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Flight Test: Tecnam Astore

PUBLISHED: 11:11 19 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:16 19 March 2014

PHILIP WHITEMAN (c)

Named after designer Luigi Pascale’s first aeroplane, today’s shapely, fine-handling and beautifully finished Astore sets a new standard for Light Sport Aircraft

Scorching across a warm Italian sky with the Mediterranean sparkling invitingly beneath our sun-splashed wings, it suddenly occurred to me that this might just be the best Light Sport Aircraft I’ve ever flown − and I’ve flown a lot of them!

They say that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and the Astore certainly does look good at first sight. Indeed, the combination of a sharply-pointed spinner and swept back fin give it a real ‘sporty’ look, and with its metal skin glowing warmly in the soft light of a Capua morning and the canopy slid back invitingly, it really does look great. At first you might think that − as they are similarly configured machines from the same stable − the Astore would share similarities with both the P96 Golf and P2002 Sierra. However, our host for the visit Giovanni Pascale Langer (grandson of famed Tecnam designer Professor Luigi Pascale) emphasised that the Astore is a clean-sheet design, and that although it does borrow the Sierra’s thin, elegantly tapered wings and laminar-flow aerofoil section, it is very much a new aircraft. Indeed, it is not designed to replace the Sierra but to complement it, for the Sierra will remain in production.

The Astore’s fuselage is much more streamlined, less ‘boxy’ and considerably more stylish, while the windscreen has substantially more rake angle. Indeed, a combination of the flowing lines and the fact that it is both lower and longer than the Sierra make the Astore look as if it’s moving even when it’s standing still. With its Italian heritage and styling I guess that some sort of sports car analogy is almost inevitable so, yes − if it was painted bright scarlet it really would look like a ‘flying Ferrari’.

Moving in close for the preflight soon confirmed my initial impressions of a thoughtfully designed aeroplane with exceptional build quality. Like most other Tecnam types, the Astore is essentially an all-metal machine, although composites − primarily carbon fibre − are used for many parts, including the upper fuselage deck, cowling and wing tips. From a distance you might think it is entirely composite, so smooth are its lines. When closed, the canopy blends into the fuselage almost seamlessly−making it an extremely handsome aeroplane. However, ‘handsome is as handsome does’: this is not just a ‘pretty’ aeroplane but one that hides a rugged centre beneath its smooth, suave skin. For example, to improve its energy-absorption properties in the event of a crash, there is a 200mm gap between the cabin floor and bottom fuselage skin, while the gap between the engine and rudder pedals has also been increased over the P2002. As befits an all-new machine (the test aircraft is S/N001) it is powered by the latest iteration of Rotax’s popular liquid-cooled flat-fours: the 100hp 912iS. Access to the engine and its accessories isn’t ideal on the prototype, as the top half of the cowling is secured by myriad screws. This makes for smooth cowling lines, but Tecnam isn’t the sort of company where ‘form follows function’. On production aircraft, the single-piece upper panel will be changed to the more usual Tecnam arrangement where the top cowling hinges open on both sides, is held up by over-centre stays and locked down with four swing-over latches secured by Camloc fasteners.

An interesting aspect of the current cowl is that it features no fewer than seven separate air scoops. The propeller is a composite-covered wooden two-blade constant speed MT unit, although there are several other engine and prop options. For a nosedragger, the prop clearance is excellent.

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW...

Unsurprisingly the Astore uses a considerable number of components common to both its high and low-wing brethren, although there are also plenty of new features. For example, the mainwheels are carried by the same arrangement as many of the other fixed-undercarriage Tecnam singles − a cantilever spring-steel bow made of 7075-T6 alloy − but it incorporates machined hinges that allow greater movement and better energy absorption. The castoring nosewheel is suspended from a fully-enclosed tubular steel leg connected to the lower engine mounts with an oleo-pneumatic strut for shock absorption. All three wheels are closely spatted, and the discs of the hydraulic brakes are slotted to save weight. The wings use a NACA 63A series aerofoil and incorporate a subtle taper towards the slightly upswept tips. This is a cost-effective way of optimising lift distribution without the expense of building an elliptical wing. Pushrods actuate the Frise-type ailerons, while large, electrically actuated single-slotted flaps with a range of between 0 to 35° cover approximately two thirds of the trailing edge. Stall strips are located at a third of the way out along the leading edges, and there is a stall warning sensor in the starboard wing.

Interestingly, the outer third of the leading edge is flush-riveted for almost the first third of the chord (i.e. back to the transition point). This must contribute to the overall reduction of drag. At the tail I noticed a significant departure from all the other Tecnams I’ve tested for, instead of an all-flying tail or stabilator, the Astore uses a fixed tailplane and separate elevators. The tall fin is elegantly swept back, while the cable-actuated rudder features an aerodynamic horn-balance and a ground-adjustable trim tab. There is another ground-adjustable trim tab on the port aileron, while the port elevator carries an electrically actuated tab.

The fuel is carried in a pair of fifty-litre wing tanks: on production aircraft these will be increased to 55 litres. Overall, my impression is that not only is the Astore well designed but, equally importantly, well made. Furthermore, although it does share some of the same features as many other aircraft in its class (such as the side-by-side seats, fixed undercarriage and Rotax engine) the Astore exudes an almost palpable air of élan, something that too many of its competitors simply don’t have.

Access to the cockpit is very good: there are steps in front of the wings, sensibly-sized wingroot walkways and the canopy slides up and back on rails. When fully open, the aperture is greater than on the P96 or P2002, although (in my eyes at least) a retrograde step is that the canopy can no longer be opened in flight. This is a shame, as one of the things I loved about the Sierra was being able to fly it ‘open-cockpit’. Furthermore, and from a more practical viewpoint, Tecnam still is not fitting DV panels.

The cockpit and seats are attractively upholstered; in fact the entire aircraft is so beautifully made and finished that you’d never guess it was a prototype. Although the rudder pedals are fixed, the comfortable seats adjust fore-and-aft over a fair range, so I set my seat, adjust my four-point harness and begin to examine the cockpit more closely. The Astore continues the estimable Tecnam tradition of using control sticks instead of yokes, but rather than there being two plunger-type throttles − one centrally mounted and the other located higher up on the left of the instrument panel − there is now a quadrant in the middle. The instrument panel is clean, uncluttered and comprehensively equipped: I thought it very nicely and logically laid out. The prototype features a pair of Dynon Skyview SV700s (believe me; there are lots of options, including a pair of Garmin G3Xs and a 795) and both can function as either an EFIS or EMS, with standby analogue ASI, AI and altimeter in a row directly below the P1’s Skyview and an iPad mount in the centre. A centre console drops down from the centre of the panel and extends aft between the seats. This carries a T-handle for the optional BRS and all the engine controls, including the starter button, fuel pumps, fuel valve, throttle and prop levers. In my view, grouping all the engine controls together represents excellent ergonomics.

RATHER DIFFERENT ENGINE START TECHNIQUE

As the test aircraft was powered by a 912iS, it had neither choke nor carburettor heat controls, but several new switches. Instead of magnetos the 912iS has dual electronic ignition and electronic fuel injection systems. Consequently starting it is a little different from earlier 912s, and it’s probably worth explaining. Above the fuel valve is a block of four robust rocker switches for ‘Lanes’ A and B, and the two fuel pumps. Between this block and the bottom of the panel is a key-operated rotary unit for the master, and a toggle switch just to the right of the starter button labelled ‘Start Power Switch’. This may be new to you − it was to me. Here’s how it works: having turned on the master and avionics master, wait until the EMS has loaded its software before turning on both lanes and both fuel pumps. Note at this juncture that although the pumps have been selected on, they are not running. Now press and hold down the ‘Start Power Switch’ − both lanes will ‘self-test’ and the fuel pumps start. Press the starter button, stabilise the engine at around 2,500rpm and check that both lanes and the battery have at least thirteen volts before releasing the ‘Start Power Switch’. It sounds complicated − it isn’t (particularly when compared to operating choke, mixture, primer and carb heat controls).

Thus far I can honestly say that, despite my best efforts, I hadn’t managed to find anything I didn’t like. Even the fold-down armrest (which also guards the headset jackplugs) is perfectly sited. However, with the engine running I finally found something I deemed less than perfect. Above the P1’s Skyview is a row of annunciator lights−three red and two green. The three red annunciators illuminate to indicate an abnormal situation with either Lane A or B, or the back-up battery. However, the two green annunciators are lit all the time the pumps are on, which is essentially any time the engine is running. I like a ‘quiet, dark cockpit’ and feel that all the annunciators should be red and only light up if something is wrong. The reasoning behind the green lights is that, because of the electronic fuel injection, it is imperative that both pumps are always on. If you are running on just one pump and it fails, the engine will stop instantly. However, I don’t like being told when things are working and simply want know when they’ve failed or − even better − if they’re about to fail. Consequently, I think it would be better if the pumps were hard-wired on, coming into operation when the ‘Start Power Switch’ is held down. I’d also prefer the flap selector to use a similar system to the excellent P2010 (flight test coming up soon − Ed) and have three preset positions. In common with many LSAs, there is no mechanical trimmer − buttons built into the moulded grips on the stick top operate the electric pitch trim and also the PTT.

Behind the seats is a fair-sized baggage bay, which can take up to 35kg and is accessible in flight. It can also be loaded via a door just aft of the port wingroot.

‘MINI FIGHTER’ FEEL

With the EMS indicating that everything is within limits, it is time to taxi. Visibility over and either side of the nose is good, and as the nosewheel only castors steering is via differential braking. It is agreeably precise, as the brakes are powerful and progressive, with no tendency to snatch − which is just as well as Capua’s taxiway might just be the narrowest I’ve ever seen. However, the principal problem with castoring nosewheels is that a long crosswind taxi on tarmac does cane the downwind brake, as the aircraft constantly tries to weathercock. This is a common drawback for aircraft fitted with castoring nosewheels, and has a number of disadvantages. Not only does this increase wear on both the brake discs and pads, but in the event of a rejected takeoff the braking action will not be uniform as one brake is quite hot and the other stone-cold. I think that a simple cable-actuated nosewheel lock would alleviate this difficulty without the weight and complexity of nosewheel steering. Nosewheel locks also obviate the perennial problem of the nosewheel shimmying on landing.

With Tecnam’s Massimo De Stefano in the other seat, and accompanied by Editor Philip and Giovanni in a P92 with one door off serving as camera ship, we set off for a photography session over the coast.

Ambient conditions are quite close to ISA, while with no baggage and half-fuel we are approximately 40kg below maximum all-up weight, with a slightly forward C of G.

Half an hour or so later, with all the pictures safely ‘in the can’, we break away from the cameraship, and I can begin to really enjoy flying the Astore. I know it’s a bit of a cliché but the aircraft really does have a ‘mini-fighter’ feel. After all, I had the throttle in my left hand, a stick in my right and a big bubble canopy above my head − it was just a shame that it couldn’t be opened. I know that many pilots would probably have no desire to open the canopy in flight − I enjoy it in the same masochistic way that I also enjoy open-cockpit aircraft, soft-top sports cars and motorbikes. I probably wouldn’t actually open the canopy that often either, but it’s a nice option to have − particularly if you’re just bimbling around low ’n’ slow on a warm summer’s day, with the power pulled back and your elbow resting on the canopy rail. You wouldn’t think that just a few millimetres of Perspex can make that much difference but − just sometimes − they really can.

An exploration of the general handling, including a couple of 360° turns and steep reversals, reveals very pleasant, light handling and well-harmonised controls. With the exception of the rudder, the controls are all actuated by push rods and have an agreeably ‘crisp’ feel to them. Visibility in the turn − and indeed every phase of flight − is excellent. I’m expecting the combination of the thick windshield arch and canopy bow to have a detrimental affect on the visibility (it certainly does on the Grob Tutor, which has a similar arrangement), yet I soon discover that this isn’t the case and that the field of view is very good.

An examination of the stick-free stability reveals the Astore to be barely neutral laterally and positive directionally. However, I get the distinct impression that the longitudinal stability is somewhat relaxed, and when I mention this to Massimo he simply grins and replies “we know − we’re working on it.” (And he isn’t joking; when we arrive at the factory the following day I note two technicians working on the balance horn. Tecnam has a reputation for getting things done, and I am starting to see why.)

Apart from this very minor issue − which I’m sure most pilots wouldn’t even notice − the stick-free stability is fine. Indeed, I even wonder if the problem is partly down to some stiction in the elevator control circuit, as this is a relatively low-hours airframe. I feel that overall the relationship between control and stability is about right. The handling is nice and taut with a crisp roll rate, yet the Astore’s inherent stability ensures that flying in marginal visibility wouldn’t be too onerous.

For a look at the cruise performance, I level out at 3,000ft, set the power to 5,000rpm and 27in MP and trim. The electric pitch trim works at a reasonable rate, and the speed tape soon settles on an IAS of 116kt, which gives a TAS of 122kt for a fuel burn of around 17lit/hr. As this is the prototype, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if production aircraft aren’t a couple of knots faster − they usually are.

Slowing down to assess the low-speed end of the flight envelope reveals that, as is so often the case with LSA, VLA and ULA machines, the Astore’s 67kt Vfe (flap extension limiting speed) is a bit on the low side. As the airspeed finally dips below 65, I extended the flaps fully and slowly let the speed bleed away. As the stall is approached, light buffeting can be felt through the stick at about 35kt, and this is preceded by a cautionary bleat from the stall warner. At the G-break, which occurs at about 32kt, I note a slight tendency to drop a wing. Stalls with the flaps fully retracted are equally benign, with buffet at 42kt and the wing-drop at 39. Even a departure stall with 15° of flap and full power is a complete non-event. Unusually, the slowest speeds I record are actually lower than book figures−I suspect due to a combination of us being about ten per cent below MAUW and possibly some position error.

I am really enjoying flying the Astore but as there is another, different prototype waiting back at Tecnam for me to evaluate, I reluctantly point the shapely nose south for some circuits.

Back at Capua I really appreciate the excellent field of view when turning, and also note that the Astore is nicely speed-stable on the approach. I use 60kt for my first landing, which produces a slightly protracted float in the very light wind that is favouring Runway 08. I don’t think that the good folk at Tecnam will be offended if I describe their runway as rather rough, yet the undercarriage soaks up the bumps with aplomb. I’d say that this one of the nicest non-trailing-link undercarriages that I’ve ever landed on, with fine damping and excellent shock absorption qualities.

Opening the throttle produces proper acceleration, and we are off the ground and soaring skyward at 70kt and 1,200fpm almost instantly. The flaps retract quickly, with very little change in pitch-trim forces, which is just as well. If you were fully configured to land and then went around from low-level, you’d bust the 67kt Vfe for sure if you didn’t retract them pronto. For my second approach I use 55, and the Astore sits down right where I want it to. This is a very easy aeroplane to fly, while also being a lot of fun.

THE LSA COMES OF AGE

Back on the parking ramp I take another look at the Astore from a distance. As your Editor’s excellent photographs clearly show, this is a fine-looking flying machine that really does fly as good as it looks. A criticism that is often levelled at some 600kg machines is that they don’t look or fly like the traditional American two-seaters that most of us learned on. This comment is also true of the Astore, but only because it is superior in every (and I do mean every) respect. In conclusion, I feel that with the Astore the LSA has truly come of age. So, Astore amore? Sì, è una fantastica macchina volante!

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