By Megan Malugani
On the ground, Tom Hall is a 6’4,” suit-and-tie wearing marketing executive at a retirement center who strides cheerfully through the halls greeting residents and chatting with colleagues. He seems so at home in his environment that it is hard to picture him anywhere else, especially folded into the small cockpit of a bright orange helicopter-airplane hybrid that some friends affectionately refer to as “Tom’s Flying Pumpkin.”
Hall leads two lives—on land and in the sky. And when he’s up in the air, clad in an orange hat and headphones while soaring over southeastern Minnesota in his experimental aircraft, Hall is in another dimension. “I can go 1,000 feet up in the air and feel a million miles away from work and home,” he says. “It’s not just physical but mental separation.”
It took Hall two years to build his experimental aircraft, called a gyroplane, from a kit. Since completing it and obtaining his license a few years ago, he flies his “sky scooter” two or three mornings or evenings a week if the weather is right.
Marketing Director at Charter House, a Mayo-affiliated retirement center in downtown Rochester.
A gyroplane (helicopter-airplane hybrid) pilot.
History of his hobby: Hall has flown single-engine aircraft since the early 1970s, and has parachuted from airplanes an estimated 300 times. About six years ago, he started to think about building an experimental aircraft.
Flight Of Fancy:
At the Oshkosh air show in 2001, Hall realized that a gyroplane met the criteria for what he wanted in an aircraft: It had two seats and the right price tag (approximately $25,000 for a kit). He decided to test it out. “The smartest thing was having my wife go up first,” he says. “When it landed, she said ‘can we get one of those?’ I said with total deadpan, ‘well, if you insist.’”
On Building The Aircraft:
Hall received his kit in 2002 and completed it in 2004. (A Federal Aviation Administration rule requires people who want to build experimental aircraft to do more than 50 percent of the assembly themselves.) The task required Hall to be meticulous and methodical, he says, and provided a tremendous amount of satisfaction. “Now when there is a task at home like repairing an appliance and I suggest having someone come in to do it, my wife says ‘If you can build an airplane, honey, you can certainly do ‘blank.’”
Hall’s first solo gyroplane flight was from Dodge Center Airport, where he keeps his craft. “It was kind of like the first time I rode a bike without training wheels as a kid. I knew how to do it but I was alone. It was exhilarating and a little frightening. Upon landing, it was very satisfying.”
Hall generally takes his gyroplane only 20 or 30 miles, and has flown to places like Austin, Owatonna, and Faribault. The aircraft can go to 10,000 feet, but Hall generally flies to 1,000 feet. “It’s a safe altitude, and also a great altitude to be viewing things on the ground,” he says. Aerial photography is one of his hobbies, and he photographs friends’ ranches and farms from the air. He also has aerial images of Gold Rush in Oronoco, Foster-Arend Pond, and other local landmarks.
According to Hall, there are roughly 1,000 gyroplanes in the country, and no others in southeastern Minnesota. The craft is 14 feet long with a 30-foot rotor. It weighs a little less than 800 pounds and can take 600 pounds up in the air. The gyroplane flies 70–80 mph (“not terribly fast in the aviation world”).
Two Lives Collide:
Hall’s wife and family members are his primary passengers, but he has also taken up three Charter House residents in his gyroplane. “I’m working slowly on the rides,” he says. Most relatives and friends “will get rides in due course.”