Single-Seat Dreamin’


If there’s a great untapped resource in general aviation—other than unsold airplanes—it must be empty seats. Four-place airplanes rarely fly with more than two people and if we had data on it, I suspect most piston aircraft flights have one body aboard. And once this autonomy thing comes together, we can dispense with him/her and get on with the task of clogging the skies with remorseless robots.

Until then, we can continue to contemplate the rising challenge of lofting just a single stalwart butt into the sky. One way I’ve been exploring this is through the little Merlin PSA I reported on during our Sport Aviation Expo coverage last January. Chip Erwin of Aeromarine LSA is bringing this in as an EAB kit from the Czech Republic. It’s still a work in progress, since the FAA hasn’t done its formal kit review of the aircraft yet and Erwin isn’t sure he’ll go the LSA route with it. We’ll see.

So for the time being, I’m looking at this conceptually. Is there any appeal for a single-seat airplane that’s fun to fly, cheap to operate and fast enough to fly modest cross-countries in?

Based on my reaction to flying the Merlin, I’d say maybe. As a kit, it will sell complete for about $35,000 and to that, add another $5000 for paint and avionics. How much would an LSA version cost? Erwin’s not sure, but my guess of $60,000 struck him as reasonable. For that, you get a 100-MPH airplane with sprightly takeoff performance, sport-like handling, two- to three-hour range and enough payload for 25 pounds of baggage.

If I were getting into an airplane like this, I’d find myself a like-minded partner and do the EAB version. It’s just not that much money to invest so that I’d worry about recovering it at resale. Build time is estimated at 200 hours, but add another 100 to that to be realistic and I think that would be about right. As I mentioned in the video I shot this week,the Merlin has the 65-HP Rotax 582. I don’t think I’d go with that engine, however. It’s not especially fuel-efficient and for my tastes, it runs awfully rough. There are other engine options in the works and although these will raise the price, they might be worth it for the performance and flyability. All of this is work in progress and it may be a few months too soon to decide on any of it, as the kit and additional engine details are worked out.

I know all the cool kids like to say the LSA idea has been a failure, but I have never subscribed to this claim. Last year, the sales volume was around 250 airframes. That represents about 25 percent of certified piston aircraft sales and while we would all like it to be 50 percent or even more, we’d all like chauffeured limos to our own personal Gulfstreams, too. Ain’t gonna happen. So LSA has given us some new designs and a modest expansion of the market. I’ll take that in lieu of bitching about it not being larger.

It’s commonly assumed that the LSA segment isn’t larger because the airplanes are too expensive and while that may be part of it, the fact is, the best sellers in light sport are the expensive models and the average prices are in the $130,000 range. At the low end of the market, Aerotrek has done well with prices hovering around $90,000. Dan Johnson tells me other low-price entries include the Bushcat in the mid-$60s, the Rans S-6, the Aeroprakt and X-Air LS at around $60,000. None have a major market presence.

So would a single-seat LSA with a well-equipped panel at $60,000 find a niche? Would its solo uniqueness and lower price point hit a sweet spot? The only way to find out is to get it out there, promote it well—that’s the trickier challenge than even designing and building it—and see how it competes.

I can say this from flying the Merlin a couple of times. It’s not like flying a two-seater solo; it’s a different mindset. It reinforces the notion that when the wheels leave the ground, you’re truly adrift in your own fate; no help is afoot. I kind of like the feeling. At 400 pounds empty, it weighs less than my lightest motorcycle, so it has a kind of kite-like feel in the wind, even more so than the Cub. This presents different challenges, to be sure, but I landed it in a 15-knot crosswind and the airplane remained usable afterwards. That’s always a plus.

Oh, For Pete’s Sake

Every year about this time, two things happen. In the northern tier, the snow and cold releases its grip and down here in Florida, permanent residents reach peak psychosis with “the season,” the annual migration of visitors fleeing the aforementioned icebox; the snowbirds. The affliction will ease later this month, but it hasn’t yet so I’m blaming it for the unkind things I’m about to say. On the other hand, I think the point I will make needs to be stated at least once a year so people will stop doing it.

One of the dumb-as-a-rock things some pilots insist on doing on CTAF frequencies is the asinine “any traffic in the pattern please advise” call. I don’t know where or how this started, but we need to send it the way of the smallpox virus. It’s one of those logical fallacies that probably has a name, but I can’t come up with it. If there’s NORDO traffic in the pattern, they won’t hear such a call and if you’ll just listen, you’ll hear what traffic is in the pattern and save some precious frequency splatter.

The latest and worst I’ve heard comes from one of our Canadian visitors who, I must say, had a wonderful radio voice and likes to use it, apparently. He issued a variation of this banality that went something like this: “Venice traffic, Canadian blah blah, five miles north planning runway five, any conflicting traffic contact Canadian blah blah.” He did it not once, but three times. In between one of those calls, some poor soul with a scratchy radio asked for a comm check. Our voluble Skipper told him “you’d better get that radio checked.” He offered a few other insights, each one with that long Canadian call sign. If you watch the Merlin video past the closing bumper, you can laugh at me turning the air blue after the sixth take was crumped by noise or radio calls. (I need the radio on for the sidetone to record audio.)

I don’t mean to pick on Canadians, but I do mean to pick on using full call signs when doing so has no operational benefit and has the notable disadvantage of stepping on other relevant calls. Our CTAF is, fortunately, relatively quiet and my view is that you keep it that way by using the fewest, shortest calls possible. And by all means, forget the conflicting traffic request, if for no other reason than to humor an irritable, season-stressed crank like me. Is that so much to ask?