by Paul Bertorelli
Whats true in the car business is also true in the airplane business: youll make a lot more money selling expensive models than you will trolling the bottom of the market with economy offerings. Thats why the roads are choked with high-zoot sport UVs and why every company that tries to sell trainers struggles to make a go of it.
Two for instances come to mind: OMF Aircraft, a German company, makes a nice little two-seat trainer/sport cruiser called the Symphony and after a moderate splash in the market, the company is clawing its way back from bankruptcy. Another would-be two-seat purveyor, Liberty Aerospace hasnt found a ready market for its XL2 and recently announced a new infusion of financing from Kuwait. For reasons that seem to escape the marketing departments of companies that build them, two-seaters can be a hard sell.
One company thats been at it awhile and achieved at least some success is Zenith Aircraft which, in various corporate iterations and identities, markets under Zenith, Zenair and AMD for Aircraft Manufacturing and Development.
Since you cant tell the players without a scorecard, AMD is a subsidiary of Zenith and builds-or at least assembles-the Alarus two-seat trainer, the subject of this review.
The Alarus is a slight-make that very slight-retooling of the CH2000 two-seat trainer thats been on the market for nearly 10 years, finding some buyers in the flightschool market as a replacement for aging Cessna 150s or as an alternative to Diamonds popular Katana. (Popular is a relative term, for even Diamond, with all of its success, underwent a painful retraction in 2000, partially due to the finicky and thin demand for two seaters.)
The CH is for Chris Heintz, a prolific designer whose early kits emerged in 1970 and include the Zodiac under the Zenith company name. Just as the LSA concept kicks off, Zenith also has a new line of airplanes to address that market.
The CH2000 first saw the light of day in 1995 as a certified VFR-only trainer. FBOs and flightschools need those, of course, but it turns out what they really wanted-and what neither the CH2000 nor the Katana provided-was a new, all-purpose, IFR certified trainer. New-production Cessna 172s fill that role but at a price some schools balk at, given that the market is awash with older four-seaters which still populate the rental line and turn a buck.
Enter the Alarus, which was renamed primarily as a marketing strategy to put some distance between the CH2000-a VFR-only trainer-and what Zenith/AMD viewed as the richest potential market, the basic IFR trainer. The CH2000 no longer exists as a discrete model, although AMD continues to support it. AMD is one to two subsidiaries of the Zenair parent company, the second is Zenith Aircraft in Mexico, Missouri, which produces kit aircraft.
Alarus airframes are assembled at AMDs small plant at Heart of Georgia Airport in Eastman, Georgia in what is a notably modest operation. The entire staff consists of about a dozen or so people, with eight technicians doing the airplane building. As do other airframers, AMD has the subassemblies done elsewhere, specifically at the Zenair facility in Canada. AMD then does the final assembly, installs the interiors and does the painting at Eastman. AMDs John Degonia, who manages sales, told us the Eastman plant is capable of building the entire airplane-and actually did so when the plant opened in 1999-but because Zenair already had a plant in Canada and given the Canadian dollars weakness against U.S. currency, its more economical to build the components north of the border and assemble in Eastman.
And, says Degonia, economics are what the Alarus is all about. We are trying to build and deliver the cheapest IFR-certified airplane on the market, says Degonia, we are not trying to compete against Cessna or Piper. Some competition against Cessna, of course, is inevitable but the Alarus dwells in the entry-level market with the likes of Diamonds Katana and other two placers. At $129,900 IFR-equipped out the door, the Alarus is about the cheapest way to get into the clouds on a budget. The next closet in a new airplane is the OMF Symphony at $149,600.
Degonia told us the intent is to have the Alarus have one foot in the old and one foot in the new. Accordingly, the airplane is equipped with a standard vacuum driven instrument package with no back-up system and a DG rather than an HSI.
For avionics, it has what most would consider the bare essentials: a Garmin GNS430, a Bendix/King KX155, dual glideslopes, a Garmin GTX327 transponder and a GMA340 audio panel. There is no autopilot option. in keeping with the airplanes entry-level roots.
One thing we were curious about is how AMD intends to market a steam-gauge airplane in an era when the industry has shifted forthrightly to primary flight display technology, at least for high-end aircraft. As more new aircraft roll off the lines with PFDs, isnt there a compelling need for PFD-equipped trainers to show owners the ropes?
Degonia says AMD is examining the possibility of a glass panel for the Alarus but the dealbreaker is likely to be cost. Even if PFD technology declines in price, which everyone expects but no one is willing to dignify with a promise never mind an actual number, the cost Delta could put the Alarus out of its entry level niche. Well have to see serious demand for a glass panel before we would consider it, he says. On a high-end airplane with a $300,000-plus invoice, a $40,000 PFD adds less than 15 percent to the cost, if that. On a $130,000 airplane like the Alarus, its closer to a third of the price in a market thats shown itself to be intensely price sensitive.
One school, Salt Lake City Community College, operates the largest Alarus fleet and believes theres still a place for a training in steam-gauge panels. And to be fair, even with Cirrus, Diamond, Lancair, Cessna, Mooney and others converting entirely to PFDs or at least offering glass as an option, market penetration of glass panels continues to be small. In our view, considering the complexity of PFDs, future training may shift toward simulator-based solutions, with less emphasis on inflight training, something the airlines have been doing for decades. Our guess is that AMD has a few years to sort this out, but the days of steam gauges in new airplanes are numbered.
The Alarus follows the same design/construction path as the CH2000, which is to say its a conventional riveted metal airframe with conventional controls and circuitry. One odd thing about the airplane is the rudder/vertical fin arrangement which, rather than being a fixed fin with a hinged rudder, consists of movable surface that pivots on a post swept back from the vertical.
Although this design has fewer parts than a conventional rudder assembly, we wonder if it contributes to what we found to be surprisingly high perceived rudder force. Weve noticed this in previous flights of the CH2000, as well. One reason for the rudder friction is obvious when you inspect the airplane closely. Unlike most new fixed-gear designs which rely on differential braking for steering, the Alarus has a steerable nosewheel manipulated by the rudder pedals through linkage passing through the firewall.
Manufacturers have trended away from this design to save weight and maintenance hassles. The Alarus version of nosewheel steering is unusual in that the strut rides in a V-shaped fiber block mounted to the firewall, rather than rotating in a bushing arrangement. In place of an oleo strut for absorbing shock, the nose assembly uses a large bungee; simple, cheap and effective. And while this design gives the Alarus much more precise ground handling than say a Diamond or a Cirrus, the payback is stiff rudder action in flight, in our view.
Seating in the Alarus is side-by-side and cabin width is generous for a two-seater. Entry and egress is from either side-there are two doors-with a step down into the cockpit from the wing; a little awkward at first but manageable. As illustrated in the photos, the Alarus has gullwing-style doors which pivot up from the cabin roof, providing plenty of room to enter and exit the airplane. One change from the CH2000 is that the doors and the engine cowling are now made of carbon fiber rather than metal so theyre lighter and stronger.
However, weve complained about gullwing doors in the past for two reasons: we think they represent a safety risk in the event the airplane comes to rest inverted after a crash and an inflight opening is almost certain to rip the door from the airplane. The Alarus has a simple, positive overcenter hook latch to secure each door so the likelihood of one being jarred loose in flight seems remote. Nonetheless, we would prefer to see some sort of secondary latch lock or cover to make sure accidental release is all but impossible.
The seat backs are adjustable with a pull knob under the lip of the seat but they dont slide fore and aft nor do the rudder pedals slide. Theres a modest baggage shelf located behind the pilot seats and we like the fact that the shelf is at shoulder length, where charts and other flight gewgaws can be stored and retrieved. But the shelf really wont hold much; its weight limit is 40 pounds. Thats okay for a trainer, of course, but youd have to pack light on anything more than an overnight trip.
Until just recently when Cessna announced the choice, Alarus was the only new airplane to have airbags as an option. The bags are incorporated into the lap portion of the seatbelt with the inflation cylinder fastened under the seat. It used cold helium to blow the bag rather than the toxic and relatively explosive sodium azide found in automobile airbags. The airbags inflation schedule is somewhere more complex than a car airbag, too. Under a horizontal load of 7 to 8Gs over 45 milliseconds, it triggers the inflation, completing it in 90 milliseconds. An automobile airbag inflates more quickly. AMDs Degonia told us the load sensor is designed to sense only horizontal loading, not vertical jolts, so it wont be set off by violent turbulence. The airbags are $1500-per-seat option.
We flew the Alarus with plant manager Garry Webster on a steamy Georgia August day. In keeping with its trainer origins, the airplane is simple to manage, with nothing unusual about starting or taxiing. The doors are supposed to be closed during start-up and taxi but theres enough ventilation to keep from roasting on the way to the runway; a large directable scoop in the pilots side window helps. Visibility from the cockpit is generally good out the side and adequate through the windshield, somewhat obscured by the door structure, which penetrates fairly far forward.
We took off with less htan full fuel and about 400 pounds of pilot/co-pilot, putting the airplane near its 1692-pound gross weight. Useful load is about 580 pounds for the IFR version, with a 28-gallon fuel capacity in two wing tanks. The Alarus has a 116-HP O-235 Lycoming which gives it sufficient but not excessive power. We found the acceleration to be what we would expect in this power range with a moderate pitch tug necessary to pop the airplane off the runway. The initial climb rate was about 600 FPM but that declined to 400 FPM above 3000 feet.
Cruise speed is essentially 100 knots, burning about 6 gallons per hour. Obviously, for a trainer, this is acceptable in the way a Cessna 150 is acceptable. But its slower than the Katana, Symphony and Liberty XL2. For students and instructors doing primary training, a strong climb rate is a plus for it makes recovering altitude from stalls less tedious and pattern work moves along briskly.
An IFR trainer does less of the up and down but needs decent speed for the required cross country work and for multiple approaches. In our view, the Alarus is at the bottom end of the speed requirement; 120 knots would certainly be welcome but not likely to happen at this price point. The Katana, for instance, is at least 20 knots faster than the Alarus but it isnt certified for IFR flight.
Maneuvering in the Alarus held no surprises. Slow flight and stalls are benign, although the airplane we flew tended to drop its left wing and we noted pronounced left wing heaviness in cruise flight, which AMDs Webster attributed to trim adjustments needed for the ailerons.
The airplanes electric split flaps are effective and yield a slight nose-up moment. With flaps deployed, the deck angle required to hold an approach airspeed of 65 knots is decidedly nosedown. A pilot transitioning from, say a Cessna 172, might tend to mush the thing in if he duplicates the Skyhawks sight picture over the nose. But the airplane isnt ground hungry, glides well enough and rounds out nicely for an easy touchdown. We werent able to try the Alarus in crosswinds but it seems to have decent rudder authority, the aforementioned pedal stiffness notwithstanding.
One thing we like about the Alarus is AMDs approach to building it. The operation is lean and close to the bone and the output of airplanes is realistically matched to the market. The days of 500 trainers a year, or even 200, are long gone. John Degonia told us the plant has a capacity to build about 12 airplanes a month but is now building two or three. In our view, any aircraft business that can scale up or down to this extent has a better chance of surviving and not orphaning customers, as so many companies have done.
As for the airplane itself, we view it as suitable to the IFR trainer task at hand but not as fun to fly as either the Symphony or the Katana, which both have center sticks. It handles well enough and is stable for primary or instrument training but we would like to see a few more knots of speed for approach work and longer cross countries. We think the need for a PFD is a toss up. On the one hand, the industry and buyers clearly favor glass panels on new airplanes. On the other hand, not many owners and pilots can realistically afford them so steam gauges will be around for awhile.
What we would most like to see-and what the Alarus is ideally positioned to capitalize on-is a simpler, cheaper glass panel approach consisting perhaps of an AI/DG hybrid combined with conventional pitot static instruments. Such a package would also be more retrofitable than a full-up PFD. But with Garmin and Avidyne consumed with big ticket certified systems, we dont expect to see such a gadget soon.
Contact – Aircraft Manufacturing and Development, 788-374-2759, www.newplane.com.
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