Choosing an Aircraft
If you are in the lucky position of being able to buy your own aircraft – after considering all the practical aspects like costs to run and somewhere to keep it – this section aims to give you some useful thoughts about which aircraft to go for. Remember, you’ll be investing many thousands of dollars, so it’s worth spending a bit of time and money to get it right.
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. If you are up for an LSA, most will have very similar specifications (they all have to comply with the same set of ASTM standards and the laws of aerodynamics), and 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 will cruise in the range 80-120 knots, 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 new plane is at least 50% faster than the old one, 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 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 may be able to get there sooner than a faster aircraft which has to stop and re-fuel on the way.
- Comfort. This is a key 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 on a hot day. 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 are set too high (or the wings are set too low...), so you may have to duck down to look under the wing – again OK on a short flip but a real pain in the neck if you fly for longer.
- Think about the types of airfield you will be flying from – bitumen runways, grass, gravel or just an unprepared paddock? Fast planes with small wheels are no good in paddocks or on rough 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 most, 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 real world, so in light sport aviation. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Where can you fly?
When you’ve got your new plane, you’ll want to take it places.
The average number of flying hours a private pilot flies their new plane in Australia is about 150 in the first year, 100 in the second year and about 50 in the third and subsequent years.
If your aircraft is registered RA-Aus and you have a Pilot Certificate, not a PPL – remember to stay out of controlled airspace.
Here are a few ideas:
- First, practice your landing skills in your new aircraft – particularly crosswind landings and engine-out landings. You never know if/when you’ll need them.
- Occasionally practice stalling – remember, at least 3,000 feet above ground level!
- If you haven’t already, join a flying club. Or two.
- Go for local flights most weekends and take family and friends – usually 30-60 minutes is plenty for a new passenger. Fly smoothly!
- Practice turns, keeping the ball in the middle.
- Take a friend on a weekend and go for the proverbial $100 hamburger at an airfield 50 or 100 miles away.
- Take a photographer over some of the beautiful scenery near your airfield.
- Take at least one young person for a flight.
- Occasionally, climb right up to 5,000 feet (weather and airspace permitting) to see the view and experience the different perspective of flying at this height. Everything seems to happen much more slowly…
- Plan at least one longer trip each year. For example, go to the RA-Aus ‘Natfly’ Easter Fly-in, currently held at Temora, NSW each year. (That is if you aren’t already based near Temora!)
- Look out for other more local fly-ins and go to them.
- Whatever aircraft you fly, get some training for short take-offs and landings. You never know when it might be useful.
- Consider planning that one flying trip of a lifetime – crossing the Nullarbor, crossing Bass Straight, going to Uluru, trying out Birdsville Races, visiting the Kimberley, seeing the Qantas museum and the 747 parked at Longreach, fly near the Snowy Mountains in winter and see the snow caps, fly to Kalgoorlie and over the big pit, try Broken Hill to see the Pro Hart pictures in the airport lounge and while you’re there visit Silverton (scene of the Mad Max II movie), fly over Lake Eyre – stunning with or without water in it, or just fly along any part of the Australian coast for at least 250 miles.