How do you improve on a popular backcountry aircraft design? If you are the folks at Just Aircraft, you make it larger and with the ability to support a more powerful engine.
That best describes Just Aircraft’s SuperSTOL Stretch XL. The red high-wing, tailwheel-equipped airplane mounted on tundra tires stole the show when it debuted at this year’s SUN ‘n FUN.
“The Stretch XL is a larger version of the popular SuperSTOL,” explained Harrison Smith, Just Aircraft’s demo pilot. “XL stands for eXtra Large. We have taken our traditional SuperSTOL, which is an awesome airplane, and added 24 inches to the fuselage and 6 inches on the nose to accommodate larger engines.”
While at SUN ‘n FUN, the Stretch XL was on display in Paradise City, the Ultralight and Light-Sport Aircraft section of the fly-in, parked next to the traditional Just Aircraft SuperSTOL. The juxtaposition of the two aircraft side by side drummed home the larger dimensions of the Stretch XL model.
A larger fuselage is nice because a longer airplane usually means more room for fishing poles and the like — a necessity when you land at backcountry airstrips adjacent to lakes where the fish normally die of old age — but what really seems to attract potential buyers is the ability to have a more powerful engine. The Stretch XL at the fly-in had a UL Power 520i engine rated at 180 hp, but the cowling will also accept a Lycoming O-320 engine series for 150-160 hp.
According to Smith, the Stretch XL performance is comparable to that of a Super Cub. The combination of more horsepower with the wing slats and barn door flaps produced an airplane that can take off from a 1,400-foot grass runway with room to spare and, he claimed, land in less than 100 feet.
I had to see this for myself, and Smith, a 6,000-hour pilot with a CFI certificate, offered me a chance to experience the performance.
FLYING THE STRETCH XL
I am vertically challenged — read short — so getting into an airplane that sits on tundra tires requires some athleticism on my part. The door on the Stretch XL is wide, however, so there’s no need to do an advanced yoga pose to get aboard. Grab hold of the frame at the strike plate, then with one foot on the ground, place one foot on the tundra tire, get your balance and boost yourself up like you are climbing onto a horse. Shift your weight and take hold of the V-strut bracing over the panel to maneuver yourself inside. It’s not cool or graceful, but it is do-able.
The cockpit of the Stretch XL is large enough for two normal sized adults to sit side by side and there is enough head room for a pilot in the 6 foot range to sit comfortably. Shorter pilots (like me) would be wise to have a back cushion to put them a few inches forward to ensure better purchase on the rudder pedals.
The panel of the Stretch XL is spacious enough for the pilot-builder to put plenty of bells and whistles with the latest glass cockpit technology or to stay traditional with the basic six pack instruments.
The demo Stretch XL is finished with a black panel and contrasting red placards that match the exterior paint scheme. I spent a few minutes studying the panel. While silver toggle switches abound, for a day-time VFR flight the radio, altimeter, oil pressure, tachometer, ball and airspeed indicator were all I needed in the way of instrumentation.
The rudder pedals are the classic frame type. The flaps are manually actuated by a Johnson bar between the two seats. The throttle is located in the center of the panel.
Most of my tailwheel experience has been in a Cessna 140. I found the sheer size of the Stretch XL a bit intimidating, but Smith assured me it was not a terribly challenging aircraft to fly.
“One of the unique things about the Stretch XL is that it has a locking tailwheel that can be used as a training tool,” he said. “It helps the pilot keep the airplane going straight on takeoffs and landings. It takes about 10 hours to transition for the moderately experienced tailwheel pilot, and we do have customers who build their aircraft at the factory through the Builder’s Assist Program and have nothing but Cessna 150 time. We can usually solo them in a SuperSTOL in about the 15 hour range.”
The Stretch XL demo flight was scheduled for Friday evening. The grass runway at Paradise City hummed with activity as aircraft lined up for departure. The runway measures 1,400 by 75 feet, so it is a perfect venue to demonstrate STOL characteristics.
After a preflight inspection we climbed aboard the bright red airplane and Smith started it up. The airplane was configured for Short Take Off and the throttle advanced.
Soon the tundra tires were bouncing along the grass and before you could ask “Are we airborne yet?” the controls became lighter and the altimeter needle started a rapid clockwise tour around the dial.
We climbed away from the congested airspace of Florida’s Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport (KLAL) in a cruise climb for better visibility, something that comes easy in the Stretch XL because of the wide windscreen and side windows. This is an airplane you want to take someplace with lots of scenery.
The maneuver portion of the flight began with a few clearing turns. I tend to be cautious when I take the stick of an unfamiliar airplane at first, because it’s like picking up someone else’s baby: You want to be gentle as you determine how much pressure to use on the controls.
“It’s your basic tailwheel airplane,” Smith advised. “Lead with the rudder, follow with the aileron.”
The control forces seemed to be about that of a Super Cub. After a few minutes I had it figured out. The airplane is light and responsive. It was easy to put it into medium and steep turns without over-controlling it. This is an outside airplane, meaning it was easy to get the sight picture to maintain level flight because of the good visibility.
Stalls are gentle and predictable. This airplane can get very s-l-o-o-o-w before the wings run out of lift and the nose wants to drop.
We headed over to South Lakeland Airport (X49) some five miles south of KLAL to do takeoffs and landings. South Lakeland Airport has a turf runway, the natural habitat of the Stretch XL.
It was proving time for Smith. Just Aircraft officials say the Stretch XL landing speed is in the low 30s with a rollout of less than 100 feet. They weren’t kidding. I estimated I could throw a discus farther than our landing roll. The expression “stop on a dime and give you nine cents change” came to mind.
The takeoff took even less real estate.
The Stretch XL is definitely an airplane you could use to get in to those challenging airstrips in the backcountry.
“This is a go-anywhere, do-anything bush plane,” Smith grinned.
The airplane comes in kit form from the factory in Walhalla, South Carolina. Estimated build time is 500 to 1,000 hours.
According to Smith, the base price of the kit, firewall back, runs about $44,300.
“Depending on the choice of engine, the customer can have a completed airplane for anywhere between $70,000 to $95,000,” he said.
SPECS and PERFORMANCE
Powerplant: UL Power 520i (180hp)
Propeller: Catto Propellers 76” Diameter 36” Pitch
Optional powerplant: UL Power 520 series/Lycoming 320 series/ECI Superior/Aerosport 320/340/375 series
Wingspan: 31.27 feet, 8’6” wings folded
Fuel capacity: 27 gallons
Cruise fuel consumption: Estimated 7.5 gph at 90 kts
Maximum gross weight: 1,550 lbs
Typical empty weight: 870 lbs
Typical useful load: 680 lbs
Full fuel payload: 518 lbs
LSA typical useful load: 449 lbs
LSA full fuel payload: 287 lbs
Cabin Width: 44 inches
Baggage area: 32 cubic feet
Cruise speed: 90-95 kts/105mph with 29 inch Alaskan Bushwheels and Catto propeller
Stall, power off, no flaps: less than 35 mph
Takeoff distance, at 1,320 gross: less than 100 ft
Landing distance, at 1,320 gross: less than 100 ft
Rate of climb, solo: greater than 2,000 ft per minute