Is pilot safety worth an additional 15 pounds? The folks at Zenith Aircraft think so.
The company, which makes the Zodiac CH 601 XL and CH 650 kits, recently beefed up the aircraft’s design in response to the FAA’s Nov. 6 Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin concerning aerodynamic flutter in the airframes. The SAIB was released in response to six aircraft accidents attributed to in-flight break-up.
Matthew Heintz, vice president and son of Chris Heintz, the designer of the Zodiac, spent much of his time at last month’s U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring standing next to a Zodiac that has had the upgrade and answering questions about the steps Zenith has taken to make its airplane design safer.
The company made the changes willing, he said, noting it went above and beyond the recommendations of the FAA.
“Our research and the results of it are published on our website,” he said. “Anyone can download it. We want our customers to know the amount of time and money we spent and how seriously we took this.”
According to Heintz, the package is designed to strengthen the airplane by over-building the wing spars and adding aileron counter-balance. He pointed to the attachment point of the fuselage to the wings, noting how “overbuilt” it is now.
“A lot of work went into this,” he said. “The FAA did their own internal investigation, the NTSB did their own, and we did ours. The FAA wanted a few things to change on the airplane, but we felt that what they were recommending was not enough for our customer base, so we did significantly more than what they wanted. Feedback from customers is that they are happy.”
The customers were part of the process, Heintz said. “There was a lot of information out there on the Internet,” he said, noting, “everybody becomes an engineer at two o’clock in the morning. They had some good suggestions.”
The upgrade costs approximately $300.
“We’re losing money on every package, but we want our customers to do this,” he said. “We strongly believe that implementation of the comprehensive Upgrade Package kit, combined with continuing pilot education and training, as well as an ongoing airworthiness and maintenance program, will put an end to the type of tragic accidents that have been happening and restore this aircraft’s reputation as a capable and fun light sport aircraft,” he said, adding that pilots have to be responsible and not push their airplanes beyond their capabilities.
“Part of the reason pilots like the Zodiac is because it’s a really tough airplane,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to fly but you are going to get some people doing stupid things. When I get a customer calling me at five o’clock in the afternoon and he tells me he was flying at 120 knots in severe gusts and didn’t break the airplane because it is built like tank, I say, ‘sir, you are the problem. What happened to your Va? He says he didn’t need Va.’ This is the type of thing we are dealing with. It is absolutely critical that we have a sturdy airplane in case someone is not 100% careful.”
The SAIB impacts all serial numbers and variants of the Zodiac CH601XL and CH650 airplanes, including S-LSA models. The S-LSA version of the design is produced by AMD, LLC in Eastman, Ga. The kits are manufactured by Zenith Aircraft Co. in Mexico, Missouri.