Pilot report - Lancair IV

[Reprinted from Fliteguide / Imperial Aviation]

Lancair IV - The out of pocket rocket.

The Lancair IV is all about uncompromising performance. It is not until you have experienced the demands of a built for speed aeroplane, albeit one with a full four seats, that you can understand the nature of the compromises needed to build the gentle and unthreatening airframes required for certification.

On paper the Lancair IV is truly spectacular. With a cruise speed of nearly 300 knots at 24,000 feet it outperforms almost every pressurised turboprop twin. More impressively, it manages this without having the compromises we associate with speed such as a small cramped cabin. Indeed, the Lancair IV cabin claims a 46 inch width, which makes it wider than almost all its single engined counterparts. Even the two rear seat passengers get ample leg and head room which is more than can be said for many of the other built for speed airframes such as the original Mooneys.

Amongst the certified aircraft manufacturers the Mooney is the obvious point of comparison. The hottest Mooney is the TLS Bravo which, with 270 hp can cruise at 220 knots at 25,000 feet. In contrast, the Lancair IV's top speed of 310 knots also at 25,000 feet, blows the Mooney into its propwash. This is quicker than even the most hot rod of turbo prop singles, the TBM 700.

This performance does however come at some obvious and some initially hidden costs. For the owner, the most obvious is initial purchase price which, at approximately R1.5m is definitely not a contender in the homebuilder's affordability league. The proud owner of ZU-BGT is a Pretoria anethsetist who presumably intends to use his pocket rocket to wake up after having anaesthetised himself at work. The owner upgraded from a newish 58 Baron and despite the expenditure of over R1.2 million so far, the interior is not complete, as it sorely lacks a cabin lining and soundproofing. A further obvious omission is the pressurisation system. At a further cost of R130,000 and a 125 lb weight penalty it has been omitted but may be added later.

The other perhaps less obvious cost associated with all this speed is to be found in the handling. High performance generally comes at the cost of a super hot wing profile with demanding flight characteristics, particularly at the stall. Simply put, the Lancair IV is a demanding high performance aeroplane that may well be too much for the average pilot. While not necessary applicable to the Lancair IV, the general Lancair heritage is suspect, with the early two seat Lancair 320/360 being notorious for its pitch instability thanks to minimalist tail surfaces.

For those annoying but necessary bits like wings and tail the design philosophy of Lancair is less is more speed. The wing of the Lancair IV is just 98 sq. ft. which is minute by normal lightplane standards. A F33 Bonanza has nearly double, at 181 sq. ft. Smaller wings have to work harder and each square foot is required to lift 32.6 lbs of Lancair. This high wing loading, a high aspect ratio and a power loading of just 9 lbs per horsepower are the keys to the Lancair's performance and handling.

We were introduced to one of only two Lancair IV's in South Africa by its tamer, Dirk de Vos, of Atlantic aircraft sales at Wonderboom. As the hangar doors were rolled back my first surprise was its size. I think I had been expecting some low slung hod rod. Instead the Lancair looks about the size of a skinny Cherokee 140 but what is at first incongruous is that it is perched on spindly undercarriage legs. Close inspection reveals that it is clearly not a production aircraft in that the composite skin gives a perfectly smooth finish and parts such as hinges and the step are clearly hand made. The high cost and LS1 certification would make the Lancair IV an insurer's nightmare and this is reflected in ZU -BGT having only third party cover. In the USA comprehensive cover is apparently available at a rate of about three and a half percent, but tellingly, only for instrument rated pilots with 1,450 hours total time. Further, the pilot will have had to have undergone 10 hours flight training at the factory.

It is indicative of the arrival of the paradigm shift in light aircraft manufacture that, in terms of performance, the only competition the Lancair IV faces is likely to be from the next generation carbon fibre composite aircraft. The German Extra 400 is informative in this regard. It uses the identical 350 hp TSIO 550 Continental and, with a maximum takeoff weight of 4,300 pounds, provides ample room for 6 people in pressurised comfort with enough room to move between the seats, and still turns in an impressive 260 Knot maximum cruise speed.

Unlike the soon to be released certified Lancair Columbia and ES, the IV has only one door, on the pilot's side. (Which makes a lot more sense than having it on the passenger side). There is a retractable step which makes getting up on to the wing reasonably straightforward. Curiously there is no surfaced walkway to protect the wing and I felt like a vandal due to the inevitable scratches my clumpy brogues were inflicting on the highly polished wing skin. But worse was to come as to get in I had to stand on the soft grey leather of the pilots seat squab before sliding down into the right front seat. The lack of cockpit trim was evident but the standard of finish was generally excellent and confidence-inspiring. The panel has a comprehensive avionics fit with two King NAV/Coms, a Transponder. ADF, audio selector and panel mount GPS.

De Vos has the aggressively shy demeanour of the natural pilot but he had clearly developed sufficient respect for the Lancair to be adverse to letting an unknown pilot mess with his entrusted steed. I was relegated to passively watching with my hands folded from the right seat.

Thanks to the 24 volt starter and generally improved induction system, the big TSIO-550-B Continental spins easily into life, hot or cold. New, this engine's landed price of US$70,000 comprises about a third of the Lancair IV's high acquisition cost. It is state of the art for old style horizontally opposed air-cooled engines in that it has dual turbochargers and intercoolers, feeding the cylinders through a tuned induction system. The nose wheel is castoring which means steering is by differential braking. I found no problem tracking the taxiway centreline. De Vos performed the run-up during the taxi and after perfunctory vital actions that comes with familiarity, we lined up on runway 29 into a quartering gusty 28 knot wind.

De Vos added the power smoothly until we had 2,700 RPM and 39 inches of manifold pressure. Even with the gentle application of power the acceleration was impressive. The Lancair's spindly undercarriage legs quivered and shook as we scooted down the runway. Like a young thoroughbred colt, the Lancair was clearly skittish and required firm hands and feet to maintain the centreline. De Vos admitted that if power was added too quickly there would be insufficient right rudder to keep it straight against the torque.

Once through fifty knots the handling settled down and we were off the ground at eighty knots. The gear had to be retracted promptly to avoid exceeding the 120 knot limitation. Climbing at a relatively flat angle at 32 inches manifold pressure and 2500 rpm for 130 knots indicated, we were still going up at 2,000 feet a minute. At an indicated 150 knots we soon began to overhaul the Cessna 210 we were to formate on for the air to air pictures. To avoid overshooting the C210 we executed a wide 360 turn to the right and then, with the manifold pressure not even registering on the gauge's minimum of 10 inches, we gradually overhauled the Cessna which was flat out, indicating 130 knots at 8,000 ft. Watching De Vos using the short side stick controller made formation flying look easy.

With the formation work finished we peeled off and I got to briefly sample the handling. The most obvious first impression is that, like most high speed aircraft, the control feel is solid, if not heavy. Perhaps the force required is accentuated by the short leverage provided by a side stick controller. In particular the ailerons were firm and it was clear the Lancair could be hand flown with great precision, as evidenced by De Vos's formation flying skills. Despite the chop of a typical blustery Highveld afternoon the high wing loading meant we punched through the bumps rather than being thrown about.

Most importantly there is no evidence of the Lancair 320/360's lack of pitch stability which came in for serious criticism by the Australian CAA, particularly in the landing phase. When banked into a medium turn the aircraft remained steady and, with a reasonably prompt roll reversal, settled into an opposite medium rate turn with a minimum of pitching.

A high speed cruise allowed me to subjectively evaluate the noise level. This was impressively low, despite the absence of cabin trim and soundproofing. With a Flightcom 6ANX active noise cancelling headset the ride was quieter than a Boeing and even without it the noise levels at 250 knots were better than most singles at half the speed.

With the power set to a normal cruise of 32 inches and 2500 RPM the GPS gave a ground speed of 240 Knots true and this was at just 8,000 ft which is far below the Lancair's optimal operating altitude. At 25,000 ft the manufacturer claims that the same 75% power setting yields a truly mind boggling 310 Knots, with a fuel burn of 18 gallons per hour. If you don't want to subject the engine or your lungs to that altitude, you can throttle it all the way back down to 13 inches. At a more comfortable 13,000 feet, ground speed will be a still respectable 205 knots. With a fuel capacity of 82 gallons this will give a truly spectacular and certainly bladder bursting endurance.

The speed capability of the Lancair was particularly evident when, spotting the 210 camera aircraft high-tailing it back to the airport, De Vos put the nose down and, matching the 210's rate of descent we went past with a speed over the ground of 280 Knots. The 210, itself no slouch, was flat out indicating 180 Knots.

The true test of the Lancair IV was upon us. Setting up for a straight-in approach to runway 24, de Vos lowered the wheels at 130 IAS and then kept the power on to maintain 120 Knots. With the gear down and a relatively flat approach planned, there was no need for speed brakes. With full flap we reduced speed to 110 knots and then crossed the runway threshold at a very un-light plane like 100 knots. De Vos flew the aeroplane onto the ground at about 90 Knots and let it roll out to the end of the 4000 ft. runway. He explained afterwards that this is his preferred landing technique, as, although the aircraft will stall at about 77 knots (the advertising claims an unbelievable 75 mph!) and thus can be landed considerably slower than his 90 knots, he finds that the nose attitude gets awkwardly high and he prefers the precise controls at the higher speed.

As the big Continental cooled down, I reflected the high price paid for all this performance. The handling is far more demanding than any product from the big three manufacturers. While I am assured the stall holds no major surprises, De Vos' reluctance to demonstrate it speaks volumes. This is not an aeroplane that one would want to get behind on. It was de Vos who perhaps summed up the challenges most concisely when he said that, while the Lancair IV is a straight forward and rewarding aeroplane to fly, it requires one's full attention at all times.

He envisaged a situation where one may be flying into an uncontrolled airport with unknown traffic and winds. With sufficient distractions it may be quite possible for the flying of the aircraft to become secondary to outside distractions and, if left unchecked, the situation could soon become dangerously out of hand.

And so, in conclusion, it is clear the Lancair IV is both a demanding but rewarding aircraft. It is rewarding in that it will allow jet cruise speeds for four people at piston single costs. Perhaps its most impressive performance in his regard was a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles at an average speed of 375 mph. It has completely rewritten the performance parameters for four seat piston singles. But this performance comes at a price, both in terms of the numbing purchase price for a homebuilt and in terms of handling demands and pilot proficiency.


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