PRESTIGE. Michael Coaster, distributor for Pipistrel USA, received the Dr. August Raspet Memorial Award honoring Pipistrel's achievements in aircraft design.
LSA Pilot Reports are snapshots. Like a Monet painting, they're intended to bring you a colorful impression of an airplane's chops. I layer in as many broad, quick strokes as I can, and that's about all I have room for.
Nice then, when I can lift the cowl a bit for insights into the pedigree of an LSA such as the Pipistrel Alpha Trainer, my pirep for this issue. The Alpha made quite a splash at Oshkosh, racking up five firm orders by show's end. That would light up any manufacturer, since most vendors hope to close sales in the weeks after the event.
I had the pleasure of an inside-view chat with Michael Coates, Master Distributor for Pipistrel USA, at Oshkosh. He had just received the prestigious Dr. August Raspet Memorial Award honoring Pipistrel's achievements in aircraft design. Here's what he had to say about the Alpha.
"With the current exchange rates," he says in his rich Aussie accent, "we're right around the mid-$80,000s. A lot of our competitors came over to the booth, kicked the tires, checked out our instrumentation and such. Off the record, they told us how well we've done; that the Alpha is a really good value, and they wish us success."
The Alpha grew out of a Pipistrel basic design called the Garud, which is Indian for "Special Forces." It's now finding its way in large quantities to Indian army and air force flight-training fleets.
"The original idea came two years ago," says Coates. "Pipistrel's models had grown more complex, with more instrumentation, and the price had climbed. So we went back to the basics for the U.S. LSA market: How much weight did we need to carry, how much more interior room for bigger American pilots and what was the right instrumentation for the U.S. market? Things like that.
"That's why the Alpha has 220 pounds more takeoff weight than the Indian Garud version. It's roomier and has a stronger undercarriage for the additional weight. And we're really happy with the instrument package, which was specifically developed for this plane."
Alpha's very cool round-dialed displays are made by another Slovenian company, LX Navigation. "People in general aviation have never heard of them. But in the gliding world, LX is known as one of the best."
The LX instruments were developed after all-analog, then 10-inch Dynon SkyView systems were tried out in the prototype Alpha. While there was enthusiasm for both types, there was pushback, too. Flight schools wanted simpler instruments but also digital displays for the younger crowd. Older owners reared on analog preferred steam gauges.
"We ended up with a combination of both. The analog needle goes around the outside of the dial, and digital characters display in the middle."
Those characters are big: more than ½-inch high and a snap to read in flight, even for near-distance-challenged older pilots, like yours truly.
Another spiffy benefit with the LX system is the daisy chain connectivity. Think USB. "The instruments are much lighter, simpler and faster to install," said Coates. "They all connect to the LX bus system. One instrument connects to another, to another and so on. Putting the panel together involves just one set of wires, positive and negative, for all the flight and engine dials. Everything just leapfrogs together, and that's it.
"The whole wiring can be done in three minutes. There's quite a reduction in labor and material costs and, most importantly, in weight. We also don't have air brakes in the wings which helped bring down the empty weight."
One feature I note in my flight report is the 507-pound payload with full fuel. Like most LSA, there's not a lot of luggage capacity, but Coates notes the max capacity is 55 pounds. With typical two-passenger loading, there's still room and load for headsets, tiedowns, manuals and personal items like a small clothes duffle.
"There's a surprising amount back there, actually, even though the aircraft is not designed for touring and carrying luggage." Even then, the Alpha includes a ballistic parachute system as standard equipment. And you don't pay a weight penalty for it.
The in-fuselage fuel tank—behind the seats—departs from the Pipistrel wing-tank convention. "LSA aircraft with composite tanks are vulnerable to erosion from fuel additives like ethanol. Pipistrel has always recommended not using ethanol, since it can erode the materials."
Flight Design and other composite makers have had to deal with this challenge, too. "Fuel tanks are the biggest weakness in a lot of LSA designs," says Michael. "For the Alpha, we built a special standalone fuel tank, with coatings made by the Rhino company. Rhino does liners for pickup truck beds. The coatings are impervious to ethanol and other fuel additives. And the beauty of the system is that the 15-gallon tank is mounted in such a way that there's very little chance of rupture even in a very bad crash. The tank is designed to absorb impacts from a variety of directions, too."
Much ado has been made of Alpha's beefed-up undercarriage. "We redesigned the nose leg. It's shortened for better forward visibility for shorter pilots. We also reduced the angle so it's more vertical. That increases its strength by 140%. Now, even if you pancake the plane into the ground, impact forces transfer into the engine mount and shock absorber, where they're designed to go, rather than pushing the undercarriage forward into the prop.
"They really did some hard thinking about this aircraft," he says, wrapping up our talk. "The prototype had negative flaps for cruise drag reduction. That can be confusing for a new student, so we simplified it back to three settings."
The usual max flap limit on other Pipistrel models has been around 18 degrees; with Alpha it's 25. Another design consideration was making sure the slippery airframe didn't permit flight beyond the 120-knot LSA full-throttle limit. Special wingtip design created greater drag at higher speeds, in congress with the proprietary Pipistrel wooden/aluminum prop. The tips also create greater drag with flaps deployed, which helps degrade glide ratio. Otherwise, this clean glider-like bird would ride ground effect for quite a ways.
Another note on the prop: Since it's made in house, the fiberglass-covered wood core fan only costs $350 to replace. Compare that to the typical $1,000-plus price tag for other LSA props.
I'm betting you'll see Alphas showing up all over the country in the next couple years. Michael Coates and his ever-growing network of Pipistrel dealers are doing their best to make sure you do.