You may have seen it when it arrived on these shores back in the early 1970s. Then again, maybe not, other than as a picture in a trade journal. After all, to date there are only 70 examples registered in America. Strange, because it has beautiful lines, respectable performance, twin engine reliability, is certified for known ice and is modestly priced.
So why hasn’t the Partenavia P68 twin from Naples, Italy, done better? Lack of an aggressive sales force could be one reason. Service and spare parts support may be another. It is generally acknowledged, for example, that had Jim Taylor of Cessna Citation and Learjet fame not taken over the Dassault Mystere business jet program, renamed it the Falcon Jet and installed a bulletproof support program, the French product never would have made it in the States. In fact, back in those days, European service support endeavors were somewhat relaxed. Consequently, American consumers were chary about buying an overseas product.
Though about 450 Partenavias were sold in Europe and elsewhere, the company eventually cratered and was picked up by the Italian government, assumedly to save jobs and keep the product in front of the consumer. But the effort was essentially moribund until a few years ago. Folks, they’re back, but this time with all the ingredients for a successful venture.
In 1996, Vulcanair was founded by the De Feo family who in 1998 purchased all the assets, type design, trademarks and rights of Partenavia. The Vulcanair name alludes to the proximity of the volcano Vesuvius (of Pompeii fame) to the factory in Naples, Italy. A sales office was opened in Washington, D.C., headed up by Remo De Feo, who has responsibility for developing sales and aircraft support in the U.S. So far, six new Vulcanair P68Cs have been delivered in the States, as well as a number of the special mission version, the P68 Observer 2.
The next order of business was to appoint dealers, including Orlando Sanford Aircraft Sales (OSAS), which was founded in 1997 by its president and owner, Larry Tague, who also happens to be the team leader for a local aerobatic team based on the Sanford Airport. OSAS, which was recently appointed a Vulcanair exclusive sales outlet for a five state area in the southeastern U.S., also holds a franchise for the full range of American Champion products, including Decathlon, Citabria and Scout.
What then might motivate you to pick up the phone and give Larry Tague a call about the Vulcanair?
Tague: If you thoroughly analyze what you’re getting, it’s a value buy. Depending on whether it’s the normally aspirated or the turbocharged model, you can cruise between 165 and 170 knots, go 1,375 to 1,600 nautical miles, climb up to 1,400 fpm and take off and land under 800 and 700 feet respectively. You can carry six people in comfort and fly in known icing conditions.
GAN: What changes were made to the Vulcanair over the Partenavia?
Tague: The whole airplane has been restyled for creature comfort. We can now offer an all-leather interior as well as any “gee whiz” avionics upgrades the customer desires. We’ve added a copilot door for easier cockpit access. With the new upturned wingtips, we came by a gross weight increase, which gives us more useful load. But generally speaking, we took the attitude “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The basic design is excellent, so there’s no reason to monkey with it.
GAN: Is air conditioning available?
Tague: Absolutely. It costs $22,500 and weighs about 60 pounds. We install it in the rear fuselage. It can also be run on the ground for pre-cooling using a ground power unit. But if you don’t have A/C, you can carry two golf bags behind the baggage compartment, which itself is 20 cubic feet and stressed for 400 pounds.
GAN: Tell us about the deicing equipment.
Tague: Standard stuff. Electrically heated props, stall warning and pitot tube. Boots on the wings and tailplane and a heated plate for the windscreen. It’s certified for known ice and weighs about 90 pounds.
GAN: And the engines?
Tague: On the “C” model we use the normally aspirated, tried and true Lycoming IO-360A-1B6, which delivers 200 hp per side. TBO is 2,000 hours. For the “TC” or turbocharged P68, two Lycoming TIO-360-C1A6Ds are installed, which develop 210 hp.
GAN: So you offer two models of the Vulcanair.
Tague: Actually four. We also have special missions models, the P68 Observer 2, normally aspirated or turbocharged, which have a complete cockpit-forward Plexiglass nose, giving superb downward and forward visibility for patrol missions. Couple that with a hatch in the passenger cabin that can accommodate a camera and/or sensors and you have a neat special missions plane with bags of endurance compared to a helicopter at a fraction of the cost.
Base price for the P68C, which is the one we’ll fly today, is $599,000 and $639,000 for the turbo. But that includes everything you need to go to work except for deicing and air conditioning, which not everybody needs or wants. Standard avionics include dual Garmin GNS 430 MFDs, which include COMM/NAV/GS/GPS, and we also have the King KCF 150 autopilot as standard. I’ve added A/C to our demonstrator because, after all, it’s Florida and I thought a leather interior would be nice. As it sits, it lists out at $629,400.
GAN: What are the deposit requirements and lead time?
Tague: 20% down and about three months.
TIME TO FLY
As we approached N68VA, sitting on the ramp at Kissimmee Gateway Airport, the Italian lineage was apparent. Rakish nose, slender flowing fuselage, elegant wingtips and delicate tail feathers. During the walkaround, Tague explained the two-bladed, full-feathering propellers do not have or need unfeathering accumulators. To unfeather, one simply hits the start switch. Electric trim is available only for the elevators and rudder whereas aileron trim is ground-adjustable by means of a tab on the left wing.
Passengers have their own left side entry door to the club seating arrangement. A right side rear door provides access to the baggage compartment, separated from the passengers.
When I remarked on the absence of wheel pants, which are an option, Tague said, “I chose not to put them on the demonstrator because it’s a lot easier to check the condition of the Cleveland wheels and brakes without them, but I will admit the pants add about five knots to the cruise speed.”
Entry to the left seat is via the right side copilot door. Back into and sit sideways on the right seat, swing the legs in, then shuffle over to the left seat and adjust to suit. Plenty of elbow and shoulder room as you strap in. All the radio and electrical switches are located on a subpanel next to your left leg, while the engine start switches, boost pumps and magneto switches are to be found on an eyebrow panel overhead.
Since Tague had just arrived at the airport, he talked me through the hot engine start procedure. Battery, alternator and boost pumps on, mags on both, throttles cracked, props forward and mixtures idle cutoff. Advance the mixture lever to fully open, then off. Hit the starter, then slowly open the mixture as the engine fires. Perfect.
As we taxied toward the runway with the air conditioner running, it was necessary to monitor the load meters and carry a little more power than normal to service the load. Steering was excellent as was the visibility in all directions as we arrived at the holding point.
Checking the magnetos at 1,700 rpm and the props at 2,000, I lowered 15° of flap for takeoff (infinitely variable to 35° full flap), set the transponder, checked the trim, boost pumps on and we were good to go.
With full throttle, we were at 60 knots and lifting off in no time. Flaps up, a turn to the south and we were climbing at 1,400 fpm, leveling at 4,500 feet for a speed run. Setting rpm and manifold pressure at 24 square, which approximated 75% power, we were clocking 155 kts TAS, which led me to believe the advertised cruise speed would be achievable at the usual cruise altitudes of 8,000 or 9,000 feet. But being a guy that likes things exact, I was continually fussing with the Vision Microsystem digital engine readouts to get everything to match up perfectly. A lost cause — just something one has to get used to.
Roll rate is excellent, thanks to aileron push rods, as is the overall inherent stability. While I was executing a steep bank to the left, Tague sneakily cut the right engine without warning. For a second, I didn’t realize what was happening as there was no wild yawing effect except that the speed was falling off and we were skidding. Rolling level, I looked at Tague’s big, grinning “gotcha” face and the light bulb went on. Proudly reciting aloud the engine-out mantra, “dead foot, dead engine” and retarding the suspect throttle, I confirmed the right engine. Rather than feather the Lycoming with attendant shock cooling, Tague set up a zero thrust configuration and we commenced a single-engine climb at about 200 fpm.
Already slow, it was an opportune time for a power-off stall. Pretty tame stuff. At about 60 knots, the airplane just mushed downwards and straight ahead at several hundred feet per minute. Releasing back pressure, we were flying again.
Heading back for a landing, I asked Tague about future developments. “Well, we’re going to try and have a diesel-powered model at Oshkosh this year,” he said, “and a retractable gear version is under development.
It all boils down to tradeoffs. Complex gear is going to add some weight and up the insurance rates, depending on retractable experience. Of course, there’ll be some speed increase, but the customer has got to weigh the pros and cons for himself.”
What about service support?
“My company has been granted the exclusive Vulcanair parts distributorship for the entire country and we’re already laying in a substantial inventory to support future sales,” Tague said. “My wife, Carol, is going to be responsible for running that part of the business. We’re currently refurbishing our hangars to show room status and for the parts warehouse.”
“Circuit speeds?” I asked Tague, as we approached the airport.
“Anything under 120,” he advised. “Use about 80 on approach and 70 over the numbers.”
We had to do some zigzagging on approach because of traffic ahead, but with full flap, the pitch angle was excellent for visibility. Power off, flare, a little float and we were down, light as a feather.
What impressed me about the Vulcanair P68C was that there were no unpleasant surprises (if one disregards Tague’s shenanigans). It’s easy and a joy to fly. Quiet, good looking, economical, affordable, supportable and sure to attract comment wherever it appears.
For more information: 800-276-6661.