Hot Air, Wings and Flying Things
Progressive Aerodyne Factory Tour
The Progressive Aerodyne facility is surprisingly large and modern near a surprisingly small lake. My wife thought we were at the wrong place, as it looks more like a hotel or upscale motel when seen from the
road. And Lake Idamere looks more like a small pond. Lee Pfingston, who we had met at AirVenture, welcomed us and introduced us to CEO Adam Yang, and then gave us a tour of the factory where the Searey kits have been produced, and where the Searey S-LSA is being built. The company has been a kit company, selling 590 kits since 1992, but now is also selling a certificated S-LSA. All aircraft metal parts are manufactured in Tavares. Fiberglass parts are subcontracted out to a facility in Tampa.
Lee showed us a crate which he said contained the entire aircraft except for the instrumentation, the engine, and the final color paint or decal coat. The crate was surprisingly small. The company has been approved to provide fast-build kits for the wings, flaps, and ailerons. A crate containing just the fast-build wings looked almost as big as the entire crate for the original aircraft kit. They also have an owner-assist building program at the factory.
There were several Seareys in various stages of construction. One was barely begun, another was about half finished, and there were several nearing completion or complete. The basic hull is fiberglass with an aluminum keel and aluminum cockpit frame. A carbon fiber hull is a $3800 option. It is 50-66 lbs. lighter than fiberglass,and stronger as well. Aircraft designer Kerry Richter said that the fiberglass has proven to be very strong over the 20 years the aircraft has been flying. But the lighter weight could be a significant advantage for the S-LSA where the Searey 1370 lb. maximum gross weight (less than the 1430 lb. allowed for amphib LSAs) will be a limiting factor.
The fabric covered wings have metal ribs and spars, a metal leading edge, and fiberglass wingtips. Lee described the Dacron fabric as “30 year fabric”, although he said he had an aircraft where the Dacron had lasted 40 years. Pink colored “Dac proofer” is used to coat the Dacron. Lee said that normal paint will not stick to Dacron, so primer that sticks to Dacron is needed.
Basic white painting is done after the turtledeck is added and before the engine is installed. Trim can be decals or paint stripes, and is done after the engine is installed. The factory normally uses decals. There is a single 26 gallon fuel tank in the center of the fuselage (right at the cg) and right behind the seats. Most fuel
tanks are fiberglass, although it can be made of aluminum by special order. The baggage compartment is above the fuel tank. Lee showed us his personal new kit-built Searey. It had a Garmin 696, which would be standard in the Elite production Searey.
Electric flaps are controlled by four buttons on the center console. You pressed buttons to change the flap settings. Lee said the flap buttons are infinitely programmable. The original settings were 14, 28, and 35 degrees. But the 35 degree position was too much and not very useful. The demo plane had flap settings of 10, 20, and 30 degrees in addition to full up. In the air, I found it to be a very easy system to get used to.
The gear switch is a single large toggle switch at the bottom of the center of the instrument panel. It does not have a wheel type knob on it like most retrac aircraft. Lee said that it will be possible on new kits and production aircraft to use the switch to drop one landing gear and not the other to drag one wheel in the water to assist in difficult wind conditions on the water near a dock or shore or to help in water taxiing in crosswinds.
There will be two models of certificated (S-LSA) airplanes, the Sport model with the 100 hp Rotax 912 ULS engine for $125,000, and the Elite model with the turbocharged 115 hp Rotax 914 UL and a carbon fiber hull for $144,000. Both models have a Garmin GTX 327 transponder and a PS Engineering radio and intercom. The Sport has a Garmin aera 500 GPS, while the Elite has an Advanced Flight Systems 5500 EFIS and a Garmin 696.
A Very Fun Demo Flight
When Lee introduced me to the company demo pilot, I thought I was flying with a seaplane instructor who was on their staff. I could not have been more wrong! Kerry Richter was my company demo pilot. It turned out he was the designer of the Searey; was President of the company; had over 8,000 hours flying Seareys; and over 10,000 hours total time. Needless to say, he really knew, and knew how to fly, the aircraft! The Searey was the 14th aircraft he had designed, and he was working on the design for a 4 seat version kit aircraft.
The production prototype (N982SR) had an Advanced Flight System Advanced deck 5500 glass panel display with synthetic vision. It was one of the rare displays on the market with the capability to display a virtual steam gauge panel (although we flew using the more typical vertical tape gauges). Curiously, all the Seareys also came with a large airspeed indicator to the left side of the panel. I found myself relying on this and not the airspeed tape at critical times like takeoffs and landings.(I had to use the vertical tape display for altitude and the virtual steam gauge for the tach, which I had no problem with.) The prototype also had an aera 500 GPS of the instrument panel. Lee and Kerry said there was a lot of baggage space, but it turned out to be long and mostly narrow slots behind and above the seats under the wing pylon.
I had problems getting used to ground handling and the ramp was narrow, so Kerry taxied the plane down the narrow company ramp into the water. There are no toe brakes. The brake is a lever in the center console. The action was unique in that it moved with the throttle. You could be moving the throttle, and when you needed brake you squeezed the brake lever back toward the throttle lever with one hand. (It was easy and works better than it sounds.)
Lake Idamere was not much more than a small pond, but we didn’t need much more. The Searey website says the water takeoff run is only 350-400 feet, and that was about right. After takeoff, water that the plane had picked up on the nose ran in small streams up the windshield and dripped down onto our laps because Richter had the canopy still slightly slid back. (It is possible to fly this plane with the canopies open on warm days.) Discussing the carbon fiber versus the fiberglass hull, Richter said he would advise a kit builder not spend the extra money on carbon fiber, saying he would spend the extra money instead on an upgrade to the 115 hp turbocharged Rotax engine. He said the Searey will climb at over 1,000 fpm with the 914 engine. He said he has been able to take off solo in a Searey with a Rotax 914 starting near the hangar and getting off before he got to the grass, seemingly a not much more than 100 foot takeoff run!
Once up in the air, Richter demonstrated a departure stall. (And not very high up to be doing departure stalls: we never really got above 1000 feet AGL for the entire flight.) Pulling back really hard with nearly full power, the plane slowly dropped the nose down to slightly below the horizon with wings staying absolutely level. Recovery was merely by reducing back pressure. When I tried one later, I found that the back pressure on the stick was so great that it was unlikely that anyone would experience an unplanned departure stall. I pulled back very hard and it never really stalled: it just hung on the prop at a high nose up angle. Approach stalls are a gentle mush with some gentle rocking and the nose dropping very slightly, similar to a Cherokee “rocking chair’ approach stall.
Richter made a dramatic and radical turn to show me how the Searey is not susceptible to accelerated stalls. He yanked the plane into a steep banked turn, well beyond 60 degrees, possibly even approaching 90 degrees of bank at one point. The plane never stalled and seemed very controllable.
Inflight visibility is excellent, except maybe back by the wing. It could use some sunscreens or sun visors. The slightly reclined seats were very comfortable. The molded stick was one of the nicest feeling ones I have ever flown. The trim button on top was very easy to use and very responsive in all phases of flight. This isn’t a fast airplane. It is odd looking out to the side of the plane and seeing the retracted wheel sticking up in the air next to the fuselage, plus the wing struts and the wing float hanging down. Lots of draggy stuff out there! Typical speeds on the airspeed indicator: 45 mph at takeoff; 60 mph on final approach to a water landing; 95 mph max cruise at about 5000-5500 rpm. Richter said the Searey was capable of flying at loads heavier than the Light Sport category would allow. He said that the useful load was 500 lbs as a Light Sport. With 26 gallons of avgas, that would give a useful load with full fuel of just under 350 lbs. (The 66 lbs. weight savings with carbon fiber could be significant.)
We flew to Lake Apopka, where Richter let me do a half a dozen water landings and takeoffs. Takeoff distance off the water was surprisingly short, even when I was flying. It gets “on the step” very quickly. On my first takeoffs Richter told me I was holding the nose back much too long when I held it back floatplane takeoff style. All that was needed was to add full power, pull the stick back, and then almost immediately let it go forward. There are no water rudders to be pulled up on the takeoff run. (We did very little low speed maneuvering, and I suspect that the plane might lack for low speed handling with no water rudders.) It was not easy telling when the plane was on the step, except that the speed on the water picked up very quickly, quickly over the 45 mph needed to take off. On one occasion, Richter did a high speed step taxi demo headed for the shore. With any other floatplane, I would have felt we were in danger of hitting the shore. The Searey got off the water and climbed with room to spare.
In an incredible demonstration of the plane’s stability and safety on the water, Richter pushed the stick forward while we were running on the step, and forced the plane into a porpoise! With other seaplanes or floatplanes, this would risking flipping the plane over or starting a worsening porpoise that would take the plane out of control. The Searey handled it with absolutely no problems, and came out of the porpoise merely by holding the stick steady at a neutral setting. An amazing display of the plane’s design/capabilities.
Richter liked to use low level flights over the water as a way to get the feel of the airplane. I had some difficulty getting used to determining how high we were off the water and getting the power setting right. I initially had problems knowing when to lift the nose, push it over for a roundout, and getting used to how high to fly above the water. On a couple of occasions we ended up doing an unintentional high speed landing. Eventually I got the hang of flying just above the surface of the water. It was a whole lot of fun! While my landings were respectable they weren’t necessarily things of beauty, unlike Richter’s. But then he had over 8,000 hours in Seareys and I was on my first flight.
With 30 degrees of flaps (the “4” button), the plane comes down with a pretty steep nose down angle and loses altitude quickly. But always feeling fully under control. I used a low 500 feet MSL (close to 500 AGL in central Florida) above the lake surface as a downwind altitude. There was some winds causing some streaks in the water, and I flew parallel to the streaks on a downwind and landed into the wind parallel to the streaks. Richter told me he often used even lower downwind altitudes since the Searey is so responsive. Crosswind operation on the water did not seem to bother the plane a bit, nor on takeoffs or landings. There was another privately owned Searey doing touch and goes on the large lake with us. In that area, the Seareys have their own frequency they use to talk to each other.
Most amphibians with high mounted rear engines have a definite pitch down tendency when adding full power. Richter demonstrated that this was not the case with the Searey. In level flight, he went from a very low power setting to full power. The nose just went down slightly, and it was very easy to bring it back up to level with very slight pull back on the stick.
The Searey is an airplane in which it is easy to get comfortable flying low. On my flight we never got much above 1000 ft. AGL. Except for being cautious around cellphone towers on the way back to the factory, I never felt uncomfortable. One has to be careful flying low though, and this could have been a factor in the Richard Bach crash in a Searey (reports say he hit wires on a landing approach).
This is an incredibly fun airplane if you live somewhere where you can do frequent water landings. It is certainly no high speed cruiser, but it is an incredibly comfortable and responsive FUN airplane! My wife, after her flight with Richter, compared the low and slow flying and water landings to being more like the balloon she used to fly than like my Cherokee and other fixed wing aircraft. She also noted “That plane has tremendous maneuverability.” (Totally unlike her balloon!)
If you are interested in an amphibian S-LSA, check out the Searey. Why wait for the Icon? This one is a great little airplane with a proven history. The Progressive Aerodyne/Searey website is www.searey.com, and their e-mail is Sales@searey.com, and their phone is 352-253-0108.
Story and Photos by Jim Ellis