Flying high – for £28k

A combination of old and new technologies means ownership of an aircraft is no longer the preserve of the jet set, as Tom Shelley reports

A combination of old and new technologies means ownership of an aircraft is no longer the preserve of the jet set, as Tom Shelley reports

A light aircraft that can transport two people, plus luggage or wheelchair in comfort, and land and take off from a 100m length of field sounds commendable. The fact that it can have its wings folded in a little as 30 seconds and be driven down on a trailer to be filled up at a petrol station with standard unleaded is even better. Oh, and apparently it carries a £28,000 price tag.
If that seems to be stretching credulity, Eureka has seen the reality – Reality Aircraft being the company behind this remarkable breakthrough. Owner Terry Francis was our guide at his workshop in Amesbury where we saw two of his machines up close – one finished and one under construction – and learned how his business, well, yes, first took off.
“I have had a flying licence for twenty-odd years and so, after I left working on IT for the NAAFI, I decided to go into the light aircraft business. I looked around in the UK, but there was nothing of interest so I went to the Sun-N-Fun exhibition in Florida. There were lots of aircraft there, but they were very expensive and needed a hard runway. However, I saw a single seater called the Skyraider, made by Just Aircraft in South Carolina, and found they were just starting work on a two-seater. They then agreed to work with us.”
The reason ‘work’ was necessary is that, whereas US legislated requirements for civil aircraft are as stringent as in the UK, they are much less so for private aircraft - especially if they are classed as ‘experimental’. Francis explains: “One of our problems is the Americans don’t have any standards they have to adhere to. But we had to get approval, so we went to the Popular Flying Association and the British Microlight Aircraft Association [Microlights in the UK are considered to be all aircraft up to 450kg total weight] for help. The approvals tool 18 months to get and we had to make about one hundred changes to the airframe to meet British Civil Airworthiness Requirements. We then went through a flight test programme.”
The end result is that Reality Aircraft has so far sold 11 of these machines – called Easy Raiders – of which seven are flying and four are being completed.
The story doesn’t end there, of course. “People were looking for something a little different,” states Francis, “side by side seats, full dual control and Rotax engines.” These engines are made in Austria, where the company has been since 1943. Owned, and then spun out, by Bombardier, it makes engines for snowmobiles, Sea-Doos, BMW motorcycles, and most of the world’s microlights and light sport aircraft.
This led to the development of the Escapade, which started out as a joint development with Just Aircraft, but in its current embodiment is almost entirely British made.
Just Aircraft also makes an Escapade, which looks superficially the same as that made in Britain. However, as Francis explains, the frame of his Escapade is made by CKT Aero and Automotive Engineering in Tiverton, and the only imported parts are the wheels, brakes and fasteners – and of, course, the engines. Thirty-one of these machines have now been sold in three years. Many of the customers are local farmers who have established airstrips on set-aside land, but enquiries are now coming in from as far away as Australia and South Africa.
So what’s the formula? The detailed design and manufacturing is a mixture of old and new. It looks like a traditional British Army spotter plane, even down to the availability of the machine in a tasteful shade of Army green and the high wing to allow easier artillery spotting. The frame is made of a framework of welded 40-30 chrome molybdenum steel tubes. The wings have aluminium tube spars and wooden ribs, with steel tubular cross bracing. The wing covering is Poly-Fiber, which is a heat-shrinkable vinyl fabric made by Consolidated Aircraft Coatings in California. It is glued down and shrunk on, using a calibrated iron.
“It’s built in a very similar way to 1930s aircraft,” says Francis. “The principles are very well established, but we use modern materials and technology to improve the design and performance. This is what brings down the weight to less than 450kg. Engineering has moved on as well, particularly the bracing of structures. The loads are distributed throughout the aircraft. There are no massive girders. So we end up with an aircraft that looks good and performs extremely well.”
Testing is apparently also a mixture of old and new – combining flight tests, turning the machine over and loading the wings with sand bags, as well as more technological methods. “The traditional way of building light aircraft in America is to put one together and see if it works. We, on the other hand, have a government aeronautical engineer on our team,” he points out.
The company also had help from Dr Guy Gratton, a test pilot with the BMAA and its chief technical officer. Gratton is now a lecturer in aeronautics at Brunel University and, adds Francis, he has since used the design and performance of the Escapade for three student projects to validate flight simulation software; which means they compare computer simulations of how it should perform with observations of how it actually performs. Further technical improvements can be expected.
The bottom line is a reliable aircraft that can be quickly wing folded and towed on a trailer behind an ordinary car, refuelled at a service station with up to 70 litres of unleaded petrol - and then take off from 100m of grass, land in a similar length, and be towed home and tucked away in the garage. The plane climbs at 800 to 1,000 feet/minute and cruises at 75 to 80 knots. There is a choice of four engines, from 1200 to 2200 cc, producing 80 to 95HP. Fuel consumption is about 12 litres per hour. The aircraft has either a tail wheel or undercarriage tricycle wheels, and can be converted from one to the other in about 45 minutes. Running cost is said to be about £30 per hour, including insurance.
The latest development is a ‘GA’ – ie, General Aviation – version that will be like the Escapade, but a little weightier, allowing it to carry two heavy people, plus a full fuel tank and more baggage, with possibly heavier engines, such as those made by Volkswagen. The machine Eureka saw being assembled in the workshop is to be the first of these.

Pointers

* Light aircraft combines old and new design, and construction techniques, to be both light in weight and affordable

* Construction is a combination of alloy steel tubes, aluminium tubular spars, wood and polymer coverings

* The machine is what one might term a proper aeroplane, totally enclosing the pilot and co-pilot/passenger, and is able to be wing folded, to be towed behind a car

* It only needs about 100m of grass to land or take off, and costs about £28,000 to buy and £30 per hour to run, including insurance, running on ordinary unleaded petrol

Author
Tom Shelley

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