At the April European airshow Aero Friedrichshafen, visitors saw several fast designs already flying in Europe. These are clean-sheet new creations that can hit 200 mph on 100 horsepower, priced at a fraction of the best selling general aviation aircraft.
Will we see them here in the USA? I bet we will, and sooner than you may think.
These appear to be Light-Sport Aircraft and, indeed, in some countries they can be. The FAA presently forbids either retractable gear (except on seaplanes) or in-flight adjustable props on LSA. Both configurations are needed if these machines are to hit their full speed potential.
New FAA Rule on the Way
The organization for the light aircraft manufacturing industry, the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA), has approached the FAA asking for a number of changes. Executives and rule writers have listened thoughtfully and are considering these requests. Similarly, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has also sought changes that could benefit both the kit industry and homebuilders.
These two strategic approaches coincide with the FAA’s apparent willingness to provide fresh opportunities in the fairly near future. A refreshed regulation is working its way through the development and approval process and it could swing the doors wide open for the new designs discussed here.
Today, the U.S. is dotted with “professional build centers” or “builder assist centers.” The concept means that someone who knows a kit intimately can assist the homebuilder achieve his or her 51% work effort to qualify as Experimental Amateur Built (EAB). The FAA already permits this, and nearly everyone agrees the practice results in better-built aircraft.
Since an EAB kit may operate in the IFR system (assuming the pilot is qualified and the aircraft meets a fairly simple list of on-board equipment), and since the FAA places no speed or configuration limits on an EAB aircraft, these European aircraft become ready candidates for importers to bring in and help with construction.
The new regulation to come in the next years is currently on track to expand this idea of professional builder centers. Exactly what form this may take is yet to be determined, but it is being investigated today.
With the present-day and future-day potentials in mind, let’s have a quick look at four designs that warrant closer examination.
Sweden’s Blackwing BW635RG
A Swedish success story in light aviation, the Blackwing made its debut at Aero 2015 and the sleek design swiftly drew many admiring looks.
Blackwing exhibited its retractable gear model — dubbed 635RG — at this year’s Aero because regulations in most European countries have no speed limit and no ban on retractable gear when operating as European-type ultralights. Many companies in the LSA-like space push speed as a primary selling quality and retractable models are part of this.
Blackwing boasts a 75% power cruise speed of 150 knots and a never exceed speed of 190 knots, yet stall is only 35 knots, making the handsome aircraft tolerable for most pilots. Those impressive speeds are enabled by a 100-horsepower Rotax 912, but at Aero the 635 model featured the 140-horsepower 915iS engine from Rotax. Look out, Cirrus!
For those not ready for retractable, the company also offers a fixed gear model.
Belgium’s VL3 Evolution
JMB Aircraft, run by two Belgium brothers, is the production company of the VL3, a plane designed by Vanessa Air and produced in the past by Aveko.
Some Americans already know this airplane, although from Aveko not JMB. This is the Gobosh model once rebadged and sold in the USA with fixed gear and winglets. Back in 2007, the Belgian brothers were dealers for Aveko’s aircraft and eventually accounted for 85% of the producer’s sales. In 2012 they acquired Aveko and by 2015 had taken over production.
In recent years, JMB has done well. The company now employs 100 people in the Czech Republic, with an additional 50 people in Belgium.
Together this team has built, sold, and delivered 320 VL3 aircraft, primarily in Europe, with a few in other countries (two are in the USA registered under the Aveko brand). In 2018, JMB built 50 aircraft. Company officials say they are planning on building 5.5 per month for 2019, or 66 aircraft.
JMB does offer a fixed gear model, but according to their website “only for flight schools.”
BRM Aero’s Bristell RG
Bristell boasts a finely finished interior with a widest-in-class 51.2″ cockpit that doesn’t slow it down. Bristell gets its fleet ways thanks to careful, experienced design. Junctions such as fuselage to wings are smoothly contoured and this design approach is used throughout the aircraft.
Empty weight can be as low as 729 pounds, providing a payload of 400 pounds even with full fuel at 32 gallons. Given its ample fuel supply, range is 700 nautical miles based on more than six hours’ endurance. The 100-hp Rotax 912 burns only five gallons per hour even at high cruise speeds. Baggage capacity is significant as Bristell can carry luggage in two wing lockers plus in space aft of the seat (depending on other weight and balance calculations, of course).
In flight, Bristell is a thing of beauty with wonderful handling and an unimpeachable stability profile. Stall is a very modest 32 knots or 39 clean and “max structural cruise” is listed at 116 knots or 133 mph (fixed gear model). Bristell RG cruises at 134 knots and never exceed speed is 155 knots.
The Czech builder manufactures a tricycle gear model, a taildragger, and the RG model with retractable gear. Bristell is represented in America by Bristell USA, which had a solid 2018, delivering around 20 of their deluxe Light-Sport Aircraft.
Most of these speedy designs incorporate side-by-side seating preferred by many pilots. Seeking maximum performance, however, Tarragon elected tandem, but achieved this in the same highly-finished form common in many European designs.
Power is supplied by the Rotax 912 or turbocharged 914 engines. With just 100 horsepower, Tarragon — the name of both company and airplane — reports it can reach 75% power cruise speeds of 150-155 knots and lists a never exceed speed of 200 knots. Tarragon shows a stall speed of only 36 knots with full flaps.
Tarragon also follows the others in extensive use of computer-aided design and carbon fiber materials. This is the first aircraft I have covered that comes from Latvia.
Unlike in aviation’s golden age in the middle of the 20th century, nearly all modern designs from Europe, America, or elsewhere use the latest design techniques and heavy use of computer technologies.
Even small companies with a dozen or two staff can use techniques not available even to Boeing back in the 1970s or ‘80s. The aircraft easily meet current regulations or industry standards.
It seems only a question of time before some of these models make their way to American airfields, thanks to the build center revolution.