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Forget what you thought you knew about ultralights

The key to success in flying the VL3 is a faulty short-term memory.
Photography by Mike Fizer
Photography by Mike Fizer

Even though you strapped into the diminutive, two-seat airplane only moments ago, for example, you would do well to forget about the airplane’s small size when you handle the controls because its inherent stability and broad cockpit make it feel big.

Although you witnessed the Lilliputian dimensions of VL3’s turbocharged Rotax engine during the preflight inspection, a glance at the manifold pressure gauge during climbout shows it’s pulling a whopping 40 inches and 5,500 engine rpm—numbers that defy its toy-like proportions.

On final approach at 60 knots, draggy as a sea anchor with landing gear down, flaps fully deployed, propeller at high pitch, forget all about the fact that moments ago, in descent, you were traveling more than three times that speed in a clean configuration with a miniscule drag profile that seemed to preclude slowing down.

“It takes some time to adjust your thinking to the reality of what this airplane is, and what it can do,” said Kyle Schluter, the East Coast dealer for JMB Aircraft, which produces VL3s in the Czech Republic. “We’re not used to seeing small airplanes that are this capable and have such a wide range of performance.”

The VL3 is at the forefront of an entire class of modern European airplanes that combine exceptional speed, range, and flight efficiency (see “Briefing: European Invasion,” p. 30). Their superpower is an elegant combination of light and strong composite materials—as well as retractable landing gear and constant-speed propellers that U.S. light sport aircraft rules specifically prohibit.


VL3

European regulators place strict limits on aircraft weight at 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds) for Europe’s “ultralight” category, and the FAA uses the same weight limit. But just like some stretches of the German autobahn, there’s no speed limit, and JMB—along with rivals Terragon Aircraft, Shark Aero, and others—compete fiercely for every knot.

JMB Aircraft claims its Rotax 915-powered VL3 is the quickest with a top cruise of 199 KTAS at 18,000 feet.

VL3s are offered in several different airframe/engine packages: a fixed-gear, light sport trainer with a 100-horsepower, normally aspirated Rotax 912; a retractable, non-LSA version with a 115-horsepower, turbocharged Rotax 914; and a retractable model with increased gross weight and a 142-horsepower turbocharged Rotax 915. New aircraft prices range from $205,000 for a trainer with basic analog avionics to $330,000 for a 915-powered version with dual Garmin G3X primary flight display/multifunction displays and an IFR-capable GPS navigator.

Factory built VL3s can be licensed in the United States under the experimental/exhibition category or special light sport (S-LSA) rules. The experimental/exhibition category typically requires that an airframe and powerplant mechanic perform yearly condition inspections, and owners must notify their local FAA office of trips outside their region, as well as naming the aviation events where they intend to exhibit their aircraft.

Many warbirds are registered in the experimental/exhibition category. Local FAA offices often grant unlimited training flights within an area of a few hundred miles, but the category isn’t intended to allow unlimited personal air travel. New rules being considered by the FAA under the Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certificates (MOSAIC) framework could provide greater flexibility and category to this and other categories in the future.

First flight

Two things stand out about the VL3 at first meeting: small stature, and exquisite fit and finish. It’s a tiny gem.

Carbon fiber surfaces are mirror smooth with compound curves that would be impossible to make with such precision from other materials. Bright paint glistens under a clearcoat finish. The interior details are perfect. Czech aerospace workers have long been known for their metalworking skills, and that old-world craftsmanship seems to have been transferred to modern carbon fiber.

The design itself appears thoughtful and refined, and it emphasizes lightness. The steerable nosewheel, for example, has a small but powerful LED landing light built into the strut. LED position and nav lights are faired into the wing tips and tail.

This airplane has a 115-horsepower Rotax 914UL engine and a two-blade, constant-speed, Woodcomp propeller with a traditional hydraulic hub. Prop blade angle and engine rpm are controlled via a blue-topped lever on the throttle quadrant. (Some other airplanes with Rotax engines use electric constant-speed props.)

The wings are made to have a dual personality. They’re smooth and relatively short in span to minimize drag at high speed. Yet split flaps cover about two-thirds of the trailing edge, and they extend to a jaw-dropping 55 degrees at their maximum setting. Most manufacturers have gone with slotted or Fowler flaps for greater aerodynamic efficiency. JMB uses a relatively simple, manually operated split flap to achieve the same purpose—and it gets results by making the flaps gigantic. The split flap has the advantage of doing without worm gears, external hinges, or other complex electro-hydraulic mechanisms.

One metal fuel cap atop each wing fits flush without so much as a tab to interrupt laminar airflow.

A forward-hinged bubble canopy makes for excellent visibility, and a retractable sunshade protects the occupants from direct sunlight.

Two NACA scoops supply fresh air to the cockpit via left and right eyeball vents, and pop-out vents on the sides of the canopy can pull in additional air on hot days.

An airframe parachute is packed into the fuselage ahead of the canopy, and a prominent red handle on the right side of the center pedestal (within easy reach of either occupant) fires it.

Climbing into the airplane involves stepping onto the wing, and then supporting yourself on the canopy frame while lowering yourself down. Once inside, the 45-inch cockpit seems surprisingly wide, and the firm, sculpted seat provided a sportscar feel.

The seat, to my personal liking, was somewhat reclined. The angle gives a lounge-chair feel while taxiing, and it’s comfortable and provides excellent back support in flight. The seat doesn’t adjust fore or aft, so setting the recline angle, then adding or subtracting cushions, is the only way to alter the seating position. All the instruments were in easy reach despite the reclined seatback angle—and my short arms. Visibility over the nose is sufficient but not great.

Engine start is standard Rotax and quite simple. Master electrical switch on, both electronic ignitions on, throttle idle, and push the start button. The highly automated, fuel injected 914 takes care of the rest.

Two 10-inch Garmin G3X displays dominate the cockpit, and this one adds a clever feature: a wide-angle video camera on the belly showing all three landing gear. You see the actual gear legs and wheels—not symbols representing them. (Another set of cockpit lights provide a red gear-up indication, and a green gear-down indication.) The gear extension/retraction system is electrically controlled and hydraulically actuated.

Taxi is smooth and positive with a steerable nosewheel connected via linkages to the rudder pedals, so there’s seldom any need for differential braking. The turn radius is small, and shock absorbers in the trailing link main landing gear make for a smooth ride, even when rolling over cracked pavement.

Runup is standard, and the Rotax computer performs a diagnostic test of both ignition systems.

Takeoff acceleration is moderate as the pilot adds full throttle, the prop governor adjusts the blade angle to fine pitch, and the turbocharger finds, then limits manifold pressure at 40 inches.

Our 600-foot takeoff roll lasted about 10 seconds on an 85-degree-Fahrenheit morning near sea level with full fuel, two adults, and no baggage. Gear retraction took about four seconds, and it was novel seeing the wheels come up and the landing gear doors close on the PFD video feed.

The VL3 rode through the bumps surprisingly well at 85 KIAS and a climb rate of 1,200 feet per minute. Light to moderate chop mercifully gave way to smooth air at 4,500 feet as the VL3 accelerated to high cruise.

The turbocharged engine gives the VL3 its top true airspeeds at high altitudes above 15,000 feet. But pilots needn’t climb to oxygen altitudes to get impressive speed and efficiency. At 4,500 feet (and a density altitude of almost 6,000 feet) the VL3 trued out at 149 KTAS while consuming just six gallons of premium auto gas per hour.

Automatic mixture control makes managing cylinder head and exhaust gas temperatures simple. And the automated turbocharger means the pilot can’t overboost the engine. For pilots, operating the turbocharged 914 is functionally the same as a normally aspirated Rotax engine.

The VL3 control forces are on the light side of moderate. Pitch is slightly lighter than roll, particularly at high speeds, and rudder forces are lightest of all. Overall control harmony is good, and the bubble canopy makes for excellent visibility while maneuvering.

Slight but persistent airframe buffeting precedes the stall in any configuration, and the break itself is crisp and symmetrical. Airflow reattaches immediately when back-pressure is relaxed, and recoveries are standard with the caveat that it’s easy to unintentionally exceed flap speeds.

A gusty, 20-knot south wind awaited us at Mansfield, Ohio, as we descended toward Runway 23 for landing.

The VL3 has surprisingly slow gear extension and flap deployment speeds, and I anticipated we’d have to descend early and chop the power to slow the airplane enough to meet the limitations of 81 knots for gear and 67 knots for flaps. But the wide-chord, constant-speed prop was quite effective at aerodynamic braking. Also, the semi-liquid-cooled Rotax isn’t subject to shock cooling, so idle power in the descents is allowed and we were able to extend the gear and full flaps in plenty of time.

An angle of attack indicator on the G3X PFD showed our optimal speed on final (1.3 times VS0) was 58 knots, and modulating engine power all the way into the landing flare kept the rate of descent manageable despite the hot, gusty conditions. Touchdown at idle power came at 55 knots, and the trailing link main gear dampened any bounce.

World wise

The U.S. light sport aircraft industry has been hobbled since its inception by a top speed of 120 KCAS and prohibitions against retractable landing gear and constant speed props—but European manufacturers have no such restrictions. As a result, they’re leading the way in producing small airplanes with exceptional performance. The vast majority of the 400-plus VL3s that JMB Aircraft has produced since 2004 reside in Europe, but that’s starting to change as pilots around the world recognize their attributes.

U.S. buyers of VL3s and similar European aircraft must deal with licensing them in the experimental exhibition category. And lenders are reluctant to make loans on these aircraft until they arrive and are registered in the United States.

But U.S. buyers appear willing to jump through these regulatory and financial hoops in order to own and fly modern, technologically advanced, highly efficient airplanes that can cover long distances at relatively high speeds using unleaded auto fuel.

The situation is reminiscent of the 1970s when flush U.S. automakers became set in their ways, unwilling to innovate, while European and Asian competitors steadily, relentlessly made deep inroads and later came to dominate the domestic market.

General aviation isn’t exactly analogous since U.S. and European GA manufacturers are currently playing by different rules—but the result is similar: They’re creating exciting new products that U.S. consumers want, and we’re not. Hopefully, the MOSAIC rules now being drafted will allow U.S. aircraft manufacturers to get out from under the artificial weight, speed, and technology limits that now tie their hands.

It’s fun to imagine the design and performance advancements that could result from such freedom.

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Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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