Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Phoenix Motorglider: Chase The Shouting Wind
Serious sailplane, awesome cross-country S-LSA, comfortable, beautiful...wow!
"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.
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."
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!
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