Hand-control hero

We join company test pilot Marco Locatelli on only the second flight of Tecnam’s hand-control P2002JF, the world’s only certified aircraft factory-equipped for wheelchair users

Words Dave Unwin Photos Philip Whiteman

The touchdown is agreeably smooth, but as I begin to add power to complete the touch and go, things start to unravel with alarming rapidity. As I raise the nosewheel just clear of the soggy, bumpy grass runway the nose swings, and despite my best efforts to contain the yaw the situation deteriorates quickly; I’ve lost control. “You’ve got it Marco,” I grunt, swiftly relinquishing the controls. Marco quickly restores order, keeps us on the runway and gets us back in the air.

“Nice landing…” he says with a grin “but a crap takeoff,” I finish the sentence for him. To be fair, perhaps trying make my first landing on this specially modified aeroplane into a touch and go was a little optimistic.

And the reason why I couldn’t manage a simple touch and go? Well, this particular EASA CS-VLA certified P2002JF has been built by Tecnam for Aerobility, the UK charity that specialises in training disabled pilots, and features a bespoke hand-control system that ? while it might be familiar to its intended users ? poses quite a challenge to pilots used to the conventional stick-and-rudder set-up.

I was privileged to enjoy a flight in the modified aircraft, early in its test and development programme. Test Pilot Marco Locatelli had taken it on its maiden flight only the previous week, and as he flew F-104G Starfighters for the Italian Air Force and is a graduate of the French Test Pilot School at Istres he is, shall we say, an above average aviator. I had flown the soon-to-be-certified P Twenty-Ten with Marco earlier, and I was extremely flattered when he asked me if I would join him on what would be only the second flight of the Aerobility P2002 to help evaluate the hand control system and provide some additional input.

The P2002JF is a neat little VLA. Primarily of metal construction, it is powered by a Rotax 912 and features a tricycle undercarriage, side-by-side seating, a low wing and?importantly, when it comes to affording access to wheelchair users ? a rearward sliding canopy. You get in from in front of the wing: working with disabled pilots, Tecnam has strengthened the leading edge to act as a seat and added external grab handles.

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Once ensconced in the cockpit, Marco briefed me on the controls. The control sticks are standard items, with trim and PTT buttons incorporated in the top of the grip, as are the central lever for the wheel brakes and typically Tecnam throttle plunger, mounted on the left side of the panel. The major difference is the large pistol grip mounted on a sliding tube that extends aft from the centre of the panel. This allows you to operate the rudder and nosewheel steering, throttle, flaps and wheel brakes with one hand. To apply left rudder/turn the steerable nosewheel to the left, you push forward, and you pull back for right. Rotating the pistol grip clockwise around the tube axis opens the throttle, counter-clockwise closes it.

This arrangement may sound somewhat counter-intuitive (and Tecnam designer Fabio Russo did propose alternative schemes to Aerobility – see ‘Rising to a new design challenge’ box opposite) however, it will be familiar to disabled pilots who have trained on converted aircraft, and it does make the best use of arm strength. (The force required to operate the steerable nosewheel is such that I doubt it could be done by, say flexing the wrist.) Of course, if this were to be the first aeroplane a pilot had ever flown, then controlling yaw with a push/pull motion would feel perfectly normal!

A ‘coolie hat’ switch on the pistol grip operates the flaps while?in the aircraft as sampled ? squeezing the motorcycle-type lever applied the brakes. Another switch on the panel allows the instructor to control the flaps. Toggle switches provide each pilot with priority for the flaps and trim.

As the raised concrete taxiway from the Tecnam factory is possibly the narrowest I’ve ever seen, I didn’t even think about using the hand-control system until we’d reached the grass runway?which was just as well, because when I did try steering with my hand I was all over the shop!

After a normal takeoff (using the rudder pedals) I placed both feet flat on the floor and began to experiment with the hand controller, starting with some shallow-banked turns. Now, while initially I certainly had to think about how to apply the required rudder, not applying enough never became an issue because, the P2002JF being the nicely designed aeroplane it is, adverse yaw is minimal.

After five minutes I was beginning to grow in confidence, and was soon making turns with bank angle increasing through twenty, thirty and even 45 degrees. I then progressed to climbing and descending turns, and rolling out onto precise headings and altitudes. Ever the professional test pilot, Marco encouraged me to chat while I flew and made a note whenever I stopped talking (as this meant I was, in test-pilot speak, ‘task-saturated’: a useful indication of pilot overload).

Overall, I was very impressed by this machine, particularly as this is only its second flight ? it really did seem to be pretty well sorted. However, I did feel that it would be better to move the neutral position of the rudder hand-control slightly closer to the panel, as I had the distinct impression that applying a lot of right rudder was awkward, and this feeling was confirmed when I tried a few sideslips.

It was when we started simulating stalls and go-arounds that things became more complicated. Controlling the yaw at full power with a high angle of attack and low airspeed was quite challenging, while I also noted that selecting carb heat off during a go-around is difficult, as you simply run out of hands.

As described in the first part of this piece, my first landing was good, but simultaneously opening the throttle, raising the flaps, pitching up to keep the nosewheel off the runway and trying to contain the yaw proved too much. Happily, following an expert demonstration by Marco, my next attempt was much improved and I concluded our flight with a pretty fair landing.

Confidence restored, I taxied back along the precariously narrow taxiway using the hand controller, and managed to perform a neat 180 in front of the hangar and brake smoothly to a stop on the exact spot Marco had indicated, showing how effective and precise the hand control system can be.

As the Pilot team’s departure schedule was tight, there was time for only a very quick debrief in the cockpit. Keen to help where I could, I made the further suggestion that it might be worth considering linking the carb heat to the throttle, so that although it is selected on in the normal way, opening the throttle automatically turns it off. Alternatively, perhaps the carburettor manifolds could be fitted with heater jackets ? a system in common use ? or the POH changed to recommend that the carb heat be turned off on short final.

I flew the aircraft only a couple of weeks before Christmas. In the first days of January I dropped Marco and Fabio a quick email to see how they were getting on, and did I get a shock! In my flight test report on the Astore (Pilot, February 2014) I wrote that ‘Tecnam has a reputation for getting things done’: well, not only had the design team implemented some of the suggestions I’d made, but they’d also made a number of other improvements.

To improve cockpit access they have added extra grab handles and increased the travel of the canopy, and a special cushion has been fabricated to cover the canopy rail when getting in and out. This will make the transition from wing to cockpit and back a much more agreeable experience. The pistol grip is now mounted closer to the panel, a second conventional throttle has been added on the right side of the panel and the brake lever has been moved from the hand control unit’s pistol grip to the control stick, making it easier and quicker to remove the hand controls to return the aircraft to conventional layout. Note that these improvements aren’t merely proposals ? the work is done, and the aircraft is scheduled to fly again any day.

I take my flying helmet off to Marco, Fabio and all the team at Tecnam, which is working hard to make the dream of flight a reality for aviators who face unimaginable challenges on a daily basis. I think that Aerobility boss Mike Miller-Smith is going to be very happy when he and his fellow pilots get their hands on this sleek Italian sportster.

For further info see: aerobility.com or contact tim@tecnamuk.com

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