Sure the Sting was ultra smooth,
very technical and fast as hell, but there was just
something super appealing to me about that little X-Air. The
thought that you could remove the X-Air's doors on a balmy
summer afternoon and just poke around at fifty or sixty
knots and take-in the scenery was really appealing. The idea
that the pilot and passenger sat mere centimetres above the
ground behind a low set instrument panel that provided a
panoramic and unobstructed view of the runway on late final,
meant my non-pilot wife might just be able to learn to fly
this aeroplane. And because the X-Air stalls at a miniscule
twenty-four knots, meant the landing sequence could be
conducted at a more leisurely pace, more time to think,
easier to judge the flare height, shorter landings rolls and
all those other good things about flying low and slow. All
in all, this could be one easy-to-fly, fun aeroplane for
both of us.
Back in pre-history when I thought it
might be good to get "in the air" again, we investigated
microlights (or trikes) with my friend and highly skilled
microlight pilot Peter Wilson from Air Escape in Tumut.
Trike flying is great fun with the wind in your hair and
excellent visibility from the pod, but could Liz my wife,
weighing-in at fifty kilos, handle that massive sail in
stronger winds? So next stop was to have a chat to the
experts at RA-Aus in
to ask the question - are we best to buy a conventional
three-axis aeroplane or a microlight? I explained that the
winds on Queensland?s Sunshine Coast can be pretty full-on
sometimes, and the candid response from Chris, RA-Aus'
Technical Manager, was that in general a three axis aircraft
is easier to handle than a trike in stronger winds when your
upper body strength is not all it could be. OK that's good
to know. Chris also agreed that the X-Air was a good little
aeroplane with an excellent safety record, as indicated by
its general absence from the ?Pilot and Technical Notes?
(the accident and incident section) of the RA-Aus magazine.
So while in Canberra,
I contacted Tony from Lakes Entrance in
to see if he now wanted to sell his X-Air as when we had
spoken six months earlier he had decided to keep it for a
while longer. To my surprise Tony said that if I wanted to
buy his aeroplane he would be prepared to sell it. So off to
Bairnsdale aerodrome, and in the flesh, the X-air looked
just a good as I thought it would. Tony who had lovingly
build the aeroplane to British BMAA standards, took us both
for a flight and the 2200cc Jabiru motor sounded sweet and
smooth as the aeroplane settled in the cruise. So the deal
was done and Liz and I returned to
Queensland very pleased with our new
For me the Jabiru motor was a genuine plus
on this aeroplane and well worth the extra dollars Tony was
asking. Normally the X-Air is equipped with a Rotax two
stroke 582, 503 or the older and now discontinued 74 hp 618
engine. The Jabiru engine is manufactured in Bundaberg and
is an eighty-horse power, four stroke, certified aircraft
engine. Two stroke engines send sometimes-undeserved shivers
down the spine of pilots due to their propensity to cease
working at the most inopportune moment. However, I
understand that late model Rotax 582's are pretty damn
reliable and the 50 hp Rotax 503's always had a good
reputation for reliability.
The choice of engine is one of the most
vexing questions for X-Air builders and the topic always
generates quite some activity in the Yahoo X-Air users
forum. So for what it's worth, here's my take on the engine
selection debate which in this country, generally resolves
into a choice of two - the Rotax 582 or the Jabiru 2200.
(Although the Hirth, the HKS, the Verner VM133 and the
Simonini Victor 2 are also certainly interesting
The Jabiru engine is, theoretically at
least, more reliable than the Rotax 582 (4 stroke vs. 2
stroke), and it burns about 11 litres per hour as opposed to
the 582's burn rate of about 15 litres per hour. The TBO
(or time between overhaul) is much longer on the Jabiru
engine at two thousand hours (although I would probably
start thinking about pulling the head off at about half
that) whereas the 582 is recommended at 350 hours. But one
high activity user I spoke to had over a thousand hours on a
582 before any major work was necessary. Nevertheless the
?book? says 350 hours TBO on the 582 and a new X-Air builder
should keep this figure in mind when it comes to thinking
about engine choice.
So the Jabiru engine burns about 4 litres
per hour less and, on a three-hour trip, that gives the
X-Air an extra hour in the air as compared to the 582. So
your effective cruise speed on a longer cross-country
trip is greater with the Jab engine as you have to spend
less time refuelling en-route.
But the Jabiru engine cost a good deal
more at almost $14,000 compared to the 582 at less than
$9,000. The other issue is that the 80 hp Jabiru engine
seems to have more power than the aircraft needs, while the
65 hp Rotax 582 is probably spot-on for the relatively light
X-Air. Having said that, the extra power of the Jabiru
engine can come in very handy getting the aeroplane off the
deck when you're hot, high and heavy or you need to punch
your way into a headwind.
In the end the engine choice is a
compromise but on balance I think if the budget can stretch
to it, my advice would to go with the Jabiru engine
especially if you lean toward cross-country work. On the
other hand if what you want are just weekend excursions in
the local area, it takes a lot of years to reach the 350
hour TBO on the Rotax 582 and the extra 4 litres per hour
burn rate is not a significant issue if only flying locally
for a couple of hours at a time.
Now I had two more questions, how do I get
the X-Air from Southern Victoria to SE
Queensland, and who will do my conversion from
GA to ultralight? On the latter issue, having contacted most
of the flying schools in my area I was to find that they
could all train on late model one hundred knot aeroplanes,
but no one had the capacity for low inertia / high drag
training. Hundred knot aircraft such as Tecnams and
Sportstars are very sophisticated, very forgiving, and
excellent for training, but their high performance GA type
flight characteristics would not give me the different
flying skills necessary to help with my X-Air conversion.
What I needed was a "high drag" instructor.
The transportation issue was proving
equally problematic but Peter Wilson came to my rescue and
agreed to abdicate his throne at Air Escape for a few days,
deliver the aircraft and do a bit of training before jetting
back to Tumut. And what a thrill it was to look up and see
our red X-Air overflying its new home for the very first
time after its uneventful trip from
In the short amount of time Peter had
remaining to do some training, I quickly realised that
flying a high drag aircraft was... well different... in a
harder sort of way. I couldn't even manage a balanced turn
properly. I remembered back to my GA training days when
you'd initiate a turn and, if necessary, just kick the ball
back into the centre with a bit of rudder and viola,
there you have it, a balanced turn. But now on the X-Air,
that damn balance ball just didn't want to play ball. Under
Peter?s guidance I quickly went solo but personally felt
that I was a long way from happy with my flying performance
Peter's parting advice was simple - don't
give up! But it's funny how when things are right they are
right, right across the board. As "luck" would have it, I
ended up sharing a hanger with one Brett Soutter, the CFI of
Pro-Sky and one of the only instructors within 60 kilometres
I hadn?t spoken to about training. "Sure I can do your
conversion" Brett told me. "As well as Tecnams I also
instructed on high drag Drifters for 380 hours". Bingo! I
had hit the jackpot.
Some GA pilots look down on the ultralight
fraternity but what they don't realise is that good
ultralight flying in some phases of flight, demands a
different, more demanding set of flying skills. In GA
training it seems, engine failures are given about as much
weight as stalling (twins excepted), but in ultralight
training, engine failures are king. If your fan suddenly
stops you have got to know how to get your aeroplane into
that paddock with as much aplomb as humanly possible. But
why all this emphasis on engine failures? Because the
unfortunate facts are that ultralight engines do tend to
fail with more regularly than the Lycoming and Continental
engines fitted to Cessnas, Pipers, Mooneys and other GA
aircraft. Having said that, if I am going to have an engine
failure, I would rather have it in an ultralight than a GA
aircraft any day of the week. The landing roll on the X-Air
for example, can be as little as 40 metres.
I also used to believe that it was easier
to unlearn something than to learn something from scratch.
But now I'm not so sure. For example, the landing procedure
with ultralights is very different from the luxury of
powered approaches that happen in GA. There's none of this
getting the aeroplane nicely lined up with the runway way
out on long final, and adjusting out any ?glideslope?
irregularities by applying a touch of more or less power as
you need it.
In ultralight training, every landing
involves accurately judging when to turn base (while
accounting for wind, potential for sink, proper altitude
etc.) pulling the engine at the end of downwind, turning
base and doing a glide approach from the base turn and onto
finals and then landing the aeroplane all without power. And
that happens on every landing so every landing is a
simulated engine failure. And, as one recently converted GA
to ultralight pilot remarked to me, "Now I feel guilty if I
have to resort to a squirt of power to adjust for some error
of judgment on finals". But, painful as it is to learn, this
training technique really sharpens your spatial skills and
provides real confidence that, if the worst happened, you
have the best chance of survival.
In one of my moments of exasperated
frustration I commented to CFI Brett that the X-Air was
supposed to be a forgiving aeroplane. "It is" he said. "It's
just that you have to really manage the drag curve because
the X-Air washes of speed in the blink of an eye without
proper power settings, and it can bite you in the bum real
fast if you don't watch your air speed". Brett continued.
"What you will learn in your X-Air training will give you
invaluable experience for any aeroplanes you fly in the
future". (I interpreted that to mean that, if you can fly an
X-Air you can fly anything).
But in the end the advice I got to "stick
with it" turned out to be good value. In a few short hours
the pieces of the jig saw started to fall into place and now
that I can actually fly this little monster with a
reasonable degree of proficiency, I love it again.
Is it a good first aeroplane? I think so.
It is light to handle, quite roomy with very good
aerodynamic stability. Trim the aircraft properly and you
can easily fly hands off - great for cross-country trips.
Who needs an autopilot? And for a new pilot, there would be
no unlearning to be done in the flying department.
Certainly for me anyway, the X-Air was more difficult to fly
initially, I think because it lacked the inertia, the
sophisticated airframe and control surfaces - like a synced
rudder and flaps, as well as the array of instruments I had
been used to using. And after not flying for many years, I
was also definitely rusty. At the end of the day, the X-Air
is basic "seat of the pants" flying at its best where you
are forced to become a good aviator as well as a good pilot.
And for the new recreational owner / pilot
it is financially a good place to start as well with a kit
built X-Air complete with a Rotax 582 engine getting
airborne for about 25 to 40% of the cost of its one hundred
knot cousin. If then you find you enjoy your recreational
flying and want to go faster with a more sophisticated
aircraft, you know that your X-Air flying experience will
put you in an excellent position to convert to another
aeroplane with a minimum of re-learning.
Along those same lines, the advice I am
getting now from people is that I'll soon get board with 60
knots and crave a faster aeroplane for long distance
touring. They may be right, but at the moment for me, it's
literally the journey that's important, not the destination.
Ross I McRae RAA Member 016484 September
The above courtesy of http://www.mcp.com.au/xair/flight-reports/flight-reports.html