I had the privilege recently of spending some time with Paul Volle of Atlanta Sport Flight and taking an orientation flight in the Czech Sport Cruiser. The Sport Cruiser has been recently selected for exclusive distribution by Piper and renamed the “PiperSport”. The Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category has become quite the topic of conversation these days, with many believing that LSAs are the last great hope of general aviation. I’m usually suspicious of such sweeping praise, but LSA flying has a lot going for it.
First, it is cheaper to operate on almost every level –purchase price of new airplanes, fuel burn (doesn’t 4 gal/hr sound nice?), insurance, and maintenance. Secondly, with the limitations of LSA flight (VFR, day only) and the low hour requirements for licensing (20 hours), this puts flying within reach of many more potential pilots. Training cost for an LSA Pilot Certificate is in the $4,000 range vs. $8000 or more for a typical Private Pilot. Third, it’s the planes. There are some sharp aircraft being produced. They sell themselves. But more than that, I think LSAs like the CubCrafter SportCubS2 and the Sport Cruiser (PiperSport) bring back the emotional and adventurous feel of flying. I believe this appeal is crucial (whether LSA or not) for flight enthusiasts to share. Very few of us fly because it makes economic sense to fly. We fly because we love it. But I digress…
Paul Volle greeted me right on time at the Fulton County Airport (KFTY) in Atlanta. We spent a good bit of time just talking about flying and about his background as the founder of the school. Paul is a former Naval Aviator and instructor pilot with over 150 carrier landings. His day-job keeps him in the air as an airline pilot for a major carrier. But talk with him five minutes and you’ll find a passion for flying, particularly for developing new students, great flight instructors and a truly classy flight school. All indications are that he’s off to a great start. ASF’s SportCruiser is kept busy and so are Paul and his three three instructors. At the Atlanta Sport Flight website you can get an explanation of the Dynon EFIS, get a virtual tour of the practice area, download the POH for the plane, and watch a cockpit video of a typical traffic pattern. It’s clearly designed with the customer in mind. In conversation and operation, Paul Volle is aiming to run this school professionally. Now off to the plane!
The winds were light and variable and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky as Paul and I walked across the ramp to the plane. One thing that struck me was that the plane does look small, but in a sporty way. It’s like the way a sports car looks small– you notice, but you’re certainly not repelled. On the contrary, you’re attracted to it. You want to drive it, or in this case, fly it.
Preflight on the SportCruiser is similar to preflight on any light plane. Control surfaces are standard. Only the rudder is operated by cable, the other surfaces are manipulated by actuator rods from the control stick in the cockpit. The seats are reclined with four-point harness restraints instead of the typical lap belt. The large bubble canopy offers a great view. After preflighting and climbing in, we began the start procedures.
The Rotax engine fires right up. Unlike the typical Lycoming engine the Rotax just “turns on”. There’s not a real cranking phase. In the SportCruiser, turn the key, and the engine fires up immediately. One thing you’ll notice (especially when reading the POH) is that the RPMs with a Rotax engine are much higher. After starting, idle is set at 1400RPM. Depending on your prop pitch, you’re looking at a whopping 5500RPM or more on take-off.
Taxi out and runup was uneventful. After being cleared to depart, I took the runway and advanced the throttle. Paul cautioned me, “You’ll be at Vr before you know it” We were, and here I must brag because I made what has to be THE ugliest takeoff in aviation history. As we moved past 35 KIAS, I began a gentle rotation. Nothing. At 40KIAS, I applied more back pressure. Not much pitch change. As we approached 45, I gave a bit more pressure and UP we go (FAST), I nose over, too much, pull back to correct, oops too much. I was all over the sky. I finally established the climb attitude and airspeed and and sheepishly turned toward the practice area.
After making clearing turns in the practice area, I tried some steep turns, slips, stalls, and straight and level cruise. As the hour wore on, I began to get used to the controls. The way the seats recline, the view over the nose is a bit different. I found myself wanting to sit higher in the seat. The plane is nimble, if not a bit sensitive for those used to bumping along in Cessnas and standard Pipers. That “wounded duck” takeoff was evidence of that. In flight, my most noticeable mistake was not holding altitude. This was probably due to the view difference over the nose, but also my lack of experience with scanning a glass panel.
Upon returning to the airport area, we were cleared for a right downwind entry for Runway26. Our first pattern ended with a go around to avoid a G-IV (I think it was) that seemed to like hanging out on the departure end of the runway. My second trip around the pattern was more stable than the first. Airspeed and altitude were on target. Power goes to idle on downwind abeam the numbers and you basically glide it in. Stall speed is really low (Vs0 is 32) and with the memory of my lame takeoff, I was anxious about how my landing would go. But roundout and flare were fine, albeit with a little lateral overcontrolling. Touchdown was uneventful and my bruised ego was repaired slightly. This was a touch and go, and takeoff this time was better as well. This is probably not a testimony to my flying, but to the “learn-ability” of the plane. You’ll pick up the control characteristics pretty quickly.
Last trip around the pattern to a full stop went well. Touchdown was not as smooth (ie little bounce) but not horrible.
Paul resisted the urge to laugh during the flight and for that I am grateful! He was an encouraging instructor and noted that my flying was typical of pilots transitioning to the LSA from other aircraft. We taxied to the ramp and raised the canopy. It was a great flight.
If you’re toying around with the idea of flying an LSA and live within reach of Atlanta, I’d highly recommend Atlanta Sport Flight. Overall, I think the enthusiasm about LSAs is good for the industry. There are a lot of questions that remain, especially long-term questions that only will reveal themselves over time. But it is clear that LSA’s have the potential to fill a niche and ignite some renewed excitement around flight training. It has for me…I’m looking forward to my next Sport Cruiser flight.