Eagle 150B: Canards for Our Times

It's from Australia. It's made from Kevlar and a carbon-fiber honeycomb, has three lifting surfaces, a canopy, a center-mounted control stick and a TCM IO-240B kicking out 125 ponies. One of the things the Eagle 150B doesn't have is a small-plane ride, due to its forward-mounted canard, main wing and aft-mounted stabilizer. Is the Eagle 150B the "better mousetrap" that designer John Roncz hoped for? Check out this pilot report by AVweb's Dave Higdon and see for yourself.

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Somany pilots forget, or never knew, that the earliest heavier-than-air birdspretty much all flew beak-first. But check out any photo of the Wrights’earliest machines and some built by their followers … the canard. Strange thatthe canard never really became an industry standard, long ago overshadowed by"backward-built" airplanes, those with the tail surface in back, inone of many variations: cruciform, conventional, T-tail and V-tail.

And the forewing-first idea still suffers, in my view, from the unflatteringtranslation of the French word applied to that surface: canard. After all, aduck, by any other name … or so it’s always seemed. Not even modernapplications of the canard could retrieve it from the depths of degradationheaped on the humblest wing of all.

But in the years since the experimental airplane movement has grown intonumerical significance, this odd duck of aeronautical design has enjoyed somerevivals, usually at the hands of designers impressed by the peculiar attributesof flying tail-first. Burt Rutan has probably done more to reintroduce thecanard configuration airplane, with designs like the VariEZ and LongEZ, theBoomerang, the Defiant and Grizzly, and even the Beech Starship 1. And speakingof corporate airplanes, let’s not forget the recently-resurrected Piaggio AvantiP-180. Nor should we neglect a number of ultralight designs popular in the1980s, including the Goldwing, the Eagle, and the Pterodactyl.

Andnow, here it is again, revived by yet another team of believers at EagleAircraft Pty., based in the farthest western reaches of down-underAustralia, out in Freemantle, near the port city of Perth. The canard’s latestrevival is the Eagle 150B — no relation to any other airplanes, experimental,factory-made or ultralight — in reality an unconventional three-wing machinefinished off in wholly conventional fashion with a tractor powerplant up front,tricycle landing gear beneath, and a familiar vertical stabilizer with rudder inback.

Attached to all these conforming touches are creative ideas designed to easethe assembly and service of the machine, and the interface with humans flyingthe airplane as a trainer and a personal transport. Interestingly, thehuman-interface touches completely complement both of the differing roles oftrainer and transport and detract not at all from each other.

Lifting the entire amalgam of airplane are those three surfaces, a forewingwith flaps, a main wing with both flaps and ailerons, and a horizontal stab withelevators.

Up front is the wholly conventional power of a 125-horsepower IO-240four-cylinder engine from Teledyne Continental Motors, and a two-bladefixed-pitch aluminum prop from McCauley Propeller. In the avionics stack areradios familiar to the world; and the arrangement and selection of instrumentsand gauges conform to flying-machine convention, with some innovations forenhanced awareness.

As the second incarnation of Eagle Aircraft’s original 1988 design — thendubbed the Eagle X-TS 100 — the Eagle 150B possesses great potential as amodern, enjoyable trainer, as a cost-efficient rental airplane, and as apersonal transport for someone more interested in comfort and capability than inthe lowest possible cost.

And if Eagle Aircraft continues to evolve the Eagle 150B, from both a utilityand a production perspective, this unusual-but-cute bird could well become amajor player in the small field of two-place airplanes.

The Eagle: What’s In A Name?

If you’re at all versed in some of the giant names of general aviationdesign, you certainly recognized Burt Rutan’s name when dropped earlier; youmight even recognize the name of the primary designer of the Eagle X-TS 100, andthus the Eagle 150B: John Roncz.

Roncz hashad a hand in some of aviation’s most innovative and enduring designs, either asa member of the team, the main man, or as an airfoil expert and creator, therole which makes him much-sought-after by other designers. But in the case ofthe Eagle, Roncz was the go-to guy tapped by the fledgling company.

And with the project in hand, boy, did Roncz go.

Basically, the Eagle is a tri-wing airplane, as we described above, builtalmost entirely of various composite materials, used alone and in combination toaddress specific structural needs. For example, the main gear is a single-leafaffair constructed of fiberglass, to give it the shape and spring desired.

The canard, wing and tail section, which begins at the fuselage immediatelyaft of the main wing, are mostly carbon fiber and Nomex honeycomb sandwich; thecabin structure, however, incorporates a substantial amount of Kevlar to enhancecrash-worthiness and occupant protection.

The tail section, with the two stabilizers, the elevators and rudder, attachto the main fuselage with a series of stainless steel screws into a ringstructure built around the aft cabin bulkhead. Before my flight in the Eagle,the folks at U.S. distributor HGL Aviation in Augusta, Kan., showed me an Eagleas it comes out of the shipping crate from Australia. Seeing the structureerased any questions I had about the strength of the union.

WingtipAndthen there are those wings. First, there’s the quality of the work. Ronczdesigned some interesting surfaces that might be duplicable in metal, but it’shard to imagine achieving the same smooth, seamless finish achieved incomposites— especially in the most-compound curves.

First, thanks to the geometry and power of those lifting surfaces, the entirepackage spans only 23 feet, six inches— barely over two feet more than theEagle’s overall length of 21 feet, two inches. Each main wing is split into twodistinct sections by a large fence. Inboard of that fence, the trailing edge ofthe wing is flap; outboard, the trailing edge becomes aileron. Further, up fronton the aileron section of the wing, the leading edge camber is a larger radiusand more pronounced; just beyond the leading edge, the upper wing surfaceoutboard of the fence also wears a row of vortex generators.

The canard itself reaches only 16 feet from tip to tip, and about 90 percentof the trailing-edge area is flap. The canard is constant-chord and constantcamber and sports no fence or other list-enhancing devices.

As you’ll see when we fly the 150B, these design characteristics all existfor a reason and, from my exposure, they all work.


Making Adjustments To The Eagle, And Vice Versa

One reason people keep reinventing the airplane is because they have theirown ideas for improving on what’s come before. Think if it as, more or less, the"build a better mousetrap" phenomenon. That’s pretty much why early20th-century designers started tinkering with what the Wrights begot nearly 100years back.

So it’s natural to find some things that require adaptation to use and,perhaps, learn to enjoy the designer’s particular perspectives.

Instrument panelAndjust as the Eagle’s external airframe configuration demands some allowances frompeople with fixed ideas of how planes should be, the inside also is cause foradaptation. Not uncomfortably unconventional or wacky, by what people generallyconsider standard, but different in ways that work for pilots.

First, for example, the bathtub structure that makes up the cockpit has highside walls. To enter with ease pretty much demands some practice using theapproved step area of the wheel fairing and a gear-mounted step. Conversely,handling the latch for the big bubble canopy posed little challenge to master.

In another example, the design uses semi-reclining seats molded as part ofthe fuselage structure. Adjustable rudder pedals let the 150B adapt to differentleg lengths, while the pilot’s height goes unchallenged by the tall bubblecanopy. And somehow, the center-mounted stick, side-mounted throttles, and panelcontrols fall easily to hand for people of most heights, although the shortestfliers might want to consider thicker seat cushioning to move them closer to thepanel.

And before we leave the rudder pedals, you should know that on the ground yousteer the Eagle with differential braking, since the nosewheel castersindependent of the rudder linkage. Anyone with some Grumman time will have noproblem, once they adapt to the brakes. The Eagle does not use toe breaks, butinstead sports a clever linkage that comes into play after you’ve moved a rudderpedal forward a couple of inches. After an explanation of how the brakes work —it somehow didn’t come up until past the midpoint of my demo flight — and a bitof practice with that knowledge, the Eagle let me brake in a straight line or inthe arch of a turn. And the brakes proved plenty powerful at the little countrystrip used for most of our landings and takeoffs.

Center stickAlso,about that center stick. For a South Paw like me, it works great, even better,perhaps, than for the dominant majority. A right-handed pilot in the left seatmight find it uncomfortable to release the stick to copy clearances, work theradio knobs and such. But, if you’re ambidextrous, there shouldn’t be a problem.As for the throttles, there’s nothing here to challenge you considering theirconvenient side-wall placement.

Left- or right-handed, though, the Eagle 150B delivers some nice touchesthrough that center stick, including electric trim control, a push-to-talkswitch, and a button that activates the comm’s frequency flip-flop. Of course,you still have to take your right hand off the stick to handle the radio dialsand the mixture controls.

In fact, the center-placement of practically all the cockpit controls putsthem comfortably, conveniently in reach — of your right hand.

Something For Everyone? Maybe…

The Eagle boasts attributes that are already attracting FBOs, flight schoolsand rental-fleet operators. Among them are traits unrelated to its aerialabilities.

For one, the Eagle’s composite construction is designed to resist damage andwear well; corrosion, of course, should never be a problem. Eagle Aircraft alsothought about upkeep in designing the 150B, resulting in a machine that requiresnothing more than common tools to maintain. Even engine work has beenconsidered, resulting in a split cowling fastened with quick-turns and only acouple of screws; either half comes off for engine work.

Engine swung out on its mountsAndwith the cowl removed, it takes only about 15 minutes to remove the bolts, tubesand cables needed to swing the engine away from the firewall — in its ownhinged engine mount. The engine mount pivots around the nose gear on two heftyhinges on the port firewall, opening access to all the accessories mounted onthe back of the Continental and on the firewall.

A sealed oil-air separator is part of the firewall-forward package, reducingdemands for engine oil and belly clean-ups. And with all the right instrumentsand gyros and radios, there’s nothing missing for the recreational flier or thefull-service flight school.

The Eagle’s designers attended to the CFI’s needs by giving the 150B dualflap switches, with the right-seat switch able to override the left-seat’sswitch; a second control stick branches out of the main stick, with its ownpush-to-talk (PTT) switch on top. And a separate PTT resides in the right panel,where a CFI or second pilot can key the mic without touching the stick.

For the cross-country pilot, the Eagle has that powerful electric pitch trim,plus a manual roll-trim control unheard of on this class of airplane.

Fortunately, the Eagle delivers a commandingly solid ride and formidablestability in flight.


A Limo-like Ride In A Roadster-style Package

At least this aspect of the Eagle’s characteristic came as no surprise.Canards, when designed and weighted correctly, often deliver rough-air ridessmoother than a tail-last design in the same conditions. My first real exposureto this trait came years ago in the right seat of a Piaggio P-180. Warm springday, lots of convective activity and a fair share of popcorn cumulus at about4,500. The pilot of a Malibu Mirage gave me a ride around the display pattern ofa community-event fly-by and, when we returned, the Piaggio folks offered me aturn around the same route in the Avanti.

In-flightSameair, same time of day, same altitude and airspeed. Yet the difference in ridefelt, well, dramatic. Sure, both airplanes felt the bumps, but each reacteddifferently. In the Piper, the bumps felt like bumps, with the airplane feelingmore like we were hitting speed bumps at 120 knots; in the canard-equippedairplane, the airplane’s reaction seemed more like we’d run over a broader,more-gradual change in pavement height and lasted longer, to boot.

Sorry this isn’t more scientific — something about the difference inpitching moments and wing loadings and the like — and somewhat less tactile.But tactile is what makes the canard different. In fact, the same difference inride manifested itself during a later, longer demo flight in a Beech Starship2000A, and in a few hours flying the old Eagle XP ultralight back in the late1980s.

Another factor for the Eagle, engineers tell me, is the close proximity ofthe canard and wing and the wing and horizontal stab. Not close enough to makeit a biplane, but far closer than with most other canard designs, the engineersexplained that gust pulses — updrafts, downdrafts — come close to affectingall three surfaces almost simultaneously, dampening pitching action from rapidchanges in air direction and contributing to the Eagle’s stability.

Wing loading also influences the Eagle’s ride and its reaction to turbulence.We’re not talking a lot of lifting area here, 111 square feet for a nominal wingloading of 12.71 pounds per square foot at the Eagle’s gross weight of 1,411pounds.

But what little wing area there is gets split among three different surfaces:39 square feet in the canard, 16 in the tailplane, and about half of the total,56 square feet, in the main wing. Between the short maximum span — the mainwing’s 23 feet, 6 inches — and the relatively high wing loading for its weight,the Eagle pulls off a ride quality more akin to a large, 3,500-pound single thanthe sporty, diminutive machine it is.

Of course, no one cares about a quality ride if it comes in an airplane withcrummy flight characteristics. And it’s aloft where the Eagle’s atypicalconfiguration and accoutrements come together.

Stable And Forgiving, Yet Nimble And Quick…

This little bird, whether you call it a canard, a severely staggered biplane,or perhaps even a tri-plane, delivers training capabilities equal to or betterthan any of its peers, at a price competitive with one, Diamond’s KatanaDA20-C1, and well above another, the night- and IFR-approved Zenith CH2000.

In its performance, the VFR-only Eagle 150B fares quite well, with a cruisespeed of 120 knots and a full-fuel range that can span 520 nautical miles moreslowly to match a lower power setting.

Head-onButin handling and maneuverability, the Eagle owns the class, thanks to itspeculiar airframe configuration. Making an airplane this fast, this efficient,and more fighter-like nimble than you’d ever expect a trainer with only 125horses requires a designer to find synergy among many competing traits.

For example, a basic battle designers often fight pits aircraft stabilityneeds against demands for maneuverability and sometimes the outcome isn’tpretty: airplanes inherently stable only within a narrow margin of speed, weightand trim; some easily upset from trim only to become challenges to a pilot’sjudgment and reaction time; others so insistent on stable flight as to betruck-like in maneuvering flight.

And when the design is destined for the training market, another battle oftenbreaks out: forgiveness versus reality. In other words, make a plane too easy orforgiving and students won’t face challenges certain to arise in more-demandingaircraft.


…Simple, Yet Simply Slick…

No one should accuse the Eagle 150B of flying like a slug. Set takeoff flaps— marks on the canard’s flaps make it easy — firewall the throttle on thelittle Continental, and the bird accelerates quickly past 50 knots, where slightaft stick pressure starts a smooth rotation and transition to positive climb.Rudder control against a steady, 30-degree left crosswind proved smooth andproportional. Thankfully, the rudder came in quickly, at about 25, because I hadnot yet quite figured out the no-toes brake system. Once my brain engaged withthe system — push the rudder pedals beyond a couple of inches and the brakesengage — my initial control lapses stopped.

Another trait that requires some exposure to master is in the trim changesthat accompany flap movement. Trimming the nose back as the flaps stow helpscancel a slight pitch-down excursion; likewise, the same attention to trim, inthe opposite direction, helps keep the nose down as the flaps extend in flight.

At full throttle, the Eagle climbed easily at around 800 feet per minutewhile indicating 105 knots and with a great view ahead. The cowling’s scavengingcooling-air outlets seemed to keep temperatures well in the green, even down atthe lowest airspeeds and highest angles of attack.

And angle is something the Eagle attacks with confidence.

Power to the max, pulling a steep left climb, the airspeed needle droppingbelow actual stall speed, and all the Eagle wanted to do is drop the noseslightly and resume its ascent. In straight-ahead, power-on, power-off stalls aswell, the canard stalled first, dragging the nose down well before the main wingcould get a hint about pre-stall buffet.

Thank the vortex generators, high-lift leading-edge cuffs and the substantialstall fence that marks the outboard third of each wing. Between the canard’sslightly higher angle of attack, which causes the stall before the main wing,and the special treatment of the aileron portion of the main wing, the Eaglenever feels even slightly mushy or soft in roll.

…And In Control

InflightThroughoutthe control envelope, the main wing’s ailerons remained in full control of roll,as if the Eagle was cruising wide open at its maximum true airspeed, 120 knots.And up there at cruise speed, those ailerons load up only to the point that theyenhance stability.

But decide to crank it and bank it to 60 degrees, or beyond, and the Eaglegoes over with you as if it heard your thoughts; enhanced airflow oversubstantial ailerons on a short wing — only 10 feet from root to tip on eachside — translates to roll authority aplenty.

Want to corkscrew around a silo? The Eagle will spin your cork in tightturns, at angles that may tax your abilities to keep power and pitch in synch tohold to textbook-standard altitude standards for the maneuver; but she’ll do it,nonetheless.

If anything may tax the up-and-coming Eagle pilot, it may be learning totransition smoothly from cruise to approach attitude, and from there to alanding flare. But those pitch changes that accompany flap use will encouragestudents and veterans alike to make best use of the Eagle’s powerful pitch trimsystem.

As for getting used to the view over a bubble-topped, canard-winged bird likethe Eagle, that’s an easy one.

Turning flightAnyonewho enjoys a truly fun airplane to fly will take to the Eagle and quickly warmto all its views.

A few turns around the pattern at airports in Benton and Augusta, Kan., didit for me. Benton, a tiny country strip, often serves as my testing grounds forsmall planes and ones claiming small runway needs. Only 2,600 in length, about25 feet wide, Benton enjoys something of a cult status among its tenants andfans.

After a half-dozen approaches and landings, using different flap and approachconfigurations from slips to curves to the standard box pattern, nothing turnedup to refute the Eagle’s claim. There was considerable reinforcement that theEagle 150B is a pilot’s airplane. Landings did seem to work best by holding abit of power into the flare, which helped me keep the nose up throughout thetransition to touchdown.

That said, accommodating different approaches proved no problem. For example,slips begun too close to the threshold and too high to hope for a normal landinghelped me bring the Eagle down to a point where landing was comfortable, leavingplenty of runway to stop and taxi back for takeoff — and without seeing morethan half the runway. Normal approaches brought my runway use down to just overone-third of Benton’s asphalt.

Ditto for departures. With the brakes locked and power maxed, the Eagle madeits liftoffs consistently before the midpoint of the runway, even when the windsdiminished to single digits. But even with the winds cross and gusty, Benton’srunway seemed nearly excessive and Augusta’s 4,200 feet seemed space enough formultiple touch-and-goes — in a single pass.

By the end of my flight, when time came to look up performance numbers, thenumbers found felt on-the-money, rather than blue-sky optimistic: 1,143 feet forthe standard, 50-foot obstacle-clearance takeoff requirement; 1,198 feet for thesame-standard landing distance.


Going The Distance: A Question Of Balance…

So, to sum up, the Eagle 150B flown for this report proved: fast (120 knotscruise); economical (6 gph at cruise power); nimble (120 degrees per second forthe roll rate seems about right); and almost-STOL capabilities. If the Eaglelacks anything, it’s in true two-person utility.

Eagle 150B specificationsNowbefore someone reminds me that a day/VFR-only airplane already has its limits, aword: night approval is due soon; IFR approval remains an unanswered question.So, looking at the Eagle as a day/night VFR airplane, with speed, range andavionics comparable to a Skyhawk, the Eagle needs a bump in maximum grossweight.

At its gross weight of 1,430 pounds, the Eagle possesses only 484 pounds ofuseful load. Luggage capacity in three spaces — the hat shelf and a compartmentbehind each seat — totals 100 pounds. Using the full 26 gallons of fuelcapacity eats up 156 pounds. It’s not the worst in the world, and actuallycomparable to the capacities and constraints of its competitors.

But it’s hard to believe that the structure isn’t up to, say, another 50 or60 pounds, as long as the bird meets its climb-gradient marks; and at 1,500pounds gross weight, the Eagle could take on 98 pounds of luggage, full fuel and300 pounds of occupants. And other combinations of occupants, luggage and fuelwould still be realistic enough for some fun cross-country travel.

Of course, these changes could well come to pass, as HGL Aero in Augusta,Kan., and Eagle Aircraft in Orlando, advance their work in marketing and salesof the Eagle 150B.

And both the distributor and manufacturer are optimistic that some avenuesahead could help actually lower the price from its current fully-equipped markof $121,000. That hope rests in putting some of the assembly work in Kansas.

…And Cooperation

Currently, Eagle Aircraft in Australia imports virtually all the materialsand components from the good-ol’ USA, and manufacturers the 150B in a modern,new factory southwest of Perth. But among those components are items such astires, tubes, wheels, and brakes, avionics, electronics, lights, even theengine, its accessories and prop.

Side viewIfEagle and HGL and the FAA can work it out many, if not most of those componentscould avoid two Pacific crossings and, instead, come to Kansas for installationby HGL. Virtually anything that isn’t built integrally into the main airframesections could be installed in the States.

And the savings — from lower shipping and insurance costs, brokerage andcustoms fees avoided — could be substantial, not including the reduced wear andtear on the components themselves. Between an increase in gross weight and adecrease in price, the Eagle could find itself alone in a niche within what’salready a niche market.

As we said before, the Eagle’s only noticeable shortcoming is its payload,and that figure could change.

The Eagle 150B still packs quite a lot of performance and capability into anattractive, albeit unusual, package. Don’t be surprised to see one ducking in toyour home field as the word spreads, beak first.