PUBLISHED: 12:42 29 June 2011 | UPDATED: 14:08 10 October 2012
This Canadian design is full of surprises - a big cabin, light controls and excellent performance
By Nick Bloom (Pictures: Keith Wilson)
Americans have built some really great aircraft. They understand the importance of studying the market and giving customers what they want.
Customer service runs deep in the American psyche and if something isn't right, Americans don't make excuses, they fix it. Which is why it's great news that a small Californian company has obtained the licence for one of the most promising LSA designs, and plans to refine it and build it in America.
Exporting to Europe is an early priority, so Pilot was invited to sample the aircraft and write about it from a European perspective. The Skylark (the bird it’s named after is known for its song and vertical flight) was designed by David Marsden, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta and has until now been manufactured only in the Czech Republic.
Employing wind tunnels and computers and careful attention to weight have produced one of the largest LSAs with a generous cabin that also has one of the best payloads. Since this is achieved in a riveted aluminium structure, the Skylark is cheaper to make and will have a lower selling price than carbon fibre LSAs.
I am about to fly a Skylark that is in transition to SkyView’s Americanisation of the design, the Skylark II… so some changes have been made already, but most are still to come. Accompanying me for the flight and ready to point out all the detailed improvements he has planned is Craig Vincent, SkyView's sales director.
We are flying from SkyView's manufacturing base at Tracy Municipal Airport. Tracy is a small town in a sparsely populated part of California where the countryside consists of plains – rolling hills covered in parched, light brown grass. SITTING COMFORTABLY?
The seats can be adjusted forwards and aft and also the tilt of the seat back can be adjusted. You do need to do both before getting in, though – it isn’t possible once you’re sitting down. Adjustment in not just one but two dimensions is excellent, I tell Craig, but he shakes his head. Actually, no, he says, they plan to improve on it with seats that can be adjusted once you're in the cockpit.
There is an increasing demand for LSAs at flight schools and easy seat adjustment is one feature they look for, so the Skylark will have to have it. To get in you take the step behind the wing, stand on the wingwalk and lower yourself into the cockpit. You do have to stand on the seat, but the cushion hinges back, so you won't get it dirty.
You don't put a steadying hand on the seat back, it's fibreglass and could crack; put it on the cross beam where it's stencilled 'hand hold'. Craig says SkyView will fit lower stronger seat backs that won't crack.
The cockpit is deep and wide – 43 inches wide – certainly one of the biggest among LSAs and bigger than many in aircraft that are not LSAs. There is a huge baggage space behind the seats, which is limited for centre of gravity reasons to 45lb. Both occupants sit upright rather than reclined (though you can recline if you wish) and have plenty of elbow and knee room. The view out is generous.
There are sturdy rudder pedals with toe brakes for each occupant and the Skylark is fitted (as seems to be standard with LSAs) with joysticks rather than yokes.The canopy is the kind that slides forwards for entry. Sliding it back to close it, you have to duck to avoid being scalped and the headroom once it's closed is OK, but not excessive. SkyView is planning to improve the canopy and increase headroom by two inches.
The current lock requires reaching back to secure it to a degree that's rather uncomfortable – another feature that will be improved – as will the four-point seat belts (which I thought were rather good).
Craig is dismissive of the instruments, some of which were made in China. “They've not been too reliable,” he says. “We'll do better. And customers will have a choice of 'steam gauges' or flat screens”. SkyView is in a position to improve anything in this aircraft, firstly because it's an LSA and modifications don't have to be cleared by the FAA to the same extent as in non-LSA types. Secondly, SkyView has acquired rights to this Canadian design and intends manufacturing it entirely in the USA.
SkyView plans to market the Skylark to EASA countries (including the UK) as soon as EASA announces its own LSA programme (expected within the next two years). Craig directs me to pull the choke, set the throttle, turn on the mags and push on the starter and the 912 ULS Rotax spins into life.
Next, we set 10 degrees of flap for take off. The flap lever is a big one with a release pin that drops into locking holes on a centre console that you set in stages down to a maximum of 40 degrees. That, after some mag checks, is pretty much it; we're cleared to go.SITTING HIGH
I taxi the Skylark after the Cessna 172 cameraplane. The throttle has a vernier, which you can turn rapidly, or alternately, thumb the centre and push and pull the plunger to change rpm. The toe brakes are effective, and so are the rudder pedals, which are linked to provide nosewheel steering.
Sitting high enough to see the turned up wingtips makes steering past parked aircraft easy. The long, tapering nose does little to hamper the view ahead. Speaking of long noses, SkyView intends to make use of the currently unoccupied bay between the engine and the instrument panel, either to house a ballistic parachute option or as a 'dirty booth' – somewhere for pilots to leave their oil, chocks, tools, tie downs and other bits and pieces. At present, the company is likely to discourage the parachute option and offer harness airbags instead. (These are airbags that are attached to the diagonal strap across your chest. Unactivated, they are shaped like a long narrow sausage.)
The Cessna lines up and a moment later heads down the runway. I watch until it lifts off and open the Skylark’s throttle all the way. The Skylark accelerates quickly and the controls come alive more or less immediately. I add some right rudder to counteract spiral flow from the Rotax and feel that it's time to unload the nosewheel.
The aircraft has a T-tail with a fixed tailplane and elevator. I'm expecting this to have little effect this early in the takeoff, because the elevator is presumably too high to be in the propeller's airflow. I'm wrong, because my rearward movement on the stick pitches the nose sharply up. I almost ground the tail, overreact and after a couple of diminishing oscillations, get the nose more or less where I want it... and by then we're off the ground and climbing.
The takeoff run is short – around 250metres. As we climb, I discover that it isn't just the elevator that is sensitive, the ailerons are too, so I wobble for a moment laterally as well as in pitch before adjusting my internal sensors. The controls are not, in fact, over-sensitive, but they are very effective for an LSA.
Personally I like sensitive controls and these are perfect, but they would take some getting used to for pilots trained on a PA28. The advantage of training pilots on an aircraft with sensitive controls is that it teaches flying by attitude and feel and reduces dependency on instruments.
It is easier to make the transition from light and manoeuvrable trainers to heavier more stable aircraft than the other way round. However, I suspect that SkyView may have to tone down the controls to attract customers.FORMATION ‘JOY’
During the formation flying for the photographs, the Skylark behaves impeccably, reacting instantly to small movements of the controls, so that I can position the aircraft quickly and accurately. In fact, it's a joy for formation work. The only possible snag is the vernier throttle; the Skylark is very clean and when I want to draw back, rapidly turning the vernier occasionally doesn't work quickly enough, whereas pulling the plunger out is a little too effective. However, the Skylark II will have a lever in a throttle quadrant, a much better arrangement.
The cameraman declares himself satisfied and the cameraship returns to base, leaving me to see how the Skylark performs in cruise. It goes on accelerating for a while after full throttle is set and eventually settles at 115kt (indicated) at 5,500rpm. Craig says he can reach 120kt solo and another of the company’s Skylarks is even faster, managing 125kt.
What's certain is that this is a fast cruising aeroplane for a Rotax-powered LSA. At cruise speeds the controls lose some of their sensitivity, though this is still an aircraft you would fly with finger and thumb rather than gripping the stick.
The Skylark is nicely stable and feels as though it would fly handsoff except that the ailerons are trimmed for one occupant in the left seat and we’re flying two-up. Craig hopes to fit an aileron trimmer to the top of the joystick to supplement the elevator trim control already fitted there. The ailerons are powerful enough that you need one trim for solo flight and another for when there are two on board. The two wing tanks also give rise to trim changes.
The elevator trim is very good, incidentally, and I do find myself using it, because the elevator is effective, but not feather-light. The Skylark gives a very pleasant ride, with its big, wide cockpit, comfortable seats and the panoramic view it provides. The aircraft is also fitted with effective fresh air vents and a powerful cabin heater. LOW-LEVEL SPOTTING
If you wanted to take advantage of the aircraft's pleasant handling for some low-level 'spotting', a series of 40-degree banked turns can be sustained without losing height at 70kt and 3,500rpm. Turns can be made on stick and elevator alone, but there is some adverse yaw, so coordinating with rudder is better.
The clean stall comes at 45kt (indicated) with a nose and wing drop (left wing). With
20-degree flap, the aircraft stalls at 40kt and the wing drop is milder.
Whereas some LSAs and microlights mush down or nod gently in the stall, the Skylark is less docile – I'd put it in the same category as a Cherokee 140. And the turning stall is also not quite as forgiving as in some designs: the aircraft rolls quite briskly away from the turn and the nose drops quite sharply. Few aeroplanes as manoeuvrable and light on the controls as the Skylark also have a benign stall behaviour.
From the teaching point of view, the Skylark will be a good demonstrator that aircraft can bite if you abuse them. It is certainly safe enough in normal flight. With power on and with flap set, the aeroplane can be flown at very low speeds (Craig claims 30kt indicated), very nose high and still be controlled with aileron, so it certainly isn't at all vicious.
Returning to the circuit, I try different strategies for losing height. The aeroplane is so clean that throttling down and sideslipping with full flap aren't too effective. Throttling back and diving without flap (at over the flap speed) works much better, because when we level out, the Skylark's light wing loading enables it to lose the excess speed relatively quickly.
I am following Craig's suggestion of a circuit speed of 80kt, approach at 70kt, and
60kt over the airport boundary. Lowering 20 degrees of flap puts us more nose down and also helps the aircraft to keep slowing. I'm a touch high, so use some sideslip on finals. After that takeoff I am wondering if I'll have pilot-induced oscillation problems with the elevator on landing. However, the aeroplane is flying very smoothly towards the runway and isn't at all twitchy, which is encouraging. Sure enough, rounding out over the runway is easy and I manage to avoid any porpoising without having to try.
Now I close the throttle all the way. The aircraft floats a fairly short distance with the nose coming steadily up, then lands with a slight skip and a jump on its main wheels, the nosewheel lowering itself a couple of seconds later. I open the throttle to go around. Craig at this point suggests raising flaps... although the aircraft will climb quite happily with 20 degrees of flap.
We are only just off the runway when I glance down at the flap lever. Craig says, “Whoops-a-daisy,” because I moved the stick fractionally and it was enough to ground the wheels for a moment. We bounce back in the air while I struggle with the rather tricky manual flap control and finally get it back up. Initial climb rate is around 1,000fpm.STILL TOO HIGH
My next touch and go is further up the runway than where the cameraman is waiting to shoot the touchdowns because I'm still too high on the approach. This was despite my coming down with the controls crossed in a sideslip and having twenty degrees of flap. The Skylark is so light that it's reluctant to come down to earth. This aeroplane is full of surprises.
I judge my third approach correctly, though, and this time I am able to dump flap without looking while still on the runway. Banking as we leave the ground and looking back over my shoulder I can see that this touch and go used barely a quarter of the runway.
For my final circuit, I keep the bank going, proceed downwind with 40% power at 80kt, dump flap, reduce speed to 60kt, make a continuous turn 200 metres past the runway threshold, still at 60kt, sideslip, straighten up, float until the main wheels touch, allow the nosewheel to drop then brake firmly without skidding until we come to a stop.
We are abeam the first exit point, having used around 250 metres. This is roughly the same distance as the takeoff run, and suggests that the Skylark could fly into and out of some very short airfields.
Craig says he can do better by approaching at the even slower speed of 50kt (which, mindful of the stall behaviour, and given that we’ve only just met, I tell him we'll leave for another day). I ask whether he uses full flap (40 degrees) for ultra-short landings, but (another surprise), apparently putting in full flap, while it helps a little, doesn't make much difference to the landing distance.
Skyview has just announced that the Skylark II will – in addition to the improvements mentioned here – have a glass panel and autopilot, plus some additional improvements to the aircraft’s already impressive streamlining. There has been talk of reintroducing the flaperons fitted to the prototype. One of the Skylark’s attractions is its conventionality, so personally I wouldn’t.
The aeroplane I flew had some rough edges, such as the fragile seat backs, some poor quality instruments and an overcomplicated flap control, but I was surprised at how well it flew. It is a beautiful aeroplane, very sleek and nicely proportioned that would sell itself as it stands. With some more refinements however, it should take the LSA market by storm, both as a trainer and as a really practical two-seat tourer.