I came across this strange looking critter a few months ago, when a new tenant in the hangar I'm renting moved in his RV7A along with an intriguing blue/green 'canvas' aircraft from South Africa that I mistook for a Thruster. But, while its sales are growing at home, has it proven itself sufficiently to find a place in the market outside of its birthplace?
We took to the skies over Melbourne's Mornington Peninsula, in a rare look at this remarkable little LSA.
As soon as the Australian Open tennis starts in Melbourne in January, Victoria seems to settle into a rhythm of escalating daytime temperatures for a few days, followed by a modest cool change. The pattern repeats itself until early March - and returns the following Summer.
So we waited until the presiding High Pressure system brought some stability, and because the aircraft weighs in at 260kg plus us and fuel, we met at the Tyabb Airfield at 8am; well before the thermal activity inevitably kicks in and makes flying the Bat Hawk far less comfortable.
Hans, the now relatively experienced Bat Hawk owner and my guide for the flight, pulled the aircraft out of the hanger on his own, with familiar ease. But with hundreds of hours checking fully enclosed aluminium factory-built aircraft pre-flight, I admit to being thrown off at first when asked to check that the bolts holding the wings on were tight, that the black cable ties holding the Dacron Sail Cloth were secured, and the luggage compartment was 'zipped' up as part of the pre-flight routine. Of course I must also admit to having checked the same bolts and cable ties as Hans just had; a little like pushing the pedestrian button at traffic lights, having seen someone else just do the same thing. We work in mysterious ways.
Getting in at the same time is awkward, so I first settled into my very comfortably contoured (but rather hard) right side seat and Hans followed in the Commander's position. Once in, the cockpit is quite comfortable and two have around the same width as in a Cessna 152 so there's really no invasion of personal space.
The equipment is surprisingly quite extensive; easily laid out, simple to operate and within easy reach. Standard is Airspeed, Turn Co-ordinator, Digital Altimeter, Digital Com radio, Transponder, Intercom
and a really clear, colour MGL EMS display with multiple CHT and EGT readouts (I still need to find out why), along with basic electrics and oil specs. There's landing lights and strobes, and a handy push button start.
The throttle is a very thin, unassuming metal stick on the sides of each seat, but getting used to moving your arm around the outside of an awkwardly positioned metal strut to access the lever is strange at first. My arm defaulted to a position just inside the strut, but as getting to the throttle was more difficult here, Mother Necessity subtly corrected me each time, and I moved my arm back around the outside.
The motor in the Bat Hawk is a reliable 6 cylinder 120 HP CAMit 3300, but when CAMit went out of business in 2016, Bat Hawk turned to the even more trusty Rotax 912ULS to replace. I like this move; it inspires confidence in the aircraft and in the company. Saving a few bob by chasing another motor could downgrade the specs on an otherwise sound aircraft and affect saleability. It's a high mounted, fully exposed power-plant for excellent airflow, and the clever design means great visibility and a feeling that you have the beast visually 'monitored' at all times, which I found strangely reassuring later in the flight. The sight of spewing oil, for instance, wouldn't be too much fun, but forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes.
Starting was uneventful (which is always a bonus with a motor), very smooth once operating, and the engine is easily managed on the ground with the control feel of a throttle tuned to manage an aircraft, rather than a Victa lawn mower. Micro Aviation's 'Black Max' disk brakes are a little squishy to the uninitiated, but quite effective and controlled via a squeezer on the stick; a simple system that doesn't detract at all from the braking experience and allows for good ground steering differentially when the either foot pedal is depressed.
Taxying low to the ground and exposed to the elements provides a feeling that you're truly 'at one' with your environment; a feature of this aircraft that translates all the way though the experience.
With two 90kg people and 50 litres (of 80 litres available) on board, grass takeoff in nil wind at 25 degrees C, we rotated at 55 knots and had only around 80 metres of runway behind us. Climb performance was fair; around 700 ft/min or so, at around 60 knots, with the throttle retarded slightly soon after takeoff to avoid over-revving the motor.
I'll admit that having never flown in an open cockpit before, I was slightly unnerved during the initial climb, up to around 300 ft. The mind needed to accept the fact that the only practical difference between this aircraft and a conventional one is lower side walls and a far more open cabin design relative to the outside air. The feeling does go away quite fast, once the mind stops being unnecessarily hysterical about the facts.
This aircraft isn't suited to more than moderately turbulent conditions; it has a 540kg MTOW, and it's made of hollow tube, bolts and canvas, so it's a bit fidgety penetrating the bigger bumps. But, sudden deviations don't require massive control inputs for stability laterally. There's a requirement for flaperon and rudder inputs to level the wings once the aircraft is displaced, but the full span flaperons and the large rudder do their jobs well, particularly at higher speeds. In our test aircraft, right rudder was required to keep the aircraft balanced in the cruise, which was obviously more pronounced at full power.
We tracked towards the Mornington / Mt Eliza beaches along Melbourne's magnificent Mornington Peninsula and descended to 500 feet over the water. The visibility, despite the high wing, is excellent, and I could imagine things like fence and power line inspections, coastal marine life observation or inland fire ops would be perfect for this aircraft, as would crop-spraying and mustering on cattle stations.
It's no surprise then that the Bat Hawk has established a niche in low level surveillance in the Anti-poaching wars in Africa to protect Elephants, Rhinos and other endangered species. The Botswana Government purchased 14 Bat Hawk aircraft in 2016 to boost their anti-poaching operations. With time running out for these animals, the Bat Hawk aircraft is now used successfully and extensively across Africa as a recon aircraft to support Rangers to locate and round-up (and hopefully prosecute) wildlife poachers. Vast areas in South Africa - such as the 25,000 hectare Shamwari Game Reserve - are also monitored from overhead, in a country where poaching has killed around 12% of the Rhino population.
The aircraft is ideally suited to these operations, sipping around 18 litres per hour (less at low speeds) while providing excellent visibility for two people, very good manoeuvrability at slow speeds and very short takeoff and landing distances. Running costs are low, and dispatch time from hangar to flight is fast in the event the aircraft needs to be airborne in an emergency.
On our flight, surface winds were calm but we had a fairly strong North Westerly brewing aloft, so as we climbed inland from the coast, the ground speed picked us up and moved us at about 110kts over the ground and 80 knots indicated (Cruise is at 77 kts in the book), with a significant crab angle required to maintain our desired track.
The stall in a Bat Hawk needs to be practiced, but certainly not because it's in any way violent of particularly unusual. Having said that, it could be the undoing of the uninitiated pilot, particularly during the approach. If anything, it's a bit too docile to alarm. And because there's no audible or visual stall warning, you need to do a few stalls to fully understand how to identify it when it happens. The only real effect is a distinct 'canvas flap' (buffet) through 50 knots (clean, power off), that could also be mistaken for turbulence before it's too late. That's it. Just buffet and mush. No wing drop, and the tiniest hint of nose oscillation with full back stick. Then a significant rate of descent and before you know it you've lost much of the the height you had just seconds before. My advice; get out there and practice slow flight, just to know what to look for when you're not expecting it.
Communication without noise cancelling headsets is difficult, as predictably, my David Clarks weren't up the task of keeping out the wind noise from the mike. Outside of that it's as noisy as one would expect of an open cockpit design with a motor above one's nose. There's a smelly waft of exhaust occasionally too, which for me, served as a friendly reminder that all was going well in the power department, and any heat from the engine is not over powering; even on a warm summer's day.
While our powered decent along the coast was as expected, I did get the sense that the aircraft was more drag than thrust when the power was pulled back by just the slightest amount. Put less politely, it glides like a dead duck, needing a significant amount of nose down (and corresponding angle/rate of descent) to maintain speed on an approach to land. In Hanz's words, it 'flies on power'. As I turned long final, I rearranged his advice and soon realised that 'without power it doesn't fly' was a more appropriate way for me to understand the concept. So if the engine quits, the eyes need to be fixed down a lot lower than the training aircraft we might be all more used to flying, and forget making the field unless you're flying a very tight circuit. You'll be having a cuppa with the owner of the paddock rather than your mates in the clubhouse.
Of course, old habits never die, and like clockwork, I chopped the power just over the fence and we both waited for the inevitable thump. Remarkably, the large main wheels and proven suspension system really did make my messy arrival feel more like an acceptable landing. Any aircraft that does that deserves brownie points.
As we taxied back, I reflected that the Bat Hawk is an adaptable, fun and highly capable LSA Category aircraft; factory built and really well-appointed for the money. Like all aircraft, the market rightly wanted to first watch it prove its worth over time. But the Bat Hawk is emerging as an experienced veteran, confident in having clocked up thousands of hours in some of the world's most demanding conditions.
I'm interested to see how it performs in terms of sales in other Continents (like Australia), as traditional helicopter operations and far more expensive aircraft are offered to compete against it. The options open to the Bat Hawk are wide reaching across a spectrum of commercial and private operations and I think we'll see it become a lot more commonplace, out of Africa, by the time this decade is through.