Maybe she dressed kinda funny. Maybe he kept to himself. She was a little eccentric, joined after-school clubs and was an A student. He was a loner; didn't play football or run track, wasn't the flashiest guy on campus, didn't drive a cool car. Then one day, walking down the hall or hurrying across the quad to class, this person you barely knew swam into your field of view, something shifted inside you, and your world lit up in a new and mysterious way.
That describes my sudden affection for the Pipistrel Virus. I had seen it around and planned to eventually report on it or one of its graceful siblings: The Slovenian company produces an intriguing family of capable and even exotic aircraft. But until that Oshkosh AirVenture day when I drove out to quaint Brennand Airport, I hadn't caught the Virus bug. Then I flew it. Game on.
The Virus (pronounced "Vee-roos") sports an aerodynamically slippery bullet-with-a-T-tail-stinger look. It's very comfortable for extended, economical, long-range motor touring. And its long, elegant wings support excellent soaring performance, too (24:1 glide ratio, around 200 fpm sink rate). Virus pilots get 800 miles or so range in a cabin that's roomy and well-upholstered enough to prevent distressed posteriors. It's an excellent trainer, too, and thus brings a hybridized value to light-sport flying that few LSA can offer.
Alright, we might as well get it out of our system: English-speaking pipples tend to wrinkle up their noses at the unusual name "Virus." "Pipistrel" comes from the company's beginnings in 1987 when it manufactured powered delta-winged trikes, reminding the locals of bats. So yes, Virus and Sinus (another Pipistrel motorglider) might seem to suggest the company sells sick flying rodents or bats with post-nasal drip. Ba-dah-bing! Okay, joke's over. Just use a Slovenian accent—"Vee-roos" and "See-noos"—and all sounds kosher.
Dave White, a big, super-friendly CFI, and partner/fearless leader Rand Vollmer, retired Army Col., West Point classmate of CIA Dir. David Petraeus and...founder/majordomo of San Antonio Light Sport Aircraft (SALSA—catchy, eh?), ran a clinic at Brennand on how to do a bang-up job giving demo rides for prospective customers. Every day it was flyable, the SALSA and Pipistrel clan were at Brennand, boring happy holes in the sky all day long with the Virus.
Anatomy Of A Motorglider
Consider the advantages of the wonderful motorglider design: You can skip all those expensive, time-consuming air tows to altitude that sailplane pilots traditionally endure. Simply motor up, switch off the engine, feather or stow the prop, and soar. When you get low, relight the engine, climb back up and do it all over again: It's the soaring pilot's verson of lather, rinse and repeat.
For landing, rather than search for farmers' fields or try to glide to an airport, just crank up the engine and head for home.
A motorglider is by definition a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with a propulsion that can sustain soaring flight without thrust from that source of propulsion.
Most motorgliders have props that are fixed (a bit draggy), can feather like the Virus, have a fuselage-retractable prop on a pylon like the Taurus, or fold back to streamline with the fuselage.
Likewise, engine power can be minimal to robust. Here's a quick breakdown of the basic types:
Touring motorglider. Like the Virus, TMGs launch and cruise like an airplane and soar with engine off.
Sustainer. Towed up like a sailplane, they carry a small engine to extend flights or make slight altitude gains. The engine typically starts by windmilling, and doesn't carry alternator or starter.
Self-Launching. Either self-launches or tows up, has starter, battery and alternator and typically a belt-reduction drive. Some self-launchers have single-blade props to minimize stowage complexities.
Other types of motorgliders include crossovers that allow some touring along with optimal soaring potential; electric-powered models like the Taurus Electro G2; and even jet-powered sustainer and self-launchers.
My introduction to the cockpit suggested an airplane that becomes a part of you in flight, rather than something you pile into to travel somewhere. The Virus doesn't try to be a luxury airplane so much as a tastefully appointed craft harmonized for multiple missions.
The plane is certainly comfortable and very nicely finished. The tidy instrument panel, weight-optimized controls and attractive upholstery contribute to a well-integrated, lean/mean/fun-flying feel.
That optimized functional ethos is further exemplified in the rudder/toe-brake pedal assemblies that so easily adjust with a simple knob pull, the overhead air-brake lever and the throttle/choke lever group between the seats. The pedals and throttle/choke evoke the designer's mindfulness for minimizing pounds.
Only two minor squawks: seat padding that felt a trifle thin, and discomfort working the flap handle that felt a bit too close to my body.
Climbing aboard under the long (almost 41 feet), high-aspect wing, the cockpit fits my 5'11" frame just fine. A strapping Texican if ever there was one, Dave White is a good two inches taller, yet there's plenty of room, thanks to 43.3 inches of cabin width.
A GRS ballistic chute lives onboard, along with something else most LSA don't carry: a Schempp-Hirth sailplane-style air-brake handle that raises vertical fence-like spoilers up from the wing top surfaces: vital for precise glideslope control during landing.
The push-button flap handle brings full-span flaperons into play. They reflex up to a -5 degree setting for high-speed cruise, and down to 9- or 18-degree settings for landings and soaring.
Mr. Dave talks me through the drill as we taxi down the very narrow runway at Brennand Airport's lovely airpark. Nosewheel steering and toe brakes make for an easy ride, even on that 10-inch golf-cart-wide strip.
Scanning the carbon-fiber-weave panel shows we've got everything we need: a Garmin 496 GPS, Dynon's do-it-all FlightDek D-180 EFIS, Garmin's GTX327 transponder, a round, compact XCOM VHF transceiver, some steam-gauge backups, and every soaring pilot's best friend: a total energy-compensating variometer to call out rising or sinking air.
Takeoff is a snap even with the 80 hp Rotax 912. Before long, as we're climbing up at over 1,000 fpm (yep, on 80 hp!), Virus proves so sweet in handling: light on the controls, quick and easy to turn and well-balanced in pitch and roll—a real delight to fly.
And it's slippery! "Yep," says Dave White, "she's a glass slipper, and you have to be attendant to that." A couple of times, my attention wandered, and we approached the Vne of 120 knots (an LSA-glider-imposed limit). You don't ham-hand this airplane around the sky.
We cruise climb at 100 knots at 400 fpm and 5,300 rpm—500 rpm or so below full throttle. In level cruise, I see 112 to 115 knots of cruise at 2.9 gph, and it feels like the engine is hardly working: ample tribute to the super-clean airframe.
That 40-plus feet of high-aspect, tapered-tip wing handles more like 30 feet of span. Turns require so little rudder my Piper Cub-conditioned feet tend to over-yaw the nimble bird.
Rolling 45° to 45° several times with full deflection yields times just over two seconds. I try banks with no rudder, and marvel at the paucity of adverse yaw.
The sight picture out the window, with that down-sloping bullet nose, is expansive. Visibility is fine, especially for a high-wing airplane: My eye level is a good four inches below the door frame. Likewise, the wide rectangular overhead window is perfectly placed and sized to give you a useful view of what's ahead during turns, yet keeps out too much sunlight.
Dave talks me through slow flight, hanging on the prop at around 3,300 rpm. Since the Rotax is water and air cooled, we don't worry about no steenking shock cooling. Below 60 knots, I pull on full flaps.
My eyebrows go up along with the nose. Shortly I see 37 knots...still good rudder and flaperon response...then 33...32...then 30! "We're not done yet," says Dave. Once we've stabilized at 27 knots, I start to feel a burble. Still plenty of control, though there's a bit of yaw wobble, but nothing hard to handle...and remember, there's 41 feet of wing out there!
I pull back a touch to get a nominal break at 25 knots, barely nudge the nose forward and we're flying again. Nothing nasty, nothing scary.
Clean stall is equally impressive: The burble comes at 33 knots and again requires just a touch of down pitch to recover. Likewise, an accelerated stall attempt with -5 degree flaps and 35 degrees of bank, with the stick buried all the way aft, produces no more than a light burble and attempts to roll lazily back to level.
"This airplane just doesn't have bad habits," says my host. Amen, Mr. White.
For me, the sweetheart question in a soaring airplane is how well can it work minimal lift. On the way back to Brennand, though we've felt not a single thermal bump in more than 20 minutes, Dave shuts down the engine to demonstrate how easy it is: radio off, transponder off, mags off, switch off and the prop comes to a stop, auto-feathers, and that's it.
Then I feel a slight tug, and a corresponding beep-beep-beep from the vario. Dave encourages me to give it a go. I gingerly ease the Virus around, chasing that most elusive, near-sunset puff of gently rising air. And I swear by the Great Soaring Pilot in the Sky, we do get a bit of a climb out of it, if just a few seconds worth. Simply wow.
I'm blown away with the comfort and performance of this airplane as I find and feel my way higher in that wispy lift. I have full confidence that if we had any lift at all, I could stay up with ease. That's saying a lot for a motorglider you've just gotten to know.
After our nominal landing, I climb out into the gathering purple dusk, all smiles. Dave White nods and says, "You kept the only rule I have: You gotta climb out with the same big smile you climbed in with; it's all about having fun!"