UPDATE–November 2008: According to FPNA, an American company with a business relationship to A-20 producer Aeroprakt, the A-20 has been discontinued. Please contact FPNA for more information (contact info at end of article).
Two summers ago Americans saw a new aircraft from a Ukrainian company called Aeroprakt as U.S. importer Spectrum Aircraft brought in the A-22 Valor. It would be only the first in a fleet of new microlights.
Later another model from Aeroprakt appeared. In fact, the Vista series comprises 5 models, all variations on a basic theme that is nothing like the Valor. At present, the Ukraine enterprise has no less than nine models including the Valor, Vista, Cruiser, V-STOL, V-SS, Vulcan, Vulcan-SS, Victor single engine, Victor twin, and Viking. Four of this series are twin-engine aircraft, none are alike, and one is a 4-seater. By any measurement, this is quite an accomplishment from a company less than 10 years old and rising from the ashes of the failed Communist empire. Says importer Spectrum Aircraft boss John Hunter, “Over the past two years Aeroprakt has averaged a new design every six months!”
Don’t worry about figuring it all out. For this report, we’ll cover only two of the many configurations you might order: the A-20 Vista powered by a 50-hp Rotax 503 dual carb engine and the A-20 Vista Cruiser with the 100-hp Rotax 912S powerplant.
I want you to ignore the engine for now. While it’s important to choose your engine with care, it isn’t the powerplant that makes the Vista Cruiser my “pick of the week” for the group of new ultralights and microlights I flew in April 2001.
If I haven’t been clear enough, I’ll say it straight out: For my personal preferences in aircraft flown, the Aeroprakt Vista Cruiser was a wonderful flying experience.
I’d seen it was a fast-climbing machine and assumed performance would be strong with a Rotax 912S engine. What I didn’t know was the handling pleasure and low speed capabilities of the Vista series. Although I flew the potent 912S-powered one, I believe a 503-powered one will also work well. Of the Aeroprakt fleet, it may be the one instructors embrace for training under the training exemption to FAR Part 103.
No More Iron Curtain
I’ve known John Hunter for several years. His work flying Air Cams around the United States and a Drifter across the Gulf of Mexico (without floats) from Florida to Cancun, Mexico are dream flying experiences for many pilots.
Hunter’s broad smile is welcoming and I’ve found him to be a good marketer and salesman, a function he filled successfully for Leza-Lockwood (now named Leza AirCam Corporation). A couple years back, Hunter left that organization and linked up with a Dubai-based Arab group called Gulf Air Technologies who had contracted with Aeroprakt to develop a line of lightweight twins and other aircraft. Hunter’s Spectrum Aircraft is Gulf Air’s partner for North American sales.
Using the superb Air Cam as a benchmark, John promoted the Aeroprakt aircraft as possessing remarkable performance, responsive handling, stable flight characteristics, and strong construction. Sounds like a marketer, right? Too good to be true?
My initial reaction was strongly positive and that isn’t always the case. Many aircraft require you to log some flight time before you get used to them. The Vista Cruiser proved to climb as breathtakingly as I thought and it can be quite swift, but I didn’t expect the other end of the spectrum.
For example, I was able to hold altitude at 50 mph and barely over 3,000 rpm. At this power setting the Vista Cruiser was kind to my ears and exceedingly pleasant to fly. Though the Cruiser is capable of fairly high speeds, it is equally adept at common ultralight flying speeds.
The Vista Cruiser was also nicely appointed and ready to take up two pilots. While some instructors prefer side-by-side seating, this is a tandem aircraft in which I could give instruction comfortably. Training is accommodated by full controls at both seats. Let’s have a closer look.
Inside the Vista Cruiser
Pilots may note the entry step on the left side of the Vista Cruiser. I used it but Hunter has a better way to enter. He hops up on the cockpit frame and seat back, swings in his legs, and slides down the seat into position (see photos in this pilot report). I’ll use that method next time; most pilots can manage the maneuver.
Once I was seated, the Vista Cruiser took on the feel of a sailplane. For a soaring enthusiast like me, that was a good first impression. Controls are conveniently located, it was roomy, and overall felt right.
The Vista’s flap lever is different than most American designs though it is certainly workable. The lever or arm – which can be accessed from either front or rear seats, an unusual and useful feature – slides fore and aft in a track lubricated by roller on a rail that makes for fluid movement. You lift up and slide to the new detent which convincingly locks into place.
I didn’t notice much airload on flap deployment (though, naturally, I slowed first), but in my first retract experience with the flap handle, I didn’t maintain a firm grip. The handle shot forward to fully retracted before I could catch it. It never happened to me again. I’d been caught off guard as many flap handles have to be retracted with some muscular effort. Rarely are they “spring loaded” like the Vista Cruiser’s handle.
Flaps are flaperon style, so roll control is effected by their deployment. However, even with full flaps (and, obviously, slow speed) roll control remained quite effective. My Dutch rolls in this configuration required more aileron movement than when the flaps were not used.
Trim worked well, also. Many ultralights hardly need it but I often used trim on the Vista Cruiser. I thought trim was needed as the Cruiser exhibits a wide speed range with a powerful engine doing the work. (John Hunter later confirmed this impression. He also indicated that the twin-engine model with its lower thrust line does not require as much trim.) The lever was easily operated, positioned at the base of the joystick. It required a reach for my short arms but most pilots will find it a reasonable grip. Trim was effective without being sensitive and was adequately intuitive throughout its movement range.
A tube-type fuel indicator is installed along the rear occupant’s right side. From front or rear it’s easy to determine remaining quantity.
The Vista Cruiser’s sailplane feel comes partly because you sit several feet out in front of the wing. With its broad canopy windscreen, visibility is simply enormous. Even to the rear, visibility is quite good although I had to twist considerably to check the rudder movements before takeoff. The Vista Cruiser’s canopy has a “cap” inside that keeps the sun off your head, also cooling the enclosure somewhat.
Taxiing out for takeoff, I found adequate steering, though in a crowded field you might wish for differential brakes. I’d have loved the topless windscreen canopy that the Vista models can use. This would have allowed plenty of airflow without neglecting pilot comfort and Hunter says the change is literally a 1-minute task using removable titanium pins at two hinge points on the right side.
I found it a little busy to use one hand to prop open the canopy while working the throttle and brakes with the other. I needed three hands because even at idle thrust, the big 912S gently pushed the Vista Cruiser forward.
Somewhat reluctantly in the broiling heat of the day, I worked the canopy lock-down system. It’s very secure and latches with reassuring authority but takes a little jockeying to position it for latching. A small cord restrains the canopy when fully open and Hunter asked that I check to assure this cord does not get caught when closing the canopy. One complaint is that the single fresh-air inlet wasn’t enough in Florida’s warmth. I kept sticking one hand or the other out to direct more air inside.
Though Aeroprakt may not have planned it, you can rest your throttle hand on either the flap linkage arm right above or on the aluminum tube linking front throttle to aft throttle.
Something Like “Blastoff”
I gingerly added power, having experienced 100-hp Rotax 912S takeoffs before when flying light planes. Frankly, it’s more power than you need. But like that stereo system with wattage you never fully use, it may be better to have too much than too little.
Throughout my several touch and goes, I commonly used only 4,500 rpm for takeoff; more is simply excess for a single occupant. In one takeoff, I used only 3,910 rpm (according to the digital EIS) and I was still climbing at 500 fpm, suggesting a 503-powered Vista would be plenty for most situations. For this experiment, I used two notches of flaps throughout the pattern.
Takeoffs were effortless as long as you didn’t overuse the 912S’s power. Landings were just as easy if you planned ahead.
I can sum up the landing approach situation with this comment: I had to use slips on every landing I made in the Vista Cruiser. I prefer and only make high approaches. Given a 4,000-foot turf runway, low approaches are dumb in my opinion. Since I wanted to do touch and goes, landing in the first third is imperative for safety. Getting the Vista Cruiser down using just the first 1,300 feet of turf while using high approaches proved much different than landing something like a Quicksilver.
This is most emphatically not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. The Vista Cruiser boasts a long glide; it simply does not want to come down for a landing. Should you lose your engine over some inhospitable terrain, you’ll be very glad the Cruiser can reach to the safety of those other fields you’ve surely kept in sight.
Even when I used full flaps, the Vista Cruiser wanted to hang up in the sky, a fact that brought a smile to my face. Fortunately, the authoritative handling and generous side area made for highly effective slips that allowed me to cock the plane 30° or 40° to either side.
My early slip trials produced a sink rate beyond 1,000 fpm, good enough for most situations where you want to get the Vista Cruiser down on a short runway. More experience will help you make slower-yet approaches, which helps, but moderate slips and flaps worked well together.
In later slips I applied so much slipping force that I actually had to brace myself in my seat. I noted a descent rate of 1,800 fpm. With good technique, short field or emergency landings should not present problems. These steepest of slips were done with no flaps.
A criticism is the close proximity of the flap handle to the throttle handle. At times like final approach, you sometimes feel for the knob you want. You can learn the differently shaped handles designed to offer a different tactile feel, but at first I grabbed the flap handle thinking it was the throttle. The dilemma is solved by keeping your hand on the throttle on final approach as most instructors advise.
Tight Formation Flying
Those great cover shots taken by UF! magazine editor-in-chief Scott Wilcox require tight flying. Depending on the aircraft or the bumpiness of the day, I don’t always feel comfortable getting close. No problem in the Vista Cruiser.
One distinguishing feature of all the many Aeroprakt designs appears to be common use of large tail feathers. The Ukraine company is not alone in this characteristic but they are consistent. This surely accounts for some of the superb handling qualities I experienced in an hour and a quarter on board the Vista Cruiser. Big tails work.
The resulting cover photo and lead photo in the story attest to fine handling characteristics of the Vista Cruiser. All movements were fluid and light while still providing some feedback. Ailerons and rudder seem quite well harmonized.
Before we start this formation flying, I usually practice Dutch rolls as my way to discover the basics of handling a new ultralight or microlight. In my first trial, I did them successfully to 45° each way, a very steep series that proves handling is intuitive and responsive.
After the formation flying, I slowed down, deployed full flaps, and again tried Dutch rolls. Now I had to limit the bank angles as the flaperons consumed some of the aileron range although I still banked back and forth more than many other ultralights.
Bringing the flaps back up and increasing to about 50 mph, Dutch rolls once again became very light and easy to do. The aileron heaviness experienced with full flaps went away and the coordination improved. Pilots may rarely do Dutch rolls with flaps fully out but they do identify control effectiveness and differences at slow, approach-like speeds.
I found the Vista Cruiser showed a slight left turn at 3,800 rpm with no stick or rudder influence after a straight start. Interestingly, this slight left turn seemed less pronounced with full flaps deployed. (Because the aircraft flew so well – and so ultralight like – with full flaps, I spent an unusual amount of time in this configuration.) A linkage adjustment or trim tab should take care of the slow turn.
Ride the Bullet
Sometime I’ll look forward to flying the 50-hp Rotax 503-powered Vista, but I had to admit excitement about experiencing the 912S behemoth.
The Vista Cruiser is a climbing wonder with its 100-hp Rotax 912S installed. I saw a sustained 1,700-fpm rate. But sheer power isn’t everything.
I was also able to fly low over open fields while using full flaps at power settings as low as 3,200 rpm and at speeds in the higher 30-mph range. This is a wonderful demonstration from an aircraft that can also zoom to much higher speeds.
Backing off the throttle to create a more ultralight regime, I used 3,800 rpm which produced about 60 mph. At this setting, the Vista Cruiser could stay aloft a long time. At higher speeds, you feel the bumps more noticeably, and I prefer flight in the 50-to 70-mph area.
At 3,400 rpm, I saw 42 mph while staying fairly level. Though the Vista Cruiser looks quite different than most American ultralights, it can clearly fly as slowly as many ultralight designs. Of course, power settings to achieve this will be significantly different with the 50-hp Rotax 503 needed to remain within the training exemption to FAR Part 103. However, the Aeroprakt design’s unmistakable efficiency will help when you select the less powerful powerplant.
In a slightly different “performance” category, I found a 3,500-rpm power setting made for a very quiet cabin. At full aft throttle (about 1,750 rpm) and at about 50 mph, the Vista Cruiser produced a descent in the 300-to 500-fpm range. The measurement was inexact as the day was full of convective lift, but nonetheless, I found this a slow sink rate compared to all ultralights I’ve flown. I did not fly at full gross weight.
Given enough wing area in the test aircraft – a longer version with greater area is available on some models – and given the easy electric starting with the reliable 912S, I was tempted to shut down the engine and try some soaring. I found its glide and sink rate to be superior to other machines in its class.
To keep within the parameters of the Part 103 training exemption, you’ll want to choose the Rotax 503 and you’ll further have to select the right prop to assure you don’t exceed the speed restriction (86 mph). If you don’t train and plan to N-number your Vista Cruiser, then the Rotax 912S-powered model is an excellent choice.
However, in my inevitable ultralight experiments, I found the 912S-powered Vista Cruiser to be lots of fun at the low-over-the-field flying which I consider to be an essential ultralight attribute. Using full flaps and after practicing slow flight at a higher altitude, I was able to drift lazily over my favorite Florida fields at under 40 mph.
Spectrum Aircraft does not presently have a 503-powered Vista for me to compare but after flying the higher-powered Vista Cruiser through a range of maneuvers, I feel quite sure that the 503-powered Vista will prove to be the entirely enjoyable ultralight Hunter swears it is. As proof of Aeroprakt’s experience with the 503, he supplies the A-26 Vulcan twin-engine aircraft with dual Rotax 503s. He reports that the 660-pound aircraft (versus 480 for the single 503 Vista) flies very well with one engine shut down, climbing more than 300 fpm on one Rotax 503. It can even take off on one engine (a feat not possible in any general aviation twin with which I’m familiar).
At 50 mph, I found little adverse yaw (present in all 3-axis aircraft). Once banked without rudder the nose comes around the desired direction quite quickly. In this regard, the Vista Cruiser was better than most ultralights I’ve flown.
Full-power stalls never broke even well down into the low 40-mph range. A distinct buffeting tells you you’re slow; you’d have to be asleep to miss it. Power-off stalls did break through but not dramatically, though the Vista Cruiser got somewhat neutral laterally during the high deck angle maneuver.
My checks of push- or pull-and-release showed a neutral longitudinal stability that tended to deepen very slowly. The Vista Cruiser did not fully recover to level flight without input from the pilot. I did not conduct the test engine-off and with a high thrust line, the engine may have been a factor. I did not feel any uncertainty with this characteristic but it did hunt somewhat in gentle pitch oscillations.
Hand On Your Wallet?
Wanting an Aeroprakt model is easy. Fly one; I predict you’ll love it. Buying one, however, is going to require some time with U.S. rep John Hunter. Aeroprakt makes so many design variations that you may have trouble deciding which is right for you. I’ll try to organize your thoughts but a call to Hunter is necessary. Fortunately, he’s a most pleasant individual and you could make a quick decision.
The Vista Cruiser and Vista Super Cruiser are both 100-hp Rotax 912S-powered aircraft with the Super Cruiser using the larger wing. You can elect either the 80-horse version of the 912 or the 100-horse model. These models will cost you close to $50,000 ready to fly or about $24,000 for the airframe and powerplant mount kit. However, these numbers ask that you understand the kit has generous factory preassembly.
Since my evaluation, Hunter indicated to me that the Vista airframe – set up for the 50-hp Rotax 503 – sells for $19,900 and with the 503 engine and mount package runs about $25,000, again with many assemblies done for you. The 503 versions will use the 37-foot span wing and a 12-foot horizontal stabilizer span. My test Vista Cruiser with the Rotax 912S used a 33-foot wing and a 10-foot span horizontal stabilizer. An in-between model powered by the 66-hp Rotax 582 can use either wing/stabilizer combination.
Considering the price premium for the 912S over the Rotax 503 and the A-20’s efficiency, Aeroprakt should consider the 60-hp HKS 700E engine to offer the benefits of 4-stroke operation at a lower price. Until then, you still have lots of options.
When Spectrum drops the “cruiser” suffix, you get the Vista, V-STOL, and V-SS models. The most basic of these – the one that can qualify under the training exemption (assuming the right prop choice) – is the Vista with its 503 powerplant. The V-STOL model moves up a notch to the 582 engine with another dozen horses. Both Vista models just described use the 169-square-foot, 37-foot wing. Keeping the 582 engine but downshifting to the 151-square-foot, 33-foot wing produces the V-SS.
In addition to providing buyers with several choices of models and options within models, Aeroprakt also offers a range of kit options. You can keep prices the lowest if you select the standard airframe kit.
So far, many deliveries have been factory- or distributor-built. Since few Americans have worked through the effort to build the aircraft – and since European sales allow for fully built microlights – information on build times is sketchy. My recommendation is to speak with Spectrum Aircraft owner John Hunter for more details on building effort. I’ve always found Hunter to tell the story straight and I believe you’ll hear a realistic assessment.
But before you get too deeply into purchase considerations, go get a flight with distributor Spectrum Aircraft. I predict you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was in these planes from the Ukraine.
|Empty weight||535/480 pounds|
|Gross weight||1,0001/1,000 pounds|
|Wing area||1511/169 sq. feet|
|Wing loading||6.6/5.9 pounds/square feet|
|Kit type||Several kit types available|
|Build time||See article|
|Notes:||1/Super Cruiser model gross weight is 1,212 pounds; wingspan is 37.4 feet; wing area is 170 square feet; wing loading is 7.0 pounds/square feet; power loading is 12.0 pounds.|
|Standard engine||Rotax 912S/Rotax 5032|
|Power loading||101/20 pounds/hp|
|Cruise speed||115/80 mph|
|Never exceed speed||143/112 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||1,200/600 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||200/250 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||250/200 feet|
|Notes:||2The Vista is also available with the 66-hp Rotax 582 engine but since Aeroprakt then supplies the shorter “SS” wing, a 582-powered 2Vista may exceed speed parameters of the training exemption to Part 103 unless carefully matched with the correct, speed-limiting prop. No specifications are presented for the 582 models; see Spectrum Aircraft for more details.|
|Standard Features||Airframe kit supplied with fuselage, wheels and disc brakes, wheel pants, full-span flaperons, vertical stabilizer, elevator, and rudder completely assembled with factory jigs. Landing gear, engine mount, windshield, and controls are all assembled and preinstalled. Basic airframe kit does not include engine, prop, instruments, electric, or fuel systems (see “options”), in-flight trim.|
|Options||A quick-build kit is supplied ready for fabric covering and painting. Factory covering and painting are also available. 80-hp Rotax 912 or 503 (see specifications above), ASI, altimeter, VSI, digital EIS, electrical components, electric starting, hardtop canopy.|
|Construction||Aluminum airframe, fiberglass fairing, dope-and-fabric wing coverings. Made in the Ukraine. Distributed in America by U.S.-based Spectrum Aircraft.|
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – All new design series, created by a club formed of Antonov (big airplanes) aeronautical engineers. This team has created numerous designs. Differs in substantial ways from U.S. ultralights, but flies well at ultralight speeds and heights and can qualify for the training exemption to FAR Part 103 with a Rotax 503. Looks somewhat sailplane-like and flies with sailplane-like efficiency.
Cons – Aeroprakt is a new company and even with excellent flight characteristics, resale may take time. U.S. importer Spectrum Aircraft run by industry veteran John Hunter still must prove its longevity. No info gathered on testing, though no faults found in this evaluation. Most models from Aeroprakt cannot qualify as ultralight under present U.S. rules; therefore licensing and N-numbers are required.
Subsystems available to pilot such as: Flaps; Fuel sources; Electric start; In-air restart; Brakes; Engine controls; Navigations; Radio; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Very complete machine with dual controls at both positions (but not brakes). Flap controls in both seats; fluid, easily interpreted operation. Fueling is from outside the cabin under the right wing. Trim at base of joystick, reasonably reached for most pilots. Electric start on test plane.
Cons – Brakes are non-differential, although steering effectiveness showed no problems. Engine under cowl looks good but takes more effort for maintenance. Trim lever slipped a bit during evaluation; friction fittings require periodic attention.
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Roomy cockpit for most large Americans. Full dual controls including flaps make Vista good trainer. Well padded seats and 4-point seat belts are appreciated by most pilots. Panel is easily observed without limiting visibility too much. Easy reach to all controls. Throttle hand has a couple adequate rests. Windscreen-only option would be delicious in warm climates; swaps with full canopy in one minute.
Cons – My significant gripe in hot Florida was the full enclosure with insufficient air inlet; it’s a greenhouse. Panel space is rather small, unless you use space-saving instruments like the EIS as installed in test aircraft. Seats not easily adjusted. Entry is okay, but requires some technique; did not try entry to rear seat. No luggage area if flown dual.
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – Stable taxi steering even without differential braking. Superb visibility for traffic checking prior to launch. Brakes proved quite effective, certainly adequate for airport taxi operations. Slab gear felt like a good combination of absorption and strength.
Cons – Managing a propped-open canopy to ventilate the cockpit (with one hand), throttle and brake (with other hand) gets busy; a means to support the canopy would be more appreciated. Tail clearance looks rather limited for rough, off-field landings (though horizontal stabilizer is well clear).
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – The Vista Cruiser can slip dramatically, helping approach to small or emergency fields. Slab landing gear looks very strong and felt very secure; good in training situations. Takeoff roll and ground roll can be very short once you’re experienced with the Vista. Huge visibility during takeoffs or landings. Flaperons work well to control glide path. Slips are highly effective permitting steep appro
Cons – Low tail clearance indicates the aft boom could be jeopardized in an emergency landing situation. It’s hardly a negative (as reach is a good thing should you lose your engine) but the Vista Cruiser required slips for me to land short, so substantial is its glide.
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – Importer John Hunter focuses on flight characteristics as do I, so my saying it handles superbly shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Vista Cruiser was delightful in every way, fast or slow. Light touch controls without skipperiness. Flaps and trim harmonize well. Little adverse yaw. Mass-balanced ailerons. Dutch rolls went well to steep angles. Very precise turns to heading.
Cons – Flap handle can slam shut if you don’t keep your hand on it. Controls become understandably less responsive if the flaperons are fully deployed. No other negatives.
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – Spectacular 1,700-fpm climb with 100-hp Rotax 912S. Huge speed range, running comfortably (low over fields, even) at under 40 mph, yet speeding to much higher speeds. Flaps-down, low-field flying was very pleasurable in the genuine ultralight way. Regional cross-country trips should be very reasonable. Efficient flying means less fuel consumed.
Cons – Speeds will have to be restricted if used under Part 103 training exemption. Long glide requires some effort to make steep emergency landing approaches.
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – Stalls under full power never broke. Power-off stalls broke but not dramatically. Surprisingly little adverse yaw. Accelerated stalls with liberal power never broke and did not fall to the inside wing. Steep turns for 720° carved well and held easily even without excessive power; another way to demonstrate the wing’s efficiency.
Cons – Longitudinal stability checks were neutral, not worsening, but not quickly going level. Steep power-off stalls wandered laterally at incipient stall suggesting a wing drop though none happened. Throttle pushes nose downward if applied quickly.
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – The 100-hp Rotax Vista Cruiser is a versatile and thoroughly enjoyable aircraft. I feel confident in believing the 50-hp Rotax 503-powered model will be equally as excellent (but, of course, with a lesser climb rate and top speed). In virtually every flight characteristic, I found the Vista Cruiser shines and its performance is even better. If you don’t mind being an early adopter, the Vista is a good choice, if you have the pocketbook.
Cons – Main downside is price; lower prices may be expected. Americans are spoiled by a higher state of finish; fortunately, Vista Cruiser functionality is superb. The 912S engine is powerful and quiet but comes at a considerable price premium over the 503 version ($8,000 more).
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