The notion that a basic training aircraft should be light, cheap and small has been dented by the advent of the 400 kilobuck Cessna 172, which is none of those things. But one of the companies that hasn’t abandoned the minimalist trainer idea is Pipistrel, the innovative Slovenian aircraft maker that continues to plumb the bleeding edge of aero tech with new designs, one of which is the Alpha Trainer we’ll look at in this review. An electric version may appear this year.
Cheap trainers have been tried before. Four decades ago, Cessna plied that market with the 150 Commuter and 20 years after that, Piper tried with the Cadet. What’s new about Pipistrel’s Alpha is that it’s based on not just a light airframe, but an obsessively light airframe and one built with the lowest operating costs as line one in the design brief. In that sense, its competition may be not just LSA-type trainers, but the emerging diesel market, which, despite high purchase prices, claims low operating costs. At $83,181 at current exchange rates, the Alpha is one-fifth the cost of new Cessna 172.
To say that Pipistrel marches to the tune of a different drummer suggests that the company hears conventional music at all. We’re not so sure. The Slovenian-based manufacturer builds a line of light aircraft and motorgliders that are decidedly off the mainstream. With efficiency as their driving force, Pipistrel’s designs have been based largely on the glider or motorglider technology that’s infused into the aviation culture of the region.
The Alpha Trainer is a downscale version of Pipistrel’s popular Virus, a two-place highwing powered by a Rotax 912 and aimed at the sport flying market and customers who want both speed and economy. Those two are usually mutually exclusive, but thanks to Pipistrel’s dedication to light weight and low drag, they manage it. We reviewed the Virus SW in the May 2012 issue of Aviation Consumer and found it to be somewhat of an exotic, long on speed, efficiency and good looks at the expense of some comfort. Even by European standards, it has a certain quirkiness to it.
Like the Virus, the Alpha Trainer is entirely composite. But instead of the light and strong honeycomb layup used in the Virus, the Alpha has a single-skin laminate to make it easier to repair in the field, says Pipistrel’s Tine Tomazic. “Any glider repair shop would be able to work on the Alpha without special instructions or special facilities,” he says. Furthermore, Pipistrel heard the complaints about LSAs not holding up to intensive training, so it has beefed up the landing gear structure and mount.
For occupant protection, the cabin is stiffened by Kevlar pillars and Kevlar is also used to build a cocoon around the fuel, which is located inside the fuselage aft of the small baggage compartment. The fuel tank is removable rather than having the wet-wing tanks in the Virus. That caused some maintenance headaches when trace methanol in the automotive gas the airplanes are approved for caused some tank damage. Now, in addition to being removable, the 13.2-gallon tank has an improved coating to prevent softening or delamination.
Showing its glider roots, the Alpha has high-aspect ratio wings and although it looks to have a huge wingspan, it’s 34.5 feet, the same as the Virus SW. That’s only two feet longer than the Cessna 152. The Alpha has redesigned wingtips that make it look bigger than it in fact is.
But the wings are definitely different than those of the Virus. For one thing, they don’t have the wing tanks and, second, the flap system is different. The Virus is unique for having a five-degree negative flap setting that’s deployed in cruise to eke up the speed. They work, too; the Virus will boil along at 140 knots on about 3.5 gallons, making it one of the most efficient airplanes of any class.
Because of its slickness, the Virus has glider-type spoilers and if it didn’t, landing would be difficult, especially on short fields. (Its glide ratio is 17 to 1.) Pipistrel dispensed with the spoilers in the Alpha and gave the airplane a higher flap setting for the second notch—25 degrees versus 18 in the Virus. This simplifies construction and operation and gives the airplane a steeper approach profile. Both aircraft have flaperons.
While the Virus is available with tri-gear or as a taildragger, the Alpha has only tri-gear and this means that unlike most LSAs, it has a steerable nosewheel and combined brakes operated by a hand lever, giving excellent ground handling. The nosegear is steered via semi-stiff cables connected to the pedals and the rudder, so when the rudder moves, so does the nosewheel. The rest of the control circuitry is conventional torque tubes.
Ultralight is Right
When we flew the Virus SW in Slovenia three years ago and reviewed its numbers, the POH gave the empty weight as 302 kg or 664 pounds. We later emailed the factory to confirm that. Yup, that’s right. Using the allowable U.S. light-sport weight of 1320 pounds, we calculated that the airplane could lift its own weight. Yes, said Pipistrel, it can, but to keep the stall speed down, the weight limit is 1235 pounds.
The Alpha we flew in Slovenia was even lighter. Pipistrel claims an empty weight of 287 kg (631 pounds) for a useful load of 264 kg or 581 pounds. Again, Pipistrel limits the max weight to 1212 pounds or 550 kg.
Still, with a useful of 581 pounds, the Alpha can carry two 225-pound people, full fuel and about anything you could reasonably stuff into the baggage compartment. Those weights, by the way, include a ballistic parachute, a 13-kg (28.6-pound) addition that’s standard and required in some countries.
These payloads should shut down any complaints about LSAs not being capable of carrying portly Americans. (By comparison, the ill-starred Cessna Skycatcher has a useful load of 486 pounds.)
To lift this prodigious load, the Alpha has the 80-HP variant of the Rotax 912. Other than the electric version (see sidebar), no other engine option is available. This has proved to provide sufficient power and it helps restrain the inevitable price escalation. To further tamp down the price, the airplane is sold complete; no options and a rudimentary panel and avionics suite.
True to form, the panel has some quirk to it, with instruments homegrown by Pipistrel, including clever combination analog/digital instruments for the ASI, altimeter, tachometer and clock. U.S. versions will have a Garmin aera, a GTR 200 comm radio, Garmin GTX 327 transponder, a 406 MHz ELT and a digital engine monitor. For a stripped-down trainer, that’s fairly lavishly equipped, although it doesn’t look that way once you’re inside.
The interior is anything but lavish. The seats are adequately padded but not thick, nor are they adjustable. The airplane has comfortable seat
belts with dual shoulder harnesses, a plus in our view. And we think it needs them, because one thing we’re not a fan of is the composite box hiding the spar carrythrough on the cabin roof.
It’s directly in front of and only slightly above the occupants’ foreheads. You’ll graze it if not bump it when ingressing. Tomazic says the carrythrough is covered by a protective cushion, but when asked about the crash hazard this represents, he argues that it isn’t a realistic hazard at all.
“It is there and it seems strange. But what people keep forgetting is that once you’re strapped in, the pivoting point of the neck and head is actually at the shoulder level; there’s no way your body will fly straight forward when it’s restrained,” Tomazic says. While this may be true, we would rather it weren’t there. But this is not an atypical limitation of small, light aircraft with limited structure and small cabins.
You’d expect an airplane this light—even with 80 HP—to perform well and the Alpha doesn’t disappoint. It handles well on the ground and although the takeoff acceleration doesn’t pin you to the seat, it’s brisk enough and the airplane leaps into the air and climbs well. It won’t be a dawdler in the pattern.
In fact, the reverse is true. If you don’t reduce the throttle smartly upon turning downwind, the Alpha will merrily accelerate to 100 knots or more indicated and will take some time and space to get to its 55-knot approach speed.
For a trainer, it’s fairly fast, both in cruise and climb. “It was never conceived to be a quick airplane, but rather one with emphasis on takeoff and pattern, especially from very small fields,” Tomazic says. Well, yes, but it will cruise at 108 knots on 3.5 GPH or less, smoking older trainers of this class. It’s got three-hour legs, with reserve.
Pipistrel pays attention to the finer points of control harmony, so the Alpha is pleasant to fly and quite docile. Steep turns, stalls and even aggravated stalls reveal no bad habits. Stall speed in landing configuration is a stately 37 knots.
Because it has clear acrylic cabin doors, visibility to the sides is fantastic and not bad over the nose. The cabin is roomier than a 152; legroom is adequate for all but the tallest people, with adjustable rudder pedals to make up the difference. On our demo flight, we barely rubbed shoulders.
Landings in the Alpha are neither typical of small trainers nor LSAs. The airplane can’t get past its glider roots, so a short, tight approach isn’t in the offing, unless the pattern is flown at low altitude, and maybe not even then. Even with max flaps, the airplane just doesn’t want to come down and slow down.
With the speed set at 55 knots, the view over the nose is good, but the approach is flatter than it is in other LSAs and certainly than in a 150 or 152. But it’s easier to land than the Virus, which requires the use of spoilers and has less effective flaps.
Teaching in the Alpha would definitely be different than in a conventional metal trainer. A low-time pilot transitioning from one to the other might find the differences rather startling. But also less expensive, given the airplane’s miserly fuel burn.
The Alpha was just being introduced when we visited Pipistrel for the first time in 2012 and has apparently found a niche as a trainer. About 80 have been sold worldwide, with about a dozen in the U.S. For more on the Alpha trainer and the Alpha Electro, check out Pipistrel’s website at www.pipistrel-usa.com.