Instructor, Student Safe After Gunshot Drills Prop
Somebody in Utah doesn't
like gyroplanes, and he has a pretty blunt way of showing it.
That's the most likely conclusion as flight instructor Michael
Burton and a student took ground fire over Springville on August
They were conducting a normal training flight in an American
Autogyro Inc. Sparrowhawk gyroplane, N801AG, at about 1800 local.
The pilots didn't know at the time exactly what happened, only that
there was an unfamiliar, loud pop, and thereafter a whistling
On the ground it was clear where the unfamiliar noises came
from. The carbon fiber propeller of the gyro had a jagged hole from
the rear towards the front. It was clearly not something caused by
a foreign object damage, which leaves a v-shaped nick in the
leading edge of the propeller.
Burton and his student were puzzling over the cause of the
remarkable hole -- FOD also doesn't overtake an aircraft in flight
from behind and below -- when some Vietnam veterans who happened to
be at AirGyro Aviation recognized the ugly aperture.
"That's a bullet hole. Somebody took a shot at you."
A Bullet Hole
Law enforcement experts who have examined the damaged propeller
blade agree. Their consensus seems to be that the hole was made by
a .30 caliber (7.62 mm) high-powered rifle. As the machine was over
an urban, populated area at the time, the shot is unlikely to have
The bullet passed
through the propeller blade and appears not to have struck any
other part of the gyro's structure. This absent bullet complicates
Air-Gyro manager Nate Oldham told Aero-News that a bullet
manufacturer who examined the hole did not find trace metals such
as lead or copper that he would expect to find with common
store-bought or handloaded hunting ammunition. This suggests that
the round may have been military surplus. The bullet manufacturer
was relieve that his own product did not appear to be
Many .30 caliber weapons could have made the hole including
popular hunting rifles like the Winchester 30-30 or the .300
Remington Magnum, World War surplus American military weapons, and
common Soviet era foreign weapons like the AK-47, SKS, and
In any case, the core problem is not the rifle per se but the
individual picking it up and firing it at an aircraft. The
Springville police department is investigating the case as
attempted murder and aggravated assault, both felonies.
A spokesman for the FBI admitted that Federal law had been
violated, but didn't indicate that the bureau had any real interest
in pursuing the shooter, given the paucity of evidence.
Anonymous Commenters Support Shooter
Some commenters on the
Provo, Utah Herald newspaper's website sympathized not with the
targets of the shooting, but with the shooter, hiding behind
anonymity or false names. "I would be surprised if this were the
first aircraft shooting in this area. With all the helicopter [sic]
and airplanes now coming from the Spanish Fork airport there is a
lot of frustration about the buzzing and noise it has brought to
the area," one anonymous "Guest" wrote, apparently in support
of the crime. "Almost daily you can see a multitude of airborne
stunts, rolls and round and round flips over Springville, Mapleton
and the county."
Another who styled himself "Matt Damon" said, "If aircraft from
the Springfield [sic] airport are flying low enough to be hit by
rifle fire from the ground, they are deliberately aggravating the
people who live in Springfield. They are also flying below FAA
minimums over populated areas."
"Damon" -- whoever he is, it's a safe bet he is not the
notoriously inarticulate actor -- did call the gunman "insane," but
then reverted to blaming the pilots for "endangering and
aggravating people intentionally."
Other anonymous commenters took these to task. One insinuated
that the "lot of frustration" poster might be the shooter.
The Spanish Forks/Springville airport, where the flight
originated and landed, far from being the incipient O'Hare
portrayed by the commenters, is reported to have about twenty
aircraft in operation daily. But Oldham, the Air-Gyro manager, told
Aero-News that the shooter may have warned his intended target --
ironically, a different flight school.
"There are a lot of flight training operations in that area, and
some people are upset about it," Oldham said. "You know, there are
probably 300 active students in this area. We've never heard
anything directly, but there have been rumors -- just rumors --
about threats to other schools, that if they kept flying they would
get shot. One school in particular, a helicopter school. But nobody
ever threatened us."
And of course, a gyroplane, to the kind of yoyo who would fire
at an aircraft... "looks just like a helicopter, right," Oldham
finished my sentence. "Ours especially. The gyroplane we train in
-- the AAI Sparrowhawk, with its cabin -- resembles a helicopter
more than some other gyros do."
And of course, a gyroplane is pretty easy to hit -- they don't
go terribly fast. Nate Oldham and I had a
funny-but-it's-not-really-so-funny laugh at that.
The tough carbon fiber prop of the Sparrowhawk held together
despite the damage. Oldham shudders to think what the bullet would
have done to a wooden prop -- like the one on his company's Diamond
Was Shooter Shooting To Kill?
Was the shooter
shooting to kill, or to just scare away aerial traffic? Either is a
possibility. The bullet struck only two feet from Michael Burton's
head, or his student's. Fortunately, whether homicide was the
shooter's intent, or merely a highly likely outcome of his gross
negligence, it didn't actually happen.
For Michael Burton, it was good enough to be lucky -- this
But if the shooter wanted to keep Burton and his gyro out of the
air over southwest Springville and south Utah County, he's
succeeded, at least until he's arrested. Burton will be back in his
flying classroom, "doing what I love to do," he told the Deseret
News. But he won't be flying in the area where someone tried to
blow him out of the sky.
Second Shooting This Month
AirGyro's Sparrowhawk is at least the second rotorcraft engaged
by gunfire by persons unknown on the ground in the Southwest this
month. As previously reported in Aero-News, the Bernalillo County
Sheriff's Department (Albuquerque, NM) Metro 1 helicopter, an MD
Helicopters (formerly Hughes) 500, was shot down by gunfire
Wednesday. A bullet fired by persons unknown on the ground struck
an anti-torque pedal, spraying the cabin with fragmentary shrapnel
and wounding both crewmen. Most recent reports indicate that the
pilot will have some permanent damage as a result of his
Air-Gyro was founded to sell Sparrowhawk gyroplanes (file photo,
shown below) and train gyro pilots. It also conducts training from
sport pilot through advanced ratings in single and multiengine
airplanes. "Many of our gyro students are training to a level of
proficiency so that they can then safely fly ultralight
gyroplanes," Oldham says. "The ones that train for actual gyro
ratings, and take their examinations, are usually Sparrowhawk
owners. You know, you make that kind of investment in a flying
machine, you want to take everybody you know flying in it!"
(Unlicensed ultralight pilots are strictly limited to flying
What's it been like dealing with Groen Brothers? "AAI has been
great. We've never had a problem with them," he told us. He
admitted some concern when AAI founding president Jim Mayfield left
the company last year, but "there was no change, nothing, same
great service. A lot of interesting things are happening there with
respect to Groen's bigger aircraft, too." Oldham remains in touch
with Mayfield, who also instructs in Arizona and is one of only two
Designated Examiners for gyroplane ratings nationwide. "Jim's doing
Mike Burton, the instructor on the flight that was attacked, is
Air-Gyro's chief flight instructor. He's currently traveling (for
the very best of reasons, having nothing to do with this incident)
and unavailable for comment, but we'll be talking to him when he's