We had just returned to straight and level following a loop, a roll and a spin entered from an altitude that shall remain numberless just outside Florida's Lakeland Linder Regional Airport airspace, where Sun 'n Fun 2014 was in full swing. "Is this legal?" I asked Randy Schlitter, founder and president of RANS Designs, Inc., as he gleefully demonstrated from the right seat the handling characteristics of the new S-20 Raven high-wing STOL aircraft. "We're experimental," Schlitter answered. "The rules are a little different for us."
Experimental today, but will it be an LSA tomorrow? The kit-built Raven light-sport bush plane was intended to become RANS' flagship crossover into the LSA world, but Schlitter says recent FAA regulatory mandates for the LSA category require maneuvering through hoops and loops far more challenging than any aerobatic routine—requirements that could impede the Raven's LSA approval. That would be a loss for the LSA world because the Raven provides a level of capability, performance and even comfort in its bare-bones interior that category customers would appreciate—not to mention the benefits of exposing more pilots to Schlitter's no-nonsense practicality, expressed in more than a score of successful kit aircraft designs.
A Hybrid Aircraft
Not that there's much new about the Raven, as Schlitter pointed out during the walkaround of N513DT at Paradise City Light Aircraft Park, Sun 'n Fun's home for LSA, ultralights, powered parachutes and other sport aircraft. The Raven is basically a hybrid of the S-7S Courier and the S-6S Coyote II, "The best of two great planes that have been in production at RANS since the '80s," he said.
The wings, aero servo ailerons, fuel system and tail come from the Courier, and engine system, control sticks, flap lever, rudder pedals, seats and instrument panel from the Coyote. "The intent was to answer the many requests for a side-by-side bush plane, equal to or beyond the Courier," he said.
Firewall forward, it's all Coyote II, right down to the engine mounts, though different mounts would likely be used if the new fuel-injected Rotax 912 iS Sport is offered as an option in place of the Coyote/Raven's carbureted 100 hp Rotax 912 ULS, as Schlitter is considering. But, why mess with success? The CNC-machined aluminum boot cowling with its aerodynamic design and underslung radiator reduces cooling drag while keeping the engine exceptionally well cooled. An optional carbon-fiber cowl saves eight pounds.
The wing features the Courier's two- and three-inch custom anodized aluminum extruded spars, stamped aluminum ribs and aero servo ailerons, which reduce control pressures on the stick. The two fuel tanks in the wings hold a total of 26 gallons. An optional and retrofittable "swing wing" kit allows the wings to be folded back by one person in about 10 to 15 minutes. "That's to help people in places where hangars are rare and fees are high," Schlitter said. "They can get three or four of these in a spot for one, and people in Alaska and Europe love that."
The Raven's wings feature two- and three-inch custom anodized aluminum spars, stamped aluminum ribs and aero servo ailerons.
Unlike the rest of the aircraft, the welded 4230 chromoly fuselage is uniquely Raven. Schlitter pointed out its tapered cross section, shaped to reduce the total plate drag area without sacrificing interior space, and also giving the Raven an aesthetically pleasing, classic appearance.
The landing-gear struts are made from 7075 aluminum alloy, which offers both great strength and fatigue resistance. Notably, the landing gear are "reversible;" the aircraft configuration can be switched between tricycle and tailwheel in a matter of hours.
Back at the empennage, the horizontal tail and redundant double-diamond flying wire bracing is taken from the Courier, as is the tailwheel, while the vertical fin was modified just enough to accommodate a choice of rudders: the straight, signature RANS rudder or the newly introduced "classic" rounded rudder, its shape harkening back to the Golden Era of aviation. Aerodynamically, they're identical, but the straight tail weighs a half-pound more, as thicker tubing is required to resist shrinkage during fabric curing that could damage its structural integrity, compared to the arched shape of the rounded rudder. N513DT has the classic version.
Our walkaround wasn't performed without interruption. Members of the RANS Clan, as Schlitter's longtime customers and fans are known, are ever eager to seek his advice or opinion on a variety of aviation matters or report progress on a project under construction. Many of the questions at Sun 'n Fun were about the Raven. "This is getting all the attention at the show, pretty much," Rick Hayes, a RANS dealer from Michigan, said about the Raven during one such brief interruption. "He hit everything right on the nose that people have been asking about for years, plus some, and rolled it all into this." Hayes singled out the side-by-side seating and chromoly construction as features drawing customer interest, especially among those who had been considering buying the tandem Courier. "We're going to sell a lot of [these] planes," Hayes said.
Randy Schlitter opted for steam gauges to keep the Raven's instrument panel as simple as possible.
A Day In Paradise
Paradise City had the ambiance of a medieval fair, as all day long, flying machines were pushed into and out of the exhibit area's aerodrome, a 1,400-foot grass strip, while the sound of whining Rotaxes filled the air. But, there's method to the superficial madness. Anyone wanting a demo flight had to first register at Paradise City HQ and be briefed on procedures before receiving their authorizing documentation.
We rolled the Raven toward the roped-off runway, volunteers dropped the flag-festooned cordon, and in a few moments, we were strapping in. The Raven's welded-frame cabin doors are 51 inches wide and hinged at the top, held in the open position by gas struts, making entry easy. Simply park your butt on the seat and swing your legs in, clearing the stick with your inboard leg. Rudder pedal position is fixed, but seats can be adjusted forward and aft, also easing ingress and egress. To reposition before entry or while seated, simply pull the seat back forward, releasing the seat lock and slide in the desired direction. The reclining angle is also adjustable. "You can practically lay down and fly," Schlitter said. At 46 inches across, the cockpit qualifies as roomy, as does the more than 20-cubic-foot, 80-pound-capacity baggage area behind the two fold-down seats. "Camping gear and folding bikes are bulky," Schlitter said, explaining the copious space. A metal liner in the baggage area prevents any cargo from punching through the aircraft's fabric covering. Schlitter is considering designing an optional tube for the rear fuselage to carry skis or golf clubs. The interior of the LSA version would have a standard beige or grey interior.
Unlike many of the current LSA crop, the Raven has steam gauges rather than a glass panel. "It's a simple panel, and people think that makes sense," Schlitter said, adding, "A lot of guys losing their medicals are used to flying a six-pack [steam gauge panel], and they'd rather just jump in something they're familiar with." Schlitter notes many younger pilots and sheriff's departments are also showing interest in operating this type of aircraft.
The Raven Takes Wing
RANS' performance data says that in standard conditions, the Raven will take off in 300 feet at maximum weight and climb at 900 fpm. We had no way to measure ground roll accurately, but we seemed to be airborne almost as soon as the throttle reached the stop, and the VSI was in sync with projected climb rate. We didn't spend much time ascending, though, before making a beeline for Linder's airspace boundary. At about 100 knots top cruise speed, the Raven is several knots faster than either of its parents, and the feeling of speed across the ground at our low altitude was visceral. We quickly reached the Class D airspace perimeter, and Randy put on his aerobatic display, starting with knife-edge flight to the left and right before pitching the nose down, looking for 110 indicated, and pulling back on the stick smoothly, the earth passing beneath us.
As it turns out, very few customers use his aircraft for aerobatics, Schlitter said, but he likes to demonstrate maneuvers to prospective customers anyway to "reassure them the plane can handle it," and showcase the energy retention of his designs. He noted that the builder of an Experimental Amateur Built aircraft can specify in its operational limits that it will be tested for aerobatic flight, but if not so listed, it's not to be flown or tested for akro.
After climbing to a higher altitude, we did power-on and power-off stalls, clean and dirty. All were docile, and recovery was immediate. Power-off in the landing configuration, the stall occurred in the low 30s IAS, and Schlitter thinks with a bit of tweaking he can get the stall speed to about 30.
Most of our time airborne was spent maneuvering around at under 1,000 feet, enjoying the S-20's responsive handling characteristics, its impressive visibility, and the montage of glimpses into lives and everyday events unfolding below. Meanwhile, the Raven's 14,500-foot service ceiling and 340-foot landing roll will get it into high backcountry just about anywhere an aviator would care to venture.
The last demonstration of the Raven's handling came on final for Paradise City. All aircraft must maintain at least 300 feet AGL when coming over the parking lot just west of the runway, which pretty much dictates they all must execute a rather steep slam-dunk approach. The Raven easily slipped in as if coming over the tops of sequoias into a postage stamp-size backcountry strip.
Stark Raven Mad
Now, about that LSA approval: As a result of recommendations from the ASTM's F37 committee—the group that wrote and maintains standards for LSA approval—the FAA now requires a factory audit be performed by an FAA Air Safety Investigator before a U.S. manufacturer can have any new LSA approved. Prior to the adoption of the factory auditing requirement, a Designated Airworthiness Representative (DAR) could inspect and approve new LSA. "It means [Schlitter's] got to jump through extra hoops, no doubt," said Dan Johnson, president and Chairman of the Board of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association.
Johnson reckons that given Schlitter's history, the audit would be relatively pro forma, and he estimates the audit process would cost the equivalent of the retail price of one of the aircraft being approved, in this case, about $125,000.
RANS had advertised the LSA Raven for $112,000, but at Sun 'n Fun, Schlitter said he was considering bumping the price to $125,000. He's since withdrawn advertisements for the LSA variant. "A lot of people want to buy a ready-to-fly-airplane," Schlitter said, "but more want to buy kits."
For those who don't want to wait for LSA approval, several design features make the Raven a relatively easy build. The complete fuselage and tail are factory welded, and the CNC-drilled spars eliminate almost all critical drilling and locating of holes. One-piece stamped ribs are punched with final hole sizes, and many parts are anodized, eliminating the need to prime or corrosion-proof them. The kit is $25,500 without instruments, paint or engine. When everything is done, the completed cost is $62,000-$65,000, Schlitter estimates.