Developed by Germany-based FK-Lightplanes, the FK9 ELA Executive is a friendly airplane that offers excellent cockpit visibility, with overhead and rear windows, and features a BRS parachute for safety. The aircraft that we flew for this report was nicknamed Sparrow by its owner.
As my aerial host Mike Hansen climbs us through 2,500 feet to top the afternoon bumps, I'm already feeling settled in with my guest chariot, the FK9 ELA Executive.
I've wanted to fly the ELA, (which isn't an E-LSA—it stands for European Light Aircraft) for some time. It sports graceful compound curves and a strong composite/hybrid construction. And the FK9 series of aircraft, designed and developed since 1989 by Otto and Peter Funk of Germany-based FK-Lightplanes, is highly respected overseas, if not well known this side of the Big Water. It's time to correct that inequity.
A Fine Pedigree
Hundreds of well-made, sweet-flying FK aircraft are flying worldwide. The company was heralded in Europe as the top "ultralight" manufacturer last year over other powerhouse builders like Flight Design and Remos. You likely know of one model—the stylish, star-crossed FK14 Polaris, rebadged a few years ago as the SRS and intended as Cirrus Aircraft's S-LSA.
Alas, when the economy's Grim Reaper began swinging its indiscriminate scythe, the SRS program was shelved in favor of a more robust revenue producer: the Cirrus Vision Jet. A contractural embargo between Cirrus and FK restricted the FK14's introduction to Yankee country, since Cirrus wanted to keep its options until its own economics improved, so the FK14 has yet to debut.
And that's a double "alas," because Polaris is a gorgeous, perky low-wing flivver that could take the market by storm, just like the short-lived PiperSport.
Last April, a thrilling, newly reworked taildragger version, the FK14 LeMans, knocked everybody's socks off at Aero, the air show/convention in Germany.
The LeMans' exotic retro-style, double-bubble, side-by-side open cockpit recalls romantic flivvers of yore such as de Havilland's Gypsy Moth. Simply put, it's a jazzy, rakish beauty.
Thus, FK-Lightplanes, a progressive, top-notch company that continues to produce the folding-wing, popular FK9 MK IV, embraced globally for its training chops, friendly-fly persona and quality construction.
Jon Hansen, Hansen Group's founder, Mike's father and sole U.S. importer of the FK line, recently introduced me to another beauty, the FK12 Comet, a super-sexy S-LSA aerobatic biplane that inveterate sky-scribe Bill Cox will report on soon.
A 42-inch cabin features center sticks and a center-console hand brake. There's a throttle to the left of the panel, and one in the center.
Long Legs, Good Figure
Back to the ELA Executive: I first ran my hands over its smooth, lovely composite structure (which skins a welded-steel-fuselage cage—the wing is all carbon fiber) at the Midwest Expo last September. It was a customer's plane, the first in the U.S., so we couldn't fly it there.
And here I am, a few months later, rolling around the bilious blue on a gorgeous afternoon, enhancing my visual infatuation into hands-on appreciation from the catbird seat.
I'm glad that it's mildly bumpy, because it shows me one of the Executive's prime qualities: a comfortable cruising persona. The airframe handles the turbulence well. And since it's neither twitchy nor noticeably fast in roll—I clocked a 45-degree-to-45-degree bank-angle reversal in a bit under three seconds—it maneuvers with a smooth, firm precision that you can take to the cross-country bank when faced with "textured" air.
Cruise, while not at the high end of the S-LSA speed regime, is still a respectable 105 knots or so at 75% power. And with the 20-gallon capacity, you should get three hours plus a one-hour reserve. Considering our version's useful load of 593 pounds, even with those wing tanks full, you can carry 473 pounds. That's better than many LSA can boast.
The version I flew had yet to find its optimum climb/cruise balance behind a new Duc composite propellor. "It's not pitched quite right," said Mike Hansen, who typically sees a cruise climb around 80 knots...while still climbing at 1,100 fpm! But even with the climb-biased prop, I saw 105 knots, although it took a little more than 75% to get there.
The ELA readily leaves the tarmac, and feels comfortable and stable immediately. It exhibits gentle, straightforward landing characteristics, thanks in part to the three-position electric flaps, effective rudder and ailerons at near-stall speeds and wing-vortices-taming winglets that optimize its clean aerodynamics.
Side note: The ELA name, opines Jon Hansen, presents a bit of a buyer's conundrum. He worries folks will confuse it with E-LSA (Experimental Light-Sport Aircraft kit). "We'd like FK to change the name," he says, "because it's only offered here as an S-LSA." Stay tuned on that one.
Pitch forces are harmonious with roll—maybe a touch lighter. Hansen treated me to a stall series that was nominal and benign. And the robust climb rate and extra lift from fully deployed flaps make for a real "roller-coastery" high-nose angle during departure stalls. You'd have to be seriously distracted not to know you're near the stall with the ELA.
Factor in a clean, attractive speckled-paint interior and very comfortable leather and fabric seating, along with a nice suite of traditional controls such as the thoughtfully placed center console-mounted hand brake, electric flap switch and even a parking-brake lever, and you've got a mature, all-around cruiser and eye-catching local patch flyer, too.
The modern glass cockpit features Dynon D100 and D120 EFIS displays, plus a Garmin 696 in the center.
Highlights, We Got Highlights
The ELA has mildly firm roll pressures but needs just a bit of rudder in turns. The airplane is refined from the FK9 MK IV to meet European EASA standards and serve its cruising mission: "We'll continue to market the MK IV as a trainer," says Mike Hansen, "but this airplane has more fuel, the bigger panel, a real baggage compartment with outside access door and smaller gadget bags next to the adjustable seats, so even though it doesn't fly a whole lot different than the MK IV, we're putting it out as a high-end cruiser."
Stick pressures are noticeably lighter and more responsive during slow flight. And deploying/retracting flaps has minimal effect on pitch. Nice.
The ELA is a friendly airplane. Hansen thinks it should appeal to "the would-be 172 pilot who doesn't want to worry about passing his medical, but still wants to carry decent payloads 300 miles or more and burn five gallons per hour at 105 knots. Some LSA are a bit slicker, but for people who like the Cessna look and might also want a docile, training-capable airplane that takes trips, too...we believe that's our market for this airplane."
Cockpit visibility is very good, especially for a high winger. My eye level (I'm 5'11") was a good six inches below the wing bottom. The overhead and rear windows make for a good 360-degree view.
The ELA's excellent nosewheel steering and big rubber-handled, center-console hand brake make for excellent ground handling, as good as any LSA I've been in. There are two throttles, one on the left of the panel and one in the center. That means left-hand power access for either pilot, or right hand for the left seater if preferred: a nice option.
There's good air flow through four sources: two side vents and two center eyeballs. And FK buyers can order the airplane in either tailwheel or tri-gear configuration at no extra charge.
The version I flew (Professional Model) had a top-notch glass deck with Dynon D100 and D120 EFIS displays and the Garmin 696 in a vertical installation. Aesthetically, it's a handsome and effective installation.
Wrapping up, the version I flew, which included a BRS parachute, the glass panel and other options, lists out at $132,000. Base price is considerably lower: The Executive Model lists at around $102,000 (€1 to $1.43 exchange rate). That's especially attractive for a composite airplane as nicely turned out as this one.
LSA vs. ELA
|Aviation people love acronyms. That's super...when you know what all those letters stand for. To help our snapshot of where U.S. and European sport-aircraft regulations sync up—and where they don't—let's get some acronym schoolin'.
• EASA—European Aviation Safety Agency, roughly equivalent to the FAA. Its light-sport mission: simplify the process for certifying an ELA.
Head spinning yet? Almost done.
CS-LSA would use the ASTM standard we have for LSA, but impose other regulations, too.
Background: Europe's reqs covering ultralights, microlights and other LSA-like sport-aircraft categories are all over the map. Even pilot qualifications vary from country to country! EASA wants to simplify.
EU manufacturers outsell U.S. LSA makers here by 2:1. They want to sell those same planes in Europe. So would U.S. manufacturers.
Thus their push for EASA to make ELA a close fit to our LSA. EASA, though, is taking a "top-down" regulatory approach, meaning more complexity and official involvement with every aspect of production. It won't go the "bottom-up" way that FAA did, creating a whole new LSA category and ASTM voluntary conformation.
ELA will also mandate a restricted type certificate. That means tons more paperwork, expense, and EASA oversight of everything, including audits of production processes. Cha-ching: even more cost for airframe makers.
The consensus: big boys like Flight Design, FK, Evektor, Tecnam, et al will weather the challenges and grow their businesses. Smaller producers will struggle to compete.
The light-sport rule is working well in America. Its standardized pilot qualification and grandfathering the existing fleet of ultralights were both key. EASA won't go that route: tough news for makers with stars in their eyes but lesser financial resources.
It may take months, or years, but in the end, the abiding dream is of a global standard for these types of aircraft that will level the playing field for manufacturers and pilots alike. For now, kinda makes you grateful we fly in a federation of United States with one overriding regulatory picture, doesn't it?