It's a sidewalk-egg-frying, breath-gasping hot Southeastern U.S. day, and I've been photographing the brand-new Tecnam Echo Light out on the hot tarmac. I'm sweating like a budding comic about to come on after a killer set by Robin Williams, wondering if I'm up to making the demo flight. Then memory kicks in: This is a Tecnam. Relax. Every Tecnam I've flown (this will be my fourth model) has been a cupcake. Why should the Light be any different?
The Pleasures Of Tecnam
My host pilot is CFI Todd Kallenbach. I climb in, pleased as always with the comfy, attractively stitched (and adjustable) Tecnam seat. True, it's a no-frills, budget-conscious airplane that doesn't ooze the Ferrari-like luxury of the Italian company's P2008 cruiser or new Astore. You can spiff it up with cosmetics and digital avionics, but if your bottom line is cost, you'll appreciate the tidy, lightly populated analog panel for what it offers: good old recreational flying without "texting-while-driving" distractions.
Speaking of bottom line, this particular airplane costs $84,900 and includes a Garmin avionics suite: the Aera 500 GPS in a Gizmo docking mount, SL40 radio and GTX 327 transponder. Stripped down to an all-analog panel and no radios, that price drops to $75,000.
The Tecnam Echo Light is powered by an 80 hp Rotax 912UL and cruises at 92 knots.
Think about that: Here's a fully airworthy aluminum airframe (with some fabric covering) that comes ready to fly from a 68-year-old aviation manufacturer at a price only all-fabric, ultralight-style aircraft usually approach. Let's hear no more complaints about out-of-reach LSA prices.
The Echo Light airframe is rated at 1,102 pounds MTOW, 218 pounds less than the category's 1,320-pound ceiling. The engine: that unsung hero, the Rotax 912UL 80 hp, four-cylinder, four-stroke liquid-cooled mill, rather than the common 100 hp LSA variant. So naturally, I wonder: Will power performance suffer?
The airframe is all-aluminum, but ailerons and part of the tail group are fabric covered. Empty weight is a mere 606 pounds. Useful load is 496 pounds. Subtracting 11.9 gallons of fuel (right wing tank; a left wing tank is optional) leaves a 425-pound payload.
The tidy analog panel also features a Garmin Aero 500 GPS, an SL40 radio and a GTX 327 transponder.
That's still enough room for a couple of 200-pound passengers and not much more. But Echo Light is intended to be a value airplane, not a long-distance cruiser like the P2008. It's based on a 20-year proven design and offers low operating costs. In short: a born trainer/local funship.
And it has pedigree: 20 years after its first flight, the still-produced P92 Echo has 13 variants and versions, and 500 customizations. More than 2,000 units fly worldwide under ULM/LSA and VLA certification.
Born To Please
The dual throttle/dual stick setup and center-mount hand brake lever further support the training mission. Taxiing is a breeze, thanks to the good steerable nosewheel and strong hydraulic main wheel brakes. I feel dialed in, 100 feet down the taxiway.
I like the friction thumb lever right next to the push/pull (non-vernier) throttle; electric flaps with LED indicator; PTT button on top of the foam-padded, gooseneck (for leg ingress/egress) control stick; 44-inch wide cabin and outside air vents. There's even a 12-volt plug-in power socket. The Light may be no-frills, but it's a mature airframe in every way.
We close the door, take the active, toggle in a notch of flaps, and I push the knob to the metal. Ahhh, so nice: That 80 hp engine is definitely smoother than a 100 hp Rotax. Easing back the stick at 50 knots, we lift off more quickly than I expected. I level to pick up climb speed and feel the controls a bit, then start a cruise climb.
The pushrod-linked ailerons (partly cabled, but it has that no-slop pushrod feel) bank the wing with little adverse yaw. A touch of the big rudder is all you need to keep it kosher. Actual stick deflection forces aren't as light as, say, a Van's RV-12 or Remos GX, but control forces won't wear your arm out.
The Rotax 912UL delivers 80 hp.
The Cessna Of S-LSA?
Five years ago, I began my Tecnam Experience in the P92 Eaglet. I was in sport- pilot flight-training mode back home at the time, and the Eaglet seemed a perfect fit for my developing skills. That flight taught me three prime truths about Tecnam LSA. They're: 1. well-designed and engineered, 2. fly beautifully and 3. the build quality is as top notch as for the company's general aviation planes.
Tecnam has been an aviation mainstay in Italy since 1948. When light sport began in 2004, the company was good to go with in-production easily "Americanized" European microlight models. Its stable included the P2002 Sierra and P92 Echo, born in the 1990s.
Tecnam wants you to have a lot of choices. Its current line of eight LSA includes the classy, luxurious P2008, SeaSky amphib (its composite floats have all-internal cabling), single-place SNAP aerobat and the just-announced, super-sexy Astore low-winger.
The Echo Light climb rate is surprisingly robust, reflecting the light wing loading and clean, efficient wing and airframe: At an 80-knot cruise climb (and on a hot, humid afternoon), I'm still seeing around 600 fpm. Standard day conditions book spec is 885 fpm: That seems accurate.
The cruise climb delivers decent over-cowl visibility—I see the horizon line from left to right. There's headroom for pilots up to at least six feet, three inches. My eye level—just above the wing root bottom, just aft of the leading edge (I'm five feet, 11 inches)—means I have to duck slightly to see along the wing's underside. I like the curve of overhead windscreen: You can see straight up and slightly behind. In a decently banked turn, you can see what's ahead over the wing's top: always a safety boon.
Big side windows aft of the seats supplement the generous view below with a good rear component.
|CFI Todd Kallenbach (left) gets settled into the Tecnam's stitched and adjustable seat (right).|
I pull some turns, Dutch rolls, and approach and departure stalls. They only reinforce my sense of flying an old friend. The Light is a born trainer: docile, stable, reassuring and a good performer. Fledgling stick jockeys should love it.
Cruise speed befits the training/light cross-country mission of the aircraft: At full power, I log a bit over 100 knots (book is 103 knots; 75% cruise is 92 knots).
As the golden sun eases toward the hazy horizon, we head back to make some landings. Entering base and powering back to around 60 knots delivers a very good power-off glide. Landings are laughably easy. The airplane is solid and stable through final (at 50 to 55 knots), round out and flare. The bird floats nicely then settles onto the runway with no bad manners.
My host suggests I make the final full-stop landing in three-pointer, taildragger attitude. I settle on the mains only, holding the nose wheel well off. Keeping everything straight is easy with the excellent rudder control. Then, as speed bleeds off, the elevator loses effectiveness and the nosewheel eases onto the concrete. Suh-weet! That's an excellent task for teaching low-speed handling skills. No wonder Tecnam Italy's CEO Paolo Pascale flies this airplane to and from his home in Italy every day.
I walk away from the Echo Light, glad to once again cop some Tecnam Time. Do yourself a favor: Go have some real fun with this fine airplane.
On Tree Landings And LSA Pilot Skills
|Tecnam North America's president Tommy Grimes runs the company with CEO Phil Solomon, as well as the full-service Heart of Virgina (HOVA) FBO he founded with his wife, Kim, in 1992.
The topic of emergency airframe parachutes came up since the Echo Light doesn't come with one.
"Well, I'm not a fan of the parachute," he said. "If you can't land this airplane just about anywhere, you shouldn't be flying. With power on and the stick full aft, you could probably land it anywhere and walk away.
"You can hit a crocodile while water skiing, break your neck skateboarding, get hit by a car while bicycling," Grimes continued. "If flying isn't an acceptable risk to you, maybe you're in the wrong sport."
I counter by saying a non-flying passenger with an incapacitated pilot has few options other than pulling that red handle. I suggested the airframe 'chute is the last-ditch savior after a mid-air, bird- strike, engine out over water or an ocean of trees—any calamity that prevents a dead-stick landing.
"But in most other emergencies," he persists, "you can land almost anywhere, if you know what you're doing. I tell people not to worry flying, even here in Virginia. What's Virginia full of? Trees! But, there's a difference in the color of trees. There are pine tree plantations all over here and pine trees are darker.
"So I say, get as slow as you can over pines, stall it, and you'll walk away every time. Pine trees bend and just fall over with you. If you see an oak tree, forget it."Grimes laughs. "You hit that sucker, you're toast!"
I ask him—he's a veteran commercial pilot with more than 8,000 hours—if he's ever had the pleasure of a tree landing.
"Nope. Don't plan to, either."
The topic shifts to LSA pilot skills.
"I think they're better pilots. If you take a Cessna 172 driver and a sport pilot, the latter typically has better flying skills. We've seen that here at HOVA,"Grimes explained.
He's talking about pure, hands-on flying skills, not the deeper knowledge of airspace that comes with the extra training for a private pilot license.
"It's a light airplane. You have to fly it. To me, that is the key to air safety. If all the other stuff in the cockpit quits, my brain kicks in, my hands and feet start working, and I fly the airplane.
"That's where LSA can really shine. If you want more safety in the air...teach people how to fly," Grimes concluded.