[UPDATE — fall 2009: This article about the Kitfox Lite refers to a company now several years out of business. The new Kitfox producer sold the Kitfox Lite design to Kansas entrepreneur, James Wiebe. His company, Belite Aircraft, now produces the Belite Carbon 254 (and other variations) and has significantly changed structure with carbon fiber components to lighten the weight, assuring that it meets Part 103. For the latest info on their offerings, contact the company directly.
Information in this article, while similar to what Belite Aircraft produces today, will not be identical to the new model. –Dan]
While it may have been a long time coming, SkyStar Aircraft – the builder of the extremely popular Kitfox series – has done their Kitfox Lite version right. It was easily worth the wait.
While the Kitfox Lite and Avid Aircraft’s Champion were both flying regularly last summer, SkyStar elected not to have the plane flown for an Ultralight Flying! Pilot’s Report because it was still a prototype. The company’s president at the time, Ray Caldwell, said he preferred they work it out fully before letting me go aloft.
Contrarily, Avid jumped at the chance for some press. In my flight review,1 it became obvious the Champion wouldn’t easily qualify as a Part 103 ultralight. (For example, you had to fly with no engine cowling, among other efforts at weight reduction. Such requirements would not be popular with pilots, I concluded, so you had an aircraft which most buyers would have to N-number.)
Though it cost them months of wait for publicity, SkyStar’s professional efforts resulted in a Part 103 ultralight that meets all the definition – with cowling, folding wings, differential brakes and other features many buyers want.
Doing It Right
SkyStar passed the chance for a pilot’s report of their product, and this may have cost them a few early sales. Yet they refused to bow to market pressure, preferring instead to make the product fully ready. At the end of the day, I admire this attitude.
The brightly painted prototype first seen in the air wasn’t quite right, they said. They believed my pilot’s report would better serve Ultralight Flying! magazine readers if my impressions were given after flying an ultralight exactly like that which buyers would receive. Who can argue with this wisdom?
While I admit I was anxious to fly the Kitfox Lite – especially given SkyStar’s excellent reputation – I respected the decision to wait until the plane had fully proven itself to the factory experts. Like any customer, I don’t want to be the one who discovers problems with a new design, and all of us want to know what we’re buying when we plunk down our hard-earned cash.
If you become a Lite buyer, you can now proceed with far greater assurance of two important things: (1) the Kitfox Lite should perform as promoted, with solid flight characteristics; and (2) assuming you build and paint carefully, you’ll have an ultralight which qualifies under the Part 103 ultralight regulation.
SkyStar is understandably proud of their efforts. The Idaho manufacturer is one of the most successful builders of recreational aircraft in history, and they have a right to regard their ultralight entry as a fine example of fly-for-fun planes.
Entry into the world of ultralights gives SkyStar an opportunity that Denney Aerocraft (the original Kitfox manufacturer) never achieved. Some years ago when I visited Denney Aerocraft while Dan Denney still owned it, he expressed a desire to fully build the Kitfox, instead of offering it just as an owner-built kit. He found this endeavor tough – and abandoned the direction shortly after beginning.
You can’t fully build an aircraft licensed in the Experimental category for U.S. sales – it must be FAA-approved as a 51% owner-built aircraft from a kit. Fully factory-built aircraft (other than Part 103 ultralights) must be FAA Type-certificated, a very costly process of certifying the aircraft design. And then you have to certify your production process of building the aircraft, another very costly effort.
SkyStar won’t fully assemble the Kitfox Lite. To do so means a wholly different effort of manufacture than making kits (not that kit building is a simple task).
However, SkyStar can do some other interesting things under Part 103. The most significant is to fully build the wings and attach them to the fuselage. Building is a demanding and precise task. A prebuilt wing will hasten completion time and give far better assurance that the finished Kitfox Lite will fly straight and true.
The company uses the same spar as used on the Kitfox IV but without an insert at the strut junction (as used on the heavier Kitfox). This suggests that although SkyStar limits flight loads to +3.8 and -1.5 Gs, the ultralight should be more than strong enough for the demands of most buyers.
Straying From Traditions
SkyStar broke with their long tradition of using Rotax for their powerplant. To keep the weight down and still offer enough power to be interesting, the company elected to install a 2 Stroke International twin-cylinder fan-cooled 35-hp 460F-35 2-cycle engine in what is surely a big boost for the American-manufactured motor.
In my experience, the 2si has performed well on the Kitfox Lite and with Aero-Work’s Aero-Lite 103,2 which has apparently returned to using a 2si engine after a temporary shift to Rotax. Based on the older and once popular Cuyuna engine that was the standard of ultralights in the early days of ultralight flying, the 2si now has features many buyers prefer. Twin cylinders bring smoother operations than single bangers like the 26-hp Rotax 277. They also deliver more power (the 2si engine has 35 horses), and the 2si of today has dual ignition.
With SkyStar’s endorsement of the 2si engine, I’d say the days of Rotax 277s on new ultralights are gone forever. Of course, you can’t order the 277 new anymore, but some manufacturers still specify the 277 as the engine you must employ to stay within Part 103 weight definitions, and some manufacturers say they can still sell you a Rotax 277 engine.
Two ignition sources are routed to each cylinder on SkyStar’s 2si engine. According to new company president Ed Downs, this was invaluable once when the engine stuttered on the factory prototype. The 2si continued to run on one remaining cylinder. Ed explained it was a simple problem of one plug coming off (the engine is mounted upside-down). A tie wrap now secures the plug against any repeat of this problem. The flight remained uneventful for the factory pilot aboard.
As I flew the new Kitfox Lite, engine temperatures stayed approximately 300° on the cylinder head temperature (CHT), which is well below red line and below 1,000° on the exhaust gas temperature (EGT), also well within safety margins. Maximum rpm on the 2si is 6,900 rpm, and it registered a max of 6,200 rpm on my climbouts.
One negative worth noting here is the present situation requiring hand-propping the 2si to start it. The Kitfox Lite is so close to 254 pounds that they cannot afford the weight of even a pull (recoil) starter. However, the firewall has a hole where the starter rope will route into the cabin (once SkyStar trims a few pounds to add a recoil start system).
Downs struggled to get the 2si started for my flight in very hot conditions in Florida, but eventually the engine fired. Later, when I prop-started the engine so Ed could fly it, the engine jumped to life quite easily.
Ed Downs gave me arguably the finest preflight checkout I’ve ever received, including a full walkaround inspection. He is a very precise and knowledgeable leader who should do well for SkyStar, if my experiences with him now and several years ago are any indication.
The trim tab on the ultralight I flew will not be part of the standard kit thanks to greater adjustability on the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer (much like that used by Quicksilver on their GT series). Those builders who prefer to remain loyal to the Austrian Rotax engine line can elect to mount the 40-hp Rotax 447 or 50-hp Rotax 503 also thanks to the adjustment of the horizontal tail. But doing so will put the Lite above the Part 103 weight limit.
SkyStar’s Kitfox Lite, like many Part 103-capable ultralights, enjoys a fairly wide cockpit. The company says it measures 24 inches, but the figure isn’t as illuminating as sitting in the ultralight. Most buyers will find plenty of elbow room.
On the floor is a wood panel that gives you foot support and allows your heels to slide readily which makes the heel brakes easy enough to use. Otherwise, the cockpit is as simple as you’d expect in a Part 103 ultralight.
A center joystick fronts a well-padded seat cushion and a broad seatback emblazoned with the company’s famous Kitfox logo. I appreciated the use of a 4-point shoulder harness pilot restraint, although no parachute system was provided, as would always be my preference. SkyStar has worked with BRS and expects to offer an approved installation in the future.
For my rather short arms, the reach to the throttle was a little long in the Lite, at least when I had the throttle well-advanced. Also, no doubt to keep the cost down, the throttle was made of simple bent aluminum stock which had a bit of an edge to it. Of course, you can put a sheath over the handle end.
In-flight, the windscreen did a good job of keeping the wind off me, though my arms were buffeted a little. In Florida’s heat, it cooled me. In cool northern climates, a jacket will suffice, I’m sure.
I’ve spoken to many pilots who, lacking taildragger experience, voice concern over the potential for ground loops and the challenge of taxiing a taildragger. In contrast to the company’s Kitfox model – which sits up higher, has a steeper deck angle and weighs considerably more – I believe most ultralight enthusiasts won’t find the Kitfox Lite much of a problem.
The test ultralight used a tiny little tailwheel (a weight saver), which proved ineffective on Florida’s dry sandy soil. It was approximately like flying with a skid instead of a wheel, though this allowed for good directional control and some automatic braking on landing touchdown. Naturally, I had to accelerate enough to lift the tailwheel on takeoff, but this didn’t add appreciably to my takeoff roll, I found.
Despite the trademark Kitfox cowl bumps (to simulate a radial engine installation), I was able to see over the cowling. Taxiing was easy.
I was fascinated by an interesting noise progression that occurred right as the Kitfox Lite left the ground (while accelerating, of course). I perceived it as a Doppler effect. Though, of course, it has no turbocharger, it almost felt like one kicking in at precisely the right time.
While climb is stated at 750 feet per minute in company literature, I estimated it at closer to 400 to 500 fpm. Perhaps the culprit was Florida’s very hot weather? However, the lack of a sensitive altimeter made the climb rate harder to judge. (Though they may save a few dollars, I never understand why people buy these gauges. Getting an accurate number is much harder when the entire swing of the needle equates to 10,000 feet.)
Approaching to land, three notches of flap settings proved highly effective at pitching the aircraft nose down and increasing the descent angle. I had all good landings in the Lite, using all four positions including zero flaps. Ground roll is exceedingly short, only 50 or 60 feet, qualifying the new ultralight as well-equipped for short ultralight airpark operations.
I remember clearly my previous experience with the Kitfox IV, the Kitfox XL,3 and their Vixen model. All boasted extremely rapid roll rates, in the neighborhood of 1 to 1.5 seconds rolling 45° to 45°. This assures no problems whatsoever in maintaining control in crosswind conditions, but it may prove to be a little too rapid for some newer ultralight enthusiasts. For my money, I’d advise taking it easy at first, flying on days with mild weather and wind. After a short period of acclimatization, I believe you’ll come to love the fast response. It may even spoil you.
However, the Kitfox Lite was once even faster rolling. Since the prototype the company didn’t want used for a pilot’s report, SkyStar cut the span of the flaperons to about a foot less than the wing (per side). Before that change, they stuck out a bit beyond, and the roll rate must have been nothing short of exciting.
The Kitfox Lite remains very responsive even with the shorter flaperons. I believe I could have done Dutch rolls to 45° and possibly even 60°, a very steep angle for this exercise.
No Lite-Weight Performer
The 2si engine’s 35 horsepower guarantees lots of pep for the light Lite. Even in the heat and humidity of sunny Florida last April, the Kitfox Lite acted like it had a reserve of energy for me to enjoy.
Ed Downs recommended a climb speed of 45 mph. He also recommended a cruise of 53 to 55 mph. At 5,400 to 5,500 rpm, the 2si engine produced about 55 mph, and at this power setting, the Kitfox Lite purred along with a tolerable combination of noise and vibration.
According to product development manager Frank Miller, the Lite’s 2si engine burns about 2 gallons per hour. Given the Part 103 limitation of no more than 5 gallons of fuel onboard, this amounts to a solid 2 hours of flying with a 30-minute reserve. More than that and I’m generally looking for a rest room.
The Kitfox Lite was nearly able to hold altitude on 5,000 rpm, at which point it seemed to be at a deceptively low power setting. I can’t comment on the tachometer’s accuracy, but 5,000 rpm felt more like 4,000 on a Rotax 447. This is hardly a scientific comment, but regardless of the number, the Lite held altitude at a power setting that seemed unlikely to cause any pilot fatigue.
That said, the 2si engine showed considerable roughness in the area of 4,700 rpm. However, since this yielded slowly descending flight, this setting won’t often be used. Downs and Miller confirmed my impression but also agreed that you’ll either be at 5,000 or above while cruising or significantly below 4,000 if you wish to descend. All 2-strokes seem to have some place where they are less than smooth, and overall I had to admit I was pleased with the 2si’s smoothness and power.
The Kitfox Lite performed well through my usual regimen of stability exercises. Stalls were quite uneventful although, perhaps due to the short wingspan of 25 feet 3 inches and small wing area of only 88 square feet, the nose did break over on each stall except full-power stalls. Personally, I prefer stalls which break, as I believe such action clearly identifies the stall. Unlike heavier general aviation designs, a genuine ultralight won’t lose much altitude even in deeper stalls, so a stall break isn’t threatening.
When adding power, the Kitfox Lite properly raises its nose and on power reduction lowers it, as you’d expect.
I did note a longer time to return to level flight after stick deflection from trim (longitudinal stability evaluation) but without in-flight trim this may have been due to either my change in weight versus the usual pilot or the position of the fixed trim tab installed on the left elevator control. Regardless, you could adjust for your weight and see fast return to level as you may prefer. Either way, the light and authoritative pitch will leave you in full control at any time.
Since no emergency parachute was installed and since I did not find out if the factory has conducted a full series of spin tests, I did not perform any unusual attitude maneuvers.
Lite on Your Wallet
Five years ago, SkyStar offered their Kitfox XL for the same price they’re offering the Kitfox Lite today. Since that ’94 price tag would easily reach $17,500 today (given the effects of inflation), SkyStar is revealing some efficiency in the $14,995 price for the Lite version. While it’s true ultralight shoppers these days have lower-cost options, a quality fast-build kit for this price is fair.
You should also recognize how well SkyStar equips their Kitfox Lite. The fully-welded 4130 chromoly steel airframe comes white powder coated, so you won’t need to perform this arduous paint routine. The wings come assembled. Yes, you read that right: assembled. Flaperons are also prefitted saving several hours (plus assuring you they’ve been done correctly).
You get differential brakes connected to wide tires and metal wheels, plus upholstered seat cushions and 4-point seat belts. The panel will have all the essentials, including tach, ASI, altimeter and dual CHT/EGT gauges. In addition, SkyStar says they provide all the wiring and naturally a full set of hardware to put it all together.
Although you will have to add your own paint, Stits Poly-Fiber 1.7-ounce covering material is the standard finish that comes with the kit. Paint can be costly, but to stay at Part 103 weight, you won’t need as much.
True, the wait has been lengthy while SkyStar decided to make a proper entry into the ultralight market. But the final results are worth the time taken, and so what? You can now own a Kitfox Lite that is sure to make you smile. I know I had some trouble wiping the grin off my face.
1See “Pilot’s Report: Champion Ultralight – An Avid for Ultralighters,” October ’98 Ultralight Flying! magazine
2See “Pilot’s Report: Aero-Lite 103 – Well-Equipped for a Modest Price,” November ’97 Ultralight Flying! magazine
3See “Pilot’s Report: SkyStar’s Low-Cost Kitfox XL,” February ’94 Ultralight Flying! magazine
|Empty weight||250 pounds|
|Gross weight||550 pounds|
|Wingspan||25 feet 2 inches|
|Wing area||88 square feet|
|Wing loading||6.3 pounds per sq ft|
|Length||16 feet 5 inches|
|Height||5 feet 2 inches|
|Fuel Capacity||5 gallons|
|Build time||150-200 hours|
|Standard engine||2si 460F-35 2-cycle|
|Power||35 hp at 6,000 rpm|
|Power loading||15.7 pounds per hp|
|Cruise speed||55 mph|
|Never exceed speed||80 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||750 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||100 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||100 feet|
|Standard Features||Folding factory-built wings, differential main wheel heel brakes, castoring tailwheel, 4-position flaperons, 4-point shoulder harness pilot restraint, belt reduction drive, instruments (ASI, tach, dual CHT/EGT, altimeter, slip/skid indicator), 2-blade wood prop.|
|Options||Upholstery (seat cushioning), transport trailer, baggage sack, paint; fully-assembled option.|
|Construction||Factory-welded 4130 chromoly steel fuselage, factory-assembled and prerigged wings, aluminum main wing spars, prefitted flaperons, steel parts white powder coated, 1.7-ounce dope and fabric covering.|
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – SkyStar took the time to make sure their Kitfox Lite can meet Part 103 – and it does! Company is highly respected. Well-engineered for structure and flight characteristics; wasn’t hurried onto the market. Builds on the popularity of the Kitfox brand and credentials.
Cons – Until SkyStar trims a few more pounds, the Part 103 rating won’t allow a pull starter. To save weight, SkyStar worked hard with 2 Stroke International, yet some buyers may resist choices other than Rotax. Controls are pretty fast for some beginning pilots.
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 – Use of a 2si engine brings dual ignition and light weight, plus a modest cost (helping to hold down weight and price). Flaperons are effective and easily deployed. Folding wing option has long been popular with buyers. Differential heel brakes worked effectively. Easily accessed fuel squeeze bulb and easily checked fuel cock (to pilot’s left in cockpit).
Cons – Requirement to hand-prop to start engine will dismay many buyers, but Kitfox Lite can’t make Part 103 weight with pull starter (until factory trims a few pounds elsewhere). Belt drive reduction works well but may not convince those sold on gear redrives. No in-flight trim (but hardly needed with light controls).
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Roomy cockpit should accommodate most ultralight pilots. Overhead skylight aids visibility in turns and pretakeoff. Entry/exit is simple for most pilots. All controls easily accessed and panel is a close reach. Small cloth cargo pouch behind seat can hold items in-flight. Four-point shoulder harness pilot restraint is standard. Largely wind-free cabin, even without doors.
Cons – Doubtful if doors can be added while staying within Part 103. Checking fuel while flying isn’t as certain as some other designs. Simple throttle lever has an edge (though you could install a protector). No quick seat adjustment.
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – Good ground clearance and broad tires on main gear. Differential heel brakes are standard feature. Good taxi visibility over nose. Skylight helps in checking traffic before takeoff.
Cons – Small thin tailwheel acted like a skid in Florida’s dry sandy soil. No suspension other than air in the tires (though this seemed sufficient). Some pilots are concerned about taildragger operations (although I found Kitfox Lite very compliant).
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – Takeoff roll is short: under 100 feet. Landing roll-out even shorter thanks to effective flaps. Flaps and good slip capability suggest very short field capability. Slow approaches easily possible. Good main gear ground clearance. Wide main tires bring improved performance on soft ground. Controls allow easy handling of crosswinds.
Cons – Tailwheel dragged in sandy Florida soil, lengthening short takeoff run. Taildraggers give concern to some pilots (though the Lite is much easier than a standard Kitfox). No other negatives discovered.
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – The good news is, the controls are fast and responsive (perfect for those with experience). Even better control harmony than company’s Kitfox IV model. Light stick touch makes trim virtually unneeded (none is supplied). Precision turns are simple thanks to highly effective controls.
Cons – The bad news is, the controls are fast and responsive (wrong for some apprehensive beginners). Adverse yaw is definitely present. No other negatives discovered.
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – Sprightly performance from 2si engine, 750-fpm climb per factory (see main article). Easily achieves Part 103 speeds without exceeding them; worthy effort by SkyStar to keep the Kitfox Lite within the FAR definition. Five gallons of fuel should allow more than 2 hours of cruise.
Cons – Flight loadings of +3.8 and -1.5 Gs suggests more modest use. Starting the 2si via hand-propping was challenging during flight test, although this may not be a problem on other installations. Only 25-foot 3-inch wingspan and 88-square-foot wing (though the Lite performed well).
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – Stall is very low, down into the upper 20s in mph. Good stall characteristics even with small wing area. Tail braced with cables to save weight though many feel this is stronger than the struts of larger Kitfox models. Secure 4-point pilot restraint appreciated. Normal power response and good longitudinal stability.
Cons – Stall did break (though not precipitously), probably due to small wing area resulting in higher-than-average 6.3-pounds-per-square-foot wing loading at gross weight. Adverse yaw is fairly significant. No other negatives discovered.
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – Good value at $14,995 complete with everything you need (except paint). Factory support reported excellent. Wing comes built as proof of a faster build time than older Kitfox models; also assures buyers of correct construction. Respected company will assure buyers. Design well-engineered before shipments began.
Cons – Painted surfaces add weight, increase build time and cost (compared to pull-on Dacron® wings). Not the cheapest ultralight you can buy. Not everyone loves taildraggers. Some won’t prefer the 2si engine. Overall, the Lite was extremely hard to fault.