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Tue, Oct 13, 2020

Power, Pulchritude and Performance: Flight Testing the Pipistrel Panthera-Part 2

By Jim Campbell, ANN CEO/Editor-in-Chief/Test Pilot (Arrogant, Over-Opinionated Know-It-All/Test Dummy)

Pipistrel Panthera Flight Test, Part 1

Pipistrel Panthera Flight Test, Part 2

Pipistrel Panthera Flight Test, Part 3

Pipistrel Panthera Flight Test, Part 4

Pipistrel Panthera Flight Test, Part 5

Pipistrel Panthera Flight Test, Final


ANN E-I-C Note: OK… sorry for the delay with Part Two, but it’s been a tough week at the Campbell Family Ranch (death in the family), while the workload at ANN has seen no diminishment, whatsoever… especially with BIG changes right around the corner… like, in a few days. Part Two gets into airplane descriptions and systems with a vengeance… with more to follow before we light the candle on this thing and launch into the stratosphere… which is kinda what a Panthera takeoff felt like.

On To The Report... Again; let me emphasize that the source of our positive impression of Right Rudder Aviation is the simple fact that the school is getting an awful lot of interest in their entry-level glider program, because they looked for a market and filled it. The students who have elected to start with their PPG often go on to bigger and better things. The day that we visited, we talked to a fellow who had just completed his PPG within the last few days, and already was working on his commercial glider rating. Once that’s complete, he plans to go straight through to the conventional private pilot rating. Right Rudder Aviation also has a number of other aircraft in their inventory, including a Piper tail dragger, and a Cessna Aerobat. They have a number of other aircraft coming in, including a more capable aerobatic trainer, and have big plans for the future. We have little doubt that those plans will be highly successful based on what we’ve seen to this point.

Okay… Onto the airplane. The folks at Pipistrel aircraft have an uncanny knack for designing intriguing airplanes. And while the Pipistrel Panthera took quite a few years to get to fruition, and is anything but completed as yet, the current crop of aircraft are being imported into the United States as amateur built – exhibition category aircraft and exhibit awfully good craftsmanship. While Amateur Built – Exhibition has its limitations, the first aircraft came through the FAA inspection process fairly unscathed with only a limitation on flight in class B airspace, which of course can be modified at a later date. Surprisingly; there was no limitation on a flight radius once the initial test period had been flown off.

The first look at a Pipistrel Panthera in the flesh makes a delightful impression. The aircraft is curvier than a Sports Illustrated supermodel and almost as alluring (Note to my friend Kim Alexis… this does not refer to you, of course… Grin). There are simply very few straight lines in this airplane. it’s almost all curves. One would think that Pipistrel’s design staff was not issued straight edge rulers at any time. Further; the fit and finish of the workmanship looks pretty good at first glance and the more we climbed on and through the airplane, the more that impression was enhanced.

It is a single-engine, complex aircraft, with the Lycoming IO-540 engine (I0-540V-V4A5) pulling 260 hp, and electrically actuated retractable landing gear of a tricycle configuration, with trailing link main gear. Pipistrel mounts what looks like a surprisingly small horizontal surface in a T–Tail configuration at the end of an aft fuselage that is significantly tapered toward the end. Pipistrel’s work with gliders is evident throughout this aircraft, and the next generation composite construction also benefits from the expertise that they have built in that skill set. Despite the very slender aft end of the fuselage, the use of carbon fiber, Kevlar, and affiliated composites results in a surprisingly rigid airframe, which was further revealed later on in the day during fairly aggressive short period Yaw and Pitch investigations.

The overall planform is sleek and somewhat reminiscent of the late Nick Jones’ White Lightning… with a somewhat sharp/bullet-shaped approach to the overall airframe which certainly minimizes flat-plate drag, in particular. It’s definitely one way to make sure that all that horsepower gets to do its job, but it does tend to minimize forward visibility due to the minimal slope of the nose, and the need to seat pilots fairly low, and well into the fuselage – and the Panthera would prove to be subject to some of that.  

There are literally four fairly generously sized doors to gain access to various parts of the aircraft, either for pilot and crew, aft passengers, or baggage. The pilot/crew doors are monster gullwing constructions that open from either side, while a single left side gullwing door provides access to the backseat for up to two passengers. A smaller hatch behind the two aft seats, accessible from outside the left side of the aircraft provides up to 110 pounds of baggage carrying capability.

Externally, the Panthera presents an altogether conventional control platform elevator/ailerons/rudder, although some of the dimensions are somewhat surprising. Looking over the top exterior of the tapered main wing, shows off a small but stylishly curved winglet, and a very surprising ratio between the size of the ailerons and the flaps. The ailerons take up but a small fraction of the trailing edge, while a good part of the aircraft is devoted to a very long span flap that is even longer than it looks. At the rear of the aircraft, the vertical stabilizer and rudder seems somewhat conventionally proportionate, while the horizontal surface seems smaller than might otherwise be required, with an independently small horizontal stabilizer with adjustable trim tabs. There is also a small trim tab on the rudder.

During a 10-minute walk around and preflight, I followed RRA Boss, Andy Chan, as he checked all the appropriate parts of the airframe prior to flight. Access to the engine compartment and oil level is made via a small hatch in the cowl, fuel drains are in the obligatory bottom side of the aircraft but none of them looked to be too obnoxious to get to, even for those of us with knees that have seen 63 years of very hard service. Access to the main wing fuel tanks is via a small fuel cap on each side using a conventional pry-lever and twist combination to pop the cap. Some versions of the Pipistrel Panthera are available with extended fuel systems, which would add an additional fuel tank to either side. The fully-equipped airplane uses four integral tanks located in the left and right wing. The main tanks are positioned in front of the wing spar, the auxiliary tanks are located aft of the wing spar. During fueling, Pipistrel HQ has a mandate that front tanks MUST be filled prior to adding fuel to the extended tanks. Fuel, reportedly, must be transferred in-flight by means of electric pumps, from the auxiliary tanks to the main tanks to be used. I’m not sure of the protocols that will be used for such transfers since this aircraft was not equipped with the extra tankage, but look forward to seeing it in action in a future airframe.

This aircraft was not so equipped, though Andy sure wishes it was. It’s pretty obvious that with barely 10 hours on the airframe (on the day that we flew) Andy was anxious to get this airplane out and about in the country and go travel extensively. He wants to go places... fast.  He has plans, in the immediate future, to take the airplane on a National tour and we have a feeling he’s going to have a ball, while enjoying fairly low transit times from location to location.

Entry and exit is about standard as far as most low-wing aircraft go… and for those of us with 63 year old knees, it will take a little practice to find the best methodology for getting in and out without a few grunts and groans. The step up to a small step below the wing and there on up to and past the trailing edge and on to the wing is not too difficult to manage—especially with the aft part of the open door frame in perfect position for quick grab to stabilize the process. A VERY handy hand-hold on the top of the panel a few inches forward makes the process of stabilizing one’s self much easier as you bring each leg over the side, but it’s a pretty big step down from there. The seats, even fully moved to the rear, require you to step a little forward as you swing your leg over the edge of the door frame and into the cabin. Since the seats were brand-new leather and looked it, I did not stand on them before settling in to the foot well forward of the seat, so that the subsequent maneuver required a bit of a twist as I lowered one foot all the way into the well while bringing the other in behind it. It was a bit clumsy, but can easily be mollified by bringing a small towel to lay across the seat so you can make a temporary stand there (and not scruff up the gorgeous leather seats)… or by not having 63 year old knees.

NEXT: Part Three… More on the cabin doors, cockpit, avionics, and the BPRS emergency airframe parachute system and its surprisingly generous operational limits.

FMI: www.pipistrel-usa.com, www.rightrudderaviation.com


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