[UPDATE spring 2014] — The Aerolite 103 is now manufacturered in Deland, Florida by U-Fly-It, the contact info for which is located at the end of this article. In addition, a new company is representing the product in Europe under the name Vierwerk. The design appears to be enjoying great interest and support at this time.
[UPDATE summer 2011] — Aero-Works, the company referred to in this article written in 1997, left the business several years ago. During its absence a different producer, Wings of Freedom, offered their Phoenix-103, a derivation of the Aero-Lite 103 but with numerous small changes.
This article refers to the aircraft built by AeroWorks and will not be identical to the Aero-Lite 103. The companies are different and Terry Raber has no association with Wings of Freedom.
Now, in the summer of 2011, I am happy to report the original designer is again the producer of the Aerolite 103, and it retains an excellent price, less than $15,000. For more recent info on the company, see my post. Contact info at the end of this article refers to the 2011 ownership though text in the article, which remains unchanged, may refer to other organizations.
Did you ever notice that when you think you know all the answers, someone tries to change the questions? And sometimes when you wonder if there’s any hope for success, out of the blue comes the solution? Both these seemingly unrelated questions join together when you see the Aero-Lite 103. Here’s how:
Manufacturers in the ultralight industry believe they know what pilots want – or what they will buy, anyway. A 2-seater is usually part of the answer. But, in fact, many industry watchers are wrong.
While many observers make the statement, “Ninety percent of ultralights are 2-seaters,” statistics tell another story. Nearly 40% of ultralight and microlight aircraft sold in the U.S. are single-seaters, according to Ultralight Flying! magazine’s surveys of manufacturers. Despite the polling results, however, those experts have a point. Two-seaters do represent the majority of ultralights and microlights sold.
Yet, just when you think 2-seaters are going to take over the whole market, along comes a new trend. Maybe it was FAA’s lack of action on Part 103 changes, or maybe manufacturers simply decided to take on the challenge of staying within 103’s tight weight, speed and fuel quantity restrictions. Whatever the correct answer, it doesn’t change the fact of a growing population of Part 103 ultralights.
Terry Raber’s Aero-Lite 103 is one of these, and a fine bird it is.
Part 103 Comes on Strong
The last couple years have been interesting for Part 103 ultralight development. In something of a watershed event, Kolb introduced their purpose-designed Part 103-defined FireFly to a warm reception in ’95. Since then, quite a few more offerings have flown onto the scene. Of course, quite a number of Part 103 ultralights wereavailable before the FireFly, but since the Kolb entry, those introductions are more focused at wringing the very most out of an ultralight meeting “the ultralight rule.”
Besides the FireFly, I can count other recent Part 103 ultralights such as the Sky Raider, Air-Bike, Aventura, 1/2 Tun, Flitplane, Hurricane Ultra 103, Javelin and Tornado 103. Not all of these rely on the 26-hp Rotax 277 to keep the overall weight down, instead offering more substantial engines. Certainly this move was part of the reason why the market embraced Kolb’s FireFly, which uses a 40-hp Rotax 447 engine.
These newer Part 103 ultralights join established models such as the Hawks, MX Sprint and Sport, miniMAXes, Thunder Gull J, FP-202 Koala, T-Bird I, Challenger U/L and others, including some of the trikes and powered parachute models, and more. (Sorry, I can’t list every Part 103 ultralight within this article – see Ultralight Flying! magazine’s “Ultralight and Microlight Buyer’s Guide” in each January issue.)
So? Do you genuinely feel you have limited choices for Part 103 ultralights? Hardly! You have many, nice choices.
Fortunately that menu of choices recently got even more delicious with the introduction of the Aero-Lite 103. Terry Raber of Aero-Works believes that even though these many choices exist, they don’t all satisfy as they could. He set about making an ultralight with a better combination of features, performance, handling, looks and price. He succeeded handsomely, I think, and judging by reactions I’ve heard, I’m not alone in my conviction.
Mixture of Other Successes
One thing I’ve heard frequently is that Aero-Works’ new ultralight looks like a mixture of other popular ultralights. Many folks say it has, “|the nose of a RANS,” “the wings of a Hawk,” “the tail of a T-Bird,” “the yoke of a GT 400,” etc., and an airframe that is somewhat reminiscent of the Quicksilver line. Not everyone sees the same attributes when they look at the Aero-Lite 103, but just about everybody seems to like what they see.
Raber is quick to acknowledge he borrowed from others who preceded him.
“We took | ideas from everybody and mixed it all together,” he explains. The Aero-Lite 103has got a little bit of T-Bird in it because the T-Bird has a real strong tail.” He blends this with “|a large tail surface like a Hawk because Hawks fly great with big tails.” (He’s not the only one who believes this, by a long shot.) Raber states, “I used the same airfoil as the Hawk,” adding that he’s owned and flown Hawks for years and just loves the way they fly. Borrowing from prior successes is a way of life in aviation, but Raber seems to have found a combination that buyers should like.
A substantial part of this popularity has to do with price and the list of what comes standard with the ultralight. The other part has to do with the presentation Raber makes; when introduced this past summer, his ultralight was beautifully finished and simply looked desirable.
As enthusiasts know, some ultralights aren’t so cheap anymore. While ultralights in general remain among aviation’s lowest-cost machines for new aircraft, the truth is, prices have risen steadily. When buyers continually ask for more features, larger engines, extra seats and so forth, manufacturers have no choice but to charge more.
In fact, some say you can buy a good used general aviation aircraft for about the same money as a new ultralight. This isn’t exactly a fair comparison, because the typical 25-year-old Cessna or Piper might cost the same in purchase price, yet the ultralight carries far lower costs of operation, maintenance, licensing and insurance. And this certainly doesn’t take into account the sheer fun factor that suggests you’ll have a better time flying an ultralight versus driving around in some increasingly ancient general aviation airplane.
However, it simply isn’t accurate that all new ultralights have gotten spendy. While some of the more deluxe and capable ultralights (or microlight aircraft) can run past $20,000, some companies have better deals available. Aero-Works is one of them.
In offering the Aero-Lite 103, the company heard the wish list many buyers have and worked diligently to offer those things at what I consider a very reasonable price.
Bargain Basement Flyer?
The Aero-Lite 103 is offered for $10,500 ready to fly. No kits will be available. The bird comes complete with a 35-hp, twin-cylinder 460F-35 2-stroke engine from 2 Stroke International in Beaufort, South Carolina (an updated engine once widely known as the Cuyuna).
Like Kolb Aircraft with their FireFly, Aero-Works is smart to use a higher-horsepower powerplant with twin-cylinder smoothness. Overwhelmingly, buyers have voted with their pocketbooks and insisted on larger engines. Through careful engineering, these two companies and others have made their Part 103 ultralights stay on the FAR-imposed weight diet and still be able to provide powerful engines.
Yes, that’s right! Only 10,500 bucks for a complete ready-to-fly ultralight you’ll be proud to fly with your buddies.
Am I being too kind to Raber and his Aero-Works operation? The answer is: I don’t think so. Plain and simple, Raber has made the Aero-Lite 103 an excellent value. Whether it’s the ultralight for you gets into other areas than price and feature list.
So, How’s She Fly?
I willingly hopped in, when offered, and took the ultralight for a spin. Well, hopped in is a bit of an exaggeration, I guess. While entry is probably better than average, you still must work your way around the struts and a wraparound tube that strengthens the cockpit. I was also careful to sit down easily, as the Aero-Lite 103 rests on her tail, meaning you can slap down on the nose gear if you’re clumsy or inattentive.
On a hour-long flight, the Aero-Lite 103 proved to be a worthy member of the ultralight fleet. The good-looking little bird has a superb roll rate that responds well to your control yoke input. Pitch is also responsive, but not so fast that you need to pay close attention at all times. And overall, controls coordinate well between roll and yaw, making the Aero-Lite 103 a pleasure to steer around the sky.
Now, personally, I’m not a yoke enthusiast. I’d much rather have a joystick, as I find them more intuitive – just point the stick where you want to go – and more comfortable. You can lay one arm on your leg and handle a joystick, where one tends to hold the yoke with both hands, and in any event, you have no arm support while doing so.
Nonetheless, general aviation has made the yoke a standard feature on airplanes and some buyers will see Aero-Works’ use of a yoke in a good light – it looks “proper” and “conventional.” In addition, I’ve heard some buyers say they liked yokes better. So be it. I’ve long said airplane buying is a highly personal event.
Takeoffs are quick and landings are short in the Aero-Lite 103. Some of the ultralight’s takeoff and landing performance is thanks to an overhead hand-cranked flap system (also a standard feature, by the way). The flaps can be set at any angle up to about 40° and this can help quicken takeoffs and shorten landing approaches.
You climb out at 40 mph and approach at 40 to 50 mph, depending on conditions. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that those 35 horses are pushing you authoritatively into the sky.
The Aero-Lite 103 can easily be handled in crosswinds of reasonable wind velocity because roll rate and authority are good and control harmony is excellent. Terry Raber says he used his experience from flying many other designs to create his Aero-Lite 103, and from my experience in flight, I’d say he met his objective quite well.
Controls also operate very smoothly, thanks to the use of some interesting push-pull cables. Raber indicated these are exceptionally flexible control links, which addresses one concern of push-pull (Teleflex-type) systems. In fact, Terry says, “You can tie them in a knot and they’ll still operate fine.” I didn’t try this (and kids, don’t do this at home), but certainly, I had no complaint about the way they operated in flight. In addition, these are redundantly connected, so should one hang up, you still have the other. This should help you get down safely where you can find out what happened.
Ground handling during taxi operations as well as takeoff and landing phases is excellent, thanks to a closely coupled nosewheel and main gear brake system. The brake lever itself is unique. With your left hand, you operate the throttle, mounted on a lever by your left thigh. Actually, the lever operates the brakes, which you pull up to activate. Given that Raber cleverly designed adjustability into the lever’s operation, you can place the off position where it makes a comfortable reach for your arm length.
However, I’ll gripe a bit about the throttle on that lever. While it’s neatly combined with the brake lever – a feature I rather like – it is a twist grip that I don’t like.
The last ultralight I flew with such a throttle arrangement was the Javelin (see “Pilot’s Report – Catching the Javelin,” June ’96 UF!). On that ultralight, the twist grip had to be physically held at the power setting you desired. Capella was to upgrade that to a friction-lock system and they needed to do so. Aero-Works already included such a feature, so you could position the throttle where you wanted it and then let go comfortably.
I have no complaint with the hardware or execution; I simply don’t like twist grips on ultralight throttles. Here’s why: Quick! You need to go around because some idiot pulled on the runway while you were on short final. Which way do you twist? Outward? Inward? You see? It isn’t intuitive. Throttle levers generally are pushed forward for faster (more power) or backward for slower (less power). That makes sense, quickly, in tense situations.
A twist grip control must be learned, and that learning probably won’t translate to
another plane. Standard control methods have value, at least for people like me who fly different ultralights all the time. Twist grip throttles aren’t the standard.
Speeds on the Aero-Lite 103 run about 50 mph in level cruise, but this Part 103 ultralight can only run 63 mph in max level flight – and it does comply, in my experience.
Since it isn’t allowed to be a speed demon, the Aero-Lite 103 uses its power for other useful purposes. With its 35 horses pushing you aloft, you can see between 800 and 1,000 feet per minute climb rate. You can keep this up about as long as you like because engine cooling is excellent, thanks both to the fan-cooling system and the good engine location above the wing. A Part 103 ultralight with loads of power is a delight to fly.
Vne (velocity, never exceed) is 75 mph, generously above the 63-mph, full-power-in-level-flight restriction of FAR Part 103.
Stalls are very mild affairs, with the break coming at around 25 mph, perhaps a shade lower when you extend the large flaps to their maximum 40° angle.
Like the throttle, the flap control is also a bit nonintuitive. Like Piper aircraft, the Aero-Lite 103 uses an overhead crank control. It’s easy to use, hasn’t much resistance, and sets to an infinite number of positions – all good attributes. Yet, which way do you go to lower? Which way to raise? It’s something you’ll simply have to learn with experience. You must also look to see how far you moved them, whereas a lever system generally can be operated without looking at the surfaces. In time, these uncertainties will disappear, though, and you’ll not have any complaint about the efficiency of the flaps.
The Aero-Lite 103 has its share of adverse yaw, but that was expected in an ultralight which exhibited such fine control authority and quick response rates.
Use of a 3-blade prop, when added to twin-cylinder detonation, aids the sensation of smoothness in low-power situations. It should make the Aero-Lite 103 a bit quieter, and some observers presume a plane is better equipped with three composite blades versus an “old-fashioned” 2-blade wood prop.
Gee, a swell flying, good performing, definition-meeting ultralight you can buy ready-to-fly for $10,500. Is this too good to be true? You might believe FAA won’t allow someone to fully build your airplane for you, but if you do, you’re wrong.
In fact, it is perfectly legal for the manufacturer (or anyone else for that matter) to completely finish your ultralight if it qualifies under Part 103. Naturally, this is precisely one of the reasons why some pilots are attracted to ultralights – they don’t have to build it.
Indeed, FAA does not extend such latitude to kit-built aircraft constructed under the 51% amateur-built rule, nor does this leniency apply to ultralightlike airplanes – those models which operate like an ultralight but which don’t fit the definition in Part 103 (or in the exemption for 2-place ultralight trainers). Such news may be a bit too good to be true because the supply of factory-built ultralights for a bargain price is not infinite.
Aero-Works can build two ultralights a month, they say, and their order book already has several units that buyers snatched up when it was introduced last summer. Given a good debut and favorable media attention, Aero-Works enjoyed an excellent start in their enterprise.
“We would like to keep the business a small Mom and Pop organization,” Raber says. “We want to know our customers personally, and we want to keep them happy. When a customer calls for a part or with a question, they’ll get what they need,” he predicts.
Who doesn’t want to hear such a philosophy of business? It’s great to be well-treated by your ultralight supplier. However, while such a customer-oriented attitude should keep the order book full, it nonetheless means you may have to patiently wait your turn to get one of these attractive ultralights.
Long wait or not, you simply cannot afford to ignore this delightful flying machine as you examine the universe of ultralights available. Assuming the price doesn’t rocket skyward due to strong demand, the Aero-Lite 103 is one of the good finds in the marketplace. I suggest you give Terry and his Aero-Works staff a call and discuss your interest. But don’t be surprised if the line is busy.
As Ultralight Flying! went to press, Aero-Works indicated they were switching to a 40-hp Rotax 447 engine as the standard engine on the Aero-Lite 103. The resulting increased weight using the 447 will necessitate a change in standard features offered (in order to keep the overall weight less than 254 pounds). Production will be delayed until the Aero-Lite 103 can be flight-tested with the 447. Check with the manufacturer for further details. -Editor
|Empty weight||250 pounds|
|Gross weight||520 pounds|
|Wingspan||26 feet 10 inches|
|Wing area||124 square feet|
|Load Limit||+4 Gs, -2.8 Gs|
|Fuel Capacity||5 gallons|
|Standard engine||2si 460F-35|
|Power||35 hp at 6,000 rpm|
|Power loading||14.9 lbs/horsepower|
|Max Speed||63 mph|
|Cruise speed||55 mph|
|Stall Speed (Flaps)||28 mph|
|Stall Speed||30 mph|
|Never exceed speed||75 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||500 feet/minute|
|Takeoff distance at gross||100-200 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||100-200 feet|
|Standard Features||Tricycle gear, 2si 460F-35 engine with belt reduction drive, yoke and rudder pedals 3-axis control, steerable nosewheel, twist grip throttle, nondifferential mechanical drum brakes, flaps, removable strut-braced wings, pilot fairing and windshield, instruments (altimeter, airspeed, tach, EGT, CHT, slip/skid indicator), 3-blade nylon prop, 4-point pilot restraint, 6-inch aluminum wheels, landing gear leg flex suspension, all covering materials (including paint) included.|
|Options||Ballistic parachute, factory-assembled option.|
|Construction||Aluminum tubing airframe, 4130 chromoly steel, dope and fabric covering.|
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – Refreshing new strutted design, incorporating the best of several popular ultralights. Meets Part 103 weight (less than 254 pounds empty weight) even with a marvelous load of standard equipment. Conventional tri-gear configuration is preferred by most pilots. Debut model was one of the best first efforts I’ve seen, especially for a new company.
Cons – Company is too new at manufacturing to judge on some matters (though proprietor Terry Raber has been in the ultralight industry for quite a while). Sixty percent of the market buys 2-seaters, and no 2-seat Aero-Lite offered yet.
Subsystems available to pilot such as: Flaps; Fuel sources; Electric start; In-air restart; Brakes; Engine controls; Navigations; Radio; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Surprising number of standard systems for a Part 103 ultralight: flaps, brakes, 3-blade nylon prop, 4-point pilot restraint harness, etc. Flaps are infinitely adjustable through a hand crank; available to 40° down. Fuel quantity indicator aft of the seat can be seen with a twist in the seat (tube down side of tank). Fueling should be spill-free inside. Pull starter reasonably accessible from seat.
Cons – Hand-cranked flaps don’t deploy or retract as quickly as lever-controlled surfaces. Though an engine isn’t a “system,” some will criticize aspects of it: for example, the belt drive system from 2si. Brakes are nondifferential.
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Not only is the seat comfortable, the surroundings are big enough for large pilots (up to about 235 pounds, which covers the vast majority). A 4-point pilot restraint system is appreciated. Open cabin gives ultralight feeling, yet the pilot is protected from windblast.
Cons – Too “airy” for cold climates, but Raber promises a full enclosure next year (though this may not be available under Part 103 weight). Entry around a few tubes may be a bit challenging for disadvantaged pilots. Reach to panel is beyond most pilots’ arms. Space for radio is minimal.
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – Precise steering combined with brakes make for simple ground handling. Brakes were surprisingly effective. Turn diameter was quite good. Several inches of ground clearance will help on rougher fields. A small tailwheel keeps the rudder from scraping if you bounce back to the rear. Six-inch aluminum wheels give secure contact.
Cons – Upward visibility makes checking for traffic a little tougher. Sits on tail when not occupied (like many ultralights). No easy seat adjustment. Shock absorption is limited to landing gear leg flex and air in the tires.
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – Wonderful controls for crosswind conditions. Adequate power for energized takeoff rolls. Wide main gear stance sure to help in some situations. Typical takeoff is about 40 mph and approaches are 40-50, an adequately slow range for a Part 103 ultralight. Initial climbout is steep and fast. Short ground roll on both takeoff and landing.
Cons – Slips won’t be a useful landing feature due to the lack of side area (though the highly drooped flaps make up for this shortcoming). It’s an ultralight; dissipates energy quickly, so you’ll want to retain a little extra speed.
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – Yeah! Love the controls. So will you. Fast, light and predictable – Raber has done his design work well. Roll isn’t twitchy, yet offers about 2.5 seconds 45° to 45° bank (quite fast). Precision turns were easily done and very enjoyable. Harmony between controls assures you can do quality Dutch rolls quickly and to steeper angles.
Cons – About all I might complain about is the lack of slower flap response due to a crank input. Ran a little low on backstick range in steep turns (commonly cured with 100 extra rpm). I didn’t care for the twist grip of the throttle.
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – The Aero-Lite 103 does well on 35 horses from the 2si 460F-35 powerplant. Sink rate is low, benefiting from the ultralight’s light weight. With Vne at 75 mph, the Aero-Lite 103 will run only 63 mph in level flight, exactly as proscribed by Part 103. Cruise speeds were comfortable around 50 mph. Climb reached 1,000 fpm at times (averaging about 800 fpm). If low-over-the-fields is a performance measurement, the Aero-Lite 103 shines.
Cons – As a Part 103 ultralight, the Aero-Lite 103 can’t be a speed monster, and it isn’t (though, personally, I don’t consider this a negative). A later enclosed model might be faster, but probably won’t fit Part 103.
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – Stalls were mild no matter how I did them. Speeds dropped down to 25 mph according to the on-board Hall wind speed meter (usually an accurate device). Adverse yaw was surprisingly little considering the control authority present. Longitudinal stability checks were positive, recovering quickly enough. Adverse yaw is fairly mild for the size of control surfaces.
Cons – Stalls would break when aggravated. Took quite a lot of back pressure to hold steep turns. With engine up high, adding power pushes the nose down (opposite of “conventional,” though common on ultralights).
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – The value provided by the Aero-Lite 103 is so good it makes many other ultralights look expensive. Terry Raber also made his debut model look very good; the sail covering was superb (I’d sure let him build mine!). New manufacturer, but one with experience and delivery promise of two units per month sounds honest.
Cons – Yes, it’s only a single-seater; live with it. It’s hard to come up with overall negatives for this well-achieved machine.