Since Tom Peghiny and partner Spark Lamontagne first lightened the Flightstar and named one model the II SL (for “Sport Light”), they haven’t been able to sit still and simply admire their work. From our first pilot’s report on the SL 3 years ago,1 the two have tweaked and adjusted the model to find even better qualities.
A new front and aft fairing are part of the package, and the latter you might notice rather quickly. Virtually all the rest of the improvements are subtle things. In fact, that word is a hallmark of Flightstar innovation.
No surprise then that the company should adopt “New and Improved” as its new advertising headline to assure you know about the changes.
Better and Better
I’ve followed the Flightstar from its first flight, when it wasn’t even the Flightstar. This design – which once crossed the Atlantic – is from the inventive mind of Swiss national Hans Gygax, and became the rather gaudy 440ST. Soon afterward, Tom Peghiny was brought in by then-parent company Pioneer International Aircraft. Under his steady guidance, the 440ST lost its weird appendages and slowly but surely began an evolution to a far smoother ultralight.
That trend stumbled when Pioneer lost interest in ultralight manufacturing and sold the design rights to Argentine owners, Pampa’s Bull. The South American company renamed the model the AviaStar, and seemed determined to add every manner of accessory to the plane. Their certified-aircraft mentality paid more attention to convention than to lightness, and the plane gained pounds at a prodigious rate.
Once Peghiny acquired the name and design rights, he and partner Lamontagne began a long-running process to improve the plane by shedding the excess weight of the AviaStar. Though they began this back at the beginning of the ’90s, I get the impression they’ll never be done tweaking and refining.
Indeed, the 1999 Flightstar II SL is both a work in progress and a crowning achievement in simplification and lightening. It’s so good now I don’t see where more refinements can be hiding, yet I expect more because the two partners can’t kick the habit. (One reason Flightstar Sportplanes does flight training at their Ellington, Connecticut airport headquarters is to continually evaluate how students fly the II SL – and improve the ultralight trainer based on these observations, Peghiny notes.)
I’m not the only one who notices these steady refinements. Buyers are voting with their wallets, and the indication is the Flightstar has become one of the world’s top ultralights, with sales rising every year.
Basically, we can find four areas of significant change. I don’t say “obvious change” because they aren’t all easily seen. Let’s start with the front-end fairing.
Builders may note rather quickly that the fiberglass pod comes in three sections. Previous buyers often struggled to make the ‘glass nose and the airframe fit precisely, reports Peghiny. It had also been more difficult to package for shipment. Besides the aerodynamic benefits I noted, the assembly process is a big part of the improved front end.
Flightstar was pleased with their cooperative effort with ‘glass man Jiri Sychrovsky of Cured Composites.2 Since his business is nearby, Sychrovsky was able and willing to bring his new pod to Flightstar for fitting. Once confirming the right shape, he was able to take the parts back to his shop to assure attachment holes were well-placed.
In flight operations, I saw a clear difference in how the new design package allowed better landings. I’ve always felt good about Flightstar’s takeoff and landing characteristics, but I’ve also been frustrated in the effort to make consistently smooth “squeaker” landings. Something caused an abruptness at the critical moment, and I tended to plop the plane down on terra firma too firma.
Now that Peghiny has done his designer vision thing, I believe I can see a combination of subtle refining of the nose pod shape (rounder bottom side and smoother transition). And a shorter and tighter aft fairing (improving tail airflows) can enhance the pilot’s control over touchdown.
If it helps in a setting where I can easily observe changes (near the ground landing), I can only assume it is enhancing all of flight.
Yet, the smoother fiberglass and smaller aft fairing would also seem to reduce slip effectiveness. I have no way to compare old and new without flying them in close time proximity, but I feel that slips seemed unusually effective given the smaller vertical area to the new Flightstar fuselage.
Flightstar gave additional area to the ailerons (flaps can still be added as an option). They cut the ailerons’ inboard area, providing a gap between the main boom tube and the start of each aileron surface. We’ll come back to control, but it is likely the greater openness orchestrates with the changed fuselage shapes (fiberglass and fabric) to facilitate airflow to the tail.
The new aileron construction also includes parts you can’t see on a completed II SL. Inside the aileron, an extra compression rib has been added to eliminate the troublesome bowing of the flap tubing while sliding on the snug-fitting Dacron® polyester fiber skin. All the company’s customers will appreciate this, as well as the changes to the nose pod that reduce build time.
I doubt the new 503 Supercowl air scoop helps landings much, but it clearly is a design accomplishment of which the two partners are proud. A well-engineered approach to Rotax 503 engine cooling led to a fiberglass cowling that splits the air intake to each cylinder (a potentially big help to the shadowed aft jug) and provides an enlarged rear opening. Termed a “large exit ramp” by Flightstar, the shape aids cooling by controlling the flow across the engine’s cooling fins. The front side of the opening is aimed with equal care “directed into the prop pulse,” says Flightstar.
An interesting aspect of this is the dedication Flightstar shows to the Rotax 503 2-cycle engine. Since the two Flightstar partners also form the core of HPower Limited – the importer of the Japanese HKS 700E 4-stroke powerplant – you might think they wouldn’t want to push the 503. In fact, they are big advocates of this most popular of Rotax engines. It works remarkably well on the new Flightstar II SL (and replacing the fan cooling system with the free-air Supercowl cooling adds 2 horsepower). Their effort with the Supercowl proves they support the Austrian brand enthusiastically. The engine cowling is effective and attractive enough to attract other 503 designers to buy it from Flightstar.
Nose to Grindstone
Let’s get back to the front end of the new Flightstar. The fairing is the largest physically, but also the largest in new benefit terms.
You must look very carefully to see a chine or slight outward fold in the smooth skin of the nose pod. They appear on the upper half of the nose portion and arc gracefully from the pointy nose to the lower corners of the windscreen. They add rigidity, and may better direct airflow.
The underside of the new pod has a curvature that replaces the flat shape of the older nose pod. In addition, you can now put your full weight on the floor, for example, to aid entry.
Speaking of entry, the new pod has squared the entrance on each side. Experiencing the difference personally, I found no need to pull my leg back sharply to bring it inside the cabin, as I had in the older II SL. Even tall Phil Lockwood – whose company Leza-Lockwood produces the kits for the Flightstar – could enter more easily than before. A lip on what might be called a door sill permits you to put some weight on the fiberglass, further aiding entry.
At the point where the two forward support tubes disappear into the body, the fairing now has a smooth indentation which adds a rubber grommet to seal the opening.
Aft of these dimples, the pod flares upward, again adding rigidity and providing a flush platform to attach the base of the windscreen. With the pod flaring gently around the pilots and a compound curve to the top of the screen, it has enough rigidity that it need not be attached to side support tubes. In turn, this improves visibility a little more.
After edging upward to provide a base for the windscreen, the fiberglass drops down to provide the instrument panel. This was true in the older model, but now the base of the panel has been lifted to give you more room above your knees (which taller pilots will appreciate), without losing adequate space for all the gauges you could want.
As I looked through the first molded polycarbonate plastic screen, I felt it was rather cloudy. Peghiny agreed, but indicated this will improve dramatically as the new windscreen enters regular manufacture.
One change isn’t so much a design improvement as a functional one. In a Flightstar Airworthiness Directive, all models should be updated with the addition of a second push-pull linkage to the elevator, assuring operators of redundancy for this important control surface.
What’s Not New
Sometimes, no matter how restless a designer may be for change, it’s best to leave well enough alone. This simple message isn’t lost on Peghiny or Lamontagne.
The welded chromoly steel cage that sweeps around each occupant gives the Flightstar great strength. The new fiberglass accommodates this existing structure while preserving the crashworthiness of the design.
Flightstar naturally stays with their dynafocal engine mount that secures your choice of engine to the front of the 5-inch main boom tube.
The company also retains its unique version of the sling seat, which has a molded plastic seat pan sewn in to provide extra support. The result is a sling seat that can be used for hours without numbing your legs or rear end in the way some sling-style seats can.
Presewn Dacron sails (or slick optional X-Mylar® covering) and Dacron-covered control surfaces are retained, despite other manufacturer claims that dope and fabric coverings are more aerodynamic. While painted surfaces may have a longer life, many buyers forget how much weight will be added by painting. However, most will recognize that sewn coverings are far faster to install and don’t require covering or painting skills (or the cost of hiring someone else to paint). Since replacement sails can be swapped without undue hardship, you always have a way to refresh the surfaces of your Flightstar.
Flightstar uses hang glider manufacturer Wills Wing to fabricate their wing and tail designs in Dacron. Wills has been in business more than 26 years – predating all of ultralight aviation by several years – so the company is likely to be around in the future when you want a replacement surface. Since the builder of some 1,000 hang gliders a year has the latest in custom-designed Laser sail-cutting technology, the new sail should fit just like the old one.
Neither did the partners disturb the solid flight characteristics of the Flightstar. The plane has always appeared to me to offer quite responsive handling in a predictable package. This ultralight is not fast in any axis and may require a little rudder lead for the best roll coordination, but within reasonable bounds it does what you want it when you want it. In my opinion, this is what most pilots want and need.
Notwithstanding the prior statement, the new aileron package seemed to provide some enhancement to handling, thanks to enlarged area and better spanwise placement. Once again, it is difficult for me to evaluate how much better it may be without flying an example of each style in close time proximity (and I didn’t get this chance). What such changes illustrate is the evolutionary nature of Flightstar improvements.
By eliminating the flaps as standard equipment, Flightstar reduces weight, cost and complexity in a design that does not truly need the approach path control. Ailerons now run most of the span but leave a gap in the center of the ultralight. Besides aiding airflow to the tail, the gap also reduces control pressures even though total aileron surface area has increased.
The new nose pod is indeed fresh. It’s hard not to gush about the improvement represented by the subtle alterations: improved landing control, easier entry and exit, more knee room, greater rigidity in the floor and a door sill that can accept some weight, easier assembly and shipping, better windscreen mount base, and sharper looks – as seen by the dimpled opening for the forward mount tubes and the chine shapes. It’s easy to get excited about this collection of “free” benefits in the nose fairing alone.
Nonetheless, I found wind got to my outside arm and shoulder quite a bit, perhaps too much so for cold climate flying (easily fixed by adding the new “Sport Cabin”). The ultralight I flew had the first example of the new molded windscreen. Designer Peghiny expects to add an outward bent lip to the sides of the windscreen to lessen this effect. Here’s more evolutionary development but a simple sort that will add windscreen rigidity and decrease cabin airflow. Were it not for molding the windscreen, such customizations would be difficult to do, at least in a manner that maintains Flightstar’s refined appearance.
Incidentally, while flying dual, we used Lynx headsets which worked well and have no box between them; all components are built into the helmets. This proved to reduce cockpit wire clutter and made operation simpler. Numerous American ultralight companies can sell you the Lynx brand from England.3
For many years, I’ve been a fan of the Flightstar design. In its founding days (the early ’80s, when Pioneer International owned the design), I was even associated with its marketing launch. I remain good friends with today’s owners, and these associations naturally contribute to my positive feelings about the ultralight.
Yet throughout my experience with the aircraft, its 2-seat variations have always frustrated my landing performance. Like all pilots, I prefer to make “squeaker” landings where aircraft meets earth so gently that, as one old-timer put it, “You only know you landed because you hear the sing of the wheel bearings turning.” That’s a smooth touchdown, and I hadn’t done many on earlier 2-seat Flightstars.
Through the changes described in this pilot’s report (new pod, new aft fairing, aileron “gap” and continued light weight), I’m delighted to report I had all good landings. One hundred percent were very good, and most met the squeaker ideal.
I sense the sum of the design changes gives the tail greater power in low-speed high-angle-of-attack flight modes like imminent touchdown.
Despite having even less fuselage area than previous models, the new Flightstar II SL slipped surprisingly well. Although it ran somewhat shy of rudder deflection to get deep slip angles, the technique allowed good approach path control.
Flightstar’s good combination of control speed and power with predictability makes crosswind operations reasonable in moderate conditions.
Slipping is a required skill as the new model floats along very efficiently in landing, as predicted by Spark Lamontagne. Landing brings you close enough to the passing terrain to get a better feel for performance measures like glide angle that are hard to discern at altitude. In yet another quantification of the value of the new improvements to Flightstar, it was easy to see the increased glide. Better energy retention (shown by the flatter glide) is partly responsible for the improved touchdown qualities.
Although it is difficult to quantify how this efficiency helps at altitude, it logically is part of the reason why Flightstar can sustain altitude at 4,800 rpm with the Rotax 503 engine. At such a setting, fuel consumption drops, noise and vibration lessen, and you get a very satisfying 60-mph cruise speed.
Added tail efficiency makes the already benign stall characteristics even more uneventful. Flightstar has had a good stability profile in all flight regimes since it came on the market. Any changes to its qualities should be small, and they are. But enhanced airflow over the tail in slow speed – as seen in the landing touchdown phase – helps the pilot recover from stalls. Fortunately, you’ll have to work at getting in trouble.
With its engine mounted above aircraft CG, it will produce a level attitude when full power is added from cruise trim. However, I never found it to produce any significant pitch-down. Contrarily, decreasing power lowers the nose, as you’d expect.
Disturbing the stick after establishing trim cruise gave positive results as the Flightstar returns to level with minimal oscillations.
Flightstar has always provided a shoulder belt pilot restraint system, and the company is a successful advocate of ballistic emergency parachutes, using them on their airshow display models faithfully. “Ninety percent of all customers buy a parachute,” indicates Peghiny. Someone in my position of hopping into new ultralights regularly can deeply appreciate such attention to safety.
The question is II SL or II SC, but in truth, you don’t need to decide. Flightstar has long provided a basic, although elegant, ultralight to which you can add accessories easily. The most significant example of this in the “New and Improved” Flightstar is the II SC option. The fuselage enclosure snaps and zips on with a minimum of fuss, says the factory.
SC stands for sport cabin, and represents a niche filler between the more open Flightstar II SL and the fully fiberglass-enclosed Flightstar II. The latter will push you toward the microlight category and dilute the effort of weight reduction that Peghiny and Lamontagne have worked so hard to perfect. But for some, the “full dress” version of the Flightstar makes for a perfect little aircraft.
Regardless of which of the 2-seaters you may like best, you can add a hefty list of optional extras that will do three things at once: lighten your wallet, add aircraft weight, and delight those who like features and knobs to twiddle. Light weight advocates like me prefer to keep weight down and performance and handling optimized. Other pilots like goodies. You only need decide which you are, and Flightstar can likely answer your desires.
A big choice surrounds the powerplant. Flightstar promotes the Rotax 503 engine (generating 52 horsepower with their Supercowl free-air cooling system) and the 60-hp HKS 700E 4-stroke engine, but they also sell and service the 65-hp Rotax 582. Their selection offers a wide range of choice for buyers.
One thing is sure. Whatever model you choose will offer all the refinements Peghiny and Lamontagne can conceive. But the two aren’t likely to stop tweaking. That’s great, especially since they make all refinements retrofittable as company policy. The result? Your Flightstar II SL, II SC, or II will always be “New and Improved,” just like the ad says.
1See “Pilot’s Report: High Flying Flightstar II SL,” May ’96 Ultralight Flying! magazine
2See “Industry Watch: Glass Gear,” June ’99 Ultralight Flying! magazine
3See “Industry Watch: New Lynx Avionics Headsets,” March ’99 Ultralight Flying! magazine
|Seating||2-seat, side by side|
|Empty weight||365 pounds|
|Gross weight||950 pounds|
|Wing area||157 square feet|
|Wing loading||6.1 pounds/sq ft|
|Height||7 feet 10 inches|
|Fuel Capacity||10 gallons|
|Build time||90-150 hours|
|Standard engine||Rotax 503 dual carb|
|Power||52 hp at 6,500 rpm|
|Power loading||18.3 pounds/hp|
|Cruise speed||65 mph|
|Never exceed speed||96 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||700 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||200 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||300 feet|
|Standard Features||Full dual controls with dual left-hand throttles, folding wings, steerable nosewheel, fiberglass nose pod, 3-point shoulder harness pilot restraints, streamlined struts, dynafocal engine mount, Rotax B gearbox, engine cooling air scoop, 2-blade wood prop, rotationally molded fuel tank with sump and drain.|
|Options||HKS 700E 4-stroke engine, Rotax 582 2-cycle engine, Rotax C or E gearbox, electric start, flaps, in-flight adjustable elevator trim, nondifferential main wheel drum brakes with center-pull brake lever, 4-point shoulder harness pilot restraints, ballistic emergency parachute, instruments (ASI, altimeter, EGT, CHT, tach, hourmeter), 3-blade composite prop, cabin enclosure, rear enclosure, floats, Mylar® no-paint covering.|
|Construction||6061-T6 aluminum tubing, welded 4130 chromoly steel cage and landing gear, fiberglass pod, presewn Dacron® sailcloth covering.|
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – Based on a popular and successful design, company has added new improvements that genuinely improve the breed. Two-seater operates very well on the 52-hp Rotax 503 dual carb, a simple well-regarded engine choice; available with larger 65-hp Rotax 582 2-cycle engine or the 60-hp HKS 700E 4-stroke. Standard folding wing. Engine cooling cowling looks good and is reported to work effectively. New pod makes for easier shipping and assembly.
Cons – Flightstars sit rather low to the ground and have a tractor engine; one or both may turn off some buyers. Given the many improvements over the years, it’s increasingly hard to find fault with the Flightstar II SL’s overall design.
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 – With lots of weight to spare (at 365 pounds empty), the Flightstar II SL can add optional systems and still meet the weight limit for ultralight trainers. New instrument panel is large enough to allow gauges and radios. Comes standard with desirable features like full dual controls and folding wings. Center-pull (brake handle) brakes are very effective. Effective in-flight trim (an option).
Cons – Adding lots of systems – even the company’s enclosed cabin (II SC “Sport Cabin”) version – will add weight to a design that has been carefully lightened over the years. Making brakes differential would require customized hardware. To further simplify and lighten, flaps are an option. Test ultralight had pull starting from outside only.
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – New front-end fairing aids entry to cabin for those with long legs or less flexibility. More knee room thanks to raised lower edge of panel. New windscreen material is tinted. One of the most comfortable yet simple seat arrangements in the industry (a plastic seat pan in a padded sling-style seat). Side-by-side seating is preferred by most flight instructors. New cabin allows some pressure on floor when entering.
Cons – Low posture of ultralight means some older pilots may have extra difficulty entering and exiting. Windscreen on test ultralight (first public example) was not crystal clear. Ground clearance is greater on many other ultralights. Full enclosure is available, but consists of snap-on zippered doors and “roof” that some buyers may not like. No cargo area.
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – Precise easily-handled nosewheel steering. Welded chromoly steel main gear is very stout, yet bumps are smoothed by bungee suspension system. Effective drum brake system activated by center handle offering great leverage. Aircraft sits on its tri-gear (i.e., doesn’t tilt to the tail like some tri-gear ultralights). Low ground posture makes II SL very stable.
Cons – No differential braking to aid ground maneuvering. Upward visibility somewhat restricted while, for example, checking pretakeoff traffic.
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – One complaint I had about earlier II SL has been cured: touchdown now is smoother and less abrupt (reshaped nose fairing is partly responsible, as is reshaped aft fairing). The first Flightstar II SL improved landings from older (and heavier) AviaStar, and this version finishes the job. Superb visibility on landing approach. Good crosswind capability.
Cons – Longer takeoff/landing than some very slow-flying ultralights. More efficient aerodynamics causes longer ground effect float, for which the pilot must be ready (this is a good thing, but one that demands better approaches).
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – Roll rates and pressures improved over older II SL by shortening aileron span while increasing area slightly. Overall control in Flightstars may be about ideal for most buyers: not too fast, but predictable response. Good crosswind controls. Precision turns to headings comparable to any certified aircraft. Elevator linkages now have dual push-pull system adding assurance.
Cons – Leading with rudders helps coordination (making it a little different than certified aircraft). Despite earlier efforts, rudder throw is still a little short of optimal (noticed mainly on deep-angle slip attempts).
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – Standard engine now boosted to 52-hp Rotax 503 dual carb, adding 6 horsepower (compared to 503 single carb). Climb enhanced (though not quantified in this evaluation). Flightstar retains the ability to fly fast or slow with equal ease over a broad range. Able to fly with very low engine rpm setting, which indicates good aerodynamic efficiency; was always a strong point of the design, now further improved by front and aft cabin fairings.
Cons – High-speed cruise has never been a Flightstar quality (though new fairings may have bumped the figures a couple mph). No other negatives.
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – Stalls are very mild and can occur down to the very low 30s. Virtually no tendency to tighten up in steep turns or accelerated stalls. Large-diameter chromoly cage is very stout in the event of mishaps. Three-point harness system is standard (4-point optional). Flightstar has worked closely with BRS on airframe positioning of emergency parachutes.
Cons – Full-power stalls cause the nose to wander and have no defined stall break. No other negatives.
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – With kits manufactured for the last 5 years by Leza-Lockwood, Flightstar HQ can concentrate on customer service, research and development, and flight training; company well-regarded in these activities. Well-tested and documented design has an excellent safety record, with more than 800 Flightstars flying worldwide. New pod allows easier assembly by owner, is more rigid, and requires no painting (unless you insist on adding weight). Upgrade options include an enclosed cabin and many accessories.
Cons – With kits manufactured for the last 5 years by Leza-Lockwood, Flightstar HQ can concentrate on customer service, research and development, and flight training; company well-regarded in these activities. Well-tested and documented design has an excellent safety record, with more than 800 Flightstars flying worldwide. New pod allows easier assembly by owner, is more rigid, and requires no painting (unless you insist on adding weight). Upgrade options include an enclosed cabin and many accessories.