An Experimental ‘fighter jet’ that any pilot could love That vast majority of general aviation pilots who won’t even think about building their own plane has missed quite a revolution.
The FAA says approximately 25,000 aircraft are registered as Experimentals. That’s 15% of the GA fleet.
Building isn’t what it used to be. You no longer need to master the skill of reading engineering prints (plans), nor must you search high and low for parts.
These days, most registered Experimental aircraft are built from kits. Many are well-fabricated packages that can be assembled in just a few hundred hours. That can mean as little as two or three hours a night, two to three days a week, for about a half-year. Not a bad investment for a truly unique airplane.
One sport pilot who enjoys flying his creations is Minnesota resident Al Reay. For Reay, building is a means to an end. He owns several microlights, and he’s one of the flyingest pilots I’ve ever met.
MAN AND MACHINE
Reay loves to fly his GT500, his Buccaneer and his S-14, all of which are homebuilts. He’s also built a couple of EAA Grand Champions (a Kolb Twinstar and an N-3 Pup that was modified to resemble a Citabria). Most recently, however, he thrills to his Titan Tornado. And some Tornado it is.
It’s my good fortune to know Reay. He’s a friend, an air show compatriot, and a good man to know.
On one fine and surprisingly warm Minnesota day in early December, Reay brought his dashing Tornado to my home field so I could take her up and see how she flies. Before I took the controls, Reay and his Tornado posed for air-to-air photographs that I shot from my Cessna 150/150. Fellow BRS worker Jeff Peltier piloted the photo plane while I worked the camera. It proved to be a grand way to see the airborne machine up close and personal.
MOVING ON UP
Ohio-based Titan says it’s seeing a good response to its racy-looking Tornado. The light aircraft’s pointy nose, flowing seats and seat-embedded joystick lend the feel of a fighter jet. In fact, that’s one of the more frequently heard comments.
Reay’s Titan is superbly equipped. Once seated, you face an array of gauges and gadgets, enough to satisfy all but the most earnest instrument pilots. The airplane has two GPS units. One, located just forward of the left-side throttle, makes it easy to see the path of flight on a moving-map display.
On that same side, Reay has installed a few switches and an oil-pressure gauge for the Rotax 912 engine. On the right is a radio and more gauges.
Reay is delighted with the four-stroke Rotax. He’s logged a fair number of hours in the Titan (170 in 18 months), including a 3,000-mile cross-country trip to Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Florida.
“It uses virtually no oil,” he said to my amazement. If your GA-engine experience is like mine, you add a quart of oil nearly every time you fuel up. “Look, no oil spills on the engine – even after 170 hours!” Reay said. He did change spark plugs at 130 hours, “just because I needed to do something.”
Entry into the Tornado’s raked cockpit presents a bit of a challenge for pilots who are less flexible than others. The front is reasonably accessible if you use the overhead welded structure to help lower and slide yourself into the seat. The rear door, however, is fairly demanding. Both doors open only to the right side of the aircraft. Because of this limitation, the Tornado may be a one-plus-one configuration where you usually fly solo, with an occasional passenger. On the other hand, that’s how most GA aircraft are flown anyway. Even in production-built models, the average occupancy is a bit more than one and half persons.
Once inside and seated, your feet rest in heel cups that are actually quite supportive, considering their small size and “V” shape. They also serve as heel brakes, and if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself riding them during taxi operations.
Your feet are also positioned close to each other, as the fuselage fairing tapers to a point up front and restricts space. Combine the close quarters with the restrictive heel cups, and some pilots may find the constraints annoying on long flights.
The Titan has a novel feature that permits rudder-pedal adjustment, just like full-sized military fighter aircraft, I’m told. A crank allows height adjustment, which means you don’t have to move the seats. The fixed heel-brake system, however, tends to lean your feet forward or aft as you adjust the pedals. They fit me fine, but I’m average height; taller or shorter pilots might need to reposition the heel brakes for comfort. Such personalized adjustments are just one of the benefits of homebuilt aircraft.
With front and rear latch points, the door feels physically secure, unlike some microlight aircraft. And by swiveling the air vents in concert with the heating system that Reay installed, I was able to precisely adjust the cabin temperature.
One final note about Reay’s elaborate cockpit. The control panel tilts back, which means you don’t have to crawl around when adjustments are needed. Hinged at the bottom and clipped at the top, access to the instruments is easy – even if in-flight, if needed.
Reay has also installed a BRS emergency parachute system. Widely available for homebuilt aircraft, they offer extra security. (As a point of disclosure, I work for the company.)
READY TO ROLL
I’ve already talked a lot about the heel brakes, but let me add a couple of comments: (1) They’re effective, which is a good thing because the 912 idles high; (2) my initial tendency to ride them a little didn’t present much of a problem.
The nose wheel responds with a lot of action from relatively little input. You’d get used to it – maybe even spoiled by it – but it seems too fast at first, and I had to guard against over-control.
With a little practice, I soon felt ready to taxi to the active runway. Advancing the throttle forward steadily brought the Rotax out of its taxi slumber. We shot down the runway and into the air. Landing would prove less thrilling, but just as controllable.
You can put the flaps down at 80 mph, Reay told me, and I discovered that their surfaces are powerful. With the Titan’s short wingspan (23.5 feet), the flaps may not look very large. But they do work hard, as does the overall wing design.
The result of the flaps and extraordinarily efficient airfoil means this speedy aircraft can be slowed down quite well. Operating from a conventional airport, I had the luxury of longer approaches, where speed control isn’t an issue. I’ve put other Tornadoes into short fields where the ability to slow down and retain good control is a welcome feature.
The electrically operated flaps move freely to the touch on a nearby switch. The lack of an indicator means you need to turn your head and watch their movement. If you’re driven to set a certain flap position, as general aviation pilots are trained to do, you may want to add an indicator.
One thing I fuss about on the Titan line is the trim wheel. It’s located under the seat, approximately below your left thigh. The wheel is knurled for a good grip and it works effectively, but it isn’t intuitive. I prefer a trim I can adjust quickly and readily for the critical takeoff and landing phases.
In time, however, most pilots would get used to it.
HANDLING FOR THE PASSIONATE
For me, the reach to the stick is a little long. I found it more comfortable to hold it down lower, but the Titan’s overall light touch makes that transparent. On an aircraft with heavy stick pressures, gripping lower can make things more difficult.
Since I enjoy light and responsive handling, I always look forward to flying a Titan. I’ve had the pleasure of piloting several, and every time has been a joy. Handling is a strong point with the design. It deserves the high praise it receives from those who fly it.
What I had never flown before was a 912-powered Tornado. Wow!
Climb rate? Well, what can I say that you can’t figure out for yourself? With an 80-horsepower engine on a light aircraft flown solo it’s simply breathtaking. The factory states 1,800 feet per minute. I only saw 1,400, but Reay’s Tornado is lavishly equipped, which makes it heavier than similar models, and I may not have found the optimal climb attitude. At this performance range, power efficiency can take some practice.
In fact, power-on stalls with the stick full aft and held there produces a steady – though a tad mushy – continued climb at 1,000 feet per minute. Short of engine failure, I don’t see how you fly yourself into trouble on takeoff, at least with regard to pitch control.
On the other end of the speed envelope, this 912-equipped Tornado scoots. Reay says he can consistently hold it at 120 mph, and I saw 100 while cruising around lazily. To my surprise, it matches up well to my Cessna 150/150. If not for the “big” engine up front, most 150s would quickly fall behind.
A bit after I flew his Titan, Reay upgraded to the new 100-horse 912S. There’s one California word that describes the result: awesome!
YOUR OWN ‘ULTRALIGHT FIGHTER’
You can buy a Titan Tornado and personalize it as Reay did, though you may have trouble replicating the paint job. Reay purchased a professional design and executed it himself.
“Well, I can do that,” you say? Don’t be so sure. Reay has owned a successful body shop for decades. After repairing thousands of Mercedes, Beamers and Saabs, he’s about as good as it gets when it comes to painting.
As we were finishing up, Reay had one more trick to show me. Under the cap of his joystick, in a place no one would normally look, he has a little tube where he keeps cash for emergencies. “In case I land in some farmer’s field and need to settle up right then and there,” he says. Like a Boy Scout, Reay is always prepared.
You should be as fortunate to fly his lovely bird. I encourage you to investigate a Titan Tornado, even if it isn’t quite as spectacular as the one Al Reay built.
|Empty weight||540 lbs|
|Gross weight||1,000 lbs|
|Wing area||108 sq ft|
|Wing loading||9.25 lbs/sq ft|
|Fuel Capacity||15 gal|
|Power||100-hp Rotax 912S|
|Power loading||10 lbs/hp1|
|Max Speed||150 mph|
|Cruise speed||(75% pwr) 120 mph|
|Stall Speed (Flaps)||35 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||1,400 fpm2|
|Takeoff distance at gross||(best flaps) 300 ft 2|
|Landing distance at gross||250 ft|
|Notes:||1With Rotax 912S engine at 100 horsepower
2As tested with 80-hp Rotax 912