Glasair I – II – III
Update 24 April 2010. Right. I've just got back in from Sun 'n' Fun and have had a close look at a whole bunch of homebuilts, Light Sport Aircraft, and production types. Here's what I found.
My preferred aircraft, going in to the Sun 'n' Fun show, was the Glasair Super 2 or Glasair 3. So I beelined for the pair of Glasairs I could see parked, and started looking. My first impression was not good. It was an old, tatty Glasair 1, fixed gear, offered for sale. The airframe looked just like an old fibreglass boat hull, complete with that yellow-brown crosshatched fibreglass material showing through the paint. There were cracks in the wingtips, the fit and finish were pretty second rate with big gaps between panels. The interior was worn fabric, and the control column was pretty much a broomstick. Hmm, I thought.
The next aircraft was much, much nicer. It was a Glasair 3, sitting on tall retractable landing gear. The aircraft was in excellent condition, and well equipped. It seemed to me that the airframe in the flesh appears not very deep, i.e. roofline to floor distance is low. Of course, that would contribute to its speed.
Later, I saw a Glasair 3 taxi in and the pilot began tying it down. As he did so some sad aviation geeks (and me) clustered around and got nosey. Beautiful airplane. The pilot made some comments as he secured the aircraft, one of those comments being, effectively, that the stall is abrupt and violent. Some Glasairs have leading edge strips to improve pre-stall warning buffet but he didn't have them as he didn't like the aesthetics. He preferred to rely on an angle of attack indicator; interesting comments, and not ones that sat easy with me.
In the Vans RV parking area I came across a gentleman who was in the process of building a Glasair, but owned and flew an RV. This guy, Tom, was probably the most helpful guy I spoke to in this whole exercise. He is an experienced pilot, has intimate knowledge of the two aircraft types I was considering, and he was completely without bias. Tom made some comments about the Glasair and Vans RV which were very interesting. Handling in the Glasair is inferior to the RV: the elevator has a spring bias installed to give better control harmony. Insurance for the Glasair is very expensive: pilot error and mechanical failure with retractable gear increase premiums significantly. The build process is difficult to get exactly right: imperfections in fit and finish are common.
I found the Glasair manufacturers tent, which had a Glasair 3 parked in front of it. I spoke with the Glasair guys and they were kind enough to let me sit in the airplane, which was always going to be a critical part of the exercise. First, getting in was a bit of an effort – to stand on the unprotected wing I needed to be in my socks. Because the wing is extremely smooth (for the speed), it's slippery. Second, the wing is a long way off the ground – a stretch, literally, to get my leg over, haha. Getting in to the cockpit was not much more difficult than getting in to some other aircraft I have flown, but the surprise for me was the seating position.
After sliding into the seat, I found that the feet-forward flying position was actually quite comfortable. Visibility was good, and the instrument panel fairly well laid out. The throttle in this Glasair was in the center, which is not an acceptable option for me – right hand stick, left hand throttle. The absolute show-stopper for me was shoulder and elbow width to the cockpit wall – I'm not really wide, but to have the throttle in my left hand I would need to have my left elbow tucked into my ribs and my forearm pointing straight ahead. Try it, it's not real comfortable, and I have slightly limited range of movement in my left shoulder anyway. For any more than a 30 minute flight it would get to be really difficult. Two normal-sized guys in there better be pretty good mates.
Something I did not expect was that sitting in a side-by-side configuration immediately reminded me of flying instruction – and that is not a good thing. When you have done as much instruction as I have, it's nice to be flying purely for fun. So I now know I have a preference for tandem seat aircraft (provided I'm in the front!)
After getting out I had ran into a guy who had flown the Glasair and he went on about the speed, climb rate, and general awesomeness of the airplane. Seemed to me that the aircraft appeals to jet pilot wannabes and showoffs who like to brag about 'cruise speed'. The Glasair, I concluded, is a 1980s Corvette – light, looks good, goes fast from A to B, but uncomfortable, doesn't handle well and you can't carry much. Sadly, not for me.
This is the Glasair. The aeroplane was originally produced by the Stoddard Hamilton company. When the kit was first produced there was great competition between Glasair and Lancair, as they fought for market share in the new niche of composite (resin) high performance aircraft. Due to business reasons unconnected to the quality of the Glasair aircraft kits, the company went out of business in 2000.
The rights to the name were bought by Glasair Aviation, which still retains those rights.
Despite the corporate upheaval, the inherent quality of the basic airplane design did not change – in fact, throughout the years the aircraft evolved with improved tail surfaces, stability, ergonomics and performance. The original Glasair design was renamed the Glasair 1 when the Glasair II was introduced, largely with improved builder-friendly design. The Glasair II was released in several versions, inculding both fixed and retractable undercarriage, and was designated in its various forms as the Glasair IIS and the Glasair Super II. The Glasair I and II are often referred to as having poor longitudinal and lateral stability, and the Glasair Super II was lengthened by 30" specifically to address this shortcoming.
The Glasair III has the longer fuselage of the Super II, but nearly all airframe components have been strengthened or modified to cope with the higher speeds attainable when flying with the 300hp Lycoming IO540. The aircraft has a 291 knot Vne(!) More performance detail can be found at this site, and here is a glowing flight test report.
What follows is what I have learned while reading all the internet sources I can find about the Glasair.
Slow speed flight.
One of the problems with the Glasair range is its landing speed – the approach speed is, compared to something like an RV4, fast. The modification which Glasair champions as one of the two best mods to the aircraft is slotted flaps, bringing approach and landing speeds back towards more conventional GA numbers.
High speed flight.
There is a lot of talk about 'flutter' in these higher performance homebuilts. Flutter is not, as the term would suggest, a harmless vibration of the airframe or control surfaces. It is actually a structural harmonic movement which can occur at high airspeeds, and is potentially terminally destructive to an airframe. An undamped, self-exacerbating, high frequency harmonic vibe can develop within milliseconds and destroy the airframe component affected. There is no way for a pilot to detect and avert the problem; his first indication would be catastrophic airframe failure.
I am unaware of any instances of Glasair/Lancair aircraft failing from flutter. It is, however, something that the engineers and designers of the Glasair are aware of; the Glasair Super II and III are significantly structurally stronger than the models I and II. The strength has largely gone into the empennage and aft fuselage areas in the form of carbon fibre stiffeners.
The fact that the designers have seen fit to make these changes causes me to (i) be slightly less confident of the integrity of the earlier Glasairs, and (ii) be more confident of the later Glasairs than the Lancair 360. The Lancair Legacy, which is the Glasair III equivalent if you like, may be just as strong but is outside my price range.
The Glasair reviews I have read indicate that the aircraft is a more capable manoeuvring airplane than the Lancair, but not on a par with the better Vans aircraft. The handling is also significantly affected by the wingtips the airplane carries; short wingtips when fitted provide a faster roll rate at the expense of more induced drag and reduced fuel capacity. So that can be looked at as a positive – the aircaft can be configured for the mission at hand with relative ease.
More Glasairs than Lancairs are fitted with the 'full monty' of aerobatic accessories: I have seen a number with an inverted oil system and aerobatic propeller and smoke system, and at least one with an inverted fuel pickup. The penalty is a lower time between overhauls, particularly for the prop.
The Glasair seating position is something I have to physically try before I can make any conclusions, but it is possible to make some assumptions based on the photographs I have seen. The seating position appears to be more akin to a Formula 1 race car than a regular car; the pilot sits low in the fuselage with his/her legs more or less horizontal in front of him, resting on the rudders. This seating position is naturally good for g tolerance, and may well be very comfortable, but is something I would need to experience before committing to purchasing a Glasair.
The cabin width is something sometimes touted by manufacturers as a selling point. The Glasair cabin width is about 1.01m, which for an average sized man and wife is acceptable, but anything less would be too tight for long trips. 1.01m at the shoulders is not enough for two larger men to sit side-by-side in comfort, but fortunately that is not a problem or requirement for me. (Compare that width with the Falcomposite Furio, 1.09m at the shoulders).
Cabin height is also somewhat restricted. The Glasair III is listed at 0.88m seat to headliner; I estimate I need exactly that much to sit in comfort with room for cap and headset, and it would be marginal for a flying helmet. Of course, this is based on geometry and I am sure that the seating position is inclined such that the bare numbers are deceptive (and pessimistic).
Baggage is stored in the aft part of the cabin area, which is my preferred means. There appears to be no C of G or MAUW problem when loading the aircraft with two pers, full gas and full (100lb) baggage, which is unique among this category of aircraft.
As a military pilot, I can not imagine myself being used to flying with my left hand and working a 'choke' style throttle with my right. I know of one Glasair with a throttle mounted on the left side of the cockpit, a must for me. If I were to buy an aircraft with just the centre throttle quadrant, it is good to know that a relatively simple mod can add a throttle where it belongs. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons that an RV-8 or similar would appeal – having centreline seating and a left-hand throttle is a very comfortable proposition for me.
The Glasair has a very masculine profile – low, aggressive-looking, classic lines that somehow remind me of a P-40. And that's a good thing.
The paint jobs they are normally done in are pretty bland – all-over white with (if you're lucky) a single stripe down the fuselage. I believe the material the aircraft is constructed from is best protected by a white U.V. resistant paint, but there's got to be better schemes out there. I have seen one in all-over canary yellow, which actually isn't quite as garish as it sounds.
Glasair Super II RG .
A look at my comparison page will show that the best bang-for-buck Glasair is the Super II in the sub-NZ$200000 price range, which works out (depending on exchange rates) to be in the US$100 - $110k area. Here are a few contenders I have come across.