Picking a plane
If you are in the lucky position of being able to buy your aeroplane, this section aims to give you some useful thoughts about which one to go for. Remember, you’ll be investing many thousands of dollars, so it’s worth spending some time and money to get it right.
Remember – every single aircraft is a compromise and manufacturers make trade-offs according to their own objectives. An aircraft (like a road vehicle) cannot be all things to all people. In the world, so in recreational and light sport aviation. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
But where to start??
- Many people start with the aircraft type they learned to fly in. Not a bad place to begin, as you will be familiar with all the good and bad points of that type.
- An important step is to consider other aircraft which you like the look of - but beware! The old adage ‘if it looks right, it will probably fly right’ is exactly that – an old adage with no basis in fact.
- Nevertheless, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. LSAs all have very similar specifications (they all have to comply with the same set of ASTM standards and the laws of aerodynamics), so looks become more important! You’ll have to live with your new plane, hopefully for a long time – so start with what looks good to you.
- Apart from appearance, there are a few general points you’ll need to consider. Principal among these are speed, range and comfort (although not necessarily in that order).
- Speed. Humans have forever, it seems, been obsessed with speed. Most LSAs and recreational aircraft will cruise in the range 80-120 knots (150-225 kilometres an hour), which is reasonably fast. However, the laws of aerodynamics determine that to go fast, sacrifices have to be made. The aircraft has to have less drag – ie be smaller (less room inside), have a thinner wing (less lift at slow speed, therefore faster, longer landing distances), and/or have retractable landing gear (more weight and complexity). Beware of snake oil sales people who try to tell you otherwise….
Also look out for the ‘rough air’ speed limit on the aircraft – it’s no good having a cruise speed of 120 knots if the rough air limit (to avoid stressing the wings) is only 95 knots!
It’s worth remembering the words of one old, very experienced American test pilot: unless the plane you choose is at least 50% faster than the others, you won’t notice the difference. Maybe just go a bit slower and enjoy the journey?
- Range. Most LSAs hold 90-120 litres of fuel. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is a practical one – weight. Also, like driving a vehicle, you should break your journey for a leg-stretch at least every 2-3 hours. So an aircraft duration of 6+ hours is only theoretically useful. Range can also be more important than speed if you want to go places – a slower aircraft with more fuel will likely get there sooner than a faster aircraft which has to stop and re-fuel on the way.
- Comfort. This is a key and often overlooked decision item. It’s no good flying fast, or for a long time if you are uncomfortable. Big airy cabins feel cooler than small ones. Plenty of ventilation on a hot day, and cabin heat on a cold day is important. Being jammed into a small seat with no room to move your legs is OK if you’re just going for a quick flip, agony if you have to sit there for an hour or more.
More specifically, the seats in some high-wing planes can be set too high, so you have to duck down to look under the wing – again OK on a short flip but a real (and literal) pain in the neck if you fly for longer.
- Think about the types of airfield you will be flying from – bitumen runways or grass or gravel or just an unprepared paddock? Fast planes with small wheels are not so good on rough paddocks or strips. Slower stall speed means safer, shorter take-off and landing rolls in rough places.
- Trading fuel for people and baggage? All aircraft have weight limits. In many, you cannot fill them full of fuel and still carry two adults and a load of baggage. If you regularly want to fly with a passenger, or over long distances, or carry a lot of baggage (or all three), only look at aircraft which can carry everything. Never let a sales person tell you that the aircraft is OK to be overloaded. It won’t be them flying it when it breaks! And if you are overweight, you are NOT insured!
- Time for a word about different types of airframe.
Weight for weight, aluminium is stronger than fibre-glass. In addition, fibre-glass is notoriously difficult to prepare consistently (ask any boat builder), so aircraft manufacturers tend to over-strengthen (adding extra weight) to ensure the aircraft is safe. So a fibre-glass light sport aircraft will either be smaller (to keep the weight down) or heavier than an equivalent aluminium aircraft. Smaller means less room inside; heavier means less weight carrying capability.
Carbon fibre is stronger than aluminium, weight for weight. However, genuine carbon fibre material is seriously expensive, so even in so-called carbon fibre light sport aircraft it is used only in very limited amounts; most of the airframe is fibre-glass.
- Draw up and thoroughly research your short list – use the internet to find independent flight tests and YouTube videos, which will usually tell you a lot more than the manufacturer’s or sales agent’s brochures. A good place to get information is on the Australian Recreational Flying site - where there are lots of owner forums and a wealth of information on light aircraft.
- Then go and fly all of them, ideally back to back or at least within a few days of each other and never for less than an hour each.
- Ask for existing owner contacts so you can call and ask them the questions you have – ideally include at least one flying school using the aircraft, they will know all the pluses and minuses.
- Make your initial decision. Then wait a week and think it over. Explore any lingering doubts as they will become major irritations after a few months of ownership.