Tecnam's latest innovation, the four-seat P Twenty-Ten is throwing down the gauntlet to some of aviation's traditional GA brands. As Steve Hitchen found out, the challenger has a lot of merit.
Professional aviation writers pride themselves in taking a white-coat-and-clipboard approach to testing new aircraft designs. We see ourselves as representatives of potential customers, and so are very discerning when it comes to which boxes get green ticks and which boxes get red crosses.
That attitude has always worked well for me until Tecnam strapped me into the left seat of the new P Twenty-Ten four-seater and let me loose in the skies to the north of Naples. I had so much fun flying this aeroplane that I completely forgot my white coat and clipboard.
The Twenty-Ten echoes everything GA pilots and owners are looking for in a basic single, but with a very modern feel.
Tecnam designed a new aeroplane for the market that uses new-age construction to deliver traditional performance and that's just what the market has been looking for. To borrow from a very old saying, the Tecnam Twenty-Ten is a better mousetrap.
It certainly looks it. The Twenty-Ten is a high-wing, fixed-gear aeroplane dragged along by a 180-hp Lycoming motor. The design has leveraged Tecnam's considerable experience in the Light Sport Aircraft market, obviously bolstered with customer demands and crafted by Professor Luigi Pascale, a legendary figure in the Italian aviation industry.
In looks, styling and performance, it's clear that Tecnam is out to seduce the traditional customers of the C172SP and PA-28 Archer. Cessna and Piper should be plenty afraid.
After walking around demonstrator I-EASD parked outside the Tecnam plant in Capua near Naples in Italy, I concluded that this aeroplane is what general aviaton has been crying out for. It has a 180-hp motor, a swept windscreen that meets the leading edge close to the pilot's eye-line, first row doors that aren't impeded by the wing strut, a separate door for the back seats and an all-flying tail.
The Twenty-Ten is constructed of a carbon-fibre fuselage with metal wings and stabilator, which Tecnam says enabled the designers to optimise the aerodynamics without sacrificing quality and reliability. Using metal for the wing means strength and stability, improved through partial tapering that bring the design very close to the ideal lift distribution.
Inside the wings are fuel tanks holding a total of 240 litres of avgas ... that's a good 33% more than the Archer and 19% above the C172SP, giving you more play time in the air and an extra buffer for that unexpected diversion.
The composite fuselage is lighter than a metal one, which brings obvious benefits in weight-saving and fuel efficiency, but it also means the aircraft has stylish flowing contours that would please the discerning eye of any customer. Yes, the Twenty-Ten makes a great first impression.
The fuel-injected Lycoming in the aircraft I was slated to fly had an MT Propellers two-bladed fixed-pitch prop bolted on to it, although there are very strong hints coming from Capua that we should stand by for future models to be offered with a CSU. The engine can also run on mogas, a fuel that seems to have an unlimited future compared with 100LL.
That was enough of what it looked like; I was impatient to find out what it felt like.
From the left seat
Being a person whose belt fastens a couple of notches closer to the end than it should, I have always found swinging into Cessna (Cardinal excepted) a somewhat cumbersome exercise; the door just doesn't open far enough to make it easy and it won't stay open when you put it there.
Neither of these are issues in the Twenty-Ten; the wing strut is anchored aft of the front door and each front door has its own dangling step. Honestly, it's the easiest GA plane to get into since the C177. With Row 2 getting its own door as well, there's no squeezing passengers past the door frame and you can even leave your seat position where it is!
Once in the left seat, I was taken with an immediate confidence that I could fly this aeroplane without needing much prompting from my chaperone, Alessandro. There was almost nothing unfamiliar or uncomfortable about the cockpit at all. Yep, this particular flight was going to be great fun, and we hadn't even started the engine yet!
Staring back at me from the panel was a Garmin 500 suite, GTN 650 GPS, Garmin comm panel and a JPI engine monitor. Customers can specify a Garmin 1000 IFR package or an IFR panel of the traditional clocks. I found the Garmin 500 system to be a good set-up, because it give amazing functionality without filling my head with lots of glaring colour and information.
Having the PFD and MFD right next to each meant my eyes didn't have to do a lot of roaming.
The lower section of the panel contains the master and ignition on the door side of the pilot's yoke, light and electrical switches between the yokes and a storage compartment on the far right. All circuit breakers in this aeroplane were on the far right of the upper panel.
Between the seats is a console housing the fuel and electric flap switches, throttle and mixture levers, and a nice chunky-but-light trim wheel between the seat. They are very keen that you know the flap position: there are three indicators, one on the three-stage (UP, T/O and LAND) switch, a light indicator on the panel above the switch and another on the panel in front of the pilot's eyes.
I say almost, because the throttle friction is on the left side panel of the centre console near the pilot's knee, meaning I had to invert my right hand to be able to operate it. Good, then, that the throttle didn't seem to need a lot of friction to hold it. The park brake is on the same panel down near the floor, but not being a flight control the impact of its location was not as awkward.
And space. It seemed to be everywhere. I got no feeling of being cramped, and there was a nice big pocket in the door for storing charts, pens, phones and all the accoutrements that we pilots seem to gather around us nowadays.
Yes, I felt very comfortable in the Twenty-Ten.
Let's get going
Not being used to a G500 system, having it come alive with the master switch and stay alive during engine start was a bit disconcerting; I just couldn't shake the feeling that the starter was burning the avionics. That's just one of those things us older pilots have to shed when dealing with new technology.
Starting the IO-360 I found to be as conventional as you can get: mixture to ICO, crank until she fires then advance the mixture to full rich. Within seconds the Twenty-Ten was humming nicely, all comms were set and checked and we were ready to roll.
Castering nosewheels are becoming more prevalent on new designs today, and although they have their pitfalls, with just a touch of smarts they are not hard to use. If you're one of those pilots that has an inherent loathing of them, a quick taxi in the Twenty-Ten will cure you of that; it was one of the easiest I've ever had to handle.
After pedalling I-EASD out onto the grass strip at Capua, I lined her up between the white markers and slowly applied power. The stop-watch in my head started as we began rolling, timing the run from brake-release to nose-up. I had read other reviews of the Twenty-Ten that were critical of the time it took to get in the air.
To me, there was nothing abnormal at all. I suspect those reviewers were not used to operations from strips with long-ish grass. According to the book the take-off roll is 245 metres, but we had no hope of hitting that given the deluge that passed over Capua only 90 minutes before. The C172SP quotes 293 metres and the Archer III 346 metres, so book-to-book, the Tecnam still comes out ahead.
It was once we were airborne that my professionalism totally went out the window and my brain became firmly engaged in Yahoo mode. The visiblity is brilliant, it handles as sweetly as you like and it goes up like petrol prices at Christmas!
It didn't help that the aftermath of the rain had soothed the troubled air and with the Campanian landscape from Naples to the coast laid out in front of me, I was in the mood to just play aeroplanes. Of course, that entailed some steep turns.
For a reason I will describe as inexplicable, my steep turns were some of the best I'd ever done. There was very little tendency for the nose to drop in the turn, and what was there could be held off without a tonne of back pressure. The nose painted its way around the hill-interrupted horizon with almost no variance.
We rolled around the sky for a few minutes, checking things like the resistance to control inputs, elevator force needed to climb, glide performances, and there really is nothing to report that most GA pilots haven't already experienced. This aeroplane is GA straight down the line.
With the power set at 75% on the JPI engine management system, the ASI pinned itself to 120 knots. Controlled air space prevented us from getting up to the 6500 feet to check the best cruise speed, but from the 3500 feet where we were, all indications were that the Twenty-Ten would have hit the book figure of 133 KTAS give or take a couple.
Where the Twenty-Ten stood out from most GA aeroplanes was in the stall. With power off and no flap, there was no wing drop; just a gentle pitch down, which is what you want it to do anyway. Height loss was nothing to write home about at all.
After a few minutes I began to appreciate how great it is to have the struts behind you rather than at your side; the visibility is just brilliant! It also adds to the feeling of roominess in the cockpit, which is actually an illusion caused by design. The Twenty-Ten cockpit is 880 mm wide at the top, compared with the 1000 mm of the C172SP, yet it doesn't feel cramped at all.
Circuits at 700 feet
The Twenty-Ten does have one vice, but it is pilot-induced and I found it! It floats if you don't watch your airspeed very carefully on final. In my defence, I was probably a bit thrown by the requirement at Capua to do circuits at 700 feet; goodbye my usual big picture!
Although you could probably land this aeroplane using techniques learned on anything, Alessandro coached me through landing it as designed: slow to 70 on base, flaps out and trim. It was after we turned to final that the Twenty-Ten got a little bit different in behaviour to traditional GA planes in this category.
The trick is to aim well short of the intended landing point, watching the airspeed all the way. As you approach the fence, raise pitch the nose up to the landing point to bleed off excess speed and grease her on. Alessandro told no lies; the Twenty-Ten rumbled onto the Capua grass in a very drama-less fashion, pleasing me very much and the owner of the aeroplane even more.
It was on my second circuit that I learned what happens when you give the Twenty-Ten too much rein on final. Either through pure laziness or concentrating too much on the aim point, I let the speed creep up to 75 and didn't become aware of it until I lifted the nose. She floated like a tennis ball in a swimming pool, burning up precious runway length as we went.
Eventually, she settled down and rolled neatly onto the grass, but we were way beyond the touchdown point from my previous circuit, certainly my landing distance achieved was way more than the 200 metres in the book.
Another lesson in the bank: numbers discipline is important in landing this new Tecnam.
The sum of it all
Both the fun factor and the utility factor of this aeroplane are very high. It's sweet and easy to fly, comfortable and convenient inside and is a good platform for new technology.
The maximum take-off weight is 1160 kg, comparable to both the C172SP and the Archer III. However, the basic empty weight is only 710 kg, against the 744 of the Cessna and the 760+ of the Piper. So, the Tecnam is faster, just as economical and carries more useful load.
Despite mythology around composite aircraft, the Twenty-Ten shows no signs of flimsiness and is indeed designed to operate from unimproved airstrips; it was developed on the corrugated grass at Capua after all! As such, there is no reason to expect that it wouldn't perform as good as any other fixed-gear four-seater in Australian conditions.
And it is a very seductive mistress that will turn the eye of many aircraft owners once the demonstrator arrive on our shores. It's very capable, looks great and is so easy to fly that it will be very hard not to reach for your cheque book.
It certainly has me under its thumb.