By BILL WALKER For General Aviation News
The man working on his own kit plane at the Just Aircraft factory in Walhalla, S.C., is Robert Stephens, a retired airline pilot who chose the builder assist option when he bought a Highlander Light Sport Aircraft last year.
Stephens said he picked Just Aircraft after considerable study of the LSA market over the past few years. And the Highlander he chose drew increased recognition in 2009 by winning the Reserve Grand Champion award at Sun ‘n Fun and the Light Sport Grand Champion title at Oshkosh.Just Aircraft makes two LSA kits, the Escapade and the Highlander. The Escapade first appeared in 2002 and was followed by the introduction of the Highlander at the 2004 Arlington Fly-In, according to Troy Woodland, who designed both planes.
Originally based in Idaho, the Just Factory relocated to Walhalla, S.C., after Gary Schmitt invested in the company.
Woodland (pictured, left) noted it was discussions with Schmitt at Oshkosh several years ago that led to the Highlander. He wanted a side-by-side aircraft instead of Woodland’s tandem seating arrangement and finally got it with the tailwheel design that evolved into the robust Highlander.
Both planes have a 4130 chrome moly steel tube fuselage with heat shrinkable Dacron covering and a 31-foot, 6-inch wingspan. The wings fold so the planes can be transported in an 8-foot-wide trailer.
The Escapade, which sells for $19,800, can be built as a tricycle or conventional gear aircraft, while the Highlander, priced at $22,000, is tailwheel only, emphasizing its backcountry capabilities. (A nosewheel Highlander model is in the works). For the Highlander, the factory offers a wider landing gear with beefed up legs and heavy-duty axles able to handle oversized Alaska Bushwheels or similar big tires. Most buyers add the optional 8-inch extreme tailwheel. The Highlander also can be fitted with floats or skis.
Both models meet the LSA maximum gross weight of 1,320 pounds. With a 200-pound pilot on board and full fuel of 26 gallons, there’s still nearly 350 pounds of hauling capability available.
“We’ve shipped over 180 kits worldwide and should send out about 50 this year,” factory manager Harry Berndt said late last year, adding he estimates about 110 of the planes have been completed.
A retired Xerox executive who got tired of playing golf every day and came on board in South Carolina, Berndt noted the company has customers in England, France, Spain, New Zealand, Canada, Ecuador and various other countries, plus the United States.
One of those customers is Stephens, who retired from Delta Airlines four years ago after a 36-year-career. He owned a 65-hp J-3 Cub for 40 years when he finally decided he needed more horsepower to safely clear the tall trees at his Florida airstrip.
To get that added power, he selected the fuel-injected 130-hp Rotax 914. The installation is one of the first on a Highlander, he said, and should get the plane off the ground in less than 200 feet.
“I’m trying to build my plane — engine wise, prop wise and ride wise — to cruise at over 100 mph,” Stephens said. “I want to fly out west in the mountains.”
Other engine options include the 80-hp Rotax 912UL ($22,698), 100-hp Rotax 912ULS ($24,566), 85-hp Jabiru 2200 ($13,226), 120-hp Jabiru 3300 ($17,395), and a 103-hp Volkswagen engine with exhaust kit ($6,295).
Performance figures at gross weight indicate the Highlander equipped with the 912S Rotax cruises at 110 mph, stalls clean at 32 mph and at 27 mph with 40° of flaps. Takeoff roll and landing ground roll are 300 feet, while it climbs at 880 feet per minute. The engine uses 4.9 gallons per hour at 75% continuous power and Rotax says premium unleaded 90 octane or higher leaded or unleaded gasoline or 100LL are acceptable.
The factory offers a basic instrument panel as a $1,200 option, but Berndt said nearly every customer opts for a far more sophisticated custom panel.
Changes or upgrades to the models over the past few years include a tighter fit for doors, instrument panel glare shield, an oil access door, cabin heater, and an upgraded interior with carpeting and more comfortable seat cushions.
The cabin is 44 inches across and tall enough to handle pilots up to 6-foot, 7 inches and 300 pounds, Berndt added.
Both models are advertised as quick build kits.
“We’re taking about 600 to 700 hours and no welding,” he said. “We have an extensive build manual which we put online so potential customers can see what it takes to build the airplane.”
Stephens noted the factory builder assist option was a good choice, noting technical help was only a few steps away on the production line.
Heading up that technical help is Jak Kesler, who serves as all-around troubleshooter and adviser to the builders.
“I tell customers to buy these options for sure: factory-built wings, the option of the wings set to the fuselage, and fuselage powder coating,” Kesler said. “I’ve painted a fuselage before and you don’t get it all — powder coating gets it all. With the wings built in the jig, they’re true, they’re straight, they’re square. The washout is built into the jig and you can’t mess it up. With it set to the fuselage here with our jigs, the plane then becomes a bolt-together plane for the customer. With those three options the plane is going to do what we advertise it to do.”
Dennis Woodland, father of aircraft designer Troy, cuts the wing ribs for all the kits. He said he likes the plane so much he decided at age 71 to build his own.
“Flying is something I always wanted to do,” he explained. “My wife told me I could do it when I got to life expectancy age, so I’m just about there.”
Just Aircraft test pilots don’t have to leave the property to put their planes to a backcountry test. The factory runway, only a few steps from the entrance door, is a rutted, clay-covered side of a hill leading down to a lake. Landing is uphill on a near 20% grade with about 400 feet maximum available runway.
Designer Troy Woodland credits Just Aircraft kit builders with spreading the word on the factory’s planes.
“Our customers are our salesmen out there,” he said. “Without them we wouldn’t even be here.”
For more information: 864-718-0320 or JustAircraft.com.