Liberty for All?

This two-seat touring airplane, based on a wildly popular kitplane, does a lot with a little. But will Americans go for its less is more attitude?

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Liberty XL2

When I heard a few years back that the folks behind the Europa two-seat kitplane were in the process of making what amounted to a certified version, I was excited but, frankly, a bit skeptical too. The Europa, a popular kit made in the United Kingdom, is a terrific little kitplane, but I wondered if it might prove a bit too quirky for regulators' tastes. The original featured such interesting oddities as a single main fuselage landing gear with outriggers, wings you could remove and stow for towing in about five minutes and impressive aerobatic capabilities. Surely, such features wouldn't fly with the FAA.

As it turns out, the designers apparently agreed, and they introduced a certified version, the Liberty XL-2, which is quite conventional in comparison. It features tricycle landing gear and permanently fixed wings, thank goodness. Furthermore, the airplane will be certified in the normal category.

Though outwardly tamed, the Liberty is much like its predecessor in several important ways. Like the Europa, the Liberty is a roomy, two-seat side-by-side stick-controlled airplane with great visibility and snappy performance. It's relatively fast -- around 130 knots -- and it has a baggage area in back that can accommodate lots of cargo, both in terms of space and weight. It is, in short, a sporty touring airplane, just like the Europa.

Touring airplanes, while popular in Europe, seem rightly foreign to Americans. The conventional wisdom over here is that two-seaters are good only for touch-and-goes or loops and rolls. Such has been the view in the certified airplane industry for decades -- look at how many runabouts Cessna, Piper and Beech have built over the years -- by my count, none.

Have times changed? Maybe. For more than a decade kit makers have been tapping a market for two-seaters that people use for traveling. Lancair, Glasair, Van's and Europa, among others, have sold thousands of kits to people who were willing to give up the back row of seats for a little extra speed or utility.

Recently this trend has spilled over to the world of certified airplanes, where several two seaters have appeared on the scene. The Diamond C-1 Eclipse, the OMF Symphony and, now, the Liberty XL-2, all seek to fill a niche that had gone unserved since the 1940s, when the slick but underpowered Globe/Temco Swift came on the scene at the peak of the biggest general aviation boom ever. The Swift's future burst with the bubble. Since then, with few exceptions, two-seaters have been designed expressly for training or specialty purposes such as aerobatics, pipeline patrol and banner towing.

The Liberty's outward appearance is deceiving. While it looks for all the world like an all-composite airplane, it's not. It's a hybrid, using sheet metal for the wings and stabilator, carbon fiber for the fuselage and steel tubing for the interior cockpit structure.

In their respective roles, the materials all make perfect sense. Because the Liberty is intended for IFR certification, metal flying surfaces make sense, as they simplify the design and approval process. Composite airplanes like those from Cirrus and Lancair must have conductive pathways constructed into the structures to ensure that lightning, if it does strike, has an escape path. Otherwise a strike can produce an attention-getting hole in the wing or tail.

The designers chose chromoly tubing for the cage for strength and production ease. When properly implemented, steel structures can provide effective crush zones, which make impacts more survivable for the occupants.

Originally, the Liberty was going to be powered by the 100-hp Rotax 912S four-cylinder engine, but the team soon changed direction and went with the Continental IO-240F. (It didn't hurt that the Continental, unlike the Austrian-made Rotax, is built by a company familiar to every U.S. pilot.) The IO-240F is a 125-hp powerplant that features full authority digital engine control (FADEC), hence the "F" designation. The extra 25 horsepower was a plus, as well.

The upgrade to the heavier engine was accomplished without losing any of the 600 pounds of useful load Liberty was shooting for. The team wanted to be able to seat a couple of grown-ups, 80 pounds of bags and full fuel.

FADEC is a real revolution. Instead of fiddling with throttle and mixture, the pilot of a FADEC-equipped airplane can concentrate on other tasks. The FADEC on the IO-240F takes care of both mixture and power at the same time, using a computer to automatically adjust the parameters to their optimum settings while continuously monitoring internal and external conditions. The Liberty has a fixed-pitch prop, but on airplanes with a constant speed propeller, FADEC can control that too. The benefits are decreased workload, better fuel efficiency and longer engine life. What's not to love about it?

The Liberty isn't a true low winger; it's more of a mid-wing, like the old-style Extras. Consequently, getting aboard takes some doing. You sit on the leading edge wing root, slide back, stand up on the wing walk, open the door and then get inside. Liberty plans to add a front-mounted step to simplify the process.

Passenger and baggage loading are done through the big dual gull-wing doors. Liberty got the baggage area right; it can accommodate 100 pounds of luggage, including large parcels like golf bags and oversized duffels. Although loading bags through the passenger space is generally less than an ideal situation, in this case it works fine, as the airplane's spacious interior and high-step wing make the job a lot easier than one might imagine.

The king-size cabin is, indeed, one of Liberty's strongest points. There's so much room inside that I was tempted on several occasions to turn around and check to see if I was actually in a larger, four- or six-seat airplane. On cross-countries, that extra space can make a long trip seem substantially shorter, and that's a real bonus.

The leather-covered seats themselves are quite comfortable, though they are non-adjustable. To accommodate pilots of different heights, the airplane was given adjustable rudder pedals, which the pilot can set up to be just right no matter the height. Another benefit is that in cruise, you can slide the pedals away from you to create some extra room to stretch. (There are, I might mention, no toe brakes to be found; more on that omission later.)

The FADEC requires an unusual set of steps to start the engine. Because there's no mixture control -- remember, one lever does it all -- when the engine's hot you need to use the boost pump to adjust the flow; when it's cold, it's just like starting any other light single. Even though it was my first try and the engine was plenty warm from our recently completed photo flight, I managed to get the airplane started on the second try.

Now, if getting into the airplane by sitting on the leading edge and scooting back, hot starting it with the boost pump and sliding the rudder pedals back and forth aren't enough to tell you that you're not flying around in an old fashioned Wichita single, just try taxiing the Liberty, which you do, I might add, with finger brakes. The process, I suspect, will at first mystify most pilots.

The finger brakes are located on the center console so either occupant can operate them. I've actually flown airplanes, experimentals, with hand- or finger-operated brakes before, and believe me, it takes some getting used to. The Liberty features brakes split left and right, and steering by differential braking, so you not only stop the airplane with your fingers; you steer with them, too. If that sounds like a juggling act, just try adjusting the power lever while making a turn. Hint: use the heel of your hand. Liberty plans to offer toe brakes as an option, though I'd be willing to bet that they'll wind up being a standard feature on the airplane before too long. Even though finger brakes are an economical approach to the design, they're just too complicated to use.

Like just about everything else on the Liberty, running up the airplane is a different experience. There are no magnetos, so the run-up is done mostly to ensure that the electronic ignition is working properly, which you do by checking a small display to the left of the radio stack as you switch one and then the other ignition switch. The display on the demonstrator was too dim; Liberty agrees and plans to put a brighter one on the production airplane.

With finger brakes, the takeoff phase is a real adventure. The rudder becomes active soon after you start to roll, but until that point you have to use a touch of brake to keep the airplane tracking straight before gradually releasing the brake as the rudder takes over. Thankfully, I got some help from the demo pilot, though I'm sure I would have gotten the hang of it eventually.

Takeoffs are done with about 15 degrees of flaps. I say "about" because the electric flaps don't have any detents or natural stops. A wing sight gauge confirms the flap setting. Takeoff is similar to other light airplanes with an excess of power, more of levitation than a rotation. In the Liberty, once you hit 55 knots, the airplane just kind of rises up and goes flying. I set the attitude for an 80-knot initial climb, well faster than the advertised best rate, but fast enough to keep the nose down and give us better forward visibility.

Yet another oddity on the Liberty is the control stick. There's really just one big stick, both sides being attached at some central pivot point below the center console. Consequently, when you handle the controls, it feels as though you're applying the force off to one side, which you are. Again, it's kind of an odd feeling, though one that's easy enough to get accustomed to.

The Liberty does have one feature that is unconventional in a most welcome way, its visibility. It was a beautiful day as we cruised along over the Long Island Sound, and the Liberty's big glassed-in cockpit let us take in all the splendor. The doors, by the way, can be opened while taxiing, for greatly enhanced ventilation on the ground.

While I didn't put the Liberty demonstrator through all of its paces, I did explore some of its basic handling manners, including slow flight, stalls and steep turns. In short, I found it to possess the same kind of sporty handling characteristics as the Europa, with light stick forces and an enjoyably quick roll rate. Differential ailerons and push rod linkages make for a solid and harmonious feel. The rudder feel, on the other hand, was less pleasing, as it lacked the kind of directional stability I'm used to on a certified airplane.

Speed, however, is a strong point. While the demonstrator is restricted in its operating envelope, it was aching to go faster. We had to keep pulling the power back to keep it from doing so. Liberty says the final product will cruise at around 130 knots, great for an airplane powered by a 125-hp engine with a big, roomy cockpit and fixed gear. How does it do it? For starters, the Liberty is aerodynamically clean, which is evident on descent, when it takes some doing to get the airplane slowed down. Probably more important is the airplane's short wingspan, just 28 feet from tip to tip, and its light weight.

An important feature of a cross-country airplane is range, one area where Liberty pilots might wish for a bit more. With just 28 gallons of fuel onboard -- in a single fuselage-mounted fuel tank located behind the seats -- the Liberty has a no-wind range of about 500 nm with reserves and at an economy power setting of around 55 percent power.

In the pattern the Liberty is a pleasure to fly. It has excellent approach and slow speed handling, traits achieved using long, narrow-chord slotted flaps. The stalling speed with full flaps is just 52 knots. Landing the airplane is easy, though pilots of conventional singles might take some time getting used to the nice view of the landing zone. My instinct was to flare a bit on the high side, though with no ill effects; the gear is quite forgiving of firm arrivals.

With its advertised price of around $116,500, the XL-2 seems like a tremendous deal. But that price is for a gyro-less, VFR airplane with basic avionics that's missing wheel pants and other basics that no pilot is going to leave off the equipment list. As far as I can figure, a more realistic price, one for an IFR airplane, nicely equipped with either Garmin or UPS-AT avionics packages with large moving map displays, is between $150,000 and $160,000.

While there are sure to be changes between the demonstrator airplane I flew this summer and the final, certified version, for which Liberty expected to be nearing FAA Part 23 approval around this time, it's clear that the folks at Liberty have met their major goals in building a good handling, reasonably fast, fun-to-fly, cross-country capable two-seater with a good sized cockpit and plenty of room for baggage. That's a lot of airplane in a small package, which, of course, was precisely the idea.