Considered by many to be a workhorse, the Super Drifter XL shows refinement and features that make it seem like a “luxury ultralight.” Leza AirCam, the newly renamed producer of this venerable ultralight, has equipped the top-of-the-line model with nearly every option in their price list. Conclusion: While it will cost you a bundle, you should be satisfied with this ultralight for many years.
How is this Super Drifter XL different from the Super Drifter that I evaluated almost 3 years ago? According to Denny Franklin – yes, that same icon of the Maxair days when the Drifter was a youngster – the XL is a significant redesign of the original Super Drifter 912 flown in 1998.1 It has seen numerous changes to make the veteran design work better with the big 80-hp Rotax 912 situated at the rear of the wing.
What’s New With the Super Drifter XL?
The Super Drifter XL has an extended fuselage – meaning the boom tube and its fuselage “pan” – to position the front seat 5 inches further forward. This better offsets the heavy 80-hp Rotax 912 engine and removes the nose lightness (for lighter weight front pilots) associated with the previous Super Drifter. So, you might remember the differences between the two 4-stroke Drifters by thinking of the Super Drifter XL as “Extra Long.”
“The entire fuselage was beefed up to accommodate the higher weight of the Rotax 912,” says Franklin. The changes include sleeving to better brace the main boom, which remains the same diameter. Landing gear legs were also beefed up and the extra metal boosts the weight a couple pounds. Despite the stronger airframe, the 912-powered Super Drifter XL can come in a pound under the FAR Part 103 exemption weight of 496 pounds for 2-seaters used for flight instruction only.
The Drifter XL also has hydraulic brakes and aircraft tires as standard equipment. Flaps, which are an option on other Drifters, are standard on the XL. “It also has complete instrumentation and a stainless steel exhaust for the 912 engine,” adds Franklin. As with all Rotax 912 engines, electric starting is standard gear. A Warp Drive carbon-fiber propeller replaces the IvoProp carbon/graphite-fiber propellers used on the Rotax 503 and Rotax 582. (The Rotax 447 shares the Warp Drive brand prop.) Denny also says a new, wider tailwheel is coming that will work better in places with soft soil as is found throughout central Florida and other places.
Though the Super Drifter of ’98 was also well equipped, the XL model is clearly the top of the 4-model Drifter line from Leza AirCam. These range from a Drifter DR447 single-place (which the company almost never sells, they report) to the Drifter XP503 2-place model to the Drifter MU582 beefed-up version to the new XL. As you move up this line of models, the standard equipment list grows until you reach the XL, which has nearly everything Leza AirCam offers. Thus, its option list is short, just like luxury automobiles.
A year before Leza’s first Super Drifter appeared, I did an Ultralight Flying! Pilot’s Report on the Drifter SB.2 This model from Australian company Tiger Aviation is different in its use of struts versus cable bracing. With some other refinements to make it better appeal to the Cessna set, the Drifter SB got heavy and flew like it. Solid to perfection, its handling was more truck-like.
The Drifter SB had a much higher windscreen – again for the general aviation pilots Tiger Aviation hoped to attract to the design – but the nose pod of the Leza AirCam Super Drifter XL is fuller on the sides and may reduce wind buffet to the rear seat. However, it also makes the Super Drifter XL a little tougher to enter; you can’t just step in like you can on the Drifter SB. The XL model also has a much lower windscreen than the SB.
In many ways, the new Super Drifter XL is much like the Drifter SB except that the Yankee version of an 80-horsepowered Drifter is at least 35 pounds lighter and the XL flies with more agility. It shows an excellent sink rate at a lower speed than the SB, was enjoyable with the engine fully shut down, and even looks lighter. Cable bracing may strike some pilots as busy, but viewed overall, they become almost invisible while struts stand out obviously.
For those with an excess of cash to burn, the Super Drifter XL comes well set up so you can add regular or amphibious floats. The Drifter also comes with a location for the rearward float attachment near the engine downtube supports.
Sunshine State Airspace
Sometimes I fly 2-seat ultralights for evaluation solo; in fact, it’s usually my preference so I don’t have to “perform” for some factory pilot or have that pilot fretting over my maneuvers. Solo flying is also the way 2-seaters are operated, so single-place flight tests are valid. Other times it’s appropriate to have two on board when the aircraft may be flown that way.
In the case of the Super Drifter XL, I had the chance to fly with an old friend from my hang gliding business days, Richard Johnson, himself a Sunshine State icon. For years he was a top water-ski performer at Cypress Gardens, the state’s biggest tourist attraction before Disney invaded. Since the ’70s he and a Japanese partner had been selling water-ski goods to Japan. Later he gathered almost every FAA rating in the books and flies regularly with Fantasy of Flight owner Kermit Weeks. Richard’s logbook is full of entries for aircraft most pilots have never even seen much less flown. He’s also just a good guy to hang with and I Iooked forward to flying with him on board. (I would later obtain my FAA Multi-Engine rating from him using an AirCam| but that’s another story.)
Richard yielded the front seat and familiarized me with the Super Drifter XL’s cockpit. It took no arm-twisting to return to a seat with one of the best views in all of aviation.
Entry to the front has some challenge mainly because no step was fitted to help. Instead, I followed Richard’s technique, which involves starting on the left main tire and swinging your left foot up to the sturdy floorpan of the Drifter (see photos on pg.26). During this entry process, I found it handy to use the trio of support tubes aft of the seat; they offer a firm and sure brace while you slip into the seat.
The flap lever offers three positions beyond neutral and Richard suggests the use of one notch for takeoff. When you use full flaps for landing you get a significant nose-down attitude (after speed decays), as I prefer.
The Drifter XL uses 4-point seat belts, a necessary feature in order for people to feel comfortable on this out-in-front-of-everything ultralight. One drawback of such secure restraints is that I could not reach the switches on the instrument panel with the shoulder belts fully tightened. Since the seats don’t adjust, the distance to the pedals and joystick cannot be varied once the kit is constructed. It’ll fit most sizes quite well, but if you are exceptionally tall or short, you may need to reposition the seat a little during assembly.
However, in flight I loosened the shoulder belts, reached forward to shut the engine down, and we flew around in silence for a few moments. Restarting proved to be simple and cooperative.
An instructor buying the Drifter XL for training will surely want some gauges, but none were installed for the rear seat occupant in this aircraft. Fortunately, Richard is so comfortable with the Drifter that he flew excellently just by the seat of his pants. While Richard is very experienced, it speaks well for the Drifter that rear seat instrumentation is not mandatory. Visibility from the rear is better than many tandems, especially the enclosed ones.
Firing up the Rotax 912 is no more tiresome than twisting the ignition key. With the immensely wide view up front, taxiing is like riding a motorcycle; you can see everything.
The Super Drifter XL showed a rather sensitive tailwheel when on the ground giving me some concern for the potential of ground looping during landings. It proved to be no problem whatsoever, no doubt thanks to a large tail that quickly becomes effective.
The XL’s brakes also proved to be surprisingly effective, using a small hydraulic cylinder located on the front of the joystick. This is optional on other Drifters but is a new standard item for the XL model.
Launching the 80-hp Super Drifter XL is exciting. Thanks to the stunning thrust of the 3-blade Rotax 912, it was never necessary to use full throttle for takeoff even with two persons on board. We probably weren’t quite at full gross but Richard and I only required 5,000 rpm to lift off easily. Your neighbors will like this, not only because of the lower power used but because the scream of a 2-stroke is absent.
After some maneuvers, I came back to the airport for some further touch and goes.
Given a few trials, I found it was easy to make landing approaches at 40 mph, speeding up slightly as I neared the ground in order to assure sufficient flare energy. For a big 2-seater with a big engine, this is a slow speed that assures you can get into some pretty small fields should the need arise. Of course, with the 4-stroke reliability of the 912, this is unlikely.
Flaps come standard on the XL and are optional on the other Drifter models. Yet Richard demonstrated a fairly steep slip which showed that the Drifter could perform this maneuver well, even though it has limited side area. Flaps will add to this approach path control.
Despite its overall ease of operation, I experienced some challenge to make smooth landings because I simply did not want to lower the nose as much as was needed. This may be an effect of sitting forward of most portions of the aircraft structure and is something for which non-Drifter pilots need to be aware. When Richard demonstrated a single main wheel touchdown, it felt like we were going to stuff the nose (we didn’t).
Although the Drifter XL revealed a low sink rate in flight, this quality seemed to disappear in ground effect and I plopped it in three times. Not hard enough to bend parts, these landing forces were absorbed easily which seems to prove the stoutness of the reinforced Drifter XL’s landing gear legs.
Indeed, based on Richard’s exquisitely-done demonstration of landing on one wheel where he used a little bit of power to facilitate the maneuver, I concluded that a bump of throttle on the landing touchdown will help new Drifter pilots (and some flight reporters) to make smooth landings.
Light On Its Wings
As opposed to that heavier strutted Drifter SB, the XL felt lighter than it is. Since this is also the case with the even-larger AirCam, I conclude the Leza engineers and original developers Phil Lockwood and Denny Franklin simply have a finely tuned sense of handling.
Overall, the XL’s handling is light to the touch and reasonably responsive. However, you wouldn’t call the roll rate fast. For training applications and for many pilots, this will prove to be just about right. I was quickly able to do Dutch rolls that were well coordinated but not to very steep angles.
Although the Super Drifter XL has no in-flight trim, pitch forces are light enough that I never missed trim.
One negative I found: During takeoff, if I powered up all at once with this much horsepower I could run out of right rudder range. The factory intends to make some adjustment to the fixed rudder trim to reduce this effect on the Rotax 912-powered Drifters. On the other hand, I can scarcely imagine the situation where you might actually need to add full power to launch.
As Richard and I cruised around central Florida enjoying a fine day of flying, I did not seek maximum speed but cruises tended to run below 70 mph. For me, this is plenty of speed. The Super Drifter XL may have buckets of extra power, but she still flies like an ultralight. Even with the big engine, Leza AirCam has set the never-exceed speed at 80 mph. A 447-powered single seat Drifter is limited to 75 mph. The design was never meant to be a speedster.
The Drifter XL exhibited a surprisingly good sink rate, especially for an aircraft of this weight and size. The day was full of thermals but I was able to factor out the lift to record a sink rate under 400 fpm in a couple of long descents. This is quite excellent for a big comfortable 2-seater.
In another test of performance it appeared that only 4,000-4,100 rpm was needed to sustain altitude. The cylinder head temperature ran so cool (120°) that I began to wonder if the gauge was even working. However, Richard assured me this was normal.
Flying low over the fields we were able to sustain airspeeds as slow as 45 mph which dropped below 40 mph by using full flaps. Many aircraft that add the Rotax 912 and are flown with two occupants don’t achieve this delightful form of ultralight flying. For my interest in ultralight flying – and possibly for yours – this is an important “performance” parameter.
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone criticize the stability of the Drifter series. My investigations have always found the design very well behaved. Of course, I generally don’t do radical maneuvers and I never do them in ultralights that aren’t parachute equipped. Using normal attitudes and some aggressive control inputs, I found the Super Drifter XL to be a perfect gentleman.
Power-on stalls were revealed only by some burbling at the prop and some stick shaking, but none broke through. I found only a modest break on power-off stalls. Accelerated stalls done to the left merely dropped the right wing and straightened out. Accelerated stalls to the right acted like a power-on stall, resisting without breaking over. You can get in trouble with any airplane, but the Drifter will be more forgiving than many.
According to Leza AirCam documents, the Super Drifter XL can make an empty weight of 495 pounds, meeting the weight requirement as an ultralight trainer under the exemption to FAR Part 103. Since this aircraft comes very well equipped, that means this deluxe trainer can be put to work providing instruction to students for hire. However, you may want to visit with the factory to assure the delivered ultralight will indeed meet the regulations. A lack of much painted area – thanks to Dacron wings and tail that come precolored – helps builders come in close to the factory specifications. On the other hand, when it qualifies for the exemption, the Super Drifter XL can be factory-built, an appealing fact to many businessmen.
Buying an 80-hp Rotax 912-powered Super Drifter XL is not for the faint of wallet at more than $25,000. But it will find followers among those who just prefer 4-stroke engines and like lots of power and instructors with full days of flying. The engine is hugely popular because it’s a darn good engine. It should go 1,600 hours or more before an overhaul. It sips fuel quite slowly for an 80-horse powerplant. It runs quieter and seems to introduce less vibration. And the airframe has been engineered to handle the big power. These are all good things, but you still have that $25,000+ price tag. That’s the price of 4-stroke power and lots of accessories.
Because they supply their kits, Leza AirCam is close to Flightstar Sportplanes, whose directors also market the 60-hp HKS 700E under the name HPower. Leza AirCam is also considering the fitment of the 60-horse 4-stroke HKS 700E to the Drifter. Since it’s a little lighter and since you don’t need all those Rotax 80 horses in my opinion, this may be a terrific choice for those yearning for 4-stroke reliability, low noise, and reduced fuel consumption. You could also save a small bundle. I hope Leza AirCam shows an HKS-powered model soon.
But, if you run a flight school and want a dependable ultralight to run hard day in and day out, the 80-hp Rotax 912-powered Super Drifter XL may be one of the better choices you have. Of course, some instructors prefer side-by-side seating but if you can work with tandem machines, the Drifter XL deserves your careful examination.
Built in that brute-tough way Denny Franklin pioneered so many years ago, the Drifter remains a workhorse with delightful flight characteristics. It’s great when all the parts remain securely in place year after year, but ultralights should be fun to fly as well. The Super Drifter XL can do both and is a worthy top end addition to one of the most successful ultralight lines in history.
1 See “Pilot Report: The Drifter’s a Classic,” August ’98 Ultralight Flying! magazine.
2See “Pilot Report: The New Drifter SB,” June ’97 Ultralight Flying! magazine.
|Empty weight||495 pounds|
|Gross weight||1,000 pounds|
|Wing area||160 square feet|
|Wing loading||6.25 pounds per square foot|
|Kit type||Assembly kit|
|Build time||125-225 hours|
|Standard engine||Rotax 912|
|Power||80 hp at 5,500 rpm|
|Power loading||12.5 pounds per hp|
|Cruise speed||75 mph|
|Never exceed speed||85 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||1,000 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||200 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||200 feet|
|Standard Features||Rotax 912, electric starting, all stainless exhaust, flaps, 3-stripe color, ASI, altimeter, CHT, oil pressure, oil temp, Hobbs, and tachometer, dual controls, nose fairing, dual 5-gallon fuel tanks, wide aluminum wheels, hydraulic brakes, 3-blade prop.|
|Options||Floats, ballistic parachute system, nickel leading edge treatment.|
|Construction||Aluminum airframe, spring steel landing gear, presewn Dacron® wing coverings, fiberglass nose fairing. Made in the USA.|
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – The XL version of the Super Drifter adds refinement and features without disturbing the basics of this popular design (see details in article). More than 1,000 Drifters are reported flying. Top-of-the-line model of four Drifters produced. Leza AirCam has (wisely, in my opinion) retained cable bracing; it’s lighter and lower drag than struts. 80-hp Rotax 912 installation was well executed.
Cons – Not all pilots love the idea of sitting out on the end of a boom; if you don’t like it, you’ll know right away. Some pilots will regard the Drifter as a dated, older design. Makes Part 103 exemption weight by a single pound.
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 – Excellent flap system, both effective in use and easy to deploy. Lever is alongside pilot’s thigh and comfortably reached like a center car emergency brake lever. The Super Drifter XL is superbly equipped (for a price, of course). Stick-mounted, mini-hydraulic brake system is surprisingly powerful. Open cockpit style eases refueling (and no interior fumes!). Engine access is excellent.
Cons – All the features add to the price and the big Rotax 912 4-stroke, 4-cylinder engine seems like overkill on an ultralight that flies well on a 50-hp Rotax 503. No instruments were installed for the rear seat instructor. But you can carry any system you can afford; no other negatives.
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Four-point seat belts front and rear, especially appreciated in such a sit-on-the-end-of-a-pole cockpit. If you like wide-open visibility, the Drifter is king (excepting maybe only the AirCam, which is a grown-up Drifter at heart). Full instrument panel arranged in an efficient T-panel. Entry to both seats is reasonable, but the aft seat is especially easy for a tandem design. Seats are quite comfortable.
Cons – If you don’t like the wide-open feel of ultralights, then you better stay in the back seat (though it solos from the front). Entry to the front seat might be improved with a step; a kit builder can add one. Rear seat occupant is subject to considerable wind buffet. Seats don’t adjust in flight. No rear instruments as an instructor may want.
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – Mini-hydraulic system made for quite powerful brakes. Excellent visibility from the front seat to scan for traffic during takeoff| or any time. Spring steel gear offered good shock absorption even with the heavier Rotax 912 engine and two occupants. Ground clearance is generous. Prop quite well protected from runway debris.
Cons – Tailwheel action seemed a little sensitive at first though it caused no difficulties; a beginner may experience some challenges in crosswinds. Suspension is limited to gear leg flex and tire inflation. No differential brakes though they’re hardly needed. A slight deck angle plus long coupling means the Drifter can be ground looped if you’re slow on the rudder pedals.
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – Low landing approach speeds (40 mph) can be used with adequate margin. Slips proved surprisingly effective given the small side area. Flaps are highly efficient and easily deployed. Visibility is unparalleled in ultralight aviation. Good crosswind capability thanks to responsive controls. Climb is superb with the 80-horse Rotax 912. Short ground roll.
Cons – Though the Drifter XL exhibited very good sink rate – especially for a more heavily loaded wing – it seemed to run out of energy in ground effect; I had three landings that bounced more than I’d like. Some pilots will feel overly exposed on landings. Lack of lateral references in front seat is disconcerting to pilots used to enclosures.
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – Controls offer enough authority to deal with fairly strong crosswinds. Medium-fast response help make the Drifter XL a good trainer. Controls showed little slop and had reasonable pressures. Steep turns proved very straightforward; the Drifter XL holds the turn easily. Precision turn skills are quickly acquired.
Cons – No one would call the roll rate fast (though authority makes up for this). My Dutch roll exercises worked well but only to shallower angles. If you use full power on takeoff you may run out of compensating rudder range (another sign to me that the Rotax 912 is too much engine for the Drifter). Lack of visual references in front seat may confound some pilots’ effort to learn the handling.
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – Despite significantly more power, the 80-hp Rotax 912 has better fuel economy than the lower powered 66-hp Rotax 582. Climb is breathtaking with the 80 horses pushing you. Robust airframe has survived challenging duties in many locations. Design has long proven itself on floats. Perhaps even aided by the big engine, the Super Drifter XL did very well at low-over-the-field flying; flies quite well with flaps deployed. Sink rate seemed excellent for a heavier ultralight.
Cons – Hard to fault the performance of this high-powered workhorse design, but the HKS 700E engine may prove a better choice (60 hp vs. 80 hp) for those who prefer 4-stroke operation. Not a particularly fast design, though the open cockpit wouldn’t be very comfortable at fast speeds.
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – Power-off stalls broke but very predictably with fast, almost automatic recovery. Power-on stalls only discernible by a tail buffet. Accelerated stalls often dropped the high wing and leveled out quickly. Longitudinal recovery from level was fast and straightforward, no doubt due partly to a long coupled tail and generously sized tail feathers.
Cons – Typical high thrust line response lowers nose pronouncedly on power addition (opposite of certified aircraft). Nose gets extremely steep in full-power stall practice.
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – As luxury car makers might put it, the Super Drifter XL “has few options because all the right features come standard on this top-of-the-line model.” Very tough airframe that has done heavy duty for years. Drifter models have been certified in several countries.
Cons – You’ll pay a pretty penny to have the Super Drifter XL, which is so loaded with features that the options list is short; everything’s already included. Lower priced/lower powered Drifter models are available and may be a better choice for many buyers. Company has been through ownership changes lately; more changes appear likely.
John B Darke says
Such a great and thorough evaluation of an ultralight. It seems Phil Lockwood is too busy selling AirCams to finish the documentation and marketing of the Drifter that they own the rights to. Any idea where my neighbor and ex AirCam builder could purchase one of these. Together we purchased a Kolb III with same engine in Albuquerque a few years back but miss the out-front flying of the AirCam and Drifter. Own an M20K here at Punta Gorda.
Dan Johnson says
You evidently have contacted Lockwood Aircraft about the Drifter and that is the best source of information. Used Drifters are available although the design is old enough that the number of them is surely dwindling. Try Barnstormers.com.