Is this the next trainer?
The Cessna 150 and 152 once ruled the training market, although the cramped cockpit brought new meaning to the term “togetherness.” Now deliveries of the two-place Cessna 162 SkyCatcher light sport aircraft are beginning, and it is wider than a Cessna 206. You won’t hear an echo, but at least students and instructors will not accidentally sock one another in the ribs.
There’s something else, of course, that sets the SkyCatcher apart: the Garmin G300 glass cockpit system that was not even a dream when the Cessna 150 was introduced. The G300’s best feature, its simplicity, will go unnoticed. That feature will make it popular with candidates for the sport pilot and private pilot certificates. The G300 provides primary flight, engine, and moving map information in a split-screen format. The moving map and engine information can be moved to the multifunction display if that option is installed.
The question of whether the SkyCatcher will catch on among flight schools has not been answered. Few flight school owners had sat in it, let alone flown it, when called for an opinion. Still an effort was made to sample a few schools for an advance peek at the reaction. Sarah Oberman at Channel Islands Aviation in Camarillo, California, could barely contain her excitement.
“I have five on order, three to be used as rental aircraft [in her flight school] and two are retail sales. I love the airplane. I’m very excited,” Oberman said. “It’ll allow us, on a tight budget, to fly a brand-new airplane that is more reliable with less maintenance.”
There was a different reaction from Lapeer Pilot Center in Lapeer, Michigan, and Superior Flight School in Kennesaw, Georgia. Officials of both schools expressed concern heard previously about an aircraft made in China during a time of high unemployment in the United States. “In principle I like the idea of a two-place aircraft and lower fuel cost, and the fact that it can be used both for sport pilot training and private pilot training,” said Ray Larner, one of the owners of Lapeer Pilot Center. Superior Flight School officials said it doesn’t meet the training needs of its customers. “The sport pilot certificate is not our market,” said Superior’s Bob Kintner. The sport pilot rating requires fewer training hours and is therefore less expensive than training for a private pilot certificate. The SkyCatcher can be used for both.
To keep the cost down, Cessna officials certified it as a light sport aircraft and arranged to have it built in Shenyang, China. Estimates of the proposed rental cost at two California flight training schools range from $110 to $120 per hour, a savings of $15 to $25 compared to Cessna 172 rental costs. The base price of the SkyCatcher is $112,250 (ready to fly), but with options most will go out the door at $120,000 to $135,000. Options include a $5,488 BRS airframe parachute and a $6,402 TruTrak autopilot.
Light sport aircraft rules limit the gross weight to 1,320 pounds, presenting design engineers with a challenging task. Cessna kept the aircraft small, used a 12-volt battery, reduced the weight of the Continental O-200D engine, and chose non-adjustable seats with adjustable rudder pedals. There’s no interior—just painted surfaces in the cabin. A composite propeller will be used when it is developed. Until then, the first aircraft delivered will have a metal propeller that reduces the useful load from 490 pounds to 486 pounds. It carries 24 gallons of usable fuel. There are no fuel steps on the nose to check the tanks because that would have required beefing up the structure. With two highly accurate fuel sight gauges (actual fuel in a clear tube) on each side of the upper cabin, there is no need to look in the tanks, Cessna officials said. (Check the tightness of the caps, though.)
The flight controls were invented for the SkyCatcher by Cessna engineer Jeremy Taylor and refined by additional engineers. A rigid stick rides on a moveable arm that extends from beneath the panel. It’s a post used to operate the moveable arm. Cessna test pilot Dale Bleakney humorously calls the result a “stoke,” a cross between a stick and a yoke. It moves forward and back for pitch control and left to right for roll control, but doesn’t get in the way when you enter the cockpit. That was the main reason for its design.
The wing is a newly designed airfoil to meet the light sport aircraft requirements for a flaps-up stall speed of 45 knots. Instead of the simple spin test required for light sport aircraft, Cessna used the tougher standards required for Part 23 certification and wrung the SkyCatcher out. Test pilots performed aggravated, cross-controlled, full-power spins, and twice the SkyCatcher prototypes failed to recover and crashed. The key was to add a ventral fin beneath the tail, extend the rudder to the bottom of that fin to make it bigger, reduce the sweep of the vertical stabilizer, and reduce aileron travel.
The solution worked. Both Bleakney and I took turns performing cross-controlled stalls and the airplane didn’t even think about spinning.
My flights occurred in San Diego where King Schools was filming the SkyCatcher for a Cessna training course. During flights for photos for this article, the SkyCatcher was content to sit in perfect formation without a hint of change in pitch or roll. We could have flown the straight-and-level segments hands off and waved at the camera (as you see, we chose not to do that).
Let’s take a flight in this 115-knot (true airspeed) aircraft.
The first tip is getting in. Watch the back latch because it likes to snag belt loops. Don’t slam the door because there is no catch mechanism; just pull it to and operate the door lever. Make sure the back latch is secure.
Now let’s go to the runway. The SkyCatcher has a castering nosewheel, but try not to use the brakes too much. Full rudder and the application of power should work well for most turns on the ground, but you do have toe brakes to use as needed. Keep your heels well back from the tops of the rudder pedals during takeoff to avoid activating the brakes.
Time for takeoff. Pitch forces for this and most light sport aircraft are very light. Be careful not to over-rotate, since you do have that new ventral fin beneath the airplane. Light pitch forces also make it easy to land. You are not fighting the heavier pitch forces found in larger aircraft as the aircraft slows just above the runway. While this aircraft has a limited useful load, and flight schools will want to operate with half tanks, it climbs like a rocket. Performance surpasses that of a Cessna 150 or 152.
In flight the aircraft is quite stable as mentioned, but the controls are sensitive. Small corrections, slowly applied, work best. If you have already started flight training, you’ll need to relearn basic control use. Start the turn with the rudder and fine-tune it with ailerons, the exact opposite of what you may have learned. I found myself chanting, “Feet first,” while in formation the second time.
If stall recovery bothered you in other trainers, try a SkyCatcher for peace of mind. During one stall Bleakney deadpanned in mock horror, “Oh no…you’ve stalled it!” Returning to the pattern, I found airspeed control on downwind is important because the SkyCatcher doesn’t like to slow down quickly.
What every pilot wants is an aircraft that is so easy to land it makes the pilot look good. The light pitch forces and slow touchdown speeds all contribute to that goal.
I personally didn’t like landing with full flaps because the flap handle interfered with my arm reaching the throttle. I didn’t like either threading my arm between my chest and the manual flap handle, or reaching around it. Half flaps worked well for landing and kept the flap handle out of the way of my arm.
Reluctantly, I walked away from the aircraft for the last time, realizing I had formed a bond with the little trainer. When I saw someone else flying it overhead later as I checked out of the hotel near San Diego’s Montgomery Field, I was downright jealous. Hopefully one will come to a rental fleet near me soon.