Web Exclusive Video
Paul Everitt and Bill Cox fly the Liberty XL2 around Catalina Island.
The mission was an intriguing one: I would fly the brand-new Liberty Aerospace XL2 Vanguard Edition for a pilot report along California’s Malibu coast. The demo pilot and I would head back to Santa Monica Airport and rendezvous with a Cessna 172 camera ship for an aerial photo session above Catalina Island’s emerald waters. The beautiful afternoon promised nothing but high cirrus clouds and great flying.
America seems to be just discovering the XL2. The Vanguard is the latest development from Liberty Aerospace in Melbourne, Fla., and is the only FAA-certified single-engine piston production aircraft equipped with a full authority digital engine control system (FADEC). Its hybrid carbon-fiber construction and its unique design features have endeared it to pilots in the know. China just ordered 600 XL2s in anticipation of opening its airspace in 2010.
I’d been itching to get my hands on the jaunty XL2, and the airplane’s reputation as ingenious added to its allure. Liberty Aerospace took the successful XL2 and improved it with a gross-weight increase to 1,750 pounds and other goodies. Payload with full fuel is now a generous 420 pounds. The Vanguard Edition has toe brakes instead of finger brakes and sports three new color schemes; it’s IFR-certified (as are all XL2s) and it offers the Aspen Evolution Pro PFD system, Garmin GTX 330 transponder with traffic avoidance and GPS-coupled S-TEC 30 dual-axis auto-pilot as avionics options.
What Makes It Different
The design of the airplane is for thinkers. The XL2’s fuselage is constructed entirely of Toray carbon-fiber composites—same as the Boeing 787. The construction is uniquely modular: The entire airplane consists of a steel rolling chassis, removable aluminum wings and a single-piece fuselage that weighs a mere 100 pounds. This component approach makes maintenance easier than with traditional aircraft. A single belly panel opens up to expose the aircraft’s major systems, and Liberty says each wing can be removed by a mechanic in 20 minutes.
The Teledyne Continental IOF-240-B provides 125 hp, and the FADEC optimizes performance so the Vanguard only burns 5 gph and offers up 120 knots at 75% power. Low-energy fabrication processes make it one of the “greenest” aircraft out there.
Trainer, Cruiser Or Both?
Although Liberty has partially positioned the XL2 as a two-seat trainer, there’s much more to it. The Vanguard is also a bulldog of a cross-country airplane. In fact, its cross-country capabilities might overshadow the fact that it’s a superb trainer. Few airplanes, if any, have filled this unique niche. The XL2 is to a Cessna 150 what a Harley Sportster is to a scooter. Its looks are deceiving, but the XL2 Vanguard might be the most ingenious trainer in half a century.
Like the venerable Piper Cub, the Liberty XL2 makes people smile wherever it goes. The first time I noticed this effect was at the AOPA Expo in San Jose, Calif. People would walk up to the XL2, cock their heads like the RCA “His Master’s Voice” dog and smile. The airplane invokes fun, and I was to find out just how much fun it is.
On The Ground
I sauntered out to the ramp at Santa Monica Airport to meet Liberty demo pilot Paul Everitt; he’s also a business development manager for Liberty who has more than 700 hours in the XL2. His easy smile and South African accent immediately put me at ease. He resembled what I imagine an international secret agent would look like; indeed, standing next to the sparkling XL2 on the empty ramp, the dapper Everitt looked like he was waiting for some exotic beauty to bring him a martini.
Climbing into the XL2 is different than it is with most airplanes. The airplane’s T-37-like stance puts the wing fairly high, and you start the routine from the front. Like an Arthur Murray dance instructor, Everitt rattled off the proper steps: “Rear end on the wing leading edge. Hop up and push back. Swing both legs into the cockpit and lower yourself in.”
Once settled in, it struck me that the XL2 is huge inside: The cockpit is a full 48 inches wide. That’s wider than the big-boned Cessnas and Bonanzas, and just one inch narrower than a Cherokee Six. I felt decadent. The gull-wing doors gape open and add to the roominess. The seats don’t move, but the rudder pedals adjust fore and aft to accommodate a wide assortment of body types. The memory foam in the gray leather seats made them feel supportive but soft—like a British sports car.
Starting the Vanguard was simple; the only nontypical checklist item was checking the dual FADEC switches. The Continental stuttered to life and settled into a smooth idle. I quickly became aware of the incredible 270-degree visibility around me; it felt almost like an open cockpit. Taxi control was astonishing as Everitt pulled straight into a tight spot between two airplanes and then turned the XL2 a full 180 degrees on its castering nosewheel.
My Personal Fighter Jet
Cleared for takeoff, I advanced the center console throttle to its max position, labeled “WOT” (wide open throttle). This tells the FADEC that I need everything it can give me for takeoff. The XL2 tracked beautifully and lifted off with no effort. In truth, my takeoff was a bit ham-fisted, since I hadn’t gotten used to the incredible handling that awaited me.
For those who haven’t flown an airplane with a stick, it’s completely natural. In the Liberty, the stick is mounted close to your body, and the feel is intuitive and sure. With the stick in my hand, and the cockpit visibility surrounding me, the XL2 felt like a miniature fighter jet. I had time to notice the generous baggage area behind me. Liberty says the XL2 can carry 100 pounds back there, from tents to suitcases.
We climbed out at 80 knots, which gave us a sprightly 700 fpm rate on the cool afternoon. We leveled off at 2,000 feet to enjoy the view of the bazillion-dollar celebrity beach homes in Malibu, staying clear of the Los Angeles Class Bravo. And then it was time for some maneuvers.
The handling was pure fun: crisp and featherlight. It reminded me of the Bellanca Super Vikings of old, with their slippery and instantaneous controllability. The XL2’s direct-linkage controls felt light and yielded nimble pitch and roll response.
Stalls were docile, with control mushiness and a slight buffet preceding the break. The nose went over gently at about 44 knots and recovered with nothing more than neutral elevator. Slow flight was easy as we hung on the prop at 50 knots, above the tanned celebrities in Malibu Colony. This airplane was the definition of “easy to fly”: docile, ultra-controllable and forgiving. One of the few complaints I have is the position of the trim on the center console. To me, it was awkward to use and would be nicer on the stick.
This Vanguard XL2 sported the Aspen Evolution PFD, which is bright and clear and gives almost all the information of larger PFDs in a smaller footprint. I found the combination of the Aspen and the steam gauges safer to use. For example, I didn’t “chase the tape” for airspeed and altitude, and the PFD didn’t beg my eyes down to the panel. I used the Aspen for basic attitude and heading information and the steam gauges for everything else. It’s a winning combination.
In the pattern, the XL2 Vanguard held no surprises. Approach speed was 65 knots, and my touchdown seemed flat compared to my experience in most two-seaters. (Everitt explained that the aircraft can be landed in any typical landing configuration, from “flatish” up to a full-stall landing.) Though I landed it a bit…let’s call it less than perfect, it wouldn’t take much to land this airplane well, consistently. The toe brakes were effective and solid. I wanted to go again.
|The Vanguard XL2 avionics panel comes standard with a Garmin 430 and SL 40; it can be upgraded to include the Aspen Evolution Pro PFD and Garmin 530.|
The Smile Factor
The Liberty XL2 Vanguard Edition is a refreshing and different airplane. It’s a well-mannered trainer for FBO fleets. With its advanced avionics and the low pilot workload offered by FADEC, the aircraft excels as an IFR platform. The quiet, spacious, auto-like cabin and 500 nm range (or five hours for people with super-bladders) make it an ideal cross-country machine. The miserly fuel consumption and uncomplicated maintenance make it easy on the wallet, and the aircrat’s looks are difficult to beat.
Back at Santa Monica, as we pulled into the FBO, the line guys smiled, did some good-natured goofing as we followed them to a parking spot and looked over the XL2 like it had come down from space. The camera-ship crew came over to brief the photo flight. The first thing they all did when they saw the XL2 was predictable: They smiled.
|The Facts On FADEC
An important engine-management technology in aviation
| One of the most innovative things about the Liberty XL2 is that it’s the only FAA-certified single-engine piston production aircraft equipped with full authority digital engine control (FADEC). Teledyne Continental Motors (TCM) has put millions of dollars into FADEC technology, and the IOF-240-B engine is the first one on a production airplane.
FADEC is revolutionary in the aviation world. It’s a technology that takes care of all the engine’s operating parameters automatically. It’s not static technology. FADEC constantly monitors multiple aspects of engine performance and adjusts them without intervention from the pilot. Because FADEC is a computer, it monitors faster and better than any human pilot ever could.
The most obvious result is that there’s no mixture control on the XL2. That means no more having to deal with leaning the mixture as you climb or when you operate from high-altitude airports. Multiple sensors monitor things like prop rpm, temperature and pressure. FADEC uses these values to adjust the operation of the engine, including the fuel-air mixture and spark timing. It does so in each individual cylinder and on every stroke of the engine. By contrast, a mixture control adjusts only the fuel-air mixture and applies it to all cylinders in the same amount.
FADEC also uses the concept of “phase of flight” to adjust both spark and fuel flow. The “phase” is set by the pilot through the throttle. By setting the throttle at a certain position, the pilot initiates start, idle, low-power cruise, high-power cruise or other modes of flight. For example, takeoff is labeled on the throttle as “WOT” (wide open throttle). When the pilot advances the throttle to that position, FADEC recognizes that phase and knows what to do. The computer adjusts the engine to get the highest performance from each individual cylinder for the takeoff task.
The benefits of FADEC are obvious: With a computer controlling the engine, it’s possible to get unheard-of performance. That’s how the XL2 manages fuel consumption of 4.8 to 5.5 gph at speeds that match a Cessna 172. FADEC has the potential of increasing engine life due to its micromanaging of cylinder health. Another huge plus is that FADEC decreases a pilot’s workload in a dramatic way. Not having controls for mixture, prop and carb heat allows the pilot to concentrate on other duties.
Detractors of FADEC point to the fact that losing the electrical system means the engine stops. While that’s true, Liberty has answered that complaint with characteristic ingenuity. The XL2 is equipped with two batteries. The main one runs off the alternator. The second, a backup battery, is constantly charged by the main bus. If the entire electrical system fails, then the backup battery kicks in with one hour of charge—more than enough time to land.
FADEC seems to be the future of aviation. It’s a technology that has been proven in automobiles for decades now. Liberty is, once again, a pioneer here. The XL2, with its FADEC-controlled performance has opened a lot of eyes in the aviation world. As Teledyne Continental and other engine manufacturers embrace FADEC, it will be interesting to see the realm of cockpit-performance management change forever.