The success of the homebuilt market has demonstrated how far many owners are willing to go to have an affordable sportplane. Walk the flightline at OSH and theres a veritable fleet of Glasairs and Lancairs, more than a few built by hired guns retained by well-heeled owners.
Sensing a market, some successful kitplane makers have eyed the production market warily, realizing theres a bumpy road between concept and certification. Both Cirrus and Lancair have negotiated this difficult path. The latest company to complete the kit-to-certification task is W.D. Flugzeugleichtbau, GMBH of Germany. They hope to fill the missing link between experimental and production with the introduction of the Fascination D4, an airplane that began life as a kitplane but will soon come to the U.S. as a production model.
The Fascination was designed by ex-German aerobatic team member Wolfgang Dellach as a kit, flying behind an 80 HP Rotax engine. It has a wing tested to ultimate failure at +10 Gs. But the company setting limits at plus or minus 6 Gs. Although Dellach has flown the prototype in airshows, the company is not billing the D4 as an aerobatic airplane.
The German company is certifying the Fascination under the Joint Airworthiness Regulations, which means theyll be licensed like American-registered Extras. When they arrive in the U.S., theyll be inspected by a Designated Airworthiness Representative who will be able to issue a normal category certificate if the construction is up to snuff.
The fast facts are enough to attract some interest, in our view: At $98,500 base price, the D4 is a sleek yank-and-bank sportplane that cruises at 140 knots, burning 5 GPH with a 100 HP engine all for a price tag that barely cracks six figures equipped. Then again, how large a market can the Fascination expect, given its cramped two-place cockpit?
We tested the prototype Fascination D4 courtesy of Jack Harper at Harper Aircraft in Jacksonville, Florida, the sole U.S. distributor. As a prototype, D-MPMM had some warts, but it did allow us to determine that the airplane is more than a designers fantasy awaiting financing.
At the time we tested it in August, the company claimed 60 aircraft on order, including two already in the U.S. Deliveries in this country were scheduled to begin in December, with one airplane per month scheduled to be sent to Harper in Jacksonville.
The composite airframe weighs only 650 pounds empty, just a bit more than a medium-sized motorcycle. The airplanes gross weight is 1200 pounds. The 550-pound useful load means that with the 23-gallon fuel tank full, the airplane can haul more than 400 pounds of people and baggage or two 170 pounders and 60 pounds of gear. The voluminous baggage capacity is rated at 100 pounds, but Harper says more than about 50 pounds or so will cause the airplane to settle on its tail if there are no people aboard.
The Fascination is 23 feet long and has a wingspan of 29 feet, making it slightly larger than a two-seat Lancair 360 and smaller than a Cessna 152. The vertical stabilizer height is about six feet. It comes equipped with a ballistic recovery parachute, which rides between the firewall and the engine and deploys through a blow-out panel on the right side of the fuselage. The system is activated by a panel-mounted handle, secured by a locking pin in the handle to preclude inadvertent activation.
The wings are removable, aided by the fact that the fuel is held in a single fuselage tank. Remove a spar pin and the aileron pushrods and flap controls easily slide apart; wiring can be quickly unplugged. The elevators uncouple in about 30 seconds.
With the wings off, the airplane can be trailered for winter storage or vacation trips. The Fascination is about 60 inches wide with the wings and elevators removed. Although some may be tempted to use the removable wings to hangar the airplane at home in the garage, the time involved would probably make it impractical. Removing and replacing the wings takes about an hour and requires two people.
The airplane has retractable tricycle gear of electric/hydraulic design similar to Pipers relatively reliable but occasionally maintenance-intensive system. We wondered if an all-electric gear might make more sense, given the airplanes emphasis on simplicity. Access to the engine compartment is a mechanics dream. The cowling is split vertically and someone who knows the ropes can have the cowling off without tools in 16 seconds. (Yes, we timed it.)
The Rotax 912S that drives the airplane is a 100 HP water-cooled four-stroke engine with a TBO of 1200 hours. When the engine runs out, the core can be exchanged for a new engine for $5500. (Take that Continental and Lycoming.) The cylinder barrels are air-cooled, while the heads are plumbed to a radiator mounted behind the fish mouth under the prop.
The engine is designed to run on auto fuel, but will tolerate use of 100LL. Use of avgas routinely will lead to fouled plugs and sticky valves, Harper says. Electrical power is supplied through a single 200-watt alternator, unlike the Rotax-powered Diamond Katana, which uses one alternator to power the engines electronic ignition and another to drive the avionics. (This Rotax variant has conventional magnetos.)
Trying It On
Cockpit access is via a canopy that swings up and back. Getting in and out doesnt take any more agility than any other low-wing airplane, in our estimation. There are, however, a couple of caveats. The two throttle controls are on the outboard edges of the instrument panel and when theyre closed, theyre positioned right where your foot swings through in the out-to-in maneuver. If you push them in before you get out the problem is avoided, as long as you remember to close them again before engine start.
The baggage compartment, behind the seats, is on the large side and is especially deep. Its a stretch to reach a headset on the floor of the empty bay, but that means light bulky items are more likely to fit. Although the seat belts interfere somewhat with access to the baggage compartment, due to the location of the anchors, this should be a problem for only the largest baggage.
Up front, we noticed that the seat cushions and the center armrest are not attached in any way. This would make it easier to keep the seats clean or even reupholster them, but theyre merely wedged into place in the airplane. As you fidget to get in the right spot, its easy to get the cushions out of place. Snaps or Velcro would be nice.
The seatbelts are four-point harnesses that are comfortable and easy to wear. The seats, which are reclined substantially, are molded into the fuselage. Short people will need extra cushions; big people are out of luck. The rudder pedals adjust fore and aft by pulling down a spring-loaded lock pin under the panel and moving the entire rudder assembly toward or away from you. It sounds harder than it is but without movable seats, its the only game in town.
We think the cockpit shows good attention to ergonomics with everything close at hand. This is not surprising, considering how snug the accommodations are. Two shortcomings in cockpit design were immediately obvious, but just how legitimate a factor they are depends on your size and how you fly.
The first is that the main spar slices through the cockpit just forward of the seats. For us, that meant the corner of the spar box cover was pressing into the back of our calves throughout the flight. Not horrible, merely annoying. Second, theres no place to rest an arm while working the throttle and, for the left-seater, no arm support near the control switch for the electrically adjustable prop. While this isnt an issue in cruise flight, it strikes us as unusual, given the sportplane intentions of the Fascination.
The prop is not constant speed but of adjustable pitch, a throwback to the days of World War II. In maneuvering flight, the prop control needs almost constant supervision and the pilots left arm is likely to dance between the throttle at the sidewall and the adjacent prop control.
Given the dynamics of the airplane, relocating the prop control to the center stick might make more sense. The prop adjustment is made via a jack screw driven by a small electric motor. In the case of electrical failure, the prop becomes fixed at the point of failure. Flaps are manual, with a Piper-like Johnson bar mounted between the left seat and the sidewall. Whether retracted or extended, the bar doesnt interfere much, although extra-large people may have trouble with it poking them uncomfortably. Then again, for a heavy person, we think this would be the least of their worries.
Another indication of the airplanes kitplane roots is the fuel gauge, which is merely a clear tube in the center of the panel. The panel is like the rest of the airplane; small. The maximum height of the radio stack is a mere seven inches.
In the prototype, a King KX-135 GPS/com and a KT-76A transponder mostly filled the space, although relocating the intercom could have freed up enough room for another box. The options list includes full IFR instrumentation (with electric gyros), but the airplane will not be certified for IFR, only day and night VFR, Harper says.
How It Flies
Closing the canopy is a one-handed affair with the engine shut down. The hinge design requires the canopy to go nearly vertical when closing, so it would be impossible to close with the engine at idle. There is a taxi position that holds the canopy securely with it open about 1 inches. On the 93-degree day of our test flight, this provided enough ventilation to avoid turning the cockpit into a greenhouse.
Engine start is simple. Theres no ignition key. Select mags on and hit the start button. The Rotax engine started in two blades and idled smoothly and quietly. The hydraulic disc brakes are activated via a squeeze grip on the center stick, a novel design.
Taxiing in light two-placers is usually done via differential braking. But not in the Fascination, due to the single brake lever. Still, the airplanes small size and short wingspan make ground maneuvering a snap, which somewhat surprised us, since the turning moment comes entirely from rudder forces.
As we lined up on runway 25 at Jacksonvilles Herlong Airport, Harper recommended taking off with the prop adjusted slightly coarse of full fine. Although this produced less than full power, Harper says the prop may overspeed on initial climb without meticulous attention to RPM and airspeed.
The 4000-foot runway was more than adequate and the reduced workload meant the outside scan could take priority. The company does not publish full performance charts but claims a takeoff roll of 450 feet on grass, a claim we feel is slightly optimistic, even though we didnt do a comprehensive test of takeoff distances.
The view outside is simply astounding. The canopy is large and the sills are low, which combine to give excellent visibility all around. Initial climb was 800 FPM at 75 knots at our takeoff weight of 1130 pounds and a density altitude of 1600 feet.
Control input feels crisp and precise. The ailerons and rudder tend to stay where you put them, although the airplane is very sensitive in pitch, with little evidence of control friction.
The handling was nothing short of superb. Rolling from a 45-degree bank left to a 45-degree bank right required moving the stick less than two inches. With aileron spades standard, the roll forces firm up with speed but do not become excessive and are nicely balanced with the length of the stick.
We conducted a series of GPS speed runs at 6500 feet, with the power set at about 70 percent and measured a true airspeed of 138 knots. At 120 knots, the airspeed indicator was slightly into the yellow arc, which begins at 110 knots. The airplane redlines at 148 knots, a limit Harper says is due to the ballistic parachute. Any faster and the chute would rip from its anchor points if deployed.
At the other end of the speed spectrum, the design showed the only gotchas we found. Slow flight below about 50 knots indicated requires substantial right rudder and the airplane yaws so much that theres quite a bit of buffeting on the fuselage and tail from the propeller. The fuselage buffeting masks whatever wing buffet might precede the stall with partial power applied.
When the break comes, its a whopper. Because the wings are tapered and the airplane is not equipped with stall strips, the outboard section of the wing has a tendency to stall first. On the first few stalls, the airplane fell off 45 degrees right wing down with the ball centered and the nose snapped about 20 to 30 degrees below the horizon.
With each successive stall, we added left rudder and did finally manage to get it to fall off the left just as dramatically. We did not succeed in getting a straight-ahead break. A quick application of opposite rudder corrected the bank just as quickly, but we came away impressed that an inadvertent stall could lead to a spin if the pilots reaction is slow.
There is no stall warning device installed, but the attitude required to stall the airplane is rather extreme. How this less-than-docile stall behavior will translate into a long-term safety record is difficult to say but any pilot-especially an inexperienced one-will need to be mindful of this quirk.
As we were maneuvering, we noted that the throttle was quite stiff. We thought it might be because the engine installation had only 10 hours on it, but Harper says the stiff throttle is due to a spring-loaded linkage designed to open in the event of a cable failure. If the friction on the throttle is reduced, the engine would gradually increase in power. Theres no mixture control to fuss with; the Rotax engines dual carbs automatically compensate for altitude.
Approaching the airport, the procedures for descent were standard. The gear comes down at 120 knots indicated with little pitch change. One notch of flaps, 15 degrees, can come in at 78 knots, with full flaps, 30 degrees, at 65 knots.
The flaps are semi-Fowler design with hinge construction that forces the flap aft of the attach point on deployment. A gap seal on the bottom of the wing maintains the airflow from the wing to the flap. A small window in the cabin lets you see if the nose gear is out and the standard three green gear indicator lights are readily visible.
We found that the reclined seats make it difficult to see over the cowling on approach, but the narrow nose allows you to see around it, so lining up is no problem, if somewhat reminiscent of a taildragger.
Because the landing gear is short, theres substantial ground effect. Fly the pattern at about 65 knots and land at about 45 knots. Even our first landing, while no squeaker, was nothing to be embarrassed about.
While we cant declare the Fascination an unqualified winner, we do think the airplane has merit as an affordable fun flyer. Because prototypes are, by their nature, a work in progress, we dont want to hammer some of the flaws we saw as major stumbling points until we see the production versions. Some minor improvements are already in the works, Harper says. The elevator size will be increased to improve pitch control forces at cruise speeds. We found the controls already well harmonized, so additional improvements will only sweeten the ride.
The sliding windows and rotating air scoops that provide ventilation in the cabin are being replaced with NACA ducts in the fuselage that will force air through eyeball vents. This will reduce noise, temper the airflow and allow a greater range of flexibility. Thats also a plus.
We liked the fact that the fuel tank has a reserve setting as is common on motorcycles. If the engine quits because of fuel exhaustion, just flip the valve, allow the windmilling engine to restart, and youve got another 15 minutes or so of fuel.
In some ways, the merit of an airplane can be gauged by how tempted you are to look back at it as you walk away. By that measure, the Fascination is an unqualified success. Its fun, sexy and sleek.
The major considerations, acquisition and operating costs, also come out on the Fascinations side. Youd be hard pressed to load it up enough to push the price tag past $110,000. For that, you get a sportplane with reasonable VFR cross-country possibilities. Add in the miserly fuel burn and cheap engine reserve, and the airplane may be one of the cheapest new models available, with decent cruising speed.
The airplanes base $98,500 price buys a stripped down model. Add the extras for basic VFR flight and the price tag goes to about $102,00. Spring for an IFR package and you can spend $110,000 or more, even though the airplane still wont be IFR legal.
We doubt if the Fascination is for everyone. But it just may find a market among budget-conscious buyers looking for the equivalent of Harry Potters broomstick.
8977 Herlong Road
Jacksonville, FL 32210
-by Ken Ibold
Ken Ibold is editor of Aviation Safety magazine.