[UPDATE — fall 2009: This article about the Kitfox Lite refers to a company now several years out of business. The new Kitfox producer sold the Kitfox Lite design to Kansas entrepreneur, James Wiebe. His company, Belite Aircraft, now produces the Belite Carbon 254 (and other variations) and has significantly changed structure with carbon fiber components to lighten the weight, assuring that it meets Part 103. For the latest info on their offerings, contact the company directly.
Information in this article, while similar to what Belite Aircraft produces today, will not be identical to the new model. –Dan]
Kitfox Lite: tastes great; less filling One the best-selling kit-built aircraft of all time is the Kitfox series. First designed by Dan Denney for a company bearing his name, the airplane is now marketed in several variations by SkyStar. As ownership passed, the market matured and SkyStar astutely chose to widen the appeal of the well-known Kitfox name. What it did was add a single-seater that had been missing for so long.
Why sell a single seater? Well, first of all, doing so under the FAA’s demanding Part 103 regulations allowed SkyStar to market to pilots who’ve lost their medicals. It also caters to medically certified pilots who want to fly a truly lightweight aircraft.
Since the Kitfox is revered for its light and snappy handling, plus its terrific performance envelope, a single-seat model promised to be a very interesting machine.
It was a long time coming, but SkyStar got the Kitfox Lite right. In fact, enthusiasts of lightweight airplanes can rejoice!
DOING IT RIGHT
SkyStar passed on earlier requests to fly the Kitfox Lite for this Pilot Report. Knowing that it may have cost them a few sales, the company nonetheless held to its convictions. They wanted the aircraft to prove itself to factory experts before it went public. That’s an attitude I admire, and like any customer, I don’t want to be the one who discovers problems with a new design.
If you buy a Kitfox Lite, rest assured that (1) the aircraft should perform as promoted and have reliable flight characteristics, and (2) assuming you build and paint carefully, you’ll have an airplane that qualifies under Part 103 regulations.
SkyStar is understandably proud of its efforts. Promotional literature says, “Unlike most other ultralights, the new Kitfox Lite is a real airplane with a real airplane heritage.”
The world of ultralights gives SkyStar an opportunity that Denney Aerocraft never realized. Some years ago, when I visited the company, Dan Denney expressed a desire to sell and deliver fully built Kitfoxes. He gave it a try, but aborted his plan shortly after he began it. Since the FAA won’t let you sell ready-to-fly Experimental airplanes, he would have had to sell his aircraft to the overseas market.
SkyStar, however, is selling the fully built Kitfox Lite under Part 103. For $19,995, you can come pick up your Kitfox Lite with the engine broken in and ready to fly. The factory conducts a production flight test to assure the rigging is right and the airspeeds are properly calculated. To keep it within Part 103, the plane is finished in white with no trim.
Think of it. For less than the price of the average new car you can have a new, peppy and sharp little airplane that should afford years of flying fun.
You can save some money by buying the kit, which sells for a $14,995 base price. If you do go that route, SkyStar offers options that reduce build time. The most significant is to buy the factory-built wings and have them attached to the fuselage. Not only does that speed up the building process, but it assures that the finished Kitfox Lite will fly straight and true.
The company uses the same spar as used on the Kitfox IV but without an insert at the strut junction, as used on the heavier Kitfox. This suggests that although SkyStar limits flight loads to +3.8 and -1.5 G’s, the plane should be more than strong enough for the demands of most buyers.
For the Kitfox Lite, SkyStar broke with tradition and went with the 2si engine instead of the venerable Rotax – all in the interest of keeping weight down and retaining a respectable level of horsepower.
Based on the Cuyuna engine – the standard of the early ultralight days – the U.S.-built 2si has features like dual ignition, 35 horsepower and twin cylinders.
The dual ignition system came in handy once when a 2si stuttered on the factory demonstrator. The engine continued to run on one cylinder and the pilot landed the airplane without incident. Company President Ed Downs explained that the problem was traced to a plug that came loose from the upside-down-mounted engine. It has since been secured to prevent similar problems in the future.
As I flew the new Kitfox Lite, engine temperatures stayed approximately at 300_ on CHT (well below red line) and they stayed under 1,000_ on the EGT (also well within safety margins). Max rpm on the 2si is 6,900; it registered 6,200 on climbouts.
One negative worth noting here is that the 2si needs to be hand-propped. The Kitfox Lite is so close to 254 pounds that SkyStar cannot afford the weight of a pull starter. The firewall, however, has a hole where the starter rope will route into the cabin once a few pounds are trimmed.
Downs gave me arguably the finest preflight checkout that I’ve ever received, including a full walk-around inspection. A precise and knowledgeable leader, he should do well for SkyStar.
The Kitfox Lite, like many Part 103 ultralights, enjoys a fairly wide cockpit. SkyStar says it measures 24 inches, but the figure isn’t as illuminating as sitting in the aircraft. Most people will find plenty of elbow room.
On the floor is a wood panel that provides foot support and allows your heels to slide readily, which makes the heel brakes easy enough to use. Otherwise, the cockpit is as simple as you’d expect in a 103-compliant ultralight.
A center joystick fronts a well-padded seat cushion and a broad seat back is emblazoned with the company’s famous Kitfox logo. I appreciated the four-point seat belts, but no parachute system was provided, as I always prefer. SkyStar has worked with ballistic parachute producer BRS, however, and now offers an installation option.
For my shorter-than-average arms, the reach to the throttle was a little long in the Kitfox Lite, at least when I had the throttle well advanced. Also, no doubt to keep the cost down, the throttle is a simple bent-aluminum stock that has a bit of an edge to it. Of course, you could put a sheath over the handle end. The added weight would be minuscule.
In flight, the windscreen does a good job of keeping the wind off you, though my arms were buffeted a little. In Florida’s heat it cooled me, and in cool northern climates a jacket would suffice, I’m sure.
I’ve spoken to many pilots who, lacking taildragger experience, voice concern over the potential for ground loops and the challenge of taxiing a taildragger. In contrast to the company’s Kitfox model – which sits up higher, has a steeper deck angle, and weighs considerably more – I believe most tri-gear pilots will find that the Kitfox Lite’s conventional gear will not pose much of a problem.
The test aircraft used a tiny tailwheel (a weight saver) that proved ineffective on Florida’s dry sandy soil. It was like flying with a skid instead of a wheel, though that did allow for good directional control and some automatic braking on landing touchdown. Naturally, I had to accelerate enough to lift the tailwheel on takeoff, but that didn’t add appreciably to the takeoff roll.
Despite the trademark Kitfox cowl bumps (to simulate a radial engine installation), I was able to see over the cowling. Taxiing was easy.
I was fascinated by an interesting progression of noise that occurred right as the Lite left the ground (while accelerating, of course). I perceived it as a Doppler effect. Though of course the aircraft has no turbo charger, it almost felt like one was kicking in at precisely the right time. Climb is stronger than any stock Cessna 150 I’ve ever flown.
During approach to land, three notches of flap settings proved highly effective at pitching the aircraft nose down and increasing the descent angle. Using all four positions, including zero flaps, I had nothing but good landings in the Lite.
Ground roll is exceedingly short, only 50 or 60 feet, qualifying the ultralight as well equipped for short runway operations.
I remember clearly my experiences with the Kitfox IV, the XL, and the Vixen. All boasted extremely rapid roll rates, in the neighborhood of 1-1.5 seconds rolling 45_ to 45_. The Kitfox Lite also has that ability. While it assures there will be no problems maintaining control in crosswind conditions, it may prove to be a little too rapid for some newcomers. My advice is to take it easy at first, flying on days with mild weather and wind. After a short period of acclimatization, you’ll come to love the fast response. It may even spoil you.
The Kitfox Lite originally had an even faster roll rate, but SkyStar reduced the aileron span to about a foot less than the wing (per side). The roll rate must have been nothing short of exciting when they protruded out a bit from the wing on the prototype.
Even with the shorter flaperons, the Kitfox Lite remains responsive. I believe I could have done dutch rolls to 45_ and possibly even 60_.
PERFORMANCE IS LIGHTWEIGHT
Using the 2si’s 35 horsepower guarantees lots of pep for the light Lite. Even in all-time record heat for sunny Florida last April, the mini Kitfox acted as if it had a reserve of energy.
Downs recommended climbing at 45 mph and cruising at 53-55. At 5,400 or 5,500 rpm, the 2si produced about 55 mph, a power setting that had the aircraft purring with a tolerable combination of noise and vibration.
According to Product Development Manager Frank Miller, the Kitfox Lite’s 2si burns about 2 gallons per hour. Given the Part 103 standard of 5 gallons of fuel, that amounts to a solid 2 hours of flying with a 30-minute reserve. More than that and I’m generally looking for a restroom anyway.
The Kitfox Lite was nearly able to hold altitude on 5,000 rpm, at which point it seemed to be at a deceptively low power setting. I cannot comment on the Tiny-Tach’s accuracy, but 5,000 rpm felt more like 4,000 on a Rotax 447. This is hardly a scientific comment, but regardless of the number, the Lite held altitude at a power setting that seemed unlikely to cause pilot fatigue.
That said, the 2si engine showed considerable roughness at a reading of 4,700 rpm; however, since that setting yields slowly descending flight, it’s not one that will be often used. Downs and Miller confirmed my impression, but also agreed that you’ll either be at 5,000 or above while cruising or significantly below 4,000 if you wish to descend. All two-strokes have a place where they are less than smooth; overall, I have to admit that I was pleased with the 2si’s smoothness and power.
The aircraft performed well through my usual regimen of stability exercises. Stalls were uneventful, although, perhaps due to the short wingspan (25 feet) and small area (88 square feet), the nose did break over on everything but full power stalls. Personally I prefer stalls that break, as I believe such action clearly identifies the stall. Unlike heavier general aviation designs, a genuine ultralight will not lose much altitude even in deep stalls, so a stall break isn’t threatening.
When you add power, the Kitfox Lite raises its nose as expected, and when you reduce power it lowers the nose as you’d expect.
I did note that it took longer than anticipated to return to level flight after I did a stick deflection from trim for my longitudinal stability evaluation. Without in-flight trim, however, the delay may have been due to the fact that I don’t weigh the same as the usual air-show pilot, or it may have been due to the position of the fixed trim tab installed on the left elevator control. Regardless, you can make adjustments to accommodate your weight and see fast return to level flight. Either way, the light and authoritative pitch leaves you in full control any time.
Since this Kitfox Lite was not equipped with a parachute, and since I did not know if the factory had conducted a full spin series, I did not perform any unusual attitude maneuvers.
LITE ON YOUR POCKETBOOK
Five years ago SkyStar offered its low-end Kitfox XL for the same price as it currently offers the kit version of the Lite – $14,995. Clearly the company is doing something right.
And SkyStar has equipped the Lite very nicely. The fully welded 4130 chrome-moly airframe comes white powder coated. The wings come assembled. Flaperons have already been fitted, which saves several hours and assures you they’ve been done correctly. Differential brakes are connected to wide tires and metal wheels. The interior includes upholstered seat cushions and four-point seat belts. The panel has all the essentials, including tach, ASI, altimeter, and dual CHT and EGT gauges. And all wiring is included, plus a full set of hardware to put it all together.
Although you will have to add your own paint, Stits Poly-Fiber 1.7-ounce covering material is the standard finish that comes with the kit. Paint can be costly, but to stay at 103 weight, you won’t need as much.
It’s been a lengthy wait, watching SkyStar work toward what it considers a proper entry in the single-place market. For the flying public, however, it’s been worth it.
The Kitfox Lite is sure to make you smile. I know I had some trouble wiping the grin off my face.
|Empty weight||250 lbs|
|Gross weight||550 lbs|
|Wing area||88 sq ft|
|Wing loading||6.25 lbs/sq ft|
|Width||(interior) 24 in|
|Fuel Capacity||5 gal|
|Power||35-hp 2-stroke 2si 460F|
|Power loading||15.7 lbs/hp|
|Cruise speed||35-55 mph|
|Stall Speed (Flaps)||28 mph|
|Never exceed speed||80 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||750 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||100 ft|
|Landing distance at gross||75 ft|