Arion Lightning Flight Review: A Familiar Face

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This story originally appeared in AVweb sister publication KITPLANES.

Every time we go to‭ ‬a major show‭, ‬we try to make sure to drop in on Nick‭ ‬Otterback to see what he’s been working on‭. ‬The designer behind the Arion‭ ‬Lightning is always forthcoming and‭ ‬never gets ahead of himself‭. ‬He lets us know what’s on his plate‭, ‬but is quick to say‭ ‬“it’s not quite ready for you to fly yet”‭ ‬if some new design isn’t‭. ‬

I really like that in a kit manufacturer‭!‬

You see‭, ‬a week doesn’t go by when‭ ‬the KITPLANES editorial email receives an‭ ‬announcement of yet another new airplane design‭ ‬that is going to be available as a kit‭. ‬Well‭, ‬maybe not every week‮—‬but I bet it’s 30‭ ‬times per year‭. ‬And most of those designs look really interesting‭, ‬with fabulous performance numbers and pretty‭ ‬pictures‭. ‬But if you look closely at the‭ ‬pictures‭, ‬you eventually figure out that what you’re looking at is the product of 3-D graphics magic‭. ‬And when you read the fine print‭, ‬you discover that the airplane is still conceptual‭, ‬and that the company is hoping to start construction of a prototype‭ ‬“very soon‭.‬”‭ ‬Probably‭ as soon as they get enough deposits to pay for the work‭!‬

Not Arion

Arion is not like that‮…‬ever‭! ‬Nick Otterback has been working on airplanes for a long time‭, ‬considering that he is still young‭ (‬compared with the rest of us‭), ‬and he knows that the quickest way to lose trust as an aircraft‭ (‬or aircraft kit‭) ‬manufacturer is‭ ‬to make promises that you can’t keep‭. ‬

The Lightning started life with a Jabiru powerplant on the nose‭, ‬and‭ ‬KITPLANES ‬liked it‭. ‬When I came‭ ‬on board six-plus years ago‭, ‬Nick was‭ ‬working to install a Lycoming O-320‭ ‬on the firewall‭, ‬and while it looked like a done deal when we first saw it at Sun‭ ‬‘n Fun‭, ‬Nick was quick to tell us that he was still working on the right prop‮—‬or maybe it was the cooling‭. ‬It didn’t matter‭. ‬We were drooling over the opportunity to fly this sleek machine but he‭ ‬wasn’t ready to let us do it because he‭ ‬wanted to‭ ‬“get it right‭.‬”

Eventually‭, ‬of course‭, ‬he did‭. ‬We‭ ‬reviewed the airplane in the April 2015‭ ‬issue and loved it‭. ‬“The aircraft delivers what it promises‭,‬”‭ ‬I said in that review‭. ‬Flying the machine out of Oshkosh‭, ‬we shot a bunch of landings at nearby Waupaca‭, ‬and almost didn’t want to go back to the show‭. ‬The airplane flew well‭ ‬and had good performance numbers‭.‬

Better than expected‭, ‬actually‭. ‬“Speed‭ ‬is hard to get in an airplane‭; ‬the drag‭ ‬increases with the square of the velocity‭, ‬so gaining a few knots in the low end of the range is simple‭,‬”‭ ‬we said in the 2015‭ ‬review‭. ‬“But knots at the top end are far more costly in terms of power‭. ‬So while the Lycoming is providing 40‭ ‬more ponies than the Jabiru‭, ‬you don’t see a proportional increase in speed‮—‬you get a fraction of that‭. ‬The clean lines of the Lightning airframe make it fast already with the smaller engine‭, ‬so trying to increase speed with horsepower is that much more difficult‭. ‬Yet the Lightning is seeing‭ ‬an increase of 20‭ ‬knots at cruise‮—‬a healthy gain‭.‬”

A new lower cowl for the IO-340 joins the familiar, sculpted upper cowl used before. Photo: Richard VanderMeulen

Core Values

With a comfortable cockpit‭, ‬the Lightning was small but efficient‮—‬and‭, ‬yes‭, ‬it could carry two people with enough‭ ‬luggage to travel‭. ‬Handling was excellent‭, ‬landing was a no-brainer‮…‬what‭ ‬was there not to like‭?‬

Enter the new engine‭: ‬the Titan‭ ‬IO-340‭. ‬Lighter‭ ‬and‭ ‬more powerful‭, ‬it promised to be the next step up the‭ ‬evolutionary ladder of the Lightning‭. ‬Consider the benefits‭. ‬It has the power of a parallel-valve 360‭ ‬with the weight‭ ‬of a lighter-spec 320‭, ‬and fits into the‭ ‬same space as the 320‭. (‬Remember that the 360‭ ‬is slightly wider‭.) ‬Again‭, ‬what’s‭  ‬not to like‭? ‬We heard of the concept at AirVenture 2018‭, ‬and saw the airplane at Sun‭ ‬’n Fun 2019‭, ‬where Nick told us‭, ‬candidly‭, ‬“Yeah‭, ‬it’s flying‭, ‬but I’m still working on a few things like the prop‭, ‬the right idle speed‭, ‬cooling‮…‬stuff like that‭.‬”‭ ‬He promised us a crack at it when we got to Wisconsin‮—‬so long as he felt the airplane was ready‭.‬

The Titan IO-340 fits right where an O-320 normally would and weighs less. With a marginally longer stroke but the same bore as the 320, the O/IO-340 makes 174 or 180 hp, depending on compression ratio. Photo: Richard VanderMeulen

Feeling It Out

I could go into a long and detailed‭ ‬description of our photo mission‭, ‬but the pictures can do the talking‭! ‬Photo flying is about holding an airplane within a few feet of the positions requested by the photographer‭. ‬Here‭, ‬the Lightning was smooth‭, ‬stable and responsive enough to perform the task eloquently‭. ‬After we’d stared in to the sun for long enough to get the right exposures‭, ‬it was time for‭ ‬the Bonanza to bring in another subject‮—‬this is how morning photo jobs work at Oshkosh‭, ‬with subject ships launching about 30‭ ‬minutes apart‭, ‬and finding the camera‭ ‬ship over a known landmark at the appropriate time‭, ‬when‭ ‬it’s their turn‭. ‬With a wave‭, ‬we broke‭ ‬hard right and came off the A-36‭, ‬and it was time to get to the fun part‮—‬seeing just what the 340‭ ‬would do‭.‬

Photo: Richard VanderMeulen

Since we had about 30‭ ‬minutes before the Fisk arrival would be accepting arrivals‭, ‬and we were already up‭ ‬to speed‭, ‬the first thing we did was to see just what the airplane would do‭. ‬I had noted that on our departure from Oshkosh‭, ‬chasing the Bonanza at 500‭ ‬feet AGL‮—‬where else but AirVenture does the FAA mandate flying at 500‭ ‬feet until you’re five miles from the field‭?‬‮—‬we were seeing a snappy 148‭ ‬knots true with 2400‭ ‬rpm and 22‭ ‬inches of manifold pressure‭. ‬Now that‭ ‬we were free from the camera ship‭, ‬I let things accelerate as we leveled off at 4000‭ ‬feet‭. ‬When we were stabilized‭, ‬she showed 157‭ ‬knots true‮…‬not bad for an IO-340‭. ‬Not only was the speed good but on the way to 4000‭ ‬feet‭, ‬we had a nice stable‭ ‬2000-fpm climb going‭. ‬Performance‭ ‬did not disappoint‭!‬

Handling, Good as Ever

Handling was what I had come to‭ ‬expect from my previous flights in the‭ ‬Lighting but with a little difference‭. ‬The 340‭, ‬being lighter than the O-320‭ ‬previously fitted‭, ‬shifts the CG aft a bit‭, ‬and the lighter nose makes all the‭ ‬difference in a light aircraft‭! ‬Anyone‭ ‬who has flown the same model aircraft‭, ‬such as an RV-8‭, ‬with the heavier angle-valve IO-360‭ ‬and then flown the same‭ ‬type with the lighter parallel-valve‭ ‬360‭ ‬will understand what I am talking about‭. ‬It’s not just center of gravity‭, ‬it is the extra mass that acts out there on the moment of inertia that you can feel when you fly‭.‬

The lighter nose makes the airplane‭ ‬more responsive in pitch‭. ‬Not that the Lightning with the heavier O-320‭ ‬isn’t responsive‭, ‬it’s just that the 340‭ ‬version is more so‮—‬making it a delight to fly‭. ‬You can trim either version for hands-off flight‭, ‬of course‭, ‬but the new installation allows a quicker pitch rate‭, ‬more in tune with the roll rate given a certain‭ ‬amount of stick deflection‭. ‬In other‭ ‬words‭, ‬the airplane is nicely harmonious in roll and pitch‭. ‬And‭, ‬like most faster kit aircraft these days‭, ‬rudder is hardly required when you are up and away‭. ‬The new engine is smooth‭, ‬which fits with the lines of the Lightning airframe‭, ‬and it truly slips‭ ‬through the smooth air of a Midwest morning‭. ‬

With the lighter IO-340 up front, the Lightning has better pitch/roll control harmony than before and plenty of control authority. Although not intended for aerobatics, the stick feel suggests otherwise. Photo: Richard VanderMeulen

Steeper and Slower

Getting a little more aggressive‭, ‬we‭ ‬rolled the airplane into steep turns in both directions‭, ‬and it tracked and handled like it was on rails‭. ‬It was easy to hold altitude with 60‭! ‬of bank‭, ‬and the power was there to keep the turn going indefinitely without ending up in an accelerated stall‭. ‬Although it is not an airplane designed for aerobatics‭, ‬it certainly behaves as one‭.‬

Twin Dynon SkyView displays make for a clean, modern panel in the factory Lightning. Note the prominent position of the fuel selector. Photo: Richard VanderMeulen

Any time you like an airplane at the‭ ‬top of its speed range‭, ‬it’s important‭ ‬to slow things down and see how well behaved it is at the bottom‭. ‬The Lightning is excellent down near the stall as well‭. ‬It feels solid in slow flight‭, ‬with no tendency to dart left or right in an‭ ‬incipient stall‭. ‬We could have tooled around the Wisconsin skies burning‭ ‬next to no gas for hours if we’d needed to‭, ‬and done so without the fatigue that comes from holding an airplane on the‭ ‬razor’s edge‭. ‬Fortunately‭, ‬we didn’t‭ ‬have to‭. ‬We had wound our way down to Green Lake as we maneuvered‭, ‬and look at that‭, ‬it’s 7‭ ‬a.m on the dot‭, ‬time to look for traffic and be one of the first ones to cross Ripon on a fine Thursday morning in July‭!‬

Sensenich’s sexy carbon-fiber, ground-adjustable prop gives the 340 Lightning good performance and low weight, plus the opportunity to adjust pitch for the owner’s mission. Photo: Richard VanderMeulen

Since I have flown the airframe before‭, ‬I turned the piloting duties back over to Nick for the approach into the busiest airport in the world‭, ‬and contributed to watching for traffic‭, ‬which was wonderfully light as we slid in to runway 36L‭ ‬and found our way back to the new homebuilt aircraft display area‭. ‬The‭ ‬landing was predictable and smooth‭, ‬and it was time for breakfast‮—‬what a way to start an Oshkosh morning‭.‬

Choices, Choices…

As I stated up front‭, ‬the Lightning has‭ ‬evolved through a number of different‭ ‬engine choices‭, ‬and the good news is that Arion supports them all‭. ‬This makes it‭ ‬convenient if you happen to have inherited Uncle Jim’s low-time O-320‭ ‬or you happen to know of a Jabiru-equipped airplane that was unfortunately crushed in a tornado-related hangar‭ ‬collapse‭. ‬But if you’re going to purchase new‭, ‬and have the world of engine choices available‭, ‬the 340‭ ‬should well be at the top of your list‭. ‬Light‭ ‬and powerful‭, ‬it gives you an airplane that will carry two people and necessary accouterments for a weekend‭ ‬trip‭ (‬even camping if you have lightweight‭, ‬compact backpacking gear‭) ‬and will let you have fun doing it‭.‬

It’s great to see what Arion’s Nick Otterback can do with the time and‭ ‬patience to get a design really right‭. ‬The added power and reduced weight do lots of good for this design‭, ‬and take nothing away from it‭. ‬In this sense‭, ‬the Lightning‭ ‬340‭ ‬was worth waiting for‭.

Wingtip-mounted LED landing lights are low weight, low drag and low power consumption. Photo: Richard VanderMeulen

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