Having travelled to Poland in 2004 for a few days while living in Europe, I have a great respect for the determination, hard work and tenacious spirit of its people. I also believe their best days are yet to come because, like most of the post-Soviet-Union ‘Eastern Block’ States, this is a country that will thrive once access to improved infrastructure and opportunity become available to the masses.
Poland is one of the emerging centres in Eastern Europe for innovation in design, IT and engineering. And it now produces some fabulous Sport Aircraft that are as practical as they are gorgeous to the eye, from nearly every angle. The Ekolot KR-030 is just one of a few such aircraft and it’s gaining popularity there, the US and in the Australian marketplace as GA’s otherwise long-flying servants (Cessna, Piper et al) start ‘rusting’ beyond financially viable repair.
PPHU Ekolot is the responsible party for the Topaz, and its factory, rather quaintly, is in the Medieval fortified town of Krosno, close to the Slovakian border in Poland’s South East.
In my quest to find a flight instructor to finish off my RAAus endorsement (conversion, check, stamp, whatever we want to call it), I was introduced to an experienced GA / RAAus instructor who was smart enough to also take on the distributorship of this little Polish number. And I was that impressed, I promised myself I’d tell you all about it.
TOPAZ IN AUSTRALIA & NZ.
So I took the drive North to Riddell Creek, near enough to Sunbury in Melbourne’s Northern fringe to introduce myself to Rod Birrell, Chief instructor at Airsports Flying School. It’s a simple operation with two instructors, a Hangar/ briefing room setup, complete with fridge, coffee, biscuits and a very friendly atmosphere. Well worth a trip on a Saturday afternoon for a look around and a chin wag.
I often say that you know how a light aircraft will fly by looking at it. While perhaps not entirely true in every sense, the Topaz has a long, thin (10.8m) cantilevered high-wing, three wheels (conventionally positioned, or not depending on your viewpoint), an empty weight of 290kg and Gross weight of just under 500kg. A Rotax 912ULS makes it go about 110kts in the cruise and the iS version gives you another few knots, obviously more noticeable at higher altitudes. A constant speed propeller as an option adds performance too, as you'd expect, with a reportable cruise speed of 120kts when all equipment is combined.
The newest KR-030 Topaz rounds off the range of three aircraft, starting with the JK-01A Elf Motor Glider, and JK-05L Junior ultralight (20 knots slower than the Topaz with strut-braced wings). All are sleek, composite, strong and appealing to the eye. And the airframe won't break easily; it's composite (carbon-fibre and vinyl-ester resin) and therefore, extremely strong and resistant to high temperatures.
So, I was guessing that because it’s got a high wing loading, and it’s composite, it’s going to glide really well, essentially land like a Cessna 152 in the flare, climb adequately, and it would be fidgety in turbulence. I also thought I’d be cramped in the seat and Rod and myself would be, a bit too ‘well-acquainted’ by the time we landed.
"It’s like the aerodynamics guys at Ekolot...flew in the designers from Alfa Romeo."
It turns out that I was partially right. Let me explain in more detail later.
It’s like the aerodynamics guys at Ekolot ordered a huge amount of butcher's paper and then flew in the designers from Alfa Romeo in Italy to consult for a few days on what it should look like inside, and out. Because, in the new Topaz, styling is clearly a top priority. Catering for the design weekend would have consisted of very strong coffee with Biscotti, then as the mornings became afternoons, Pasta Carbonara and a load of red wine was on hand to fuel yet more inspired design ideas. It would have surely been washed down with the obligatory Pierogi Dumplings and Vodka in the evening. And the process must have started again the next day, where by Sunday night, the new Topaz styling drawings had become a reality. It's very nice indeed.
The level of styling and refinement makes a Foxbat look like one of those old boxy 80's Volvos with cloth trim and a ever-so-square dash. There’s nothing much wrong with the Foxbat as a flying machine. But there’s simply nowhere near the same sex appeal as the Topaz, which this pilot thinks is important in our otherwise romance-deprived, Sport Aircraft industry currently.
PRE-FLIGHT & START.
Rod was very clear with his pre-flight walk-around and explanation of the controls. But there’s nothing to do outside the ordinary. You ‘burp’ the Rotax before checking oil levels, check all the hinges, landing gear and make sure you have enough 95 Mogas. Dual 35 litre tanks are on-board for about 3.5 hours’ endurance with an option to increase to 95 litres which gives 4.75 hours endurance, less your reserves. Inside, it’s a comfortable centre-stick design and the throttles sit on your door side. I would personally prefer it to be a single, centre-mounted throttle lever, but it probably got in the way while they were working out where to put it. Also, given the number of times I tried unsuccessfully pushing a single throttle with the hand of a ‘frozen’ student not letting go, it’s probably best left where it is so each person has their own during training.
Electric flaperons, stick mounted trim and PTT, an electronic EFIS, easy to reach switches and a Fuel system selector controlled in front of the pilot rather than behind (like some other Sport aircraft) makes one feel more secure. I don’t know why having fuel selectors behind this pilot is unnerving. But it just is, for me anyway.
There’s something nice about being inside the Topaz. It feels like a new sports car rather than a clunky aircraft and that in turn feels comfortable and reassuring. There’s also plenty of space for two, separating both bodies by a centre console that actually has the capacity to store (small) stuff. The manufacturer claims 1.2m cabin width which in old money is 47 and a bit inches. I didn’t check, but it feels the design team might have had a touch too many glasses of Tuscan Vino when writing up this part of the technical manual. It’s very spacious nonetheless.
The distinct sense is of one of individuality, rather than the familiar ‘sardines’ and ‘tins’ scenario that we nonchalantly seem to accept in our Sport Aircraft. It’s no corporate jet, but it’s very comfortable and utterly functional.
"To say I flew the Topaz particularly well wouldn’t be true. There’s a couple of things that you need to re-adjust to..."
Use the choke for cold starts like any Rotax 912 and steering is via rudder and a centrally-mounted, hand-operated brake, which works very well. The flaperons need to be set to 10 degrees for take-off and there’s obviously no mixture control or Carb heat either so students need not worry about those two things. I guess this helps them to focus on learning to handle the aircraft rather than manage the engine which to my mind is a good thing at ab-initio stages of training. For many other reasons, including these, the Topaz is a very effective aircraft for the first 30 (or so) hours of initial flight training.
FLYING THE TOPAZ.
Take-off was uneventful enough not to elaborate here, and the climb out was normal, with half a boot-full of right rudder needed to kick the ball through the ‘goals’. Two people, half tanks, 28 degrees Celcius, and we were climbing at around 1000 ft/min, from memory. Certainly not bad enough to note and well within expectations. We climbed to 3500 and did some basic manoeuvres, like steep turns, climbs, descents and a stall or two. There is a pronounced wing drop (one way only) without flap in the stall. So the stick needs to sit centrally and you need to dance a little with those feet to get it back straight. Outside of that it’s fairly docile and easily recoverable. Certainly worth doing for the practice, although, as Rod demonstrated, it’s far more docile in the landing configuration.
To say I flew the Topaz particularly well wouldn’t be true. There’s a couple of things that you need to re-adjust to, and most are not because of the type so much as the lightness of the aircraft. I’m the kind of pilot who gets it wrong and wants to know why, then needs to practice to ‘perfect’ it. Unfortunately there was no time for perfection, so showing that I could fly safely and competently was the best I could do on this flight. And that’s what most people will find. You need about 2 hours on it to get it right, particularly in the circuit.
There are three reasons for my average flying in the Topaz as far as I could see. The first is the adverse yaw that the Topaz generates with aileron input. Rod showed me a few times and the aircraft really does yaw the opposite way on initial application of aileron. It requires a significant rudder input to get this right and the coordination is tricky if you’re not used to it. Easy enough to fix with practice or if you’re a seasoned ultra / RA aircraft pilot.
The second reason is the fact that the Topaz is mighty slippery and glides really very well. The wing design is close to that of a glider (largely from Ekolot’s background in glider wing design) so a forced landing in this thing means picking a field further away than a conventional RA / GA aircraft and flying a wider circuit, subject to wind conditions. Flaperon really doesn’t help much either, so I found myself high on the Forced Landing approach. Having to side-slip with flap, while do-able, isn’t advised outside of an emergency. I would have made it, but I think I would have provided the cows at the end of the paddock some front row, Gold Class entertainment, and possibly started a fodder fire from my red-hot brakes.
The last reason relates to the final (critical) part of the flight. As well as being slippery on approach the Topaz wants to float for a while in the flare. Fine. But if you’re used to larger aircraft, the flare itself needs to be down very low (as Rod put it, ‘it’s like landing a flying gokart’) to get a good result. I was initially trying to land the Topaz like it was a light twin (I won’t say which one) so another go made for some improvement, rather than perfection.
Speaking to 16-year-old student pilot over a sausage & soft drink at the field, the Topaz is easy to get used to over time and really enjoyable to learn on, for inexperienced pilots. And I agree. I think the aircraft is under-marketed for flight training and alas, less people know about it than it deserves, so far. And while ab-initio training is one thing, for the Private Pilot, the Topaz is a solid tourer for two people and light bags, or just a heap of fun. Most importantly, it provides a sense of genuine sporty style, comfort and finish that’s found in a far more pricey machine than this one.
Watch this space; the Topaz will be an aircraft to watch, at an airfield near you. In the meantime, you can have a go (Rod said he’ll give $50 off if you mention this article) with a half hour Dual flight at Riddell in Victoria. Beware though. Most who fly the Topaz smile widely. And many who smile widely, will simply not resist the urge to order one.
AirSports is at Riddells Creek Airfield, 280 Websters Road, Clarkefield 3431 Victoria
Ph. 0422 446 622 / www.airsports.net