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Mon, Jan 22, 2007

Final: ANN Names the 2006 Plane Of The Year--Amateur-Built/Experimental Category

Enough Of The Excuses... Here Are Our Final Decisions On The Best Birds Of The Year

OK... as is our habit, we'll do just a little more quibbling and then FINALLY get to the meat of the matter...

Each year, we put our heads together, look over reader input, our own reports and other sources of info and try to recognize the VERY BEST aircraft in a number of pivotal categories. Each year, the choices get tougher. Worse; we tend to also make it more difficult by tightening the reins on the decision making process so that it gets harder and harder to make the cut as the best in any category, much less wind up at the top of the pack.

As 2006 came to a close, we also made some additional decisions as to what constitutes a "Best of Breed" and how wide we wanted to cast the net. As previously noted, it struck us that naming an overall "best" aircraft across the entire spectrum of general (or sport) aviation is probably no longer reasonable. There are simply too many aircraft that have distinguished themselves in too many outstanding ways for one to truly be called better than the other on an overall basis. One man's perfect high-speed Hot-Rod, for instance, becomes the expensive "way too hot to handle" mistake of another pilot whose mission requirements may differ markedly. So... we're going to cop out -- just a bit, mind you. From here on out, we will name the best aircraft in individual categories, and reserve the right in the future to whittle down those categories as necessary. But, the fact of the matter is that no one airplane is all things to all pilots, and within the spectrum that we have decided on, these are the aircraft selections that truly impressed us in each of five categories. Please also note that we envision the addition of new categories for 1007, especially in regards to the burgeoning VLJ and Personal Jet markets.

Let me also note that while aircraft that previously were named Best Of Breed in any category, or overall, are eligible for inclusion in this year's list, we have decided to make it more difficult (in our judging protocols) for a previous winner to take the top spot in our judging criteria, so that a repeat winner truly earns the distinction.

So... here we go, let's review our final selections for the category of Sport Aviation Amateur-Built/Experimental Kit and then we'll tell you who won top honors... and why.

AAI/GBA Sparrowhawk II

The AAI/GBA Sparrowhawk filled a need... a need postulated by the original RAF 2000 gyroplane. What the sadly-lacking RAF 2000 promised -- stability, dependability and performance-wise, the Sparrowhawk sought to deliver. Better yet, after pioneering a laudable development and production effort with the Sparrowhawk I, GBA has followed up on this program not too long ago with the much-updated Sparrowhawk II.

The Sparrowhawk II gyroplane is a two-seat, pusher gyro that can be constructed as an Experimental-Amateur-Built gyroplane, in which case it requires a minimum of a Private Pilot license (in Rotorcraft/Gyro for passenger-carrying privileges), or as an Experimental Light Sport Aircraft, in which case it requires a minimum of a Sport Pilot license with a Gyroplane rating.

The bird offers up a useful load of 650 pounds, a 70 knot cruise, ground rolls of 100-500 feet, and a solid 500 fpm ROC. The new Sparrowhawk II has a lower empty weight, and some improvements in construction procedures. The difficult-to-assemble cruciform tail is now preconstructed at the factory (previously a popular $948 option, selected by about three quarters of Sparrowhawk builders) and the landing gear has been simplified, eliminating some of the most difficult and frustrating assembly steps.

BTW.... much to their credit, the company continues to offer a stability and control enhancement kit for RAF 2000 gyroplanes. However, not all Sparrowhawk parts retrofit to AAI-modified RAFs. For example, the Sparrowhawk cabin cannot be used on an RAF 2000, even with the AAI modifications (Groen Bros. and AAI are not affiliated with RAF).

FMI: www.americanautogyro.com

Glasair Aviation Sportsman 2+2

This is not your Father's GlaStar... it's something even better, and the 2006 season has been even better to this aircraft with the advent of a revolutionary factory build program that can get a builder set up to taxi his or her bird in just a few weeks after opening the box.

Fly this with your eyes closed and you'll swear that you're flying a GlaStar… which is a really good thing… but open your eyes, and see all the extra room and payload, and you'll know that the seemingly perfect little GlaStar SportPlane has finally been topped… by it's own kin.

The Sportsman 2+2 gives its pilots reason to brag about 155-161 mph cruise speeds (180-200 hp), and a Vso of only 48 mph... making the S2+2 an easy STOL performer needing as little as 375 feet for takeoff and 260 feet for landing. Climb rates range from 1950 fpm (solo) to 1000 fpm (gross). At 65% power and standard tanks, the S2+2 will get you 886 sm down the road. It has 1000 pounds of useful load, and a small bench seat behind the two front seats (good for an adult or two small kinds... or an amazing load of crap, uh, gear). Its up to you, because even if you fill both seats and gas it all the way up, there's still 300 pounds of useful load left.

The stretched and tweaked Sportsman 2+2 is every bit as good as the GlaStar was (high-praise--it was on my Top Ten list for years)... and maybe just a little bit nicer, in terms of load-carrying, and overall stability and control (the very tight static/dynamic pitch profile is even better defined... which we weren't sure was possible til we flew it). A solid company backs this bird and the value is exceptional... especially when you add in the availability of their new builder's program and financing packages. One final note... on a set of Montana Float Company's amphibs, this thing is absolutely amazing. Highly recommended.

FMI: www.glasairaviation.com

Lancair Legacy

I've been a bit perplexed by the seeming diminishment in the popularity of the high-performance class of SportPlanes. Not too many years ago, you were nothing if your bird couldn't flirt with 300 mph, and there seemed to be no lack of birds trying to give that target a run for its money. Many of those birds are long gone -- the Questair Venture, White Lightning, SX-300, and others... It's a crying shame they're AWOL, since so many of them were legitimately talented flyers that lacked for nothing -- except the requisite number of customers necessary to allow the boss to keep the doors open.

One of the true survivors of this industry is the Lancair Legacy, a fire-breathing two place hot-rod that is a very happy camper with 200-260 HP and a maniac with 310 HP. Available in both Fixed gear and Retractable, the RG version is a smoker... with a 310 HP Continental IO-550, the Legacy cruises 276 mph and still stalls at 65 mph. With a service ceiling of 18,000 feet, the Legacy RG can get off the deck in just 850 feet and touch down in 900'. A 65 gallon fuel system allows for a 1150 SM range, and the ROC is a whopping 2700 fpm when flown solo (YEEHAW!).

The company offers extensive builder support programs, including some excellent on-site factory assistance programs that can significantly cut down on overall build times. The pre-preg composite aircraft is kitted for $59,500 in "Quick-Build" configuration, though there are 2 week and 4 week builder assist programs (at extra cost) that can get the lion's share of the work done under the supervision of Lancair experts.

The bird is a very responsive airplane but with proper adaptation and orientation, we found that the general personality of the bird was honest enough to transition the lion's share of pilots with some high-performance aircraft time. Overall; the bird handles very well, and we very much enjoyed both the high-speed performance and the reassuring low-speed envelope.

FMI: www.lancair.com

Van's RV-8 QB

We're not prepared to just come out and say that Dick Van Grunsven can do no wrong... but darn it if Dick Van Grunsven can do no wrong... this two place tandem hot-rod is an excellent STOL flyer, pretty much a rocket-ship in cruise (200 mph or so), as mild-mannered as they come in slow-flight but with a rowdy soul if ya gotta get acrobatic for a while. It rocks, it rolls... it makes julien fries... NOT-- but what a hot-sh*t little airplane, we kid you not.

The RV-8 accepts mills in the 150-220 HP regime, but gives you back 680-733 pounds of useful load. This results in cruise speeds of 195-210 mph, takeoff distances of as little as 250-300 feet (solo), landing distances of 350-500' (solo/gross), rates of climb from 2000-2700 fpm, and 940-103 sm range (55%/8000'). Those are numbers ya gotta like -- and hundreds of customers have voted so with their pocketbook.

Sleek, pretty and incredibly functional, the RV-8 is one of Dick's best designs... though we beg all those who are interested in the bird to stick to the taildragger persuasion... as God himself intended, because a bird this cool and this rough and ready, simply looks at a nosewheel as an insult (grin). Still, if you want trike gear, the RV-8A trike gear version just might be your ticket -- but mark our words... God WILL get you for this blasphemy. 

The kits are exceptionally well-done (especially the quick-build versions), customer support is well-executed, and the camaraderie of OVER 4000 other RV builders is a benefit that can NOT possibly be overvalued. Highly recommended, this is about as low-risk a selection as there is in the sport aviation biz.

FMI: www.vansaircraft.com
OK... No More Stalling, The Winner Is...

The first of our five categorical choices (covering GA Piston Single, GA Piston Twin, SA Experimental Kit, E-LSA Kit, and S-LSA Ready To Fly) for the "Best of Breed" of 2006... a heckuva good year for aviation, is a REPEAT WINNER FROM 2005...

Glasair Aviation's Sportsman 2+2

Why, you may ask? Good question... especially when you consider the massive effort that Van's makes each year and the excellent customer service reports that they compile without fail... and also when you consider how far Lancair has come in the last few years... et al.

However; when you factor in the unique and industry-leading 'Two Weeks To Taxi' owner assist program, as well as the continual upgrades and customer service initiatives they've undertaken, the winning slot could only belong to Glasair Aviation... DESPITE the fact that they come from one of the most hotly contested categories in the business.

In basic terms, under the 'Two Weeks To Taxi' program, a customer will select the options they would like to see on a Glasair Sportsman 2+2 and purchase the fast build kit option. Then, schedule two weeks out of their lives and to travel to Arlington, WA where they will build their own 2+2 under the watchful eye and supervision of several Glasair technicians for the next two weeks.

If the syllabus is followed as specified, the customer will have a brand new Sportsman aircraft in taxi-test condition upon completion of the program. All that's left to do is paint, weight & balance, and the FAA paperwork.

Wow... for many of those with a lack of time, skill or the assurance that they can take on such a project; the Glasair Aviation Sportsman 2+2 is too compelling a bird to pass up. Congrats to Mikael Via and all the staff of Glasair Aviation for their ingenuity and the continued innovation they bring to the sport aviation world.

FMI: www.glasairaviation.com

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