The Spirit of Kitty Hawk Returns—Igor Benson and His Gyrocopter

Since the Wright Brothers proved that heavier than air flight was possible, inventors have dreamed of creating an aircraft that would be for everyone. An aircraft that would be inexpensive, safe, easy to fly, and would take up no more room than the car in the garage.

That was the dream of Igor Benson, a Russian born aeronautical engineer, when he flew his Spirit of Kitty Hawk at the Wright Brothers Monument on December 17, 1959.

Benson was no fly-by-night inventor. After earning his degree, he worked with Igor Sikorsky, considered by many to be the preeminent helicopter designer of his time. He then worked as a research scientist at General Electric.

In 1953 he founded his own company, the Bensen Aircraft Corporation, at the Raleigh Durham Airport. His dream was to mass-produce an affordable flying machine.

A gyrocopter is a cross between a helicopter and a propeller-driven plane. The propeller is behind the pilot, pushing the aircraft through the air. The forward speed of the aircraft causes the rotors above the cockpit to rotate, creating lift.

Igor Bensen Gyrocopter Air and Space Museum
Photo – Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Even if the engine stops, a gyrocopter does not fall out of the sky. As long as the pilot can maintain forward speed, the rotors will continue to spin, generating lift. Hopefully a pilot in that situation would put the aircraft into a shallow descent to maintain airspeed.

Like the Wright Brothers, Benson first experimented with a kite design. His first aircraft was a gyro-kite, designed to be towed into the air. The aircraft could also be launched in 25mph wind.

As a glider, the gyro-kite would typically fly for about 15 minutes, although wind conditions would affect that.

But Benson had bigger plans, and in 1955 his gyrocopter model B8, powered by a small engine, demonstrated the potential of the aircraft.

The Benson Aircraft Corporation went on to specialize in selling plans for his gyrocopters and the company sold quite a number of kits.

Consumers could buy plans for $30 or a do-it-yourself kit for $1795.

Estimates put the number over 12,000 before the company closed its doors in 1987.

To know what the Benson Gyrocopter looked like, check the 1967 James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice.” That’s a Benson Gyrocopter, although the company did not include rocket launchers with their kits.

Igor Bensen Gyrocopter Air and Space Museum Army
Photo – Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Benson, along with being a brilliant engineer, knew how to promote his product.

In 1959 he and his gyrocopter returned to the Outer Banks.

“Gyrocopter and Jets are Ready for December 17” the December 11, 1959, headline announced in the weekly Coastland Times.

The article went on to tell readers, “Igor Benson’s gyrocopter the “Spirit of Kitty Hawk” will be demonstrated here at Kill Devil Hills during the 56th-anniversary celebration of the Wright Brothers first flight on December 17…it was announced by David Stick, chairman of the Wright Memorial Society’s museum committee. The gyrocopter which will be making its first public demonstration in North Carolina was invented by Benson.”

Benson’s flight was not the only first for a gyrocopter on the Outer Banks. According to a June 24, 1971 article in the Coastland Times headlined, “Another First as Gyrocopter Bumps Down in Kill Devil Hills,” the flight of Ken Brock was the first transcontinental flight of the aircraft. “California flight enthusiast Ken Brock bumped down at First Flight Airport…in a tiny gyrocopter Monday claimed a transcontinental first and said he made the trip ‘to prove I could do it,’” the paper reported.

Igor Benson made a second appearance at the Wright Brothers Monument in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of flight on December 17,1963.