Special pilot report: The Lambada motorglider

July 23, 2008

It may look like a motorglider, but don’t be deceived. By maximizing versatility and minimizing energy, the Lambada is a multi-role airplane that may very well be the most efficient aircraft in production today.

At a cruise power setting, the 80-horsepower version burns around 3.5 gph at 100 knots. If you see puffy cumulus clouds en route and you’d rather be soaring, just shut off the engine and feather the prop. It becomes a highly capable sailplane with a 30-1 glide ratio. In that case, the fuel burn goes to zero.

In terms of versatility, the Lambada comes with two sets of wingtips, spanning either 49 or 42.6 feet. The rakish high-performance versions with winglets offer better soaring performance while the shorter tips with navigation lights provide slightly better cross-country speed and the option of night flying. The wingtips can be removed with the pull of pin, taking the span down to 40.5 feet for hangar storage. You can also fold the wings, and the airplane morphs into an object the size of a recreational sailboat for tighter storage or trailer duty.

The versatility doesn’t end there. As an option you can add nearly an eight-foot-long baggage tube for sporting equipment like skis and fishing rods. With its conventional landing gear and high prop clearance, the Lambada becomes an economical backcountry machine. Another option is a tail hook for towing pure gliders.

As a light sport aircraft, the Lambada also opens numerous training opportunities. It can be flown by sport pilots with glider privileges and private glider pilots with self-launch signoffs. In other words, no need for a medical certificate.

Built in the Czech Republic, the airplanes are distributed by Urban Air USA in Melbourne, Fla. All Lambadas come with a Magnum ballistic parachute recovery system. If you want more oomph, you can opt for the more powerful 100-hp Rotax. Either engine model likes to run on auto fuel, minus any ethanol additives, of course, or avgas.

The base price puts it at a tad over six figures. The glass panel package, featuring a Garmin GPS 496 and a Grand Rapids Technologies S200 Sport EFIS with moving map and graphic engine monitor, ups the price by $20,000.

Lambada motorglider

Base price: $115,000
Price as tested: $137,000

Specifications

Powerplant Rotax 912 UL 80 hp or 912 ULS2 100 hp
Length 21.66 ft
Height 4.75 ft
Cabin width 41.7 in
Wingspan 42.6 or 49 ft
Hangar storage wingspan 40.5 ft
Seats 2 (side by side)
Empty weight 682 lb
Gross weight 1,320 lb
Useful load 638 lb
Payload w/full fuel 479 lb
Fuel capacity 26.4 gallons
Baggage capacity 100 lb

Performance

Takeoff distance 400 ft
Landing distance 600 ft
Rate of climb, sea level, gross weight 1,000 fpm
Rate of climb, sea level, towing single-seat glider 690 fpm
Maximum cruise speed 105 kt @ 6,000 ft
Long-range cruise speed 90 kt @ 6,000 ft
Maximum speed 115 kt
Stall speed 38 kt
Range 850 nm
Glide ratio (long wings) 30 to 1 @ 61 kt
Glide ratio (short wings) 26 to 1 @ 68 kt
Minimum sink rate 210 fpm

Easy on the eyes

Its shapely composite structure, massive spoilers, and elegant wings catch quite a few eyes as it sits on the ramp at AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Md. From a distance, many think it’s a single-seater. Tilt the canopy back and a surprising amount of space opens up. It’s not until you’re sitting in it with another person do you realize that it’s roomier than you thought with a cabin width of 42 inches.

Behind the seats is a small baggage area. Because light sport airplanes are restricted to a gross weight of 1,320 pounds, you might wonder how you can haul two people, 100 pounds of baggage, and 26 gallons of fuel. Simple, it’s light, less than 700 pounds empty. You can push it with the ease of a grocery cart.

The simple and light mantra echoes from the design. The seats and the rudder pedals are non-adjustable, just use the appropriate number and size of cushions to give yourself the right fit. The brake lever is more mountain bike than airplane. It’s mounted on the pilot’s stick and responds with a weak handshake. The parking brake is a swivel device that, in turn—or in a few turns, I should say—locks the lever.

Adjust the choke, turn the key, and the little water-cooled 80-hp Rotax 912 springs to life. The trickiest thing on the ground is to remember the big wings; following the yellow lines won’t necessarily keep you out of trouble. Once you lead it a bit, the steerable tailwheel gets you around obstacles like business jets.

Easy takeoff

The takeoff is about as easy as it gets. I’m flying with Urban Air Sales Director Jim Lee, and he suggests we start the roll at midfield. Even though it’s a tailwheel airplane, it doesn’t require fancy footwork. Just put the stick in the neutral position, give it full throttle, and take off in the three-point position. In 400 feet or so we’re off the ground and climbing at 1,000 fpm at 60 kt. It’s a lot easier than being in a pure glider and getting beat up by propwash behind the tow plane.

The cockpit is nice and quiet under the tinted canopy as we set up for cruise at just under 5,000 rpm on the EFIS. Because of the reduction gearing, the engine is turning much faster than the prop. The airplane is amazingly light and responsive on the controls, much like a racing glider. Stalls are non-eventful. Pull the stick all the way back, hold, and it just hangs there buffeting. It shows no interest in misbehaving after some side-to-side movements.

Lee and I are disappointed the only cumulus cloud, a big fat monster, is sitting over the off-limits presidential retreat at Camp David. Oh well, that’s flying in the mid-Atlantic area for you. We turn off the engine anyway and feather the prop to see how it performs as a glider in calm air. The Lambada seems just as happy or even happier—it’s hard to tell—without fossil-fuel-assistance and the control harmony is excellent.

Easy landing

As is always the case with a fun airplane, time goes by too quickly. The engine fires right up and we head back to Frederick Municipal Airport. The landing is where you have to decide beforehand whether you’re flying a glider or an airplane. In other words, is the engine running or not?

Since we’re under power, I decide to do a power-on landing, but with a more glider-like approach of pulling the power back to idle while abeam the runway numbers on downwind.

What many pure airplane pilots might not understand is just how precise you can be with spoilers as opposed to flaps. Yank open the barn doors on the upper surface of the wings and you can control the descent for a spot landing. Then all you do is assume the three-point attitude and hold it off until it settles.

The only tricky part is the sensitivity of the rudder pedals. Lee advises me to go easy and not overcorrect, thus inducing pilot oscillation. He’s right and I wish I’d done a better job of locking in the centerline. The ground roll is about 600 feet.

Easy rider

The Lambada opens numerous possibilities for adventure with minimal impact on the environment or the wallet.

Before our demo flight, Lee flew it from Melbourne to central New Jersey, a distance of 950 miles, on one tank of gas. He figures the annual inspection should run about $300 and with the low insurance premiums, every flight is a cheap date, especially if you take advantage of thermal and wind-generated soaring conditions.

Of course you can look at it a different way and see the ship primarily as a glider whose engine is only there to get you to the best surfing. Or maybe you have a favorite fly-fishing stream near a grass strip. How you get there is between you and your Lambada.