PiperSport to Grow Training

Piper goes back to its roots with this two-seater LSA.

Carl A. Miller

Piper is a company built on the two-seat Cub, the light-sport airplane of its day, and now, with introduction of the PiperSport, it is returning to its roots. The PiperSport, a two-seater in the Light-Sport Airplane (LSA) category, gives the company a new entry level in terms of cost, particularly for flight training.

The PiperSport is a version of the Czech Sport Aircraft SportCruiser, an LSA that has been in production for several years and that is being built under license for Piper. The licensing deal allows Piper to begin deliveries of the PiperSport in the second quarter of this year instead of after the several years required to design, test and manufacture an airplane of Piper's original design.

The PiperSport is a low-wing metal airplane with a 100 hp Rotax 912 engine. It is a stylish airplane with a full canopy and swept vertical fin and wingtips. Though Piper played no part in the original design, it looks as though it could be a modern LSA version of the venerable Piper Cherokee that was designed nearly 50 years ago.

Comparing the PiperSport to Cessna's 162 SkyCatcher is unavoidable. Both are in the LSA category, and both airplanes are concrete evidence of each company's renewed emphasis on flight training. Cessna designed the 162 from scratch with the training mission as its primary focus. The program was announced nearly three years ago, and SkyCatchers are now beginning to enter service.

Piper was in a different situation three years ago with some significant questions about future direction. However, when investors from the nation of Brunei bought Piper last year, they put the company on solid financial footing, and the new owners revived an interest in flight training. Piper wants back into flight training and the light-airplane market in a big way, so the licensing route was the way to go.

Another point of comparison between the PiperSport and the SkyCatcher — other than run-together names — is both are being built outside of the United States. Cessna builds the 162 in China for cost efficiencies that allow the base model to be sold at about $110,000. The PiperSport will be built by Czech Sport Aircraft (CSA) in the Czech Republic so that it can carry a base price of $119,900. To achieve these prices, both companies had to move beyond their traditional production methods.

The PiperSport wing has a constant chord planform, very much like the original Cherokee. Unlike the Cherokee's "Hershey Bar" wing, the Sport has dramatically swept and flared wingtips. It's amazing how the shape of the tips directs your attention away from the blocky wide-chord wing. The original Cherokee wing looks, well, kind of clunky and unsophisticated. It's not, by the way. The Cherokee wing is very efficient in both lift production and lightweight structure, even though it looks like a flattened out box.

The PiperSport wing also has excellent lift characteristics, low stalling speed and light weight, but the wingtips, with their rakish flip at the trailing edge, mask the fact that a very conservative and fundamentally sound wing design works well between the fuselage and tip. The wingspan is almost two feet shorter than for the SkyCatcher, yet the PiperSport has 10 square feet more wing area. The extra wing area, and thus lighter wing loading, helps get the PiperSport's full flaps' listed stalling speed down to an almost unbelievable 26 knots.

Another design contrast between the Piper and Cessna is the old low-wing versus high-wing tradeoff. To enter the SkyCatcher you stand under the wing and slide in through doors with top-mounted hinges. To mount the PiperSport you climb up on the wing, and then step over the sill and down into the cockpit. The PiperSport cockpit is big, with 46.5 inches of width — a couple more inches than the Cessna, which is itself bigger than the traditional two-seat trainers. But entry into the PiperSport is a little more of a gymnastic affair as you step down, beyond the seat and around the control stick. Big, sturdy handholds are located on the instrument panel glareshield and between the two seat backs to give you the necessary leverage for the entry and exit.

The PiperSport canopy is hinged at the forward edge and swings open wide. The forward hinge means there will be no hazard if the canopy becomes unlatched in flight, because it will rise only a couple of inches and be held in trail by the slipstream. The overhead canopy is great for visibility, particularly in steep turns, but the sun shining through can really bake you even on a moderately warm day. To fight back against the sun, there are shades that you can pull forward to cover much of the overhead.

The Rotax engine is a favorite among LSA makers for its lightweight and excellent fuel efficiency. Piper also likes the fact that the Rotax can burn either avgas or premium auto fuel with no modifications. The engine turns the propeller through a reduction gearbox so that the crankshaft spins about 2.4 times for each rotation of the propeller. The relatively small displacement of the Rotax and lightweight propeller it uses makes for smooth operation, and electronic ignition assures quick and easy starts.

The Rotax is a dry sump engine, meaning the lubricating oil is pumped out of the engine into a separate tank. If you want to check the oil before takeoff, you have to "burp" the engine by rotating the propeller by hand for several revolutions. This procedure pumps oil that was left in the engine at shutdown back into the sump, and, with the oil filler cap removed, you can hear it "burp" when the pump delivers the oil. After that, you can check the dipstick and get a true reading of the oil level.

The TBO of the Rotax 912S series engine used in the PiperSport was recently increased from 1,500 hours to 2,000 hours. There are more specific and stringent maintenance and overhaul requirements for the Rotax engine compared with conventional aircraft piston engines of similar horsepower, but fans of the Rotax point out that the excellent fuel economy, and ability to use auto fuel, can make up for some of the difference in engine maintenance costs.

The Rotax has liquid cooling for the cylinder heads but uses air flow to cool the cylinder barrels and crankcase. Rotax says that, if the cooling fluid were lost through a leak, the engine could continue to operate at reduced power without overheating, allowing plenty of time to fly to an airport. The liquid cooling keeps engine operating temperatures more stable and within a narrower range than for an air-cooled engine, so internal tolerances are tighter in the Rotax and oil consumption is low compared with the traditional air-cooled engine.

There are twin carburetors on the Rotax similar to those on many motorcycle or snowmobile engines, except in aircraft use there must be carb heat, and it's there. Fuel is pumped from the wing tanks by an engine-driven pump that is backed up with an electric standby pump. So, operation is the same as in other Pipers where you turn on the standby pump for takeoff and landing.

As on nearly all LSA, the nosewheel castors freely and brakes and rudder are used for steering. The brakes are the normal toe type on the rudder pedals. The main landing gear legs are the flat leaf type with a tubular strut for the nosewheel, so there are no oleo struts to maintain and overhaul. The PiperSport landing gear looks much sturdier to me than on most LSA, but Piper has made some changes to make it even more durable for the training environment.

The two PiperSports that were displayed at the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida, this past January were representative of the final configuration but lacked every detail. For example, the standard BRS whole-airplane recovery parachute was not installed. The airplanes had three-blade, ground adjustable fixed-pitch props that are probably standard, but it was not certain. And work on increasing the stick-force gradient in pitch had not yet been completed on the airplanes.

To get a feel for what the PiperSport flies like, Piper's longtime do-everything pilot Bart Jones talked me through a preflight and cockpit check. Inside the cockpit there are standard four-point harnesses to fasten, and the rudder pedals move to suit pilots of various sizes because the seat position is fixed. The cockpit is roomy, with plenty of space to rest inboard elbows on a center console that hides a storage compartment.

The few times I have flown Rotax-powered airplanes, I have always been impressed by how easily the engine starts — just turn the key — and by its smoothness. It buzzes, or hums, instead of the loping idle that is common to conventional direct-drive aircraft piston engines. Vibration is low, and throttle response is good. But again, there is a difference. Most Rotax engines have a very strong spring that pulls the throttle to full open as a safety feature in case the operating mechanism fails, so the throttle must be locked to remain in any intermediate position. Many airplanes use vernier-style push-pull throttles with the center locking button to keep the throttle where you want it. The PiperSport has a throttle lever with triggers just below the knob. You hook your fingers on the triggers and lift up to move the lever, and then release to lock it in place. It is intuitive to use and reminds me of the idle cutoff lockouts that are common on many business jet throttles. The friction locks are positive enough to keep the throttle lever from creeping forward but do not have enough resistance to prevent the pilot from moving the lever if the friction lock system somehow fails.

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.