Until recently, we heard little from South Africa. Under the country’s apartheid (racial segregation) rule of the past, South Africa disappeared off the radar so far as most Yankee pilots knew. Our government instituted economic sanctions so that few, if any, South African products appeared in America.
Apartheid is over, and with it the isolation of that southern hemisphere country and its people. In recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of products arrive from the way down under country. Perhaps you’re not surprised to hear that South African ultralight builders are also making a mark on American aviation. Welcome to the modern age of globalization.
No Pushy Peddler
You probably already know of Rob Rollison. He garnered attention in April ’95 by flying his Air-Bike from Indiana to Lakeland, Florida.1 The trip set no records – Ian Coristine, Dave Goulet and Don Zank flew 2-seat Challengers 2,400 miles (round trip) from Moline, Illinois to Lakeland a decade earlier – but in an open-cockpit ultralight, no doubt Rob’s 870-mile (each way) flight seemed longer.
Having a conversation with Rollison is easy. A natural salesman, he is full of facts, figures and enthusiasm on the ultralights he represents (the Aerotrike is one of several lines of weight-shift trikes and 3-axis fixed-wings sold by Rollison Airplane Company). He’s happy to speak about the way these ultralights fly.
Intense in his own way, Rollison isn’t one of those pushy peddlers. He’ll calmly take the time to answer questions. Always interested to hear someone knowledgeable describe an ultralight I’m about to fly, I was keen to hear Rollison’s run-down on the 60-hp 4-stroke HKS 700E-powered Aerotrike.
I knew I’d get good information. Rollison took the very bird I was to fly on an extended tour through northern Mexico, though it had since been sold to new owner Jeff Hunt. In February ’98, Rollison spent a couple weeks logging 2,200 miles of cross-country travel. Doing so was a feat of both flying skill and logistics.
Some years earlier, Rollison flew general aviation aircraft around the lands of our sunburnt neighbor to the south. He knew what it took to get permission to operate an unregistered ultralight in Mexico. Since bureaucrats are the same around the globe, the red tape must have seemed endless. Yet the result of his flight was that Rollison had done as good a job of “proving” the new HKS engine as anyone, and he had the first trike installation of the 4-stroke engine I’d seen.
Besides the much-vaunted reliability associated with 4-stroke engines, Rollison cites its fuel economy as a major benefit. He says it burns only two-thirds as much fuel as the 50-hp Rotax 503 dual carb 2-cycle engine that comes standard on the Aerotrikes. It’ll use about 2.5 gallons per hour versus 4 gph for the Rotax 503. Significantly more fuel efficiency with more power will make for an easy decision for some.
The Aerotrike is quite an international machine. With her French wing and Japanese engine, the South African trike sold in America has, well, gotten around.
Despite the international flair of the Aerotrike, it was her powerplant that really grabbed my attention. No longer new to me, I have flown several ultralights powered by the 4-stroke HKS 700E engine.2 None of the others were trikes, so this experience would be somewhat different.
The truth is, this may have been the most proven HKS engine in the industry. I’m not even sure that HKS importer HPower’s own Flightstar II with the 700E hung out front had so many hours on it, and certainly none while motoring around a country with no HKS servicing capability.
Meet Captain Blyth
Rainbow Aircraft, the manufacturer of the Aerotrike line, is the creation of South African ultralight aviation figure Mike Blyth. He’s a man of major accomplishments, and his dedication shows in the finished trike in the photos accompanying this pilot’s report.
Blyth reports he has been flying ultralights since ’84 when a friend offered him a flight in his Quicksilver. Blyth repeated a phrase you may have uttered yourself: “I was immediately hooked.”
The experience led to furthering his interest in ultralights. He eventually got involved with teaching, and in South Africa, ultralight flight instruction largely happens in trikes. According to Blyth, some 80% of all ultralights in his country are weight-shift controlled trikes.
The experience of training taught Blyth that he wanted more, that instruction demanded more. He says he was unable to locate a trike that would consistently meet all the requirements he felt were necessary for training situations. His list included continued “longevity, reliability and comfort.” Since Blyth did a lot of instructing, he was personally interested in having a comfortable back seat. At the time, not many trike manufac-
turers had focused on this feature, though today backrests are appearing more and more.
Blyth also has shown great leadership in cross-country flying in his Aerotrikes. In ’92, he and navigator Dalene Morf competed in the 4th Microlight World Championships, and won the coveted “Champion of the World” trophy in the tandem trike class.
Then in ’95, Mike Blyth and Swiss trike pilot and friend Oliver Aubert flew two trikes (one a French model and the other an Aerotrike, both with 81-hp Rotax 912 4-strokes engines) on their now-famous Cape-to-Cape Expedition.3 On this April through August adventure, Blyth flew from Johannesburg via Cape Town, South Africa up through the continent of Africa, 335 miles across the Mediterranean Sea to Crete and then Greece, then north through Europe to Hammerfest, Norway, to finally fly around the North Cape at the northernmost tip of Europe.
The Cape-to-Cape cross-country was 12,990 miles long! “It was by far the longest unsupported trip that had ever been taken in a trike-type microlight,” says Blyth. Brian Milton’s round-the-world flight in ’98 is probably the only trike flight of a longer distance.4
However, Blyth has even grander ambitions to test his Aerotrike. He and Aubert are planning an even longer though similar trip in ’99, departing from the tip of South America, flying north across that continent, then North America, crossing the Bering Sea, through Russia and Southeast Asia to Australia and Tasmania. If Mike accomplishes this goal, he and Aubert will be in a league with globe-circling Brian Milton.
By contrast to these feats of long-distance flight, my pilot’s report took far less time and gave me less exposure than either Blyth or Rollison. Nonetheless, I could learn from each, and Blyth may not have experienced the HKS engine yet. I looked forward to it.
From the moment I fired up the potent engine, I new it would be different. Not that any previous 700Es had run roughly, but the one on this Aerotrike nevertheless seemed especially smooth. Perhaps this merely came from more time logged on the engine. Perhaps Rob is a great mechanic, or at least a careful maintainer of engines. Perhaps this particular engine was a good one. No matter, the HKS 700E 4-stroke engine simply purred its willingness to push me aloft. Joined with its nice-handling French wing, Rollison’s Aerotrike made for a great experience in tandem trike flying.
Taking to the Air
The Aerotrike is now available in two versions: the original model now called the Aerotrike Safari (flown in this evaluation) and a new Aerotrike Scout. Both versions appear to be exceptionally sturdy with a longer and wider stance than many trikes. Each is available as a single- or 2-seat trike, reports Rollison. All models come standard with full suspension, a folding mast for easy rigging, a front brake, a large-capacity fuel tank, an aerodynamic front downtube, foot and hand throttles, a remote choke, and safety cables in the mast and control bar.
Unlike other trikes which typically fold the engine and seat in order to remove the wing, only the mast of the Aerotrike folds down, leaving the seat and engine in their standard upright position for transport. In case this doesn’t make sense to you, look more closely at the photos.
Just above the engine mount frame is a special fitting and a wing nut. Most older trikes pivot down low, at the junction of the mast (the upright tube connecting the undercarriage to the wing) and the trike keel tube (the main fore and aft tube under the pilot’s seat). In these older trikes, this means the engine is laid down on its side during transport and storage, which may not be desirable. In addition, the fuel tank commonly has to be removed first, lengthening breakdown time and leaving more parts to assemble before flight.
The Aerotrike (and a few other brands) now pivot the tall mast at a point above the engine. This reduces the height of the stored or transported unit (it can fit nicely in a small trailer with the wing carried on top perhaps). But it leaves the engine well-supported and in its usual position. Finally, erecting the wing once attached during setup means you need to lift only the wing weight, not the engine as well. All in all, this is a better way to build a trike, I think.
Setting up the trike chassis itself may be brief, but setting up the wing will consume perhaps 20 or more minutes to be flight ready. Altogether, a typical field setup will probably take at least 30 minutes.
If you’ve read any of my trike flight evaluations before, you know I often complain about the heavy handling on 2-seat trikes. Two reasons explain this:
First, the wings are made very stiffly to withstand the higher load of two people and bigger engines and fuel tanks. Flex-wing wing designs such as trikes can wash out too much with a high load unless they are made stiffer with larger diameter tubing, heavy cable-bracing, and tightly stretched wings. Such wing airframe stiffness degrades handling because flex-wings use sail shift to effect turning. Single-surface wings or more washed-out double-surface wings may handle better, but the increased twist of the wing has more drag and the wing therefore won’t cruise as fast. Trike wing makers compensate by tightening up the wing to get more cruise speed, while leaving enough flex to permit maneuvering. Compromise means you don’t get the best of either.
Second, the reason for heavier (stiffer) trike handling on 2-seaters is they typically have more equipment than simple single-seaters. The trike chassis weight goes up when you have a bigger engine, perhaps with water cooling, more fuel, more instruments, more controls and more strength. Add a couple beefy passengers and weight (not including the trike wing) can hit 700 to 800 pounds. In flight, in order to maneuver, you must displace this weight. True, it’s just dangling from the wing, but you still have to move it to effect a bank.
Some 3-axis pilots may think a trike pilot moves the wing when he pushes on the control bar. But in fact, he moves his weight relative to the wing, which then causes an attitude change in the wing. When you know this, you realize the controls are not reversed from conventional controls.
A single-seat trike with a small engine may weigh only 300 pounds with its pilot, and simply put, pushing around 300 pounds is less work than pushing around 700 pounds in a 2-seater. Rob Rollison knows all this. Because he’s a savvy trike pilot, he knows that some designs can make sail shift and weight displacement (i.e., “handling”) easier.
“I like to use the [French] La Mouette Ghost 14 wing because they have the nicest handling,” comments Rollison. As a flyer of a good many trikes, I have come to agree that La Mouette’s wings have lighter-than-typical roll pressures. This further piqued my interest in flying the HKS-powered Aerotrike.
Thanks to many of these pilot reports, I have logged airtime underneath a good many trike wings. Each has various positive attributes; for example, the highly effective (and appreciated) in-flight trim system of the Air Création wings.
Despite my affirmative feeling about other trike wings, I have almost always come down on the side of La Mouette when it comes to handling ease, at least when I compare double-surface wings. One possible explanation for this distinction is that La Mouette is one of the largest hang glider manufacturers in the world. Hang glider pilots demand responsive handling in order to efficiently work thermal lift, which otherwise can be very tiring.
Most of the major trike companies are focused on powered ultralights that are most often flown in straight lines (like most conventional aircraft). Even though they may have hang glider backgrounds, they’ve set their goals on other flight parameters, and to gain speed in flex-wings you generally lose ease of handling. More of their customers prefer greater speed to handling responsiveness, so this is what they labor to create.
Rainbow Aircraft may eventually consider other wings for their Aerotrikes. Rigid-wings (with aerodynamic controls like spoilers and tip rudders) are coming to hang gliding in a big way, and it is my opinion these new wings will have a major effect on the wings of future trikes (but that’s the subject for another article).
Fortunately, since Aerotrike buys and approves other companies’ wings for their trike carriages, you can update your 1999 Aerotrike with the newest wing with great ease. It’ll hit your pocketbook – though only about half as much as a whole new ultralight – and fitting the new wing should be as easy as attaching your present trike wing.
Rollison had also equipped his Mexico-touring trike with some extras that were useful on my test flight. Right between my legs was an instrument pod displaying dual cylinder head temperature, oil temp, oil pressure and a digital tachometer. The oil gauges are more critical on the HKS, but they help monitor the results easily. To get even more info, Rollison added a voltage gauge to the left and dual exhaust gas temperature gauge to the right.
Various switches governed operations. You can’t see them from the pilot’s seat, so you’ll have to memorize locations. Twin mag switches, a master switch, electric start button, and key switch bristle from a forward-facing panel aft of the gauges directly at the front edge of the pilot’s seat.
In the middle of all this was the BRS ballistic emergency parachute handle where you can easily get to it (if necessary), even in violent upsets. Working with BRS engineers for an approved installation, Rollison located the parachute under the front occupant’s seat and set it to fire aft and to the left side. This location should prevent either occupant from getting a dangling leg in the way of the exiting rocket motor.
No matter which ultralight catches your eye, you’ll have to part with some cash. Sometimes this is fairly painful, sometimes not. The Aerotrike has rather attractive pricing among 2-seaters. Compare it with most 3-axis machines to see what a deal the Aerotrike is (at least among quick-build kits).
Rainbow’s Aerotrike Scout 2-seater comes equipped with the 50-hp Rotax 503 dual carb engine, Rotax B gearbox, full suspension, mechanical nosewheel brake, foot and hand throttles, remote choke, seat belts, 3-blade Powerfin composite prop, 10-gallon fuel tank, and the standard double-surface Spirit 14.8 wing. This trike package has a price of $10,495 – or $1,000 less than the original Aerotrike Safari. You can hardly buy a 2-seater, complete, for this kind of money.
Of course, you can spend more. No ultralight seller worth his salt would fail to offer extras for those with fatter wallets. Rollison Airplane Company is no exception.
You can choose from many options, such as a larger engine or different wings, by far the most significant items on the option list. You may also want one or more of the following: electric start, dual controls, instrumentation, a fiberglass fairing or wheel pants, strobe lights, 13- or 21-gallon fuel tank, side bags and silencer kits.
The wing choice will have the most effect on the ultralight you fly, with the engine perhaps a close second. Rollison says, “We expect the Australian Wizard 17.6-meter single-surface wing from AirBorne to be a very popular wing option.” The Wizard wing presently costs $200 additional, but may yield a little lighter handling with reasonable speed performance. Likewise you can trade further up to more advanced Aeros or La Mouette wings. All will add to the price, though less than you might think. To get the “full dress” rig as shown in the accompanying photos, plan to spend a small bundle.
Optional engines will also add significantly to the price. The HKS engine I loved will add $5,350. A La Mouette Ghost wing will add another $1,500. Add the instruments ($400), the strobe light ($149) and the ballistic emergency parachute ($2,495), and you’ll slip past $21,000. But you’ll have some kind of microlight aircraft!
If that still isn’t enough power or cost, you might opt to hold off for the Cobra model expected next from Rainbow. This will offer the 81-hp Rotax 912 or even 115-hp 914 Turbo 4-stroke for those with a rich grandfather’s inheritance to spend.
You may want all the goodies, but even for the Aerotrike Safari’s base price of $11,495 (see specifications box), you’ll still get a very desirable ultralight. Since Rollison Airplane Company handles all the details of importing, including the shipping, this price is all you pay unless you owe sales tax.
Unlike some trikes, this is still a kit, though that word doesn’t suggest the challenge it does with most 3-axis ultralight kits. “We worked very hard to provide a very complete assembly manual,” says developer Mike Blyth. “Every part is detailed with exploded-view drawings showing how parts are assembled. We estimate it’ll take most folks 30-40 hours to complete the assembly of the aircraft,” Blyth reports.
Rollison Airplane Company will also sell you just the trike chassis if you wish to build up your own trike. While you should heed their advice about which wing to use, you can get the basic trike for only $4,500 and add the engine and wing later. The Aerotrike’s bare chassis comes with engine mount and is “wing ready,” according to Rollison.
“We expect the Aerotrike Scout to be our best selling trike,” predicts Rollison. Personally, though I liked the deluxe version, the Scout appeals to me for more than price: I like simplicity. Either way, though, I don’t see how you can go wrong with the Aerotrike, and I believe Rollison will remain a player in the ultralight industry, providing good service for this wing from way down under.
1 See “Rollison Rides the Air,” June ’96 Ultralight Flying! magazine
2 See “Pilot’s Report: Ultralights and the New HKS Engine,” May ’98 Ultralight Flying! magazine
3 See “Flightlines: Cape to Cape by Trike,” November ’95 Ultralight Flying! magazine
4 See “Milton and Microlight Meet the Challenge – Parts I and II,” December ’98 and January ’99 Ultralight Flying! magazine
|Empty weight||340 pounds|
|Gross weight||880 pounds|
|Wingspan||33 feet 6 inches|
|Wing area||160 square feet|
|Wing loading||5.5 pounds/sq ft|
|Height||12 feet 6 inches|
|Fuel Capacity||10 gallons|
|Build time||30-40 hours|
|Standard engine||Rotax 503 dual carb|
|Power||50 hp at 6,500 rpm|
|Power loading||17.6 pounds/hp|
|Cruise speed||50-60 mph|
|Never exceed speed||87 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||800 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||195 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||130 feet|
|Standard Features||Weight-shift control, steerable nosewheel (push left, go right) with mechanical brake, seat belt pilot restraints, foot and hand throttles, remote choke, Rotax B gearbox, full suspension, 3-blade composite prop.|
|Options||Rotax 582 or 618 2-cycle or HKS 700E or Rotax 912 4-cycle engine, electric start, other wings, dual controls, instruments, fiberglass fairing and wheel pants, strobe lights, 13- or 21-gallon fuel tank, side carry bags, intake/exhaust silencer kits.|
|Construction||Aluminum tubing airframe, steel brackets and tubing, Trilam/Dacron® sailcloth.|
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – Created after company founder Mike Blyth’s experience with numerous other brands; reflects his sense of improvement of the breed. Selection of wings available, all pretested for compatibility. Built for tough duties like extended cross-country flying or ultralight training. Flies well on the 50-hp Rotax 503 dual carb (though other engine choices abound).
Cons – Company does not manufacture their own wings; all development has been focused on the trike chassis. Fairing (or side carry bags) optional. Resale value unknown with new brand (although low retail price suggests it should retain a good percentage of initial investment).
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 – A heavy-duty Yamaha-brand brake is standard on the Aerotrike Safari nosewheel (Scout model uses a simpler brake). Brake has an adjustable parking lock feature. Dual hand and foot throttles. Remote choke. Test aircraft equipped with electric start and additional gauges (options) to monitor the 60-hp HKS 700E 4-stroke engine (also optional). Single 10-gallon fuel tank under seats; easily refueled.
Cons – No aerodynamic systems such as flaps or in-flight trim. Not easy to judge a low-fuel quantity precisely while seat belted (although you can see part of the tank). Radio must be carried or a special place and fitting devised, if desired.
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Comfortable seatbacks for both occupants (not common in trike front seats). Optional rear occupant nosewheel steering bar and typical trike access to control bar and throttle. Test ultralight was well instrumented for engine monitoring. Front occupant has excellent access to all controls and view of instruments. Side carry bags accommodate some “cargo.” Easy entry/exit.
Cons – Usual trike situation of no foot throttle or brake for rear occupant (though adequate control to make an unassisted emergency landing). No wind barrier; full-face helmet will have to suffice. Lap seat belts only; no upper torso restraint. No seat position adjustment.
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – Excellent visibility (except overhead, of course). Usual trike ability to maneuver in crowded parking thanks to movable wing relative to the trike carriage. Brakes on test trike were quite effective. Test trike fitted with rear steering bar. Good turn radius. Good stability on gear, a particular strength of the wider and longer Aerotrike. Extra wide wheels and tires.
Cons – Common trike challenge of holding the wing steady while taxiing in rowdy conditions. No other negatives discovered.
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – Excellent visibility going up or coming down (like most trikes, thanks to a high overhead wing and few forward obstructions). Relatively low approach speeds permits operations in and out of smaller fields. Short ground roll with 60-horse HKS engine. Landing roll even shorter, partly thanks to strong brake. Wide tires and robust landing gear members assure rough fields or soft fields will present little problem.
Cons – Trikes have little in the way of landing approach controls and the Aerotrike is no different; slipping not an option either. Crosswind capabilities are relatively weak compared to most 3-axis ultralights (like most trikes).
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – Choice of La Mouette wing was made for its handling ease and is superior to many other double-surface wings. Roll pressure and response are quite good for a weight-shift machine that grosses at nearly 900 pounds. Pitch authority also fair (though not as strong as virtually any 3-axis ultralight). Little adverse yaw. Trikes coordinate easily, with a little forward pressure on the bar in turns.
Cons – Trike handling in heavier 2-seaters is always less responsive than single-seaters or many 3-axis aircraft. Very modest crosswind capabilities (same as most trikes). Few negatives to report.
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – HKS engine offers a new dimension to ultralight flying with wide torque range; keeps engine running smooth regardless of prop loading during climb. Climb rate reached close to 1,000 fpm solo. Wing performed well with this trike, yielding good glide and better-than-average sink rate at idle thrust. Smooth and quiet operation. Excellent fuel economy (2.5 gph) with the HKS 700E engine.
Cons – Trikes don’t dive well, if that’s what you want (you must throttle back generously to descend rapidly). Cruise is rather modest, in the range of 55 to 60 mph tops. Not as good right over the deck as a 3-axis ultralight due to greater control response delay.
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – Trikes have evolved into highly stable platforms despite what some pilots think of tailless aircraft. Test trike met this standard (while still offering easier handling!). Both mast (connecting undercarriage to wing) and control bar basetube (horizontal member) have backup safety cables inside as each operates in tension. Stalls and power response were both normal and expected. Emergency parachute appreciated.
Cons – With a large person in the rear seat, the Aerotrike could get a little top heavy in fast ground operations. Something more than lap belts are needed in the event of violent upset. Steep turn stalls turned into mushing flight with higher control forces.
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – Excellent pricing. Two-seater Scout is an exceptional bargain. Fairly small breakdown, like most trikes, for easier transport and storage. Some initial assembly required (30 to 40 hours) but reportedly job is easy thanks to a good manual. Aerotrike appears to be very rugged and up to exceptional duty like extended cross-country or ultralight training.
Cons – Part of low pricing comes with wing made in the Ukraine that some may doubt (although my experience has been entirely satisfactory). Manufacturer is a new company to U.S. buyers, which could affect resale value.
Ray Robidoux says
Dan, do you know if there is still any support for the Safari, specifically parts here in the US?
Dan Johnson says
I am not aware of anyone offering support for that brand or model.
Raghvendra Chaudhary says
I want to assemble airocycle like this and I’m from delhi India.
Dan Johnson says
Hi Raghvendra: I wish you the best of luck with your project.