelligence.
A move to England in 1964 brought many opportunities to me that were not possible in the United States and, shortly thereafter, a brief meeting with Wing Commander Ken Wallis would change my creative horizon. Immediately after meeting Ken, early in 1965 at a fashion photography shoot with a Wallis autogiro, I returned to London and began designing and building concept models of rotorcraft in my spare time. I was excited by the simplicity of the autogiro but also fascinated by the more complex counter-rotating helicopter configuration as a backpack aircraft; the latter being sparked by concept drawings and photos of a project I was introduced to that was underway in Sweden or Norway. An outcome of this was a growing interest in the development of flying frames, under which modules could be attached for specialty applications such as freight, medical, broadcast, and surveillance. I mentioned my modular aircraft ideas when interviewed for a television feature about fashion photographers in Swinging London and was immediately approached by a financial group from Blackpool, England seeking my participation in their aircraft project. This undertaking required my skills as a stylist and conceptual artist to redesign a monstrous four-passenger autogiro their group was developing. I worked on this project for a couple of months and then had to give my attention to managing my photographic studios in London and Milan, both of which were superseded in mid-1966 by the Ikenga motorcar development project.
The Ikenga motorcar project was an exciting and productive four-year undertaking during which a number of my high-performance, futuristically designed, automobiles were built and exhibited across Europe. My concepts, some of which were electric powered, included single-seat city cars, expandable cars, and trikes. The McLaren based GT series was a test bed for such innovations as police-coordinated accident warning systems, close circuit television for rear vision, and computer assisted parking. The motorcar development came to a close following the debut of the Ikenga MKIII at the Turin International Show and my move to southern France in 1969.
From early 1970 I embarked on ten years of travel adventures in many cultures, where a constant companion was a diary that often contained doodles of flying machines; two of which were almost realized. These early projects included a 1975 effort to build a floating home based on a tiny semi-rigid Yamaha powered dirigible, and again when I received grant-status in 1979 to build a ducted-fan autogiro in Perkasie, Pennsylvania.
The funding by Siobhan Marketing Company in 1985 to build the Mazda-powered Wind Dancer autogiro and a chance meeting with George Hinson-Rider was the catalyst that moved the intention of building an aircraft closer to reality; these two meetings were thresholds that brought a long sought after breakthrough.
My first aircraft, the Mazda powered Wind Dancer, was my aeronautical “Boot Camp” as it brought my dreams of aircraft design face-to-face with the demanding mechanics of aircraft building, painfully showed me where my knowledge was lacking, and brought to the forefront the many challenges of securing materials and parts within a specific timeline and weaving them into the 4130 steel frame taking shape in my Santa Fe, New Mexico, workshop.
Wind Dancer was beautiful and sleek. It debuted in 1986 at the E.A.A. (Experimental Aircraft Association) Osh Kosh International Air Convention where it created lots of interest. This convention was also my introduction to many in the rotorcraft community and an opportunity to meet some of the autogiro builders who had mentored me by telephone. By the close of the airshow it became clear to me that Wind Dancer would be too costly and complex to successfully market as a kitplane. I quickly learned that simplicity of assembly needed to be my focus, that Microlight regulations must be my target, that continuing to incorporate Jim Rutans fiberglass techniques for enclosure, stabilizer and all-flying rudder was a must, that a ground adjustable propeller would be an improvement on our fixed pitch design, that the kitplane market offered great potential if my autogiro kit could be designed to incorporate a short assembly time that required the most basic tools, and most importantly, that using a less costly engine with an improved power to weight ratio was a key to the projects future success.
A turning point for the project grew out of time spent with one of my mentors, Helicopter Ed Alderfer, who, for reasons of safety and efficiency, encouraged me to consider developing a tractor autogiro (engine in the front). This first visit to the E.A.A. Air Convention with Wind Dancer set the stage for the future development and debut of the Ikenga 530Z autogiro two years later at the 1988 E.A.A air show.
Three words were a key to the Ikenga 530Z being built, flying successfully, and landing in its permanent home at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: inspiration, teamwork and synchronicity. Perhaps the word Chutzpah best encapsulates the Ikenga 530Z aircraft project.
The long drive home to Santa Fe from the 1986 E.A.A. Osh Kosh air convention gave me time to ingest the experiences of the air show and feel much appreciation for the encouragement and mentoring of Dr. Igor Benson, Bill Parsons, Helicopter Ed Alderfer, and Jerri Barnette, which was akin to being showered with diamonds of knowledge. It was on this long drive home, along route 80 in Nebraska, that thoughts and conceptual images of the next ship, the Ikenga 530Z, began to form.
Shortly after returning home I began sketching a number of ideas for the new autogiro and outlining some of the prerequisites I wanted to incorporate in the design. From the outset all conceptual drawings featured a seating position similar to a racing motorcycle as well as twin all-flying rudders and horizontal stabilizer. As many of the books and magazine articles about light weight autogiros that I read over the years spoke of dangerous control problems when the fuselage blocked the airflow over the tail/rudder at lower airspeeds, my intention was to address and resolve this problem at the outset.
One of the ongoing heated debates, pro and con, among the PRA gyronaughts at the time was the need for a horizontal stabilizer. Again, based on much of my research and on the various arguments heard between autogiro designers I continued favoring the integration of a horizontal stabilizer to enhance stability in pitch. The drawings of my second aircraft and model making proceeded for a number of months and the concept was narrowed down to five possibilities including a radical design that featured the nose wheel and main wheel in a tandem configuration beneath the pilot and two small outrigger wheels on retractable axles; this design was quickly disqualified as it could only be used on a paved runway.
My mentor, George-Hinson Rider, because of the financial disappointments he experienced during the building of his twenty-six passenger Typhon aircraft, had warned me of the heartbreaks on the road ahead when I embarked on the Wind Dancer project. However, George was filled with disbelief and pride when I completed Wind Dancer in such fine form and he became a cornerstone in the new aircraft venture. Following the successful debut at Osh Kosh, and seeing the new conceptual drawings, he began introducing me to colleagues in the Santa Fe business community who were also aviators and aircraft builders. Impressed by the conceptual sketches, models, and performance projections of a 95hp, Suzuki powered, tractor autogiro, and the possibility of launching a successful kitplane manufacturing company, five businessmen presented a proposal to me: “We’ll fly you to the Experimental Aircraft Association headquarters in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin, for evaluation of the concept and, if positive, will invest the funds to seed your aircraft company.”
The outcome of the meeting with E.A.A. staff was the opinion that if Ikenga were built it would be one of the safest autogiros on the experimental aircraft scene. With a letter to that effect monies were put in place to seed the new aircraft development company.
a very important way the building of the Ikenga 530Z was a Santa Fe
community project. Many Santa Fe craftsmen contributed their time and
expertise; I had two eventful meetings with the Governor of New Mexico
and afterwards state and local officials dropped in to encourage us
with the project, and a retired SAC (Strategic Air Command) commander
spent a few weeks pitching in and sharing with us some of the most awesome
stories of his adventures flying B-52’s along the boarder of the
U.S.S.R. A special delight was receiving a telephone call that an old
teacher of mine was coming to Santa Fe and wanted to see Ikenga. Shortly
afterwards an afternoon for friends to meet Pir Vilayat Inaya Khan,
the head of the American Sufi Order, was planned at the workshop and
it was heartfelt to see him sitting at the controls of Ikenga imagining
he was soaring, listening to him share poignant World War II flying
stories with George, and receiving his blessings for the Ikenga aircraft
The Air Craft Spruce and Specialty and Leading Edge Air Foils companies had lots of the materials and instruments that I required, however a number of creative solutions had to be designed and built on my own. The problem of insurance and liability began to awaken as a number of companies used during the Wind Dancer project, both suppliers and parts manufacturers, frowned on getting involved in an aircraft project because of growing liability concerns in the United States. I soon discovered that many talented and capable experimental aircraft manufacturers and designers were forced to place everything of value into the name of their wife, or other family members, because of this.
Designing the rotorhead control system for Ikenga was especially challenging. The mechanics of the system, choice of metals, and getting our short joystick to work efficiently - without being oversensitive to input from the pilot - required lots of trial and error before a safe and sturdy system was in place. Finding the appropriate fuel tank also required much research. I chose a custom manufactured fifteen gallon NASCAR certified fuel cell for its strength and lightness as it enabled me to convert it into a comfortable pilot’s seat, and also because the fuel capacity gave us our projected range of three hundred nautical miles.
All of the parts and finished materials were weighted and a log kept so that it could be determined exactly how the ship was approaching the CG point (center of gravity) that I was aiming for. Months later, as Ikenga approached completion, the log proved instrumental as the ship came in right-on-the-mark of nine degrees nose down in our hang test with a 170 lb. pilot in place and petrol on board.
While conceptualizing and drawing an aircraft is a delight of fantasy, the most demanding exercise in this process for me was learning the volumes of information required to address the tasks of the moment and then to move on to new learning curves in the following days or weeks: project and company management and coordination, drafting and illustration, welding skills and lathe work, fiberglass lay-up and body building, mathematical formulas to learn and apply, promotional material to develop, aerodynamics and balancing factors to learn, rotor loading factors and propeller dynamics to learn and apply, learning to fly, catching and correcting my mistakes, looking for additional investors, seeking grants, working with the FAA, and putting my ego aside to locate someone more experienced than I to fly Ikenga.
Once Ikenga passed the hang test I began working with motorcycle engineer and racer Steve Inoue to fine tune the Suzuki 530 water-cooled engine. When this was accomplished and the fiberglass components painted and assembled we scheduled an appointment to have the ship inspected by the FAA. With our building log well managed and supported by photographs showing all stages of development, the ship passed the certification in late march of 1988 with a glowing acknowledgement by the inspector for the engineering and workmanship.
The next phase, as we entered into spring, was looking for a pilot to test Ikenga. During this period I’d taxi test the ship at the Espanola, NM, airport. This gave me the opportunity to finely adjust the steering, brake and all-flying rudder control cables, and to get a feel for the ground handling and rotor-head control system. All along, while Ikenga was being developed, many hours were spent learning to fly and to solo a Cessna 150 at the Santa Fe airport, or with Bill Parsons in his tandem autogiro trainer at the Flagler County Airport on the east central Florida coast. Bill was most encouraging of the project (Bill’s superbly engineered rotorheads were used on all of the Ikenga, Cygnus 21, series of autogiros which followed the Ikenga 530Z) but stopped short when it came to me flying Ikenga. His advice, a gift to me, was clear and very strong: “Don’t be foolish, get an experienced pilot to check out your ship.”
While my dream to fly an aircraft had been achieved in the Cessna months earlier, I welcomed the most important stage of Ikenga’s development when, in May of 1988, I met Mark Hallett, a high time Bensen pilot from southern New Mexico. On his early visits to Santa Fe our entourage of airplane enthusiasts, investors, and well-wishers would spend days at the Espanola airport as Mark worked with us on prop and rotor adjustments, thrusts and taxi tests, and also worked to resolve a lingering power problem we thought was due to our very high airfield altitude of 5,800 feet. As the altitude density was often around 8,500 feet we were certain that this was a contributing factor. After many, many days of frustration and an inability to get the ship to lift-off the problem was at last identified. Our engine manufacturer had supplied us with the wrong exhaust system for the Suzuki two-stroke engine! Once the correct exhaust system was ordered and flown to Santa Fe, new exhaust system mounts were fabricated and the correct new unit installed, everything moved ahead ever so smoothly towards Ikenga’s first flight. The little Suzuki engine now gave a respectful roar as it approached 6,000 rpm on the tachometer, our thrust tests climbed past the 350lb mark, and the 2.58 to 1 reduction gearbox turned our ground-adjustable prop at optimum speed.
One of the memorable experiences in this undertaking was awakening one morning and knowing: this is the day your creation is going to fly.
Mark began early in the morning with very short taxi runs, testing the newly gained power under his throttle. His taxi runs in Ikenga became longer and longer as he kept feeling out the ground handling of the ship; holding it on the tarmac as it seemed ready to soar. He then began a long series of very short hops along the runway as he continued to build confidence in Ikenga. Feeling comfortable at the end of a long taxi run Mark gave us a thumbs-up as he passed on his way to the far end of the single strip Espanola airport; he was going to fly.
Ikenga first lifted off the Espanola, New Mexico, runway on a bright and clear June morning in a twenty-two knot direct crosswind as lots of well-wishers applauded this success after sixteen months in development. Mark was like a ballet dancer gently learning a new score, making a number of passes along the runway at greater and greater heights as the ship pointed its nose into the strong crosswind and flew down the strip sideways before straightening for a landing at the far end of the runway. On the tenth or twelfth pass Mark pulled the Ikenga’s nose off the ground after a short taxi run, went for altitude, and climbed rapidly until he was out of sight.
For me there was the most awesome feeling of satisfaction and delight watching Ikenga in flight, but it was a very mixed blessing as anxiety was always a consort to the joy of seeing Ikenga in the air: I was overly concerned that I had completed my aircraft building impeccably and that Mark would be safe as he put this beautiful little ship thru its paces. After the first couple of hours flying Mark landed to refuel and excitedly exclaimed, “It flies good, so well and so smoothly - right off the drawing board with only minor adjustments!” Mark flew Ikenga into the early evening, landing to make minor prop adjustments before vanishing again into the high desert New Mexico horizion - only the telltale scream of the hi revving two-stroke Suzuki engine giving an indication of where he was heading. Mark made many follow-up trips to Santa Fe and Espanola to fly Ikenga and one of our memorable flights was its debut at the Santa Fe International Airport for investors and the press.
The debut of Ikenga brought lots of national attention to our effort as the maiden flight was replayed by lots of TV stations and ushered in a three months of truly sensational events. A few weeks after its debut the Ikenga 530Z was exhibited at the Albuquerque International Air Show and received the Grand Champion Rotorcraft award. Following more tests I trailered Ikenga to the PRA (Popular Rotorcraft Association) National Convention in Middletown, Ohio, accompanied by Glenn Lehman, a dear friend and investor, to meet Mark and show off Ikenga’s capabilities to our most critical peers—seasoned and experienced autogiro and helicopter builders and pilots. As we expected, Ikenga’s performance at sea level was phenomenal. It’s ninety-five horsepower engine performed optimally as our radical little ship showed off its swift and nimble characteristics to many who crowded the flight line to watch Mark fly Ikenga. The convention judges awarded Ikenga the Best New Rotorcraft Design award at the 1988 PRA convention. Needless to say this was a wonderful achievement for our team and especially for Mark. In his childhood, Mark had grown up attending autogiro fly-ins as his dad, Russell Charles Hallett was a long time PRA member and Bensen pilot. Russell was killed in a Bensen accident some years earlier and for Mark to revisit a PRA convention after many years, to reconnect with his dad’s ole colleagues and be instrumental in the introduction, flight, and success of our award-winning state-of-the-art-autogiro was heartfelt; this is one of those life experiences that is emotionally charged and leaves one speechless and humbled.
Following the PRA convention many of the gyronaughts headed north with their aircraft towards Wisconsin to participate in the huge E.A.A. (Experimental Aircraft Association) International Air Convention during the first week of August. I was looking forward to revisiting Osh Kosh and introducing the new ship to many enthusiasts as it was very truly an outgrowth, and an improvement, of the Wind Dancer autogiro exhibited in 1986.
Mark, Glenn, and I camped out close to the Ultralight/Rotorcraft area and set-up the Ikenga display in a section of the airshow reserved for helicopters and autogiros. For many days we shared lots of promotional information with visitors and answered an endless array of questions about our project. The week-long air convention was an impressive and overwhelming environment of old and new aircraft, conventional, military, and specialty aircraft, workshops, vendor booths, buzzing and thundering aircraft, and flight demonstrations and shows that turn this calm countryside Wisconsin airfield into an aviation Mecca for over a million aircraft enthusiasts.
Following the accolades of the PRA convention I only vaguely entertained, with reservation, the possibility of a design award, as there were many impressive rotorcraft, helicopters and autogiros, displayed at the air convention. My main focus here was to inform folks about our project, to learn about the latest in autogiro technology and products, and enjoy participating in this great airshow. Returning to the airfield from town one afternoon Glenn excitedly greeted me with the news that our Ikenga 530Z prototype was awarded the Reserve Grand Champion rotorcraft award by the judges. For our team, and for me personally, it was an acknowledgement beyond my wildest dreams. We had all done the work of aircraft building and testing with razor sharp exactness and beauty and were honored for this.
At the close of the show, delighted with our trophy, Mark flew off to New Jersey and Glenn and I headed towards Santa Fe knowing that we had touched the hearts of folks from many countries at the air show. I did not know that this convention was a precursor to a design project with Sumitomo Heavy Industries of Japan, conceptual design projects for Korean and Namibian financial groups, or the development of a number of training seminars in New Mexico for budding autogiro pilots. Most importantly I had no idea of the amount of people, of all ages, around the world that would be touched by what we, the many contributors to this project, had accomplished.
As a new and radical lightweight autogiro, the Ikenga 530Z proved itself to be a sound proof-of-concept design and began to draw the attention of potential buyers from around the world. In the months and years that followed, the successes of the 1988 airshow season would introduce our team to another chapter in the development, and challenges, of subsequent Ikenga Cygnus 21 models. Manufacturing autogiro kit-planes called for a far different approach to aircraft building than the inspiration-fueled artistry, and teamwork, that made the Ikenga 530Z’s manifestation a reality.
In November of 1988, after a sixteen-month aircraft building intensive, and three months after returning to Santa Fe from Osh Kosh, I recall a heart opening and impactful experience while sitting at my altar during one early morning meditation. For the very, very, first time, like a locked door opening onto a vista of infinite gratitude, I experienced the deep emotional feeling and realization emanating from the depth of my being: the Ikenga 530Z autogiro had flown!
I wish you all success in your special flight,
David Gittens Designer/Builder
With Thanks to Investors:
Abbott Carol Brehm Tyson Brehm Stan Davis Michael
A special thanks to:
Ed Alderfer, Dan Duncan, Paul Dwyer, Siobhan Gradenwitz, Mark Hallett, Marty Hollmann
Links below to Ikenga Smithsonian and www.dwij.org features:
Ikenga Cygnus 21 Autogiro:
Cygnus 21T Autogiro:
Cygnus 21TX Autogiro:
Ikenga Cygnus 21P2 Autogiro: