A red flag was flying to signal that the wind was too strong for the normal LSA traffic pattern at the Sport Aviation Expo, but Bart and I taxied out to the main runway at Sebring despite the gusts of more than 20 knots. He was confident, and since I had flown many different airplanes with Bart over the years, if he wasn't worried, neither was I.
When you run through the normal control sweep before takeoff to check for freedom of movement, you immediately notice an issue that Piper is working hard to resolve, and that is very low stick force in pitch. There is almost zero friction in the pitch control mechanism, and you can easily move the stick stop to stop with your little finger. But in roll, there is much more friction — I would estimate four or five times as much as in pitch. In an ideal airplane, roll force is the lightest, pitch heavier and rudder force heavier still. That combination of stick-force harmony is the easiest for a pilot to fly with precision and predictability. Piper is keenly aware of the pitch force being too light and vows to correct it before first deliveries.
Despite the gusting winds, it was easy to control the takeoff roll, and the PiperSport lifted off at an amazingly low airspeed. It can climb at 1,000 fpm, but that takes such a steep deck angle that visibility over the nose is restricted. I settled for around 600 to 700 fpm, which gave a clear view over the nose.
In flight, the stick-force gradient in pitch was so light that I never moved the electric trim with the buttons mounted on the stick, and didn't feel the need to, so it is hard to assess the stability of the airplane. I think it will be good once the stick-force issue is corrected. I flew an approach to a stall, and there is very pronounced buffet before the airplane noses over, so I didn't miss a stall warning system. The sound level is good in the cabin even at cruise airspeed, and the standard PS Engineering intercom makes cockpit communication easy. It certainly seemed like the airplane would deliver the promised top cruise of 117 knots at optimum altitude. There is no fuel flow gauge, of course, but the Rotax burns around five gallons an hour on average.
The electric flaps are infinitely adjustable, but you really need them out all the way to make a difference. And like the other light airplanes in the category, it takes some planning to slow down enough to come down on final, but, despite the gusts, my landing worked out fine.
The PiperSport is being offered in three equipment packages. The base model, priced at $119,900, has a Garmin navcom and transponder plus a Garmin handheld 495 GPS navigator in a docking station. Flight and engine instruments are mechanical. The LT model, which Piper believes will be the most popular for training, has a Dynon flat-glass display and is priced at $129,900. The top-of-line LTD has the Dynon flat-glass plus an autopilot and costs $139,900.
The PiperSport will be sold through the Piper network of dealers and distributors and will be supported by the same network, with Aviall responsible for worldwide parts supply. It is the established network — plus the key design changes Piper has made — that I think will move the PiperSport into a role as a training airplane to support the company's goals of expanding the pilot population and its customer base. The LSA category is growing but is diverse, and no stand-alone LSA maker has a really wide network of dealers and maintenance support. That's why Piper's name on the airplane and the company's backing are so important. The PiperSport was not born at Piper, but it looks like the changes Piper is making in the design and the substance of its global history as a light-airplane leader can make the airplane a success.
For more information, visit newpiper.com.