Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Phoenix Motorglider: Chase The Shouting Wind

Serious sailplane, awesome cross-country S-LSA, comfortable,!

Cruising under power through footless halls of air, Jim Lee and I thread our way between vaulting rises of cotton-edged clouds. Under one big cumulus high-rise with a flat, dark-gray bottom and a wispy penthouse, we feel a promising bump of lift. It's thermal-chasin' time!

"Okay, let's go to idle," says Lee, head of Phoenix Air USA. He talks me through the beautifully sculpted bird's five-second engine-shutdown sequence. I reach forward, turn off the radio and transponder so they don't get an amperage surge, and then, (gasp!) turn the engine key to Off. The 100 hp Rotax 912 ULS stops immediately, as Rotaxes do. I flick the optional electric "prop arm" switch, the two-blade carbon-fiber paddle feathers itself, and the world of mechanical noise fades away.

Beyond the long, graceful canopy bubble, the relative wind rushes over our ultraclean airframe. It's a warmish, balmy east Florida afternoon. Before takeoff, we saw buzzards working the thermals that popped after the morning overcast. Now, no birds anywhere—not a promising sign for soaring. We slow to 60 knots and start hunting. The left wing rises up strong; I move the stick left to turn into the thermal. Over the hissing breath of the wind, we can hear the variometer beep—now faster, indicating climb, now slower, to a low monotone: That's sinking air, stay away from that!

Lee talks me through a couple of proper high-bank turns to center up in the lift, with a notch of flaps (the manual detent lever selects four positions: -4 for cruise, 0, +5 and +10 degrees) to increase lift and slow to our best minimum sink speed of 45 knots. The rapid vario beeps reward us with the song of climb all the way around the 360. In five minutes, we've circled up several hundred feet, completely on the energy of the thermals, though it's a marginal lift day.

Before long, we're down to Lee's personal power-off safety minimum of 1,500 feet. We restart the engine, motor back up to 3,000 feet, and head north to explore under more clouds.

The Ideal "Hybrid"?
I could way too easily spend all my words exulting over the total pleasure of flying the Phoenix. It's effortlessly enjoyable—under power or turning silently in lift. If a powered sailplane lives in your house of dreams, I'd be remiss not insisting you arrange a demo.

Phoenix is about as easy to land as any LSA, even in the long-wing configuration (plug-on, swappable tips yield a 36- or 49-foot span). I had anticipated needing to stay on top of those long 15-meter wings, but full-span flaperons give you all the roll control you need, right down to flare speeds. Suh-weet!

The 5- and 10-degree flap settings are useful for lowering soaring speeds. Landings are typically done with the effective midwing spoilers, which bestow powerful command over final glide-slope. "Think of it as having a gas pedal," Jim says. "If you're coming up a bit short, back off on the spoilers."

My first landing was surprisingly easy. The Phoenix has a tailwheel like most gliders, but no tailwheel endorsement is required since it's classified as a glider. Regardless, the nose angle right at three-point touchdown and during taxi is modest: It's no sweat seeing over the panel glare shield. A hand brake on the stick is effective and intuitive to use. Lee describes three-pointers as "autoland." The 40 pounds of downforce on the tailwheel gives sufficient control up to crosswind speeds he says you wouldn't want to fly in anyway.

The cockpit is soooo comfortable: The reclined, thigh-supporting seats fit well and optimize both power-cruising comfort and the need for low-frontal-drag soaring aerodynamics. Phoenix can cruise 900 nm (eight hours!) at 118 knots (36-inch wing) at 5,000 rpm on one 26-gallon tank-up (two wing tanks of 13 gallons each)—better than many leading power-only LSA. Even with the 15-meter span, you get 114 knots!

Labels: LSAsPilot Reports


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