Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Kings Of The Sky

Spend a day with John and Martha King and the hotly anticipated Cessna Skycatcher

I hadn’t been a fan of the prototype in its purple paint scheme; to me, it had looked just “okay” when I had seen it up close at aviation events. But here, in its gleaming white production paint scheme, with contrasting striping, it looked positively fun. In the hangar, the 162 looked jaunty and strong. It reminded me of a puppy approaching its mature stage—all leggy and stout. It made you want to sit in it.

“This airplane is pure fun,” exclaimed John, giving us the nickel tour of the 162. “It’s responsive, it goes exactly where you put it, it’s a breeze to land, and the visibility is fantastic—almost like a helicopter.” Incidentally, John King has a certain way of talking. He speaks in the practiced cadence of a good announcer. It’s something he does on camera or off, with his wife, with friends or with strangers. His speech has a beat to it, a singsong quality, and he punctuates his sentences with it. “It’s…just…puuuure…fun,” says John.

I ask John about the spin accidents involving the Skycatcher. Two 162s have crashed: the first one was a total loss, and the second aircraft deployed the ballistic parachute and was dragged along the ground, inverted. That’s the aircraft that’s sitting before us—repaired and modified. Both crashes were due to unrecoverable spins.

“I’m absolutely happy that this happened,” says John matter-of-factly. “Cessna is testing this airplane far beyond what ASTM standards specify. The fact that it found a condition on the far outside corner of the performance envelope that was unrecoverable in this airplane means that neither I nor some unsuspecting student will inadvertently find that condition.” John explains that LSA don’t require the level of testing to which Cessna is subjecting the 162. “But it’s how Cessna will make sure it’s a safe and reliable airplane.”

Cessna modified the Skycatcher to prevent the condition that caused the unrecoverable spin. The vertical stabilizer and rudder were extended lower, and a small fin was added longitudinally below the tailcone along the rear bottom fuselage. Aileron travel was limited, and the differential was increased; the “down” aileron sticks out into the slipstream less than the “up” aileron in a bank. The problem appears to be fixed, and both John and Martha exude absolute confidence in the airplane. “It flies just beautifully,” adds John.

Flying The Video
Prior to my visit with the Kings, I thought the job of creating an aviation course was a matter of holding a video camera in the airplane while the pilot talked to the audience, explaining each maneuver or teaching point. After seeing how it’s done, I’ll never look at another King course in quite the same way.

The camera setup in the airplane consisted of a large HD video camera mounted with enough legs, arms and knobs to look like a mechanized robot from a dark, industrial future. Add a teleprompter directly in front of the pilot (who’s also the narrator), various audio feeds to capture radio communications, a laptop to view footage and lighting, and the camera operator, and you’ve got a video production studio in a two-seat trainer.

The pilot—today it will be Martha, though she and John take turns being on camera—has to perform all the tasks required in the course while actually flying the airplane. She’ll be filming a segment on radio communications. Visibility is limited by the huge camera setup, and the pilot must read the lines from the teleprompter while doing everything else. Frankly, it looks like brain overload. Sitting in the Skycatcher with all the video gear around me, I developed a new respect for what John and Martha do.


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