In August 1999,Ultralight Flying! reported on the Flightstar II SL. Thirteen months later, another report is needed as, once again, Tom Peghiny and Spark Lamontagne have upgraded their principal selling model.
Flightstar is the name of the plane and Flightstar Sportplanes is the name of the company, and “refinement” ought to be permanently attached. I’ve followed many ultralights over many years. Some have changed a lot, some have seen almost no change. The Flightstar has almost constantly evolved.
Why change this successful design? After all, it costs money to design, test and build new parts inventories. It takes time and more money to update assembly manuals. Why do all this if the ultralight is doing well? The reason is simple: to make a better product that more people will buy. At least the answer sounds simple; in fact, it may be surprisingly complicated to achieve.
Before we get into how the ultralight flies, let’s review what makes this Flightstar II SC (Sport Cabin) different from the Flightstar II SL (Sport Light).
Looking Back a Moment
A little history is needed first. Once there was a Flightstar. It was a simple and light single-seater, and it found favor in the marketplace of the early 1980s when ultralights were the new darlings of sport aviation. After a few years of playing with ultralights, then-owner Pioneer Parachutes (through a subsidiary company named Pioneer International Aircraft) chose to exit aircraft production and sold the rights to an Argentine company.
In the way of most non-U.S. builders, the Flightstar – renamed AviaStar – got heavy and loaded with equipment. As with many European aircraft, the AviaStar tried to be a little general aviation aircraft for a country where owning and operating a Cessna or Piper is prohibitively expensive. If you want a Cessna Skyhawk but don’t have the budget, what you may buy is an ultralight dressed up to assume a Skyhawk-like image.
That AviaStar was well assembled, building on the thorough work done by Pioneer engineers but it was heavy and complicated to a fault, in my opinion. It was far from a perfect little airplane in that it didn’t have sprightly ultralight performance and agility, nor did it have the cabin comfort and transportation potential of a Skyhawk.
When Tom Peghiny first negotiated to buy the brand name and to bring it all back to the U.S., the first thing he and partner Spark Lamontagne did was to start lightening the now-revived Flightstar. That work has never stopped in the decade of Flightstar Sportplane’s existence. In fact, change seems to be a hallmark of the Connecticut-based company.
Bits and Pieces
As the Flightstar evolved it went through a few noteworthy phases.
First came the Flightstar II SL, with the SL standing for Sport Light. Peghiny and Lamontagne sliced an amazing 55 pounds off of the old AviaStar and created an ultralight that, in my estimation, flew far better and better addressed the U.S. market.
Next came the Flightstar II SL with its sporty-looking fastback aft fairing. Unlike the all-fiberglass Flightstar II, this aft fairing was made of fabric, which added very little weight.
Then came a modified fastback to a shortened version that not only looked lighter but which improved airflow past the tail. Designer Tom Peghiny has a long background in hang gliding and model building where airflow is examined with greater interest than for many plow-through-the-air ultralights. As part of the laminar investigation the company completely redesigned the nose fairing and windscreen which brought numerous benefits, among them improved landing flare authority which had been a rare weak point.
In the new millennium the two partners introduced their Flightstar II SC – SC standing for Sport Cabin – and the popular 2-seater has again gone through a design iteration. Since the newest refinements don’t change the overall look much, it is worthwhile to examine some of the differences in detail.
Customers wanted doors for some climates, and to gain other benefits from a full enclosure. They’d been able to select the Flightstar II with its sleek fiberglass cabin, but this model is heavier, more costly, and harder to build than the new SC model.
To maintain the lightness that had put Flightstar Sportplanes back in the forefront of American ultralights, Peghiny and Lamontagne went to some trouble to create a full enclosure that wasn’t as heavy as on the Flightstar II.
The doors would be fabric, like many other ultralights have used and which resemble the doors on Quicksilver’s GT 500. Doors like this just don’t get any lighter. However, those doors needed some rear structure that didn’t exist on the Flightstar II SL. To assure this – and at the same time offer some “saddlebag” storage (as for a jacket) – aft cabin fairings were developed. More than cargo containers and seat backs, these fairings again help improve airflow, which in turn helps make the tailplane even more effective.
The aft cabin fairings coordinate well with the new nose fairing and shaped windscreen that we saw in the August ’99 issue of Ultralight Flying! magazine. Put together, the fabric doors now smoothly integrate with the whole cabin. For warmer climates, the SC’s doors can be swiftly unzipped and removed.
The nose fairing now allows you to place your feet firmly on its floor, which has a foam core to help strengthen it. Unlike the old hard-to-ship and hard-to-assemble nose fairing, the pod now has a belly pan (with the firmer floor) and a much lighter upper half. To see the difference look at the cockpit photo with the hand pulling up on the brake lever. As you look across the cockpit you can see the start of the Flightstar name showing clearly through the light fiberglass where the sun illuminates it.
Speaking of illumination, part of the cabin assembly includes a roof. While the older full enclosure also has a roof, it was solid fiberglass and it came down lower, much like pulling a ball cap low onto your head, expressed Peghiny. The new Lexan® roof lets light in and doesn’t descend as far. Not only does this permit a broader view of the engine, but it also tends to feel less claustrophobic inside. A series of specially designed fiberglass parts have a lip, which fits neatly to the Lexan® windscreen and roof to complete the interior in a pilot-friendly way.
In all, the SC cabin is a whopping 14 pounds lighter than the Flightstar II all-fiberglass cabin. And it’s much easier to build. The older fiberglass came in gray, needed to be trimmed and drilled, and owners commonly spent $500 just painting it, says Peghiny. The more elaborate fiberglass shapes were larger parts that builders didn’t want to damage (or drill incorrectly), and they were also more difficult and costly to ship than the newer modular elements.
The newer fiberglass parts – made for Flightstar by George Sychrovsky’s Cured Composites company – arrive in gleaming white epoxy primer, trimmed, drilled, and ready for installation. You can simply wax the fiberglass and install, or degrease and paint to suit. No sanding is required as Sychrovsky polishes the molds to achieve a smooth production finish.
If you still aren’t sure you need a full enclosure, here’s a nifty situation: the SC cabin update can be purchased later and added to an existing Flightstar II SL. As the heat of summer makes you resist being cooped up, you can simply save your pennies and add the enclosure when Mother Nature introduces us to another winter. For $800 you get the doors, roof, doorjambs (see white panels on the trailing edges of the windscreen), and the aft cabin fairings/saddlebags.
Not only does the new shortened fabric fairing have a handy zippered access panel for preflight inspections, but Peghiny reports the entire aft fairing and aft cabin fairing panels can be completely removed in 20 minutes. (On the SL model the aft fairing can be removed in a mere 2 minutes, he says.)
About the only downside to the new SC cabin enclosure is the lack of a solid exterior-accessed fuel spout. Now, you must unzip the fabric fairing opening, undo the cap, and slip a filler tube down inside the fairing at a point near the aileron lever arm. It sounds awkward, but Peghiny says it isn’t.
The other major changes to the Flightstar II SC that I evaluated were the improvements to the 60-hp 4-stroke HKS 700E engine. See the sidebar, “The 2000 HKS” for details.
Cabin and creature comforts are important. You need only look at the interior of any pickup truck to see that, even in work vehicles, sales are aided when the occupants feel comfortable.
Yet descriptions of the Flightstar II SC’s sharp interior and protective enclosure don’t say much about how the ultralight flies, which is why we get involved with ultralights.
The new and improved nose looks good, of course, but it also beautifully improves landing controls. The Flightstar series had always had nice handling and good performance, but though an approach to landing was easy enough, the flare to a smooth touchdown was often less satisfactory.
It’s a point of pride with many pilots to make smooth arrivals; I’m no different. In the older Flightstar II models (the single-place Flightstar never had this drawback), a wonderful approach was often followed by plopping ungracefully on terra firma. It wasn’t a matter of bending parts, but somehow the finesse needed for a really pretty touchdown eluded me. Practiced Flightstar II pilots didn’t have any problem, but you had to acquire a touch that I managed to lose between Flightstar flights.
The combination of many improvements which clean up the air flow to the tail have restored my pride by making landing touchdowns as easy as the best ultralights. I understand the aerodynamic principles at work but it is nonetheless satisfying on a visceral level to make smooth landings over and over. You feel the expert ultralight pilot and who couldn’t like that?
In the II SC, you don’t mess with flaps. This is not new to the SC model, but does simplify the overall landing process. Given the design’s ability to slip well, flaps become unnecessary. In addition, I’ll bet builders won’t mind the timesaving not having to rig and adjust the extra set of movable surfaces.
In the earlier II SL model (without full enclosure) I found wind fluttered my outside shirt sleeve constantly, too much so for cold climate flying. But from the newly shaped nose, past the molded windscreen, and on past the aft cabin fairings, the cabin has been effectively widened and the flapping shirt mostly disappeared. Wind feels good in warm climates but on a long flight it contributes to fatigue.
The result of the fuselage-smoothing techniques gives the tail greater power in low-speed, high-angle-of-attack flight modes like imminent touchdown.
Even though the Flightstar II SC has less fuselage area than some ultralights, the ultralight slips very well. I feel it could use a bit more rudder deflection to get deep slip angles, but average slipping technique is all that’s needed to allow good approach path control. Flightstar is smart to lose the flaps in the interest of simplicity and light weight.
It’s a good thing slips are easy as this control technique is a required skill in the new II SC. The cleaner-than-ever Flightstar floats along quite efficiently in landing, as partner Spark Lamontagne had told me. I found it easy to sense the II SC’s increased glide.
Fun Flightstar Flying
Flightstar’s good combination of control speed and power make crosswind operations reasonable in moderate conditions. It also means the ultralight is a joy to fly.
Handling is light and pleasant but not fast or sudden. Though some pilots may demand more roll rate and lighter stick forces, I believe most ultralight pilots can practically define good handling by the settings the Flightstar factory has chosen.
In the beautiful spring skies above Florida, the Flightstar II SC equipped with the new 700E buzzed gently along at 4,500 rpm. When you raise the nose you need no throttle change. With most 2-strokes, you feel the prop load up and the engine labor when you climb sharply. Yet pulled up by the HKS, no such loading was perceptible right up to stall. Lamontagne explains that a flatter torque curve is responsible. My sensation was that it felt like many general aviation aircraft I’ve flown.
In the Flightstar II SC with two onboard, we maintained altitude with less than 4,000 rpm. At this setting and given less general engine-related noise, the 2000 HKS sounded like it was not working hard. With a fuel burn rate of 2.5 gallons per hour, Flightstar pilots will also find something to like with the 2000 HKS engine, specifically, low operational cost and never any gas and oil to mix.
Compared to a 50-hp Rotax 503 installation – which the Flightstar factory will happily sell you as they like this engine – the 2000 HKS brings a power boost. You’ll see a couple miles an hour more speed, but possibly not much more climb rate. A 503 with pull starter is lighter and the HKS uses some of its extra power output to lift the additional weight.
Compared to the 65-hp Rotax 582, the 700E has 5 less horsepower and a few extra pounds. The 2000 HKS is not an identical replacement but is a different engine experience. You’ll like it if you try it and I know my hearing benefited from the quieter, smoother operation.
The Flightstar II SC’s greater tail efficiency makes the already pleasant stall characteristics even more uneventful. Flightstar has always had good stability in all flight regimes. But I suspect the more orderly airflow over the tail at slow speeds – as seen in the landing touchdown phase – helps the pilot recover from stalls.
With its 4-stroke HKS engine mounted above the center of gravity, the Flightstar II SC produces a level attitude when full power is added from cruise trim. However, I did not find that it would produce any significant lowering of the nose. Contrarily, decreasing power does lower the nose as you might expect.
Disturbing the stick after establishing trim cruise gave positive results as the Flightstar returns to level with minimal oscillations.
Flightstar Sportplanes is an outspoken advocate of ballistic emergency parachutes, using them on their airshow display models faithfully. “Most Flightstar customers order a parachute,” reports Peghiny. Flying new ultralights as I regularly do, safety items are appreciated.
All in all the Flightstar II SC is a deluxe ultralight aircraft package that any pilot can enjoy. Since you can start with the more basic SL model of Flightstar and add the SC option later, you can get started for less and progress as you find comfortable.
|157 square feet
|6.1 pounds per square foot
|60 hp at 6,500 rpm
|15.8 pounds per hp
|Never exceed speed
|Rate of climb at gross
|Takeoff distance at gross
|Landing distance at gross
|Full dual controls with dual left-hand throttles, folding wings, steerable nosewheel, mechanical brakes, in-flight trim, fiberglass nose and aft cabin fairings, 4-point seat belt system, streamlined struts, dynofocal engine mount, composite 3-blade prop (on test model), dual elevator push-pull linkage, rotationally molded fuel tank with sump and drain.
|HKS 700E engine (as tested) with electric starter, additional instruments, ballistic parachute, special Mylar wing coverings (as tested).
|6061-T6 aluminum tubing aircraft with 4130 welded chromoly steel cage and landing gear, fiberglass nose and aft cabin fairings, presewn Dacron® sailcloth covering in various colors (no painting needed).
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – Popular and successful design with more than 800 flying. Regularly refined ultralight but many improvements can be retrofitted. New enclosure strikes excellent compromise between protection, good looks, and light weight. New 2000 version of 4-stroke HKS is even quieter and features lower operating costs. Folding wing is standard.
Cons – Not all buyers like the tractor-mounted engine despite its potential safety advantage. Sits low and doesn’t offer bush-flying potential as well as some other designs. Some buyers actually won’t like the evolving nature of the design as it means anything they buy could seem old in a few years (much like any computer you buy).
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 – INVALID character: 133
Cons – No flaps, which it hardly needs but some pilots can’t bear to part with them. Yes, you can add weight (and stay within exemption limits) but you’ll start undoing the hard work of the company to lighten the design. Operating a 4-stroke may require you change your learning experience with 2-stroke ultralights.
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Relatively quiet inside the cabin, even at cruise speed. New roof construction imparts an airy feeling unlike the Flightstar II all-fiberglass enclosure. Full dual control system – and side-by-side seating – makes any of the Flightstar II line perfect for training. Center pull brakes are easily accessed by both occupants and work with remarkable effectiveness. Okay to put pressure on the floor. Some cargo area in dual “saddlebag” compartments.
Cons – If you must have differential brakes, you must create the hardware. Though they’re comfortable, the sling seats with their reinforced seat bottom may not fit the widest pilots. Ground clearance is not generous enough for some rough fields.
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – low profile assures good taxi stability even in moderate winds. Fuller enclosure means less soil or debris enters the cockpit. Main gear is stout yet rides well, thanks to bungie suspension. Brakes actually slow and stop ultralight quite well. Sits in “normal” posture, that is, on all three gear.
Cons – Those who demand differential braking (needed or not) won’t find it on the Flightstar II SC. Seeing upward, as to check traffic before takeoff, is somewhat restricted by close overhead wing and fuller enclosure. Ventilating a closed II SC means unzipping the door, an action not quick to undo for expedited takeoffs.
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – Every landing I made in the II SC had a smooth touchdown, a pleasant contrast to my experience with older Flightstar II models. Smoother airflow to the tail helps this quality and also creates improved stall controls. Great landing view; no problem judging your approach. Controls are adequately authoritative for landings in most flying conditions.
Cons – Improved aerodynamic efficiency means better energy retention which means longer ground-effect glides; pilots of less efficient ultralights may need to refine their landing techniques. HKS engine doesn’t offer the steep climb of the Rotax 582 (though it’s still plenty). Some ultralights leave the ground quicker and land shorter, if that’s important to you.
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – Excellent combination of control response and stable operation; I believe Flightstar Sportplanes offers what most ultralight pilots seek. Good power to handle most crosswind conditions or airborne turbulence. Elevators now use standard dual push-pull links to assure redundancy; makes for smooth – if slightly heavier – control action.
Cons – Those yearning for lightning-fast controls must look elsewhere for happiness. Like many ultralights (but unlike most general aviation planes) you should lead slightly with the rudder for best control harmony; full-span aileron power appears greater than the rudder. Some may prefer more rudder throw.
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – Cruising with the 2000 HKS engine is a thing of joy: low noise, low vibration, low fuel usage and it all means less overhaul hassle. Also beautiful is the way you can pull up the nose without needing to adjust the throttle. Performance doesn’t usually include quietness, but since the HKS Flightstar II SC performs well, its low noise is appreciated.
Cons – Who couldn’t love the new 60-hp HKS, except of course the company asks a good chunk of change for it. Not the fastest horse in the stable (though this helps keep it under the training exemption). Climb is not as strong as the 65-hp Rotax 582 offers (but at about 750 fpm, it is certainly enough). With doors removed, cruise may suffer a mile an hour or two.
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – Excellent longitudinal and directional stability are reassuring in rougher conditions. Novice pilots will love the II SC’s stability characteristics. Tail works more effectively with improved airflow, creating even more benign stall characteristics and they were already great. Four-point seat belts and a ballistic parachute system made me feel even better in this stable design.
Cons – As with many powerful ultralights, the nose can get very high in full power (departure-type) stalls; nose can wander at max nose up (though I never found the stall to break over). With high mounted engine, powering up does not raise the nose, as it will on a certified aircraft.
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – Trade-up method of adding the SC features provides a lower cost of entry. New fairing is less costly to ship and easier for builders to assemble. Kit delivery is among the best in the business; supplied from Leza-Lockwood by a long-proven system established between the companies. Flightstar gets high points from buyers for superior, concerned customer service. Great overall safety record.
Cons – Not everyone will want to spend the money on the HKS engine regardless of its beneficial features. No dope-and-fabric option for those who prefer this covering. Overall, Flightstar is more costly than some low- or mid-range ultralights. If you must spend time painting your ultralight in some custom way, you won’t want a Flightstar.