Cessna’s Skycatcher was designed for the Light Sport Aircraft category, as well as to lower the cost of entry into aviation. It was also designed to be a teaching platform that could ostensibly replace the Cessna 150 series in flight schools.
I have more than 300 hours in Cessna 150-series aircraft, of which a little over 100 hours was spent in the right seat as a CFI. Although I do most pilot report flights from the left seat, I decided to fly the Skycatcher from the right to evaluate its potential as a training aircraft.
Dennis Cunneen, chief pilot for the RFTS Flying Club at Tacoma Narrows Airport (TIW) in Washington, was more than happy to show off the club’s new Skycatcher. The RFTS Skycatcher has the distinction of being one of the first 100 Skycatchers, rolling off the assembly line as No. 64.
Cunneen, who has been flying since 1967 and instructing since 1972, was working at Boeing when he started the flying club in 1983. “I wanted to have a place to teach and to make flying less expensive for my students,” he said, explaining RFTS stands for “Radio Frequency Target Simulator,” the name of a Boeing project he and another club founder were working on at the time.
The club has four aircraft: A C-150, two C-172s (one with G1000), and the Skycatcher.
“We bought the Skycatcher specifically for training,” Cunneen said. “We looked at other light-sport aircraft, but they didn’t look like they would hold up in a training environment. The Skycatcher is all metal. It is built by Cessna, a company that has built a lot of training airplanes and knows how to do it. They went beyond the ASTM industry standards when they built it, so I think it is a really good training platform.”
Students seem to agree — and they are not alone. Cunneen reports that the SkyCatcher is not only popular with the club’s student pilots, but also with the fully licensed members. “It is flying about five times a week and it is paying for itself,” he said.
ON THE RAMP
You can’t help but notice a familial resemblance when the Skycatcher is sitting on the ramp next to a Cessna 150, but it is a resemblance like when you compare a 1966 Ford Mustang with a 2011 model. The heritage is there, tempered with evolution of the design.
The wing-strut on the Skycatcher anchors behind the door rather than in front of it. The door is a gull-wing type that opens upward.
The door and strut combo introduces a learning curve to some as most Cessnas have the strut anchored up front of the door and the door opens forward.
“At my advanced age and weight I can bend over or I can pick up my knee to my chest, but it is difficult to do both at the same time. The doors ride up under the wing so you have to bend over lower than you would to enter a Cessna 150, then stick your foot into the cockpit and work your way around.”
I am by no means tall and even I had to be careful not to bump my head as I entered the plane. The doors, held up with gas struts, are light. The Cessna slam has no place in the Skycatcher.
“There is no insulation in this airplane, no plastic, no cloth, no nothing,” said Cunneen. “You don’t need a lot of force to close the door — you don’t have to slam it. When you touch the inside of the door you are touching the inside of the outside of the metal.”
It is imperative that the door be securely latched prior to takeoff, he noted. In a C-150, if a door is unlatched it is loud, but the door will be held closed by the slip-stream. In the Skycatcher the door will be forced upward by the lift, resulting in possible damage to the door and airframe.
All test flights begin with a thorough pre-flight inspection. Cunneen led me through it using the checklist published in the Pilots Operating Handbook as a reference. The first thing we checked for were the so-called AROW documents — Airworthiness Certificate, Registration, Owner’s Manual, and Weight and Balance.
He was careful to point out the action items, listed in bold type-face, and the ones that were left to “pilot’s discretion,” such as having a copy of the POH on board the plane. I was surprised the POH was not required. Instead, the Skycatcher pilot can comply with regulations by having the approved checklist on board.
There are no airplane-mounted steps to help shorter pilots like myself reach the fuel tanks. Cunneen produced a step-stool, which I used to reach the fuel caps. The Skycatcher does not have electronically actuated fuel gauges. Inside the cockpit there are well-marked tubes at wing level, similar to what you find in a Piper Cub.
“There is a direct-level indication,” said Cunneen. “What you see is what you have, and there is no way to switch tanks.” There is a placard warning the pilot that takeoffs are prohibited with less than one quarter tanks.
Like most LSAs, the Skycatcher is easy on fuel consumption, averaging between five and six gallons per hour.
Weight and balance is done via an application of the Garmin 300, a glass panel designed specficially for the Skycatcher. The pilot inputs information similar to programming a GPS, and a graph appears on the screen.
“If we are within weight and balance, the dot that represents our CG is green. Watch what happens when we’re outside the envelope,” Cunneen said, then input a number sure to put the airplane over published legal limits. “If we’re too heavy or outside the CG, the dot turns red, which is bad.”
Although I like the idea of the pilot having a reminder to do a weight and balance review before each flight, I am not a big fan of having primary students trust a computer for a basic skill like computing weight and balance. To me, it is like giving a child a digital watch before he or she has learned to tell time from an analog clock. Will having a computer calculate weight and balance mean that pilots no longer need to be able to read the tables and graphs supplied in POHs or be able to do the calculations longhand? I asked Cunneen.
“Possibly,” he said, but then pointed out that a great many people don’t bother to do weight and balance before each flight. “They are of the mindset that if it fits in the airplane we must be okay,” he said. “Perhaps if we make it easy for them to check the weight and balance they will do it and be safer pilots.”
Glass cockpits are the industry standard for LSA. The G300 is a smaller, more basic version of the G1000. It has Primary Flight and a Multi-Function Display screens. Owners have the option of getting a single screen on the left side of the panel that displays flight information on top and navigation information on the bottom, or a two-screen panel with a PFD on the left and MFD on the right. Cunneen’s airplane has the latter.
Although the Skycatcher is limited to daytime VFR flight only, the G300 comes equipped with synthetic vision and pre-loaded with VFR and IFR charts.
Airspeed and altitude are represented with tapes. The heading indicator is a 360° design, while the inclinometer looks like a level, with a white ball in the center. According to Cunneen, there is no reversionary mode that will allow the pilot to convert both screens to a PFD by the push of a button.
This means the instructor in the right seat will have to get used to reading the PFD from the right. This could be a bit of a challenge depending on how the sun is hitting the screen.
Also, forget polarizing sunglasses because the screen goes dark when you look through those lenses.
With the preflight complete, we briefed the flight, then fired up the engine and switched on the avionics. The G300 blinked to life, running the self-diagnostics. That’s when I realized the Skycatcher does not have back-up instruments.
Aircraft equipped with the G1000 have back-up instruments, including an engine driven vacuum attitude indicator, as well as conventional airspeed and altimeter and a magnetic compass. If a big red X appears on the G1000 PFD, it means the instrument is malfunctioning and the pilot needs to refer to the back-up instruments. The G300 also uses a big red X to indicate an instrument malfunction or failure, but there are no back-up instruments. There also isn’t a magnetic compass or VOR on board.
“It has a communications radio, not a nav/com, but it does have a GPS,” said Cunneen, noting that since the Skycatcher is a day-time, VFR flight only aircraft, the pilot shouldn’t need the back-up instruments and navigation for safe operation. “You look out the window, use your sectional, and GPS,” he said with a shrug.
The powerplant is a 100-hp carburetor-equipped Continental O-200D. Cessna’s decision to use the Continental rather than Rotax — which is the most common engine used in LSAs — helped many people get over the disappointment of the Skycatcher being built in China.
The Skycatcher has toe brakes, which should make it easier to transition to other Cessna aircraft in the future. However, the angle at which one’s heels rest on the floor in relation to the pedals make it challenging not to ride the brakes during ground operations.
The Skycatcher also has a castering nosewheel, so my first attempts to keep the nose on the yellow taxi line had all the grace of a drunken rhinoceros.
The top of the panel in the Skycatcher is not a uniform curve like in most Cessnas. On the right there is a square-shaped cutaway. I found it to be like looking down chute, and it was difficult to figure out where to look to determine centerline.
The elevator and ailerons are actuated by a stick that feels and moves like it should be connected to the floor between the pilot’s legs, but instead is inserted under the panel. This gives the false impression that the Skycatcher can be turned by twisting the stick. You can twist all you want, but all you’ll get is blisters on your palm and a sore wrist. The stick moves side to side like a stick on a Cub. This stick is a departure for Cessna, which has produced yoke- or wheel-controlled aircraft since the early days.
The flaps are actuated by a Johnson bar located between the seats. I can imagine a student grabbing the bar in lieu of applying the brakes because it does look and feel like the parking brake on many cars.
The run up was done per the checklist and was pretty straight forward. Leaning the engine is a breeze with the digital engine read-outs. When I did an idle power carburetor heat check, I was surprised at how quickly the engine got warm.
After obtaining clearance from the tower, we were ready to go. Cunneen advised me to get to about 50 knots, then pitch the nose up about 10°, which would put me at about the right angle for best rate of climb.
Ohhhhkay. Remember the looking down a chute comment from earlier? I applied the throttle, made sure the centerline was out there in front of me, and released the brakes. I wasn’t sure how much back pressure to use because during the control check it seemed to be pretty light on the controls.
“It is more pitch sensitive than the C-172, especially close to the ground,” Cunneen warned.
The airplane began to move. I glanced over at the airspeed tape. As 50 knots appeared I applied back pressure. It took a little experimentation for me to find the right pitch angle for Vy. I also had to adjust my headset volume, because the Skycatcher is louder than the other Cessnas I routinely fly. Sound proofing would add extra weight.
The Skycatcher climbs quickly and it is easy to overshoot your selected altitude. A chime on the G300 altimeter lets you know when you are approaching the target.
We climbed away from the airport heading for the practice area to put the Skycatcher through its paces.
The test flight began in earnest with a few clearing turns and experimentation with the rudder. The Skycatcher needed less right rudder than I thought it would, but more left rudder than I thought it would, especially for left turns. Shallow turns weren’t much of an issue, but the down the chute view made it hard for me to maintain altitude during steep turns.
If the light hits the PFD just right, the glare makes the information hard to see. Since there isn’t a magnetic compass mounted on the windscreen or on top of the panel, I couldn’t check that for heading information, so I opted to use outside visual cues, using local landmarks for cardinal headings.
Cunneen demonstrated slow flight. There is nothing terribly challenging about this. Pull the power back to about 2000 rpm. Let the airspeed bleed off. Below 100 knots deploy the first notch of flaps. As the airplane slows keeping adding the flaps. Add power to maintain altitude. Add right rudder. In this configuration I heard a high-pitched whine, like the noise lobsters make when you steam them.
Entering a power-off stall was easy, and the recovery more so.
We headed back to the airport for landings. Cunneen did the first one. As the airplane slowed and the flaps were deployed, there was that high-pitched noise again. The flaps were singing.
Cunneen warned me that the Skycatcher doesn’t want to stop flying. Landings take some practice. Expect to have at least one “carrier trap” as you transition to the Skycatcher, and remember that castering nosewheel.
Shutting down the Skycatcher is also done with the checklist. Make sure that you record the Hobbs and the Tach time before you turn off the master, because the information is on the G300 and you need electricity to read them.
When Cessna officials announced the creation of its LSA, it was predicted that the airplane would, when added to a flight school fleet, be the most popular trainer. By all accounts, that prediction has proved accurate.
For more information: Cessna.com