This January, Piper Aircraft CEO and President Kevin J. Gould stood before a crowd of pilots and media, smiled broadly and said, “In what may be the worst-kept secret in aviation, Piper Aircraft is entering what is undeniably one of the most exciting market segments in general aviation.” It’s heartening to hear a major aircraft company characterize the still-emerging LSA sector so positively. That Mr. Gould’s opening icebreaker was a repeat of what Piper media rep Mark Miller had secretly told me days earlier also was informative.
Was the hush-hush run-up to this moment, carried forth on a surging tide of waggling Netizen tongues, a masterful orchestration by Piper to ballyhoo media attention? Regardless, Piper did garner attention, in spades—and history was made, at 11 a.m. sharp, on the opening day of Sebring U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Florida.
Full Circle: Cub To PiperSport
Whatever the calculation behind Sebring’s most buzz-worthy announcement, the laser-like beam shining through the mini-drama is this: Piper is in, in big, and in right.
By now, you may know that the LSA picked by Piper is the SportCruiser, a popular LSA (#2 in 2009 U.S. sales) built in the Czech Republic by Czech Sport Aircraft (CSA). Repainted, rebadged and slated for deliveries, PiperSport didn’t garner one naysay among the scores of Sebring attendees I spoke with.
The consensus: huge, bold and wonderful for LSA. Piper’s timing couldn’t have been better: Cessna had just announced further delays—six to 10 months—in delivering its 162 Skycatcher.
Contrary to abundant rumors, Piper didn’t (wisely, concurred many) acquire a financial stake in CSA, the company that won an ugly 2009 Czech Republic court fight over control of the SportCruiser design. CSA appeared to be financially and managerially exhausted after the battle: rumors flew about lagging—or dormant—production of airframes and parts.
Yet even with all that bad grapevine juju, CSA still managed to deliver 31 airplanes to the States, in a terrible economic climate! That should tell you the potential of PiperSport to succeed big.
The throttle features a releasing cam (above) that allows pilots to precisely position the throttle lever. The PiperSport’s 46.5-inch-wide cabin offers reclining leather seats, excellent visibility and a comfortable fit for pilots of all sizes.
In his speech, Gould evoked the memory of “the first LSA”—the Piper Cub—in celebrating Piper’s happy return to its roots. Indeed, the new CEO’s tenure at Piper began last year with a call for the 83-year-old company (144,000 aircraft produced, 160 models, with 90,000 still flying!) to return entry-level aircraft to its broad lineup.
It’s hard to imagine a better match for the company than the PiperSport. The beautiful, all-metal LSA has proven itself worldwide as the SportCruiser and is already at market.
Exclusive worldwide rights to sell and distribute the airplane as an S-LSA are locked up through PiperSport Distribution Inc. Manufacturing will remain in the Czech Republic under, we can assume, the watchful QA eye of Piper. Parts worldwide will come from Piper’s strategic partner, Aviall Inc.
What about tweaks to performance and handling? Derek Zimmerman, Piper’s VP of supply chain and aftermarket development, told me there are no plans to extensively rework the design. Certain handling characteristics will be optimized for a greater fit in the training market (i.e., the airplane’s well-known stick sensitivity in pitch—more on that in a minute).
By announcing April deliveries of three different models, Piper would seem to have gained the strategic high ground above Cessna. But we’re still in the opening minutes of what we all hope will be a very long game: the growth and maturation of LSA worldwide.
With Piper in the game, the LSA industry should get an immediate shot in the arm. The Internet already is abuzz. And why not, with two aviation giants now so visibly involved?
Seeing people huddle around the Piper display at Sebring, you could feel the excitement. The PiperSport certainly is a looker. But beneath the sexy, Grand Prix–like lines, Cherokee manners live. Watching its demo flights in Sebring’s LSA flight area, what intrigued me most was how the aircraft floated into every landing, noticeably slower than similar types—almost like it was in slow motion.
Italian race-car appeal with friendly GA handling: now that’s quite a package to perfectly match the burgeoning image of sport pilot fun flying.
I watched the PiperSport adroitly hop into the sky (specs call for a 350-foot rollout) at a low rate (45 knots or so), then climb out smartly, right up there with the best in category.
My desire to fly a SportCruiser had long focused on one question: Would it be as enjoyable to fly as it looked? Early in January, I satisfied that question with a five-hour rental checkout in a local SportCruiser. After one hour, the verdict was clear: very comfortable, forgiving and stable, with no nasty tendencies.
When the PiperSport was rumored, I had a new question: How would it compare to the SportCruiser? Thanks to Bart Jones, Piper’s affable chief pilot, I got my answer in short order: There’s virtually no difference between the two. Piper is smart enough not to mess with a winner. Roomy, stylish and comfortable with its reclining leather seats, the PiperSport flies as beautifully as it looks.
Ground handling is a breeze. The big Piper rudder pedals, easily adjustable by lever from the seat, integrate toe brakes to make taxiing with the castering nosewheel effortless. They fit well to shoe, so to speak, and are angled properly so you don’t accidentally brake. You can turn on a dime on the ramp, too—that’s handy.
Rolling out to share some air, Jones counseled me more than once to hold a bit of right brake on rollout and then transition to rudder once we had aerodynamic control, which comes in around 10 knots. “Ease back and let it fly off at 45 knots or so,” he instructed, “and climb for best rate at 65.”
We rose from the tarmac in just a few seconds. A week before, I had almost beaked the SportCruiser nosewheel by overpitching on my first takeoff. The surprise taught me well. With Jones, I pitched the airplane with a dainty left thumb and forefinger.
That coltish sensitivity in pitch is the one rap you might make on the PiperSport. Roll forces are nominal, truly “airplane-like” and in the realm of the Evektor SportStar and Breezer II. But the pitch situation definitely is on Piper’s short list of modifications.
“We’d like to get less stick force per G in pitch,” said Jones, “to fit the PiperSport’s training role. Although I have to say, once you get a few hours in it, you don’t notice it at all. Humans are so adaptable—it just feels normal.”
He’s right: In the SportCruiser, I made five landings, every one smooth as butter. Not to brag, but I’m a fairly low-time LSA pilot. It’s that easy to land—just keep it light on the pitch movements.
PiperSport lands beautifully: stable on descent and easily set up with the stick-top electric pitch buttons and electric flaps. The interesting throttle setup on the center console comes with a releasing cam on the throttle lever. This can wear out in time if you don’t squeeze every time you make power adjustments. Perhaps Piper will modify that down the road, but it gives a nice GA feel to throttling, and the action is very smooth.
We were high and a bit hot on final. Jones instructed, “Just ease back on the stick, it’ll slow down and settle into a nice sink rate.” Sure enough, in a few seconds we were dropping out satisfactorily. I ended up still needing full flaps and a forward slip. No problem: In barn-door mode, PiperSport manages the extra drag just fine, like an airplane should.
My landing, in a seven- to nine-knot crosswind, wasn’t as artful as I’d have liked, but the airplane gave good feedback all the way down and forgave my imperfections. The airplane floats in and flares at such a slow speed, you almost feel like you’re landing an ultralight. Stall is tabbed at 39 knots, max weight—with flaps up! With full flaps, it’s closer to 30 knots, and I think I read somewhere that calibrated stall speed is 27 knots! With a terrific speed ratio of 4.4:1, the PiperSport is decidedly more floaty than similar low-wing LSA. Yet control is good right down to tires on tarmac.
PiperSport impressively fills out the legal LSA performance envelope. Cruise is listed at 120 knots; range with two 15-gallon wing tanks is 600 nm; and useful load is 600 pounds, which includes the standard ballistic parachute system. (Smart move on the ’chute.)
You can carry 120 pounds of baggage using a combination of the two wing lockers (an unusual feature) and roomy aft-seat compartment.
Stalls in approach mode give plenty of buffet warning. In departure mode, the superdramatic nose-up angle is impossible to ignore. Jones asked, “Can you imagine anybody not noticing they’re at the stall in this airplane?” Even a veteran ultralight pilot would feel nervous hanging on the prop like that.
Stall recoveries are nominal: relax the stick, and you’re flying again with minimal altitude loss. Add power, and you’re back to cruise or climb. Stick roll forces are firm but not stiff. Roll rates are snappy when you muscle it, reminiscent of, well, flying a Cherokee.
Jones, a highly respected pilot and one of aviation’s really nice guys, has flown thousands of hours in such complex airplanes as Piper’s Meridian and Seneca V. Because the program only began (in secrecy) last summer, I asked him if the 30 hours he has put into the PiperSport were a yawner after flying those thoroughbred Pipers? Au contraire.
“Sure, it’s a lightweight airplane,” he said, “but you can feel the flying again. Isn’t that why we got into flying in the first place? It’s stable, easy to turn. I really like it. It’s a fun airplane to fly.”
We zipped around the countryside for a half-hour or so, rubbernecking to dodge traffic in the hazy, crazy Sebring airspace. Rolling in and out of turns wanted a bit of rudder, but this isn’t a rudder airplane per se. Just a little push to roll in, then center up, and PiperSport stays where you put it until you roll out. Aileron electric trim is quick and responsive. In pitch, as expected, it’s quick to answer: a couple taps on the top-of-stick buttons and you’re set for climb, cruise or landing.
Here’s my two cents’ worth: PiperSport is a joy to fly. Visibility and comfort are top-notch with that big, seamless canopy and stylish leather interior. Cabin width is 46.5 inches, and it feels roomy, which is more important than the number. Pilots from 5’2” to 6’6” fit the cockpit just fine. Performance is commendable: With 370 pounds of people and almost full fuel, we saw more than 900 fpm on an 80-degree day.
Three models are offered: PiperSport for $119,000, the LT model for $129,000 and the LTD (with a two-screen Dynon EFIS package and Garmin GPS goodies) for $139,000.
Honestly, I could rattle on for another 2,000 words. That’s how much I like this airplane. But the real story isn’t my impression: This is the ship that Piper Aircraft felt worthy of its imprimatur. If the company doesn’t sell a thousand of them in the next couple years, it sure won’t be the fault of the airplane.