Company test pilot and flight instructor Harrison Smith pushed the throttle forward, touched the brakes to bring the tail up, deployed full flaps, and rotated—not your typical takeoff procedure, but this is not your typical aircraft. The SuperSTOL Stretch XL lifted off in a hurry, and pitched up to about 45 degrees above the horizon. And stayed there.
In most aircraft, this would be a recipe for disaster. In the newest model of SuperSTOL from South Carolina’s Just Aircraft, the SuperSTOL Stretch XL, it was a routine departure.
For pilots accustomed to more typical taildraggers, it can take some getting used to, Smith confirmed.
Up front, the six-cylinder UL 520i purred away, tugging the red two-seater skyward at this seemingly impossible angle. Not having a stopwatch handy, the time to climb to 400 feet (the maximum allowable altitude in this particular airspace at the fringe of the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo) was a matter of guesswork, but safe to say we leveled off in well under a minute, and accelerated from roughly 40 knots (the Stretch XL rotates about 35 knots, Smith reports) to about 80 knots—not far from the 90-knot cruise that the Stretch XL will deliver at 2,500 rpm with this particular powerplant—and smoothly, too. There was hardly any noticeable vibration, even at full power.
The Stretch XL is two feet longer aft and six inches longer forward of the firewall than the original SuperSTOL, an extension that allows installation of a range of engines, including the Lycoming O-320. The lighter and more powerful UL 520i is a good match, weighing 255 pounds and able to burn automotive gasoline with up to 15 percent ethanol, Smith noted, augmenting the airplane’s go-anywhere capability. Theoretically, it can take off and land in less space than the typical gas station parking lot (not recommended, but this is an airplane that, when flown to its full potential, needs less than 100 feet of flat ground for takeoff or landing). Smith said putting it down between the pitcher’s mound and home plate on a Major League Baseball diamond, a distance of 60 feet, six inches, is doable.
Those shock absorbers, by the way, can safely cushion a touchdown at up to 700 feet per minute of vertical descent, if you want to push it.
Smith eyed a relatively small farm field off the wing, but opted not to demonstrate just how well the 29-inch Alaska Bushwheel tires and nitrogen-charged shocks can handle rough terrain—best not to get into any trouble dropping in uninvited, he said. Still, cruising low and slow presented any number of landing options that would be unthinkable in most aircraft, including back yards.
“It’s a motorcycle with wings,” Smith said, then later reconsidered that assessment: No, it’s “a dirt bike with wings.”
Or, a helicopter with fixed wings—pick your metaphor.
Though extended, the Stretch XL has the same center of gravity arms as the original SuperSTOL, with very similar handling, Smith said. The extra horsepower translates into faster climbs (up to 3,000 feet per minute during test flights), if not faster cruises. It’s not an airplane made to go fast—it is, instead, an inventive compromise of lift and drag, particularly noticeable when those leading edge slats pop forward from aerodynamic force alone following a slight tug on the stick to scrub airspeed. That slat deployment, Smith explained, serves as a reliable visual indicator that the airspeed has dropped sufficiently to deploy the fowler flaps to their full 40-degree extension and set up for a landing.
The half-hour flight included landings at the grass strip at South Lakeland Airport requiring a small fraction of the published 2,412 feet of turf, though Smith opted for less extreme performance. The lockable tailwheel helps new pilots with limited tailwheel time get used to the airplane with less concern about tracking, though it’s best to keep it straight just the same.
Back in the air, the doors (basically all window, mounted in a thin metal tube frame) were kept closed, though Smith said the airplane can be flown with doors open, or removed entirely. It is not, after all, particularly fast. But it burns just 6.2 gallons an hour at 90 knots, and carries 27 useable gallons in the wings. There is plenty of time to enjoy the view.
The SuperSTOL Stretch XL is slightly more expensive than the original SuperSTOL. Smith said the firewall-aft kit costs $2,600 more than the firewall-aft SuperSTOL, priced at $41,700, a somewhat lower price than a company spokesman quoted previously when the new model was first announced, though a company staffer said at the time the price was still being determined. The company brochure recommends potential customers to “please inquire” about the price of the StretchXL.
Practically speaking, Smith said, it will cost between $70,000 and $95,000 for the complete aircraft, depending on engine and avionics options selected. Build time is estimated between 800 and 1,000 hours, and Just Aircraft has a factory assist option available. The aircraft also can be purchased fully assembled as a used, amateur-built aircraft, priced according to options selected.
Not bad, for an honest-to-goodness bush airplane able to land just about anywhere, and launch skyward again like a piston-powered rocket.