Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An Extra For The High Road

A pressurized, turbine, high-speed cruiser from Extra Aircraft

Single-engine turboprops are a relatively recent development in general aviation. The Cessna 208 Caravan was the first of the type and the most successful, with more than 2,000 built so far, but the 208 was a dedicated utility airplane, more often a cargo container than a luxury people-hauler.

If you’re considering cross-country machines, the first successful turbine single was the TBM-700, a plush six seater introduced in 1991 and reminiscent of the Piper Malibu. The Pilatus PC-12 premiered in 1995, and the Piper Meridian in 2001, bringing the current certified class to three models.

The price range of the three airplanes is as wide as their capabilities. The Meridian is the entry-level machine, a comfortable 260-knot six seater based on the Malibu, and currently base-priced at about $2.1 million. The TBM-700 has now evolved to become the TBM-850, another six-place airplane that clocks along at 300 knots in exchange for $3.3 million. Finally, the PC-12 tops the class in size and weight with up to 11 seats at 280 knots and a typical price tag of $4.4 million.

There have been several other aborted attempts along the way—Beech’s Lightning and the Interceptor 400 to name two—plus a number of conversions that replaced existing piston powerplants with turbine engines. The only one of the latter to meet with major success has been the Piper Malibu JetPROP. (JetPROP LLC of Spokane, Wash., has sold a remarkable 260 P&W PT6A turboprop conversions for the Piper Malibu and Mirage, nearly 25% of total Malibu production.)

Now comes the Extra 500, Walter Extra’s high-wing carbon-fiber take on what a turbine single should be. The airplane has been in development for almost a decade, though it’s regarded as a new design on this side of the Atlantic. Most pilots know Walter as the father of the famous Extra 230/260/300/330 series of sportplanes that have competed so successfully in the aerobatic arena for the last quarter century.

The 500 is a definite departure for Extra Aircraft of Dinslaken, Germany. The airframe and wing are essentially identical to those used on the Extra
400, a short-lived piston product that premiered in 2003. That first nonaerobatic Extra was a preliminary, toe-in-the-water experiment to see if there might be a market for a Malibu-like, high-speed cruiser. The 400 was a carbon-fiber design that used a water-cooled Continental TSIOL-550-C engine rated for 350 hp, a less-than-optimum choice, as it turned out.

I delivered N400EX, the first Extra 400 to be ferried across the Atlantic, from Germany to Arizona in 2004, and the trip was interesting, to say the least. (Other Extra 400s were shipped to the U.S. in pieces and reassembled at Extra’s American distributor, Aero Sport, in St. Augustine, Fla.) No one on the North Atlantic route had seen an Extra 400, so the airplane was a source of instant curiosity wherever I went.

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