It was a Cinderella story gone bad in 2011 when Piper Aircraft, just one year after plucking the sleek Czech-built CSA SportCruiser from obscurity and rechristening it the PiperSport, unceremoniously dumped the aircraft that the famed OEM had licensed as its LSA offering. But, anyone who thought the stylish, well-built SportCruiser had used up its 15 minutes and would disappear back into the European light-sport pack most likely never flew the aircraft or considered that the pilots from Piper were smitten for a reason—regardless of what went on behind closed doors that led to the split.
Onward And Upward
Today, the Czech SportCruiser and its manufacturer, Czech Sport Aircraft of Kunovice, in the Czech Republic's "Aviation Valley," are doing just fine, thank you. At last year's Sebring U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in January, the company introduced its top-of-the-line SportCruiser SVAP+, featuring Dynon's SkyView integrated avionics suite with dual Dynon 10-inch displays, and sold a healthy 27 aircraft by year's end. With the 2014 Expo marking the 10th anniversary of the LSA category, revisiting the SportCruiser offered a fitting way to honor the milestone.
"I don't think the original idea for the LSA was what we're doing in the SportCruiser," Patrick Arnzen, president of US Sport Aircraft, American distributor for the Czech OEM, said at the company's display area at Expo. "Everyone thought we'd have a $50,000 LSA, but people want more airplane. This," he said of the SVAP+ on display, "has more advanced technology than most corporate aircraft."
The SportCruiser is one of the more aptly named aircraft on a flight line. It's sporty in both looks and performance—highly maneuverable and very responsive—yet its wide cabin, ample luggage capacity and speed make it as much a cross-country cruising machine as many four-place Part 23 aircraft. Given these attributes, it's noteworthy that the SportCruiser has also been embraced by flight schools as a trainer, where a low-cost aircraft that can teach basic flying skills is more important than slick handling or high cruise speed. The OEM's data shows that 30% of SportCruisers are absorbed into the training market. Yet, "at least 80%" of the training done in the SportCruiser is for "other than sport-pilot" instruction, Arnzen said. That could include a private pilot getting a checkout so he or she can use the SportCruiser for missions such as night flights, which are legal in the aircraft but prohibited for sport-pilot operations.
US Sport Aircraft typically has 20 to 25 SportCruisers on its flight line at its facility in Addison, Texas, for training, rental and purchase, and the training activity helps drive sales. "You buy what you learn to fly on," Arnzen said. "People are buying these airplanes because they're superb aircraft that happen to fit into the LSA category. It does everything a Cessna 172 will do cheaper and better, and it's a lot more fun."
Major parts of the airframe are metal. The prop, spinner, cowling, wingtips, fairings and canopy are composite. The landing gear is made of Kevlar, carbon fiber and fiberglass.
Helping get more exposure for the aircraft, US Sport Aircraft has initiated a STEM program with Dallas-area high schools built around the SportCruiser, now involving some 250 students interested in aviation careers as pilots or maintenance professionals. The company has also developed a fractional ownership program to promote sales.
"When you split up the cost [of the airplane] and make the maintenance and management easy for buyers, it starts to make a lot of sense," Arnzen said. Matchmaking between potential co-owners can be a challenge, he admitted. "I call it eHarmony for pilots."
From The Ground Up
Such is the SportCruiser's success that the only SVAP+ model at Expo was the one on static display. "We've sold out of new inventory," Arnzen said. The company was using a SportCruiser LTD, N545SC, from Sport Aviation, their dealer in Stuart, Fla., for demo flights. I played the role of one of the certificated pilots who comes to train in the aircraft for non-sport-pilot applications. Bryan Woodard, managing partner of the Stuart-based dealership, served as my instructor.
On the ramp, the low-wing SportCruiser has a rakish, sculpted appearance, though all major parts of the airframe are metal. The prop, spinner, cowling, wingtips, fairings and canopy frame are composite, while the landing gear is crafted from Kevlar, carbon fiber and fiberglass for strength and flexibility.
"Coming from a typical general aviation engine, this will look a little different to you," Woodard said, opening the oil access door for a glimpse of the 100 hp Rotax 912 ULS. As a first difference, pilots used to Lycomings and Continentals will find that the tool for measuring the oil level in the Rotax looks more like a sardine can opener than a dipstick. The Rotax's dry sump-forced lubrication system keeps the oil in the engine at shutdown, and checking the level requires "burping" the engine—manually advancing the propeller until the Rotax emits an audible gurgle.
"Some people call it a burp, some call it a toilet flush," said Woodard. "What you're doing is actuating the oil pump and forcing all the oil back into the reservoir." Transitioning pilots will quickly see a difference in their oil bills. The Rotax uses only six to eight ounces of oil and takes less expensive motorcycle oil; standard aviation oil for Lycomings and Continentals doesn't have the proper lubrication properties and additives needed for the high-revving engines, which spin at up to 5,800 rpm.
Fuel bills will also be lower, thanks to both the lower fuel consumption over comparably powered Lycomings and the engine's ability to run on lower-priced auto gas, as well as avgas. As for the carbureted ULS, while several other LSA offer fuel-injected versions of the Rotax 912 as powerplant options, Czech Sport Aircraft feels the 20% fuel savings doesn't justify the additional $10,000 cost for an injected variant. From a safety perspective, Woodard notes the Rotax isn't prone to develop engine ice anyway, as the position of the dual carburetors is atop the engine where rising heat inhibits ice formation. Woodard says he has never had to use carb heat in about 2,500 hours of flying carbureted Rotax 912 ULS.
The fit and finish of the machined parts is excellent, and the aircraft is sturdy and rugged, as Woodard demonstrated by giving the forward-hinged clamshell bubble canopy, now in the open position, a vigorous tug and then pounding on the frame. "This thing's not going anywhere," he said.
Inside, the seating is side by side, and the center console includes a 12-volt receptacle for running or recharging a mobile device. Rudder pedals are adjustable forward and aft, though the seats are fixed in place.
It may not be the most modern SportCruiser, but the LTD is no slouch in the avionics department, outfitted with Dynon display screens on the left and right, Dynon AP74 autopilot, and Garmin SL30 NAV/COM and Garmin 696 GPS, which will display traffic from the Mode S transponder in an active radar environment. "Customers who are former airline pilots say it's just as good as what they used," Woodard said.
Flying The SportCruiser
If you're transitioning from a steam-gauge airplane, be aware that the glass-paneled aircraft is started by powering up the avionics. "If [the system] tells you there's a network error, we'd just do a reboot," Woodard said. "It happens once every 200 or 300 flights." To minimize such errors, engage the systems in the order they prefer: master, instruments, avionics and autopilot. Completion of the self-test is annunciated on the right display screen. "It's a one-glance system," Woodard said. "If you look over and don't see any red or yellow shading, you're healthy to go."
We closed and locked the blue-tinted canopy. The throttle control in the center panel is easily accessible from both seats, held in position with a friction lock. (A ballistic recovery system is an option, and the handle for the chute is also in the center panel.) For engine start, crack the throttle and turn the key, and the Rotax immediately jumps to life without any of the hesitation or sputtering that often attend Lycoming and Continental startups.
The castering nosewheel gives the SportCruiser great maneuverability onthe ground. For takeoff, flaps, which extend to 30 degrees, are set to about 10 degrees, deploying at the rate of about five degrees per second with the electric flap switch engaged.
"I like students to use the count method, so they're not staring at the indicator," Woodard said. For takeoff, a minimum power of 4,900 rpm is required. Acceleration is brisk, and in about 300 feet, we had reached our 45-knot rotation speed.
Some pilots have found the Sport-Cruiser a little too responsive, and the elevator has been redesigned to reduce pitch sensitivity. The SVAP+ also has an option for a ground-adjustable three-blade Sensenich prop, rigged to deliver a 117-knot cruise speed. N545SC's older Woodcomp prop, chosen for climb performance, will max out at about 105 knots in cruise. But, at about 65 knots on climbout, our VSI was registering a positive rate of 900 to 1,000 fpm.
Electric pitch and aileron trim, actuated by four buttons atop the stick, is welcome when you want to hand fly rather than engage the autopilot, relieving, for example, lateral pressure due to a fuel imbalance. And, even without the full SkyView suite, the Dynon avionics in the LTD offered envelope protection; in a descent with the autopilot engaged, the autopilot shallowed the descent about eight knots before we hit Vne, while it lowered the nose when we were about the same margin from a stall in a climb. If you inadvertently stumble into IMC, you can reverse course with one command, and the autopilot executes a 180-degree turn. No need to worry about coolant loss in the liquid-cooled Rotax, either. Simply power back to 4,800 rpm—65% power—and you can continue to your destination.
How a trainer falls out of the sky can be as important as how it flies, and the SportCruiser's stall characteristics are suitably polite. Noticeable buffeting gives fair warning of the impending stall, and the nose falls straight ahead, the break coming at about 39 knots clean and 32 knots in the landing configuration. Woodard performs them on every demo flight. "I want them to see the stall isn't going to hurt them," he said.
A Budding Relationship?
Meanwhile, I was quickly warming to the SportCruiser with its excellent visibility and roomy cabin, about two inches wider than a Bonanza's. If I was actually transitioning to a SportCruiser, I realized I'd have plenty of room for luggage with two levels of storage behind the seats and two wing lockers that can each hold an additional 22 pounds of gear. For distance traveling, the 15 gallons of fuel per side equates to more than 500 nm of range.
Moreover, if I had an SVAP+, in addition to SkyView I'd have the added benefit of armrests, improved ventilation, a big handle to help open and close the canopy, and other interior enhancements—improvements integrated into the SportCruiser shortly before the introduction of the SVAP+. That "eHarmony for pilots" was starting to sound more tempting by the moment.
The SportCruiser is sold in three models: The Classic, with steam gauges, has a base price of $129,450, with options that can bring the cost up to about $145,000; the SVAP Light, with one Dynon screen, is priced from $143,200 to about $160,000; the SVAP+, with dual Dynon screens, is priced from $163,350 to about $170,000.