Letter from France
Little green speedster in the sky
Bernard Chabbert describes his love affair with his little green speedster – the sleek and slippery FK 14 Le Mans:
Ihad seen photos of it taken during the Friedrichshafen Show. Obviously everyone attending the event (thousands) had fallen in love with the thing. So did I.
FK of Germany had designed and refined its sleek FK 14 Polaris side-by-side low-winged Rotax 912-equipped two-seater, then decided (their boss is a lover of sports and racing cars of ’50s vintage, of which the Porsche 550 is the archetype) to mix the best of wheels and wings cultures into a new version of the Polaris. Peter Funk (the boss) then went to work with an Italian artist, Mirco Pecorari, who, as legend has it, had some input in the design of the Pagani Zonda supercar. Pecorari went back to the thirties: he got rid of the tricycle gear, buried the wheels within two sexy wheel-pants, added a streamlined tailwheel, replaced the superb bubble canopy with a gorgeous side-by-side torpedo superstructure equipped with two semi-spherical windshields, redesigned the rudder and the wingtips. They gave the Polaris a new name, again inspired by the golden age of car racing: Le Mans. Pecorari added a simple and classy paint scheme, and suddenly we had one of the bestlooking sports aircraft ever made.
I’ve always been very sensitive to beauty when it comes to planes, cars, boats, houses, to the point of insanity, being able to exchange the money I do not have for one of those toys. And you know what? Despite the insanity, I’ve never had regrets. Problems and worries, yes, plenty. But regrets, no.
So one day my wife and I drove to Muret, just south of Toulouse, where the French importer of FKS and other products belonging to the ultralight world is based.
Christophe was an engineer at Airbus HQ in Toulouse, but as a pilot fell in love with basic aviation, living in a region where beautiful landscapes abound, sandwiched between the Atlantic coast at Biarritz
and the Mediterranean, with the magnificent ridges of the Pyrenees stretching between both maritime coasts. Over 150 little airfields devoted to ultralight flying dot the area, plus over forty aerodromes, a real aviator’s playground. So one day Christophe decided to go his own way, left Airbus, started this business centred around basic aviation and fun flying, and became the FK importer for France.
That day he had a Le Mans in one of his hangars−the first one imported to the country, ready for delivery. I had drowned my wife with photos and words about it, but since we already had two aircraft in our hangar near the Bay of Arcachon, including a big and magnificent Lockheed 12 and the concert grand of all Pipers, a 1935 J2 better than new, plus our son’s Stearman, I wanted to have her honest opinion. As she is an expert in good taste, an art and architecture lover, a film director, and also an aviation aficionado (having spent a large part of her life as a supersonic stewardess), we’ve never taken a decision regarding our common financial follies (cars, house, flying machines…) without reaching a consensus.
She looked at the sleek green speedster−just a glance−and said “Yes”. Clear. So we bought it after another negotiation with the friendly banker. Oh, happy banker.
Three months later, FK 14 s/n 148 arrived in Muret. In the meantime, I had flown a standard tailwheeled Polaris twice and early impressions were of a slippery machine, very fighterlike in cruise. With a sensitive and useful rudder−a necessity as the ball seemed to be willing to spend its time bumping from stop to stop. Spitfire ailerons, always gentle and precise at medium speeds, becoming quite heavy at high velocities, and an almost weightless elevator control implying delicate pressures at all speeds, with a powerful mechanical trim I had ordered instead of the standard issue electric one. Seemed to me a bit unharmonised at first, but soon it became, from an aviator point of view, a real pleasure, demanding a positive attitude towards the act of piloting instead of just vaguely guiding the flying machine.
So when s/n 148 arrived, I invested a full day taking my time, looking at it in detail. That’s one of the best moments one can spend when getting acquainted with a new flying machine.
Aesthetics aside, I first noted a pair of very thin, high aspect ratio wings, Dornier, with their outer sections’ leading edges raked backwards, sculpted from a glider-inspired Wortmann airfoil. FK call it laminar, indicating a definite bias towards pure speed, hence possible unpleasant characteristics when immersed deeply in slow speeds… So after inserting the ignition key into its slot, to the left of a wide and very clean flat black instrument panel adorned with two Dynon PFDS, plus a centre receiver for a friendly ipad loaded with Airnavpro, I deployed the electrically-operated flaps. They truly are monumental. Fowler type, with a moderate first notch, a much larger second position, and a full-sized barn door for the third deployment. That’s how FK coped with the regulations regarding ultralights’ stall speed control: mating a dragfree speedster wing with huge Fowlers. By the way, that’s just what they do on contemporary jetliners, and I buried that deep into my brain…
Apart from that, I was stunned by the cleanness of the airframe and the assembly quality. Keeping in mind this is a lightweight carbon sculpture, 308kg including the airframe parachute located just ahead of the cockpit, like a competition glider the thing demands delicacy when manipulating it around. This is definitely not a machine for hamfisted operators, on the ground or in the air.
By lunch time I was definitely hooked. Mainly due to the impeccable finish, I had the impression of looking at a big league aviation product where every little detail fits perfectly. But I have seen superbly crafted products, perfectly at ease within the air-conditioned confines of gleaming showrooms, become wild beasts once airborne.
So, by the end of the afternoon, having detailed the thing from
Getting on board requires a few contortions
spinner to tail cone, having exposed the naked engine and marvelled at the way the mechanical bowels are arranged, Christophe and I decide to go fly.
The aircraft was equipped with the winter lightly-tinted bubble canopy instead of the summer torpedo superstructure (both are standard issue). Getting on board requires a few contortions, mostly to avoid leaning on the seat and snapping it out of its railings: the two seats are made from a very lightweight carbon sculpture, a quite flexible arrangement, and one has to learn how to support one’s weight using the beefy structural beam crossing the cockpit area just behind the seats before gently nesting one’s bottom in place. And by the way, the seats and the cockpit sidewalls are superbly covered in stitched brown classy leather, provided by Audi. First class looks, first class comfort.
Later, when using the torpedo canopy, I found that entering the speedster is a bit more complicated and that the visibility, once nested behind the spherical windshield, is somewhat limited compared to the glasshouse offered by the full-sized winter bubble. But the speedster torpedo version is so sexy that it’s a sin not to install it when it gets sunny (doing so is a good half-hour’s work for two careful riggers).
Once inside and with the Recaro harness clicked in place, the impression is that we’re in a very, very expensive sporty vehicle. Since I took delivery, I’ve had Falcon and Citation and classy helicopter owners drooling all over the FK, and one even wanted to buy it right there! That’s how spectacular this little machine is.
But enough of the ego trip, let’s go fly after having mechanically linked the tailwheel to the rudder pedals by inserting a springloaded pin into a hole drilled on the pivoting structure holding the wheel itself. That’s important if one wants to avoid steering problems while taxying.
The Dynon screens seem to have been stolen from a recent 737 or A320. The throttle and all engine-related controls are located in the panel centre section and the console. Here one finds the chromed brake lever sliding to the right of the similarly chromed throttle and, behind them, the fuel tank selector (two tanks left and right, total usable seventy litres), then the mechanical trim which is a glider system, displacing the sticks front or back, and very direct. The two sticks are very light under the hand, and I would have preferred a second throttle located on the left wall. But being an ultralight, with an obsession against weight, it is OK.
The rudder pedals are again glider-type, very simple bars, and the general ergonomy is near perfect, mostly because of the semi-reclined position.
Visibility is superb inside the bubble, but as said before quite different with the torpedo installed. The sides go up to cheek height, your passenger being isolated because of the streamlined separation between the occupants. That horizontal pillar restricts the pilot’s view of the right side of the panel, and
fiddling with the VHF controls can be difficult. Better have a girlfriend or passenger wellbriefed on frequency changes.
Before start checks: nothing exotic, just the arming of the parachute system (equivalent to the arming of the escape slides on an airliner). Starting is almost car-simple: follow the checklist and within twenty seconds the three-bladed black prop starts briskly, Rotax-style. While waiting for the oil temp to reach fifty degrees C (it takes just a few minutes), one can appreciate the almost absolute lack of vibration and noise from the Rotax up front, the overall feeling being that they installed a mini-turboprop instead of a piston engine.
Once it’s warmed up a bit, rotate the small brake lock handle ninety degrees, aligning it with the rolling direction (same arrangement on Airbuses, which reminds me that the FK test pilot when this model was designed was also an A320 captain), start to roll, briefly check the brakes by pulling on the chromed lever (it should decelerate symmetrically), then it moves softly on a very small amount of power if the ground surface is smooth. If it’s less than smooth, the carbon blade landing gear is a bit too rigid for my taste. On a rough surface, it can dislodge your false teeth.
Runway’s end. Checks before takeoff are very simple: doublecheck your seat lock and also double-check the canopy locks (two handles, on both sides). The canopy lock is an astute arrangement, with a mechanical lock inside and a plunger-type safety pin at the back of the canopy, so it seems safe and serious.
For takeoff, flaps one. They extend with, again, a reminiscence of the whining you hear on an Airbus 320, meaning that the electric flap motor works. Then go.
The standard issue prop is a superb three-bladed carbon Duc, a lightweight unit, and there’s almost no perceptible torque effect. What is interesting, though, is that despite having only 100hp the thing jumps forward in no time, a very brisk acceleration. Aerodynamics take over immediately, rudder control is positively precise and lift-off with two on board and around forty litres of mogas takes six or seven seconds, with no perceptible action on the stick.
Obviously, it’s one of these aircraft flown through a direct link between brain and fingertips. Immediately noticeable, though, is the fact that it accelerates so swiftly that flap retraction limit−135kph (73kt) for flaps one−is already here, and to avoid over-speeding one has either to reduce power or pull up at an impressive climb rate. In no time 300 feet are pulverized, so fuel pump off and flaps up. This kind of lift-off brings a big banana smile; such a small machine with a tiny engine, zooming up like a warbird?
After ten minutes airborne, first impressions: this is a sensitive flying machine, crisp and very precise, stable but demanding permanent attention if one wants to fly the cleanest of trajectories. With this aircraft, not flying that cleanest line would be a sin.
Then, a few minutes later, after trying things like alternating sixty degree banked turns, the little, sexy and elegant friendly-looking machine demonstrates its real personality. Forget the looks, this is a pure sports aircraft focused around stick, rudder, throttle, turn and slip and, to sum it up, no, it does not fly without the real presence of a pilot. It’s fun, really fun. It brings you back to the art of flying, presto, away from the current philosophy of the pilot turned system operator.
Flying can be an art form, a bit like music. Is a pianist an artist (and an expert at mastering incredible amounts of techniques), or is he just someone operating a sound-producing system called a piano?
So for our own pleasure and fulfilment, from time to time some designers come up with flying instruments, not just flying machinery, and the little FK 14 in this Le Mans version is just that. No need to consider it first as a good performance travelling vehicle, which it is as well−and a good one at that: 230kph (124kt) on sixteen litres per hour of mogas, that’s performance.
But if one wants−simply because the sun is shining, the wind is just a breeze, the world around the airfield looks beautiful−to go up in the sky for the sake of it and feel free to turn and dive and soar at will, waltzing around a friendly puff of white vapour, and all that at a slightly reduced speed of 180kph, just 97kt, giving an eleven lph consumption, this little aircraft is almost magical.
But look out! At the end of every flight there’s an approach and a landing. Which means that one is going to have to fly slowly. Slow is where the problem is. The official ultralight regulations, as confirmed by the operating manual, say that one must not deliberately stall this aircraft. The manufacturer took care of stalls and even spins, and says that these are potentially dangerous situations one must avoid. Of course, they also confirm that to exit a spin, standard practices are the norm: rudder against rotation while getting rid of the excessive angle of attack with some forward stick.
But before flying any new type, it’s not unreasonable to do a bit of research. I did that, and found on the internet that a few FK 14s have been lost (and some of their crews too) while practicing stalls at low altitude. Christophe went through some hairy moments himself during a familiarisation flight with a customer, who was an airline professional and also a well-trained aerobatic pilot.
After a few stalls performed prudently by Christophe with a gentle angle of attack increase and a symmetrical break, the customer took his turn. Again very gentle stall entries, then, probably lured by the very low stick pressures, he pulled a little too briskly and the thing snapped into a spin. No problem, he recognised the spin, and applied the standard recovery. The spin stopped, but for one reason or another (assymmetry? too little forward stick?) the aircraft snapped into another spin. Christophe was looking at the altimeter and wisely decided they were already too low. So he pulled the red parachute handle, and they ended their flight in a wheat field, Apollo-style, under the fullydeployed canopy. The airframe was partly ruined, but both occupants were alive and well.
So when I started flying the Le Mans, I knew that low speeds were not its forte and took precautions. In forty hours of flight, including around one hundred landings, I was not tempted in any way to fly it down to the ground without performing a nice, gentle stabilised approach, one eye glued to the threshold and the other to the airspeed numbers, using very conservative approach speeds, i.e. thirty per cent above stall speed for the flap setting. Using flaps one is perfect for runways around 600 yards, flaps two works well for 450-yard runways, and flaps three can be used for 350 yards, but must not be used when there’s any crosswind.
The thing has almost no inertia, and as the air over my usual airfield is often quite turbulent, flaps one and two are the norm. On very bumpy days, I even went from time to time through nasty aileron stalls when approaching a little slowly. Because of the Dornier wing and its swept leading edge, I experienced moments when, on a bubble of turbulence, roll control almost vanished for a second, the airflow becoming turbulent over the external section of the wing, over the ailerons. So I followed the factory advice, and bought for only €60 a kit of self-adhesive vortex generators, to be glued along a precise pattern ahead of the ailerons. After that, I never had another aileron stall.
Landing is a non-event, just nose it up to near threepoint position, wait while the speed evaporates gently, and kiss-landings can become the standard. Braking is quite good, it goes straight without much effort, and after a while look out for some natural complacency entering the picture. That’s why I stick to my conservative philosophy, because the basic design of this aircraft’s thin wings is biased towards speed, not slow flight, and the critical moment is the approach where serious monitoring is required. One gets used to that, and as always in aviation the thing is to play it safe.
Finally, after four years of operation, my conclusions. First, the FK 14 Le Mans is a classy, beautiful aircraft, with milliondollar looks. It flies as well as it looks, it is utterly comfortable, it is an exceptional touring machine (for distances up to 300 miles). Your wife/girlfriend will love it.
It can carry a reasonable amount of baggage, up to forty pounds or so, but keep in mind the centre of gravity. It demands, strangely, an airlinertype piloting philosophy when low and slow. It can fly from soft grass airfields, but better avoid bumpy rough runways. It’s not a bush plane by design, being optimised for velocity and not Alaska-type off-field exploits.
But above all, put on the torpedo canopy, order a pair of superb Campbell helmets, and travel the planet from above, head outside, open sky above and those beautiful white wings on each side. I’ve stretched some flights up to sunset, and watched the first stars over my head, with nothing but free sky and space between them and me. It’s so good that it should be funded by the health service.
He pulled the red parachute handle and they ended their flight in a wheat field
BELOW: Bernard’s aircraft with the ‘winter’ cockpit canopy in place; and the Dynon’s glow competes with a coastal sunset
ABOVE: rushing to fit the full canopy – a half-hour job – is not an option when rain threatens
FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: Fk14 details − the Rotax 912 engine, with its large cylindrical dry-sump oil reservoir; leather covered seats and expensive-car detailing; twin screens and padded surounds of the ‘torpedo’ dual open cockpit cowl (which partly...
Bernard’s son, Antoine in the Funk Le Mans at Royan
ABOVE: protrusions beneath the wing are guides for the ‘monumental’ flaps
BELOW: enjoying the sensation of an aerial Porsche 550 Spyder