First Look

Sport Planes Are Here!

September 1, 2005

AOPA staff fly the first batch

AOPA Pilot editors and staff recently flew a number of new light sport airplanes that visited AOPA in Frederick, Maryland, following a nationwide barnstorming tour sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association and the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association. The tour began in California, went through St. Louis, Missouri, and ended up in Pennsylvania. What appears below are AOPA staff's first impressions based on very brief flights.

Look for continuing coverage of light sport airplanes in AOPA Pilot, beginning with a full-length pilot report on the Flight Design CT Sport next month.

In general, the light-sport aircraft appearing here are priced at $60,000 to $95,000, which is inexpensive compared to today's new-aircraft prices. All are limited by light-sport regulations to two seats, a maximum cruise speed of 120 knots and a maximum gross weight of 1,320 pounds. Light-sport aircraft on floats can be slightly heavier.

Light Sport Aircraft

  • Max takeoff weight 1,320 lb (1,430 lb for seaplanes).
  • Two occupants.
  • Single, nonturbine-powered engine.
  • Stall speed 45 kt (52 mph).
  • Max airspeed 120 kt (138 mph).
  • Fixed-pitch propeller.
  • Fixed landing gear.

If you have only a sport pilot certificate, you will be limited to day-VFR flying — but the limitation is on the pilot, not the aircraft. Most aircraft listed here can be flown at night by qualified pilots, and one is IFR capable. For a briefing on light sport aircraft details, see AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/sportpilot/).

Generally, you'll find that most light sport aircraft require more attention to rudder control than typical general aviation aircraft, said several of the demo pilots visiting AOPA. So get ready to use those feet. Nearly all the aircraft are foreign built and several have been in production for many years with hundreds of models flying worldwide. Many are Rotax powered, one uses a 100-horsepower Continental engine, and two have the Australian-built Jabiru engine, which drew high praise from AOPA staff. They are all fixed-gear aircraft by regulation. Many offer full glass cockpits with electronic flight and engine instruments and moving-map GPS displays as either standard equipment or as options. Some now offer or are considering aircraft parachutes. Weights of many of the aircraft are in a state of flux, even for those already approved by the FAA, so useful loads and payloads are not reported here.

Here's what we flew, and what we thought. Keep in mind that many of these aircraft are still being refined, a process that is thankfully easier for a light sport aircraft manufacturer than for those producing Part 23 airplanes. We point out some deficiencies in these early airplanes that are easily fixed for customer-delivered airplanes.

Thorpedo T211

The IndUS Thorpedo T211 that came to Frederick wasn't the one that will be sold to the public, although it has already gained FAA approval. It had 25-foot wings because the wing tips that result in 26.5-foot wings were not yet manufactured. As a result, high sink rates in the flare were noticed that had to be anticipated carefully. It also lacked aileron seals that a company official said contribute to that sink rate as well as difficulty with performing side slips in crosswinds. All delivered Thorpedoes will have aileron gap seals. "The longer wing is a completely different airplane," a company official said. The wing tips are now available at the factory in Dallas and AOPA staff are eager to fly one with aileron seals and the longer wing.

The aircraft has a prestigious legacy in that it was designed in the 1940s by the late John Thorp, who played a key role in the design of the Piper Cherokee line. It was fully certified by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, predecessor to the FAA, and grandfathered in by the FAA in later years. It is speedy in the takeoff and offers an impressive climb angle to viewers on the ground. An airspeed test revealed a cruise speed of 103 knots, or 3 knots better than the company promises.

That said, here is what one AOPA staff member thought: "The Thorp is a bit of a disappointment. There are sharp edges in the cockpit that could be a problem in a crash. It isn't that comfortable and seemed primitive. It flies like a heavier airplane and would be a good ride if the air is bumpy." Company officials said they are planning to improve the interior.

The aircraft will appeal to pilots who want a peppy, spirited airplane. The aircraft has the advantage of the 120-horsepower Jabiru engine that so many AOPA staff pilots liked. Cockpit controls can be improved. There is no trim indicator yet, and the hand brake can be confused with the flap lever. (The company is considering the use of color coding.) For information, visit the Web site ( www.indusav.com).

StingSport

The StingSport, already approved by the FAA, was a favorite of the AOPA staff. The composite tricycle-gear aircraft is built by TL-Ultralight in the Czech Republic and is distributed by SportairUSA in Little Rock, Arkansas. Aircraft now on order are averaging $88,000 including options.

"A very jazzy machine," one AOPA staff member said of this carbon-fiber aircraft. "Nice performance, nice stall characteristics, well put together. It has powerful control surfaces and a strong rudder, which is something many of these homebuilt derivatives are weak on. I also like the idea that the airplane has a parachute in it." Other staff members commented on the good visibility and balanced flight controls (referring to stick-and-rudder forces required by the pilot).

The airframe has a Galaxy Recovery Systems (GRS) ballistic parachute built in Germany as standard equipment. Strobe lights are standard, but there is a $1,585 lighting package option that prepares the aircraft for night flight.

The company has 15 orders, and there are already 20 experimental StingSport aircraft flying in the United States that were purchased as kits before the Light Sport category was approved by the FAA. To learn more, visit the Web site ( www.sportair-usa.com).

Legend Cub

American Legend Aircraft's Legend Cub, made the old tube-and-fabric way in Sulphur Springs, Texas, appeals to the nostalgic vintage market. There are four differences compared to Piper-built Cubs: It is 3 inches wider, and has fuel tanks in the wing to allow solo flight from the front or back, an electrical system, and doors on both sides that open in the traditional way — top half up and bottom half down.

"It's a better Cub than a Cub," said one staff member. It is a modified design that incorporates the best features of the original Piper J-3, the PA-11, and PA-18 Super Cub. Approval of the FAA special airworthiness certificate was in progress at the time this was written. There are 30 orders and the base price was increased July 1 to between $70,000 and $80,000 but was undetermined at this writing. Options include full glass-cockpit instrumentation for $7,100.

"I liked its electric starter," said one staff member. "That and the two side doors jumped out at me as being nicer than the original. Ease of entry is the same. Handling is very much the same. But it has the standard heel brakes rather than toe brakes. Given the issues we have with low-time tailwheel pilots and students, for them, toe brakes would have helped a lot." A second AOPA staffer said, "The good news is that it re-creates the Cub experience. The bad news is that it is a tailwheel aircraft with all the challenges of a tailwheel airplane." For more information, visit the Web site ( www.legendaircraftcompany.com).

Tecnam P92 Echo Super

The Italian-built Tecnam P92 Echo Super also was well received by the AOPA staff. The 113-knot aircraft is distributed by Hansen Air Group in Kennesaw, Georgia. It is FAA approved and the first delivery has been made to a customer who plans to commute from Texas to Florida. There are nine orders for this all-aluminum airplane that has a tubular-steel frame protecting the cockpit.

"It was more like a trainer, and abrupt in the stall like a Cessna 150, which tends to drop a wing," said one AOPA staff member. (The company answered that by saying a new model, the Bravo, will be available soon and will not drop a wing in the stall.) "Nice visibility and nicely executed," the staff member added. Fit and finish, especially on the entry doors, stood out from the rest.

Another said, "The Tecnam is a great little airplane. It has a rabbit takeoff and I couldn't get it to come down — it wanted to fly. Controls were responsive, but it is easy to get it into uncoordinated flight." A company spokesman answered that complaint by saying GA pilots will have to learn to use their feet when transitioning to light-sport aircraft.

The company claims it's the first light sport aircraft (it looks almost too big) to be IFR capable. The base price is $79,900 (the average out-the-door price is now $85,000 with options), but jumps to $116,000 if IFR equipped. It was well behaved in the air and offered plenty of visibility from a roomy cockpit. The company offers five models and all will be approved in the Light Sport category. There are 1,700 of the aircraft already flying worldwide, a confidence builder for U.S. customers. For more information, visit the Web site ( www.tecnamaircraft.com).

Kappa KP-5

AOPA staff felt that the Kappa KP-5 was a strong performer. The all-aluminum KP-5 is built in the Czech Republic by Jihlavan Airplanes and is marketed by E.R. Miller Enterprises in Pocono Pines, Pennsylvania. The aircraft is unusual in that the two seats are staggered, with the left seat slightly ahead of the right one. The company said that is done for two reasons: shoulder room and weight and balance.

FAA approval was granted July 19, and company officials said there are 20 orders. Here's what one AOPA staff member thought: "The Kappa was faster than I thought it would be. The side-by-side seating was nice and would be very comfortable in an instructor environment. Acceleration is fantastic — by the time the throttle is smoothly moved to full, you are ready to rotate. It has a really good climb rate and fantastic visibility." The aircraft has trailing-link landing gear.

One pilot reported that minor engine vibration in a limited rpm range when at lower power was similar to other Rotax engines he has flown. The company answered that vibration can be felt on final approach, but use of flaps allows power to be set higher and eliminates vibration. Another staff member thought the mechanical flap system was difficult to operate. The company answered that the Fowler flaps must be used below a certain airspeed — otherwise, there is a lot of pressure on the flap handle.

A third staff member said that while the canopy offers great visibility, as a short person she had difficulty seeing over the nose during takeoff from the right seat. The company answered that the aircraft has a steep climb angle at takeoff ("part of what makes it fun"), and use of one notch of flaps reduces the climb angle. That setting was not used during the demo flight. The aircraft is offered in 80-horsepower and 100-horsepower models. For information, visit the Web site ( www.kappaaircraft.com).

Jabiru J250

Jabiru makes a great 120-horsepower six-cylinder engine, AOPA staffers agree, but they had differing opinions about the fiberglass airplane built by the same Australian company. In fairness, the aircraft is a work in progress, at least for the light-sport market. It is already used as a trainer in Australia. The aircraft is distributed in the United States by Jabiru USA Sport Aircraft in Shelbyville, Tennessee. The aircraft the AOPA staff flew was actually a kit version built some time ago as a demonstrator, not the actual light-sport aircraft that will be offered. The actual aircraft was not expected to win FAA approval until late summer.

"Ground handling was nice. It was kind of a stock airplane with no surprises and no real excitement," said one staff member. "It was nicer than the Kappa because of the Jabiru versus the Rotax engine. The Jabiru engine is smooth throughout all rpm ranges. The door closures need work. My door was sprung on the right side." Company officials said the door problem is being addressed and the closures will be changed to door latches more like those on a Cessna.

Another pilot said the Jabiru was "not ready for prime time. Aerodynamics were OK, though." A company official said he was aware of opinions about the aircraft's appearance, and said improved painting and interior enhancements will be included on the version for the light-sport market. It also will have a wider instrument panel and the throttle, now jutting from the upper portion of the panel, will be moved to the bottom of the panel.

The Jabiru engine requires some adjustment by pilots used to Lycoming or Continental engines with a maximum rpm of 2,700. The Jabiru's top rpm is 3,300 and it cruises at 2,900 rpm. It needs 2,100 rpm to maintain level flight. For more information, visit the Web site ( www.usjabiru.com).

Allegro 2000

It seems odd that a Czech Republic firm would have an American-sounding name, but that is the case with the Fantasy Air Allegro. In the United States, Fantasy Air will build the aircraft at Sportplane Works in Sanford, North Carolina. There are 450 of the aircraft flying in Europe and 17 in the United States, with orders for nine more at the time of this writing. Prices start at $55,000 and go up to $63,000 for the aircraft with a metal wing and composite fuselage.

Among one of the sharpest looking of the light sport aircraft on the AOPA ramp, the Allegro showed its ultralight heritage. While all light sport airplanes are, by regulation, light weight, the light wing loading seemed more apparent in the Allegro. Winds were not high when the demo flight occurred, yet the aircraft seemed to react to gusts more than some.

One AOPA staff member called it "kite-like." An Allegro representative said the aircraft requires pilots to use their feet more than in a heavier FAR Part 23 general aviation aircraft.

Visibility, particularly below, was excellent. You can look almost straight down through the clear plastic helicopter-like doors. The Allegro can be built from a kit or simply let the factory do the honors.

Also visiting AOPA headquarters were Evektor-Aerotechnik's SportStar and Remos Aircraft's G-3. Because of insurance and registration issues, however, AOPA staff did not get a chance to fly these airplanes.


Links to additional information about light sport aircraft may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links.shtml).