The hardest part about flying Tecnam's new P92 Eaglet factory-made light sport aircraft, aka "special" light-sport aircraft (S-LSA), is figuring out how to climb into the Rotax-powered Italian-made two-seater.
Entry is from the front of the high-wing aircraft's strut rather than behind- a nuance I had to re-learn repeatedly on a demonstration flight.
The positioning of the strut was one of many differences, mostly positive, between the Eaglet and more traditional training and rental platforms available in the USA, namely Cessnas and Pipers.
Tecnam and dozens of other manufacturers are offering new, relatively low-cost light sport alternatives to the decades-old aircraft built by established manufacturers for the light side of the GA market. In the case of the Eaglet, the result is a new option in flight training and rental that is a joy to fly for the "low and slow" crowd.
© John Croft
Tecnam's Rotax-powered Eaglet two-seater was built specifically for the US light sport market
By definition, S-LSAs, which are ready-to-fly, factory-built aircraft certificated to consensus ASTM standards rather than US Federal Aviation Administration rules, weigh less than 600kg (1,320lb) fully loaded and carry no more than two occupants at speeds no greater than 120kt (220km/h).
Sport pilot licences, which allow pilots to fly in daylight VFR conditions, require a minimum of 20h flight instruction, although training time is more likely to be 30-40h, according to the flight school.
On 30 May, I flew an Eaglet belonging to Chesapeake Sport Pilot (CSP), based at Bay Bridge Airport, Stevensville, Maryland.
I flew a Cessna 152 from my home airport to Bay Bridge that day to highlight the differences between the new LSA and the 152, the gold standard for light aircraft trainers in the past.
At CSP, I met up with Colin Russell, one of 17 full- and part-time certified flight instructors helping 70 students working on Federal Aviation Administration light sport licences at the flight school.
CSP's light sport portfolio includes three Tecnam S-LSAs for training, an Eaglet, an earlier-generation Echo Super, and a low-wing Sierra. Given its location - on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay - the three-year-old school is also looking to add a SeaRey amphibian S-LSA to its stable of aircraft.
Florida-based Progressive Aerodyne, which builds a kit version of the SeaRey, plans to certify a factory-built version next year.
Although similar in shape to the Lycoming O-235-powered C152, the all-metal Eaglet is smaller, lighter, lower to the ground and offers more visibility forward thanks to its large canopy and small, narrow, low-set nose.
Contained in that nose is a Rotax 912ULS, similar to the C152's engine in that it is a four-cylinder, four-stroke, horizontally opposed engine, but different in that the Rotax is liquid cooled (rather than air-cooled for the Lycoming) and has a gear-reduction system that allows the engine to run at higher, more efficient speeds while the fixed-pitch propeller turns at a much lower rate for better fuel economy.
The C152's direct-drive 110hp engine and propeller, when turning at 2,400rpm, delivered 95kt on the flight over Bay Bridge.
By comparison, the Eaglet's Rotax engine in cruise flight turned at 5,200rpm while its propeller rotated at 2,142rpm, generating 110kt cruise and burning 19 litres/h (5USgal/h) compared with the Cessna's 23 litres/h. To be fair, the Eaglet is as much as 350lb lighter than the Cessna, freeing up power for speed.
Less impressive isthe Rotax's 1,500h time before overhaul (TBO), compared with 2,400h for the O-235. Also, the Rotax gear-reduction unit must be serviced every 600h by a Rotax repair shop.
Russell pointed out several other unique attributes of the Eaglet N115TE on our pre-flight walk-around, including the fact that the aircraft's fuselage, constructed of aluminium skin over steel tubing, is 114cm (45in) wide at the leather seats, compared to 91cm for the Cessna.
Inside the cabin, the Eaglet has dual control sticks, curved to allow you to swing your legs under when entering the cockpit.
Designed for the US market, the Eaglet has several relatively minor, but important, features that distinguish it from its predecessor, the Echo.
Changes include greater visibility looking out under the wings, circuit-breakers instead of fuses in the electrical system, toe brakes instead of a hand brake and a split master switch with battery and/or generator selections.
N115TE was equipped with an internal generator plus an optional externally driven auxiliary generator for the 12V power system.
Electric trim is available for the cable-driven stabilator and ailerons, butour aircraft included only constant-rate elevator trim, activated by switches built into the top of the control stick.
Like the C152, the Eaglet has disc brakes and nosewheel steering with toe brakes, pluselectrically driven slotted flaps.
In the engine compartment, which is fully accessible with a split-top cowling that lifts on both sides, the pre-flight includes checking the liquid coolant fluid level as well as the oil level for the Rotax engine.
A single strainer ahead of the firewall on the left side is the sole fuel-sampling location, compared with two wing tank sumps and a gascolator strainer in the C152.
Fuel delivery is courtesy of gravity, although an electric fuel pump is included.
© John Croft
The glass cockpit has two Advanced Flight Systems AF-3400 EFIS displays and a Garmin 496
Once in the cockpit, the aircraft feels larger than it really is because of the one-piece wraparound windshield, but baggage space is tight.
Compared with the Cessna, which has a large open area behind the seats that can hold as much as 160lb, the Eaglet by contrast has a compact vertical volume behind the seats that can carry a maximum of 73kg, limited by space constraints to items such as flight bags.
Engine controls differ from the C152 in several ways - there are two slaved throttles, one in the centre of the console and one at top left, and the Rotax has a choke control for starting, but no mixture control.
Traditional instrumentation with the glass cockpit version of the Eaglet is limited to the backup airspeed indicator and altimeter in the bottom left side of the panel.
Buyers can get the traditional "six-pack" instrumentation instead of the glass cockpit.
The glass cockpit has two Advanced Flight Systems AF-3400 electronic flight information system (EFIS) displays, left and right, and a Garmin 496 in the middle.
Adding to information from the Garmin navigation unit, the 6.5in (16.5cm) AFS displays are wired to show engine data.
For my increasingly poor vision (age-related), the EFIS displays were a bit too small, particularly when trying to see items such as the inclinometer ball at the top of the display.
Before engine start, the engine monitoring function of the EFIS must be booted up to be able to monitor oil pressure; this takes about a minute after the battery power is turned on. Other engine-related data shown on the EFIS includes oil temperature, voltage and current.
Once we turned the ignition key, the Rotax came to life with a short, sharp shake of the airframe as the propeller kicked in - a consequence of the gearing system.
The same jolting occurs when the engine is shut down via the ignition key and the prop stops with a jolt.
When at idle, the engine runs at 2,000rpm, about twice the speed that the Cessna idles.
During engine run-up before take-off, Russell advanced the throttle to 4,000rpm. Despite the high engine speed, noise in the cockpit was similar to, or perhaps quieter than, the C152 during its 1,700rpm run-up.
Take-off in the Eaglet is rapid, with noticeably more right rudder required to counteract the torque effect, compared with the Cessna. Rate of climb quickly establishes at greater than 700ft/min (3.56m/s) at 68kt best rate of climb speed - a peppier vertical ascent than a C152 with two on board.
At 2,000ft, Russell took the aircraft through a series of power-on and power-off stalls, all gentle and predictable.
In my experience, the Cessna is docile in power-off stalls, but tends to fall off rapidly on a wing during full-power stalls.
Handling for the Eaglet is solid and the aircraft is very stable, yet manoeuvrable in roll, pitch and yaw. Advancing the throttle to 5,200rpm - about 75% power - yields about 110kt airspeed and 19 litres/h fuel burn.
Landing at Bay Bridge with a 5kt right crosswind with full flaps was a non-issue given the intuitiveness of a control stick, but keeping the Eaglet within the upper bounds of the white arc (allowable airspeeds with flaps deployed) required strict attention to attitude and the airspeed displays.