When the FAA approved the LSA concept at Sun 'n Fun in April 2005, many pilots saw it as an opportunity to get back into the sky at a price that wouldn't bust the family budget. LSA were promised at prices as low as $50,000, but many of the LSA introduced to the market in fact sold for more than $100,000. For its part, parent company Zenair of Midland, Ontario, Canada, and Zenith Aircraft, its U.S. subsidiary in Mexico, Mo., continue to produce a line of LSA that can easily undercut the $100,000 price barrier.
Zenair has been in business since 1974, and founder Chris Heintz is responsible for some 20 homebuilt designs, everything from a sexy low-wing design (the 601 XL) to the utility high-wing STOL CH 750 and the four-seat CH 801.
Zenith Aircraft was established to serve the burgeoning American homebuilt market in 1992, and Chris' son, Sebastien, is the CEO of the U.S. company. The various models of Zenith aircraft are also popular overseas, especially in Europe and Africa where there are hundreds in service. In total, there are nearly 30 Zenair dealers around the world, with the largest concentration of Zenith aircraft in Europe.
Zenair models have built a reputation as tough little designs that can be employed as everything from crop-dusters and mini-freighters (the aft baggage area is huge for an LSA) to all-around utility airplanes. It seems owners never run out of applications for Chris Heintz's innovative new designs.
The Cruzer is designed for a stall speed of just 39 mph and can take off and land in 350 feet.
The all-metal CH 750 Cruzer is Heintz's latest brainchild, intended to expand the company's product line to include a slightly faster airplane. While the designation remains the same, the new machine has a very different mission than the previous STOL CH 750 version. The earlier model was designed primarily for operation from short, unimproved grass and dirt runways (or non-runways), whereas the Cruzer model, as the name suggests, is intended for better cruise performance and flights from smooth, paved runways.
To that end, the Cruzer flies behind a UL350iS engine, good for 130 hp on the test airplane. You can take your pick of a variety of engines to power the Cruzer, everything from a 90 hp Rotax (at the bottom power range), Lycoming or Continental to a Jabiru, Corvair, Viking (Honda) or UL at the top (130 hp). Installed engine weight can be as much as 280 pounds. The Cruzer features axi-symmetric (an aerodynamic buzzword meaning "circular") air inlets for cooling air.
The Cruzer's wings are attached with a single strut running from mid-span to the bottom fuselage, and the tail sports a cleaner, narrower horizontal stabilizer with a conventional horizontal and an elevator, rather than the stabilator used on the STOL CH 750 model with a conventional vertical stabilizer and rudder rather than an all flying vertical stab.
In keeping with its updated mission for more speed, the newest model is fitted with 5.00x5 tires, compared to the more standard 6.00x6 on the STOL model. Cruise speed on the Cruzer is listed at 118 mph, and that's almost exactly what we saw when I flew the airplane at the 2014 Sun 'n Fun air show in Lakeland, Fla. That's 18 mph quicker than the STOL version, and the difference shows up in range while it lets you outrun some of the lesser LSA.
Another goal was enhanced visibility, though the STOL model didn't exactly suffer from a lack of view. The Cruzer offers a perspective that's more reminiscent of a helicopter than a light aircraft. The windshield and side windows are huge and offer a view from below your elbows to above your head.
Pilot and passenger climb aboard through their own doors on each side. The cabin is tall and comfortable. It measures 42 inches wide at the hips, the same dimension as a 36 Bonanza or 58 Baron. It's also three inches taller than the STOL airplane. Even the instrument panel benefits from the redesign. The panel is notably wider to accommodate more radios. The STOL CH 750 had a pointier nose configuration to allow better forward visibility during high angles of attack, so the panel was narrower.
The panel on the demonstrator was fitted with a Dynon SkyView system, a Garmin moving-map GPS and an engine analyzer. The instruments are fairly telegraphic, and the new combination groupings make it easy to display all the important information in a compact space.
Once you're settled in, you can't help but notice the unusual Y-shaped stick for pitch and roll. It springs up from the floor at center panel and branches left and right to accommodate pilots in both seats. The arrangement looks unconventional, but in practice it works very well, allowing both pilots to spell each other with a single control and no compromise with space in front of each pilot.
The UL350 engine provides excellent power for the Cruzer, and while it's technically no longer a STOL machine, it does very well in short-field mode. Factory specs suggest about 300-350 horizontal feet for takeoff, though the delicate aerodynamic wheel fairings probably wouldn't be too intolerant of off-airport operations.
As you might expect with 130 hp lifting only 1,320 pounds, the Cruzer is a reasonably brisk climber. Whenever power loading approaches 10:1, you can usually count on enthusiastic climb. The Cruzer showed me about 1,000-1,100 fpm, pretty impressive for an LSA.
Stalls in the Cruzer are predictably docile, but they offer a feature that bears directly on safety. The listed stall speed is 39 mph, but a full power-off effort with the stick full back drives the airspeed off the bottom of the gauge. It also generates a sink rate of only about 500 fpm. In an emergency, you could conceivably hold the stick full back right to the ground and walk away. The airplane might be a little worse for wear, but it's unlikely you'd be injured unless you plowed straight into something on the ground.
Fuel is 24 gallons against a 540-pound useful load if you're operating in the 1,320-pound light-sport category. If you have a private pilot license and a medical, the airplane may be operated as an experimental at a gross weight of 1,480 pounds. In the LSA class, the theoretical payload is 396 pounds, certainly adequate for even a fairly corpulent crew. As an experimental, the airplane can carry 556 pounds plus full fuel. Considering there are only two seats, it's tough to imagine how you could exceed that payload.
Trimmed and level at 6,500 feet over central Florida, the Cruzer lived up to its name with a true airspeed of 120 mph. The book suggests 118 as a max effort, but because of slight differences in the build process, it's not unusual to see slight differences in performance.
Similarly, range will also vary slightly between different airplanes. With 3.5 hours of endurance plus reserve, how-ever, expect the typical Cruzer to cover 350 statute miles in one sitting.
In keeping with the docile stall characteristics, the Cruzer is also liable to make anyone look good in what many pilots regard as the acid test for any airplane—landing. With a stall speed of only 39 mph and practically Maule handling characteristics in the low-speed regime, the Cruzer can fly down final as slow as 50 mph and still preserve a 1.25 Vso stall margin. That should allow virtually anyone to plant the airplane and stop it short without breaking anything or embarrassing themselves.
Now to the big question that everyone asks when they see a Zenith. Like all previous Zenair products, the Cruzer is an E-LSA that may be assembled from a series of kits. The basic airframe kit from the firewall aft without engine, paint, interior, instruments and radios sells for $21,700. Pretty obviously, you can spend as much or as little as you wish on the aforementioned items, but a well-equipped airplane with the 130 hp UL engine should set you back about $70,000-$75,000 plus roughly 400 hours of assembly time. (Sebastien Heintz mentioned that the company will be building a complete Cruzer during the seven-day Oshkosh AirVenture in late July to prove that construction is possible in as little as a week—with a lot of help from your friends.)
While $70,000 is more than a mere pittance, it's well under the magic $100,000 limit discussed above. Counting all models, there are literally thousands of Zenith aircraft flying in 50 countries around the world, and with the recent introduction of the CH 750 Cruzer, one model flies just a little bit faster.