At the close of business on January 31,
2008, 2-seat ultralight trainers and overweight
single-seater “ultralights” – as
readers of this publication understand these aircraft
– will cease to exist. More correctly, they
must have been converted to Experimental-Light
Sport Aircraft (ELSA) if their owners want to continue
flying them; otherwise these pilots’ options
are sharply limited.
But as Part 103-compliant ultralights continue
and if ultralight trainers go away, how will new
ultralight pilots be trained for flight in these
lightest of aircraft?
Happily, the subject of this month’s flight
review answers that question. Arguably the first
fixed-wing ultralight to make the jump – not to
ELSA conversion status but to full, Special-LSA
(SLSA) approval – is Higher Class Aviation’s
Gaining Higher Class
We first saw the Hornet when Jim Millett
brought this new design to Sun ‘n Fun ’94 (the
event’s 20th anniversary). It was a bold move into
a market looking well established. Indeed, since
the Hornet resembled a Challenger – one of the
best selling ultralights – was it even needed? At a
price then double that of a Challenger, some
observers thought it had an uncertain future.
The Hornet found some following and persevered
until present company owner, Robert
Gaither, bought the company from Millett in ’04.
Gaither struggled with his company and the
Hornet as ultralight growth hit a plateau and as
FAA’s new Light-Sport Aircraft regulation finally
peeked over the horizon. But the arrival of this
aviation regulation foretold a new direction for
Higher Class Aviation, the name Gaither chose
for his new company.
As it became obvious to Gaither that LSA
would be the new way aircraft like
the Hornet would be built, he redirected
precious resources to meeting
the new industry consensus standards.
This project is challenging,
with lots of testing and paperwork
required. But Gaither and his small
team plugged away and finally, in
July ’07, won Special Light-Sport
Aircraft approval for their 100-hp
Rotax 912S-powered Hornet. They
renamed the model Sport Hornet to
commemorate this achievement.
The task of converting a homebuilt
“ultralight” to a fully factory-built
SLSA wasn’t easy or swift. As Gaither
and his team made the Hornet ready
for the lights sport aircraft market,
the airplane was put through a long
series of changes.
Much of what Millett created remains on the
Sport Hornet of today, but much has also changed
to become an SLSA and because it was the right
thing to do.
One major change was adding the Rotax 912 to
the airplane, a bigger- than-usual challenge
owing to the aft engine placement and the fact
that Millett had designed the Hornet around less
powerful (and lighter) engines. Pilots were asking
for the more powerful Rotax 912. It became
apparent that more extensive changes would be necessary to support such a powerful engine.
Remember, the first Hornet flew well with a 52-hp
Rotax 503 engine.
While the Hornet team worked to achieve their
SLSA status, they knew they’d have a tail-heavy airplane
when they bolted on the big 912S engine. One
solution was to move the battery to the furthest forward
Even that isn’t always enough. While it sounds
counterintuitive – adding dead weight to a “light”
sport airplane – ballast is sometimes needed to
counter-balance that big 912 engine. Gaither said,
“The majority of our customers [weigh] 200 to 210
pounds. Ballast is needed only when being flown
solo by a lightweight pilot. Our Aircraft Operating
Instructions (AOI) covers this process in detail.”
Higher Class engineers widened the cockpit 4
inches to accommodate these larger customers, a
considerable effort requiring many engineering
hours. But this allowed them to move the rear rudder
pedals up about 6 inches to allow rear-seat occupants
to wear boots and still work the pedals. Older
Hornets seemed a bit tight for the aft person’s feet
with some concern of control interference.
One major structural change included adding a
second wing strut to control wing torsion (twisting)
movements resulting from the additional power.
Another driver in this structural engineering move
was to eventually permit 1,320 pounds of gross load
where Millett’s Hornet could carry only 1,000
When the strut changes were made, dihedral was
also added to make
for a much more stable
according to longtime
Roger Chase. The
original had almost
no dihedral. Despite
the greater stability,
Chase says they lost
no performance and
qualities. “I don’t
know why Millett and
I didn’t do this sooner,”
Sport Hornets will
have a 30-foot
from the 28-foot span
Sport Hornet that I
flew. This change will
allow Higher Class to
move up to 1,320
pounds of gross
weight from 1,260
pounds as certified in ’07. The increased span allows
the Sport Hornet to meet the 52-mph Vso (clean
stall) required of an SLSA at the heavier weight.
The greater span and commensurately lighter loading
will allow the Sport Hornet to maintain its current
takeoff performance and climb rates, even at
the heavier weight. Though frontal area will be
greater, a higher aspect ratio has designers convinced
more speed will result.
The 2007 Hornet model with 1,260 pounds gross
weight has 630 pounds of useful load, yielding 522
pounds of payload after 18 gallons of fuel are
pumped onboard. This is plenty even for two big
occupants. More weight capacity seems hardly necessary
until you consider adding amphibious floats.
The increase will also allow for a pod underneath
the plane, providing some baggage area. “We can’t
add anything to the tail of this airplane,” says
Gaither. Available cubic volume aft of the rear seat
cannot be used because of weight-and-balance reasons.
For this evaluation flight, Chase and I flew at
about 1,210 pounds, 50 pounds less than gross given
the current certification for the Hornet.
Preserving the Hornet
While the changes made by Gaither and his engineer
Mathew Gregory are substantial, much of the
“new” Hornet remains as it was a decade ago when
Millett first assembled his dream plane.
The Hornet has always featured a robust aluminum
airframe covered with Stits Poly-Fiber.
Factory folks note that the fabric tensioning associated
with this type of covering does not distort their
wing due to its well-braced structure.
Though not always using dual wing struts, dualspar
wings have long been part of the airframe as
has been the unique Hornet air spring (pneumatic)
suspension on all three wheels. Millett’s air bag system
– not unlike that used on large trucks (though
obviously on a lighter scale) – is comprised of three
separate bags. Highly effective at damping landing
loads, even during demonstrations where the plane
is stalled from 8 or 9 feet up, no damage occurs. A student may not even be aware of how hard he or she landed.
Working with the suspension system are custom hydraulic brakes,
aluminum wheels, and large tires.
Sport Hornet seats, molded of lightweight composite, are
adjustable with 6 inches of travel. Aircraft-quality 4-point shoulder
harness and seat belts are standard at both seats. And, working
with the BRS parachute company, Higher Class has neatly integrated
a vertically launching BRS model into the center wing section.
But while the original Hornet barely met the ultralight trainer
definition even with few accessories, Higher Class can equip a customer’s
Sport Hornet with several options, among them glass
instruments front and rear. They also offer a joystick with six buttons
to keep your flying hand where it ought to be.
The joystick is topped with a 4-direction switch, which handles
pitch and rudder trim; yes, it has both. Two buttons on both sides
and just forward of the coolie hat operate the flaps, not rudder trim
as I mistakenly thought. The left button deploys the flaps and the
right switch retracts them.
In my experience, the rudder trim has less effect – as it should –
than the pitch trim. When factory pilots take off in this particular
airplane, they use three-quarter right rudder trim, which eliminates
most need for right pedal application. Hornet shares this
quality with other pusher-engine aircraft. However, use of the rudder
trim may not be needed in the future due to the reshaping of
the vertical stabilizer.
As I discovered entering slow flight, full extension of flaps consumes
8 seconds, the linear actuator’s response time. In that time
you can deploy 30° or retract them. The Hornet’s electrically actuated
flaps appeared to reduce stall speed by 8 mph.
In the SLSA Sport Hornet you can have a choice of hand brake
lever or toe brakes (a feature that endears the Sport Hornet to general
aviation pilots). The owner of our test airplane is a big fellow, 6
feet, 5 inches and weighing 260 pounds. To ease his cockpit entry
the hand brake lever was made shorter. Normally it would be longer
with even better mechanical advantage, but I found it reasonably
The throttle was moved well aft to provide more lateral space for
its large owner, but this proved awkward. Most pilots will prefer a
more forward placement of the throttle.
When Higher Class installs computer screen instruments,
Hornets will still get a few backup analog gauges. New Hornets will
also see an upward tilted panel to improve readability, which will
also provide a bit more knee room.
Challenger pilots and those operating many other pusher ultralights
know that when they exit their planes, the aircraft wants to
sit on the tail due to the engine weight. In a Hornet, you can deploy
a spring-loaded tail stand before you exit. In use, it hooks into a
keyhole cut into the left rudder pedal. With the tail stand still
deployed and connected to the rudder pedal you can’t readily taxi
as a safety feature.
Millett’s version of the Hornet had several unusual features. One
was a brake lever built into the joystick. Certainly simple, this also
took some acclimatization on takeoff. If you pulled back too far or
too fast, you applied the brakes, bringing the nosewheel back down
onto the ground and slowing you just when you were trying to accelerate.
A more conventional brake lever with a parking brake lock on it is now standard, and, of course, you can
elect to have toe brakes.
Flight of the Hornet
Longtime Hornet associate Roger Chase
advised me that 75 mph is an optimal climb
rate on takeoff. While most Hornets have
them, Gaither says the lack of a trim indicator
on the test aircraft led me to take off with the
stick requiring a fair amount of backpressure
as I attempted to rotate. Since
the trim changes with downward movement
of the horizontal stabilizer, I couldn’t
judge its position before takeoff.
Fortunately, trim is very effective but
you do need to use it. Chase further
advised that best angle of climb is done
at 69 mph, best rate at 75 mph, and en
route climb is done at 86 mph.
As is my practice, I performed a series
of Dutch roll coordination maneuvers.
Doing so, I found the controls a bit on the
stiff side. Coordination between axes
was generally acceptable, though I found
I needed a bit more aileron than rudder
input to make coordinated Dutch rolls.
Once familiar with the Sport Hornet’s
controls, I measured roll rate in 45-to-45
reversals at 3 to 3.5 seconds. Steep turns
executed at 5,200 rpm required considerable
use of the pitch trim but once
properly deployed, the Sport Hornet
carved excellent circles even at 60° of
bank. With other maneuvers, this confirms
the Hornet’s stable flying manners.
Deploying full flaps, slow flight was
easily achieved at about 52 mph. Control
response was slower, of course, but still
sufficiently authoritative. At maximum
slow flight, I ran out of nose-up trim, but
pitch pressures with full trim were light
enough to easily control the Hornet.
Remember, this particular airplane was
set up for a pilot who weighs 100 pounds
more than I.
At 4,800 rpm, which Chase called
“about 60% power,” the Sport Hornet
produced about 86 mph of cruise speed.
On a high-speed run at maximum continuous
power (5,500 rpm), I noted 116
mph going west and 97 mph when going
east on the GPS, for an average ground
speed of 106 mph. While not the GPS triangle
one might use for calibrating true
airspeed, it does give a good indication of
Higher Class is still evaluating props
for the 100-hp Rotax 912S. They’ve had
more experience with the 80-horse
Rotax 912, which might be a more optimal
choice, but customers want the higher
power. Limited by the lower boom, the
Hornet can use no more than a 58-inch
prop. With an 18-gallon fuel supply as
standard, the Sport Hornet can fly for up
to 6 hours and travel 500 nautical miles
To win SLSA airworthiness for the
Sport Hornet, Higher Class took the
design farther than had Millett. For this
achievement, Gaither credits young
aerospace engineer Mathew Gregory
aided by former SkyStar president Ed
Downs along with experienced Hornet
pilot, Roger Chase.
The changes they made are both substantial
and minor. For example, older
Hornets had no airfoil shape to the vertical
tail surface. Now the vertical stabilizer
is shaped with a deeper curve on
the left side to compensate for P-factor.
Higher Class also added electric rudder trim,
which is controlled via a joystick button set.
In a power-on departure stall with the joystick
full aft in the stall, I observed 46 mph on
the Grand Rapids Technologies Engine
Information System engine monitoring system.
In several trials no stall break resulted.
Accelerated stalls did not break either, though
when done to the right the Hornet rolled to
level. In all powered stalls, while climb decreased, it did not disappear
The Sport Hornet’s pitch felt
heavy enough in control that I
relied on the very effective trim.
Roll pressures required less effort.
The 3-inch shortened stick to provide
more room for the large owner
of this aircraft colored some of my
experiences with this particular
Hornet. The standard longer stick
with more mechanical advantage
would be an improvement.
When I made power changes,
adding power produced a slow
climb as expected. Reducing power
from 5,200 to 3,000 rpm first
caused a nose- up when the high
thrust line was eliminated, but
then the nose lowered gently in a
Checking lateral stability to the
left where P-factor aids coordination,
the Sport Hornet held steady
at 20° and 30° of bank; it did not
tighten up in the turn. When I repeated the
lateral stability check to the right, the turn
tightened up gently.
Pitch trim is actuated at the trailing edge
of the horizontal stabilizer. The baseline
position is set at the factory. Since it had
been repositioned for a very heavy owner, it
could be adjusted for a lighter pilot such as
myself, which would regain full correct trim
Catching Your Hornet
Many industry leaders have been hearing
from many pilots that fully built SLSA are
priced out of their budgets. Despite the availability
of consumer financing – with 20%
down, reasonable interest rates, and long
amortization periods – or even given the
availability of partner ownership programs
and agreements, some potential buyers are
not buying because the full cost just seems
out of reach.
Into this dilemma flies Higher Class
Aviation. At $49,995, the Sport Hornet is the
lowest cost, fully built, fixed-wing SLSA
available. Even if you want various options, a
fully loaded Sport Hornet seems unlikely to
exceed $60,000. Given the availability of
financing over 20 years, this appears to put a
well-equipped Sport Hornet within reach of
the majority of pilots (approximately $12,000
down and $375 per month for 20 years, on
For the Sport Hornet’s $49,995 price, buyers
now get the 100-hp Rotax 912D (formerly
you got the 80-hp version for this price),
and the SLSA is equipped for day VFR flight.
Standard instruments include an airspeed
indicator, sensitive altimeter, vertical speed
indicator, Grand Rapids EIS system; plus a
5-position ignition switch (off, left mag, right
mag, both, start), master switch, flap switch,
and trim switch.
To bid the price up beyond $50,000 you can
choose an optional BRS ballistic parachute
system, Kuntzleman Electronics light kit,
Grand Rapids Technologies Sport Pak EFIS,
Becker radio/transponder, and PSI
But for ultralight pilots or, more to the
point, for ultralight Sport Pilot instructors,
Higher Class has recently announced a
Rotax 582-powered Hornet for only $40,000.
If they can maintain this price, some of those
woes about no ultralight trainers may disappear.
Equipped for fun or equipped for serious
cross-country flying, the Sport Hornet makes
an economical purchase compared to any
other Special- Light Sport Aircraft. And the
582 model is a positive bargain.
Many ultralighters have been lamenting
the lack of airplanes in which to train pilots
who want to fly genuine Part 103-compliant
ultralight vehicles. The Sport Hornet can
now fill that need. And at only $40,000 in
SLSA ready-to-fly form, it’s also a bargain.
Maybe you deserve a Higher Class of aviation?
|Empty weight||630 pounds|
|Gross weight||1,260 pounds 1|
|Wing area||170 square feet|
|Wing loading||6.5 pounds/square foot|
|Useful Load||630 pounds|
|Payload (with full fuel)||522 pounds|
|Cabin Interior||34 inches|
|Fuel Capacity||18 gallons|
|Baggage area||none 2|
|Notes:||1 Higher Class plans to increase gross to 1,320 pounds in the near future.
2 Space available, but weight & balance allows no baggage unless flown solo; a cargo pod under the cockpit is being planned.
|Standard engine||Rotax 912S|
|Prop Diameter||Three-blade composite|
|Power loading||12.6 pounds/hp|
|Cruise speed||(75% power) 101 knots/116 mph|
|Stall Speed (Flaps)||43 knots/49 mph|
|Never exceed speed||125 knots/143 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||1,000 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||400 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||285 feet|
|Range (powered)||410 nm, 4.5 hours (no reserve)|
|Fuel Consumption||about 4.3 gph|
|Notes:||Basic panel instruments,
100-hp Rotax 912S with electric starting, removable
doors (cannot be opened in flight), hydraulic
brakes, electric flaps and pitch trim, dual controls,
4-point seat belts, entry doors on both sides.
|Standard Features||Basic panel instruments,
100-hp Rotax 912S with electric starting, removable
doors (cannot be opened in flight), hydraulic
brakes, electric flaps and pitch trim, dual controls,
4-point seat belts, entry doors on both sides.
|Options||Aluminum tube-and-gusset airframe,
all-aluminum wing covered with painted
dope and fabric. Made in USA; distributed by
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – Innovative design with a robust construction.
Wing construction based on dual spars and
struts. Rotax engines provide predictable operation.
Company is one of the “ultralight” fixed-wing designs
to win SLSA approval and a Rotax 582 model will further
lower the price and interest ultralight instructors.
Cons – No matter how you look at it, the Hornet
does not resemble most of the new flock of SLSA
designs; still looks like an “ultralight” (even if that
label is unfairly applied). Tail stand adds weight
(though makes entry easier).
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 – Electric trim and flaps are standard and
bring smooth, easy control. Electric trim was quite
effective at offsetting stick pressures. Electric start is
standard with Rotax 912S. Tail stand is easily cabin
retractable. Hydraulic brakes were effective; toe
brakes available. Easy engine access.
Cons – Control buttons on the joystick were not
fully intuitive. Also, I found use of the trim was necessary
in this airplane. I was unable to determine
trim position with visual inspection in the test Sport
Hornet. Panel room is somewhat shy if you want all
the latest digital equipment plus radios.
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Entry and exit are simple to both seats
(not common with all tandems), especially with the
tail stand holding the Hornet level. Four-point seatbelts
were appreciated. Broad pilots will like the
roominess afforded by tandem seating. Most controls
within an easy reach. Lots of payload available.
Cons – The throttle on this test Sport Hornet,
built for its large owner, was hard to reach and less
finely adjusted. No baggage/cargo area (except the
rear seat when flying solo; underside pod coming
soon). As with most tandems, the aft seat has limited
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – Visibility is very good from the front seat
whether on the ground or in flight. Even the rear has
decent visibility and is better than many tandems.
Goodyear suspension does its job beautifully; firm yet
well dampened. Turn radius was tight. Very good
clearance for rough field use
Cons – Brakes were strong but hand brakes don’t
please everyone (toe brakes are available for those
pilots). Nosewheel steering effectiveness was diminished
because the Hornet sits lightly on the nose.
Nondifferential braking lessens taxi maneuverability
(toe brakes will fix this at optional cost).
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – Ground roll on takeoff was reasonably
short (400 feet). Takeoff and landing visibility are
excellent from the front seat. Approach speeds can be
held low, 40 mph with practice. Out-landings are less
threatening, thanks to good clearance and the excellent
suspension system. Flaps were very useful,
pitching the nose down to improve visibility on final.
Cons – Crosswind landings done at the slowest
speeds may run out of stick range. Slips weren’t as
effective as some other ultralights or LSA. Takeoff
roll may seem long to ultralight pilots (but recall the
high gross weight of this upgraded original).
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – Few pilots will call Hornet controls fast;
controls were reasonably light and pleasant.
Coordination was also satisfactory. Precision turns to
headings were accurate from the start and the
Hornet holds a mild bank turn easily. Adverse yaw
was somewhat better than average.
Cons – Roll rate may not be fast enough for some
pilots, though many ultralight pilots will find the
Hornet perfect. Stick range was limited in some
crosswind landings when wide deflection was needed.
Rudder deflection was less effective than expected
after a reshaping of the vertical stabilizer was complete.
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – Among ultralights, the Hornet is pretty
fast (though not so much compared to many SLSA).
Hornet also flies well at low power settings. Engine
and prop appear well selected. Sink rate was good at
less than 500 fpm. Slow flight possible at 4,500 rpm,
a fairly low number for an aircraft of this size.
Cons – For a distant cross-country flight, even the
Rotax 912S-powered Sport Hornet may not be fast
enough (cruises around 105 mph). Takeoff distance of
400 feet might seem long to ultralight pilots (though
not to any general aviation pilot). Fuel consumption
of the Rotax 582-powered model may not be as good
as with the larger Rotax 912.
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – Power-off stalls broke mildly in the mid- to
high-30-mph range. Power-on stall never broke,
instead just bucking around in an obvious protest
that should guide your response. Longitudinal stability
tests were good in spite of a nose light trim condition
(due to the test Hornet being set up for a large
Cons – Throttle response checks came out fairly
neutral (though this is a good performance compared
to other high thrust line pusher designs). Carved consistent
turns even at 60° bank angles. Adverse yaw
was about as expected. Earlier negatives about this
design have been fully resolved.
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – Feature-filled design illustrating
lots of innovation and creative problem
solving. Reasonably efficient aircraft.
Performs well at low power settings. Stout
construction will set most pilots at ease,
even general aviation pilots used to heavier
iron. Approval as an SLSA, at $49,995
is a welcome development (and a lower-cost
Rotax 582-powered model may be even
more alluring to ultralighters).
Cons – Small company with less
capacity to support customers than
some larger SLSA companies. Delivery
times may vary due to small (but dedicated)
staff. Though design has met
ASTM standards, some nonultralight
pilots may write off the Hornet as a
too-simple airplane, possibly affecting
Roger A Roberge says
Is there any flying clubs that fly the elsa hornet?
Dan Johnson says
With this particular model, I’m afraid you are out of luck. It made a brief appearance and has not been seen since. That was many years ago.