Video footage shot by Sean O’Leary
When I flew my first homebuilt in 1973, a VariViggen with designer Burt Rutan in the second seat, the whole point of homebuilt airplanes was innovation with economy. In those days, the apogee of GA four-seaters was the F33A Bonanza, a luxurious single that sold for $60,000. You could build a VariViggen for less than a tenth of that.
Times have changed. Certainly, economy is still a major goal of homebuilts— building the airplane yourself obviously saves most of the labor cost—but the industry has shifted its parameters toward the high end. Today, doctors, lawyers and captains of industry are buying extremely high-performance homebuilt aircraft, often in partnership with experienced builders, and that has fostered the upscale development of kit-built models that tip the economic scales to as much as $1.5 million. Homebuilt turboprops and jets are slowly emerging as a new wave in amateur-built aircraft.
The Evolution’s tall and wide cabin features a flat-panel Garmin G900X avionics suite, the experimental aircraft version of the G1000. All information is presented on two 10.4-inch, high-definition LCDs.
Photograph By: John Parker
Lancair International of Redmond, Ore., has always been near the head of the pack, and the company’s new Evolution may be the ultimate high-end, four-seat, single-engine turboprop—especially considering that there are no others. The Evolution represents a definite paradigm shift. It’s certainly the most aggressive four-place airplane on the market today, certified or experimental. It effectively expands turboprop technology and performance into a new regime.
I flew the Evolution with Lancair’s general manager, Tim Ong, the man primarily responsible for the development of the new airplane. I met Ong at the 2008 Reno Air Races, and had a chance to play with the airplane in conjunction with a short test-flight and the air-to-air photo session that produced the images accompanying this story. Interestingly, Ong couldn’t run the airplane in the Sport Class because of the piston limitation, but he did fly it on some air-to-air missions and easily kept out in front of the field.
Contrary to what you might imagine, the Evolution has very little mechanical similarity to Lancairs of old, though it’s true that several of the company’s previous homebuilt airplanes have been converted to turboprop power. There is some slight family resemblance to the other four-seat Lancairs—swept fuselage, waspish empennage—but it’s purely coincidental. Lance Neibauer, father of the original Lancairs, had no input on the new airplane.
The Evolution is pretty much a clean-sheet design, specifically configured for pressurized, high-altitude flight and turbine power. It’s a product of 21st-century CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and manufacturing) technology, plus modern safety features such as a BRS parachute, AmSafe seat belts and 26-G-energy- absorbing seats.
|Rocket Engineering AirBoom Cannula
The AirBoom Cannula headset accessory dispenses with bulky masks and offers oxygen delivery to 18,000 feet. The moist-air/oxygen blend eliminates dry nose while conserving oxygen.
Bill Cox and Tim Ong fly the Lancair Evolution in formation with Bob Jeffery and Ernie Sutter in their Lancair Legacy race planes.
In fact, Lancair went the extra mile to design and build the Evolution to comply with FAA Part 23 production aircraft standards. The Lancair IVP, the company’s previous flagship design, was a brilliantly executed airplane, but, perhaps incredibly, it’s now nearly 20 years old. It was designed with a small wing configured for a maximum 3,550 pounds. With only 108 square feet of area (including winglets) to support the weight, wing loading on the IVP was a high 32.9 pounds per square foot. That’s a fairly stout wing loading that helps generate a smooth ride in turbulence, but also can precipitate a fairly abrupt stall.
The goals of the Lancair Evolution were to upgrade performance while matching airframe and powerplant to the wing and guaranteeing a relatively benign stall. To that end, the new airplane sports more span and a longer chord to generate about 35 square feet more wing area. Aspect ratio increases from 9.0 on the IVP to 10.3 on the Evolution. All other factors being equal, a higher-aspect-ratio wing contributes to better climb and glide and improved high-altitude performance.
Additionally, the Evolution incorporates a new airfoil that’s totally divergent from the wing on the IVP. It’s a proprietary section designed to help tame the stall while preserving high-cruise capability. As with all previous Lancairs, the airplane’s composite construction results in a beautifully smooth and consistent wing and fuselage surface, with no rivet heads or section lines to reach out and grab the wind. If there was ever an airplane that reduced parasite drag to the absolute minimum, this is it.
The Evolution’s cabin is tall and wide, roughly four feet by four feet, resembling the production Columbia 400 (now Cessna 400 Corvalis TT) built across town in Redmond’s sister city of Bend, Ore. This is a true four-place airplane, willing to transport a full string quartet and their instruments (though you might want to forget the bass) for the long haul. Lancair’s goal was a 957-pound payload with a full 146 gallons of Jet A in the wet wing tanks (optional fuel is 169 gallons). In theory, this should allow for four full-sized folks plus 120 pounds of baggage, two violins and a cello.
The panel on the airplane features the Garmin G900X flat-panel display, essentially the experimental aircraft version of the popular G1000 installed in Mooneys, Cessnas, Beechcrafts, Diamonds, Cirruses and some Pipers. The G1000’s primary mission is to simplify the processing of all relevant attitude, position and system information, and that becomes more critical on turbine and jet aircraft. If you’re traveling at five miles a minute, anything you can do to simplify the panel and instrument readout is a welcome improvement.
|Nonin FlightStart Pulse Oximeter
FlightStat is an oximeter that’s small enough for practical use in the cockpit (it’s not much bigger than your thumb). Two AAA alkaline batteries provide power for about 18 hours of continuous operation, or 1,600 spot checks.
Power & Thrust
The launch control system on the Evolution is a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-135A turboprop, limited to a max 750 shp in flight and 550 shp for takeoff. The engine is recommended for a 3,600-hour TBO. Like most P&W PT6s, the 135A is dramatically underworked, and it’s reasonable to assume a well-treated engine will last longer than you will. Typical of turbines, the Evolution’s powerful turbine mill is uncannily smooth and powerful, and it makes virtually any piston engine feel like the paint-shaking machine at Home Depot. Response isn’t quite as instantaneous, and there’s copious power.
The Evolution is otter-sleek and one of the most aerodynamically clean homebuilts you’ll find, constructed almost entirely of carbon fiber. The prototype is pure white with a few stripes, and that tends to accentuate the airplane’s low-drag profile. The white overall color, though not mandatory, is a strong recommendation on most composite designs to keep internal structural temperatures in check. Composite materials tend to destabilize at sustained extremely high temperatures. You’d probably need to park the airplane for a week in August at Death Valley to exceed the allowable limits, but aluminum airplanes don’t suffer the same limitations.
Payload For All
At a 4,300-pound gross weight, the Evolution offers a low power loading of 7.8 pounds/shp for takeoff. That translates to acceleration that’s nearly automotive. Okay, so it won’t snap your neck like a Corvette ZO6 or Dodge Viper, but it will definitely get your attention. Push the thrust to the limit with dispatch, and the Evolution accelerates as if it’s being shot at.
Rotate, hide the gear and point the nose uphill at Vy (and that means way uphill), and the comparatively big wing provides near-jetlike climb, 4,000 fpm from sea level. More realistically, if you’d rather see what you’re about to hit, you can drop the nose to hold 170 knots and still score an easy 2,000 to 2,500 fpm. If you’re in a hurry to reach the flight levels, keep advancing the thrust to maintain max climb and you’ll level at 24,000 feet, the optimum cruise height, in well under 10 minutes.
Technically, the plane is RVSM-limited to 28,000 feet, but it’s important to remember that it is a homebuilt, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise if an affluent builder opted for certification to higher altitude. Pressurization differential is 6 psi, however, so higher may be somewhat self-limiting above 30,000 feet. Cabin altitude at an actual 28,000 feet works out to about 8,000 feet.
The Oxysaver cannula conserves oxygen and provides passengers and pilots with extended-use portable oxygen during high-altitude flights, thus preventing fatigue and drowsiness.
Speed In Spades
Speed is what the Evolution is all about. The new propjet is the most hard-core Lancair ever to wear an N-number, and that’s saying a lot. It’s basically bonkers-fast, sizzling along at 330 knots at optimum altitude (FL280) and max cruise. That 330 knots is a significant number, as the Lancair IVP bragged of 330 mph cruise, about 287 knots. In other words, the new turbine Lancair Evolution is more than 40 knots quicker than the piston-powered IVP, already the fastest four-place single.
Just as with the six-place Epic LT propjet, the Evolution posts near-VLJ cruise numbers, but the newest Lancair is more efficient than anything in the speed category. Max cruise extracts about 39 gph, and total fuel is 146 gallons (with an optional capacity of 169 gallons). For that reason, it’s unlikely that most pilots will cruise so aggressively unless the trip is short and the schedule is tight.
|Mountain High EDS-O2D1 & EDS-O2D2
The digital EDS-O2D1 and EDS-O2D2 FADOC “Pulse Demand” oxygen-delivery systems allow pilots to operate safely and comfortably up to 25,000 feet. Two buttons cycle the EDS systems through the various modes that automatically deliver the required supplemental oxygen pulses for various altitudes.
In an airplane with such strong climb, there’s no reason not to fly high on every trip. Pulled back to economy cruise at the maximum FL280, the newest Lancair offers 270 knots on about 23 gph. At this burn, the Evolution has an easy 4.5 hours of endurance plus alternate plus IFR reserve for a range well over 1,300 nm.
You could easily fly from Dallas to Jacksonville between lunch and dinner in the Evolution, then divert to Miami without any concern for fuel reserve. I suspect many Evolution builders will opt for a power setting somewhere in between, logging 300 knots on perhaps 30 gph. In this time of high fuel costs, that may offer the optimum combination of cruise versus burn. Sacrificing 30 knots in the 300-knot range isn’t nearly as significant as it is at 200 knots or less.
Handling With Ease
In-flight handling at a gross weight well above two tons is lighter than you might expect, partially because of the Frise ailerons and cruise speeds that impart plenty of bite to the control surfaces. Roll rate is surprisingly quick, and pitch authority is excellent with the larger tail surfaces. Trim is available for ailerons and elevator through a “Chinese hat” pipper switch atop the side stick. Adverse yaw is virtually nonexistent, and the airplane makes coordinated turns to 45 degrees of bank with feet on the floor.
With that fat, four-blade Hartzell out front, coming down is as easy as going up. The Evolution doesn’t employ speed brakes for descent, because it doesn’t need them. Pull the thrust to idle, hold the speed, and the airplane will drop earthward at 3,000 fpm. The universal rule with turbines is to stay as high as possible for as long as possible, and the huge paddle blades out front help expedite that process.
In landing mode, you can fly the Evolution pretty much as you would any heavy single or light twin. That means with some power down to the flare and then a reduction to flight idle as the airplane touches down. The Fowler flaps are large and effective, and at a full 50 degrees of travel (yes, 50 degrees), they reduce stall from 75 knots down to 61 knots, again in compliance with Part 23 standards. This means 85 or even 80 knots is plenty across the fence when you’re fully configured.
The actual touchdown is an anticlimax, a result of long-throw, trailing-beam gear that forgives even the klutziest approaches. The Evolution can land and grind to a stop in 1,000 feet with help from reverse thrust. That’s roughly the same horizontal distance as for takeoff.
As you might imagine, a turbine-powered, four-seat, pressurized single doesn’t come cheap, even a homebuilt one. Airframe kit price is $250,000, and if you opt for a new PT6A, expect to pay about $435,000 more. Counting a reasonable stack of avionics and all the usual add-ons, Lancair suggests you’ll be into a turbine-powered Evolution at just under $1 million when you’re done. If you choose a smaller mid-time PT6A, such as a 21, you could build an Evolution for around $700,000. (You can also build the Evolution with a piston engine, an electronically controlled 350 hp Lycoming TIO-540A.)
While $1 million isn’t as intimidating a number as it was in the days of the VariViggen, it won’t produce a finished machine. You do still have to build the airplane. In this age of quick-build kits, construction time is estimated at 1,000 hours for the airframe, plus another 200 hours for the panel and engine mount. If you build the airplane yourself on a part-time basis, working 20 hours a week, you’d need about 60 weeks to complete the project. Lancair’s two-week build shop program completes the more difficult tasks and trains you in composite construction.
That’s a sizeable investment of both time and money, but it produces an airplane with performance well above anything imaginable in the homebuilt world a few years ago. The Evolution is one of a new generation of homebuilts, designed and constructed to compete head-on with the highest-performance production models of the 21st century.