The T-hangars at Big South Fork Airpark (BSFA), an upscale 450-acre development adjacent to the spectacular Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in northeastern Tennessee, house a fleet as varied and practical as the airpark's property owners. "We've got an F33 Bonanza, a King Air C90, a Liberty XL, Piper J-3 Cub, a Matrix, a Cessna 414, a Velocity, an RV8A," Bill "BA" Armstrong, one of the development's principals, told the P&P crew at the airpark's stately timber-and-stone Welcome Center.
BSFA in Oneida, Tenn., now in its first phase of development, enjoys through-the-fence (TTF) access to Scott County Municipal Airport's (KSCX) 5,502-foot runway, instrument approaches, Part 145 repair station and some of the cheapest avgas in the region. (In fact, the FAA visited Big South Fork Airpark when investigating whether to allow TTF agreements, and that inspection helped cement approval for such access.)
The variety of BSFA's fleet is understandable. Some aircraft are used for long-distance commuting and others for knocking around the local area, and some owners have extensive flight experience while a few are relatively newbie VFR-only pilots. With a Velocity and an RV8A in the mix, obviously experimental aircraft can qualify as residential airpark airplanes (RAAs), but what about a light-sport aircraft (LSA)? The low operating costs and the lack of required pilot medical certification are pluses, but does an LSA have the range and weather-handling capability that a well-rounded RAA requires? Tecnam's new P2008 is among the elite group of LSAs that could have what it takes.
The Tecnam P2008
We checked off the range question when N208TA arrived at KSCX in the late afternoon, nonstop from Tecnam USA's headquarters at Hanover County Municipal Airport (KOFP) in Richmond, Va., 353 nm east over the Appalachian Mountains. "This is a touring aircraft," said Dave Lubore, Tecnam's vice president of Flight Training Services, alighting from the P2008 after the three-hour flight. "On the weekends, you and your significant other can put in plenty of bags and go places. That's specifically what it's for."
Lubore pointed out some of the aircraft's design highlights. For Tecnam aficionados—and they're legion, as the Italian company is the world's largest manufacturer of LSAs with more than 3,000 sold—the P2008's composite fuselage is its most noteworthy feature, representing a major break from the company's all-metal past. To be sure, with its Italian flair for design, Tecnam's airframes were always nicely sculpted and sleek, but composite parts offer weight and shaping advantages the company couldn't ignore.
In 2008, Tecnam bought Spain's Composite Aeronautic Group (CAG), which manufactured the Toxo, a high-performance LSA, to acquire composite manufacturing capability. (The Mooney Airplane Co. briefly partnered with CAG in 2003 in a bid to assume production of the Toxo and become the first U.S. GA manufacturer to offer an LSA.) The P2008 is the first fruit of Tecnam's acquired composite construction skills, and designers have used that capacity to optimize the P2008's aerodynamic qualities and interior space.
The instrument panel is equipped with a Garmin G3X avionics suite and a GMA340 audio panel.
The wings remain all-aluminum. Tecnam reasons wings are the part of the aircraft most likely to incur hangar rash or other damage, and metal is easier to repair than composite. Besides, wings don't require complex curves. The P2008's elliptical wing, based on the NACA63A airfoil, provides excellent lift and benign slow flight and stall characteristics, and a fuel tank in each holds 14.5 gallons.
The P2008, like all current Tecnams, has a 100 hp Rotax 912 under the cowl, which can be fed avgas or auto fuel. Left and right access panels hinged at the cowl's centerline allow quick engine inspection and servicing. The four cylinders are air-cooled and the barrelheads are liquid-cooled (with an 80/20 glycol mixture), so checking fluid reservoir levels are an important part of a preflight. A 2.43:1 reduction gear brings the fast-revving Rotax rpm to a range suitable for spinning a prop. (At 5,500 rpm on the Rotax, the GT Tonini composite prop turns at 2,265 rpm.)
Before retiring to our guest quarters in the Welcome Center that night, we discussed the familiarization and flightseeing mission we planned for the next morning. "It's very important to demonstrate the operating parameters of the aircraft," said Lubore. "Slow flight, steep turns and stalls—so pilots don't walk away not knowing they can safely perform them." And who are the typical customers for the P2008? "They're all certified [pilots]," Lubore said. "A lot of these guys are downsizing because of medical issues, but they still want to fly a 'real' airplane."
Lubore makes an ideal salesman for such customers. A former Air National Guard F-4 fighter pilot and 20-year veteran of the airlines, he seems the embodiment of a pilot who has found happiness downsizing to an LSA.
A Flightseeing Mission
The next morning, we waited for a few wisps of ground fog to dissipate before heading to the T-hangars a quarter mile down the road, coming across a family of deer along the way. BSFA offers home sites with taxiway access, but many of the first wave of buyers prefer to keep their planes in the T-hangars and their houses up on hillsides, tucked behind trees or with commanding views of the Cumberland Plateau.
After a thorough preflight inspection, with Lubore providing more details on aircraft systems and equipment, we were ready for boarding. The P2008's wide doors, combined with the position of the stick and size of the cabin, make entry and egress easy. Let's face it, many airpark residents are of an age where they don't want to contort themselves to get into an airplane. At 48 inches wide, there's more side room in the P2008 than in a C-172, and design elements like the recessed armrests in the doors enhance both comfort and a roomy feeling. The side-by-side seats fold forward to access the ample cargo area and hat rack behind them. One of the first impressions from inside the aircraft is the excellent visibility provided by the wraparound windshield.
The Rotax utilizes a choke valve to regulate the air/fuel mixture during cold engine starts. Where you'd simply engage the starter after priming a Continental or Lycoming, with the Rotax you operate the choke, smoothly pulling back and closing the choke as the engine fires up. Okay, it took a couple of tries, but on the third attempt, the Rotax came to life. With the prop turning, auxiliary generator, electronic flight information system (EFIS), avionics and strobe light switches are turned on, each rocker switch illuminated with a small green light to indicate when it's on, a big plus for night VFR operations.
The wide cabin offers a lot of panel space. N208TA is equipped with a Garmin G3X avionics package driven by a Garmin 430 with a GTX327 digital transponder and GMA340 audio panel. Many instrumentation options are available.
Although aimed at certified pilots, Tecnam also has its eye on the primary trainer market—one reason the P2008 has a free-castering nosewheel, which requires little maintenance. (A steerable nose gear is available as an option, while an optional angle-of-attack indicator is another bow to the training market.) For example, to taxi, using a little forward motion and tapping on the breaks gets the P2008 pointed in the desired direction. We motored up the inclined taxiway, clicked the frequency code set in the radio, and the gate to KSCX opened.
We throttled up to 1,650 rpm for the run-up. Engine gauges, in a cluster on the copilot's side of the panel, are easily visible from the left seat. After completing the rest of a standard pre-takeoff checklist, we took runway 23. Lubore advises a smooth throttle advance from idle to full open in about three seconds. We didn't rocket down the runway, but we didn't have to: The P2008 gets airborne at 48 knots, Vx is 60 knots and Vy is 68 knots. We climbed at about 750 fpm and leveled at 3,500 feet, pulling back power to 2,200 rpm as the airspeed quickly reached 108 knots indicated as we surveyed an endless sea of forest crisscrossed by deep gorges.
Tecnams have a reputation for excellent handling and flying characteristics, and the P2008 lives up to the family tradition. Although lighter than a standard certified GA aircraft, the controls are well-balanced with excellent harmony. Control surfaces are actuated by solid control rods rather than cables, adding to the aircraft's firm response feel. With a wing loading similar to a C-172, it's also a stable ride, even in stormy weather, "They get some bad turbulence on these airplanes moving them around the country," Lubore noted. "You'll find it rides in turbulence very much to what you're used to; no surprises there."
Happily, on this morning, we had clear skies and smooth air, and the sights below invited the aerial equivalent of stopping to smell the roses—while exploring the P2008's slow flight characteristics.
The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is the airpark's backyard, and residents can hike, fish, four-wheel and horseback ride throughout its 125,000 acres. The park also boasts numerous landmarks and points of interest, and BSFA has created aerial tour routes for those eager to take in the sights, like Cumberland Falls, said to be the site of the Western Hemisphere's only "moonbow," visible on some moonlit nights, and the New River Railroad Bridge, the highest rail span east of the Rockies. And everywhere are dramatic escarpments and rock faces.
Powering back to 1,500 rpm, we deployed the first notch of flaps at 80 knots, dumping the rest at 68 knots and trimming the pressure off the stick. At 48 knots, well below typical slow flight speeds, we still had aileron control and rudder authority, with the buffet and bleat of the stall horn coming at about 40 knots. The break was gentle, and just a hint of forward stick with only rudders for directional control, immediately got the wing flying again. Remarkably, after several stalls in this configuration, we were still at 3,500 feet.
Here and there in the endless sea of trees and gorges was a field that had been cleared. The ability to use unimproved fields is something many pilots would want in an RAA. Can the P2008 handle that? "Absolutely," said Lubore. "Remember, this is a European airplane, and most of their flying is off turf. You can take the wheel pants off and go for it."
We wouldn't be putting down in the wilderness this morning, but Lubore was eager to showcase the airplane's aplomb in the pattern, as he talked me through a touch-and-go and full-stop landing back at SCX. The procedure: slow to 90 knots on the downwind (about 1,900 rpm). Go to 1,500 rpm abeam the numbers while holding altitude, and at 80 knots put in the first notch of flaps and point the nose down to maintain airspeed. Slow to 70 knots on base and drop the rest of the flaps. Final approach is flown at 60 knots. If you're high or hot, you can slip at any flap setting. The P2008 plants solidly on the runway, and likes a little more rudder on the rollout than heavier certificated aircraft need.
The shutdown procedure for the Rotax has just one wrinkle: The magnetos should be turned off one at a time—just a second or two between key turns—to reduce the rpm a little more gradually and lessen stress on the reduction gear.
The RAA Verdict
As a pilot without much LSA experience who isn't ready to downsize his airplane, I was skeptical that an LSA could have the range of capabilities to make the list of top airpark airplanes, but came away convinced that the P2008 has the requisite capabilities on both ends of the envelope. Just don't plan on going anywhere in IMC. And the Tecnam also gets a thumbs-up from the real experts: BSFA property owners Lamar and Marilyn Parker of Winston-Salem, N.C., come and go in a Cessna 414, and Lamar thinks the P2008's high-wing configuration helps make it a worthy RAA. "Those are ideal," Lamar said. "You have an opportunity to see all the world around you. That's one of the drawbacks of me flying Pipers and low-wing Cessnas all my life."
Fred and Jean Huppert of Worcester, Ohio fly the Liberty XL, and the qualities Fred enjoys in that two-place aircraft are also found in the P2008. "I like the way the aircraft operates with push rods linking the control surface," Fred said, "and it's got a comfortable, wide cockpit."
Meanwhile, Lubore had his own verdict, not about the P2008, but about BSFA: "Looks like they've got their own little slice of paradise out here," he said.