Helen introduced me to the Sportsman in the tricycle gear configuration. After running down the handy electronic checklist for startup, the 210 hp Lycoming 390 fired up on the first try, and we took off over the scenic islands of Puget Sound. At 8,000 feet, we saw 142 knots TAS burning 11.7 gallons per hour with the throttle maxed out and the propeller set at 2,500 rpm. Lean of peak, we lost a few knots but burned only 9.5 gallons.
The cockpit of the Sportsman allows for plenty of elbowroom — it is slightly wider than a Cessna 182 — and the feel of the airplane is stable and very well balanced. Even fingertip pressure on the center stick smoothly maneuvers the aircraft. The metal bars that crisscross the windshield are a little distracting at first but are soon forgotten, and the sun visors are easy to adjust and provide just the right amount of sun protection.
While the presentation is not quite as nice as the Garmin G1000’s, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Advanced Flight Systems integrated avionics suite. N944SP is equipped with the deluxe IFR option, which, among other things, includes separate EFIS and EMS screens, two Garmin GNS 430s and a TruTrack autopilot. The autopilot smoothly tracked a GPS navigation course and the ILS into Paine Field, near Everett, Washington. While I had to manually enter altitude changes into the autopilot, the version delivered today has coupling capability.
Two more basic avionics packages are also available and, should the panel prove insufficient, the owner can easily swap or add components at a later date. Glasair is unique in offering a wire diagram to its customers, eliminating any guesswork for avionics shops or customers who make their own installations.
Satisfied with the avionics discussion, Helen and I decided to explore the stall envelope. The Sportsman is surprisingly maneuverable in slow flight, and the stall speed is an impressive 42 knots. There is no uncomfortable snap at the stall. The aircraft simply gets mushy, and a falling leaf stall can be practiced quite nicely.
Landing the Sportsman couldn’t be more straightforward, and my first landing in the tricycle gear was a squeaker.
The true test of the Sportsman came after lunch. In about 2½ hours, a team of three had pulled the nosewheel off, added a Scott tailwheel, moved the mains forward and changed the regular tires to 31-inch bush tires. It was time to take the Sportsman off the pavement with Ted Setzer.
Ted was all smiles as we walked out toward the highly transformed N944SP. We flew a short distance from the airport to explore the edge of the stall envelope, flying below 50 knots most of the time. We muted the annoying “angle, angle — push, push” warning, and I noticed that the stall speed was a couple of knots higher with the large tires flopping in the relative wind, but it was still only around 45 knots.
Satisfied with the slow-flight maneuverability, we headed back to the Arlington airport to try out the grass strip. Bush tires are different animals, and, having not flown a tailwheel for a while, I have to admit to a couple of initial bounces during the process of figuring out how to handle this new configuration. We also did maximum performance landings. To minimize the landing distance, we came in much lower and slower than I’m used to — right around 50 knots with lots of power. It was a challenging delight, and it didn’t take long to master this new technique.
After a couple of tries, I was quite pleased to be able to get the aircraft stopped in less than 500 feet. Ted claims to have landed the Sportsman as short as 175 feet! How’s that for short-field performance? He also talked me through a few high-performance takeoffs in which we added full flaps once we had about 45 knots of airspeed. Ted told me to just feel it out rather than looking at the airspeed indicator, and as soon as I pulled the flaps (they’re manually deployed by a Johnson bar between the seats, similar to a parking brake’s), we literally popped right off the ground and the aircraft climbed like an elevator.
It was time to take the airplane to the test. We flew a short distance to a gorgeous river northeast of Arlington, with pebbled riverbeds alongside. We found a good riverbed segment, a few hundred feet long, with enough of a straight river segment at each end to safely approach and escape in case of a go-around. We did a fly-by to ensure there was nothing on the riverbed that could be damaging. Then we came around again and made the approach we had practiced on the grass runway in Arlington.
I made a nice, smooth approach at just the right speed. It would have been a perfect landing, but instead the touchdown produced a loud bang. There was a stump barely covered by pebbles that I had hit straight on. Fortunately the large tundra tires absorbed the shock and there was no damage to the landing gear. However, there was a ding in the horizontal stabilizer from a pebble hitting the leading edge. Riverbed landings are a blast, but they can be tough on the equipment.
With the exception of the hidden stump, the riverbed we had selected was perfect. The high-performance takeoff got us off the pebbles several hundred feet before the river’s edge.
While we didn’t get the bush tires wet, there was still time to get in the water. Although it wasn’t planned as part of my visit, the only pilot who flies the floats — Ephraim Carter — happened to stop by and asked if I wanted to try out the float version of the Sportsman. Did I! It was getting toward the end of the day, but there was still a bit of light left, and we flew west to a small lake called Goodwin Lake. There was plenty of landing distance, and I made a standard, rectangular approach to the selected landing area. Ephraim guided me as to when to flare, and we made a nice, smooth landing on perfectly flat water.