This recent XKCD comic is all about autogyros.

Screenshot of comic

Image is copyright XKCD, licensed under CC 2.5 BY-NC

The note at the bottom is what got my attention

Extremely safe, unless you do the one thing you instinctively do to escape a stall in a normal airplane, in which case it will crash immediately

So what is that one thing, and why does it not work in autogyros?

  • 38
    $\begingroup$ Odd when the line above says "never stalls".... $\endgroup$
    – Trevor_G
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Trevor_G: The text doesn't say it will stall, it says it will crash. Entirely different. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Moo, it says it will crash if you do the natural thing to escape a stall. Trevor's point is that if it never stalls, there would be no reason to do that thing. $\endgroup$
    – prl
    Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 0:05
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    $\begingroup$ It's the one thing you do [to escape a stall in an airplane], not to escape a stall in a gyrocopter, referring to the action you take in airplanes to escape a stall. It's not implying you do it to escape a stall in the gyrocopter. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 10:17
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ See also aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/49894/… $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 12:40

3 Answers 3


That one thing is to unload the rotor too much (i.e. "push on the stick"):

From explainxkcd:

... Unfortunately, as soon as the rotor stops spinning, the whole aircraft falls like a brick and the rotor may be impossible to restart in flight. This is a situation that should be avoided at all costs.

Normally it is not a problem since the weight of the aircraft keeps the rotor spinning. However, if the weight becomes too low or even negative, the angle of attack will become negative, and the rotor will slow down and eventually stop. It can happen when the pilot "pushes on the stick" and dives.

Unfortunately, "pushing on the stick" is also how you escape a stall in a fixed wing (normal) airplane as it is a way to regain airspeed. This is actually a counter-intuitive maneuver but because a stall is an emergency, pilots are trained to do it instinctively. It can trick a pilot trained in fixed wing aircraft into doing the one thing that shouldn't be done on a gyro.

  • 38
    $\begingroup$ I'd like to add that the term for it is Power Push-Over. $\endgroup$
    – user14897
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Wayne Conrad I use to fly autogyros, and I believe that your answer is OK. An autogyro should always have the rotor duly loaded, and zero or negative Gs must be avoided at all costs. Concerning 'stall recovery for an autogyro', if –for whatever reason– the rotor blades slow down so much that they stall, you'll crash... $\endgroup$
    – xxavier
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ So what is the correct action in the event of a stall? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 7:19
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    $\begingroup$ The comic also claims they "never stall", so would you just be reacting to buffeting or what that feels like a stall? $\endgroup$
    – Nick T
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ @GrimmTheOpiner That's what I hoped someone who actually knows something would put in their answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 16:23

This is a well known problem with gyrocopters. The first answer was partially correct in that the problem was caused by pushing the stick forward and unloading the rotor. However, the problem wasn't a slowing down of the blade. The actual problem was that many of these gyrocopters would tumble under these conditions. If you were close to the ground you would crash before you could recover. And, even if you had altitude the tumble could overstress the rotor and a crash would still occur. The biggest problem though was that no one seemed to know why and since those who did tumble didn't usually survive there wasn't anyone to ask. So, if you flew a gyrocopter the first rule was to never push forward sharply and unload the blade.

Eventually, people who understood aerodynamics and physics got involved. They studied gyrocopters and realized that it wasn't a problem that was inherent to the type. The actual problem was that many of these had a thrust line that was above the center of gravity. In the small gyros the pilot's weight accounted for a lot of the loaded weight and the pusher configuration meant that the pilot's seat blocked the airstream. So, there was a incentive to raise the engine both to get clearance for a larger propeller and to get the blade up into clean air.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II has a similar problem. The engines are placed above the fuselage so that the hot exhaust goes over the horizontal stabilizer where it is blocked from view of heat-seeking missiles on the ground. This high thrust causes the A-10 to pitch downward. The solution was to angle the engines downward slightly which would normally make the plane pitch up. So, these cancel out.

So, anyway, the high thrust line isn't usually a problem on gyros since the main drag is from the rotor which is even higher. However, this doesn't work when you unload the rotor. Unloaded, the rotor drag goes to zero and free-body physics takes over. If the thrust line is above the CG then the aircraft will rotate forward and if it rotates far enough you will tumble. The only solution is to lower the thrust line so that it passes through the CG. This can make the aircraft pitch up more since the drag from the rotor is still high. You can try to counter this by angling the thrust line up but this may put it back above the CG. And, the thrust line might still be above the CG if another lighter weight pilot flies.

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    $\begingroup$ Why would a gyrocopter have so much forward stick travel in the first place that using it will make it crash? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ Imagine what would happen if you were driving at normal highway speed and turned the wheel sharply all the way to the stop. Controls have to deal with the worst case such as maneuvering in a parking lot or pitching up during a landing flare. This does not mean that full or rapid control movement is safe or advisable at high speed. $\endgroup$
    – scientious
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 16:09

I believe what the comic is referencing is Mast Bumping. Rotor blades are very flexible, and for a bunch of reasons, are free to pivot around the mast.(The shaft the blades are spinning around) In normal flight, the blades are held taut by centrifugal forces and the weight of the rotor craft they are supporting. If a pilot were to suddenly push down on the Cyclic, you can create a low G, Zero G, or even a negative G situation. The blades are not having to support the weight of the aircraft anymore and the blades can potentially pivot so much as to strike the mast, tail, and even the fuselage.

So if an Autogyro pilot got into into a high angle of attack situation, and reacted by suddenly pushing the nose down into a zero G situation, the rotor blades would float weightlessly along with the aircraft. Its usually the next action that causes mast bumping. The pilot, out of his high AoA predicament, now pulls up to level off. The blades, still weightless, pivot without any resistance and strike the aircraft. This is rarely a survivable situation.

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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't mast bumping more specifically refer to the rotor head tilting to the point where it strikes the side of the rotor mast and fractures it? Maybe it includes the strikes to the of the aircraft as well, but I thought it was more specific. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ @EricHauenstein is correct (hence the term mast bumping.) Parts other than the mast can break in the course of the mishap, but you've got the basic process right. Additionally: this is predominantly an issue with teetering (e.g. 2-blade) rotors (which are common to most autogyro designs as they are the simplest to make.) $\endgroup$
    – Chad Frost
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 1:30

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