“It’s an absolute monster,” said Doug Vayda, chief pilot at Southeast Aero, worldwide dealer for Extra Aircraft, and a veteran aerobatic pilot. “You simply cannot believe the things it’s capable of.”
Usually upbeat, unfailingly energetic, and a cutting wit, Vayda gets strangely somber when he briefs pilots prior to their first flights in the Extra 330SC.
“The airplane is far stronger than you, or any human,” says Vayda, who test flies almost every new Extra assembled in the United States. “Pull hard and the Gs will come on so fast you’ll go night-night. This airplane can hurt you.”
The no-compromises, single-seat SC model is the lightest, strongest (plus or minus 10 Gs), most maneuverable aircraft the German firm has ever sold, and it forgoes creature comforts to accomplish its one and only purpose: winning aerobatic competitions.
At that, the SC has no equal.
Pilots flying SCs have won the past three world aerobatic championships, and four of the last five. The French national team has flown SCs to multiple world titles, and the airplane is so dominant that Russia—for decades a world leader in aerobatic airplane design, production, and competition—has replaced its home-grown Sukhois with SCs.
Only a miniscule fraction of the world’s most elite aerobatic competitors and airshow performers can fly the SC to its full potential—and I’m definitely not in their league. Aerobatic flying, for me, has always been about fun, personal challenge, education, and camaraderie, and I’ve pursued those aspects of the sport by owning and flying a succession of mostly single-seat airplanes (Pitts S–1, Van’s Aircraft RV–3).
I’ve long admired the Extra series and even provided some dual instruction in an Extra 300L; I ferried an EA–300 across the continent. A fiddler like me rarely gets a chance to play a Stradivarius, however, so when aerobatic competitor and SC owner Jeff Petrocelli said he’d let me take his airplane for a flight at his home airport in Shirley, New York, I was on my way as soon as the sun came out—with Vayda’s cautionary admonishments replaying in my ears.
“Don’t think about extracting maximum performance from the airplane,” he said. “Think about staying conscious. The SC is a beast.”
A lion on a leash
On the ground, the SC projects craftsmanship, symmetry, and refinement in addition to raw power.
Petrocelli’s airplane, N330MP, is serial number 75, and its flawless black and green paint glimmers on glassy carbon fiber inside Petrocelli’s hangar at Brookhaven Airport. (Mike Ciliberti’s red 330SC appears in the accompanying photographs.) An impossibly thick, wide-chord, three-blade MT propeller hints at the power of the 315-horsepower Lycoming IO-580 under the cowl, and the sleek airframe sits at a relatively high deck angle to provide ground clearance for the prop.
A side-hinged, optically perfect canopy opens to a spartan cockpit and minimalist instrument panel. There are no attitude or navigational instruments, no heater, and no insulation. Every sound and vibration from the massive engine is transmitted straight to the pilot through a rigid, steel-tube frame and a light, thin carbon fiber skin.
Petrocelli had flown an Extra 200 in the International Aerobatic Club’s Advanced category for several years before stepping up to the SC, and he said the new airplane was a big step both financially and physically.
“I was looking for a used SC for a long time, but they simply don’t exist,” he said. “No one who owns one is selling.”
“Don’t think about extracting maximum performance from the airplane. Think about staying conscious.”—Doug Vayda
Petrocelli placed an order for a new SC in early 2018, and it arrived from Germany six months later.
“The first time I flew the airplane, I felt like I was holding a lion on a leash,” he said. “Then the lion saw a gazelle and bolted after it. From the moment I advanced the throttle, I was just holding on.”
It took about a half-dozen flights before Petrocelli felt he could fly individual maneuvers with precision, and then he began putting entire aerobatic sequences together. This year, he plans to fly in several aerobatic contests, including the U.S. Nationals (to be held in Salina, Kansas, starting September 21).
“At first, I wondered whether I’d ever get a grip on this airplane,” he said. “On my first few practice flights in an aerobatic box, I gained so much altitude that I finished too high—and that’s unheard of in just about any other airplane.
“Also, flying the SC is physically exhausting. I can only do a couple of practice flights a day in the SC before I’m worn out. But the experience of flying it gets better and better, and eventually, you get dialed into it.”
The SC is certified by EASA, the European aviation regulatory agency, but not the FAA. Here, it’s licensed in the Experimental/Exhibition category. Vayda says he prefers it that way since U.S. owners can make changes, such as installing boosted Lycoming Thunderbolt engines and glass-panel instrumentation. Petrocelli’s airplane is stock, however, and he intends to keep it that way.
“It’s everything a pilot could ask of an aerobatic airplane,” he said.
Confidence and terror
Strapping into the SC for the first time is akin to what I imagine a rodeo rider feels when saddling up in the gate.
You sink deep into the cockpit, and a double, ratcheting harness cinches you to an ergonomically perfect, molded seat. Petrocelli and I are about the same height, but he likes the rudder pedals close because bending improves G tolerance. He offers to move the manually adjustable rudder pedals, but I decide to try it his way. I’ll take any G-tolerance help I can get.
Petrocelli wears football hip pads under the seatbelts to protect from gouging and bruising during negative-G maneuvers, but I forgo them and will stick to positive-G maneuvers on this introductory flight.
The SC has fuel tanks in both wings and the fuselage, and I select the 26-gallon fuselage tank for this local-area flight. (The wing tanks, normally used for ferry trips, are empty.)
The seat is just aft of the wing—and sitting so far back gives the impression when looking forward that the airplane is much longer than it actually is. The throttle is positioned next to the pilot’s left hip, and the prop and mixture adjusted via Vernier controls.
The SC is exquisitely engineered and crafted, yet it inspires both confidence and terror. The airplane wants to lunge forward during engine run-up, the MT prop hisses like a snake, and it’s so loud and full of pulsating energy at just 1,800 rpm I almost dread the cacophony that will erupt at full power.
There’s little time to stew about it, however, because the engine gauges are in the green, my checklist is complete, and I’m number one for takeoff. I try to sound calm as I announce my intentions on CTAF. Lined up with Runway 24, I judiciously apply full power, and the SC is off the ground and climbing after a slingshot-like 5-second, 600-foot ground roll.
P-factor during takeoff and climb is easily countered with light pedal pressure and a highly authoritative rudder, and the airplane surges ahead at 140 KIAS during a 10-degree climb despite an early power reduction to 25 inches of manifold pressure and 2,500 rpm. Turning crosswind, I’m imbued with the feeling Petrocelli described of trying to hang on to a bolting lion. The airplane’s animalistic acceleration is numbing.
A healthy dose of nose-down trim via the electric thumb switch keeps me from overcontrolling the light elevator, the ailerons seem well balanced with a distinct centering tendency, and rudder forces are smooth and linear but more authoritative than any airplane I’ve ever flown. Even light rudder pressure in level flight pushes me against the cockpit walls.
My first warm-up maneuver is a barrel roll that I keep lazy and slow, with a steady pitch up to about 45 degrees. I’m pulling about 3 Gs with only mild back-pressure, minimal aileron, and virtually no rudder.
I let the airplane accelerate to 200 knots, level off at 3,000 feet, then start a loop with a 4-G pull. When the airplane floats over the top of the maneuver, it has gained 2,000 feet—about twice the height of the same maneuver in my former Pitts S–1S. A vertical climb for a hammerhead nets 2,200 feet of altitude gain—and that’s with the engine and prop dialed back to 75-percent power.
At 180 KIAS, I start a four-point roll, and things go haywire. When I push beyond half-scale aileron deflection, the centering tendency abruptly disappears and the roll rate suddenly spikes. It’s nonlinear to say the least, and I find myself over- and undershooting my targets by absurd margins. I’m not even in the ballpark.
I try a few aileron rolls using full deflection, and the world goes around in excess of 400 degrees per second. The SC’s design and seating position place the pilot at the center of the roll axis, and since my eyeballs are at the geographic center of the roll, the blindingly fast roll rate isn’t as disorienting as it might sound.
The next maneuver is an avalanche, a loop with a snap roll on top, and the SC enters the snap energetically—then recovers the instant pro-spin controls are relaxed.
I go back to rolling maneuvers and get closer to hitting the targets on a four-point roll, but the ailerons’ sudden shift from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde is jarring. It would take lots of repetition to get accustomed to their split personality.
A vertical roll lets me explore varying amounts of aileron deflection at diminishing airspeeds, and predictably breakout forces get progressively lighter at slower speed. After an impossibly long, 9-second upline, I kick full left rudder and am surprised that the airplane is still climbing. It could have stayed in the upline a couple seconds longer. This elevator is a full 1,000 feet longer than the one in the nearby Empire State Building in Manhattan.
Back in the landing pattern, I make left traffic for Runway 24 where a 6-knot headwind awaits. I fly 100 KIAS on base, and with no flaps to deploy or landing gear to lower, airspeed control is a binary combination of pitch and power.
I cross the fence at 90 KIAS, raise the nose in ground effect, and carry a smidge of power as the airplane decelerates. But leaving the throttle cracked provides a bit too much power, and I float beyond the 1,000-foot fixed-distance marker. I close the throttle completely and the airplane touches down slightly tailwheel-first in a full-stall, three-point landing and tracks straight ahead.
“The less you do on landing, the better,” Petrocelli had counseled—and that was good advice.
Pilots are taught from the beginning of flight training to maximize their airplane’s performance—but the SC requires just the opposite. Pilots are the weak link. We’ve got to restrain ourselves to keep from exceeding our own physiological limits.
I barely scratched the surface of what this extraordinary airplane can do during my short introduction to it—and I was fine with that. A pilot could spend an entire career stretching and building and learning, and never touch the far corners of the SC’s design envelope.
“You think you understand the SC after you fly it for a while,” Vayda said. “Then it shows you that there are many more realms you can enter, and you didn’t even know that they were there.”
Still, the SC’s popularity is a surprise to its manufacturer. The company has delivered 81 so far, more than triple the number of single-seat S models it made for aerobatic competitors and airshow performers in the 1990s and early 2000s. When the company forecast SC sales prior to starting production, it expected to sell about 26—the same as the S models.
But in the rarefied world of ultra-high-performance, unlimited aerobats, the SC has become an international gold standard. Aerobatic competitors have long debated the merits of forming a “one design” class that allows them to be judged strictly on the merits of their own flying—not the capability of their various airplanes. The SC offers something like that at the tippy top of the price, performance, and prestige scales.
“With so many elite competitors flying SCs, the difference between winning and losing are the mistakes pilots make—not the capability of the airplane,” Vayda said. “If you want to win, you almost have to have one.”
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