Note: This article first appeared in the December 2007 issue of AVIATOR magazine with many more photos.
Ever since I first saw pictures of the sleek and – dare I say it: supersexy – Sky Arrow over 10 years ago now, I knew this machine looked like the aircraft I would want to own one day.
In my dreams I visualised this Italian design wrapped around me, piercing the skies. Well, at 95 knots cruise you’re not gonna be lightning fast but, really, flying this magnificent machine, wouldn’t you want the experience to last?
We checked out the Sky Arrow when it passed through Albany on the way back from being demoed at a few air shows along the East Coast.
A Solid Foundation
Lots of attractive new designs have graced our airfields in the past decade. The LSA or sport aircraft sector has been instrumental in opening our eyes to the possibilities of flying something different and more exciting than the Cessna / Piper fare that’s been on the menu for so long. Not that there is anything wrong with an evolutionary design that has been around for at least half a century. In fact, the Sky Arrow comes from a proud lineage that dates back some 60 years as well. The design itself is relatively young at 10 years but the factory, Iniziative Industriali Italiane SpA, or 3I for friends, has been in the aircraft manufacturing game for all these decades. Even with that solid background the designers of the Sky Arrow were given a clean sheet to express their passion for flying. It’s hard to improve on the flair of this Italian job: carbon fibre smooth and clean-nosed, it’s sexonissimo personified. That’s probably not an Italian word but I doubt if you don’t get what I mean. And then there’s that incredible visibility all around you! This is what really is important to me: I want to see what is to my left and right. What makes one think that all the good scenery is on your left – the pilot’s side? As an aerial photographer I enjoy looking at the landscape and see patterns and designs that are only visible from an aerial perspective. The Sky Arrow is a great platform for scenic cruising. The struts are well back and unobtrusive. Is part of the Sky Arrow’s attractiveness also the feeling you’re in a jetfighter? Even the nose wheel gear is reminiscent of a jet jockey’s chariot... Let’s be honest guys, she may only be subsonic (make that subhundred) but who’s to know? She looks twice as fast and I was frankly surprised that the knots in my stomach (from excitement, of course) did not substantially add to its cruising speed...
Home built or Factory built
Well built is the end result of either choice. Consider that the Sky Arrow originated as an aircraft platform to support the RONDONE environmental research project and further developed as a military design for surveillance, supported by the Italian government. They basically subsidised much of the development costs and the Sky Arrow is probably over-engineered as a result. It is stressed for the usual +3.8g and -1.9g but it has been tested to much higher tolerances.
Geoff Hill from HilAir has recently started to import the Sky Arrow into Australia. His website (www.hilair.com.au) showcases the range of models from the factory built, ready to roam aircraft to the fast home built kit that puts you in the driver’s seat in just 300 hours of assembling. I’ve seen the elaborate descriptions that these kits come with and it looks entirely doable – even desirable to get very intimate with your new machine and save a few bob which you then can spend on a new shed...
In case you’re wondering when checking out the various models on his site: the Sky Arrow 1450 stands for its MTOW in pounds whereas the 650 designation of most of the other types stand for that same weight in kilos. This was done mainly for the US market. You can get one on our civil register as an experimental aircraft.
Let’s throw some figures up while we’re at it.
With the Rotax 912 ULS powerplant you can actually eke out a genuine 97 knots at 75%. The maximum structural cruising speed is only 4 knots higher and the VNE is 132 kts.
On the other end of the scale she stalls at 40kts with full flaps. A take off run of just 580 ft will get you in the air with a decent rate of climb at 840 fpm. Fuel burn at cruise keeps your accountant and/or wife happy at just 20.3 lph and just make sure you’ve landed well and truly before the juice runs out in 3 hrs and 40 minutes... That gives you an absolute maximum range of 370 NM but if that’s not enough you can order jettisonable wingtip fuel tanks! Just kidding but I bet you the designers have toyed with that idea. It would look kinda cool (as well as expensive and not very neighbourly) so the option of just ordering a couple of wing tanks in addition to the main fuselage tank makes much more sense. The factory is currently developing a wet wing which will have 44 ltrs per side. This will give a total fuel capacity of 156 ltrs. Certification is expected by July 2008.
Remember, it’s not so much your bladder range that dictates how much fuel you should carry but the availability of avgas or mogas is more of a deciding factor. A bigger fuel tank is always a great option. Having landed your Sky Arrow in just 425 feet you can hangar it carefully in a 10 m wide shed. The T-tail stands 2.6 m high but with a small push on the tailboom will easily duck under any low hangar doors. In fact, it can balance in a tail down position which makes daily inspection of the tailplane quite easy.
The standard fuel tank holds 68 litres and is located behind the rear seat and below the engine firewall. By tilting the seat forward you can see the semi-transparent tank and the actual fuel level when it is low. It’s always good to have an easy visual confirmation during the pre-flight inspection. It’s a different story with the oil level. Unless you have a ladder you need to climb onto the back seat and feel your way around the engine bay for the dipstick with the dexterity of your friendly doctor performing a colonoscopy... The factory is seriously rethinking the plumbing for easier access. It’s of course a function of having the engine on top. Far easier is it to access cabling and electronics. You can unscrew the whole dash in a couple of minutes and put it on your workbench.
In the early morning sun the gleaming white Sky Arrow 650 TCNS sat glistening on the Albany tarmac. Geoff had just been washing away the Nullarbor grime and dirt after having flown from Ceduna the previous day. Up close the aircraft is even more stunning then pictures might indicate. They say perfection is in the detail and the amount of loving attention bestowed by the designers is astounding. From clever storage spaces (45 kg in total) to ensuring that everything conforms to the sleek and slender shape of the design, it is easy to see why they call the Sky Arrow the Ferrari among sports aircraft. And it has nothing to do with speed but just the incorporation of Italian flair and passion for the product. The cockpit looks slightly unconventional from the perspective of a Cessna driver: engine levers are on the left, in the natural position where you rest your arm and the joystick and brake levers in a similar setup on the right. It’s perfect for armchair flying at its most comfortable! Wait a sec – brake levers?
Yep, it takes a whole minute to get used to it but it works like a treat. Normally the rudder is already quite effective at low taxi speeds but a touch of power and a fingertip pull of one of the levers will whip you around on the proverbial dime. Getting into the machine is not too cumbersome: bum on the side, swing your legs onboard and lower yourself on the ergonomic seat. The backseat passenger places his foot in a hidden, spring-loaded step to get inside and sits a bit higher for equally great visibility. Once seated the five point harnesses are quickly donned and you’re as snug as a rug. Not much room to move around but even for a tall bloke like me it’s very comfortable. We leave the canopy open during the taxi.
Geoff is the consummate professional and very thorough in his briefing and guiding you through the proceedings. I opted to sit in the back of SLH for the first half hour and watch him put the Sky Arrow through its paces. That gave me the opportunity to see how comfy a seat this would be for an instructor. What an ideal platform this is for both instructor and student. The controls are fully duplicated in the back and you can clearly see all the important gauges on the left and right side of the dash. The only ones you can’t readily see are the navigation panels in the middle – not a big deal when you’re instructing. The student also has the feeling that he’s in command from day 1. He only hears his “master’s voice” through the intercom. The Sky Arrow can rightly be seen as an ideal ab initio trainer, replacing the tired and worn C152 on the flight lines. Teaching a passion for flying comes naturally in this machine.
We close the massive canopy and line up. The Rotax 914S rumbles behind us and we’re away on a solid 600’ climb. Ah, that visibility is truly astounding! Better than a helicopter with unobstructed views left, right and even far to the back. We notice that too in the circuit: the runway stays always in sight and other traffic is easy to spot. Aiding that terrific visual feast is the slight nose down attitude. You can see what’s close in front of the aeroplane.
We do the obligatory Rate 1 and 2 turns, stalls and progress into chandelles. Haven’t done those in 30 years! The Sky Arrow is docile as a dog (make that a Labrador) when it comes to those manoeuvres. Then Geoff shows me something I cannot do with impunity in any other aircraft that I fly: flat turns!
Power on, cross control the rudder and ailerons and without banking the aircraft turns around... I was thinking for a moment: that’s ideal for my aerial photography as the wings of a Cessna often gets to be part of the picture in a banking turn. But then I realised: the Sky Arrow already IS the ideal photography platform: struts, gear and wings are way back, the perspex canopy is so clear you can even shoot though it and it also has a sliding window on the left. In addition, when filming from the back seat you can remove either one or both windows next to you by undoing just a few clips and have unobstructed views.
It’s no wonder many agencies such as police and FESA-like organisations all over the world are seriously looking at the Sky Arrow as an aerial observation platform which can be operated at a lousy 40 bucks per hour rather than paying through the nose for unique but expensive helicopter capabilities that are seldom used in surveillance. The US Justice Department (Texas Sherriff’s Office) currently operates three Sky Arrow LSA aircraft.
We switch seats and it’s time for me to taxi with my fingertips. Geoff exudes the calm confidence that he will be able to convert this jaded Cessna jockey to ride his thoroughbred stallion. I realise later that he already knew how easy the Sky Arrow is to fly...
It doesn’t take long before my magic carpet ride culminates in a few half-decent landings and an extra circuit for a TV film crew that was doing another story. Did I mention before that she’s a head-turner?
Here’s my personal checklist that I scored the Sky Arrow on. These are the criteria I look for when buying a touring aircraft for scenic cruising, for instruction or for aerial observation. They are not in order of importance and not weighted either but they give a reasonable impression of this unique aircraft.
1. Safety -- 8/10 (proven design, military input, 5 point harness)
2. Comfort – 8/10 (armchair flying at its best)
3. Noise levels -- 8/10 (good reduction gearing)
4. Fuel Economy – 8/10 (Rotax engines are renowned for their economy)
5. Maintenance – 7/10 (accessibility to oil dipstick is problematic)
6. Performance – 7/10 (decent enough but no speedster)
7. Stylishness – 10/10 (the 3-bladed prop option would enhance looks even more)
8. Visibility -- 10/10 (only a powered parachute could do better)
9. Value for Money – (it’s the very top of this market segment -- as are most Italian sports vehicles...)
I must admit I had a certain bias towards the Sky Arrow from the moment I first saw pictures of her. Smitten is the word, I think. How would meeting and finally flying this unconventional creation work out? Were my anticipatory dreams unrealistic and would I be disappointed?
The Sky Arrow is exquisite from skin to finish. She turns heads on the tarmac and also inside the jet-fighter like canopy where the lucky occupants are trying to take in the glorious vistas that unfold around them. There are sound business reasons to acquire a Sky Arrow if you’re looking for a trainer, a tourer or an aerial observation platform. But somehow I think that your first flight in one will help immensely in the justification process. With all my excitement and enthusiasm there’s only one disappointment.
That’s the state of my bank account...