Tecnam's much-loved P92 LSA has gone through an almost complete transformation that has turned it into a very desirable two-seat option. Steve Hitchen checked it out on a sunny Surf Coast day and came away much impressed.
On most occasions I would counsel any pilot to beware of the "old shoe" feeling when they step into the cockpit of a plane for the first time; there is a fine-line between comfort and complacency. Plonking yourself into a cockpit into which you'd never plonked before and thinking "yeah, I can fly this" is often the starting point for disaster or at least embarrassment.
On only two occasions have I ever found first-meeting comfort to be justified. The first was several years ago in Italy when I tested a Tecnam P2010. The aircraft was tailored beautifully in handling and operation to the average pilot and preyed not one iota on the habits of the inexperienced.
The second time was at Barwon Heads, Victoria, in February this year, when I was handed the keys to the new P92 Echo MkII LSA, another Tecnam. Co-incidence? Maybe not.
The MkII is not the P92 of the past. The all-metal, squared-off Echo, Echo Super and Eaglet have given way to a completely new aircraft that looks more like the sleek P2008 than any predecessor.
Tecnam Australia's Bruce Stark watched me run my hands over the Echo II, noting with a few taps of my hand that the wing was largely metal and the fuselage composite, a structure Tecnam seems to have settled into.
"Tecnam believes the metal wings give a softer ride in turbulence because they flex," Stark told me. "The other advantage of metal is that the rudder, stabilator and wing are the areas most likely to be damaged through hangar rash or other accidents, such as a mis-handled crosswind landing."
The wing is an important feature of the new Echo, and sets it very much apart from the other LSAs Tecnam builds: the P2002, P2008 and Astore.
"They all have laminar-flow wings," Stark explained. "This aircraft has a high-lift wing, similar to the Cherokee 'Hershey Bar' wing. For operations into and out of grass strips on rural properties or in recreational flying schools, it offers a very forgiving wing that can tolerate a slow approach.
"With laminar-flow wings, if you get too slow on approach, you'll get a very high rate of descent. That doesn't happen with high-lift wings, which tend to hang on and let you down in a much softer way. The Echo MKII wing just wants to glide forever."
There's nothing "Hershey Bar" about the fuselage. That is as sleek as a teardrop and contoured smoothly from spinner to tail cone; classic hallmarks of a composite design.
"There are a lot of advantages in terms of shapes that using composites gives you," Stark said. "You have the ability to create a wider cabin, giving that 'tadpole' shape, which has proven to be very aerodynamic.
"Two large people can fit in the cockpit of the Echo MkII and have a comfortable flight, but aft of the cabin the fuselage tapers inward much more that can be obtained by using metal."
What hasn't changed are the engine and prop: Tecnam has stuck with the staple Rotax 100-hp 912ULS supplying power to a two-blade, composite-coated Sensenich wooden propeller. The prop is fixed as it comes out of the box, but Tecnam Australia can help with alternatives, such as the Airmaster CSU. Given the wing on the Echo II, a CSU may not provide a lot of performance gain except to act as a brake in high-speed descents.
Supporting the front end is a steerable nosewheel dampened with a rubber-doughnut style shock absorber. Completing the undercart is spring-steel main gear, and secreted in the wings are two 45-litre tanks that can hold either avgas or mogas, promising a range of 477 nm.
The wings also hosts half-span electrically-actuated slotted flaps, which Stark credits for a large contribution to the P92s short-field performance. Similar to Fowler flaps, the slots maintain the airflow over the top of the flap so that it remains constant during slow approaches.
Into the belly
"The Echo MKII gets away from the more basic interior comfort," Stark commented as I slid myself backside-first into the left seat. "The interior is the equivalent to a modern European car and you're also getting the benefit of the latest, highly-capable Garmin G3X Touch, which presents the pilot with a huge amount of information to assist decision making. The system is more capable than most pilots need."
"Surely," I thought as I examined the interior of 23-1712, "they've left some stuff out?" Other than the two 270 mm EFIS screens, I could see the ignition, fuel pump and master switches in front of me, the Garmin comms panel in the centre console, the fuel and flap switches, the light switches and circuit breakers.
The sparseness of the layout is courtesy of the G3X Touch system, which takes care of all the other things like the ASI, VSI, DG, fuel and flap indicators, engine monitoring, slip and skid indicators, autopilot controls, altimeter and GPS map functions. All you need to do is know where to look.
Rising from the floor on each side are the control sticks, with electric trim on the top and push-to-talk in the trigger position. The throttle is a slider on the console between the seats. Everything is in the best spot it could be without anything looking like it was shoe-horned in.
I began to wonder if this apparent space was an illusion, so I dragooned Tony the six-foot supermodel into the pilot's seat. No illusion; it's real space. Tony had plenty of room above his head and with the seat right back to accommodate his legs and everything was still within reach, particularly important given how much function had been entrusted to the G3X Touch.
So the cockpit was full of promise, promise that I was impatient to try out in the air.
Then Stark did something no other aircraft representative has ever done: he threw the keys to me and my instructor-in-crime Murray Gerraty and went and got himself a coffee.
Have keys; have aeroplane ... let's fly!
"If you're used to flying in an Eaglet or Echo Super, apart from the transition onto the Garmin G3X, you can hop out of one of those and immediately fly an Echo MkII," Stark later said whilst explaining his confidence in our ability to handle 1712 without him. "You wouldn't notice anything different in terms of handling; it's identical to the other models.
"That's the thing with Tecnams: right through to the P2010 you have a similar feel. Other than the laminar flow wings, you don't get the impression that things are dramatically different."
Gerraty checked some critical things in the POH before giving me the thumbs-up to start the Rotax. With everything settled and behaving itself, we taxied to the holding point for Barwon Heads' runway 36; a comfortable task given the steerable nosewheel and toe brakes. Being an LSA, it was a bubbly trip up the gravel taxiway to the north end of the airfield, where we completed the mandatory pre-take-off checks and lined-up.
"As soon as you power up, raise the nose until the nosewheel is about two inches off the ground and hold it there," Gerraty instructed. "Keep her straight with the pedals and she'll fly off the runway sooner than you think.
"Right. Let's go."
I applied full power and raised the nose; too far apparently and earned a rebuke from Gerraty. I eased up on the stick and did a bit of a frantic dance on the pedals to keep 1712 within the narrow confines of the sealed section and waited. Soon everything became lighter and the strip dropped away.
According to the POH, on that day we should have used about 200 metres to unstick, and although I didn't measure it, I am confident we hit the mark pretty squarely. I pitched for 65 knots and eased the power back to 5500 RPM, with the tape on the G3X telling me the Echo Mk II was going up at around 900 fpm.
So do we turn left or right? With lots of blue above us and a long line of rolling white surf beneath, we elected to swing to the west and sailed off in the direction of Torquay. A line of smudged grey cloud sat pat over the coast at 2500, so we headed slightly offshore where the layer was punctured with large holes and climbed above it.
I leveled off, reduced the Rotax back to 5000 RPM and let the aircraft settle. With the ASI reading 102 and the QNH set to 1016, I grabbed my iPad and did a quick TAS calculation: 106 knots at 3000 feet. According to the POH we should have been doing 107. That was close enough for me!
I found the aircraft very easy to trim thanks to the electric system. In the Echo II, the trim on only one of the sticks is active at any time. High on the right side of the panel is a switch that flicks trim command between the two sticks, negating the need for the manufacturer to install relays.
However, I had to keep reminding myself to take the trim command back from Gerraty or I would just sit there like a mug with my thumb on the button and the trim traveling nowhere. Most of the time in general use, the trim will be set to the left stick.
Keeping our eyes on the cloud–which was thickening the further west we went–and our ears on Torquay CTAF, we started a series of random turns, ostensibly to test the roll rate, but in reality just because it was great fun! The Echo MkII handled so sweetly it made you want to take the most ridiculous route to get anywhere just so you could make turns.
But as we steepened the angle of bank, the elevator forces began to stiffen. By the time we had gone through 45 degrees, the stick was heavy enough for me to remark on it. It wasn't uncomfortable for anyone used to a GA aeroplane, but surprising for such a sprite LSA. However, as very little back stick was needed to paint the nose around the horizon in steep turns, the weight was effectively irrelevant and it didn't stop us reversing turns with absolute glee!
Another joy of this aeroplane is the visibility. The leading edge of the wing tapers backward as the wing root joins the fuselage, meaning the pilot has a clear view of where they're turning to rather than looking at the underside of the wing as you do in many high-wings. Panoramic windscreen helps keep the view unobstructed in all attitudes and bank angles.
Killing the airflow
Knowing the type of wing we had above our heads, Gerraty and I were not expecting shenanigans from the Echo MkII in the stall, and it turned out we weren't mistaken.
I repositioned 1712 over a large hole before swinging the nose away from the sun and closing the throttle. The airspeed wound back faster than I expected, indicating a rapid increase in drag without the power of the Rotax to counter it. When the airflow let go of the wing, the nose rotated slightly downward before I released the back pressure and brought the power back in.
There was no wing drop and no need to do a lot of footwork to keep straight. This is the sort of stall you dream of when you're no expert pilot.
Resetting our position, we dropped one stage of flap and repeated the exercise. This time the nose drop was slightly more obvious and there was a minor twitch in the right wing that corrected itself once the airspeed began to climb. There was no change in what the pilot needed to do just because of the flap.
"Work" done, we set the nose on course that would return us to Barwon Heads and just enjoyed floating along over the Surf Coast. It turns out we had too much fun and forgot about the imperative to lose altitude.
"It would seem that this is one LSA that you actually have to do some approach planning in," Gerraty later said in an honest appraisal. It came after the Echo MkII surprised both of us on the return to the airport.
Our plan had been to leave the power in and zoom ourselves down to circuit height, keeping one eye on the yellow arc as we went. However, such is the characteristic of the wing that the increase in speed was not accompanied by a proportionate loss in altitude.
By the time we were ready to join long downwind for 18, we still were 1000 feet too high! Stark's warning about the wing wanting to fly had been relegated to the back of my mind and now it was coming back to make me look like a goose. Nothing, however, that a closed throttle and a side-slip wouldn't fix.
Established now at a more respectable height, I proceeded to repeat my mistake on the first approach.
Abeam the touch-down point, I dropped one stage of flap and made the customary calls, but entrenched GA learning conned me into leaving the throttle up around 4000 RPM to make sure we didn't lose too much height on base. The approach speed in the book said 54 knots with a touchdown of 43. As I completed a dog-leg final turn to avoid a no-fly zone, 1712 was zipping along at nearly 70 knots and was about 300 feet too high.
Gerraty chided me for hanging onto the power.
"Nope," he said with a pursed-lipped expression, "you're going to have to get the power back much faster than that."
Desperate to recover the landing, I chopped the power, but the damage was done. The high-lift wing didn't want to let go of the air and any attempt to pitch to the threshold just made matters worse.
Understanding I had made a kelpie's Corn Flakes out of the approach, I did the honourable thing and threw away that landing. We powered straight ahead in the go-around and put ourselves back on downwind.
This time I heeded my own foolishness and reduced the power to 4000 just after dropping the approach flap on late downwind. My base leg was much better for the lesson and we turned onto final with some hope of getting down without much modification to the profile. I closed the throttle completely just after straightening up.
With some encouragement from Gerraty, I resisted an almost over-powering urge to wind the power back in, my eyes doubting we would slide to the touchdown point without it. That wing made a mockery of my judgment again as it carried us directly to where we wanted to be. Stark was right again, the wing glides and it glides very well indeed.
This time tyre met tarmac after a touch of back stick and a short hold-off. Sweet!
The third circuit was even better once I got myself into a groove of how it liked to be flown. Once that was established, I understood that the Echo MkII has very predictable and stable performance in approach. If you know how to fly that wing, it will dance to your tune every time.
We trundled back to the tie-downs and shut down the Rotax. Both Gerraty and I had very satisfied grins on our faces, and I envied him as he was about to take it up again for the air-to-air photo shoot. I think he knew how much fun he was in for.
The only outstanding question in my mind is where this aircraft fitted into Tecnam's LSA range of four aircraft. The P2008, P2002 and Astore were very good aircraft in their own rights and are quicker to boot. So who would find the P92 Echo MkII the best fit for them?
"I think this model is going to be extremely popular," Stark responded. "There are a lot of innovative features that will appeal to flying schools that have successfully operated Echo Supers and Eaglets, which will now have up to 3-4000 hours up.
"Having digital glass cockpits will be an attraction. I think the days of analogue modern training aircraft are nearly over; I doubt you will see many manufacturers offering analogue.
"I also believe a lot of larger training organisations will be looking for competent LSAs to do ab initio training, particularly if they can keep costs low by using premium unleaded mogas."
If I am being honest it was probably a cheeky question. Having flown the aircraft I understood it had very wide appeal for not only flight training, but also as a first step for someone wanting to move from traditional GA into a more modern LSA.
Other than the typical recreational take-off method, there is a lot of GA about the Echo MkII, even the need to give a touch more thought to the approach profile, which justifies the "old shoe" feeling that you get at the first sitting.