Symphony 160: The next generation trainer

You’ve always been interested in aviation, so you go to the local airport to shop for flying lessons. Your uncle, who learned to fly years ago, told you to train in a two-place, high-wing, tricycle gear aircraft. You have no idea what that means, but tell the first flight instructor you meet that you want to learn in one of these. He takes you on to the ramp and shows you a Cessna 152. The upholstery is cracked and the paint faded and scuffed in spots. Upon closer inspection you learn that this airplane was manufactured a few months before you were born. You ask, is there a more modern two-place high-wing trainer on the market?

The answer is yes and it is called the Symphony 160. The Symphony came on the scene in early 2000, evolving out of the Glastar design. After some legal wrangling, Symphony Aircraft Industries began producing the aircraft. The high-wing design, manufactured in Three Rivers, Quebec, has been certified under FAR Part 23 in the United States since 2001.

Since then the Symphony has slowly been gaining ground in the flight school arena as a two-place option for pilots who want to fly a high-wing, nosewheel equipped airplane.

“Our competitors in the training arena are the Liberty, Cessna 172, Diamond DA-40 and 20, the Piper Archer II and even the Cirrus SR20,” said Jeremy Keninger, national sales director of Symphony Aircraft Industries. “But of those, only the Cessna is a high wing and it has four seats.”

That empty space in the back can irk some cost-conscious students, who resent paying for wasted space, says Keninger. These students can learn in a Cessna 152 but often find them to be cramped. If the student and instructor are of generous carriage, the useful load of the aircraft can be very small and the learning curve harsh because it’s hard to concentrate when you are wearing an airplane.

The Symphony cabin measures 43.5 inches across, compared to the 34 inches of the Cessna 152 cabin.

That extra 9.5 inches make for a more comfortable lesson, says Keninger.

As a veteran of many hours in a cramped C-152, as both a student and an instructor, I had to try this out.

TEST FLIGHT

Christian Klix, a Symphony dealer in Arlington, Wash., offered to provide the demo aircraft. My goal was to determine if it could, indeed, replace the C-152 and perhaps even the C-172 in the high wing flight-training arena.

Klix has a lot of experience with the airframe. “I had the first one that was in North America,” he said. He liked the airplane so much that he decided to become a dealer, and has traveled all over the country selling the Symphony 160.

One of the sales pitches for Symphony encourages prospective pilots to fly a design that isn’t 40 years old and is truly a two person plus baggage airplane. The Symphony 160 cruises at 128 knots and sports a useful load of 700 lbs. Even with full fuel, it is a good performer, said Keninger, and you don’t feel like a sardine.

“You can get two full-sized adults in the Symphony,” he noted. “The cabin is four inches wider than the Cessna 172. Someday, I wouldn’t be surprised if we made a four-seat airplane. Essentially we have that right now.”

Klix adds that the aircraft appeals to a variety of students, from the wannabe professional pilot to the hobbyist.

“This airplane is very easy and fun to fly and it attracts different kinds of students,” he said. “Some of them are looking for the best equipment. Others are used to always having the best. They’ve driven to the airport in a Porsche and they don’t want to get into a beater of an airplane.”

Checklist in hand, Klix walked and talked me through the pre-flight inspection. One of the first things that caught my eye was the size of a pair of vortex generators on the upper wing surfaces. They are about the size of garden trowels. There are two on each side located near the leading edge on the upper surface, forward of the ailerons. I have flown aircraft with lines of VGs that are about the size of a nickel strategically positioned along the leading edge of the wing, but I had never seen something like this on a GA trainer.

“They give the aircraft excellent slow flight characteristics,” Klix said. He pointed out the counterweights beneath the wing. “These add safety by reducing the possibility of aileron flutter. When we’re on the ground you will notice that the ailerons might feel a bit different, the stick wants to fall to one side or the other, but once we get the air flowing over the wing you’ll notice they feel normal.”

Another surprise was the composite propeller. It is a fixed pitch MT propeller measuring 73 inches in diameter with a stainless steel strip on the leading edge. The propeller is connected to a Lycoming O-320 D2A capable of producing 160 horsepower at 2,700 rpm. The combination taxi and landing light is located on the left side of the cowl. This was different for me as most of the airplanes I fly have them in a wing or directly under the spinner. Since we were flying in bright daylight I did not have a chance to assess its usefulness.

On both sides of the fuselage are the cabin air intake vents. Klix explained that by virtue of design they were less likely to aspirate water into the cabin during heavy rain. A similar design is used on the left side of the cowling for engine induction air, reducing the likelihood of induction icing.

UNDER THE SKIN

The Symphony construction starts with a roll cage of 4130 steel tubing.

“The cage extends all the way back to the tail,” Klix explained. “The fuselage shell is composite but is not load bearing.”

The wings are aluminum rather than composite, a material that is a long time standard in the industry and one that many shops are familiar with. The gear is spring steel, designed to withstand repeated touch and goes and the occasional smash and goes that are heavier on the smash than the go.

The baggage compartment has a separate entry door. It is designed so that the tow bar blocks heavy items from pressing against the door in flight. There is a cargo net between the compartment and the cockpit. The rear baggage compartment can hold up to 165 pounds.

The typical empty weight of the aircraft is listed as 1,450. Gross weight is 2,150. Useable fuel is listed as 29.1 gallons.

THE COCKPIT

One of the most common complaints I hear from students who are learning to fly in the Cessna 150 series is how small the cockpit is and how difficult it is to climb into it. What do I grab on to? Where do my legs go? With the Symphony you grab hold of the brace bar at the top of the windscreen and swing your tail section in first, then swing your legs over the stick. The Symphony has large doors and a low seat so it’s pretty easy to get situated without being skilled at advanced yoga poses.

The seats have lumbar support and built-in compression cores. That means that the seat is going to absorb the lion’s share of the impact should you touch down hard, saving your spine. The seats are adjustable and easily accommodate Klix, who is 6 feet tall and some change, and myself, who is literally a foot shorter than he is. Grab the handle beneath the seat and slide forward and you have good visibility over the cowling and still have full stick travel.

Klix reports the aircraft, even for the larger pilot, is ergonomically comfortable on long hauls.

The aircraft comes with an electronic checklist, but I asked to use the back-up paper checklist because I wanted to see the full list in one shot. How a manufacturer wants you to conduct a preflight check can tell you a lot about an aircraft.

GOOD VISIBILITY

One of the reasons people select high-wing over low-wing designs is the good visibility you get when you look down. With the Symphony you also get good lateral vision from the cockpit because the strut that supports the wings is located behind the door so it doesn’t block the view.

“It’s great for photo shoots,” said Klix, adding that the aircraft is certified for door-off operations.

The convex windows of the Symphony also increase the view. You also can get a good look at the tail because of the window design. The bow out also gives you a bit more room in the shoulder region.

Despite the width of the cockpit, from the right side of the aircraft I was still able to reach everything on the left side of the panel without straining against the seatbelt.

Panel layout for the VFR version is your basic six instruments and a Garmin 430 and 420 for extra situational awareness. One thing I really liked was that the stick did not block my view of the left side of the panel and circuit breakers. Also, the fuel shut off switch, which is set between the pilot seats, is on a raised dais. It is red, which is an engineer’s way of telling pilots THIS IS IMPORTANT, and is fashioned in such a way that you have to apply pressure to reposition it. There will be no accidentally moving the lever by snagging it with a headset or microphone cord and no fumbling to find it on the floor amid the well-worn carpet.

The Symphony has a built in intercom and the push to talk button is on top of the stick for ease of transmissions.

There is a line of annunciator lights right in front of the pilot on the left side. They include fuel pump, flaps in motion, pitot heat and external power.

READY FOR LAUNCH

The run up, via the checklist, was straightforward. Standard procedure is to use 20° of flaps for normal takeoff. A quick conversation with the tower and we were on our way. Airspeed came alive quickly and we were up. Because it is a stick rather than a yoke like I am used to, I had to remind myself not to over-control the aircraft. Control pressures are subtler with a stick, especially with something as nimble as a Symphony.

The flaps came up and we settled into a climb to head for the practice area west of the airport to put the aircraft through its paces. Just as Klix assured me, once we got some air over the control surfaces they lightened up. I played around with the ailerons and the rudder on the way up to 3,500 feet.

Klix helped me trim for level flight. A little goes a long way in this aircraft. Next I wanted to try some medium and steep turns. The Symphony rolled in and out of the turns easily. I went into student mode and tried chasing altitude through the turns and the aircraft’s response was predictable and benign.

Power off stalls were next. There was the electronic tone of the stall warning horn, a bit of a buffet then a sinking feeling. Power on stalls were equally docile.

Klix was eager to demonstrate the effectiveness of the VGs.

“Flight schools are very positive about the Symphony. They can’t believe the slow speed handling, the stick and rudder aspect of it,” he explained, and set to further demonstrate this with the warning phrase “I don’t want to scare you” as we went into slow flight with a high angle of attack and sloppy rudders. If there is a phrase that makes me nervous in an airplane, it is “I don’t want to scare you,” second only to “watch this.” I was apprehensive as he let the aircraft yaw back and forth but stayed in positive control of it. If you tried that maneuver in a Cessna, you’d probably get the classic break and spin entry.

Klix noted that the sheer size of the rudder makes for better control when it comes time to steer with your feet. In addition, the aircraft has a maximum crosswind component of 17 knots on landing, 20 knots on takeoff.

The Cessna 152, by comparison, has a maximum demonstrated crosswind component of 12 knots.

TOUCH AND GOES

After the air work we headed back to the airport for some touch and goes. Klix talked me through approach speeds (about the same as a Cessna 172) but when the full 40° of flaps was down we descended faster than I anticipated and got a little slow on short final. A slight increase in power solved that problem. The stall warning horn buzzed and we were down. I reached over to get the flaps and the Law of Primacy kicked in and I took all of them out — oops, should have left some in. I made a mental note not to do that again, but the airplane took off just fine.

Klix took the second approach to give me a better demonstration of the aircraft’s ability on short approaches. He was right about the rudder authority at slow speeds.

BOTTOM LINE

Price of the Symphony 160 ranges from $149,900 for basic VFR packages to be delivered in 2006 to $154,900 for those slated for delivery in 2007. The IFR packages with the steam gauge aircraft range from $163,900 to $169,900, again depending on delivery date.

One of the key selling points for flight schools, Klix notes, is the operational cost. “People think because they have older airplanes on the line that their operating costs will be lower, but that’s not really the case,” he said. “Although the insurance costs may be lower, often the older airplanes need the most maintenance and that’s expensive.”

EXPECTING GLASS

Symphony expects to have the glass cockpit version of the Symphony 160 certified sometime this month.

“The panel will be Avidyne and the circuit breakers will be mounted in the ceiling of the cabin just like they are on airliners,” noted Klix. “Not only will this be a good first airplane for the hobbyist pilot, it will also be a good trainer for the clients who want a career in aviation and will likely be flying larger, similarly equipped airplanes in the future.”

The design calls for the back-up instruments — the steam gauge altimeter, airspeed and attitude indicator — to be placed along the top of the panel within easy view of the pilot.

AT YOUR SERVICE

Over the past three years Symphony has been acquiring more dealers and setting up service centers around the country.

Klix operates one called Pacific AeroSport, LLC.

“We are required to stock a certain amount of parts,” he said, “and anything we don’t have can be ordered from American Symphony, which is located in the Midwest. They have access to shipping facilities and can usually get a part to us overnight without having to deal with Customs like they would if the part came from Canada. In addition, customers can take delivery of the aircraft in the United States and be assured it will be easy to get the support you need.”

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