Welcome to Newsletter No. 4, Another 2 days each way on an aeroplane flying from Australia to the Czech Republic again !!. I am knocking up the frequent flyer miles and getting a sore bum in the process but the good news is our first shipment is on the boat and sailing to Australia. I have following a newsletter on our progress so far and a bit of background information on how we came across the Sting and Star Aircraft for the late arrivals to our web site. As always just click on the smaller images throughout this page for an enlarged view and any questions please get back to me by using the email button at the bottom of this page.
Sting - The Story So Far........
I sit here writing this story in a small hotel room in the Czech Republic town of Hradec Kralove approximately 120 kms to the east of the capital Prague.
In reflection so much has happened in the past 7 months and our dreams and plans of introducing a new aircraft to the Australian market are almost completed, you just don't wake up one day and say. "Let's import a new aircraft to Australia", it takes months of research, tens of thousands of dollars and numerous overseas trips to find that perfect plane. To give you some background I will take you back to Oshkosh 2000, which I attended with the sole goal of finding a new faster aircraft to introduce to our customers.
Oshkosh has always been touted as the must see event in the world, especially for light aircraft enthusiasts like myself, I intended looking for a brother (or sister) to our already successful X-Air range which had been selling on the Australian market for almost three years. The X-Air's have really dominated the market since their release with over 60 flying around Australia. I began to notice a few customers starting to sell their X-Air's and changing over to faster aircraft like the Jabiru, this was not a indication of any shortcoming in the X-Air it's just that some customers who brought the X-Air as their first aircraft wanted to go faster and with the distances we cover in Australia who can blame them for wanting to do a bit more than sixty knots; interestingly though a number of owners had gone the other way selling the 172 or 182 in favor for the X-Air's slow speed and land anywhere ability, I guess there is no single plane which can do everything.
I really wore out the rubber on the bottom of my shoes at Oshkosh, pounding up and down the lines, looking for that one aircraft which I thought would perfectly fit our needs; unfortunately some came close but they were either too expensive for the Australian market or 2000 hour build time kits. Disappointed at not finding our next dream plane I decided to pop off to Europe and in particular the Czech Republic and Slovakia in search for that elusive aircraft after a quick visit to X-Air headquarters in Frossay, France.
It was good to finally catch up with the X-Air management team which I have only ever corresponded to over the phone, fax or Internet, their hospitality was more than a dealer could ever expect as they arranged my accommodation in a castle and gave me a convertible two seat Lomax sports car to drive during my brief three day stay. Ultralights have very different rules in Europe; and in France they can be used for hire and reward, X-Air had a contract for banner towing and each day at about 9 am 4 aircraft departed for a 4 hour trip along the beaches in the south of France. These 912 powered X-Air's tow a banner which is over 100 square meters at about 40 knots along the beach, they stop for about an hour for lunch and then return in the afternoon; 7 days per week during the summer beach seasons, all the aircraft had over 1000 hours on the clock and were still thundering along in this daily ritual, I thought it was a good way of running up some hours in the logbook but the same trip day-in day-out must get boring.
During my last day in France a pilot flew in for lunch with the X-Air crew, he was from Spain and heading to Germany that night to visit his family, the fancy aircraft he was flying was a recently acquired TL-2000 Sting Carbon, by comparison to other aircraft it looked like a Bambi MCR-01 on steroids. The plane was sleek, fast well finished and after a thorough inspection I brought my self to the conclusion that this was one weapon..... An expensive weapon, my guess at the time would be around $100,000 US$ when compared to the aircraft I saw at Oshkosh. After the aircraft departed I found out a price in German marks and it wasn't until I found a computer with the Internet that I converted this to around $80,000 Australian!
Fare welling France I flew to Vienna where I hired a car for the trip to the Slovak Republic to visit a number of factories, most were nice aircraft but again didn't fit our needs or budgets perfectly, maybe I was just being to selective and I would have to lower my expectations a little to find that perfect aircraft. Looking at the many different models in Slovakia I couldn't help but keep comparing them back to the Sting I ran into in France, out with the digital camera for the 100th time and reviewing the pictures in detail over and over again, this has to be the plane I kept saying to myself.
Finding an Internet café I managed to find a website on the Sting aircraft and track down the manufacturer to Hradec Králové. which was about 4 hours drive from Vienna, with less than 14 hours before I flew out back to Australia I needed to make this rushed trip to see the factory and plane and I started my trip north even though I couldn't make any phone contact with the factory.
I found my way to Hradec Králové - just, and managed to find the factory but everything was locked up. So much for that wasted excursion I thought to my self as I found a small sign on the roadside pointing to the airport.... If you want to see planes then you go to the airport and I hurried off for a quick look. I only made it as far as the front gate as this airport didn't look so inviting; I could tell from some guys in uniform and the front security gate that this was some sort of Military Airport, obviously well past it's prime as it looked like it would have been quite a complex in it's hay-day and I wondered to myself what would have happened some 20 years earlier if an Australian was found on a Soviet airforce base ?? Masking disappointment at not being able to establish contact with TL-Ultralights I reluctantly admitted defeat and returned to Vienna for my flight home. The following weeks were spent looking at my wealth of information from Oshkosh and repeatedly emailing, faxing and phoning TL-Ultralights. I was just about to give up when some feedback came through from the Czech Embassy in Canberra..... "They will be in contact with you shortly as they have been on summer holidays and have just come back to work", you can tell I was keen on this aircraft as I even contacted the Czech Embassy in Canberra to try and track down TL-Ultralights.
Finally, contact was made and it was organised for me to again fly over and establish a relationship with the manufacturer through one of his office managers who spoke a little English picked up after spending 12 months in Chicago as an exchange student several years earlier. This second trip was much easier as I had an idea of where I was going, I could finally drive on the wrong side of the road without breaking out into a full-blown sweat and we now had someone who could speak a little English. Well to cut a long story short, we flew the plane; toured the manufacturing facility and I decided this was our new bird and I placed some orders for a couple of aircraft to test the Australian market.
Loaded with pictures and unlimited enthusiasm I returned to Australia and sourced our first 5 customers for this exciting new plane; after a quick ring-around and a new web site featuring the aircraft we had our first four customers within 2 weeks and it was full steam ahead to get these aircraft approved and flying in Australia. Weeks passed and I organised a factory trip for our first customers and just before Christmas 2001 Phil Allen (also known as "Phil from Canberra" after his appearance in our X-Air Video), Joe Mikus and his wife Lynette and myself departed a very warm +35 degrees December day for the wilds of a chilly minus 15.5 degrees, 6 hours of sunlight per day, white Christmas.
Learning to drive in these conditions was a challenge in anyone's language, just when you got cocky and thought you could beat the world rally champions you would round the bend to find another car off the road or a smashed semi only to be reminded to slow down again and take it easy, but after 120 kms and 4 hours we finally arrived at the factory with our first customers. Greeted by Barbora and the TL owner Mr. Jiri Tlusty we were treated to a quick coffee before my anxious visitors were given the factory tour. Walking down the hallway to the factory was like watching kids run for the Christmas tree on Christmas morning Joe and Phil's faces light up as they caught the first glimpses of there aircraft currently under production, then ten thousand questions followed which left Barbora our translator rather tired. After touring the factory taking 500 pictures and video and viewing the first three aircraft in various stages of construction it was time to head off to the airport for some test flights in the Sting's sister aircraft the Star which is used by a local company for flight training.
The Star is very similar to the Sting except it is made from Fiberglass and epoxy versus the Sting's mostly carbon fiber construction, the sting has a slightly different wing and nose cone and a few different things on the tail but other than that is almost identical in layout. The Delta Company at the old Soviet military airbase was to complete our training and familiarization in these sleek aircraft. After a night of fresh snow we had to plow our little Opel hire cars through almost 200mm of snow to get to the terminal area, the airbase is now semi closed for military use but there are huge hangers spaced around the field which are covered in 10 meters of dirt with doors which are made from steel and are over 1 meter thick. They built this place to last in the event of a war and we agreed to ourselves that this place could tell some stories and it probably still had a few secrets in some areas we weren't allowed to visit.
The Star was wheeled out of the hanger and I could tell by the looks of my customers there was going to be a fight over who flew first but I think reluctantly Joe decided to let Phil go first, personally I had my doubts if in minus 15 the Rotax 912 would start but to our surprise she came to life after a few revolutions. The weather was so cold the heat was drained from your body and feet if you were standing on the concrete floors of the hanger. The taxi down the apron seemed to go forever as this runway was almost 10,000 feet long; but just in the distance we could see Phil lining up with the instructor for a half hour of circuits. The weather was not that good with a low cloud ceiling and constant snow with a 15 knot cross wind but the instructor convinced us that it would only get worse the longer we left it, Phil's take off was uneventful even in 200mm of snow which covered the runway until he disappeared into the low cloud, the cloud base was at 1500 feet and Phil was told to fly 1000 foot circuits but this plane climbed so well at around 1800 fpm that before he knew it he was gone!. We could hear the engine throttle back and then we spotted him at the other end of the airport doing a left hand turn, to say this was one quick aircraft was an understatement, his allocated 30 minutes was stretched to almost 1 hour as he quickly mastered this plane in very demanding conditions.
We greeted Phil on his return to the hanger and it was hard to get him out, he just wouldn't stop talking, this is so good; that is unbelievable etc, etc, etc. Joe finally slowed him down enough to yell the words "get out" and he was in the seat and taxiing for a flight in the rapidly deteriorating conditions. The same happened on Joe's return some 45 minutes later, there was a grin from ear to ear and then he was off and running with Phil who still hadn't slowed down in the past 45 minutes!. Time for a coffee I thought and we retreated to the warmth of the main complex for a debrief and discussion about the aircraft and it's performance.
Unfortunately the weather was still deteriorating and my flight was reduced to one circuit mostly under instruments as the snow was now that heavy it was impossible to see where we were going, thankfully my instructor had the skills and local knowledge to get us back on the ground as I had lost all references with mother earth in the snow that was falling I couldn't even find the runway but thankfully we made it back as I reluctantly said "your plane", find us the way home, the challenges of flying in total white out are really demanding but these guys do it for months at a time, when the ground is covered in a total blanket of snow it is nearly impossible to visualise how high you are because you loose all references, give me Australia any day.
Plans were made for another couple of hours flying the next day but unfortunately more snow fell overnight and over 500mm covered the runway the following morning which was a shame as the weather had finally cleared to bright blue sky. When the snow gets really bad they plow the runways with snow plows but unfortunately they couldn't do this at this airport as the snow shoveled to the side compresses and freezes into ice which lasts for months over winter, the best method is to wait for warmer weather and rain which melts the snow quickly but unfortunately our flying adventures were cut short, no matter we decided, back to the factory to find out more about our aircraft.
The following days in the Czech Republic were spent finalising all the options and features for the aircraft and visiting the company Woodcomp who manufacture the propellers for the Sting and the Star.
Woodcomp is a recent combination of two specialist propeller manufacturers, Kremen, Junkers and Sport Prop. Joining together gives this one company expertise in both wooden propellers and in composite propellers for a variety of aircraft from powered paragliders through to large antique aircraft swinging massive wooden blades. The facility is scattered over several buildings and the manufacturing process is really an eye opener, propellers are much more than a piece of wood carved into the correct shape and bolted to the front of the aircraft. The props which go on the Sting for example are an electronic in-flight adjustable constant speed unit, the blades have wooden cores manufactured from layered ash or beech glued together under massive pressures with a two part epoxy resin, the blank is machined down by massive routers then carved by hand by a craftsman using a series of special templates to get everything perfect, a double layer of carbon fiber fabric covers the wood and the whole propeller is then sprayed with 2 coats of polyurethane primer and 6 coats of polyurethane varnish, the blade ends are given 2 coats of nitro enamel yellow varnish to finish everything off, these propellers are expensive but it is obvious to see where your money goes. We finished off our propellers with a special, recently developed rubber insert into the leading edge of each blade, the rubber insert is quite soft and we believe unique to this manufacturer. During their constant testing and development they destroy props with contact to stones and other debris, checking for damage to the blades it's obvious that blade leading edge covers like plastic and stainless steel just don't absorb the impact of the debris, they damage the blade also, this new rubber insert absorbs the impact and returns back to the normal surface without any damage to the propeller itself. Flying back to Australia with Phil we had hours to discuss the arrival and testing of each aircraft in the following months and we left Joe and Lynette to enjoy a further few weeks in the Czech Republic snow skiing in the mountains.
Now back to this trip, my fourth trip to the TL Ultralights factory; as mentioned I am writing this in a motel room in Hradec Králové., its 3am in the morning here and lunchtime back home, no wonder it's so difficult to sleep in the early days of an overseas trip. My return to the Czech Republic only two weeks after my Christmas visit was to finalise the shipping and to oversee the loading of the aircraft into the containers for transport back to Australia and it was also a perfect opportunity to do a three day training course with Woodcomp our propeller manufacturer so I could undertake any service on these propellers in Australia for our customers.
Its so hard to do things over here when the whole of Europe is 1 meter under snow and organising transport is just so difficult, it doesn't help that you can only drive trucks in Europe during the week, the weekends are reserved for motorists and trucks face heavy fines if using the roads on Saturday or Sunday.... I know, I also had trouble believing it, but it's true.
Our first two Sting Aircraft have been transported from the factory to the company airport, where they have been run-in and test flown, "On Skis", the skis are then replaced with our more familiar wheels and spats and our 40 foot container is then loaded and transported back to town for customs clearance, we have taken unusual lengths to make sure no dirt or snow was on either aircraft and the tyres were cleaned down to prevent foot and mouth and other exotics from making it to Australia, the customs guys in Australia can charge thousands of dollars if a shipment needs cleaning and it's not worth the risk for Australia, if there is any dirt in the tread then it's off to quarantine.
Now for the hard part, a 35 day sea voyage from Hamburg to Perth via Singapore, why Perth when we live on the East Coast?, Answer is it saves us about 16 days in the ship and it gives us a good 5000km trip to settle these planes in and test everything before the official debut in Narromine. Transporting them to Brisbane will make delivery really close to Narromine and if anything goes wrong we may not make our official Australian Debut with the first three aircraft so to play it safe we opted for a Perth delivery and the enjoyable flight back to the East Coast.
There is more to follow this article as our adventure is just beginning, both Phil and myself are planning a circumnavigation of Australia in May/June and this event will be filmed for broadcast. We have also obtained FAA licences as we plan to attempt a number of Australian and world records for this class of aircraft over the coming months so stay tuned for updates.
Michael Coates - January 2002