We Fly: Glasair Merlin

The legacy kit-manufacturer’s first in-house build enters the market.

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ith light-sport aircraft manufacturers seemingly popping up all over the world like mushrooms sprouting after a good rainfall, you may wonder why any company would decide to get into this saturated market. In fact, light-sport guru Dan Johnson currently lists 143 LSA models on his bydanjohnson.com website. But after Glasair was bought by the Chinese Jilin Hanxing Group in 2012, the Arlington, Washington-based company decided to enter the market anyway. The plan was to design and build an LSA primarily for the budding Chinese market, but the airplane could very well become a winner here in the United States as well. Like the predatory bird from which the name of Glasair’s new LSA stems, the Merlin is small and light, and has a certain fierceness about it as well. Similar to its amateur-built predecessors, it is a composite airplane with steel and aluminum parts, providing a smooth, streamlined structure. The fuel-injected 100 hp Rotax 912 iS Sport engine powers the bird and spins a two-blade composite propeller manufactured by Sensenich. The panel features a highly capable Dynon SkyView Touch electronic flight-information system. Ever since Glasair introduced its first airplane in 1980, the company has only built experimental airplanes. Glasair became known for designing fast, all-composite amateur-built designs. A souped-up Super Glasair III model, Race 39, has broken the 400 mph mark in the Sport class at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, with Jeff LaVelle at the controls. Glasair is one of the most successful kit builders in the world, with more than 2,500 kits produced.

Glasair Merlin
(Clockwise from left) 1. I had a chance to fly the Merlin for a photo shoot for this article with Glasair's test pilot Ben Rauk near Oshkosh, Wisconsin; 2. A free-castering nosewheel makes the Merlin easy to maneuver into and out of tight spaces on the ramp; 3. The gull-wing doors provide a large space from which to access the cockpit, and the seats are both luxurious and comfortable.Jim Koepnick

Despite its success, Glasair recently sold the assets of its Glasair II and III models, and is instead homing in on designs built in-house. Glasair dipped its toe into manufacturing with the introduction of the Sportsman, for which the immensely popular Two Weeks to Taxi program sprouted in 2006. The concept was for customers to come to the factory in Arlington and, together with experienced builders, put together their own airplane, without having to spend thousands of hours spanning years as do many kit-built airplanes. The program is extremely organized, making it possible for a four-seat airplane to get to the point of taxiing along KAWO’s runways in the span of only two weeks. Several kit manufacturers have copied the program.

The Merlin is an S-LSA, and the first airplane to be completely manufactured by Glasair in-house. But that will soon change. The company’s president, Nigel Mott, said the next goal is to certify the Sportsman under the new Part 23 rules, a process that has already begun. The goal is to have that certification in place in about two years, though FAA scheduling is already starting to delay that target.

The work on the Sportsman certification has slowed the budding manufacturing of the Merlin, and while the design was FAA-qualified in spring 2016, the first deliveries had not yet been made when I spoke with Mott in early December 2017. However, by the time you read this, the first two airplanes will likely have been delivered to a local flight school, and Mott expects to produce a total of 10 Merlins this year.

Being a light-sport airplane with a max speed of 120 knots, the Merlin is built for fun flying and flight training rather than long cross-countries. However, with some creative flight planning, long flights can be done quite efficiently. My demo pilot, Josh Lafferty, flew the airplane all the way from the Arlington Municipal Airport (KAWO), in northern Washington, to Southern California — a trip that would be nearly 840 nm as a Merlin flies, if it were able to fly direct. Lafferty completed the trip in a day, with only one stop, by climbing up to 15,500 feet to take advantage of strong tailwinds.

Glasair Merlin
(From left) 1. The single power lever, located between the two seats, has a comfortable oversize handle that falls to hand easily; 2. The unmistakable fuel selector offers only on and off positions since there is only one fuel tank; 3. Atop the control stick is a standard hat-style trim switch and two buttons that lower and raise the flaps.Jim Koepnick

I met Lafferty at Camarillo Airport on a magnificent spring day to test out the Merlin. When I first laid eyes on the white-and-red airplane on the tarmac outside the legendary Waypoint Cafe, it reminded me of the retired Cessna Skycatcher LSA, with a similar fuselage shape, high wings and side-by-side seats. As I peeked in through the large windows, I noticed another similarity: a control stick that I like to refer to as a “stoke” — a combination stick/yoke with a single handle that is attached to a bent bar that protrudes from underneath the instrument panel rather than a straight bar from the floor. Frankly, it is not my favorite configuration because I find it difficult to rest my arm while controlling the airplane.

Lafferty had the perfect build to highlight how incredibly roomy the Merlin is. Despite his 6-foot-2-inch-tall frame and wide shoulders, he didn’t look at all cramped in the cockpit, which, at 46 inches, is about 4 inches wider than that of a Cessna 182. Lafferty also appeared to have plenty of headroom despite his height. Unlike some smaller airplanes, the Merlin is both roomy and easy to get into and out of. Behind the two seats there is a hat shelf that can carry up to 50 pounds of gear.

The large side windows in the Merlin bubble out slightly, giving the illusion of even more space and allowing for a stellar view of the sights below. There are also side pockets in each door to hold phones, tablets, notepads, wallets or whatever else you would like to have within reach while flying. Skylights bring natural light into the cabin, and there is a dimmer shade to tone down the brightness if the cockpit gets too bright or hot.

All of the Merlin’s 24 gallons of fuel is housed inside one tank in the fuselage rather than the wings. Lafferty said this configuration helps with the center of gravity because you don’t have to worry about getting too far forward or aft of the CG, though you should always check during the preflight. The single tank also eliminates the possibility of forgetting to switch tanks. The fuel selector is a simple on/off selector within easy reach of the pilot and copilot in the center below the instrument panel. Taxiing is easy with the free-castering nosewheel, allowing for tight turns on the ground with a slight tap on the left or right brake depending on the desired direction of turn.

Glasair Merlin
Jim Koepnick

After a quick and easy run-up — the Rotax does much of the checking itself — I turned the airplane onto Runway 26 and pushed the oversize handle of the throttle forward, engaging the 100 horses of the fuel-injected engine to drive us toward the grand Pacific Ocean. Right before I hit 50 knots, I rotated and got off the ground in less than 1,000 feet using short-field takeoff procedures and half flaps.

While we were close to max gross weight, with 19 gallons of fuel on board, we still could have thrown a decent-size bag in the back before we would get to 1,320 pounds, the max weight limit for LSAs. The climb rate was right around 500 fpm at Vy, which is 65 knots, on this much warmer than standard day. It was 79 degrees on the ground at KCMA, but the air vents kept the cabin cool after we shut the gull-wing doors before takeoff. We were burning only 5.3 gph in the climb, much less than most airplanes burn in cruise.

The oil temp was approaching the top of the green, and we pitched down to 80 knots to help out with cooling. It didn’t take long before the temps dropped, and once we were above 5,000 feet we could get back to Vy without any problems with overheating. Lafferty explained that the engineers had a bit of trouble getting the engine to cool properly, and the redesigned smaller air intakes ended up providing better cooling than the larger ones that Glasair initially tested.

It took us about 30 minutes to climb to 10,500 feet — an altitude that most LSA pilots would find themselves at only if traveling a far distance with favorable winds. The Dynon system was showing 108 ktas, 3 knots better than book numbers, and the Rotax was sipping 4.2 gph up there. Pulling some power to see what an economy cruise scenario would look like, we had the Merlin cruising at 100 knots, burning a meager 3.3 gph. We could have kept going for nearly four hours with a comfortable reserve.

Glasair Merlin
The Glasair Merlin has nice control harmonics to go along with benign stall characteristics, making it a great trainer and sport airplane.Jim Koepnick

In addition to the touch-screen capability, Dynon’s SkyView can be operated using eight buttons and two joystick knobs. The system has a shallow menu structure that makes it very intuitive. Having the choice between touchscreen and hardware to make selections on the high-resolution 10-inch display is invaluable in turbulent conditions. SkyView’s modular design allows for a wide variety of configurations, including an on-screen six-pack of analog-like gauges for pilots who have not transitioned to electronic flight instruments. The panel is ADS-B In and Out capable and complies with the 2020 mandate.

For a light airplane, the Merlin felt very stable, though we didn’t have any wind or turbulence to really help test it out. Initial stall characteristics of the wing were modified with the use of stall strips on the leading edges and delta-shaped devices atop the wing to improve the airflow over the wing and control surfaces. Down at a more reasonable altitude, I tried my hand at stalls, which were uneventful and smooth, and also gave a good demo of the angle-of-attack indicator built into the Dynon SkyView.

The AOA wasn’t the only slightly unusual icon on the Dynon. During steep turns, a G-meter popped up over the HSI segment on the screen, an additional safety feature that most airplanes lack. The stability and maneuverability of the Merlin really shined, and my first steep turn produced the classic bump at the end, indicating that I hit my own wake. The Merlin’s controls are harmonious, and it is as easy to fly as a fun sport-flying and training airplane should be.

Next, I pulled the power to idle to check the glide of the Merlin. A descent of 300 fpm at 60 knots would have given me plenty of time and options for a landing site had there been any trouble with the engine. Satisfied with the performance, I turned the Merlin’s streamlined nose back toward KCMA.

Glasair Merlin
(Clockwise from top left) 1. All flight controls are connected to the control surfaces through cables, pulleys, bell cranks and pushrods; 2. While low and slow is where the Merlin’s performance shines, it is capable of climbing as high as 16,000 feet; 3. A delta-wing-shaped attachment is fixed to the top of the wing, allowing airflow to remain over the ailerons at slower speeds.Jim Koepnick

By the time we returned to the airport, the winds had picked up slightly and we had a 30-degree crosswind at 12 knots. Beneath the standard coolie-hat-style electric elevator trim switch on top of the stoke are two buttons for flap operation — one for extension and one for retraction. Full flaps produce a 30-degree angle on the flap surfaces. I tried one landing with full flaps and one with no flaps. To use an old Cessna idiom, I would characterize the airplane as “landomatic” — super easy to grease onto the stripes.

The Merlin conforms with ASTM standards set for light-sport aircraft and is designed for day and night VFR flight. It achieved its certification in spring 2016 and recently received validation of type certificate in China. For now, the Merlin will be produced in Arlington, but it may also be manufactured in China in the future if market demand supports a new factory.

Glasair makes it easy for the customer by offering a very complete package for the Merlin, with a capable day and night VFR avionics package included for a total price of $149,950. Mott said there will be options for a BRS parachute and an IFR panel in the future, each of which would add about $10,000 to the equation.

The Merlin gets a big thumbs-up. As a trainer, or for a bird whose prey is a classic $100 hamburger, Glasair’s LSA is a winner.

Glasair Merlin
The Glasair Merlin's $149,950 price tag includes a capable day and night VFR avionics package.Jim Koepnick