If car makers sold cars the way airplane companies do, half of us would be driving 1953 Studebakers simply because we wouldnt know about anything newer. Thats the only way we can explain why nice little airplanes like the OMF Symphony dont seem to get much notice.
We recently test flew the Symphony, an interesting trainer-cum-sport cruiser thats been available in the U.S. for a couple of years. Weve been trying to fly one for at least that long but because of a lack of dealers, available demos and a favorable schedule, our efforts have been stymied. The Symphony is one in a small flock of new-age two-place trainers weve noticed trying to carve a niche in a limited market.
The others include Diamonds Katana/Eclipse/Evolution line, the Liberty Aerospace XL-2, the Eagle 150, an Asian import, the Fascination D4 and Miccos on-again, off-again SP20/26.
The Symphony is also an import, from Germany, but it claims the distinction of design roots in the U.S. The airplane is, for all intents and purposes, a certified version of the Glastar experimental which Stoddard Hamilton developed before it went bankrupt in 2001.
When it first appeared, the high-wing Glastar looked like a composite Cessna 150, but a closer look reveals that its not a traditional composite and it doesnt have much in common with the 150 other than the high wing.
A Rare Bird
The Symphony represents a rare bird indeed, an experimental taken directly to certification with only a few modifications. The Glastar made the leap from experimental to certified airplane thanks to a German company called OMF Aircraft, purpose-formed to bring the Glastar design from experimental to certified status. According to OMFs Bill Sprague, this required a great deal of re-engineering of systems and structure. In other words, the Glastar and Symphony look alike but they arent alike.
Curiously, OMF has vague parallels to Diamond. Both were formed by family businesses successful in the transportation business-for Diamond, the driving force was automotive sales in Europe. OMF was formed by Mathias and Derek Stinnes, a father and son team who operate a network of transportation companies including rail, trucking and ocean freight. (These could come in handy for a company building airplanes in Germany and selling them in the U.S.)
OMF was formed in 1998 and bought the rights to further develop and manufacture the Glastar as a certified airplane and the result-in surprisingly short order-is the Symphony 160.
Although Stoddard Hamilton was well known for its blisteringly fast Glasair composite kits, the Glastar only looked like a pure composite because it was painted white. It actually incorporated quite a lot of metal.
The Symphony iteration is one of the oddest going in general aviation. Like a ragwing Cub of yore, the basic fuselage structure is of welded steel tube but rather than a fabric cover, the airplane uses light composite panels screwed to the tubing.
The wings are of conventional riveted rib-and-skin construction and strut braced, just as Cessna has been doing for years. It has conventional control surfaces actuated by cables and Fowler-type flaps that extend about two-thirds of span. The landing gear is spring steel and, as is the fashion these days, steering is via differential braking, not a steerable nosewheel. Running against the grain a little, the Symphony has a center stick rather the side controller thats the rage in new-age composite airplanes.
For power, OMF picked the reliable if rather ordinary Lycoming carbureted O-320, the 160-HP engine used in the Cessna 172 before it was reborn in 1997. The airplane has a two-blade fixed-pitch composite MT prop. (On the airplane we flew, the prop was painted to look metallic, but its composite over wood.)
Unlike Diamonds Katana series, the Symphony is IFR certified and equipped accordingly. The airplane we flew-courtesy of Tony Settember of Foothill Aircraft at Cable Airport, east of Los Angeles-was adequately if not lavishly equipped with a Garmin 430/420 combination, a Garmin GTX327 transponder and an audio panel/intercom combination. It has standard vacuum flight instruments-no HSI-and a Vision MicroSystems engine instrument display unit that includes a nice repeater unit on the pilots side that does basic fuel totalizing and calculations.
Asking price for the model we flew is $140,000. Another $9000 will buy an S-TEC System 30 autopilot, which isnt a bad addition for anyone contemplating serious cross country flying or IFR trips. Given its handling traits, we think the airplane would be a good IFR ride and safe by dint of its slow landing speeds. Youd want to avoid serious icing, however. For a VFR-only version, the price is $120,000.
Whats most surprising about the Symphony, in our view, is how heavy it is. Were accustomed to two-placers of recent manufacture being light to the point of gauziness. Not the Symphony. Its max gross weight is 2150 pounds, making it nearly 500 pounds heavier than the Diamond C1 Eclipse/Evolution and an eyebrow raising 725 pounds heavier than the Eagle 150.
Youd think that would make the payload exactly nothing but the Symphony has a typical empty weight of 1460 to 1470 pounds for a useful load of about 690 pounds, better than the Diamond C1 and better yet than the XL-2. The Symphony can carry 32 gallons of gas, with 29 gallons usable, so that means the airplanes remaining payload with the tanks topped is right around 500 pounds. Even with the new FAA fat-ass rule bumping standard passenger weight to 195 pounds, youd still have capacity for more than 100 pounds of luggage.
There might even be room for it. For a two-placer, the Symphony has a generous baggage area-max capacity 165 pounds-accessible via a hinged door on the left side of the airplane. (The door has two locks, an arrangement we found awkward but at least it ought to stay closed in flight.) OMF is pitching the Symphony as a weekend getaway machine and for two people, thats realistic, provided youre not in a hurry to get there.
And theres the rub: all that payload comes at a price and its fuel burn and speed. While the Diamond C1 has an injected 125-HP Continental, the Symphonys O-320 is necessarily less efficient and more fuel thirsty. And you dont get a lot of speed out of it for an airplane so small with that much power. In our test flights at 4500 and 5500 feet at about 65 percent power, we noted true airspeeds between 116 knots and 118 knots. According to the POH, fuel flows are in the 7 to 9 GPH range. At the higher power settings, youd want to plan maybe two-hour legs, leaving a solid hour in the tanks; less if seriously IFR. So really, this is a 200 to 300-mile cruiser or less when the wind is nasty and not in your favor. In our view, 29 gallons of gas is light for an engine this large. Cessnas with the same engine tank 42 gallons and anything that burns 7 to 9 gallons needs that flexibility.
Given GA pilots tendency to run out of gas, we think OMF needs to watch this carefully for any trends toward fuel exhaustion incidents due to the spare fuel capacity. True, the airplane has an electronic fuel totalizer-a good thing-but these instruments have proven to be two-edged blades, emboldening pilots to run closer to the tank dregs. We predict there will be a larger fuel capacity option for this airplane.
Theres one more catch on that generous payload. The airplane has 2041-pound landing limit, so if you take off at gross weight, you have to burn off at least 18 gallons of gas before legally landing.
Along with non-steerable nosewheels, the new two-place designs share another trait: they arent easy to get into. The Symphony has narrow doors with a high sill, confronting the pilot and passenger with the choice of trying to raise a leg above the sill-not quite-or plopping in butt first and swinging the legs through that narrow opening. The latter worked best but it isnt at all comfortable to do, in our view. (The Katana, Eagle and XL-2 arent much better, in our estimation.)
Once aboard, controls, switches and so forth come easily to hand. The airplane has dual over-the-shoulder harnesses with an aerobatic style center-point clasp. The seats are minimally adjustable, with only two positions, no recline adjustment and no sliding rudder pedals, as in the Diamond products. The seats are contoured, however, and we found them unnoticeably comfortable, which is to say that after an hour of flight, there were no noticeable pressure points, cramps or creaks.
Visibility from inside the cockpit is good, although not as good as the Katana series, in our estimation. As in Cessna products, the high wing blocks some upward vision-roof skylights help-but the view downward is unobstructed and generous, thanks to window sills below elbow level. The view forward is adequate if somewhat marred by a pair of downtubes that split the windshields width into thirds, an apparent inevitable consequence of the Symphonys welded tube construction.
The panel is well organized with all the electrical switches grouped along the bottom of the pilots side of the cockpit and clearly labeled. The panel itself is the gray painted metal most manufacturers are favoring these days and we thought the detail work was good, although we didnt especially like a polished metal trim strip along the bottom edge of the panel. It gave the airplane too much of a homebuilt look, in our estimation.
Engine instrumentation is provided by the Vision Microsystems VM 1000 indicator with an EC-100 warning system, essentially a rudimentary flight computer that keeps track of fuel burn, reads OAT and even has a checklist function. The VM1000 is mounted on the far right of the panel but it has a wide enough viewing angle so that the pilot can easily read RPM and the digital representations of analog values for the engine instruments.
Theres also a digital gauge for each tank combined in a single round display showing fuel remaining, both as a digital value and graphically via a series of radial bars. Settember told us this system is quite accurate and thus may encourage Symphony drivers to play it conservative with fuel.
The fuel plumbing itself is Cessna style; two wing tanks flowing through a single tank valve with on or off as the only selections. Fuel flow is by gravity but theres an electric pump for back-up and also a priming plunger, which we didnt have need to use in warm weather.
The electrical system is 28-volt, with a belt-driven alternator but no back-up electrical of any kind. As noted, the airplane has vacuum instruments. We would much prefer the all-electric designs used by Diamond, Cirrus and Lancair. These eliminate pump failures and, for IFR airplanes, all-electric instruments offer more back-up options. In our view, the day of the dry vacuum pump has passed and it shouldnt be used in new airplanes.
As with all castoring nosewheel airplanes, ground handling of the Symphony takes a deft touch. The brakes are effective and initially, taxiing is a jerk-stop-and-roll crawl up the learning curve. You can master it by the time your reach the run-up area. On the way, youll discover that the Symphony can ground turn in its own length, a plus when maneuvering on tight ramps.
For takeoff, the checklist calls for 20-degrees of flaps, which shortens the takeoff roll and reduces the rotation moment. We tried takeoffs with and without flaps and didnt notice much difference, frankly. The airplane accelerates smartly and is ready to fly at 60 knots or so. We would describe pitch forces as feather light and roll slower than we would have expected from looking at the airplane.
As would be expected given its power, the airplane climbs well. We were able to hold 700 FPM at about 90 knots with unrestricted visibility over the nose. The airplane held 600 FPM to 6000 feet, which is as high as we climbed.
We found the stick to be nicely positioned and of the right length; it has a dog leg shape so the base of it can tuck under the seat. Its also equipped with a PTT switch. Thankfully, the airplane has a genuine trim wheel, nicely located on the console between the two seats. Trim control is via anti-servo tab on the elevator and given the size of the control surfaces, minor trim wheel movements are effective.
The Symphony has no bad handling habits that we could find in a one-hour wring out. Stalls are docile and a break takes real effort to provoke. Its quite impressive at hands-off slow flight at 60 knots, thanks to some strategically placed vortex generators on the wings. With the power and trim set, it will hold this high-alpha attitude with little or no input from the pilot. Flaps-down stall speed, by the way, is a dawdling 51 knots.
Like the Katana, the Symphony is fun and easy to land. However, we were surprised to find that it takes concentration to slow it down, even with flaps extended. On our first landing, we expected it to behave like a Cessna 150, which slows to a crawl when the flaps are out.
It doesnt. The POH calls for 65 knots over the fence for normal and short-field landings. Thats doable enough but it takes planning. Power-on approaches at 60 knots at a mid-weight yielded comfortably short touchdowns.
We give OMF high marks for the Symphony. Its a capable, competent airplane well-suited to the task of training. OMFs Sprague told us the company set out to build the smallest, most practical and inexpensive IFR airplane and we would venture to say they have succeeded.
Its adequate as a crossover cruiser but its short legs make it less than ideal in that role. But is it good enough to consider it instead of Diamonds Evolution/Eclipse line? We would call it a contender but hardly a slam dunk winner against Diamond.
The Symphony carries more and has a larger baggage area-if thats an important consideration for you-but its a bit slower and burns more gas. Where it aces the Diamonds is in IFR certification. For about the same amount of money for a two-place trainer, we think its better to have IFR capability than not. To get that from Diamond, you need to step up to the four-place Star, which is considerably more expensive but also more capable.
The larger consideration, in our view, is the vitality of the company. Diamond has proven that it has staying power and has been through the inevitable retrenchment and survived. It gets good reviews from customers for support.
OMF is not there yet, in our view. It took us more than a year to arrange a demo flight because the company simply doesnt have an extensive sales force. Even at that, we had to fly across the continent for a demo. OMF recently announced that it will build a new production facility in Quebec, which we see as a good sign. In fairness, OMF had legal squabbling with Stoddard Hamilton to sort through but that now appears to be resolved.
If OMF endures and capitalizes its sales and support network, it will be worth watching. This market may evolve into a two-way shootout between the OMF and Diamond.
Also With This Article
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