Ekolot’s KR030 Topaz got its fair share of admirers at Avalon in 2017, prompting Steve Hitchen to try one on to see if the aesthetics on the ground translated into performance in the air.
Riddells Creek is one of a collection of towns in Victoria’s Macedon region that act as the keepers of history and heritage. Known especially for its bluestone rail bridge and period architecture, Riddells Creek is a favourite stop for day trippers and those seeking an overnight escape from the clamour of Melbourne.
But what is lost on most tourists is that it is also home to an airfield with a 880-metre sealed runway. One tiny arrowed sign in the middle of the town pointing to the outskirts is the only clue, and once the route turns to drifting dirt it sets you to wondering if you’re still on the right path.
In June this year, I followed the little arrowed sign for my first visit to Riddell Airfield after being in aviation for over 30 years. Simply, I had never had a reason to go there before. This journey was different; at the end of it was the promise of an aeroplane that I had never flown: the Ekolot KR030 Topaz.
This Polish-built LSA had been in the recreational paddock at Avalon, and my interest in it had garnered an invitation to Riddell for an in-depth inspection and test flight. I accepted quickly; this was an aeroplane the readership of Australian Flying just had to know about!
Talking in Riddells
Rod Birrell is one of the great stalwarts of recreational aviation in Australia. Involved in the category almost from inception, Birrell can be considered one of the pioneers. He was instrumental in the Australian Ultralight Federation and has done time as president of its successor organisation, Recreational Aviation Australia. Is there any need to say he is one of the most respected people in the game?
He greeted me at his hangar with a bear-like handshake and an offer of good coffee. His flying school, AirSports, is based in a hanger at the northern end of the field, which serves as foyer, kitchen, lounge, ops room and briefing room all in one. In the midst of it all sat a burgundy-accented Topaz.
With its slender curl-tipped strutless wing and sleek flowing fuselage, the Topaz is the quintessential head-turner, and Birrell talks about it like he’s telling how he met a new girlfriend.
“We have a flying school and wanted to expand our range,” he told me. “We had the FlySynthesis Texan, which are lovely aircraft, but we wanted something that was faster, used less fuel, and suited the market better.
“We wanted a high-wing. In normal Australian conditions, 70% of aircraft are high-wing, and there’s good reason for that. It’s more comfortable, and you can pull a high-wing through a farmer’s gate. And, if you arrive somewhere and it’s raining you can open the doors without flooding the cabin, and in high wind you don’t have to worry about the canopy blowing away when you open it."
And what he’s got is a Rotax-powered carbon-fibre LSA that has a useful load of 310 kg, a top speed of 120 knots and carries 95 litres of fuel. Despite its maximum take-off weight being restricted to 560 kg, the Topaz has capability beyond many 600 kg MTOW aeroplanes.
“ I think when people see what the Topaz is like they will be impressed,” he reckons.
“Most pilots who own their own aircraft want to go places, so having a touring aircraft is important. That means you want it efficient, you want it fast and you don’t want to use a lot of fuel. It also has to have storage.
“We’re looking at an all-round cruising aircraft that you can use to go places. It ticks all the boxes: it’s comfortable, it’s light enough, and will take both big pilots and small pilots.”
The fuselage is made in two halves then stuck together length ways like an Airfix Spitfire. That makes the vertical stabiliser part of the fuselage, rather than a bolt-on, and the seam down the centre is absolutely invisible.
And being largely carbon-fibre keeps the weight down for no sacrifice in strength, and that means a higher payload. By comparison, an equivalent aircraft made in aluminium would probably weigh around 380 kg, whereas the typical off-the-shelf weight of the Topaz is 290 kg.
“A lot of fibreglass aircraft have a maximum temperature rating of about 35°C,” Birrell pointed out. “In Australian conditions, that’s limiting. The rating on a carbon-fibre wing using vinyl ester resin as a bonding agent is much higher, around 45°C. The composite material is stronger and particularly the resins don’t get soft when they get hot.”
In luxury’s lap
The first thing I noticed after Birrell ushered me into the left seat was that Ekolot has not adopted the LSA philosophy of function before form. With plush seats and faux woodgrain trim, the Topaz design places as much importance on the total experience of the aeroplane as it does on capability. It’s a very nice aeroplane just to sit in.
Two Kanadia EFIS screens dominated the panel of demonstrator 8660, divided by back-up the comm set, back-up airspeed indicator, altimeter and vertical speed indicator, and the flap position and pitch indicators.
The control in this aircraft is a sculptured centre-stick that also houses the electric flap and trim levers, and the single hand-operated brake. Unlike many centre-sticks, which are often no more than a steel tube with a rubber grip, this the Topaz stick is very nicely balanced and sits sweetly in the palm of your hand.
At the foot of the stick are the fuel switch, master and starter button. The fuel switch is designed so that in the off position it covers the starter button, thereby preventing someone from starting the Rotax with the fuel off. And the master is also unique, being a removable switch that you can take with you when you go, thwarting potential Topaz thieves.
On the far left of the instrument panel sits the ignition system with the ignition switches covered with red guards. To activate, you press the guards up and the switches flick into the on position. However, to shut off the ignition, you have to consciously flip the two guards down and flick the switches to off manually.
The throttle is down beside the pilot’s left hand, tucked into a recess between the seat and the side wall. When closed completely, it sits flat so that it doesn’t impede anyone getting in or out.
Now the big setback according to me. Within a minute of settling in, I realised there is almost nowhere to store anything. Although the Topaz has two large 20-kg baggage compartments behind the cabin, they aren’t accessible in flight and the cockpit lacks for nooks, crannies and pockets to stuff serious items like ERSA.
The Topaz cockpit is the sort of thing you could happily sit around all day in, but why would you when there’s a long runway just a few metres away and the tanks have plenty in them?
After running through the pre-start checklist I cleared the prop and pushed the button. The Rotax fired as Rotaxes tend to: immediately and with no fuss at all. The RPM settled in at 2000 and I pushed in the choke. The engine speed seemed high to my GA ears, but Birrell reminded me that the Rotax is a gearbox engine.
Being completely new to the Topaz, I listened very carefully to Birrell’s pre-take-off brief.
“It has to be felt off the ground,” he said. “Because you’re accelerating so fast there really isn’t much time to look at the airspeed. You’re probably rotating around about the 40-knot mark.
“For someone who’s used to larger, heavier aircraft, you’ll get airborne moderately quickly. Bring the stick back to get the aircraft off the ground, then immediately release the back pressure to allow the aircraft to accelerate to best climb speed.
After pushing the throttle forward with my left hand, the Topaz squirted down the runway and I had barely enough time to check the temps and pressures before the wing sent me a clear message that it was time to go. With the back pressure kept in I felt the wheels lose contact with the runway, and we sailed off into the sky.
I aimed the nose at 60 knots to get best angle of climb, but it wasn’t long before Birrell suggested increasing speed to best rate to earn ourselves a 1200 fpm climb.
“You’ll get reasonable forward visibility at 70 knots,” he pointed out, “but because the climb rate is so high compared to most GA training aeroplanes, having the forward visibility is a plus. If you have a look at something like a Jabiru, it has a very high nose attitude even though the rate of climb is slow.”
We found ourselves a patch of sky long enough to test the cruise performance and Birrell stepped me through getting the best out of the aircraft.
Trimmed out and with the Rotax set at 4800 RPM, the true airspeed settled on 105 knots, which returned a fuel consumption of 15 lph. The book has a top speed of 120, but to get there you have to open the Rotax wide and live with a fuel draw of nearly 20 lph, which drags the endurance back to around four or five hours.
“All aircraft have their happy speeds,” Birrell said, “and on the Topaz that is about 105 knots, and you’re not using too much fuel. It will sit at 115 all day, but the fuel consumption gets up to an extra 4 lph or so. About 4800 RPM and 15 lph seems to be quite comfortable, and that gives you a good range at reasonable speed.”
We leveled off at a good speed for stalling. When the airflow broke away a touch below 40 knots, the nose dipped a little and there was just enough skittishness for me to feel there was something different about this aeroplane. Loss of height was not excessive, but there was a slight drop of the left wing, which I hadn’t encountered in an LSA stalled clean before.
To compare, we dropped a stage and went for another stall. To my amazement, the wing drop had completely vanished. She stalled easily, cleanly and with very little movement at all. Birrell explained that when the flaps in the Topaz are up, they are actually at -5°, not zero, which accounts for the stall being more dynamic without flap than with.
After restoring the aircraft to flying condition, we explored the power envelope a bit, and it soon became apparent that the Topaz has a very low-drag profile, courtesy, no doubt, of its glider ancestry. Time was starting to get short, so we cruised back to Riddell and joined the circuit on crosswind.
Because the KR030 is very clean, I had to reduce the throttle to zero as we turned base, but the airflow over the prop still give us 2500 RPM. My target speed was 60 knots, and I dropped one stage of flap as we passed 65 and swung the aeroplane onto final. Birrell had told me the Topaz was very stable in landing condition, and my experience found no counter to that; it was very easy to fly the prescribed numbers.
Final speed is 55 knots, which I achieved by simply dropping the second stage. We were in for a touch-and-go, so I left full flap well alone. Everything was going sweet until the round-out, when I realised the Topaz was going to float quite happily for the entire length of the runway and plant us in the grass at the other end.
We did feel our way to the tarmac, but only after consuming more runway that I considered respectable. It didn’t matter, the acceleration from full throttle had us airborne again in seconds so the remaining runway had proven plenty.
Tale of the Topaz
I drove away from Riddell thinking hard about the Topaz. It’s certainly a beautiful aeroplane with a nice turn of speed and nothing in the handling to deter anyone. It carries a decent load and has a economy cruise endurance going out past six hours. Who wants to be in a recreational aircraft as long as that anyway?
It has two baggage compartments that will carry 20 kg each although there’s no access in-flight, which for me is a red cross given the lack of storage in the cabin.
All that aside, we fly two-seaters as either trainers or for fun, and the Topaz is a gun aircraft at both of those things.