Updated: Aug 2, 2019
Many pilots will know the Blackshape Prime as the pinnacle of the ultralight/ LSA category. This sleek, high performance machine is the desire and aspiration of many pilots. It features a cantilever low-wing, two seats in tandem, an enclosed cockpit under a bubble canopy, retractable tricycle landing gear and a Rotax 912ULS in tractor configuration. It is manufactured primarily with prepreg carbon fibre in Monopoli, Italy.
When I was first told about it, I found it hard to believe that it was in the 600Kg category. With a retractable gear and cruise speed of 148kts, it looked to me like it would be an air force trainer and perhaps a bit too much aeroplane for a microlight pilot. I was seduced by it and decided that I had to fly it.
In 2016, I heard about a company called Air Combat Europe which owns a fleet of Blackshape Primes. They are based at Lelystad near Amsterdam. They offer flights and even simulated dog fights with your friends. I talked a friend into it without much difficulty.
Disclaimer: Admittedly, it has took me two years to write this post so my account may be somewhat limited by what I can remember!
When I arrived at the airfield with my flying pal Chris, we met the Chief Pilot, Eddy, who greeted us with a free Blackshape Cap and a short tour of the facilities. The airfield is busy with everything from ultralights to Catalinas and small airliners. There is also a fantastic museum on site and full motion simulators. There was enough on site to keep us busy for the whole day and more but that's for a different blog post!
Eddy took us downstairs to the hangar where PH-4N4 was waiting for us. Due to aircraft availability, we could not fly at the same time but would take turns.
He briefed us both about flying from the front seat. Specifically he was concerned about us understanding and operating the gear and emergency gear deployment as he would not be able to operate it from the back seat. He also explained how some of the avionics work including the all glass Dynon outfit and autopilot.
After climbing on board Eddy started it up. I was impressed with the audio alerts from the EFIS and EMS which were integrated with the intercom system. The system was performing self tests and vocalising, "Stall, Stall, Stall" and "Oil Pressure". This was Dynon's version of Bitching Betty and I could not think of a better aircraft to find it in.
The familiar sound of the Rotax 912ULS made me feel in my comfort zone as we taxied out to the runway. With the throttle in my left hand and the stick in my right, the set up was very much like a fighter-jet and thoroughly satisfying.
The take off run was a bit longer than most aircraft which are equipped with this engine but once it was off the ground, the climb rate easily exceeded 1,000fpm.
Eddy handed control to me after we departed the circuit and reached 1,500ft. The controls are balanced and harmonious. It is a cliché to say that you don't fly an aircraft, you wear it, but this certainly felt true with the Blackshape. Coordinating turns was instinctive and getting a feel for the aircraft's spatial orientation was almost instantaneous thanks to the large bubble canopy. We performed a few climbs, descents and steep turns followed by short time looking at the stall. As one may expect from looking at the aircraft, the Blackshape Prime does not give many clues that it is approaching the stall and whilst I would not say that the stall is aggressive, I think that careless pilots could get themselves into trouble in the circuit.
He took back control and showed me some wing-overs followed by a couple of loops and barrel rolls. The aircraft never felt like it was being pushed too far and I couldn't stop smiling. It was magic!
In The Netherlands, the aircraft is certified as a microlight with a Maximum Total Weight Authorised (MTWA) of 472.5Kg. Eddy explained that the empty weight is around 330Kg. We had roughly 50% fuel on board. I didn't ask any questions. I know that the aircraft is certified to 600Kg in other countries.
I had a chance to enjoy the scenery as we made a short flight back into the circuit and Eddy allowed me to take control from the base leg. I dropped the gear on final approach and we slowed to minimum approach speed to let the preceding aircraft land. Unfortunately we were too close and had to execute a go-around. Throttle to take-off power, gear-up, establish positive climb, retract flaps and check gear lights. As we come around for a second attempt we had the runway to ourselves and landing the aircraft was relatively simple. It was not necessary to bring the stick back all the way in order to achieve a nice nose-up landing.
As we taxied in, I had a big smile on my face which made Chris excited for his turn. He was lucky: He had to go-around three times due to traffic on the runway which extended his flight by 15 minutes.
I paid for 20 minutes and had roughly 30 minutes. I can't remember the exact price but it was around £200.00. The aircraft itself cost around £160,000 so I quite expected that a flight would not be cheap. Air Combat Europe are also the dealers for a significant part of North Western Europe. They also offer the Blackshape Gabriel which is a certified aircraft with a bigger engine and IFR capabilities. This cost around £300,000. The prices may have changed as that was what I remember from 2016.
Max Rate of Climb : 1150fpm
Cruise speed : 148kts
Stall Speed with landing flap : 35kts
Range at 75% power : 593nm
Endurance : 4.5 hours
Powerplant : Rotax 912ULS (914 optional)
Will we ever see the Blackshape Prime in the UK? Not at the time of my flight. The empty weight was far too high to ever be certified in the UK as a microlight and it was not available as a kit so could not be certified under 600Kg amateur-built rules. However, as many will know, there is talk of raising the UK microlight MTWA to 600Kg. Depending on what the new rules will look like, the Blackshape Prime could well be available in the UK in the next few years. If you want one now, you could always purchase the Blackshape Gabriel which is EASA certified.
I liked the set up at Air Combat Europe. If you have the urge to give this aircraft a try, I highly recommend that you visit them in Lelystad.
The Blackshape Prime is a high performance aircraft. Whilst I don't doubt that experienced pilots may be able to handle it, I don't think it would be a good idea to put it in the hands of a 25 hour NPPL holder!
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