The Perfect Trainer

In a real world flyoff, the Katana attracts more students but the Maule Comet is the real sleeper.

To hear the old heads tell it, back in the mid-1970s training boom, you could hardly find a spot in the airport parking lot, it was so jammed with students cars. (They didnt drive BMWs back then.)

Could happen again, we suppose. Student pilot starts are on the rise, sharpening the perennial dilemma that FBOs and flightschools face: Whats the best primary trainer?

Twenty years ago, it was either the Warrior or the Cessna 152 and although thats still true in the 90s, those airframes are tired. There are no new 152s and a new Warrior is too pricey to be an FBO trainer. New 172s are being bought by flight academies but havent found a wide market among Mom and Pop FBOs because the high purchase price makes them expensive rentals.

Whats left? Diamonds snazzy Katana has filled the gap but two other possibilities we recently flew include the Zenith CH 2000, another Canadian-built design and the Maule MXT-7 Comet, a tri-gear version of Maules respected taildraggers that the folks down at Moultrie have been marketing as a trainer.

Fortuitously, a local FBO we know, Wagner Airways in Lincoln Park, New Jersey, just west of New York City, operates all three airplanes as trainers, thanks to owner Tim Wagners philosophy that variety is both the spice of life and the stuff of successful flightschools. We recently spent a day wringing out the three airplanes in the company of Wagner instructor Neil Tucker, an Australian transplant working in the U.S. Before reporting on our impressions, lets consider what qualities the ideal trainer should have.

Do It All
Ideally, the perfect trainer would be all things to all pilots; stable and easy to fly, comfortable and fast enough for long cross country training sessions, a respectable load hauler and, above all, affordable to buy and operate with a reliable dispatch rate. Even a trainer with an perfect mix of desirable traits will be a loser if the hourly rental rate is pushed to $80 or $90 just to cover an expensive purchase note.

Curb appeal matters, too. FBOs know that would-be students are put off by ratty airframes. Given the choice of newer and nicer versus seasoned, newer and nicer is better. Initially, students shopping for flight training respond warmly to airplanes with aesthetic appeal.

In that regard, the Katana is the walk away winner. Its sleek good looks and sports car-like interior are bound to impress a student accustomed to the fit and finish of a typical Japanese car, although some express concern about its tiny overall size. By comparison, the Zenith CH 2000, with its stubby wings and fuselage and no-frills detailing, looks positively dowdy. The paint on the year-old Zenith we flew, although serviceable, lacked the Katanas luster.

The Maule MXT-7 finishes second in the beauty contest, in our view. Bristling with struts and braces, it exudes more strength than sleekness. Maule has long had a reputation for building robust airframes with less attention paid to cosmetics such as interior appointments and paint. However, the company has made progress in recent years; Wagners Maule has a well-appointed interior and respectable paint. If students draw any distinction between its fabric covering and the Katanas seamless glass, Wagner and Tucker report no comments to that effect.

Ingress and Comfort
After accompanying Tucker on the pre-flight walk around for each airplane, we struggled through the usual ingress dance. And make no mistake, it is a struggle for all three types.

The Katanas tip back canopy exposes the entire cockpit but entry is via a tiny step in front of the wing and this requires an awkward pirouette followed by a graceless plop into the low-slung seat. Exiting requires heaving forward using a strategically placed handhold in the glareshield.

The CH 2000 can be entered from both sides, having a conventional step behind each wing and a very narrow wing walk. But Tucker warned us that the savvy instructor will remember not to mount the rightside step simultaneously with the student on the left side or risk standing the Zenith on its tail.

What surprised us was how difficult it is to get into the Maule. The entry door is relatively narrow and where the taildragger versions gear leg is forward of the door, the tri-gear model gear leg is centered on the door opening. A step forward of the door helps, but not much. Wagner had a taildragger Maule on the line and by comparison, we found it much easier to enter and exit.

Once settled into the cockpit, the Maule is by far the most comfortable of the three. Seat position is adjustable via a conventional sliding track while both the Katana and the CH 2000 have fixed seats. The Katanas rudder pedals have adjustable positioning and can easily accommodate a tall student or instructor, although reaching the adjuster requires a grunt. In the Zenith, only the seatback angle is adjustable; a lanky pilots knees will crowd the panel.

On a long cross country, the Katana seat position becomes noticeably unyielding; the word excruciating might not be too harsh. Diamond has addressed this in the new Continental-powered C1 model by changing the seatback angle and making other minor interior changes. (The Katana we flew was a two-year-old Rotax-powered A1.) Although the Katana has that fighter-like canopy, it has to be locked down before engine start, so a long taxi to the runway in a heat-soaked cockpit leaves student and instructor bathed in sweat. Canopy side vents help only a little. Again, the new C1 addresses this with a two-position canopy that can be cracked open during taxi, providing plenty of cooling breeze.

With its gullwing doors, the Zenith is similarly hobbled in hot weather. However, Tucker showed us a trick: Pop open the doors and secure them against the prop stream from the outside by holding the door handle. That yields a nice blast of air in the cockpit. Just don’t lose your grip on the handle or you risk damaging the doors.

With conventionally opening windows, the Maule is we’ll ventilated on the ground. In flight, vents in both the Katana and Zenith cool the cockpit quickly but the Maules infinitely adjustable ventilation system is capable of a veritable gale in the cabin; they clearly know about hot weather flying down in Georgia.

The Maule, of course, has a full backseat so tools of the trade such as hoods, charts and the like are easily accessible. The Katana sports a small shelf behind a nylon net which is virtually unreachable without unstrapping the four-point harnesses. We prefer those snug belts but they make movement in the cockpit difficult. The Zenith has a more spacious and accessible shelf/baggage area and although the belts arent up to Katana standards, the shelf is easier to get to.

Controls and Panel
Since student pilots have few pre-conceptions about controls and panel layout, most can adapt to anything. But to their credit, both Diamond and Zenith have obviously thought through panel design and while neither is perfect, both are improvements over mid-70s Cessnas. The clear winner in this category is the Katana, in our opinion. Right out of the blocks, we think a stick is far superior to a yoke and the placement of the throttle on a center console, along with the prop control and trim rocker, efficiently organize what is, after all, a tiny cockpit.

Ergonomically, controls and instruments are we’ll placed with only two significant exceptions: the adjustable rudders are hard to reach from the seated position and the fuel valve is buried on the center console sidewall. Since there’s only one tank, switching in flight isn’t necessary but we would rather have the fuel valve in plain sight. Katana critics have complained that the airplanes constant speed prop would prove unnecessarily complex but the Wagner instructors havent found this to be the case. Actually, says Tucker, the lack of a mixture control-the Rotax has autoleaning carburetors-has proven to be the greater training issue when students transition to a step-up airplane.

Diamond has now dropped the Rotax entirely and the new C1 model has a fixed prop but a conventional mixture control. As described on page 8 of this issue, even that red knob may vanish again, supplanted by a full-blown FADEC system to be offered soon, possibly as early as next year.

We would describe the Zenith cockpit layout as improved conventional. Instrument and switch placement is logical, especially the fuel valve, which is on the console between the seats. We didnt especially like the Zeniths trim system, which is electric only, controlled by a rocker on the center pedestal. In our view, the rocker had poor tactile feedback in an airplane thats sensitive to trim input. We would prefer a manual wheel, with electric trim as an option.

Which is exactly what the Maule has. Although its panel is busier than the other two by dint of it being an older design and more of an all-purpose utility airplane than pure trainer, the Maule will be more familiar to experienced pilots. Most will also notice that the instrument panel is oddly offset to the left; the yoke is centered on the altimeter and VSI, not the DG and AI.

The Maules trim wheel is on the floor between the seats, along with the manual flap lever, which has a 7-degree reflex position for cruise flight. Like the Katana, the Maules fuel valve needs work. Its located low on the left cockpit wall and, as weve noted in previous reports, because of the valve shape and position, confusing off for left or right is an easy error to make, especially for a student.

Flight Trials
If ease of operation is a desirable trainer trait, the Katana leads this trio, with some important caveats. Start-up is car like, with none of the priming or coaxing necessary to wake up the typical aircraft engine. As we mentioned, in hot weather, taxiing is an ordeal so pick a runway close to the ramp and hope youre number 1 for takeoff. With its castering nosewheel, ground handling is not the Katanas forte. The C1 has improved steering and brakes but the Rotax-powered A1 is squirrelly and sometimes hard to steer; a support structure crowding the tiny brake pedals doesnt help. Tucker told us that on the ground, the Katana is sometimes a frustrating handful for students.

On the takeoff roll, handling improves and after rotation, the Katana is a delight to fly. The wrap around canopy provides superb visibility and in the climb attitude, the nose doesnt mask the horizon. With two heavy people aboard, however, the Katana is an anemic climber: 500 FPM initially, sagging to a little less than that soon after takeoff. With that kind of performance, pattern work gets tedious.

The Katanas controls are light and we’ll harmonized and it holds a trimmed airspeed without the slightest hunting. In fact, in stooging around the pattern for touch and goes, we noticed that the Katana needs very little trimming at all, thanks to having plenty of leverage available on the stick and no noticeable control friction. Stalls are a non-event, so much so, says Tucker, that the Katana doesnt prepare a student to handle aircraft types with a more abrupt stall.

In cruise, we noted 95 knots indicated, for a TAS of just over 100 knots on about 4 gallons per hour. Thats fast enough to get to and from the practice area without making a career of it and it paces a Cessna 152 for student cross countries. Thanks to the stable trimmed airspeed, landings out of a 65-knot approach are a cinch. Maybe even a little too easy, says Tucker.

When its calm and quiet, its great. Its not so easy in a crosswind, he says, especially compared to heavier airframes such as the Cessna 172 or Warrior. On gusty days, the Katana is the first airplane grounded for student flights, a significant drawback. We agree with Tuckers observation that the stick is the Katanas saving grace in gusty conditions because its leverage allows quick application of corrective control input.

Although the Katana is far slicker than either the Zenith or Maule, it doesnt seem to float much in the landing flare. Its slipperiness is most noticeable in power-off glides, which gives new students fits in learning accurate emergency approaches.

Fat and Draggy
The CH 2000 is, by comparison, draggy but blessed with a fat wing and lots of lift. Given its higher horsepower-a 116 HP Lycoming O-235 versus the Katanas 81 HP Rotax-the Zenith practically leaps off the runway and climbs well, if at a slightly alarming high deck angle.

We were easily able to achieve a 700 FPM initial climb and to maintain 500 FPM to the practice area. With the high nose attitude, however, the Zeniths cockpit visibility is mediocre, in our view. Compared to the Katana, we found the control harmony to be not quite as pleasant. Roll and pitch forces are what youd expect of a trainer but the rudder-which is a full-pivoting affair rather than a conventional vertical fin with a separate control surface-was stiff and unpleasant, in our estimation. Pressure on the pedals yields uncertain movement and little feedback.

Stalls are benign and predictable but because the fat wing builds drag so quickly, they happen in a flash. Tucker told us he often carries power through the stall merely to have enough time to describe for the student whats about to happen. Recovery is instantaneous, with or without power.

The Zenith has split flaps, which add a ton of drag on approaches. Tucker told us that where students have trouble with the Katana being too slick and overshooting on emergency approaches, the Zenith is just the opposite. Slowed to approach speed power off, it will sag into a healthy sink rate that has to be arrested with a handful of power. Yet trimmed up with a power-on approach, we found the Zenith less nervous in a crosswind and nearly as easy to land as the Katana.

The same cant be said of getting it stopped, however. Frankly, we found the brakes in both the Zenith and the Katana A1 to be terrible. Both systems seem to have limited bite and despite maximum effort, neither would stop well. Low-time students should be counseled to avoid short runways with these airplanes. Despite its weak brakes, however, the Zenith handles better on the ground than the Katana, thanks to its steerable nosewheel.

In cruise flight, we noted TAS of 93 knots at 60 percent power, although the POH says 99 knots at 75 percent is possible. That requires 2800 RPM, which increases noise and vibration. Fuel flows are between 5 and 7 GPH.

Mighty Maule
Flying the four-place Maule against the Zenith and Katana is somewhat unfair, given the Maules higher horsepower (180 HP Lycoming O-360). Then again, the Maule is in the same price range and it is being pushed as a primary trainer.

The higher horsepower definitely matters, for it eliminates performance compromises the other two aircraft suffer for being born as pure trainers. The Maule is all around a beefier, heavier airplane. The massive gear legs, for example, look strong enough not only to survive a forced landing but to plow the field on the way in.

The MXT-7 handles superbly on the ground and unlike the other two, it has first-rate brakes. Although not considered a STOL airplane, the Comet performs respectably short takeoffs and landings. With a notch of flaps, it levitates off the runway in fewer than 500 feet, by our estimation. Initial climb rate is 700 FPM or better at light weights.

We found the cockpit visibility to be adequate but not exceptional. The windows and windshield are relatively small and a pair of crossbrace tubes obscure the windshield, giving the cockpit a dated feel that we didnt find entirely appealing. Control feel is, well, Maule like, which is relatively light for an airplane of this size and weight but not as pleasant as the Katana. Keeping the ball centered proved a challenge, however, evidently due to minor misrigging.

The Maule is noticeably more hands-off stable than the other two types, once trimmed. But like the Zenith, its draggy and will slow quickly when power is reduced for stalls and slow flight.

Fortunately, with the additional power, recovery from backside sink fests is quick and certain. Its a faster ride, too. With the reflex flaps set, we noted 110 knots in cruise at about 9 GPH. (Were guessing on the fuel flow; the Maule manual is horribly lacking in detail.)

The MXT-7 springs from a line of tailwheel airplanes and although its nosegear tames the taildragger versions tendency to weathervane in a crosswind, it doesnt eliminate it. That big vertical fin is still poking up in the breeze and on one of our landings, a rogue crossways breeze caused a surprising bolt for edge of the runway. Instructor Tucker noted that the Maule will handle crosswinds just fine, as long as the student is rudder savvy and not just along for the ride.

Weight and Balance
Without even looking in the POH, we knew the Maule would win this category. The model we flew had a basic empty weight of 1467 pounds, which translates to 933 pounds of useful load or four people and 40 gallons of gas.

And you can put that load almost anywhere in the airplane, since the rearward most baggage area has a 250-pound limit. Take a heavy student and instructor-say 450 pounds between them-and stuff 100 pounds in the baggage compartment with 50 gallons of fuel. No problem. There’s still room for more gas.

The Katana doesnt fare nearly so well, of course. With a typical empty weight of 1160 pounds and a gross of 1609 pounds, payload is between 400 and 450 pounds in early A1s. (Later serial number A1s and the C1 will carry 500 pounds or a bit more.) Our hefty duo might we’ll be at gross weight on the ramp, with zero fuel. Clearly, fat boys need not apply. A couple of 220 pounders is about the practical limit for the Katana. Even then, theyll have to watch the gas.

The Zenith we flew had an empty weight of 1128 pounds and a gross of 1606 pounds, for a useful load of 478 pounds; a bit better than the Katana, but not much. By comparison, useful load in a typical Cessna 152 is 500 to 550 pounds, which is one reason 152s continue to hang tough as the trainer of choice.

So which of these three trainers was best? As a pure trainer, we think the Katana wins the competition but given its warts, its not a walk away victor. (In fairness, the new C1 corrects most of the A1 Katanas shortcomings.) The Zenith gets good marks for better ground handling, better climb rate and easier maintainability, in our view. We don’t see the point of its quirky gullwing doors and centerpost rudder set-up, both of which introduce operational limitations but no particular advantage.

Overall, the Zenith doesnt do enough things really we’ll to stand out. Then again, its cheaper than the Katana, so valuewise, the two are relatively close. Furthermore, the CH 2000 can be certified for IFR while the Katana is VFR only. For some flightschools, thats an important distinction.

In our opinion, the sleeper here is the Maule MXT-7. Even fully equipped, its cheaper than the Katana, a bit faster and carries twice as much payload. It can also be IFR-certified for the owner or school who wishes to have an all-purpose utility airplane that happens to also be a trainer. True, its operational costs are higher due to fuel burn, but we note that Wagner rents it for $72 per hour, versus $65 for the Katana and $67 for the Zenith. Not much of a spread.

But the Maules problems as a potential trainer are manifold and mainly related to the factorys lack of sales acumen for the trainer market. As Cessna learned-and is now re-learning-a good training airplane isn’t enough. It has to come with a training support structure, including documentation, curricula and, at the very least, a complete and thorough POH, which the Maule plainly lacks. Both Cessna and Diamond are launching or have launched ambitious training programs to support their aircraft sales efforts.

Second, the Maules rag-and-tube construction seems somewhat antiquated, even though in reality its perfectly serviceable and practical. Maule is selling 1930s proven technology against 1990s flash and glitz. Its an uphill fight.

Nonetheless, with favorable financing, good backroom support and a skilled sales team, Maule could make a mark in the trainer biz.

Contact Wagner Airways at 800-654-6111. The school is located at Lincoln Park, New Jersey.

Also With This Article
Click here to view Trainers Compared.
Click here to view “Maintenance Notes: Zenith Shines.”
Click here to view Addresses.
Click here to view the Checklist.

by Paul Bertorelli