Nearly 30 years ago, I spent several days at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, participating in a Red Flag exercise and flying the amazing F-15 Eagle with Lieutenant Colonel Timothy O’Keefe, veteran fighter pilot and then-commander of the 433rd Fighter Weapons Squadron. For a general aviation pilot, the F-15 experience was an eye-opener into the world of the ultimate fighter, an exercise in maximum speed and seemingly limitless power. When we got back on the ground at Nellis, I jokingly asked Colonel O’Keefe if the airplane had enough power. He looked me straight in the eye and said, with only a slight hint of humor, “You can never have enough power.”
Colonel O’Keefe would love the Epic LT. In general aviation ranks, Rick Schrameck’s innovative airplane is something else. Schrameck, a Las Vegas–based entrepreneur, delights in shaking up the aviation industry, and Epic Aircraft does exactly that.
The Epic LT is that rare machine, a six-place, corporate turboprop that’s a homebuilt—at least for now. (The plan is to offer it as a certified airplane, eventually.)
Before you scoff at the very concept of a luxurious and turbine-powered machine produced as a homebuilt, consider that designer Lance Neibauer conceived the innovative Lancair IVP as a four-seat, pressurized, piston homebuilt nearly 20 years ago. Some IVP builders have opted for small turbines in place of the standard Continental TSIO-550s on their Lancairs.
Epic’s concept isn’t as far-fetched as you might imagine, despite a kit price of $1.525 million (including a new engine). Such an admission price attracts a different class of “homebuilders”—mostly doctors, lawyers and CEOs.
|Epic Aircraft’s chief pilot and vice president of sales, Mike Hooper (left), in the left seat of the Epic LT. A sizeable space between first- and second-row seating (right) allows for reclining or for the installation of an entertainment or refreshment center.|
Some 20 airplanes have already been completed at Epic’s Bend, Ore., headquarters, and another 15 kits are under construction. That represents an impressive $40 million in homebuilt turboprops.
The Epic premiered four years ago at Oshkosh and took nearly everyone by surprise. Fit and finish was outstanding for a prototype homebuilt, but I’ve seen a half-dozen other Epics since then, and they’ve all manifested the same attention to detail.
An all-composite design, the Epic LT resembles a more aerodynamic Piper Meridian with a stretched fuselage and a significantly tapered appearance. The slightly elliptical, carbon-fiber wing is a surprisingly thick NACA 012 natural laminar flow (NLF) design. The “012” designation represents a 12% thickness (wing thickness divided by chord). That seems unusually thick for a high-speed homebuilt, but the numbers suggest it works well.
As with so many composite designs, the Epic’s wing is a truly beautiful airfoil, minus slots, slats or other aerodynamic Band-Aids to interrupt its finely sanded, brilliantly polished finish. Wingspan is 43 feet, same as the Piper Malibu, but the chord appears to be shorter, suggesting a higher aspect ratio.
Climb aboard through the aft left airstair door, and you enter a cabin that’s more spacious than most other singles. It’s also a study in contrasts. For a change, the best seats in the house aren’t the front two. The fuselage is about four-and-a-half feet across, providing a wide aisle to the front office and all the elbow room you could ask for. Up front, however, the taper on the sides of the fuselage cuts in a little too quickly. This dictates slightly reduced headroom on the outboard roof for pilot and copilot. Cabin length is more than enough. A major gap between the first and second row of seats allows the seats to recline; it can also provide space for the installation of a refreshment or entertainment center. The extra space between the pilot/copilot seats and aft-facing seats can also fit two kid-sized jump seats or a lavatory.
Folks in the center, aft-facing seats seem to have the best of all vertical and horizontal worlds. Similarly, floor space between the conference-style second and third row is impressive. There’s no reason for footsie between facing passengers, unless they just happen to be into that sort of thing.
Once you’re settled into the front buckets, you’ll note the airplane’s unusual visibility, especially to the sides. The two-piece windshield wraps all the way around to the shoulders of both pilots, à la Learjet, though the Plexiglas isn’t especially tall. Overall, it’s a bright, roomy, comfortable place to fly.
Predictably, the panel is as modern as the rest of the airplane. The first demonstrator I flew four years ago was fitted with a compact and innovative Chelton system. The customer airplane I piloted at this year’s Sun ’n Fun (the personal LT of NASCAR driver Bill Elliott) was also decked with Chelton avionics. Production airplanes may be fitted with a Garmin G900X flat-panel display with the usual trio of two-inch backup instruments directly in front of the pilot.
Certainly a major part of the Epic LT’s attraction is its “King Kong” powerplant. The LT flies behind one of the most powerful turboprop engines in general aviation, the 1,200 shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67A. This is essentially the same P&W that was used on the futuristic but unsuccessful Beechcraft Starship. It’s also similar to the one employed on the current $4 million Swiss Pilatus PC-12, a corporate single intended for the pilot looking for long range and exceptional loading flexibility. The big Pilatus weighs in at nearly 10,500 pounds gross weight and features a huge main cabin that may be configured with up to nine seats (plus two pilots) or, alternately, a cargo area that may be loaded with a forklift.
In contrast, the Epic LT need lift only a little above 7,300 pounds and a 10-foot-shorter fuselage that accommodates six souls in sumptuous comfort. Payload is one of the plane’s strongest points, a feature virtually unmatched by any other airplane. Even with a full load of people, the airplane can still carry full fuel and a little baggage. Specifically, the airplane’s full fuel payload is about 1,200 pounds. Epic likes to use the catchphrase, “Fill it up. Go the distance. Leave nothing behind.”
Despite the heavy load, the airplane sports climb performance in competition with many light jets. Power loading is barely over six pounds per shaft horsepower. All other factors being equal, low power loading translates directly into good acceleration and climb, and the LT’s takeoff performance will flat out knock your hat in the creek. If you haven’t flown fighters or corporate jets, you’ll see numbers on the VSI you may never have seen before. Hold the nose high to maintain 160 knots, and you’ll experience something like 4,000 fpm up on the VSI.
You’ll also lose virtually all forward visibility in the climb. As with most high-speed aircraft, the better compromise is a quicker forward speed in exchange for a lower deck angle. That’s a trick piston pilots have been using for years to keep engines cool, obviously not a concern on a turboprop.
I flew the LT on three occasions in conjunction with this article, and in one departure out of Santa Monica, Calif., ATC granted an uninterrupted climb from near sea level to 18,000 feet. I used 200 knots in the climb, and the result was a consistent 2,000 to 2,500 fpm, relatively unaffected by increasing altitude.
With such upward mobility on tap, the Epic LT’s maximum altitude of FL280 comes up in 12 to 15 minutes. Such abbreviated climb makes it reasonable to file for FL270 or FL280 on practically every flight. Flying high makes turbines more efficient, and that can be the case even when the winds aren’t in your favor. The trade of fuel for speed is simply more efficient in the upper flight levels.
|A bright, comfy place to fly, the LT’s cockpit features a glass-panel Chelton system and a two-piece windshield that provides unusually good visibility.|
With 1,200 hp on tap and the largest propeller produced by Hartzell out front—a 108-inch diameter, four-blade—to translate horsepower to thrust, the LT might be a logical candidate for flight at RVSM altitudes (above FL290). Considering that the homebuilt kit costs $1.525 million and RVSM certification can add an easy $70,000 to the price, it’s unlikely anyone would choose that option. When the certified Epic Dynasty comes to market (at about $2.5 million), plans are to certify the airplane for FL310 or higher, so RVSM will be an option.
If you’re looking for max speed, you’ll want to stop the climb at about 22,000 feet. At that height, the LT can deliver cruise speeds more reminiscent of a VLJ than a single-engine turboprop. The book suggests 340 knots under optimum conditions at the proper altitude, but in the real world, 330 knots might be more realistic. That’s a respectable number considering that neither of the two newest, certified light jets on the market do much more than 350 knots on a good day.
Where the LT will leave the jets behind is in range. With long-range tanks and economy power settings, the aircraft can reach out and touch a destination more than 1,500 nm distant. Economy cruise settings consume about 53 gph, and with the large, optional 350-gallon tanks topped (on the production version), you can plan on 5.5 hours plus reserve at about 280 knots.
Because beta or reverse thrust provides propjets with dramatic stopping power, turboprops typically have an automatic advantage over jets in landing mode. In the Epic LT’s case, landing over a 50-foot obstacle requires less than 1,900 feet. That’s at least 1,000 feet less than any of the jets and equal to or better than the other leading turboprops.
As mentioned above, Epic is currently working on certifying a production version of the LT, known as the Dynasty, with Transport Canada. At this writing, the only Epic available is one you’ll have to build yourself or, at least, with the company’s help. On the surface, that might seem a significant disincentive to the kind of pilot who can afford the LT. There have been at least 35 of those aviators who have stepped up to the plate; another 40 are waiting to start their LT, having stepped up to the plate and put both their money and time on the line. If Epic can do that well with a homebuilt turboprop, imagine what the company might do with a fully certified airplane.
SPECS: 2008 Epic LT