Gyroplanes are one of the last remaining secrets in the aviation community. Despite the fact that gyroplanes (also called gyrocopters and autogyros) first appeared in 1923 and enjoyed some years of popularity, few general aviation pilots know much about them. Helicopters took over the scene during World War II, and most people forgot about gyroplanes, though magazines like Popular Mechanics ran classified ads with gyroplane plans during the '50s and '60s. In the late 1980s, an enormous gyroplane renaissance happened with regard to technical developments, and a new era was born. Today, in many countries, gyroplanes are everywhere, and that surge of popularity is finally coming to our own GA world. Gyroplanes are, in fact, alive and flourishing.
There's one critical fact that must be understood before any meaningful discussion of gyroplanes can take place: They're not helicopters. Gyroplanes share much more with fixed-wing aircraft than they do with helicopters.
The rotating wings of a helicopter (the "rotor") are driven directly by an engine. Those rotors move great masses of air downward, allowing a helicopter to hover, and those same blades also create forward thrust. The rotating wings of the gyroplane, however, are free spinning and aren't connected to the engine. They provide lift as they spin freely through the air, like those little propellers you get at the fair with a dowel through them that you spin in the palms of your hand, and they fly up and away. Not having engine-driven rotors means gyroplanes can't hover. Gyroplanes use a "pusher" propeller for forward thrust.
This single quality provides a lot of advantages over both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. First, a gyroplane can fly slower than an airplane and won't stall. A gyroplane can almost hover because it needs very little forward speed to stay in the air (about five to 10 knots). That means that an engine failure in a gyroplane is a nonevent. The craft will float down in autorotation like a parachute. A gyroplane flies in permanent autorotation. That virtue makes gyroplanes extraordinarily safe.
A gyroplane has no torque because its blades are powered by air, so no tail rotor is needed. At the same time, most gyroplanes can fly as fast as a helicopter or GA airplane (about 100 knots) and can be flown in winds that would ground a helicopter or GA aircraft. Thus, the gyroplane is an exceedingly stable flying platform, unlike helicopters. Also, gyroplanes are true STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft that can land in 50-100 feet (remember, they don't hover or take off vertically like helicopters). Gyroplanes have very high wing loading because their rotor blades have little total area, relying on rotational speed, rather than size, to generate lift. This gives them exceptional utility for a variety of tasks.
Last, gyroplanes can be purchased and operated for a fraction of the cost of GA aircraft and for about 10% of the acquisition cost of a helicopter. Helicopters are famous for their vast mechanical complexity with their host of moving parts that rely on each other to operate properly. A gyroplane, however, will provide 90% of the capability of the helicopter for 1/10th the price. The gyroplane's simplicity makes it as easy to maintain as a motorcycle. Also, you can fly them under sport-pilot rules with a "driver's license" medical. Combine non-stall design with extraordinary maneuverability, near-hover slow flight, unmatched stability, good speed and low cost, and you can see why those who have discovered gyroplanes are smitten.