After more than a year of teasing the public with glimpses of various prototypes, Cessna has announced that it will be producing a new, single-engine light sport aircraft called the Skycatcher. Kinda of a dumb name, but it looks like Cessna pretty much has it's ducks in a row in terms of price, performance and market. Their web site is even in a faux blog format - posers!
Now I don't have access to one of these beasts and I don't have any friends in high places at Cessna, but here are my observations based on the photos and specs that are currently available. I won't copy any of the photos from the gallery at the Skycatcher web site, seeing as the site (oh, excuse me, the Blog) has a copyright notice, but you can go there and view them.
Some have commented that the plane looks futuristic, but I'd disagree. Cool paint scheme aside, the Skycatcher looks remarkably similar to a Cessna 152 on the outside. Right down to the stubby prop spinner. The engine cowling does have a more LoPresti-like appearance than the old 150's and 152s.
The main change in physical appearance is the nose gear. Instead of a steerable nose wheel with an oleo strut, the Skycatcher has a spring steel, castering nose gear which generally have lower maintenance costs - as long as the aircraft touches down with the longitudinal axis aligned with the runway. A castering nose wheel requires differential braking to steer the aircraft, so the Skycatcher will need to have beefier brakes than a 152. Brakes on Cessna singles (all the way up to the Caravan) are nothing to write home about and often problematic. Let's hope Cessna gets this right.
Cessna decided on the Continental O-200D engine, which I think was a good choice. A fuel-injected Continental variant is used in Diamond Eclipse, which I always found to be smooth-running and economical. The plan is to mate the Continental engine to a composite propeller and frankly, I'm skeptical: Composite props, in my experience, tend to be less durable than metal props and more difficult to service, too. Probably not the best choice for a training aircraft, but as we'll see later, Cessna had to keep the weight on this plane to a minimum.
The location of the wing strut on the Skycatcher appears behind the cabin doors rather than in front of the doors. There will have to be some sort of door stop/catch/stay to prevent the doors from being whipped when the plane is stopped when faced with high surface winds. From what I can see in the photos, there do not appear to be windows on the cabin doors. Now Cessna trainers generally have pretty good ventilation, but a dark, purple aircraft is going to be hot inside. I'd assume that the production models will have more conventional paint schemes and that will keep the cabin temperatures lower, but without a cabin window, how's a flight instructor supposed to work on his or her one-armed suntan?
There is no foot step on the prototype's landing gear strut, but that's probably to keep it looking sleek. In the production models, I'd expect to see a foot step on both the landing gear strut and the wing strut. Which leads to observations about the wing, which from what I can see looks more laminar-flow than Hershey Bar. I can't make out any fuel caps, but it would be cool if Cessna provides single-point fueling with just one gas cap. Think of the thousands of hours saved during refueling ...
The interior is planned to be painted metal, which sounds good since the plastic interior components used in aircraft over the years have just not proven to be very durable, even on the Cirrus. Let's hope there's some insulating material in there somewhere between all that metal or flying the Skycatcher will be like flying a snare drum.
The seats look ... Spartan. Actually, they make my back sore just looking at them, but I'll reserve judgement.
The 490 pound useful load, combined with a 24 gallon fuel capacity means with full fuel, the plane can accommodate two 170 pound passengers, some charts, a ham sandwich, and a water bottle. This isn't a lot different from the useful load of the old 150 and 152, though the Skycatcher promises to cruise 10 to 15 knots faster.
The control stick choice seems like a good one, unless the implementation ends up loose and flimsy. Of course, a stick offers no place to clip your approach charts and given the clean and simple Garmin G300 primary flight display and multi-function display with no back-up, steam gauge instruments, I'd go out an a limb and say that the Skycatcher will never be certified for IFR. The Diamond Eclipse has the same VFR-only limitation and I know first-hand how much this limits the utility of a training aircraft.
With a maximum takeoff weight of 1320 pounds, the Skycatcher is obviously not going to be a serious IFR platform, but not being able depart IFR or get back in on an approach through a Bay Area marine layer will mean a lot of cancelled lessons. Without even rudimentary IFR capability, this plane won't be catching any sky other than the clear blue variety. But have no fear. Cessna is developing a FITS training program (thank god!) that will undoubtedly put a lot of emphasis on staying on the ground or getting on the ground if the weather is questionable.
I just hope it will be certificated for spins ...