Wagtail Aviation developing armed gyrocopter

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Wagtail Aviation is working on a range of manned and unmanned heavy gyrocopters and is experimenting with arming them with machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades and countermeasures, amongst others, for a variety of defence and security missions.

Wagtail Aviation is one of a few select companies in the world currently producing heavy gyrocopters of around 8-900 kg Max All Up Weight (MAUW) and the only company offering this size of rotorcraft for such specialised missions as aerial delivery and rapid deployment. The company’s gyrocopters have been specifically designed for remote, harsh environments and ruggedized with heavy duty suspension etc.

Wagtail has two main models currently available: the Trojan two-seater (open tandem configuration) and the three-seat Trooper (pilot and two operators in a back-to-back outward looking configuration). The company is also completing variants such as the enclosed Light Delivery Gyro (LDG) with a 500 kg payload, which can airdrop supplies or transport passengers; the three-seater open Tourist (pilot with two passengers behind, side-by-side); and an autonomous version with a 500 kg payload. The autonomous version is designed to be on standby and programmed and launched from dispersed areas with a central command post. Wagtail is examining the possibility of operating gyrocopters in swarms.

Development of the armed Trojan is proceeding swiftly and live-fire trials have been carried out. This has included with dual locally manufactured Denel Land Systems SS-77 7.62 mm belt-fed light machineguns, mounted on a universal weapons beam. Wagtail has also tested rocket-propelled grenades, with twin nine-round launchers carrying a range of warheads from armour piercing to high explosive and anti-personnel. These have a range of two kilometres before they self-destruct.

An SS-77 machinegun on a Trojan gyrocopter.

According to Wagtail, a wide range of South Africa stock ordinance can be used on the gyrocopter’s weapons beams – a Milkor 40 mm grenade launcher has also been tested with an adapted belt feed system, but weapons and equipment fit is dependent on customer requirements.

Target acquisition is done by the ground forces and uploaded to the aircraft in real-time. It can be displayed on a helmet mounted display that is available. Wagtail uses a universal electrical system for weapons integration. This includes a Master Armaments switch, controlled by the pilot, which can only be armed once airborne. The switch allows the pilot to select between machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades, chaff, flares and other mission equipment. Individual rocket-propelled grenades can be selected by the pilot.

Chaff launcher on a Trojan gyrocopter.

For self-protection, the Trojan has been fitted with countermeasures, including chaff and flares and these have been successfully tested in flight.

The Trojan is one of a select few gyrocopters in the world to be armed – China, for instance, in October this year unveiled its Lieying (Falcon) gyrocopter, which has been seen fitted with rockets.

Wagtail family

The family of Wagtail gyrocopters (LDG, Trojan, Trooper, Tourist and Autonomous) all use the same keel, undercarriage, propeller, rotor design, controls, seats, instruments, etc. for ease of construction and support. The military basis of an Integrated Logistic Support System (ILS) was used to design the support system which includes spares, training, tools, facilities, documentation and data, etc. This ensures maintenance is easier due to common spares across the range.

The engine used is a Subaru EJ 25 with a turbocharger, delivering 260 hp in basic configuration and driving a custom in-house developed five-bladed propeller. This provides 400 kg of thrust at 5 300 rpm. Due to a Subaru powerplant being used, spare parts are readily available internationally and the engine can easily be repaired or replaced (Wagtail investigated various other options including the Toyota Supra, Pratt & Whitney PT6 and Walter 601 but currently uses the Subaru powerplant). The Subaru engine gives a top speed of around 210 km/h (depending on rotor configuration) and a range of 500-700 km depending on the fuel tank size. Turbine powerplants would be used for future heavier machines.

Trojan

Wagtail’s flagship offering, the Trojan, has been used commercially for surveillance, patrolling, emergency support and anti-poaching activities, amongst others. The Trojan has been designed for rough and remote operations and for instance has a ruggedized landing gear with balloon tyres and heavy-duty suspension with 110 millimetres of travel. For tough and easily maintainable rotors, Wagtail uses aluminium rather than composite materials, and has designed a custom rotor head. Interchangeable rotor blades from 8.5 to 10.8 metres can be fitted depending on missions and performance requirements. A hydraulic pre-rotator allows high pre-rotating speeds for very short take-offs and easy maintenance.

Wagtail plans to fly the autonomous Trojan towards the middle of 2020. Discussions is in process to support the United Nations, World Food Programme and the International Red Cross with this version. This configuration can then be used for first response in emergency relief where it is too risky to place emergency crews. The unmanned version is designed to have a 500 kg payload.

The Trojan is the result of a long evolutionary process. Wagtail’s first foray into gyrocopter development goes back to the Springkaan (Locust), which was designed by Wagtail CEO and Chief Designer Johan von Ludwig. She was powered by a six-cylinder Toyota Supra engine producing 300 hp. Next was the Kriek (Cricket) taildragger based on a Cubby (Piper Cub) airframe. Testing was done with a Rotax 914 engine, a normally aspirated 2.5 litre Subaru as well as a Subaru 2 litre turbo – she first flew in 2005. Wagtail then modified and improved several Magni, ELA and Sycamore gyrocopters, which were used as the basis for the Trojan.

Wagtail was subsequently approached by the South African Special Forces and assisted with developing a gyrocopter with a payload of around 450 kg, hence the two-seater tandem Trojan and three-seater Trooper. Wagtail was given a User Requirement Statement (URS) and a project team was assembled from the South African Air Force and seconded to Special Forces. The URS specified quick turnaround times, a rugged platform for bush and unprepared area operations, easy logistics, availability and low cost, amongst others. As there was nothing available at the time to fulfil the requirements, a new aircraft was developed. Due to no air vehicle being available to meet the specifications, a few flex microlights were acquired as a stopgap. The basic specifications were 120 kg per seat and 135 litres worth of mogas fuel, including low grade fuel, according to Braam Hechter, Wagtail Aviation’s Chief Operating Officer.

The Trojan flew anti-poaching missions in the Kruger National Park with the South African Special Forces. “We had permission to launch anywhere. We could launch from a piece of grass flatland and have radio contact and would then recover the gyro and pilot at another venue. This kept the poachers guessing. In the time that we were there, there was no poaching in the areas that we patrolled,” Hechter said.

However, the military project was stopped due to funding constraints and the Trojan was converted for commercial work – this included anti-poaching, surveillance and patrol work. Several Trojans were subsequently sold in South Africa and overseas – to date Wagtail Aviation has sold 32 gyrocopters of all models.

Trooper

Development of the Trooper was hit by funding running out before the first flight and the Trooper was never acquired by the Special Forces. Designed in conjunction with Denel Aviation and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Trooper was designed to have a one-ton maximum all-up weight (MAUW) with a 100 metre distance to lift off.

The prototype Trooper is fitted with a 10.8-metre rotor and 3.3 litre Subaru turbocharged engine. Production models will be fitted with the Subaru 2.5 litre Turbo powerplant as the weight penalty for the extra power is outweighed and maintenance and support across the fleet is standardised.

The Trooper is now in the process of being prepared for the international commercial and civil market and Wagtail is working with the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) for Proving Flight Authority. Wagtail is in discussion with the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) to have the Trooper available over holiday seasons to assist with lifeguarding operations around the coast, with lifeguards on board that can jump out and support persons in trouble in the water. It is also positioning the type for a myriad of other missions, and this includes being used for anti-poaching, aerial survey, game counting, traffic management, etc.

Tourist

Wagtail is busy with the Tourist gyrocopter, which is based on the Trooper but with the passengers in an open cockpit (like the Trojan) but sitting at the rear in a side-by-side configuration. Another model under development is the Light Delivery Gyro (LDG). This is an enclosed gyro which is designed to either transport two passengers or have two 120 kg drop boxes from where emergency supplies can be dropped. It could also be used for medical extraction, where a medic is flown in with emergency support kit to stabilize the patient. As the current market requirement is on the Trojan and Trooper versions, development of the LDG is proceeding slowly.

In addition to gyrocopters, Wagtail has designed and is manufacturing trailers to transport its gyrocopters. The trailers are fitted with a winch on the trailer nose with a tray in which the nosewheel fits. The gyrocopter is only tied down using straps over the wheels. The complete rear on the trailer folds down, as a ramp and the rotors are tied down on stanchions fitted to the trailer. This keeps the blades in a horizontal position and eases quick deployments. The trailer is being used extensively for anti-poaching operations, surveillance and patrol missions and allows the gyrocopter to be ready for take-off in less than 15 minutes from stopping the vehicle.

Future ambitions

Wagtail Aviation is looking at expanding its presence around the world, from Australia to the United States. In Nigeria, the company is looking at operations from airboats (swamp buggies) since in the southern Rivers State there is a big problem with people damaging oil pipelines. Hechter said the plan is to have a big airboat fitted with a landing platform – a gyrocopter will then use the boat as a base and fly patrols, guiding the boat to the problem area and landing back on the airboat whilst crew are sent to repair the pipeline. The airboat will be the deployed base for the gyrocopter, capable of supporting up to two weeks of deployed operations, with refuelling and flight line support. This configuration can also be used against smuggling and poaching operations.

Wagtail has also offered its gyrocopters to the Nigerian Police for surveillance missions, with the intention to have the gyrocopters as first responders, fitted with electro-optical and thermal cameras with the real-time downlink. This links the various mission sensors on the gyrocopter to different command posts. Wagtail has also approached the Nigerian postal service for using gyrocopters to deliver post in remote areas.

Wagtail has also been approached by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). President Felix Tshisekedi will visit South Africa towards the end of February 2020, and he has requested Wagtail Aviation make a presentation whilst he is in the country.

Wagtail is busy establishing a presence in the United States and is investigating aerial agricultural support. From the military side, Wagtail is registered with the South African National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) and has been granted a global marketing permit. The Trojan System, consisting of the gyroplane with complete Integrated Logistic Support system consisting of training, tools, spares, support etc can this be marked and sold on a Governmental level. The company plans on once again exhibiting at the Africa Aerospace and Defence exhibition and will have a presence at the September 2020 edition of the expo.

Wagtail has been promoting the use of gyrocopters for more than a decade. These air vehicles are much cheaper than helicopters and more versatile in some roles then some fixed wing aircraft. Advantages include short take-off and landing capabilities and safe handling in the event of engine failure, ease of maintenance, storage, acquisition and support cost to name but a few.

In order to further highlight these unique aircraft, Wagtail Aviation is in discussion with the World Air Sports Federation as well as the Guinness World Record Organisation to understand how it can bring a few new gyrocopter world records to the books.



In recognition of its efforts, Wagtail was awarded the title of Gyrocopter Manufacturer of the Year as well as Pilot training Services for 2019 by the African Excellence Awards.