Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Phoenix Motorglider: Chase The Shouting Wind

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

Best Of Both Worlds

Powered airplanes must land when out of fuel. Sailplanes must land when out of lift.

But a motorglider like the Phoenix—ah, the simple, sophis-ticated genius of it—frees you from the prime shortcomings of both.

Motorgliders let you motor up to the lifting air, shut the engine down, feather (streamline) the prop, then soar as long as you want without burning a drop of fuel.

At day’s end, or if the lift peters out, restart the engine and land...or go hunt for another thermal or wind-facing ridge. Pure heaven!

Motorgliders have captivated designers’ and pilots’ dreams for decades. They free pilots from the confinements of tow planes, winch launches, remote landing retrievals, and the need to stay close to airports on marginal days.

There are two basic types: touring motor gliders (TMG) and self-launchers. TMGs compromise between conventional airplanes and sailplanes. They typically have extended wingspans and can be power-flown for hundreds of miles. They also soar, engine-off, reasonably well.

Self-launchers (and their subgroup, sustainers,) exhibit higher-soaring performance, but carry only small engines with retractable props that stow in the fuselage for soaring.

Self-launchers can climb. Sustainers can only fly level or extend glide, and are typically towed aloft.

Several features make the Phoenix special as a TMG, most notably its variable wingspan, thanks to two separate plug-on wingtips.

The “short” tips provide a 36-inch span for typical powered cruising flight and makes hangaring easier.

The longer “soaring” tips give Phoenix a full 49.38-foot span (15 meters), which promises solid soaring performance. The wing and sleek airframe deliver, too, with an excellent 32:1 glide ratio and 200 fpm sink rate. Not that long ago, the top unpowered sailplanes couldn’t perform that well!

Phoenix can climb as high as any sailplane (service ceiling is over 20,000 feet, Lee tells me), assuming you have a glider rating, which two CFIs can bestow after appropriate training. And since it's both LSA and glider, it can be flown with the private, sport pilot or glider ratings. Older rated pilots, take note: You can legally fly the Phoenix even if you've lost your medical...because it's classified as a glider. "It doesn't matter whether the engine is running or not," says Lee, "it is always a glider."

Burnishing its worthiness as a cross-country power plane, Phoenix's baggage potential of 100 pounds (and eight cubic feet of storage area) also beats many nonsoaring LSA. Its useful load of 612 pounds means two average-weight male passengers (say, 165 pounds and 200 pounds = 365 pounds) can still carry full baggage and enough fuel for a five-hour flight! And cockpit width is "American-sized" at 43.5 inches. Flying with Lee, who's close to my 5' 11", 175 pounds, was downright comfy.

At flight's end, pull off Phoenix's sleek, removable wing extensions, and you're down to 34 feet of span, narrow enough to fit most hangars.

The airplane is well appointed. You get cabin heat; dual pushrod control sticks for solid, instant feel; dual cable-actuated rudder pedals; good, effective air ventilation; cabin heat; tinted canopy with defrost; and a Magnum Ballistic Parachute System (standard)! There's even a "music-in" jack for playing your tunes.

The panel's low profile supports the soaring mission well, while still offering plenty of real estate for about any instrument desired. The version I flew sported a TL Elektronic Integra EFIS, Garmin 496, tidy little Becker COM and transponder units, autopilot, a Tasman electric variometer, PS Engineering PM 3000 intercom, a couple of steam gauges (altimeter and airspeed) and circuit breakers—with room to spare.

Built To Fly
There's more to appreciate about Phoenix's cockpit setup, but let's get back to the fun stuff: its sophisticated aerodynamics.

The all-carbon-fiber-composite construction helps deliver that large wingspan without skimping on payload. Czech Republic designer Martin Stepanek deserves kudos for optimizing interior space, overall strength (+4 to -2 Gs useful load), sumptuous flowing lines, docile handling under power, excellent and responsive control while working lift, and sublime power-on performance.

Letting your eyes linger on the airframe informs the diligence applied to minimizing drag. As Lee notes on his website, the clean, curving flow of the cowling continues without disruption through the line of the clear canopy, and the cockpit area tapers fluidly into the boom-like aft fuselage.

Cowling wraps elegantly around the beautiful engine installation that Rotax guru Dean Vogel praised...and he's seen a lot of them. Even the gear legs flush up with the bottom of the fuselage, and as Lee says, "The legs themselves are clean and strong." Nothing seems to have been overlooked in the quest for minimizing drag.

Quest For Air
Lee graced me with two separate flights totaling more than two hours. The short-wing (36-inch-span) version felt very much like a top-line LSA cruiser. In the afternoon, he plugged on the 15-meter extensions, and we spent an hour thermaling in the weak lift. Turns, climbs and descents for both versions were smooth and solid. The controls are well placed and feel just right. It's just a wonderful airplane to fly in either mode.

We pulled stalls, straight ahead in climb and descent, and in high-bank turns typical of thermaling speeds. Stall behavior? Nominal, with no nasty habits. Phoenix really holds onto a tight bank, great for rising up in tight-cored thermals. The onset-stall-warning buffet is easy to distinguish, and recovery is typical of any quality nonsoaring LSA—just feed in some forward pitch, and you're flying again.

Roll rates are surprisingly brisk, even for the long wing: a bit over three seconds, 45 degrees to 45 degrees. And the shorter wing? Downright snappy at two seconds! Thank the full-span flaperons (both short and long wings).
If the adventure of sailing the living energy between earth and sky using both gas and sun-fueled power is calling you, don't even hesitate: Contact Jim Lee and treat yourself to this dream-come-true work of aerodynamic art.

Labels: LSAsPilot Reports


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