CSA Sport Cruiser Flight Review

SCFireworks1I decided to take a flight in the Sport Cruiser LSA recently. Partly for curiosity and partly for the price. I have become very practical in my need to be in the air. I can very easily spend upwards of $200 per hour for a higher performing aircraft but if my intent is to simply be airborne, its a little overkill. Especially if my aim is to build more time, why fly at Warp 9? A trip that would have taken 1.7 would be over in 0.1 and my logbook would audibly laugh at my efforts.

I went to US Sport Aircraft at Addison Airport to get a checkout in the former PiperSport, now reverted to its original Sport Cruiser name after the partnership between Czech Sport Aircraft and Piper Aircraft dissolved. I had read many things about LSA’s in general, some of which were eyebrow raising for both good and bad reasons. So the reader understands, not all LSAs are built the same. For all intents and purposes, the Sport Cruiser is built like a “normal” airplane but in a smaller package. However there are a few unique features to take note of. Giving me the checkout is Stuart Stevenson, one of the instructors. He showed me around the hangar where lots of aircraft are in various stages of inspection. Since US Sport Aircraft is the exclusive importer and distributor of Sport Cruisers in the United States, there are always at least a couple models around either for sale or in the process of being sold in addition to those used for flight training.

Walkaround

The first thing you notice is the tiny size of it. Not frighteningly small like a BD-5J, but it definitely doesn’t take up much space. Second, is the lack of “normal” cowling inlets. This is because the Rotax 912 is water cooled. The 912s are TBOed at 2000hrs so the “friends don’t let friends fly 2 strokes” stigma does not apply here. The carburetor is located on top of the engine, eliminating much of the icing risk. The engine runs at a maximum of 5800rpm so there is a reduction drive that spins the prop at at 1:2.43 ratio. Electrical power is generated by, well, a generator. Remember that an alternator works better at the low RPM ranges common to standard aircraft engines. But since this engine likes to work at double that speed, the generator is a more efficient option.

On the walkaround, do the standard clockwise or counterclockwise pattern, depending on what hemisphere you’re in. Check the aluminum skin for stress marks, popped rivets, or any other signs of abuse. On the control surfaces, you’ll notice that there are no cotter pins locking the nuts onto the pushrod bolts. The procedure is to make sure that thread is showing on the topside of the nut. Considering the limited horsepower, limited cruise speed, limited dive speed, limited altitude and limited aerobatic capability of LSAs, it shouldn’t be an issue (if the aircraft is ever offered with aerobatic capability or an expanded speed range, that may need to be reconsidered). On the stabilizer is a unique multi-sectioned trim tab, installed after the Sport Cruiser’s main debut in the United States, where a generation of pilots raised on less sporty craft voiced concerns that the controls were too sensitive (an issue I read about repeatedly in my preflight research).

The flaps are electric and have 0.0000001″ of play. They’re very tight and infinitely adjustable (more on that later). The ailerons move smoothly and the wingtip is semi-reflexed with an upward curve towards the rear. It probably improves lift to drag ratio a little but just as importantly, it does wonders for the ramp appeal. On the inboard section of the wing is a convenient wing locker for carrying small bookbags or objects of similar size. The locker is secured with a series of screws that align to show that they’re properly engaged.

Just in front of the locker is the fuel filler cap where another interesting aspect makes an appearance. There is pronounced dihedral in the wings, so the fuel tanks may not show any fuel even with more than an hour remaining. Take home point? Add a known quantity so this way if the gauge says you have 5 gallons and you add 10 gallons, you know you have at least 10 gallons even if the gauge was lying to you. Filling the tanks is not always required since the plane burns between 3 and 6 gallons per hour and even half of the total 30 gallons will give you more time than most people will want to go without stretching their legs (at 4200RPM, the maximum endurance is a bladder bursting 9 hrs and 49 min). The aircraft is approved for auto gas or 100LL and US Sport Aircraft uses the former. At local prices of just over $3.00/gallon, its a huge advantage in a city where 100LL can top $7.00/gallon. There are only 3 fuel drains on this aircraft and the quality of auto gas so far according to US Sport Aircraft has been equal to or greater than 100LL.

Say hi to your new best friend.

Say hi to your new best friend.

Under the fuselage is the landing gear which is a fiberglass spring assembly. The brakes will probably wear a little faster than normal due to their use for steering. Yes, the aircraft has a castering nosewheel. Many Sport Cruisers have been modified with a reinforced nosegear. Like modern stretched airliners, the Sport Cruiser’s nose has to be “flown down” to the runway. Letting it drop is discouraged and pushing forward on the stick to get it down is tantamount to hitting the firewall with a sledgehammer. It’s not something to worry about, just something to know about.

Up to the engine, there is very little to check with the cowling on. Make sure the intakes are clear, unless it’s Prudhoe Bay-cold outside, in which case there is a restrictor plate that can go in front of the oil cooler intake to ensure the engine heats up before next June. One procedure that pilots of radial engines will be familiar with is pulling the prop through. It takes a varying number of turns depending on temperature, how long since the engine was used, etc. to get the oil to “burp”. Who knows, maybe there was a restriction on potty jokes in the ATSM standards, because “burp” in Czech apparently means “flushing toilet” since that is exactly what it sounds like. As for the prop, it feels like something off a model airplane…it’s that light to the touch. Having a light prop with a 100hp engine does wonders for rate of climb but it means that landing on dirt strips or unprepared surfaces should be done with more than the usual care. At the back of the cowl is where you check the oil. The dipstick is only a couple inches long so just make sure you’ve got oil on the end and you’re good to go.

Cockpit

Looking inside the cockpit, you’ll notice control sticks and semi-reclined seats reminiscent of an unlimited aerobatic aircraft or a sports car. The seats do not adjust but the rudder pedals do (there are cushions that can be installed to help those who feel too low in the seat). For me at 5′ 11, the stick fell into my hand comfortably without any uncomfortable reaching. On top of the stick is a mini-HOTAS setup with a PTT switch in the trigger position and elevator/aileron trim in four separate switches where your thumb naturally falls. One thing that was a bit awkward was getting the seatbelt on, which is more harness than standard seatbelt. However, I’m going to chalk that up to the fact that I had on a bulky jacket, fleece, shirt and undershirt (hey, it gets cold in Texas sometimes). People wearing normal clothing should have no problem loosening the shoulder straps, sliding in and retightening them.

SCPanel7

D100, Garmin transponder, backup gauges and autopilot interface panel are all that you have to look at. Don’t be fooled, there’s a lot of information in that one screen.

Up front in this particular aircraft was a Dynon D-100 EFIS display. I’ve written articles about glass vs steam in the past and was determined not to get distracted by the pretty colors and graphics. I didn’t have to try hard because this display was fairly uncluttered, and if you still felt that there was too much information, there is a dedicated declutter function that removes excess data from the screen. It’s driven by a solid state ADHARS and features a dedicated 1.5 hour battery in case you have a bad day electrically. Sport Cruisers can be fitted with a variety of instruments including steam gauges but many owners are opting for the EFIS system.

Preflight checks were quick and common-sensical. Engine start was only marred by my complaining that there was no mixture knob or primer to adjust. In its place is the choke lever, which for anyone who owns a lawnmower or rides motorcycles, is a familiar sight. Choke on, master on, fuel pump on, turn the key and the engine cranks right up. This easy procedure is completely unacceptable for trying to impress passengers. How can they be amazed at the skill of a pilot if we’re not endlessly yanking levers and flipping switches during start up? Once the engine is running, make sure the idle RPM is between 1500 and 2500. The EMS D-120 EICAS on the right side shows you RPM, temps, etc. The RPM green band will automatically adjust as the engine heats up or cools down.

Having never taxied an airplane with castering nosegear before, I put a lifetime of experience pushing grocery carts and hardware megastore flatbeds to good use. It took about 2.9 seconds to get used to it so don’t let anyone scare you into thinking that differential braking is difficult. On the taxi, I was acutely aware of how low to the ground we sat. A Cessna Skyhawk took on the same appearance as a Chevy Suburban when viewed from a Prius. The wraparound canopy just made the effect even more pronounced. Runup was easy, checking to see if the mags still worked as advertised and that the temps were good. After that it was wait for a Learjet 45 (which now looked about as big as a MD-87) to depart and we would be off to the races.

Takeoff

“Sport Cruiser One five two Papa Sierra, no delay, clear takeoff runway one five.” In my best fast-mover voice, I acknowledged the clearance and rolled onto the runway. To be honest with the good folks in the cab at Addison, I did delay a few seconds while I took one last look at all the instruments. But it turned out that I could have delayed a lot longer and it still wouldn’t have mattered.

Perception is a funny thing. Memories are even funnier. At the time, I perceived that I was at full power because the sound pitch I’m used to is of a much slower turning engine. Then my eyes noticed that I was only halfway up the quadrant with the throttle. Then I noticed the airspeed tape and it’s trend function showing that we had a very healthy acceleration. Then all the reviews popped into mind: “It’s very sensitive.”, “It’s too sensitive.”, “I overcontrolled it.”, “It’s not sensitive enough.” (the last review must have been from a Pitts or F-16 driver). In any case I treated the stick like a raw egg and gave only the most gentle squeeze.

My memory swears that the entire takeoff roll took 200 feet and we climbed out at an angle that would make a P-51 jealous. Granted, it was a cold morning. Yes, there was a stiff breeze coming out of the south. No, we didn’t have a full load of fuel. And yes, it is a factory fresh 2012 airframe. But my memory is only putting together a story based on perception. And I saw our EFIS giving a 15 to 20 degree climb angle. And I also saw that we were getting around 1000fpm. With 100hp and two full grown men on board. Sensitive stick? Maybe a little, but that just means less work on my part. Okay, this was going to be fun!

Having a very light wing loading and no sweep means that in gusty conditions, the little Sport Cruiser will get bounced around. It felt very similar to flying on windy days in a Cessna 150. I always explain wing loading and turbulence to people as being similar to the difference between a canoe and a cruise ship going through 7 foot waves. The waves feel a lot worse to the boat with the lower displacement because it rides up and down rather than cutting through. Needless to say, if you have passengers who get carsick, or throw up watching an Imax movie, strap them down tight and only fly on a calm morning or afternoon. But if everyone on board is okay with a couple bumps and bobbles, then go up anytime you want.

Once settled on an easterly heading and level at 2500ft, I went to my airmanship 101 toolbox and established a wind correction angle based on a building I knew to be due east of the airport. With a screaming 30knot wind out of the south and us lollygagging along at 80-90 knots, the correction was pretty substantial. What I hadn’t noticed was that the Dynon EFIS had done the work for me already by plotting the correction angle for my bug selected heading. That sure took the wind out of my sails, but on the plus side, if used properly in a teaching environment, it takes the “Wait what?” out of students learning about WCA and plotting courses. They can see it right in front of them through the window and on the screen.

Oh, I see you've already figured out my wind correction angle. And you're telling me my RPM, VS, wind direction, autopilot mode, altitude, airspeed and energy state all at once. My you're informative!

Oh, I see you’ve already figured out my wind correction angle. And you’re telling me my RPM, VS, wind direction, autopilot mode, altitude, airspeed and energy state all at once. My you’re informative!

Stalls

Out in the practice area, Stuart and I did slow flight and stalls. I like slow flight for some reason. Maybe its all the times I’ve watched fighters doing high alpha passes at airshows. Maybe its because I’m proving that I have positive control of the aircraft even as the ASI is winding down. Or maybe its because my brain works in angle of attack mode 90% of the time. Whatever the reason, I was really looking forward to seeing the advertised stall speed of 28 knots. By the time we got down to 35 knots, the airplane was buffeting noticeably. Not alarmingly to someone who is aware of what’s going on, but enough that you know the air is getting perturbed. After a few turns with hilariously small radii, we went to a full flap power off stall (there is no stall warning horn although the EFIS does have an optional Navy style AOA indexer). The wing threw in its resignation with the utmost grace and dignity. The nose dropped a couple degrees and with me still holding back stick, it tried to fly again. Only by really pulling back firmly did we get an FAA style break. I say that because the European certification agencies prefer aircraft to “mush” while the FAA prefers a clean break so the pilot knows he has stalled. You can get in trouble with either characteristic so the choice really is pilot preference (I like the mush for a few reasons that I’ll cover in another article).

By this time, Stuart wanted to have fun so he suggested power on stalls. I am very glad he made that suggestion. He claims the pitch was near 40 degrees. I am inclined (punintentional) to agree with him based on the seat recline angle and the sight picture of the wingtip on the horizon. The last airspeed I remember seeing before laughing almost uncontrollably was 25 knots. Seriously, my moped goes faster than that. Here we are on a beautiful morning with full power, the nose jacked up and going slow enough that we could pass through a schoolzone without getting a ticket. This was great! The plane didn’t even want to break into a stall. It just sat there hanging on the prop with the buffet-squirrels dancing on the wing and showing no signs of giving up. I had to do another…and another…and another. I forgot how many I ended up doing but I remember thinking, “This is no way to treat Stuart first thing in the morning. I should stop now.”

Practice Landings

Over at a quiet, uncontrolled field for some practice landings, I had a lot of confidence in the airplane. Not to say I didn’t have confidence from the takeoff, or from the delightfully light controls, but it does something to a person when they lap the stick at Vso and the airplane says “I’m still with you.” The Sport Cruiser approaches normally at 60-65 knots, which is more useful since the angle of attack at 28 knots is completely useless on landing. A Corsair pilot with one eye and half a contact lens would have better visibility in that situation.

Standard pattern etiquette was applied but the turn to final seemed a little odd. Then I realized that it was at 65 knots into a strong headwind. The sensation of floating along peacefully was very strong. Full flaps were applied and we slowed to 60 knots. The flap actuation is one thing I personally would like changed. The flaps are controlled via a rocker switch on the center console. The indicator is an LED display next to that switch. The problem is that you have to count to know approximately how many degrees are out if you aren’t staring at the indicator (I think it was 3 seconds per 10 degrees or something). It just feels awkward to do that via a rocker switch. If it was a handle, even without detents, I could place it in the desired position and let the flaps move while I take my hand away to do something else. But this is really nitpicking since there’s not much else to do, and what you do have to do, you have plenty of time to do.

Rounding out and flaring should be done lower than usual since the airplane sits lower than usual. Flare too high and you’ll have an interesting and lively discussion with your passengers as you drop the final 5 feet to the pavement. The taper of the nose means that a left seat pilot has to add in more right rudder than expected. Visually, most of us are used to a relatively flat nose. Trying to apply that mental picture to the Sport Cruiser means you’ll land in a crab to the left. Once on the ground, keep flying the airplane as it’s very light and wind will affect it down to a much lower speed. Also recall that the nosegear doesn’t like to be abandoned way up in the air so fly it down gently. If stopping is a concern, you can tap the brakes but gentle aerobraking or a 3 point rollout can stop you just as well, albeit further down the runway.

With a nose more like a jet or twin, you may find yourself crabbed until you get used to the picture.

With a nose more like a jet or twin, you may find yourself crabbed until you get used to the picture.

This landing was a touch and go so around 20 knots, the flaps came up and the power went forward. 100 feet later the nose was rotating and a few seconds after that, the mains came off. I held the plane in ground effect and didn’t notice much nose up pitching tendency. At 90 knots I let the nose come up and held a 10 degree climb angle. Then I proceeded to fly a 747 size pattern, forgetting that this airplane doesn’t need a lot of room. Stuart pulled power on me to see if we could make the runway. Flaps up and holding 65 knots, we flew a standard base to final pattern. I don’t know how far out we started, my guess was at least a mile, but we cleared the threshold by about 30 feet (don’t worry, there were only empty farm fields on either end).

Handling, Autopilot and Avionics

On the ride home, I did some steep turns in both directions. Forgetting that the controls were connected to my desires telepathically, I rolled in and hauled back like I do in much heavier airplanes. After getting my stomach out of my shoes and lifting my head up to a normal position, I tried the formation flying technique of adding in nose down trim so there’s less tendency to over control (plus it just feels good). The second turn was smooth and crisp at a solid 2gs with only about 50 feet gained or lost. It wasn’t my flying to thank for that, it was the stability of the aircraft and the speed with which it responds to inputs. The millisecond it starts to go in direction A, you can twitch and send it back to direction B without letting any trends build up. The net result is that your flying feels smoother and your hands don’t really move much…the human fly by wire system.

Another feature I tried out was the integrated Dynon autopilot. With altitude preselect, nav, track, and heading modes, it is a very smooth system. An additional feature that I really like is the “180 mode”, for which “Rescue Me Mode” may be a better name. This mode levels the aircraft and performs a 180 degree turn, a blessing for the pilot who gets into IMC and needs to get out. As much as we’d like to hope that that a confused or disoriented VFR pilot can perform a perfect course reversal and fly out of the clouds, it may be asking a bit much. Features like this should not be used as a crutch for poor airmanship, but I have no doubt about their value for the times when everything is going wrong and the pilot who can juggle 5 things just got handed 3 more problems. For the unfortunate soul who has offended all the aviation and weather gods, the aircraft comes standard with a ballistic recovery parachute. Use the 100/100 rule for operation: Over 100 feet, under 100 knots.

Using the autopilot to hold altitude and heading on the way back to Addison really relieved workload, which wasn’t that high to begin with. It allowed me to check out the traffic alert features of the Garmin 695. Feeling a bit like an AWACSs controller, I could pick out a target on the screen and then look for it outside. It’s alarming how close you have to get in order to actually see some airplanes that are being flashed on the screen (especially with an urban background to camouflage them). This feature is a useful tool when teaching students how to scan sectors of the sky. When they go to fly aircraft without the system, they’ll know how to actually look for aircraft, rather than just glance in the direction that Approach tells them there’s a conflict.

Final Landing

Back in the “pattern” at Addison, we were directed to fall in behind a Katana. This plan was altered as a King Air came in from the north we both were vectored off to give him priority. Already gaining on the Katana, his immediate 90 bearing change made us really start closing quick. Snapping into a 1/2 mile echelon and pulling the power back, we instantly started getting good separation and I remained offset to his right to remain clear of any wake. The visibility and responsiveness were responsible for my ability to keep him in sight and not worry about losing him in the wing structure or struts or roof or whatever else is usually in the way on regular GA airplanes.

When the Katana was about 4 miles out he was cleared to return for landing and we were cleared to follow. Knowing that bizjets swarm Addison like bees to a hive, I elected to keep our speed up. My prior practice had taught me that it didn’t take long to slow down when required. Stuart suggested keeping altitude when pulling the power back, dropping flaps and then descending like an elevator if speed needed to remain high for the majority of the approach.

Since Addison is busy and people watch planes there all the time, I made sure to do my worst landing of the day with an audience of Gulfstream captains and flight school students waiting to takeoff. In my defense, it had gotten very gusty since we departed earlier. In my incrimination, I neglected to control the aircraft the way I had for the previous 90 minutes. I used inputs that were way too large and had a little too much speed in close. The result was me floating down the runway, being knocked around by the wind. Once on the ground, I settled down and went back to using small inputs, which didn’t help since the flight was over. The taxi back took a couple minutes and shutdown was a nonevent; just like turning off your car but with more style. After 1.5 total, we had burned around $30 in fuel, and that’s a very conservative overestimate.

SCADSSunset1Summary

The Sport Cruiser in my opinion fills a huge gap in GA. It provides pure enjoyment at a low cost. Yes, we may feel accomplished after mastering a complex series of systems on a much larger aircraft, but that is not flying, per se. That’s operating a machine that happens to fly. Flying is when you literally forget there is an airplane around you. When you have the time, confidence and visibility to look around at the houses, highways, lakes and farms below you. When a clearing turn becomes just as enjoyable as the planned maneuver. When you can savor a landing because it happens in slow motion. Or better yet, you do three more trips around the pattern without having to worry if you’ll have enough money left over to buy food for the next week. The Sport Cruiser is not the perfect overall airplane by any stretch of the imagination. But for its intended purpose of shameless airborne fun, it’s hard to beat.

 

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About Christopher Williams
Co-Founder of Whelan & Williams Industries Inc. Sole proprietor of Liftlazy. Photographer, musician, writer, pilot and all around good guy to know.

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