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Living With a Flight Design CTLS Two-Plus Years Down the Road

By Dr. Kenneth Nolde, Major (USAF-Ret.), EAA 604884, for Light Plane World

Ken and Nancy Nolde
Kenneth and Nancy Nolde and their Flight Design CTLS

On August 20, 2008, my wife, Nancy, and I went to Sebring, Florida (SEF), and took possession of a new Flight Design CTLS (N840KN). This was our first new airplane, and it replaced a beloved and oft-flown 1967 Piper Cherokee PA-28-140. We found that these are two very different machines, but they both fulfilled our basic requirement: a comfortable, affordable, cross-country antigravity machine. Nancy and I have flown the CTLS a total of 360 hours, including three trips to San Diego, California, from our home in Pensacola, Florida.

Because the CTLS is such a departure from our previously owned airplane, the Cherokee, I will make occasional references to it for clarity. Case in point, when we arrived at Lockwood Aviation in Sebring to get our CTLS, it seemed smaller than we had rememberedand certainly markedly smaller than the Cherokee. But sitting in the CTLS cockpit once more, I again realized it was an illusion, and it was actually 5 inches wider and had better visibility.

Despite having read all the manuals thoroughly, I found the CT’s cockpit instrumentation also a bit intimidating. As the CT’s cockpit is wider than the Cherokee’s and despite not having backseats, our airplane got larger. The Cherokee also had all conventional instruments, VOR/ILS, a Garmin 296 GPS, no cockpit weather, no autopilot, and flight data was spread around the panel in 13 different gauges or instruments; single-pilot IFR was a challenge. On the other hand, the CTLS we entered was an “airy” modern aircraft with up-to-date instrumentation: glass panel (Dynon D-100, D-120), a Garmin SL30 Nav/Com/ILS, a TruTrak two-axis autopilot with altitude,and XM weather displayed on a new Garmin 496! Nancy was already trying to decide where to put things in the cockpit.  

Getting Started (or now that we have it, what do we do with it?)
Our respective transitions were quite different. Nancy felt comfortable with the CT right away and was ready to fly the first day. My light-sport aircraft (LSA) transition started with sitting down and talking about the systems and flight characteristics; LSAs are lighter, more aerodynamic, and generally lighter on the controls than typical GA aircraft. Simply put, as my instructor said: “LSAs fly somewhat differently than the heavier GA aircraft. Getting comfortable with these differences is very important.” I found the CT tends to gain airspeed rapidly as the nose is lowered. I wasn’t used to keeping the nose a bit lower to the runway and then holding it off as airspeed slowly bleeds off and gently flaring close to the ground – the idea is to ensure landing on the mains.

I was surprised how quickly the CT will lose airspeed in the flare and will descend surprisingly fast. This means if you flare too high or are too fast, it will bounce which can damage the nose gear in particular. The above isn’t a startling revelation; the CT and LSAs in general require an alteration in landing technique.

The CTLS isn’t difficult to fly or land, but its light weight and relatively slow landing speeds require a bit more attention to winds and the altitude you flare above the runway. Variable or gusty winds are felt, particularly on short final. Here, to my delight, I found crosswind landings in a CT much easier than I expected; the rudder is very effective, and using a forward slip, crab, wing-low crab (which I prefer) are effective techniques.

The pilot’s operating handbook also notes that in higher or gusty wind conditions, taxiing requires attention to the winds, all the way to the parking area or runway. If the wind lifts a wing unexpectedly, it can really raise your pulse rate fast. So a good checkout with an instructor will pay real dividends in flying pleasure, as well as safety. Of course if you have a picky wife or flying partner who grades approaches and landings based on subjective factors such as comfort or how it feels, that provides additional incentive to get good fast.

Next along the way to my LSA proficiency was getting used to the amount of data readily available from the new equipment. Putting this discussion in context, I was leaving behind 50-plus years of military and GA flying (almost 8,000 hours) with the round instruments to embrace a completely new technology of glass/flat panels, weather in the cockpit, and a capable autopilot. Speaking of an autopilot, I hadn’t flown in an airplane with one since 1976 in an RF-4C Phantom II.

As previously mentioned, I did read all the equipment pilot manuals, and while I thought I knew them fairly well when we went to get the CT, I was in for a real surprise. The Dynon D-100 electronic flight instrument system displays its information on one flat-panel instrument; it was awhile before I comfortably felt I knew what data was available and where it was located on the display. While I recognized that the ready availability of flight data organized in one instrument makes flying easier and safer, learning the equipment and how best to use it was an adventure. For example, it was only after four or five flights that I realized I had GPS wind direction and velocity graphically displayed, a valuable aid when landing at a field without an ATIS.

Similarly, the D-120 engine monitoring system and fairly accurate fuel flow data is a great help, particularly if one has to alter a plan in flight. Well, you get the idea – lots of neat stuff that enhances your safety, utility, and capabilities.

When Nancy and I were flying home with our new baby, weather was marginal VFR with convective activity, but Nexrad weather via the GPS was amazing. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to accurately avoid weather. On this flight, I first used the TruTrak autopilot, and after fiddling around a bit, I figured out how to use it. I’ve become a firm advocate of the TruTrak autopilot. (During a checkout, get checked out on all the equipment as well as flying the airplane.)

The pilot operating manuals for the equipment are online, but I found that it’s difficult to really learn how to use the equipment without having it in front of you. Again, an instructor who knows the ins and outs of a system is an invaluable resource. (Fiddling around with the equipment also is an acceptable means of learning!)

Settling In, Getting Comfortable, and Forgetting the Other Plane
The transition and transformation of attitude from the Cherokee to the CT took some effort but was also exciting as all the elements fell into place. It seemed that as we learned more about the airplane, the more we liked it, and the more we flew it. In less than three weeks we had to return to Sebring for the 25-hour new plane inspection, and we were planning our first long cross-country trip.

Back at our home base, 82J (Ferguson Field, Pensacola, Florida), we were settling in, parking in an old wooden shade hangar. Notwithstanding the modest cover it provided, I used a Flight Design cabin cover. Later I used wing and F tail covers from Bruce’s Covers to keep the bird, bat, and bug stuff off the airplane. I had a small storage chest and a portable rotary, 30-gallon fuel pump for mogas at home; the openness of the shade hangar meant gas storage wasn’t an issue, and I also use Sta-Bil, a gas stabilizer. On the road, I use 100 low lead (100LL) and Decalin anti-lead additive.

Shade hangars are common in Florida, despite some cold, occasionally freezing weather from November into March, and are a step up from leaving aircraft in an open parking space. The openness of the shade hangar notwithstanding, I found that using the aircraft covers – well-fitted, heavy-duty types – made the rain (even toad-strangling heavy rain we occasionally have here) not an issue. I never had moisture in the cockpit. Moreover, if we were going away or I was flying solo in the local area, we could drive right up to the plane, unload, and leave the car there until we returned. The shade hangar was a good arrangement, and with a bit of a roof, the airplane, fuel, and small storage chest were mostly out of the direct sun; one could work on the plane in shade. So, I would assume, one could park an LSA outside with confidence.

During the first few of months of ownership, we were engaged in learning the CT and how to use it most comfortably and efficiently. Settled into ownership, we began making long, multiweek cross-country trips very early on. On these flights we learned how to pack the plane efficiently so that we took what we actually needed. We’ve become very good at rolling clothes and packing soft luggage for cross-country trips. See my article, Light-Sport Cross-Country Flying; Let’s Go, in the October 2010 issue of Light Plane World. Read the article.

The CT has performed without incident on cross-country and the frequent proficiency flights I make around the local area. The CT was, and to an extent, remains a novelty at most of the fields I fly into. I occasionally give people rides, but a major activity is simply showing off the LSA and its equipment. People generally are surprised at the extent of the instrumentation, and most particularly, that it has an autopilot.

We easily transitioned to the CT, and particularly in the cross-country mode it is faster, has more range, and cruises higher. It also burns less fuel than the Cherokee. While I don’t fly on instruments now, I would prefer the CT to the Cherokee because of its superior instruments, autopilot, and cockpit weather.

The Reality of Ownership
The CT had a few problems early on, and maintenance could be a problem for owners as most A&Ps or avionics shops are unfamiliar with LSAs, Rotax engines, and normal avionics such as Dynon and TruTrak. For example, currently at 82J there’s no A&P working at the field which isn’t an unusual situation. But from my experience, getting something fixed can be done with a bit of innovation.

In the first week of ownership, after I first flew the CT to Pensacola, I had a transponder malfunction, and the Dynon D-120 failed. I first got hold of an A&P who worked at 82J as required; he contacted Lockwood Aviation which walked him through the process – of removing the box, sending it to Dynon, and putting it back in place when it returned. To fix the transponder, I arranged with Pensacola Approach to fly into Pensacola Regional Airport (PNS) and visit the Blue Angel Aviation shop.

The shop fixed a cable problem, so the transponder was well again. These problems were resolved under warranty, and I learned that with patience help is available. In the first few months of ownership there were several things that required attention. I went back to Sebring for the majority – the point here was that I was able to get servicing for malfunctions, the lack of technicians in the area notwithstanding.

Additionally, I attended two Rotax courses in servicing and maintenance, because a Rotax isn’t like a Lycoming or Continental that A&Ps know well. Lastly, the Rotax Flying and Safety Club is a great source of maintenance information for finding technicians and help for do-it-yourself folks.

After the first few problems were resolved, the CT was a “turnkey” operation, and life in the shade hangar was fine, until March 1, 2010, when a windstorm with 60-mph gusts blew down a wall next to the parking place and damaged the CT. The plane was trucked to Sebring for repairs that took four months because several composite cracks adjacent to load-bearing areas required Flight Design engineering approval.

The delay in getting the plane back was frustrating, but everything was repaired without incident. As luck would have it, a hangar became vacant, so when we brought the plane back it had a real home. This was the first time in 16-plus years of aircraft ownership that we rented a true hangar. It makes an amazing difference! The rental costs are worth the convenience of having a place to store aircraft stuff, there is protection from the elements, and one can work on it out of the sun – a major plus for those of you who use mogas and refuel from gas cans. I don’t use my rotary system anymore because there’s no convenient or secure place to store it; we can’t store fuel in the hangar. So now I use 5-gallon cans and a siphon hose – embarrassingly low tech, but it gets the job done. Moreover, the covers aren’t put on and off each time I fly the plane, a real timesaver.

In October of 2010 we flew into a western airport at dusk and turned on a taxiway that crossed an intersecting runway which had a NOTAM out for resurfacing. Well, to make a long sad story short, we inadvertently went across the runway being resurfaced and the 6-inch or so ditch was enough to really get our attention, particularly as the taxi light went out. We finally found where to park, and a morning inspection revealed a lot of tarry gunk on the plane but no apparent damage. Ah, I thought we dodged a bullet. Six weeks later I took the CT to Sebring for a TruTrak recall for the autopilot, a minor electrical problem (a low-voltage light kept coming on). Plus the taxi light was still out, and it was time for an oil change.

Lockwood called me about an hour later and told me I had to see the airplane. I hadn’t dodged the western bullet after all; the nose gear and the engine mount were bent. Sure as heck, I had to leave the CT at the doctors for a while so that it could undergo – you guessed it – composite repairs. One of the maintenance guys offered that it was good I hadn’t flown the aircraft since the accident and just came to Sebring. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this was the sixth flight since the western incident. However, the guys at Lockwood fixed everything and we’re back in the air.

The Final Analysis of What We Have Learned!
Stuff happens. The accidents grounded us for about six months total, so we missed the antigravity machine. But luckily all’s well in the end. We have 360-plus hours on the CT (as of this writing), and it has been a completely reliable flying machine – literally a “turnkey” operation. The CT is fun to fly with terrific in-flight visibility, and the width of the cabin means no crowding. The cockpit arrangement is interesting in that Nancy and I bring very different things. There’s a small floor storage compartment on each side; I keep a few rags, a fuel dip stick, a combination tool, binoculars, water, and a flashlight.

Nancy has an iPod, crossword book, and reading material. The shelves behind each seat are used for in-flight comfort items and charts. Also, as we both use the most forward setting on the seat adjustment, we can store soft stuff, headset covers, the GPS case, and a Sporty’s “Little John” behind the seats. We have “honed” what we take in the cockpit to items that make cross-country flights more comfortable.

A cost analysis between the CTLS LSA and the Cherokee is difficult because we owned the Cherokee for 14 years versus two years and a half for the CT. The Cherokee acquisition cost including all taxes was $30,500, and for the CT it was $138,500. Cherokee upgrades/modernizations included: a Power Flow exhaust, two radios, ILS/VOR, vortex generators, transponder, speed mods, aerodynamic wheel pans, engine power mod, new heads, CHT gauge, Tannis heater, cover, electronic ignition, and finally a rebuilt engine which totaled about $65,000 for the Cherokee. No upgrades for the CT. The Cherokee burned 8.2 gallons of 100LL/hour; the CT burns 5.2 gallons/hour, and we use mogas for two-thirds of the time – approximately 35 percent less fuel. I used to give the Cherokee a quart of Shell synthetic 15-50 every 7 hours; I’ve added no oil between changes in the CT. 

Based on the above, my estimate strongly indicates the CT will be significantly less expensive over the long haul. The one additional cost we haven’t added for the CT is that of a hangar, but I look at it as an intangible – preventive maintenance if you will. The CTLS is a modern aircraft and brings as such less quantifiable items; it didn’t, like the Cherokee, require significant investment to modernize. I don’t anticipate any major costs to modernize the CT (except possibly automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast next-gen equipment), and maintenance costs thus far have been minimal (the two ground accidents notwithstanding) and mainly mandatory inspections.

Further, I would be remiss not to mention several other things that Nancy and I appreciate, including a 20-knot higher cruise speed, greater range, higher cruise altitudes, much greater visibility, and an autopilot which enhances travel pleasure immeasurably by reducing fatigue. We aren’t tired out by a 4- to 5-hour flight, but the Cherokee was a grind. I love my autopilot!

Finally, our assessment is that we would buy the CTLS again in a heartbeat! As much as we enjoyed the Cherokee, the CT is our absolute favorite mode of travel, so as long as we can; we’ll be going around the country. The CT and LSA flight rules mesh very well, and for Nancy and me that means we will be flying on into the future to revel in the adventure and freedom the aircraft allows us to enjoy! If you have any questions, send an e-mail to kennolde@cox.net and I will try to help you out.

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