Italian Powerhouse – Tecnam’s P96 shows its colors as a ‘sporty’ plane

The newly appointed national representatives for Italy’s Tecnam are deeply experienced general aviation folks. The original national distributor, still very much involved, comes from an entire family of airline pilots.

So why are these experienced aviators — who have a combined 150 years of aviation experience — messing around with Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)?

The answer is simple: LSA is where the buzz is, at least regarding affordable aviation. Very Light Jets like Eclipse or Mustang may thrill us, but with our normal-sized wallets, LSAs are what more of us can actually buy. Plus, they’re just plain fun to fly.

Tecnam is Italy’s largest supplier of a range of aircraft that fit LSA well. In fact, the company currently leads the pack, with three different models approved as Special-LSAs just a few months after the FAA was ready for applications. Tecnam has a track record with 1,700 aircraft already flying in many countries.

A LIGHT FUTURE

We haven’t had 16 new manufactured airplanes certified in the last two decades. LSA racked up that many in six months, with several more in the works. By this year’s Oshkosh, some experts think the number of certified SLSAs seen in the LSA Mall could double to 28 models.

Two brands, Evektor and Flight Designs, beat Tecnam to the finish line as they earned their SLSA certificates first.

Each company has one model approved. Tecnam was hot on their tails and eventually gained three approvals: the Echo Super, Bravo, and Sierra. All these names are new for LSA, but the company behind them is not.

The Italian builder’s work dates to the 1950 P48B Astore, although more GA pilots probably know the company’s twin-engine Partenavia created in the 1970s. The Pascale brothers started building airplanes after World War II and the same family remains at the helm of the present-day Tecnam organized in 1986. A modern company, based in Casoria Napoli, Tecnam Construzioni Aeronautiche is a large operation with 36,000 square feet of facilities adjacent to the Naples Capodichino Airport.

HIGH OR LOW?

Tecnam is an unusual supplier in that it makes a high and low wing line. We’ll talk about the whole line later, but my experience was in the P96 Golf 100. This model will continue in sales but is being augmented by the P2002 Sierra, which more precisely meets the weight definitions of the new regulation.

Like P2002 Sierra and all other Tecnam designs, P96 is a conventional aluminum airplane except for the ailerons and flaps, which are fabric covered. Most structures use pulled rivets but in some structural locations, like the hinge plate for the ailerons, Tecnam uses driven rivets. Although most of the P96 is metal, the turtle deck and forward cowling are made of fiberglass. Lightweight composite wing tips complete the wing. Around the cockpit underneath the aluminum exterior is welded steel offering an extra measure of protection for occupants. Landing gear legs are steel, bolted into the spar carrythrough directly under your seat.

I flew with Mike Hansen, a Delta 757 pilot following in the steps of Jon Hansen, his father, who introduced the Tecnam brand to the USA. Mike and I took to the air in N-451JH, a P96 Golf with a Rotax 912S 100-hp engine.

Hansen did the walk-around with me at his elbow. You check oil and coolant levels at two access points on either side of the engine compartment. Standard fuel tanks are nine gallons usable per side with a common low wing-type fuel port. Since you have 18 gallons on board, P96 can deliver four hours endurance. A fuel tank shut off for each side is placed in front of the brake lever.

Most American pilots will like the roomy interior of P96. Measured at the shoulder, side-to-side width is 43 inches, an inch greater than a Cessna 172.

VERSATILE COCKPIT

Unlike factory-built GA planes, the P96′s canopy can be opened in flight, showing its colors brightly as a “sport” aircraft. With the canopy open, P96 loses 10 knots but you can sample the great outdoors in pleasant weather. If you’ve never flown open cockpit, you owe it to yourself to try it. When you close the canopy, you must duck your head a little as the leading edge is set a bit lower than the overhead position.

Three latches secure the canopy, one on each side plus a center one that gives a clear indication of being secured. The trailing edge of the windscreen has a carbon and fiberglass construction, which gives the cockpit some rollover protection for the occupants. Four-point seat belts add to the feeling of security.

As you scan the panel from left to right you find the starter switch, which also triggers the electric functions, flap control, a couple knobs to adjust cabin heat, dual ignition switches, throttle with friction lock using a twist knob with a finger lever, switches for landing light, strobe light, and nav light, and a series of fuses. As I was seated on the right, I initially overlooked the dual throttles allowing each occupant to have their left hand on the throttle and right hand on the stick.

In the test P96, the flap switch was on the left side where it was hard to reach from the right seat. After a request from Jon Hansen, the factory moved this to the center, as this location is better when the plane is used for instruction.

Electric trim is mounted between the seats aft of the hand brake and the park brake knob. Future versions will have electric trim on the joystick where Hansen feels American flight schools will want it. The P96 is equipped with a trim position indicator and a flap position indicator.

Mounted in the panel were airspeed, altimeter, VSI, turn-and-slip, tach, and the usual engine instruments, as well as a liquid temperature gauge as the Rotax engine does not depend solely on air cooling. Hansen offers radios and GPS units along with a transponder or a GPS with a comm feature. Tecnam supplies a blank panel plate in the center so you can modify as you wish for avionics.

While the engine warmed up, Hansen kept a hand on the center-mounted brake. Aft of the hand brake lever is a knob that twists to set the pulled hand lever. Brakes are hydraulically actuated.

Though it looks like it might be a castoring wheel due to the faired construction, P96 has a fully steerable nosewheel. A rubber doughnut-type shock absorber takes up any shock you impose on it.

LOCK AND LAUNCH

With the canopy secured for takeoff, we set 15° of flaps. The electric flap control moves the surfaces quickly. Flaps are marked for 15° and 40°, though you can set infinite positions. Releasing the flaps from 40 back to 15 didn’t cause much pitch change or sinking. But on retracting the last 15° a sinking sensation became much more evident.

The normal P96 landing procedure is to use about 20° of flaps — slightly more than half way on the indicator. Hansen said they use 40° on their short field back home.

For landing approach, he suggested I use 2,000-2,500 rpm and hold speed at about 60 mph indicated with flaps set at 20°. You’ll want to trim the nose higher to slow down the plane. When you make the adjustment you’ll see that trim, like flaps, is also quite responsive.

As we got near the surface, I saw the P96 retains energy quite well. Even at 60 mph, it was easy to hold the nose off. Lacking the finesse of someone who knows the P96, I touched down a bit firmer than I might have liked but clearly this is a pretty easy landing airplane. At 20° of flaps, the flare timing is quite natural and most pilots will pick it up after a few touch and goes.

At altitude in uncongested airspace, we examined slow flight. I found I could hold 45 mph where P96 remained very controllable if somewhat more sluggish than at cruise speed, as you’d expect. However, even though the controls became softer, response remained very good.

Handling is quite responsive, but is not excitable or sudden. The P96 offers fluid stick movements and the rudder pedals need little movement to produce coordinated turns. Some pilots accustomed to using equal measures of stick and rudder will likely overuse the rudder initially.

Handling was good enough that I was able to perform dutch rolls to 30°-40° very quickly and without swinging the coordination ball around too much. For a first time flight in the plane, I thought the maneuver went very well.

Cruise speeds appeared to be consistent at about 110 knots. At 5,300 rpm (which equates to about 75% power), we showed 112 knots in level attitude. This leaves a fair amount of throttle range. Even at these brisk speeds, P96 Golf is pleasantly quiet.

P96 doesn’t lose altitude when you back off the power as we did before entering slow-flight mode. We brought power down to about 4,000 rpm and then down to 3,000 rpm when it continued to hold altitude for a while, albeit with an increasingly sharper angle of attack. Given the Rotax revolution range up to nearly 6,000 rpm, this is the equivalent of running a Lycoming or Continental at 1,500-1,600 rpm…and still holding altitude.

Right off the runway on a warm day, we saw 700-800 fpm of climb. By the time we reached 3,000 feet this figure dropped by about 100 fpm. This was using the 100-hp Rotax 912S, but the plane is said to fly very well with the 80-horse 912 engine model. Pilots operating at high elevations will want the more powerful model, which can climb closer to 1,200 fpm near sea level.

OPEN YOUR MIND

Opening the canopy in flight is quite simple: you release the three latches and control the canopy as it slides aft. When the canopy is slid full aft it blocks some of the inboard stabilator so that you have to trim the nose higher when the canopy is open and retrim lower once you close the canopy. If it’s open all the way, the factory recommends that you do not perform takeoffs and landings due to the stabilator blockage though in flight the blockage presents no problem. If you want the canopy open during takeoffs and landings, the factory has a latching arrangement that limits the canopy opening to 3 inches.

Flying around with the canopy open proved quite exhilarating. On the pilot’s side, a pin can be inserted to keep the canopy from sliding forward unexpectedly.

I performed a full stall routine — engine off, climb power and accelerated stalls. All of them occurred at slightly below 40 mph indicated. The factory says 33 knots, which calculates to about 38 mph, so given some common instrument error at low speeds, the factory information is on the money.

Hansen Air Group offers the whole line of Tecnam airplanes and is also the east coast distributor for the Sky Arrow, a very different Italian design that flies beautifully. Looking almost identical to the P96 is the slightly heavier P2002 Sierra. This model needed a different prop to stay within the LSA speed limit owing to its tapered wing with a slightly thinner, lower profile airfoil, and a more rounded lower fuselage.

The P2002 has won certification as a factory-built Special LSA and can be bought for commercial use such as instruction and rental.

In addition to the low wing Sierra, Tecnam and Hansen have certified two high wing models: the updated Echo Super (augmenting the P92 Echo Classic) and the cantilevered high wing P2004 Bravo.

A high wing P92 Classic equipped with the 80-horsepower Rotax 912 sells for about $66,000 (subject to change caused by dollar/euro exchange rate fluctuation). The updated and SLSA certified P92 Echo Super is sold for about $79,000. The low wing P96 Golf retails for about $77,000, while the certified P2002 Sierra lists for about $84,000 with good basic equipment.

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