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Light Sport Aircraft Pilot is a directory of aircraft that generally fit into what are described as ultralight aircraft, advanced ultralight aircraft, light sport aircraft, experimental light sport aircraft, experimental aircraft, amateur built aircraft, ELSA or homebuilt aircraft in the United States and Canada. These include weight shift aircraft, more commonly known as trikes, powered parachutes, and powered para-gliders.

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Standard X-Air - Back to Basics by Ross I McRae

This is a story about a recreational aircraft and a users perspective on buying, owning, converting to and flying a low inertia / high drag, ugly little cutie called an X-Air.

And yes, this 60 knot "rag and tube" ultralight is a long way from the slippery 175-knot plus Mooney and Seneca II twin engine aircraft I used to own, but I just fell in love with the X-Air with its agricultural look and its back to basics flying.

It's all Michael Coates' fault. Michael's the Australian distributor for X-Air and several years ago, $15 got me a demo VHS tape of the three axis ultralight aeroplane called the X-Air. For some reason the tape also contained a promo on another, but vastly different aircraft from the opposite end of the velocity spectrum, the slippery and sophisticated ?Sting?.

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Sure the Sting was ultra smooth, very technical and fast as hell, but there was just something super appealing to me about that little X-Air. The thought that you could remove the X-Air's doors on a balmy summer afternoon and just poke around at fifty or sixty knots and take-in the scenery was really appealing. The idea that the pilot and passenger sat mere centimetres above the ground behind a low set instrument panel that provided a panoramic and unobstructed view of the runway on late final, meant my non-pilot wife might just be able to learn to fly this aeroplane. And because the X-Air stalls at a miniscule twenty-four knots, meant the landing sequence could be conducted at a more leisurely pace, more time to think, easier to judge the flare height, shorter landings rolls and all those other good things about flying low and slow. All in all, this could be one easy-to-fly, fun aeroplane for both of us.

Back in pre-history when I thought it might be good to get "in the air" again, we investigated microlights (or trikes) with my friend and highly skilled microlight pilot Peter Wilson from Air Escape in Tumut. Trike flying is great fun with the wind in your hair and excellent visibility from the pod, but could Liz my wife, weighing-in at fifty kilos, handle that massive sail in stronger winds? So next stop was to have a chat to the experts at RA-Aus in Canberra to ask the question - are we best to buy a conventional three-axis aeroplane or a microlight? I explained that the winds on Queensland?s Sunshine Coast can be pretty full-on sometimes, and the candid response from Chris, RA-Aus' Technical Manager, was that in general a three axis aircraft is easier to handle than a trike in stronger winds when your upper body strength is not all it could be. OK that's good to know. Chris also agreed that the X-Air was a good little aeroplane with an excellent safety record, as indicated by its general absence from the ?Pilot and Technical Notes?  (the accident and incident section) of the RA-Aus magazine.

So while in Canberra, I contacted Tony from Lakes Entrance in Victoria to see if he now wanted to sell his X-Air as when we had spoken six months earlier he had decided to keep it for a while longer. To my surprise Tony said that if I wanted to buy his aeroplane he would be prepared to sell it. So off to Bairnsdale aerodrome, and in the flesh, the X-air looked just a good as I thought it would. Tony who had lovingly build the aeroplane to British BMAA standards, took us both for a flight and the 2200cc Jabiru motor sounded sweet and smooth as the aeroplane settled in the cruise.  So the deal was done and Liz and I returned to Queensland very pleased with our new purchase.

For me the Jabiru motor was a genuine plus on this aeroplane and well worth the extra dollars Tony was asking. Normally the X-Air is equipped with a Rotax two stroke 582, 503 or the older and now discontinued 74 hp 618 engine. The Jabiru engine is manufactured in Bundaberg and is an eighty-horse power, four stroke, certified aircraft engine. Two stroke engines send sometimes-undeserved shivers down the spine of pilots due to their propensity to cease working at the most inopportune moment. However, I understand that late model Rotax 582's are pretty damn reliable and the 50 hp Rotax 503's always had a good reputation for reliability.

The choice of engine is one of the most vexing questions for X-Air builders and the topic always generates quite some activity in the Yahoo X-Air users forum. So for what it's worth, here's my take on the engine selection debate which in this country, generally resolves into a choice of two - the Rotax 582 or the Jabiru 2200. (Although the Hirth, the HKS, the Verner VM133 and the Simonini Victor 2 are also certainly interesting contenders).

The Jabiru engine is, theoretically at least, more reliable than the Rotax 582 (4 stroke vs. 2 stroke), and it burns about 11 litres per hour as opposed to the 582's burn rate of about 15 litres per hour.  The TBO (or time between overhaul) is much longer on the Jabiru engine at two thousand hours (although I would probably start thinking about pulling the head off at about half that) whereas the 582 is recommended at 350 hours. But one high activity user I spoke to had over a thousand hours on a 582 before any major work was necessary. Nevertheless the ?book? says 350 hours TBO on the 582 and a new X-Air builder should keep this figure in mind when it comes to thinking about engine choice.

So the Jabiru engine burns about 4 litres per hour less and, on a three-hour trip, that gives the X-Air an extra hour in the air as compared to the 582. So your effective cruise speed on a longer cross-country trip is greater with the Jab engine as you have to spend less time refuelling en-route.

But the Jabiru engine cost a good deal more at almost $14,000 compared to the 582 at less than $9,000. The other issue is that the 80 hp Jabiru engine seems to have more power than the aircraft needs, while the 65 hp Rotax 582 is probably spot-on for the relatively light X-Air. Having said that, the extra power of the Jabiru engine can come in very handy getting the aeroplane off the deck when you're hot, high and heavy or you need to punch your way into a headwind.

In the end the engine choice is a compromise but on balance I think if the budget can stretch to it, my advice would to go with the Jabiru engine especially if you lean toward cross-country work. On the other hand if what you want are just weekend excursions in the local area, it takes a lot of years to reach the 350 hour TBO on the Rotax 582 and the extra 4 litres per hour burn rate is not a significant issue if only flying locally for a couple of hours at a time.

Now I had two more questions, how do I get the X-Air from Southern Victoria to SE Queensland, and who will do my conversion from GA to ultralight? On the latter issue, having contacted most of the flying schools in my area I was to find that they could all train on late model one hundred knot aeroplanes, but no one had the capacity for low inertia / high drag training. Hundred knot aircraft such as Tecnams and Sportstars are very sophisticated, very forgiving, and excellent for training, but their high performance GA type flight characteristics would not give me the different flying skills necessary to help with my X-Air conversion. What I needed was a "high drag" instructor.

The transportation issue was proving equally problematic but Peter Wilson came to my rescue and agreed to abdicate his throne at Air Escape for a few days, deliver the aircraft and do a bit of training before jetting back to Tumut. And what a thrill it was to look up and see our red X-Air overflying its new home for the very first time after its uneventful trip from Victoria.

In the short amount of time Peter had remaining to do some training, I quickly realised that flying a high drag aircraft was... well different... in a harder sort of way. I couldn't even manage a balanced turn properly. I remembered back to my GA training days when you'd initiate a turn and, if necessary, just kick the ball back into the centre with a bit of rudder and viola, there you have it, a balanced turn. But now on the X-Air, that damn balance ball just didn't want to play ball. Under Peter?s guidance I quickly went solo but personally felt that I was a long way from happy with my flying performance generally.

Peter's parting advice was simple - don't give up!  But it's funny how when things are right they are right, right across the board. As "luck" would have it, I ended up sharing a hanger with one Brett Soutter, the CFI of Pro-Sky and one of the only instructors within 60 kilometres I hadn?t spoken to about training. "Sure I can do your conversion" Brett told me. "As well as Tecnams I also instructed on high drag Drifters for 380 hours". Bingo! I had hit the jackpot.

Some GA pilots look down on the ultralight fraternity but what they don't realise is that good ultralight flying in some phases of flight, demands a different, more demanding set of flying skills. In GA training it seems, engine failures are given about as much weight as stalling (twins excepted), but in ultralight training, engine failures are king. If your fan suddenly stops you have got to know how to get your aeroplane into that paddock with as much aplomb as humanly possible. But why all this emphasis on engine failures? Because the unfortunate facts are that ultralight engines do tend to fail with more regularly than the Lycoming and Continental engines fitted to Cessnas, Pipers, Mooneys and other GA aircraft. Having said that, if I am going to have an engine failure, I would rather have it in an ultralight than a GA aircraft any day of the week. The landing roll on the X-Air for example, can be as little as 40 metres.

I also used to believe that it was easier to unlearn something than to learn something from scratch. But now I'm not so sure. For example, the landing procedure with ultralights is very different from the luxury of powered approaches that happen in GA. There's none of this getting the aeroplane nicely lined up with the runway way out on long final, and adjusting out any ?glideslope? irregularities by applying a touch of more or less power as you need it.

In ultralight training, every landing involves accurately judging when to turn base (while accounting for wind, potential for sink, proper altitude etc.) pulling the engine at the end of downwind, turning base and doing a glide approach from the base turn and onto finals and then landing the aeroplane all without power. And that happens on every landing so every landing is a simulated engine failure. And, as one recently converted GA to ultralight pilot remarked to me, "Now I feel guilty if I have to resort to a squirt of power to adjust for some error of judgment on finals". But, painful as it is to learn, this training technique really sharpens your spatial skills and provides real confidence that, if the worst happened, you have the best chance of survival.

In one of my moments of exasperated frustration I commented to CFI Brett that the X-Air was supposed to be a forgiving aeroplane. "It is" he said. "It's just that you have to really manage the drag curve because the X-Air washes of speed in the blink of an eye without proper power settings, and it can bite you in the bum real fast if you don't watch your air speed". Brett continued. "What you will learn in your X-Air training will give you invaluable experience for any aeroplanes you fly in the future". (I interpreted that to mean that, if you can fly an X-Air you can fly anything).

But in the end the advice I got to "stick with it" turned out to be good value.  In a few short hours the pieces of the jig saw started to fall into place and now that I can actually fly this little monster with a reasonable degree of proficiency, I love it again.

Is it a good first aeroplane? I think so. It is light to handle, quite roomy with very good aerodynamic stability. Trim the aircraft properly and you can easily fly hands off - great for cross-country trips.  Who needs an autopilot? And for a new pilot, there would be no unlearning to be done in the flying department.  Certainly for me anyway, the X-Air was more difficult to fly initially, I think because it lacked the inertia, the sophisticated airframe and control surfaces - like a synced rudder and flaps, as well as the array of instruments I had been used to using. And after not flying for many years, I was also definitely rusty. At the end of the day, the X-Air is basic "seat of the pants" flying at its best where you are forced to become a good aviator as well as a good pilot.

And for the new recreational owner / pilot it is financially a good place to start as well with a kit built X-Air complete with a Rotax 582 engine getting airborne for about 25 to 40% of the cost of its one hundred knot cousin. If then you find you enjoy your recreational flying and want to go faster with a more sophisticated aircraft, you know that your X-Air flying experience will put you in an excellent position to convert to another aeroplane with a minimum of re-learning.

Along those same lines, the advice I am getting now from people is that I'll soon get board with 60 knots and crave a faster aeroplane for long distance touring. They may be right, but at the moment for me, it's literally the journey that's important, not the destination.

Ross I McRae RAA Member 016484 September 2007
The above courtesy of http://www.mcp.com.au/xair/flight-reports/flight-reports.html

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