One look at the Eagle 150 should be enough to convince you this is not your fathers Cherokee. With its unique dual-wing planform, the Australian-built Eagle-which is being toured around the U.S. this year-may appear to be the product of the homebuilt market. But the Eagle is a certified design aimed squarely at the training market.
If it takes a weird design to break into this market, the Eagle has that in spades. Say what you will about its size, shape and flying qualities, one thing goes unchallenged: When this airplane taxis onto the ramp, people notice it. (Never mind that some of them may be saying, what the hell is that thing?)
The Eagle will soon be pitched against an entrenched design-the Diamond Katana-not to mention Cessnas revised Skyhawk, which is finding some buyers in the training market. Whether theres room enough for it in what has proven to be a less than bottomless pit of demand remains to be seen.
The original mission of the Eagle was to provide a light airplane with excellent visibility for Australian ranchers to use in mustering sheep. The design mandate, hatched in the mid-1980s, was to prevent the kind of low-altitude stall/spin scenario that had plagued ranchers for years. The Eagles unique wing configuration created an airplane that instead of spinning, rolls wings-level when forced into a stall.
Designers hoped to certify it as an ultralight using an engine derived from a Volkswagen flat four. The performance proved anemic, however and the engine was unreliable. The company soon realized it would need something else. They hung a Continental O-200 on the nose and got good performance, but the weight increase wasnt matched by any change in the wings, which were sized for an airplane with a 900-pound max gross weight.
With the airplane now weighing 40 percent more than the wings were designed to carry, the stall happened at 47 knots so the company turned to other devices to modify airflow over the wing in an attempt to bring the stall speed down to a certifiable 45 knots, says aeronautical designer John Roncz.
He added a cuff on the leading edge of the forward wing and another at the main wing root and got the airplane to stall at 44 knots. But during certification, other handling requirements led to the addition of a stall strip, stall fence and vortex generators on the main wing, outboard of where the forward wing ends.
The result is a wing that looks like a nasty beast had to be tamed, but Roncz says the changes were easy fixes to one corner of the flight envelope where, he says, he and regulators disagreed on the interpretation of JAR certification requirements. The design was finally certified in Australia in 1993 and received U.S. certification in February 1999.
These design machinations produced an airplane that is truly odd looking, in the air and on the ground. The Eagles lifting surfaces consist of a forward canard-like wing with a 16-foot span and a 23-foot conventional main wing. The forward wing is mounted low under the engine cowling and the main wing extends from the middle of the fuselage. The airplane has a standard elevator/rudder assembly at the tail.
The forward wing provides about 40 percent of the lift and reduces the amount of down force the tail needs to generate to balance the airplane. The result, designers say, is less drag and a better ride in turbulence. Powered by a fuel-injected 125 HP Continental IO-240B, the Eagle cruises at about 120 knots on 6 GPH.
The composite airframe is constructed entirely of Nomex honeycomb and Kevlar cloth. It has been certified in the normal category at +3.8G and -1.9G, but designers say conservative certification requirements for composite airplanes mean the actual load limit exceeds +10G and -5G.
The airplane is made entirely in Australia, backed by the same Malaysian company that owns half of Lancair. The airplanes are shipped from the companys factory in Western Australia in a standard shipboard container.
The tailcone and engine are removed and the fuselage with the wings attached is stood on its nose and mounted on a rack thats rolled into the container. Once onshore here, the aircraft is reassembled.
The fixed landing gear consists of a single half-circle of fiberglass wrapped in carbon fiber, with wheels mounted on each end. The airplane has been tested in static drops from 10 feet with no damage so, on paper at least, the gear should suffer the abuse of student touch and goes.
Other unusual features include right-side rudder pedals that flip down to prevent a passenger from inadvertently interfering with control and four-point harnesses for each seat. The forward-opening bubble canopy includes a keeper that holds the canopy open slightly during taxi for added ventilation, a must for hot weather operations. As do most new light trainer designs these days, the Eagle has a castoring nosewheel and is steered on the ground with differential braking. While thats not a problem on its face, an unusual brake arrangement may lead to loss of control in some instances, in our view.
Instead of having toe brakes, the rudder pedals are simply horizontal metal rods. To activate the brakes, both rudder pedals must be depressed slightly, then one pedal pressed harder to make the airplane turn. Let up on the trailing pedal and the braking action will stop.
This poses the possibility of loss of control, particularly on crosswind landings performed by pilots with little time in type. Some airplanes require slight pressure on both pedals to take slack out of the system. Landing the Eagle then could mean touching down with one or both brakes on, which we think could put the airplane into the weeds post haste. In short, the brakes need work.
The airplane holds 26 gallons of fuel in an aft fuselage tank, good for a range of about 520 NM and an endurance of 5 hours. The fuel selector switch has two positions, on and off, and the airplane is equipped with a high-boost electric fuel pump and a low-boost electric pump. Both are off in normal operations, including takeoff. The airplanes standard useful load is 484 pounds, leaving a full-fuel payload of 328 pounds. The company is aiming to add 88 pounds to the useful load and it may need every pound it can get. By comparison, the Katana C1s full-fuel payload is 364 pounds. The C1 carries 24.5 gallons of gas. Put 400 pounds of instructor and student into the cockpit and the Eagle will have room for 14 gallons of gas. Thats okay for local training flights but a tad short for cross country work. By comparison, the C1 can carry 18 gallons of gas with the same 400 pounds of people in the cockpit, or nearly 45 minutes.
Mods and Tailoring
As the company prepared to bring the airplane to market, it became clear that it needed to be tailored to the training environment, says Alfred Eravelly, a marketing executive with Eagle.
Rather than yokes, the airplane features a stick mounted on the center console. The stick is topped with a coolie hat trim switch and radio frequency flip-flop button, so an instructor placing a hand on the top of the stick during maneuvers interfered with the control.
The stick was modified and now sports an appendage that gives the right-seater a place to grip the controls, a must for any training airplane.
Throttle controls were placed on both sidewalls, and dual flap controls were also installed. An intercom is standard equipment.
Eagle is working on certifying the airplane for IFR, but the problem of lightning protection endemic to composite airplanes has not yet been solved, Eravelly says. And even if it is, the solution is likely to add cost and weight.
With the Eagles bubble canopy flipped forward, access to the cockpit-and the tiny hatshelf-type baggage area-is unobstructed. The wheel pants serve as steps to the cockpit and after a try or two, its easy to get in without feeling awkward.
From the time you strap into the cockpit, its clear that this airplane is something different. The center-mounted stick falls easily to hand, as does the throttle mounted on the left sidewall. Control friction is conspicuously absent and the visibility is unmatched both up and down. The seats arent adjustable but the rudder pedals are. A panel switch moves them fore and aft electrically.
The panel is small, but given the VFR-only certification, the lack of room shouldnt be a problem. The left side is filled by the standard six-pack of flight instruments and, on the model we flew, a VFR GPS.
The gyros are electric and the airplane is not equipped with a vacuum system, a plus in our view. The right side panel has the engine and power instruments and intercom control. A control for the electric flaps is mounted on the outside edge of the panel on both sides, so instructor or student can adjust the flaps.
Starting is conventional for a fuel-injected engine, although the IO-240B seems to have more vibration at idle than it ought to. Mounted on the light airframe, taxi is a shake-rattle-and-roll affair and none-too-pleasant, in our estimation. Its not clear to us why this is so but it may have to do with the motor mount design.
Taxiing the airplane is at once easy and difficult. The visibility is excellent and the short wingspan and tight turning radius make ground maneuvering a snap. Youd have to work at hitting something inadvertently with the wingtips.
On the other hand, steering on the ground using the unconventional braking system takes getting used to. We found that maneuvering through a crowded ramp required a slow taxi speed initially, and deft footwork on the brakes.
On the takeoff roll, the rudder gained effectiveness at a relatively low speed, allowing us to track the runway centerline without touching the brakes at all.
In flight, the airplane performs as claimed. Control forces are light, the engines vibration level decreases and visibility is excellent both downward and upward. Ventilation is good, which is essential considering the greenhouse effect caused by the bubble canopy.
The airplane cruises slightly nose-high and that may obscure too much of the horizon for short pilots. Some pilots opt to add a couple of degrees of flaps during cruise to lower the nose a bit.
If forced into a spin, the airplane supposedly rolls wings level and the nose drops through. Essentially, it doesnt stall deeply enough to enter a spin. We werent able to try any spin entries but stalls-including turning stalls-are the typically benign maneuver you expect of a canard design.
The nose rises, but theres not enough pitch authority to stall the main wing so the angle of attack is held at our below the stall value. Theres a certain mushiness but no tendency to break.
On landing, the airplanes nose-high tendency reasserts itself. Although visibility forward isnt totally obscured, landing the Eagle is somewhat like landing a taildragger.
And in what can only be called a growing pain, our first test flight ended abruptly with a fuel-flow problem. This turned out to be minor but worth noting is that our test flight was delayed several weeks by various mechanical and administrative problems.
This reinforces the notion that neither operator nor mechanic are familiar with a new design when it first enters the market. Buy an early serial number and youll get some Beta experience.
More than a year after U.S. certification, the Eagle remains a virtual unknown, which says more about the companys marketing than the airplane itself. The company didnt deliver its first production models to the U.S. until February, and so far reports sales of only six airplanes in the U.S. and about 30 worldwide.
An initial order of five airplanes from a start-up Florida flight school, Airline Training Academy, was canceled. ATA intended to order up to 40 for its own use and to also be an Eagle distributor, says ATA president Scott Williams. Although the school liked the airplanes, its training syllabus requires a large number of night hours. So far the Eagle is certified only for day VFR operations. When faced with that reality, ATA placed an order with Cessna for 50 172s.
I like the airplane. Ive got about 50 hours in it myself and a similar amount in the Katana, and I think the Eagle is a better airplane. Thats why we wanted to do it, Williams told us.
In many respects, the Eagle and the Katana are similar airplanes, especially the Continental-powered C1 Katana. Both have cockpits in which ergonomics have been given more thought than the designers of Cessna and Piper trainers would have dreamed of.
Both have similar performance and price tags. Both expect some success among sport fliers but see training missions as their bread and butter. The training market is crucial because it concentrates the airplanes into relatively few hands, which allows the maintenance issues any new design faces to be dealt with easily.
The flight schools also add visibility for the manufacturer. More important, this marketing strategy doesnt force the upstart company to face off directly against larger established manufacturers.
Judging the market acceptance of any airplane is difficult but its not enough just to build a good airplane. The Eagles unusual appearance strikes at the paradox of general aviation pilots, who seem to spend half their time bemoaning the fact that airplanes havent changed in 30 years and the other half distrusting anything new and unproven.
And whats the sales pitch going to be? The Eagle is no easier to fly than the Katana or other trainers and is thus not radically better or worse, in our view. If its truly spin proof, does that give it an edge over the Katana or even the Cessna 172?
Although new designs such as the Katana, Lancair and Cirrus have shown that a sizable number of would-be owners will at least look at something new, the shape of the Eagle may not be what they have in mind, unless the company gets clever with its marketing.
Diamond has nailed down marketshare with its Katana with favorable sales and leasing terms and well-regarded support. Phone the factory and somebody answers.
But the Katana has been hampered somewhat by a lack of IFR certification and the Eagle lacks both night and IFR approval. The standard navcomm is the Bendix/King KX 125, which has an internal CDI on a small LCD ribbon. Making room in the Eagle panel for even one standard CDI is possible but we hardly think its an ideal instrument airplane. Eravelly says the company hopes to convince the FAA that the airplane could be approved for limited IFR, although how that would work hasnt been discussed yet. Well be interested to see if they can pull it off.
The Eagle does advance the art of airplane design, but only incrementally. The ergonomics and handling are first-rate, in our view, if not exceptional enough to displace existing trainer options.
The joint unknowns of company support and maintainability may overwhelm the attributes of the basic machine, a sad but true story that has done in more than one good airplane design.
North America, Inc.
1220 East Concord St.
Orlando, FL 32803
-by Ken Ibold
Ken Ibold is editor of Aviation Consumers sister magazine, Aviation Safety.