Challenger Pilot Report

The VIP Group Looks At The

Challenger II

Advanced Ultralight Aircraft

A special report by Kenneth J Kerr


Last week as I guided the trusty Plymouth Voyager north on Highway 400 from Toronto to Barrie, it seemed to me that the atmosphere was just a little more relaxed, the mood a bit more jovial. Nothing to do with the road, I hasten to add, or the skill (or lack thereof) of my fellow drivers... but rather the fact that I was once again following the call of the blue blue skies, and was on my way for my first flight in a truly remarkable aircraft called the Challenger II.

To say that the Challenger II is an Ultralight is to be descriptively correct, but forget everything you ever saw about ultralights, and get ready to throw all your preconceptions into the dim and distant past. Say the word Ultralight and many people imagine a rather flimsy looking structure resembling a paper dart, complete with a cradle in which some enterprising (or foolhardy) soul hangs precariously as if willing to risk life and limb like a modern day Icarus. Well, if you're one of those people who thinks that way, feast your eyes on the picture at the top of this page, and think again !

Yes.. that sleek and futuristic looking beauty is an Ultralight, or to be more accurate, an "Advanced Ultralight". No more hanging out in the elements here, in this machine a sleek and comfortable cockpit makes you feel like you're sitting in your own private F-16. No more paper darts in the sky, for in many ways this machine looks and feels and performs like a regular (or "real") aeroplane. Indeed, this aircraft has it all, looks, performance, sheer "in your face" flying fun, and a singularly important and unexpected benefit... Affordability! Owning and flying a Challenger II suddenly brings the previously unheard-of "myth" of "affordable flying" one massive step closer, so much so that this writer has just added a Challenger II to his own personal goal list !

In writing this report, I really don't want to fill your head full of the dry facts and figures, although some of that will be included. Rather I want to share the simple "joy of flying" which comes as a result of taking to the skies in this superb aeroplane. After all, it seems to me that General Aviation has swung to a position in which there's so much complexity, so many rules and regulations and high costs, that for many people the fun has just plain gone out of it. Maybe that's why so many would-be aviators only get so far in their training and then stop (as I did) short of the flight test, or why there are probably more private pilots with lapsed licenses than there are with current ones. Is there any way to get the fun back? Is there any way to return to the simple thrill of true recreational flying? I believe there is - the Challenger II.

The Aircraft

I met Bryan Quickmire of National Ultralight Inc. at Barrie Springwater Airpark. As we walked around the aircraft he described it as "the Miata of the air", and settling into the front seat, I could see just how apt that description was. Just like a typical sports car, the fit was fairly tight but comfortable, with everything falling immediately to hand. Throttle and choke levers on the left (just like a fighter), basic flight and engine instruments easily visible right in front, and assorted radios, GPS and even a cell phone scattered around the periphery of the panel. The visibility was absolutely superb as the front seat is located ahead of the leading edge of the wing, giving almost unrestricted forward, side, upward and downward fields of vision. Above the pilots head were assorted switches for headsets, engine start and a trim/flap lever to operate the flaperons. I sat there while Bryan did the pre-flight check (a short procedure for this aircraft) and then I grudgingly traded the "captain's seat" for the passenger position in the back. Because this particular aircraft was not equipped on this occasion with a rear control column, I was only going to experience it as a passenger, but with my mouth already salivating with anticipation, that was not going to deter me from savouring the experience to the full.

Starting the Challenger is easy, a quick turn of the key fires the engine up, and best operating procedures suggest that it is allowed to idle for a few minutes while the engine warms up. During this time we checked seat belts, headset comfort, microphone volumes and the like. Sitting in the back of the Challenger II reminds me of the back seat of a Piper Cub, your legs go either side of the pilots seat and your feet rest on the rear rudder pedals. It was very comfortable and I was able to settle back into the almost Recaro-style seats in a way which would put your average Cessna or Piper to shame. Noise level was no worse than a typical GA aircraft, and visibility from the back, although restricted by pilot seat up front, and high wing on either side, was still very very good, much better than the front seat of most GA aircraft I've flown.

We taxied out to the end of the runway with the side windows/doors wide open. These are hinged at the top and may be removed completely and quickly to make the Challenger II an open cockpit aircraft in "summer configuration." However with late October temperatures down to 40 degrees F that day, we closed them and reverted to "winter configuration" for the rest of the flight. After waiting for a couple of other (and more typically basic ultralights) to vacate the runway, we lined up, and Bryan smoothly throttled up to begin our takeoff roll.

The Flight

As we started to accelerate, Bryan began to tell me that the take-off run was rather atypical of the type since he owns "probably the world's heaviest Challenger!" as he put it. However, we were airborne before he finished the explanation, lifting off after 10 seconds at around 40 mph and climbing at 400 to 500 ft per minute. Having become used to the longer take-off runs of Piper Warriors, Cessnas and Robins, I found myself amazed that this little machine could perform like this, even more so when you appreciate that this aircraft is equipped with a full amphibious option with floats and retractable landing gear.

After climbing up to about 2500 ft, Bryan began to demonstrate the handling of the aircraft. Bear in mind that this is a fully-laden amphibian with two adult males on board, that's why these performance characteristics are so amazing. First of all we did a couple of power-on stalls. Looking out along the wing I was amazed at the steep angle of climb we were achieving while allowing airspeed to bleed off, then at about 37 mph, there was a slight buffet in the seat of the pants, then nose down, instant recovery, and Bryan announced that we had GAINED 200 feet during the demonstration! Apparently the wheeled version with one person on board will stall at a mere 24 mph, and with two on board the figure only increases to 28 mph!

Next we found a cloverleaf at a junction of the highway and proceeded to experience the incredible turning ratio of the Challenger II. Without loss of altitude, we turned through two complete revolutions of 360 degrees within the radius of that highway cloverleaf. I allowed my gaze to shift from the cloverleaf to the front of the aircraft and was staggered to find we were maintaining around 60 degrees of bank. Apparently the aircraft is stressed for +6 and -3 G, and again I almost had to pinch myself to remember this was an amphibious ultralight we were flying. We did yet another steep turn over a small helipad near the hospital and this was quickly followed by wing-over... In an ultralight for goodness sakes!!!! On amphibious floats!!!! That was when I started grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat and found myself repeating in my mind over and over again "I WANT ONE!" like some kind of religious chant.

Now it was time to enjoy the thrill of low flying along the shores of Kempenfelt Bay, part of the larger Lake Simcoe. Wheeling down in a descending spiral to the right, Bryan brought the aircraft down to about 150 feet off the water and at around 60 mph cruised for five minutes along the north shore of the bay. At this level the Challenger II becomes a perfect sightseeing or photographic platform, it is slow enough to enjoy the view, relaxing to fly when using the flaperons to correctly trim for level flight, and although still noisy from inside, quiet enough from the outside so that it does not constitute a nuisance. Of course, having floats when flying over a lake helps the aircraft to blend in even at low level, and as Bryan explained "They make it look like the aircraft belongs here" and right enough, we got our fair share of friendly waves from people along the shoreline. After passing a number of multi-million dollar homes along the lakeshore, we turned South and flew across the Bay to the Southern shore. Now it was time for even lower and more sedate flying.

With the aircraft a mere 10 to 20 feet above the water, and trimmed for straight and level flight at about 50 to 55 mph, we cruised along the shoreline in what has to be the most relaxing bit of flying I have ever experienced in a powered aircraft. The sun was glinting into millions of momentary diamonds and starbursts on the surface of the water, the deep blue of the bay was matched only by the most gorgeous azure-blue of the cloudless sky above. We flew like this for about ten minutes, passing boats anchored at small private moorings, sweeping over flocks of Seagulls and Canada Geese which even seemed to part and make way for the aircraft as we drew closer. Now and again we'd see people braving the cooling temperatures as they enjoyed a picnic in the wooded areas along the edge of the lake, and here and there we'd pass parkland with children playing on swings, or running after their dogs as they enjoyed life to the full.... But nothing could compare with the enjoyment I was having a mere 20 feet off the water.

As we continued Westward, we came to the end of the Bay and the town of Barrie itself. The Bay is fairly large, but a float equipped Cessna would not be able to fly round the bay while maintaining legal separation from the shoreline and the buildings. However, the slower speed of the Challenger took it in its stride and we were able to cruise round the end of the bay affording us a safe, spectacular and legal view of the lakeshore and the town centre. No other aircraft that I have flown could have performed this incredible feat without breaking the rules, endangering flight safety and making a pest of itself, but the Challenger did it with panache and style ! At the end of our exploration of the bay, we simply picked a point on the shore and touched down into the bay at at less than 40 mph in the flare. We were stopped in a remarkably short time, and we bobbed along for a few moments enjoying "the complimentary boat" that comes along with the purchase of an amphibious Challenger II.

Take off from the water was almost as impressive as take off from the runway earlier in the day. From power up, we were "on the step" in about 8 seconds, and airborne in about 15 seconds, you can imagine how these figures would be even more dramatic with only one person on board. As we climbed up over the bay I was able to get a superb look at the town, so different from the frantic pace of Toronto a mere 90 kilometers to the south... I could see a possible future move of The VIP Group to a place like this.. Affordable flying, affordable housing, lakes, trees.... and the Challenger II!!!! Hmm.... But I digress!!

After climbing up to 3000 ft and overflying the town, Bryan pointed the nose towards a smaller lake ( called "Little Lake" ) just to the North and started talking about the gliding characteristics of the aircraft. Then, as we got closer to the smaller body of water, he said "But the best way to get that across is just to do it..." and with that he reached up and turned off the engine! Just like that! Well, remember that grin I told you about? About two seconds after realizing that we were not about to die, the grin returned with a vengeance. Silence is golden so they say, and it does not come any better than this... Our Challenger II had just become an amphibious motor glider!

As we wheeled around over Little Lake I enjoyed looking at the lush fairways of a beautiful golf course on the shoreline.... Oh man... all this and golf too!!! Then as we got even closer to the water, Bryan demonstrated a superbly-flown side slip, and we dropped down into the flare and landed on the lake with only the sound of the water splashing on the floats to herald our arrival! A perfect deadstick landing on a lake in a Challenger II. Bryan explained that sometimes he comes over to this lake and just lands for the heck of enjoying the water and the environment, he also pointed out a jetty with a restaurant which served "great hamburgers", and then he informed me that if we'd just landed because we were short of fuel, we could fill up the Challenger II with either aviation fuel, boat fuel, ordinary car gas, or a mixture of all three!!! Apparently even running low on fuel is not a major problem in this aircraft as long as any of the above is available somewhere near a short landing point. Again I was staggered as I compared such flying flexibility with everything I knew about Pipers, Cessnas and the like... And as Bryan reminded me, you'd only do a deadstick landing onto a lake once in one of those!

Well even an idyllic experience such as a Challenger II flight has to come to an end, so we lifted off from Little Lake and made our way back towards Barrie Airpark. As we came closer I started asking about purchase options for a Challenger II, and I knew with conviction that I'd like to own one of these aircraft. As Bryan extended the landing gear I thought about the highlights of the flight, and the myriad pleasures which had been experienced in that all-too-brief hour and a half. And it was then that the true value of flying a Challenger II hit home in my heart, mind and soul....

To dream again...

For every pilot who has given up on the dream of aircraft ownership, the Challenger II has the potential to re-kindle the dream. For every aviator who has found the edge taken off their flying experiences through the relative monotony and complexity of typical club aircraft, the Challenger II offers a fresh new beginning and the restoration of the joy of flying. And for every student pilot who stopped short of the goal, for whatever reason, the Challenger II offers enough motivation to take another serious look at going for it again and getting back into the air... These are precious realities and incredible motivators to bring back the gleam in they eyes of now-grounded aviators the world over, but most of them have never heard of the Challenger II and have previously shaken their heads at the whole idea of ultralight flying as something not even as good as second class... The Challenger II changes all that!

I for one will do everything I can to get the word out about the existence, availability and sheer pleasure offered by this incredible flying machine. What better way to introduce people to the joys of flight than this? Here is an inexpensive way to get people into aviation in a fraction of the time it takes on traditional aircraft with a fraction of the cost. The Challenger II says to the entire aviation industry "Hey!!! I'm here, the answer you've been looking for to rejuvenate the General Aviation scene... Come and take a look!"

- Kenneth J Kerr

Our test aircraft, C-FXSL.

Pictures included in this report are copyrighted by National Ultralight Inc.
and are reproduced herein with their permission.