Let­ter from France

Lit­tle green speed­ster in the sky

Pilot - - CONTENTS - By: Bernard Chab­bert

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

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