A Visit to Pipistrel

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Winding up my Aero coverage this week, I spent the day and a morning at Pipistrel, in Slovenia. If you donít have a map handy, Pipistrelís factory is located at†Ajdovscina, just east of †Trieste on the Italian border. Itís in a beautiful broad valley with a Mediterranean-type climate and a population that seems to be the most creative in the region. It must be; Pipistrel practically runs on imaginative aircraft development† and the factory is absolutely overtaxed with production. Itís relatively small and there are airframes abuilding in every corner of it.

I had come to take an initial demo flight in the new Panthera and also get a detailed look at the Alpha, developed from the popular Virus ultralight as a low-cost trainer. First, the Panthera. With no exceptions that are even close, the Panthera strikes me as the most beautiful civil aircraft Iíve laid eyes on. From any angle, its lines look carefully considered and proportioned and other than the top of the wings, thereís not a straight surface on the thing. It looks every bit its namesake.

But does it fly that way? It seems to. We took a brief demo flight from Ajdovscinaís 1000-meter grass runway, which is directly behind the factory. The Panthera has a 210-HP Lycoming IO-390 which propels it along at cruise speeds of about 170-ish knots on 10 gallons. Yes, thatís slower than was originally envisioned, due mainly, says Pipistrelís Tine Tomazic, to external antennas which Pipistrel hoped to bury in the fuselage. He said regulators had other ideas. Thereís also a pair of underwing steps that add to the drag load and the company is looking at making them retractable.

Along with finding the right prop, Tomazic thinks thereís another 20 knots in the airframe. Maybe. Looking at the thing from the front, itís hard to see where thereís much drag. The airplane appears to be impossibly slick. the inlets are small and I'd guess that the engine isn't overcooled. But Iím wondering if the Panthera really needs much additional speed to succeed in the market. It already meets the Pipistrel holy grail of economy. That 170-some knots it's delivering is happening at 10 gallons an hour, or 17 MPG. I havenít run the comparison numbers yet, but I think the only airplanes that deliver that kind of economy and speed are Diamondís diesel twins. More on that later.

As weíve reported, the IO-390 will be replaced by an IO-540 and the additional horsepower will give the Panthera a little more punch on the runway and in initial climb, which it could use. Tomazic said Lycoming worked intensively to get the IO-390 to deliver full-rated power on mogas, but couldnít, hence the switch to a mogas-approved IO-540. I think itís a good choice. Although mogas gets the cold shoulder in the U.S,, it's embraced by the rest of the world, even by potential owners of a $600,000-plus airplane.

Pipistrel says the Pantheraís 65 orders are from 20 different countries, many of them with high and hot conditions. The larger displacement engine will give better takeoff performance and initial climb. With the IO-390, the Panthera reminds me of a Mooney Ovation. It accelerates well enough, but it takes time to gather itself up into a fast climb once the gear is retracted. The 540 should improve that while boosting the climb rate at all altitudes. But most of the cruise speed increase, if Pipistrel finds it, will come from the correct prop and drag cleanups. Because the airframe doesnít need brute power in cruise, the 540 will be loafing, so fuel burn will be only a half gallon more per hour, say Tomazic. The additional power will bring some flexibilty.†

The Panthera has a couple of big hatches for ingress/egress of the front occupants and a Diamond-style hatch for the rear seats. Itís surprisingly wide and very comfortable, with a center stick perfectly positioned between the knees. Visibility out the side hatches is breathtaking, if slightly restricted toward the front, as the glass tapers down to meet the nose shape. Still, you never lose sight of the runway in the landing flare. An approach speed of 80 knots worked well, but given the airplaneís slow stall speed, Iíd be comfortable with five knots less.

For avionics, the test aircraft I flew had a Dynon Skyview, which it may or may not have in the production version. Pipistrel hasnít decided yet, but seems likely to offer the Garmin G3X and/or the Skyview as options. In the center pedestal, Garmin a GTN 650/750 combo handles the navcomm chores.

Regardless of where Pipistrel gets with the speed, one thing is certain about this airplane: It is pure, undiluted sex appeal of the type we havenít seen sinceÖwell, hell, Iím not sure we ever seen it. Cirrus airplanes come close, but they donít have quite the sinuous, cat-like lines of the Panthera. Iím looking forward to where this project is two years from now. Pipistrel has a good start on it and theyíre always cranking out new ideas. One of those is an intriguing hybrid drive that Iíll report on in more detail later.

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Comments (39)

Thanks for the update. This is an exciting aircraft and glad to see they continue to get closer to production. Any chance you'll being putting together a video report on the side-trip to Slovenia?

I really enjoyed all the updates from Aero. Thank you for the quality work you do.

Posted by: Jim Hausch | April 16, 2014 6:20 AM    Report this comment

170 Kts, 10 Gph, 17 Mpg? Not!

Posted by: Richard Montague | April 16, 2014 7:21 AM    Report this comment

Pipistrel, I am mesmerized. How much?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 16, 2014 9:56 AM    Report this comment

Pretty surprised to hear they're at 170 knots cruise speed. That, at least by the book, is what a Mooney M20J can do on 200HP. Antennas are really robbing them of that much?

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | April 16, 2014 11:11 AM    Report this comment

I hope they are wildly successful. However, a beautiful as it is, that $600,000 price tag is going to be a show-stopper for most people. And that assumes the price doesn't balloon even as the other promises (speed, useful load, etc) fall by the wayside. Probably going to end up costing $700,000 or more. At that point you're in the same price point as those Diamond twins you referred to.

I bet an experimental version could be manufactured for 1/4 to 1/3 the cost. At least here in the U.S., that's the future.

Posted by: Ron Rapp | April 16, 2014 11:14 AM    Report this comment

I second Jim Hausch's hope that there's a video to accompany this pirep! It is truly an exciting airplane, and it will be very interesting to hear how it shakes out.

By the way, to Ron Rapp, Pipistrel will offer a kit-built version of this airplane.

And, they have published specs that claim that the IO-540 version will cruise at 193KTAS at 65% power and 12,000 feet. That will be greater fuel burn than the 10.5 they're talking about at the "loafing" power setting comparable to the 390, but you would have the ability to trade speed for fuel burn if those numbers hold up.

Posted by: Michael Kobb | April 16, 2014 7:12 PM    Report this comment

Hey, Paul, how's the back seat headroom? There's a YouTube video posted by a guy who took a demo flight, and it seemed like the front seaters had plenty of space, but it was hard to tell for the back seater because there wasn't a clear shot. He seemed to be leaning forward a bit during taxi, and that's the only look we get at him.

Posted by: Michael Kobb | April 16, 2014 7:14 PM    Report this comment

Paul, love the review of this aircraft.

Would you consider putting a direct link to the relevant website in your reviews for us uber-lazy readers?

Keep up the great work!

Posted by: Mark Ackerman | April 16, 2014 7:45 PM    Report this comment

Interesting, BUT: 1 What aircraft owner, I (assume present) demographic is their target market (if known? 2. What is their "projected" retail price range - within $10K US dollars? 3. What is their new and "pre-owned" (alternative) competition? 4. Were (if known) any "demand research" studies done that demonstrate the aircraft will SELL, or was this based on "WE (bias) think it will" assumption?

OR, is this just another example of GA; "Lets hurry up and build it and have "fun" - we'll worry about who (if any?) will buy $$ it later"?

Posted by: Rod Beck | April 16, 2014 8:32 PM    Report this comment

Rod, it is the old "lets-throw-it-against-the-wall-and-hope-it-sticks" marketing strategy. But still an attractive and beautiful design. Will take some business away from Cirrus should it emerge.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 16, 2014 8:55 PM    Report this comment

Personally I think going with the big Lycoming IO-540 is a mistake, because the airframe is a smaller/tighter airframe belonging into the economy segment. My experience with this engine is that it burns a lot of fuel. Why make it loaf when you are adding weight, larger cylinders, more cooling drag, etc. Anytime you put such a large engine on a small airframe, the weight and where it is located becomes another set of considerations that need to be ironed out.

I would rather have gone the direction of the Continental IO-360 six cylinder that is very smooth and probably has a low enough compression that it could be operated on mogas if that is the primary consideration...which it sounds like it is a big deal here.

As pilots, we all like the larger engine, more power because it gives you a better climb rate and more speed...as it goes, you can never have too much horsepower! But, I think for the design and objectives for this airplane, having a smaller more efficient powerplant is the name of the game and I would look at other solutions than the IO-540.

Posted by: Michael Dempsey | April 16, 2014 9:42 PM    Report this comment

Hey Rafy! OK, WHAT marketing strategy? - you "GET IT", but tell me WHY so many of these brilliant production/engineering minds don't - reminds me like to many kids in the sandbox; "So we're moving a lot of sand around and having FUN (and staying in the sandbox) - who cares who has the bigger pail or shovel?"

Posted by: Rod Beck | April 16, 2014 10:11 PM    Report this comment

As for the Mooney, the 201 was a marketing gimmick denoting 201 MPH, which is 174 knots. Pretty much a pipe dream for that airplane. I've owned three of them and none were nearly so fast as that. The POH gives best speed in the mid-165s at 75 percent power and 12-ish gallons.

201s are more like 155-knot airplanes on the 10 GPH, but many are slower than that. Big variability in those airframes. But 155 is still better than 15 NMPG. Not bad against 12 for a Bonanza.

As for the 540 in the Panthera, when I first reported on the airplane from Slovenia in 2012, they made it clear that the airplane was designed to accept other engines, including diesel if it becomes available and definitely electric drive of some sort.

The airplane can definitely use better runway performance. I wouldn't call it anemic, but it's not strong, either. On a high denalt day, you'd definitely want more power, hence the engine switch. That will also allow more flexibility in prop design since the prop won't have to be compromised cruise against acceptable runway and takeoff performance. The Continental IO-360 wouldn't have helped and it's heavier. Turbocharging is a choice, of course, but Pipistrel prefers not to go that direction.

The company is definitely more tilted toward electric and hybrid drive. That's their ethos and although they may be early, they intend to be a leader.

I added a link to the Pipstrel web site. Sorry I didn't do that before, but on these trips, there's barely enough time to get something current on the site. Had real bandwidth issues in Europe this time.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 17, 2014 5:56 AM    Report this comment

I wonder if our former "enemies" had used their production and marketing prowess that worked so well in the automobile business in GA (except the Honda Jet?) how well they may have done in the light aircraft piston market 30 years past and forward?

Posted by: Rod Beck | April 17, 2014 8:26 AM    Report this comment

Paul, that is one good-looking airplane. Wow. Thanks for the review. Just wondering, from a pilot's viewpoint, is that big central post much of a distraction in the forward view? And what about those Czech chicks, are they a distraction as well? Or, was that the other vendor?

Posted by: A Richie | April 17, 2014 9:04 AM    Report this comment

No, the Czech chicks belonged to Sting, a Czech company. They were at Aero. Second year they've been, although this year with new, improved costuming. :). Last year, they were pushing it even by EU standards.

The center post in the Panthera does obstruct the view, but I didn't find it too objectionable. You can see very well to land and takeoff and in flight, the view through the front quarter is expansive. Front seat seats are comfortable with a lot of shoulder room. Rear is ok, although I didn't spend much time there.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 17, 2014 9:20 AM    Report this comment

I posted a pic in the blog so you can judge for yourself on the cockpit view.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 17, 2014 10:25 AM    Report this comment

The design covers all bases including "quick-built" kits. I am impressed.

NEWS: Panthera project update and choice of propulsion/type of engine.

Panthera has been designed from the very beginning to be available with either electric motor, hybrid propulsion or petrol engine. The latter demands a decision for the type of fuel. Pipistrel decided for Mogas due to lower price and better availability than Avgas. The first choice of engine was the Lycoming IO-390, but we received the news that it will never be certified for Mogas. Due to this decision we were forced to switch to IO-540-V, which is already certified also for the Mogas, even though the Panthera does not need a stronger engine. Since it doesn't need this additional power, it will fly at very low power settings and consumption will consequentially stay more or less the same as with the IO-390 model, but the IO-540 260 hp option will provide a significant performance improvement. Due to the change of engine types, Panthera project will experience a minor delay - at the end of 2014 the first series of the factory-assist quick-built kit experimental aircraft will be ready. We will continue to produce and offer the IO-390 engine model, but only as an experimental.

More detailed info: http://www.panthera-aircraft.com/news

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 17, 2014 10:43 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I see that the price is creeping up and the performance is creeping down relative to your earliest reports. I believe that I called you out on this at the time and suggested a little skepticism (darn, that physics stuff is hard to get around). I'm not saying that it won't be a fine airplane when it's done, but its cost and performance are set in the real world, not by wishful thinking. I personally like the change to the IO540. It gives a lot more capability with the choice of pretty good economics in "loafing" mode.

On another note, the M20J is as you say, a nice 155 kt airplane at 10 to 11 gph. I can get very close to that speed and fuel flow on my Bonanza running LOP if I choose to. However, I rarely choose to go that slow unless I need the range.

Posted by: Phil Ryder | April 17, 2014 11:21 AM    Report this comment

If you want to see some pure eye candy airplane photos, there is a direct Pipistrel Panthera weblink that has some great exterior and interior photos. It even has a 3D cockpit viewer. This is not the Pipistrel USA link, but direct to Pipistrel Slovenia link. I'll try to post it here if it will allow:

http://www.panthera-aircraft.com/gallery

It's an absolutely gorgeous airplane, and that's saying a lot coming from somebody who is mostly partial to antique airplanes. Maybe it's the grass field that did it for me but I'm hooked.

Posted by: A Richie | April 17, 2014 11:25 AM    Report this comment

...and so am I Ritchie.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 17, 2014 1:34 PM    Report this comment

This is what our first report on the Panthera said. It was accurately stated then. If that was intended to be Euros, no one challenged it:

"Pipistrel unveiled its Panthera and aims to take a slice of the high-speed cruiser market from Cirrus with an aircraft it says will cruise at 200 knots on 10 gallons an hour of unleaded gas for 1,000 nm with all the seats filled. The fully equipped aircraft will sell for less than $500,000, well below the list price for a decked-out SR22."

Last year at Aero, we reported the certified price as 470,000 Euros or about $648,000 currently. Allowing for exchange rates, that's about what it was last year at Aero. I think the original prices were over optimistic, but the current prices are more realistic because they're in line with what other manufacturers are offering. It still costs money to certify and build, CS23 or not.

I could say these guys will never do this based on just natural cynicism. But in 1996, I said the same thing about Cirrus. I predicted their prices were too high to sell many airplanes and that their likelihood of success was minimal. Guess we know what happened. I thought the same thing of Diamond's ridiculous diesel project.

So for the Panthera, it appears to be on the right track, as does the company. No one can predict where it will go. But from direct observation, they're a smart, creative company. Like Cirrus. Like Diamond.

We will see.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 17, 2014 3:29 PM    Report this comment

The Cirrus in 1996 re-energized the pilot population with a slick design - new technology, clean and fast. Further, the market was good and getting better growing from about 1100 piston engine aircraft deliveries in 1996 to about 2500 in 2005 - the market was ready for Cirrus. The market today is declining and may not be ready for the Panthera. But then who knows. I wish them the best as all things being equal then the Panthera would stand the same opportunity as Cirrus.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 17, 2014 5:13 PM    Report this comment

Rafy, I think a few visionaries guys at Cirrus figured it out; 1. New contempary design/look 2. 180+knts 2.lower maintenance (fixed gear/non steerable nose 3. "Glass" . The C-210 and Piper products were a dated design, etc. That said, however, Cirrus missed out on ONE thing; the ASSUMPTION flight schools would continue producing high net worth/income upper-middle class buyers for their product. If the flight school(s) enrollment is "waning" do to incompetent management - where wilt the FUTURE buyer be not only for a $450K bird, but even for the mid 70's/80's "pre-owned" C-172?

Frankly, I think Pipistrel is coming in to late in the game and not enough market share or demand - another "Tucker" story "with wings" in the works?

Posted by: Rod Beck | April 17, 2014 8:03 PM    Report this comment

I agree Rod. I like your connection between flight schools and the Aircraft manufacturers. Tye same can be said about avionics OEMs and other aeronautical service providers. No flight schools, no pilots, no private aviation, no commercial aviation, no aircraft manufacturers.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 17, 2014 8:16 PM    Report this comment

Nice article. I've been checking their site almost every week and there have been no updates for ages ... Never a good sign. Call me superficial but I want this thing to succeed just for the shape. Those numbers are disappointing though, given their hype. This airframe is now back in the realms of lancairs etc.

Posted by: john hogan | April 17, 2014 8:55 PM    Report this comment

Rafy; The question is this: How do WE. the GA industry, manufactures and "retailers" alike, get GOOD competent folks with not only superb "'piloting/instructional" skills, BUT who have a penchant for SELLING the many utility benefits of flying for BOTH business and recreation? Do we need another structured franchise business model like the CPC's that Cessna pushed in the 60' and 70's? BUT then who has the interest or motivation $$$ to do that - certainly not Cessna at this "bend in the taxiway"! - I think WE need to wake GAMA up - curious - what do others (readers) here think on this?

On the "emotional" appeal of this lineup - respectfully, Rafy, you usually BUY only something you NEED rather than one you WANT, right - oh come on - admit It - your among friends!

Posted by: Rod Beck | April 17, 2014 9:19 PM    Report this comment

If you think the "hybrid" powerplant for aviation is the answer...I think you all have smoked too much crack!

This isn't the solution, hybrids are made for stop and go traffic, YO!

The IO-540 isn't the engine to put into this airframe boys...just saying, it isn't the "bomb" to fix a problem for "mogas", ok? Ask Mooney how that worked...or, just see how the "big bore" is working in a small airframe! That's right, someone had to be an adult in the room, must be ME!

Same old problem, playing engineer when you should be thinking about what the market REALLY needs, and that is a $150,000 airframe that gets up and goes like a Mooney, has the room of a Bonanza, and lands like a Skyhawk! Do-able? Absolutely! F.N.G. fakers? Yep, that is the problem!

Posted by: Michael Dempsey | April 17, 2014 9:52 PM    Report this comment

"This isn't the solution, hybrids are made for stop and go traffic, YO!"

I've forwarded your note to the GE division that's making record profits selling serial hybrid locomotives. I'm not sure they were aware of the stop and go thing...

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 18, 2014 8:50 AM    Report this comment

Paul, good point about the diesel-electric locomotives but GE has admitted publicly they still can't get the damn things to fly.

Posted by: Richard Montague | April 18, 2014 10:18 AM    Report this comment

Regarding the "link" from flight schools to manufacturers; we all like to drool over these machines and their capabilities and technical details (I'm quite guilty of it as an engineer myself) but with every endeavor it always comes down to one single common denominator - people. Funny it took me 50 years to learn that (duh!) That's why business relationships, friendships, and even marriages are so pivotal to success of any kind. Without these key human relationships, everything else in aviation is really just piles of scrap metal and concrete. The flight school is the "seed corn" of the aviation industry and without skilled relationship building at the outset the seed is not going to sprout. So yes, the schools and manufacturing are inextricably linked whether we choose to recognize it or not.

Posted by: A Richie | April 18, 2014 10:30 AM    Report this comment

Actually, GE will neither confirm nor deny that they can fly. The humorous point I was making--perhaps obliquely--is that the duty cycles are similar. A serial hybrid locomotive needs high power for breakaway, then less once it's rolling. Airplanes need high thrust for takeoff, then less in cruise.

There are currently two hybrid drive aircraft projects, Pipistrel's and Flight Design. Ignoring their commercial viability, both projects envision that electric airplanes will be a reality one day. That has to start somewhere. This is that start.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 18, 2014 11:31 AM    Report this comment

Mr. A. Richie: Flight school(s) - and a BIG "thank you" for having the OBJECTIVITY (un-bias?) not only to recognize this, but the "proclamation" here of this VITAL link (common cent$?) to ALL:future GA related purchases from aircraft, avionics (upgrades) maintenance, fuel, storage and more.

The human connection or common denominator is called personal "ONE on ONE" SELLING -say Jim, could you put down that damn I-Pad for a minute"!

Frankly, GAMA, and a few other so called "associations", just can't "see the runway for the trees"!

Posted by: Rod Beck | April 18, 2014 11:47 AM    Report this comment

Mr. A. Richie: Flight school(s) - and a BIG "thank you" for having the OBJECTIVITY (un-bias?) not only to recognize this, but the "proclamation" here of this VITAL link (common cent$?) to ALL:future GA related purchases from aircraft, avionics (upgrades) maintenance, fuel, storage and more.

The human connection or common denominator is called personal "ONE on ONE" SELLING -say Jim, could you put down that damn I-Pad for a minute"!

Frankly, GAMA, and a few other so called "associations", just can't "see the runway for the trees"!

Posted by: Rod Beck | April 18, 2014 11:47 AM    Report this comment

A. Richie - you are correct!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 18, 2014 11:51 AM    Report this comment

Do I sense some bias here? There's nothing to prevent the hybrid GE locomotives from flying; if you can get used to a glide ratio less than a Skyhawk (but better than a Tri-Pacer). That, and the rigid landing gear. Otherwise they are the some of the best flying machines in the Heavy Sport category.

Posted by: A Richie | April 19, 2014 8:07 AM    Report this comment

All it needs is about 10,000 sq. ft of wing area to allow for glide of a hybrid GE locomotive weighing about 450 ton. Think A380.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 19, 2014 8:52 AM    Report this comment

Hey Rafy and Mr. Richie: - LOVE IT! And that's why the Army droppd the idea of a "flying tank" - the wingspan would have been at LEAST 300 yards! Next on Saturday Night Live - The comedy team of Sierra & Richie! Who said Abbott & Costello couldn't be topped?

Posted by: Rod Beck | April 19, 2014 12:37 PM    Report this comment

I had my heart on buying a pipistrel motor glider but when you look at there weight and balance sheet it is like this correct me if i am wrong 450 kgs do not exceed --empty weight is 286 kg---two people 180 kg this equals 465kg now for some fuel -- 45kg---510kg---luggage--- 18kg--528kg all up weight--- well It looks really bad doesn't it ,really the aircraft is a single seater kick your blond passenger out she ways 70kg and go on a diet loose 8kg which the motor glider weighs in at 450 kg and in Australia a lot of the really good gliding days are over 40c so according to the flight manual dont fly when over 40c ????---- my advice is for pipistrel to buy the patents from grob and build the grob 109b ranger which is three times better than pipistrel--- It has only about 5 ads in 36 years in use is this offensive ??

Posted by: kevin heitman | June 22, 2014 9:33 AM    Report this comment

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