It was good to see Nick Bloom and Keith Wilson recently when they visited Little Gransden to do the article on the Extra 330sc. I think its come out really well; thanks guys.
Feature | Abarth Extra
Ever wondered what it would be like to fly one of the world’s top aerobatic single-seaters for the first time?
Words Nick Bloom Photographs Keith Wilson
“Have you still got all your marbles?” asks Mark on the phone. It is an odd way to begin a telephone conversation, but perhaps understandable now I’m past the age of sixty.
“As far as I know,” I say. (A range of smarter answers occur to me later.)
“Then come and fly with me in my new two-seat Extra. If you can hack it, you can have a go in the Abarth Extra and write about it for Pilot.”
It sounds wonderful. Mark’s single-seat Extra 330SC is one of the top aerobatic machines in the world. Who wouldn’t want to fly it? But it also sounds daunting. You have to be current in aerobatics and tailwheel to survive, let alone get the measure of a machine like that, and I’m distinctly rusty in both areas. Mark says, “It’s like riding a bicycle, Nick. You’ll be alright.”
Mark Jefferies is one of maybe fifty aerobatic pilots with a world-wide reputation who are able to command top dollar for their displays. In 1992 my life might have forked down that route. Mark was double booked and asked me to step in, since we both had a Laser and both flew at Unlimited. I obtained a Display Authorisation and flew at two events as a substitute Mark Jefferies. I could have built on that and my competition successes. However, after a few more public displays in other aircraft I decided that display flying wasn’t for me. Too much hard work for too little reward. Many a time since, though, I’ve wondered if it was the right decision, especially at the height of the Red Bull Air Races.
To make a go of display flying you need to attack it like a business. The right sponsor is vital, as is an aggressive approach to finding bookings. And you need to charge a realistic fee and establish a reputation for reliability. Lastly, you need the right aeroplane, something with a good cruise speed and endurance for getting to venues. It’s got to be big and loud enough for visual impact – with computer controlled smoke system and on-board camera, of course – and have a dazzling performance. Mark’s chosen mount is the Abarth Extra – a personalised Extra 330SC.
Superficially the Abarth Extra is a single-seat version of the Extra 300L. However, it has been substantially lightened – its empty weight is 585kg, fifteen per cent less than the two-seater (and there’s only one occupant). Add to that a 315hp engine that is five per cent more powerful and a number of important changes to the controls and aerodynamics and you have a significantly more capable aeroplane.
Looking at it another way, empty, the Abarth Extra has more than double the power-to-weight ratio of a Piper Warrior. And it’s a taildragger with massive control surfaces. Actually, it’s a rather terrifying aeroplane, if you aren’t up to it. And I am at this moment not untypical of an average Pilot reader, flying around fifteen hours a year. Flying aerobatics and taildragger as infrequently as I have in the last few years, I must be equivalent to a pilot with a few hundred hours including, say fifty hours on tailwheel and twenty of aerobatics. If that describes you, then you can put yourself in my shoes.
Mark is busy as usual when I arrive. He runs at least two other companies in addition to his considerable aerobatic display business: Little Gransden Airfield and importer and maintenance company Yak UK Ltd. I get a quick sighting of Mark, mobile phone glued to his ear, heading from office to house. It emerges that a pilot (one of a stable he works with) has telephoned from abroad for help with flight planning. Various other calls follow. In between them, Mark wants me to see film taken in-cockpit while he flies a display. (To see it, go to www.airdisplays.com and follow the links.)
I watch as his face is wildly contorted while the world in the screen behind him rotates, inverts and wobbles at unbelievable speed. He flies wearing glasses and they rise off his nose and up to his forehead under negative G, re-seating themselves under positive G. It’s amazing.
Aeroplanes like the Abarth Extra have made it possible to fly some very dramatic figures indeed, which you will witness if you watch the film, or see Mark at an airshow. For instance, one mind-boggling manoeuvre is a development of the rolling circle, the flick-rolling circle. To understand this, begin with a roll, a basic manoeuvre first flown in front of audiences before the Great War. Everyone knows this one. You push the stick to one side and the aircraft rotates upside down then right way up again. Next you refine it into a rolling circle by changing direction (usually through ninety degrees) while rolling. This used to make a pretty, flowing manoeuvre when I flew it in a Stampe, as four successive rolls making a complete horizontal circle.
The flick rolling circle is a far more violent refinement enabling the whole thing to be flown at double or triple speed. Instead of lift coming from the wings, it is delivered by engine thrust vectored upwards. The wings themselves are stalled, creating huge amounts of drag. Meanwhile the aircraft is kept auto-rotating while turning. It’s done through a combination of engine torque, control surfaces that are so big that they continue to function even when the wings are stalled, and gyroscopics. It’s demanding and needs the reactions of a lunging snake.
I’m still watching Mark’s face undergoing horror movie distortions on his office computer when a young man called Martin arrives, delivering an Abarth 500 car. This is the turbo-charged, 135hp modified version of the Fiat 500, with a 0-62mph acceleration of just 7.9 seconds. Martin has driven it to the airfield so it can be in any photographs I might take. Not unreasonably, the sponsor wants their money’s worth.
I help Mark pull the two-seat Extra 300L out of its hangar. He’s owned it since January and it is available for aerobatic instruction at £350 an hour dry. It is fitted with an on-board camera, so if you fly with Mark, you can own film of yourself having your face distorted by G-forces as a souvenir.
“This costs over ten thousand Euros,” says Mark, tapping the cockpit canopy. “So don’t damage it. Don’t, for instance, do what you just did and leave your headset on the longeron where it might harm the canopy as it closes – leave the headset here, on the cockpit coaming.”
I’m to take the rear seat. Mark leaves me to climb aboard and strap myself in. To indicate the route I must follow, there’s a footstep on the fuselage, footprints on the parachute, and ‘no step’ signs on the aileron push rods. It’s a big cockpit with a reclining seat. I work my way into the parachute and harness, which includes a ratchet for making the lapstrap really tight.
Mark returns and inspects. “Lots of people make this mistake,” he says, undoing my straps and doing them up again, “putting the shoulder straps through the top buckle. All five must go through the same buckle – otherwise you’ll tear yourself apart in a crash.” “Pedals OK?” he asks.
I noticed switches in the row on the panel. “You adjust them with these?” He nods. “Neat,” I say, moving the pedals back a few inches.
“Well, you haven’t got them in the Abarth Extra,” says Mark, “Nor a reinforced wing walk, so don’t step on the wing. There’s nothing that might add weight”.
Trussed in tight, I tell him I’m ready. He climbs in the front. “Squeeze the two levers to lock the canopy,” he says. “Don’t attempt to just push on the rear one.”
He briefs me on the starting procedure – four seconds on the electric primer in rich, throttle set, lean, crank, go to rich – and I fire up the big Lycoming. Thunder and vibration from up front. We fiddle with radio and intercom and I taxi out across the grass towards the runway, weaving from side to side in order to see where we’re going.
“Don’t ride the brakes,” says Mark. “They’re toe brakes and it is easy to push slightly on them without realising you’re doing it.”
We wait for the oil temperature to register, then I test the mags and cycle the big three-bladed prop a couple of times. Mark has already told me the crucial speed for climb out and approach, which is 85-90 knots. Bearing in mind that this is the speed I often cruise at in other aircraft, it is somewhat daunting.
I line up and go to full throttle. The aeroplane leaps forwards, accelerating rapidly. As briefed, I let it run tail-down, then just lift the tailwheel, keeping lots of propeller clearance. Visibility is peripheral, but after the initial jab of rudder to counteract spiral airflow, the aircraft feels like it’s running straight. Within a short while it lifts off by itself. I immediately make an un-commanded wing wobble, the sensitive ailerons catching me by surprise. I adjust my internal settings and the climbing turn that follows is reasonably smooth. We spiral up over the airfield at a climb rate that doesn’t shock me, but brings back memories of the Laser and Pitts Specials I used to fly when my world was young.
I run through some aerobatics. Looping manoeuvres go well, but I have considerable difficulty with rolling at anything even close to maximum deflection. The roll rate hurts my head and I stop the roll with a rapid uncommanded wobble that hurts my head even more. Most unpleasant. Gradually I adjust and my manoeuvres become smoother and less jerky. I fly loops, half cubans and half reverse cubans, stall turns, humpty bumps and finally some vertical rolls. I try flick rolls with minimal deflection of rudder and elevator and do get some genuine autorotations. Very snappy.
“What do you think?” asks Mark. “Nice aeroplane,” I say, and yes, part of me thinks it is. The view out is generous, the seat’s comfortable, the controls are light, progressive and accurate and of course there’s loads and loads of power, but it all seems unnecessarily capable. And I have the feeling that the aeroplane’s flying me and I’m not fully in control. My manoeuvres have been ragged at best and I came out of all of them slightly off-axis.
“Ready to try a landing?” he asks.
I was just thinking that. Today it’s the only manoeuvre that really counts. “Yes.”
“OK. I’ll just show you something first.”
Mark tells me to keep an eye on the sun ahead and I dutifully squint at it. Mark does something. I think we go knife edge and tuck under, but instantly become confused as we go through exactly the kind of rapid tumbling I saw earlier in the film. All wasted on me, fun in a fairground ride sort of a way, but I’m too disorientated to follow. Earth and sky flash in rapid succession in front of my eyes and I’m thrown about as much as the harness allows. Then we’re back upright.
“See?” says Mark. “The sun was on the right wingtip throughout.”
Was it? I lost sight of the sun right at the start, but say, “Yes, most impressive,” anyway.
“Better tighten your straps for the next one,” says Mark. I rather shakily find the ratchet and tighten it a few notches and off we go for another session in the tumble dryer. It’s soon over. “Wow,” I say.
“You have control,” says Mark. My first approach to land is a bit of a mess. I’m lined up OK, but I’m approaching at too shallow an angle and get too low, then screw up my airspeed by having to feed in progressively more power. We cross the hedge a touch high and too fast at 95kt. I round out and close the throttle and we skim… and skim…. and skim. The runway flashes past. Can’t be much left of it, I’m thinking and the wheels still haven’t touched. “Better go round,” says Mark, just as I open the throttle. The circuit I make is fine and my speed control not bad, until I line up. Or rather, don’t. I’m off to one side of the runway. “Not lined up,” says Mark. “I know,” I say. “Give us a moment.” I get back on line and manage to cross the hedge at only 90kt this time, and even get the wheels to touch half way down the runway, but Mark advises another go around. “I’ll make the next landing,” he says, “though I can’t see much from the front”.
Ah, I realise, a few minutes later. We need a steeper approach. He flies right down the ground and we touch down.
“Nothing wrong with 90kt,” he says, which I take it means you can come in at a slower speed and he’s upped it to give me a safety margin. He opens the throttle for a go around and hands control back to me.
Coming in higher and this time a touch below 90kt I actually arrive at the right point on the runway… though at one point on short final, the needle unwound all the way back to 75kt. I saw it and corrected in time, but Mark commented on the lapse. I’m not doing terribly well.
I brake to a stop, Mark warning me, “Keep the stick all the way back if you’re going to brake, or it’ll go on its nose,” and backtrack.
“This will be the last circuit,” says Mark, and I know we’re both thinking, cock this one up and I won’t be flying the Abarth Extra.
The take off is smooth and I make my usual tight circuit at 500ft. I position well, the speed stays between 85kt and 90kt, and although I do need to add power on short final, it’s only a modest amount. The wheels touch briefly in a light bounce shortly after crossing the hedge, which may be untidy but does tell me exactly where the ground is. I hold off for what seems a reasonable time and let the aircraft drop the last inch. No bounces and it runs smoothly to a stop, using two-thirds of the runway. (As it happens there’s a brisk headwind today, which helps.)
“What do you think?” asks Mark as I taxy in. “Do you feel ready?”
I do, substantially, just not a hundred per cent. No point in saying that, though. “Yes, I feel ready,” I tell him.
But once we’ve taxied in and are undoing our straps I feel obliged to add, “Mostly ready. The thing is, we could have a rest and do a couple more circuits in the two-seater or go straight to the single-seater and I’m afraid more work in this aeroplane will just tire me out without achieving anything.”
“OK,” says Mark. “But bear in mind I’ve got airshows booked until the end of the year in the Abarth Extra. Don’t break it.” I tell him I’ll do my best. At least the insurance covers me (Mark’s got it insured for pilots with over 500 hours of tailwheel).
Things happen quickly after that and it can’t be more than ten minutes later that I’m strapping into the single seater. It’s a lovely little aeroplane, all the neater and prettier for accommodating just one person. When I start the engine, I distinctly get the feel of more power in a lighter airframe, and this grows when I taxy towards the runway. Mark’s watching with a handheld radio and we establish communication. I always feel more at home when I’m alone in an aeroplane, and illogically, more confident, but it’s reassuring to hear his voice in my earphones. I run through the same pre-take off checks as before. “You found out where everything is? Everything working?” asks Mark and I tell him yes.
That’s it, everything in the green, nothing left to do now but fly. I line up and smoothly go to full throttle. The acceleration is considerably faster than in the two-seater and just as I lift the tailwheel, the aircraft flies itself off. I glance at the ASI, certain that we can’t be at flying speed so quickly, but it’s at 85kt and climbing. Mark briefed me to expect a climb out attitude close to the 45-degree wing marker, so I pitch up forty degrees, feeling closer to riding a rocket than flying an aeroplane. The climb rate is formidable, far better than any other aerobatic aircraft I’ve flown. In fact, I’m a little nervous about losing the airfield. I bank and there it is, shrinking visibly below me.
I don’t have a lot of time, since I’m flying on the aerobatic tank, which gives me about twenty minutes. (The Abarth Extra has tanks in the wings for cross country work.) So at 2,500ft, I level off and let the speed build for a loop. I make the pull up gently, but still get a momentary stall buffet, the aeroplane giving a little shudder as it pitches. Excited and not wanting to stop, I follow the loop immediately with a stall turn, remembering to add progressive right rudder.
The first time I pitched to the vertical in the two seater and compared one wing with the other, the right was well above the horizon, while the left tip was on it – not enough rudder to counter spiral airflow. So now I know roughly how much to apply.
I check the wingtips and we seem to be symmetrical. As the airflow begins to break up, the aircraft starts to shudder – again I can feel that this is a very light airframe – and I push on full left rudder. For a moment I wonder if I’ve left it too late and am going to tailslide, but the Abarth Extra rotates cleanly and we’re pointing straight down. My, we have gained a lot of altitude! I throttle back.
Determined to fly smoothly and enjoy myself (I’m never going to get the full measure of this delightful beast on my first flight) I follow with a cuban eight without stopping in level flight. I can’t quite rid myself of the momentary stall buffet when pitching up, there must be a trick to it.
Earlier, Mark pointed out some very advanced aerodynamics in the aileron surfaces forwards of the hinge point towards the wingtips. These stick out into the airflow and act like spades to neutralise control forces, but they also help to centre the ailerons. Mark promised that I’d notice a greatly reduced tendency for the wings to wobble after rolling. He’s right… but the Abarth Extra makes this shudder when I pitch instead. Then the penny drops: it’s not the aeroplane, it’s me pulling a little too hard and not having quite enough entry speed when beginning the pitch up. More speed and/or less pull does the trick.
I make my next manoeuvre a slow roll. Even at modest deflection, the aircraft rolls too quickly and I barrel it – the nose wanders off axis. I try some point rolls, which in the two seater were especially difficult to do without the wobble, and they are easier in the Abarth Extra, providing I use the ailerons sparingly. I pull off a not bad eight-pointer. Then a square loop – wonderful with all that power – and a hexagonal loop. A vertical roll – untidy, but just about OK – and a stall turn gets me back over the airfield.
I just know flick rolls are going to be difficult, but I try one anyway, making, as rapidly as I can, a quarter deflection of rudder and elevator. The aircraft auto-rotates at first, then the wings un-stall and it turns into a barrel roll. In a Stampe or a Pitts Special, flick rolls are much easier than they are in any Extra, because all you have to do is heave on full deflection, go to neutral on elevator and then reverse the controls to stop. The wings of these sophisticated modern monoplanes are designed to hang on grimly to airflow, so they can, for instance, make multiple vertical rolls and fly off with no airspeed without stalling. The downside is that this makes them harder to flick convincingly.
I promised myself some negative G, so I roll inverted and ever so gently push through a half loop to level flight. The aeroplane does this very well.
Better try a half loop, half roll, I think. After the half roll, I’m at a fairly low airspeed so this seems as good a moment as any to try a full deflection aileron roll. I hold the stick all the way over and am rewarded with a series of dizzying rolls, probably two and a half before I stop. That has toppled my gyros somewhat and I have to fly level for a bit until the world stops turning.
I have a quick go at an Avalanche – not bad – and decide it’s probably time to think about landing while I still have plenty of fuel in hand and am not too tired. I actually don’t want to come down, because this is a superb aeroplane.
The one basic manoeuvre I haven’t tried is a spin. I need to lose height anyway. So I close the throttle and hold straight and level. It takes time and space but eventually the nose drops and I push in full left rudder. The nose drops some more and we rotate lazily through the full turn before I recover, but I can tell it’s just a downward spiral; the aeroplane wasn’t auto-rotating. I try a level stall to see what that’s going to be like – the aircraft obviously hates stalling and I bet I’m going to get a mush. Mark, who’s been silent throughout, says in my earphones, “I’d rather you didn’t spin from that height, Nick,” just as I abandon the attempt.
I drop down over the airfield, struggling a bit to lose height without picking up speed, but successfully end up on a high base leg, close in at 90kt. One reason I tended to come in too fast in the two-seater is that the nose in both aeroplanes gets in the way and stops you seeing where you’re going once you raise it to get below 90kt. Sideslipping makes it harder to judge the descent rate, not good, because it is easy to get below the descent gradient in these aircraft. Adding power at that point screws things up, because you need quite a lot of it to correct the loss of height.
Knowing these things from my previous flight makes it easier to avoid earlier mistakes and I make a smooth, well-judged approach with just a touch of sideslip to improve the view and an airspeed between 85kt and 90kt. I make the early wheels touching, ‘so that’s where the ground is’, mild bounce that I made in my final landing in the two seater, and then I’m skimming over the runway with the throttle closed. The aircraft drops the last inch a quarter-way into the runway and with moderate braking (stick hard back) slows to a stop half way down. I backtrack, weaving from side to side and taxi to the pumps.
It’s an enormous relief to hand the aircraft back unharmed, but also a sad moment. I may never get to fly anything this good again.
Mark wants me to see what the Abarth Extra can do in more capable hands, so he tops up the fuel and taxies out. His just-for-me display begins with snarling down the runway, leaving the ground almost immediately, but accelerating in ground effect. Some 400 metres after opening the throttle, Mark hauls the aircraft into a vertical climb and immediately slams into two and a half full vertical rolls, gaining a thousand feet. By now the aeroplane is running out of speed and he pulls it onto its back – more like a right angle than a quarter loop – where it appears to stop moving and become completely stationary. This is where power-to-weight and powerful controls come into play, because where other aircraft would flick into a spin and disaster, the Abarth Extra accelerates and flies cleanly away.
A blistering display follows, big graceful, looping manoeuvres bottoming out a hundred feet above the runway, rocking upward spirals, tumbling lomcovaks, flick rolling circles and click-click-click, geometrically perfect hesitation rolls down the runway. In amongst a well-timed display filled with variety there are also some demonstrations of hovering, the aircraft almost vertical, nearly stationary, hanging on its propeller, the noise from its engine drumming and booming as it reflects back from the ground.
Towards the end, Mark swoops low on base leg, so low that he disappears momentarily behind the trees. He banks steeply, descending at slow speed so that it looks as though he’s going to land. Then the aircraft rears up in a dazzling series of multiple flick rolls, only they’re not the usual kind, something faster, more divergent and more violent. I notice in particular that there’s a kind of fish-tailing involved, the tail whipping from side to side. It’s most dramatic, something I haven’t seen before and particularly impressive because it’s right in front of me and not far above the runway. He sweeps round the airfield and makes one final pass fifty feet above the runway in nose-high, steep sideslip, almost at knife edge, displaying the sponsor’s logo on the wings for the ‘crowd’, then makes a low tight circuit and a perfect landing. As he taxies past me I clap him in, and he deserves the applause.
“What was that fishtailing, multiple flick manoeuvre near the end?” I ask him, in his kitchen afterwards.
Mark grins. “Oh, you noticed that,” he says. “It’s something new I’ve just invented. I call it the Crossover Flick Roll. You go from plus six to minus five G in less than a quarter of a second and then rotate under negative G once every second. This is an aeroplane on which you can discover something new on every flight.”
Mark has had the aircraft two and a half years. It flies a hundred hours a year, of which sixty are aerobatics. He displays at fifty events a year, ten of them abroad. The country list is impressive: The Emirates, Romania, Korea, China, Malta, Slovinia, Denmark, Holland and New Zealand among others. For those events the aeroplane is dismantled and shipped in a forty foot container. Within the UK, he flies to events and appreciates the Abarth Extra’s useful cruise speed of 165kt. (You can find out more from www.airdisplays.com.)
I ask if he has any future plans. “I gave up competition aerobatics last year because I decided to devote myself to the display world,” he says. (Mark has been British Unlimited Aerobatic Champion four times and one year came ninth in the World Aerobatic Championship.) “With others, I am developing what we are calling the World Air Master Grand Prix. We ran the first event in May in China with ten international pilots. You could loosely describe it as rather like the Red Bull Air Races, but with more emphasis on display aerobatics against the clock. It also includes a Freestyle contest and crucially, it’s judged by the audience, not by aerobatic judges.”
Mark displays at everything from weddings to events like the one at Southend where the audience was estimated to number 40,000. Which does he prefer? “I like the feeling that I’m bringing people something they haven’t seen before,” he says. “I flew at the Guernsey Wooden Spoon Charity event, and afterwards was invited to the dinner, which had many VIP guests. I got a standing ovation and many people talked to me afterwards, saying they’d never seen anything like it and how come I wasn’t sick.”
Mark also does a lot of formation display flying, partnering with a variety of pilots. Tom Cassells (another former British Champion) will partner Mark in 2012 at airshows here and abroad with the Global Stars team .
The economics of his display flying and particularly his sponsorship by Abarth are confidential, but he charges £1,200 to £1,500 for a ten minute display flown within fifty miles of base – “About what people pay these days for fireworks,” he says. Insurance costs £5,000, maintenance around £3,000 and if he didn’t own the airfield, hangarage would cost £2,000 per annum. The Abarth Extra consumes sixty litres of Avgas an hour in cruise, rising to eighty or ninety when flying aerobatics. Mark reckons on paying for the aeroplane within six years of display flying.
Nick Richards has the only other UK-based Extra 330SC. It’s based at Wycombe Air Park and he’s just started competing at Advanced in it.
For my final question, I ask what aircraft would Mark most like to fly that he still hasn’t? In my case, it’s the rotary engined Sopwith Camel.
“The Mustang and the Lavochkin La-7,” he says. “I’ve already flown the Yak 3.”
“All warbirds, then.”
“The best three in WW2.”
I say my goodbyes and hit the road.
If you’re tempted, a new Extra 330SC costs 320,000 Euros plus VAT, ex-works. Having flown one, I would point out that its superb performance would be a handicap until you reached Advanced level aerobatics. Once at that level, though, you couldn’t ask for a finer aircraft. And despite my apparent difficulty, it’s actually a lot easier to land than a Pitts S-2C.
EXTRA 330SC 295,000 Euros**
Wing area 9.8sq m
WEIGHTS AND LOADINGS
MTOW normal 870kg
MTOW aerobatic 780kg
Normal load 195kg
G limits +/- 10g
Fuel capacity 224 lit
Aerobatic fuel 101 lit
Max manoeuvring 158kt
Max roll rate 400 deg/sec
Take off to 50ft 250m*
Landing from 50ft 550m*
ENGINE AND PROPELLER
Lycoming AEIO-580-B1A, 315 hp, 6-cylinder engine driving a Muehlbauer, MTV 9-B-C/C198-25, 3-blade CS propeller, with Gomolzig, 6-in-1 exhaust system
EXTRA Flugzeugproduktions – und Vertriebs – GmbH, Schwarze Heide 21
46569 Hünxe, Germany.
YAK UK Ltd, Little Gransden Airfield, Sandy, Bedfordshire, SG19 3BP
England Tel: int +44 (0)1767 651 156 Fax: int +44 (0)1767 651 157 Mobile: int +44 (0)7785 538 317. Web www.extraaircraft.co.uk
*estimated by Mark Jefferies
**2012 price, plus VAT, ex-works