The past decade has seen the emergence, in large numbers, of the new breed of light aircraft in both the RAA and VH registered categories. One of the forerunners of the composite aircraft era, and one which is able to be operated in either class, is the Australian made Jabiru. In sheer numbers alone, they are the definite winner of the composites so, when spying a friend’s near new Jabiru J160, parked outside my luxurious flight instruction classroom, I thought the time had come to find out why the Jabiru has become such a popular aircraft.
Jabiru Aircraft’s founders, Rodney Stiff and Phil Ainsworth’s mission was much the same as Frank Robinson’s dream for the helicopter world: to provide affordable flying both in Australia and overseas and, like Mr Robinson, they faced a few hurdles in the company’s fledgling days. Soon after being awarded a type certificate for their Jabiru in 1991, their Italian engine manufacturer ceased production. Whilst this unforeseen hiccup undoubtedly caused a few impolite phrases to be uttered, it certainly did not stop the two resourceful entrepreneurs, who simply went on to develop their own engine. This received the necessary approval in 1993 and has since become a resounding success in its own right, being installed in Jabirus and other aircraft in over 30 countries.
The Jabiru is a high wing monoplane with a tricycle undercarriage. The J160C that I flew has been developed as a training aircraft with some repositioning of controls in the cockpit: a lateral ‘bulge’ in the fuselage, resulting in a cabin width at the elbow of 1140mm, giving the small aircraft a surprisingly spacious interior and more leg room for the taller pilots. It’s a smart aircraft with an excellent surface finish and fairly short, non-tapered wing.
The sleek aerodynamic shape of the engine bay is due to the small size of the engine where dimensions are concerned, not power. The four cylinder engine is a minute 596mm wide and weighs only 60 kg, making it the lightest four stroke engine of its output in the world. Access to the engine is simplicity itself, with just a handful of screws to contend with and a locking pin on each side of the cowling making it very secure but gratifyingly easy to remove.
Further forward, is the Jabiru designed and produced propeller, designed to complement the company’s engine. The fixed pitch, wooden propeller is covered in layers of fiberglass to increase its strength and to stop flexing and has urethane moulding to the leading edges to protect the wood from stone and weather damage. As my only experience to date with wooden props has been with the old Gypsy Moth prop hanging on my study wall, I sheepishly questioned the strength and resistance to weather, namely rain, of the propeller, obviously overlooking the fact that trees are made of wood and generally spend all of their lives outside withstanding copious amounts of rain. My flying partner, Peter, excused my blondeness and reassured me that the propeller was extremely hardy, would certainly survive our flight and could, if necessary, be replaced for the grand cost of $700. I was impressed both with the propeller and the fact that someone had found an aircraft part that, uniquely, cost less than the gross national debt of a developing nation.
The interior is uncluttered and user friendly with ample room in the cabin thanks to the aforementioned bulge, and it has great visibility. Access is easy, with doors on either side and the non-adjustable seating is comfortable with ample baggage space behind the seats. There are several options for the two sizes of instrument panel, in addition to the standard equipment of airspeed indicator, altimeter, turn co-ordinator, tachometer, temperature and pressure gauges, ammeter and CHT gauge – kit built versions of the Jabiru are also offered with a full range of options. The panel in Peter’s aircraft was sleek and uncluttered with familiar, easy to read traditional instrumentation with the addition of a compact electronic flight information system – perfect for a VFR aeroplane.
The controls have been adapted slightly in the J160 to improve its appeal as a trainer. Dual throttle controls are now positioned on either side of the instrument panel having been moved from an awkward position to the front of the seats between the pilot’s legs in earlier models. There is a single ‘V’ shaped control stick positioned centrally, allowing operation from either side of the cockpit. Also located centrally is the control lever for the hand operated hydraulic brakes and, in addition, there are dual elevator trim controls, one on each side of the centre consol.
The rudder pedals are adjustable and the entire cockpit seems to have been designed so that everything is within easy reach with the added benefit, lacking in so many older aircraft, of positioning the headsets behind and above the seats. In fact, just where the occupants’ heads are rather than by their knees, as used to be the case. What a simple but sensible change in the evolution of aircraft design.
Firing up the Jabiru posed no problems with its electric fuel pump to aid easy starting and with no mixture control to worry about – it’s designed with a pressure compensating carburetor and it has a dual magneto ignition system. The plane was easy to taxi and gave me an opportunity to become accustomed to having the throttle on my right instead of my left from my normal right seat position and operating the brakes with my left hand instead of my feet. Once I had all my limbs doing their new job we were ready for take off. The Jabiru accelerated away nicely on its take off roll, its 85hp, four cylinder, air-cooled engine taking the close to maximum weight aircraft along the up sloping runway easily. One of my favourite things about the new lightweight aircraft is the lower nose attitude that many of them adopt on the take off and climb out. It is certainly a more comfortable attitude affording far better visibility than their heavier, metallic forebearers. Now I just have to remember that they are much lighter and easier to leave the ground and not to over-rotate.
The Jabiru climbed out well, initially with half flap and at 70kt. Retracting the electric flap caused quite a large pitch and thus trim change and increased the climb speed to 80kt with great visibility throughout the climb and, surprisingly, low noise levels. The quoted climb rate of 500 fpm at sea level does not make the Jabiru a winner in the light aircraft climb out stakes but it was a comfortable climb and it sounded fairly effortless for the engine. Even at the slower climb speeds, the controls were very responsive and I was probably guilty of over controlling throughout the flight, except with the rudder pedals which were firm to use and which were definitely needed to turn the aeroplane tidily.
Whilst this aircraft will make a delightfully inexpensive trainer, where it comes into its own is in the cruise. At 75% power, it will cruise at 100kt for the cost of a tiny 13 litres per hour. With its 135 litre tanks, it has an endurance of over ten hours and a range of over 1000 nm. Brilliant in theory but, although the seats are very comfortable, they do not have ten hours worth of comfort and ten hours is a decidedly greater endurance than that of the average bladder. But it certainly saves having to zig-zag across the country, planning the trip by fuel availability. Upping the power to 3000rpm should achieve around 112 kt for an increase in fuel consumption to 15lph. Very impressive. It also has a very decent useful load for such a light aircraft thanks, to a certain extent, to the engine weight. With an empty weight of 295kg and a MTOW of 540kg, there is still plenty of available carrying power for a combination of people and fuel loads.
Certainly the aircraft was responsive and manoeuverable and extremely enjoyable to fly. Slowing it down to its initial approach speed of 70kt with half flap was an effort on my first approach, as it has a fairly flat attitude. But once I had it at the correct speed it felt very stable and practically flew itself down final. I should have left it to land itself as it really does just need the power gently reduced with no real round-out or flare. It, however, had my overcontrolling to contend with and having been too enthusiastic both in reducing power and rounding out we arrived suddenly on the runway. The next landing was demonstrated by Peter (at my request although I’m sure he was rather relieved) and he demonstrated just how easy the Jabiru is to land, even in the increasing crosswind. Its crosswind limit is a handy 14kt but to give me the best chance possible for a face-saving good landing we elected, for our final approach, to change runways to keep as into wind as possible and I finally managed to set up a very tidy approach and bring the speed back to its 65kt final approach speed with full flap. Remembering this time not to over-flare, I succeeded in a far tidier but still rather sudden landing as I continued to be a little savage with my reduction in power.
Finishing my flight, I found myself wishing I could carry on flying which can definitely be considered an accolade for this airplane. It is easy to understand why the Jabiru has been such a success story and why it is so popular with its many owners around the world. With prices starting from $74,450 including GST for the ready to fly model, together with its low running and maintenance costs, it has to be a great choice both for a two person touring aircraft and a trainer.
Asking Peter if there was anything he didn’t like about his plane, the worst he could come up with was the oil capacity of 2.2 litres. Its size means having to add miniscule amounts of oil to keep it topped up. And if that’s all he has got to complain about then I think he’s a happy man. Regardless, the Jabiru represents excellent value for what is a well designed, practical and great to fly machine.