I arrived at work with a keen sense of anticipation, knowing I was to fly the all-new Vulcanair P68C that day. I was later to learn that there would be a delay.
The aircraft was actually undergoing a (COA) Certificate of Airworthiness Inspection at Moorabbin and therefore had only just been placed on the Australia register that morning. An hour later and VH-TAV appeared out the front of my home from home, the Royal Victorian Aero Club. I felt privileged to be the first to fly her.
First off, appearances can always be deceptive. From a distance the all-new Vulcanair P68C seems to be just another Vulcanair derivative. However, when you get closer it all becomes plainly obvious. The cockpit layout, the cabin interior and not to mention a few extra things protruding from the fuselage that sets it apart from its predecessors.
As pilots we generally gravitate towards the first point of contact, the cockpit. This alone slams the wow factor in your face; bristling with a new generation avionics package that took my breath away. The Garmin G950 Integrated Cockpit System, the Primary Function (PFD) display and the Multi-Function (MFD) displays are the hotspots that truly dazzle. The all-glass de-clutters the forward panel and makes the aircraft seem like a mini airliner. Upon closer inspection, there are many other changes in the cockpit that would appeal both to the novice pilot as well as the professional.
Peering at the panel you’ll find the axis S-TEC system 55X auto-pilot, fully integrated with the Garmin equipment. TCAS and weather radar also muscle their way to the front, making the P68C a pleasure to fly.
The fuselage sports a range of added extras such as the intake for the air-conditioning system and a heater that performs fifty per cent better than the current aircraft heaters. There is also an improved heavy duty braking system implementing additional disc and brake pad cooling, as well as dual control rods fitted to both rudder and elevators for added safety and security.
The cabin interior allows plenty of room with large cabin windows, full leather decor and seat tracks that provide easy seat removal and the ability to reverse the seat configuration for club seating. The baggage compartment at the rear measures a hefty 0.8 square metres so you won’t be caught short with just a toothbrush and a pair of lightweight slippers.
The cockpit seats have fore and aft as well as height adjustment with ease and simplicity in mind.
As you look around the Vulcanair cockpit, there are similarities with its predecessors: the starting switches, fuel pumps and cross-feed procedures have remained unchanged. There is a noticeable difference, however, in the flap selection switch which is now a two position 15 and 35 degree toggle switch: first stage can be selected at 160 KIAS.
There is the safety interlock on the cockpit door to prevent exit with the right engine operating and the interlock preventing the application of the flap with the rear door open. For those pilots who like to fly at night and find it hard to locate an object on a chart under the red light, well, Vulcanair have fixed that by introducing a map swivel with touch-controlled, multi-coloured overhead reading light.
The Maximum Take-off weight of 2084Kg compared with the earlier P68C models of 1990Kg and a zero fuel weight increased by 77Kg is a huge improvement over and above previous models. Not to mention an increase of 150 litres of useable fuel, taking the total capacity to 670 litres – this makes the aircraft a very viable tourer.
Starting number one engine, there is an immediately noticeable difference in the responsiveness of the engines. The whistle from the optional three bladed composite propellers and the atypical sound produced by the engine had me checking the RPM and other performance indicators on the multi-function display to ensure the engine was reaching its desired parameters.
Operating and flying a brand new aircraft within the manufacturer’s specifications always comes to mind when starting up, taxiing and taking off for the first time. I scrambled to check all the indicators on the G950 Primary and multi-function displays, intent on finding all the instruments I needed to put mine (and the manufacturer’s) mind at ease. Being in tune with the Garmin layout and configuration and using the Garmin 430 and 530 GPS units now fitted to many other aircraft, makes the glass cockpit reassuringly familiar. It really isn’t and too much of a drama getting a solid feel for the G950 system.
The optional three-bladed composite propeller only reduces the overall performance of the Vulcanair by approximately two knots whilst reducing overall aircraft basic weight by a whopping 12.3 Kg. This has definite advantages, increasing payload up to the maximum zero fuel weight of 1967 Kg.
There was apprehension during the takoff role since it was uncertain how the two Textron Lycoming IO-360-A1B6 engines with the three bladed props were going to perform: I can definitively state that they didn’t disappoint. Both engines were rapid to respond: we were at VTOSS in no time and climbing out to A035.
A track was set up on the GPS from Moorabbin to Cowes VOR and the auto pilot was selected in GPS mode. The Vulcanair 55X Auto-Pilot selected a heading to intercept the track of 158 degrees magnetic, intercepting the magenta line and proceeding to Cowes at a rate of 500 FPM.
Upon reaching A035 and selecting 75% power on both engines we were indicating the published TAS of 158 Knots (remember we lose two knots because of the three bladed props). This was highly impressive.
We conducted some asymmetrics, simulating one engine shut down, and again we achieved the published climb gradients. By this point I was utterly won over by the new machine and its sterling performance. The Garmin G950 integrated cockpit enhanced that enjoyment even more. With the weather radar, the TCAS system and the standard A20 Bose headsets on top of all the added extras, this aircraft is a real joy to fly.
I continued to test various other features on board: the terrain following function on the Multi-function display was particularly impressive. This gave a pictorial view of the aircraft’s current altitude and, comparing the terrain ahead, it gave us an excellent indication of our lowest safe altitude.
The P68C with all it gadgets certainly makes a fantastic IFR platform. Not only is it a very stable aircraft but it also has everything you could possibly need for Situational Awareness (SA). The Garmin 950 Primary Flight Display keeps you fully informed as to what is occurring with relative ease. For someone familiar with the Garmin glass cockpit displays, you will feel right at home. For a novice pilot or someone with limited experience with glass cockpit displays, I wouldn’t go rushing out into IMC conditions until you’ve acclimatised yourself to the Garmin 950 layout.
The G950 not only maintains your wings level with the aid of the flight instruments but it also keeps you aware of the amount of headwind and the crosswind component based on your current heading/track and ground speed.
In the unlikely event of an engine failure on take-off, unlike the previous models, the flight manual does state to leave the flaps in the take-off position. This maintains lift above the wings and prevents the nose dropping during the retraction of the flap by maintaining downward force on the tail plane caused by the acceleration of the airflow through the slotted flaps.
Radio frequencies are also integrated within the Primary Flight Display along with Auto-Pilot selections, QNH settings, TAS/GS and a heap more. There is no need to take your eyes off the PFD during an approach or even turn your head to focus on any other instrument which considerably alleviates the possibility of disorientation.
The throttle quadrant and associated controls are ergonomically positioned for comfort and ease of use rendering back-bending exercises during flight a thing of the past.
Since the P68C was fitted with the optional three bladed propellers, I was aware of a slight increase in drag produced from the props, noticeable when selecting the prop to full fine during the approach into Moorabbin. After passing my decision height I elected to reduce the airspeed below the blue line (best SE ROC speed) and adopt the approach configuration to runway 35L. I also elected to approach at a slightly higher speed and maintain approximately 85 KIAS, as I selected the full fine position on both props, the drag component increased. With no reduction to the throttles I swiftly settled at the correct 76KIAS threshold speed, followed by a nice gentle touchdown.
The P68C is another fine example of technology at its very best bringing General Aviation slap bang into the twenty first century.