A South African manufacturer of light sport aircraft is about to make a big splash in Australia. The Airplane Factory (TAF), which manufactures two-seat and four-seat models known as the Sling 2 and Sling 4 respectively, is laying the foundations for an assault on the Australian market. AVIATOR takes a closer look at the new kid on the block.
Established by Mike Blyth in 2005, The Airplane Factory embarked on an ambitious project to design and build a light sport aircraft which could be sold as a kit or ready-to-fly aircraft. Three years later attorney James Pitman became a 50 per cent shareholder in the company and together he and Mike circumnavigated the globe in the Sling 2 prototype. The duo journeyed from South Africa to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where the little plane received rave reviews for its reliability, ability to carry substantial loads (65 kg of baggage and 450 litres of fuel) and capacity to withstand adverse weather conditions on an epic global expedition. All at a takeoff weight of 965 kg.
On their return to South Africa, The Aircraft Factory commenced production of the Sling aircraft in two formats – as a light sport aircraft with a MAUW of 600kg and as a light aircraft with a MAUW of 700kg. Three years of further experience have proven the Sling to be an excellent aircraft, with more than 50 currently flying and 115 confirmed in the order book.
The Sling’s performance at heavy weight has also resulted in the development of the Sling 4, a light four-seat version powered by the turbocharged Rotax 914 engine. Like the Sling 2, the prototype four-seater was flown around the world in 2011, this time in the opposite direction.
To cater for the growth of the Sling range and expected demand in Australia, South African emigrant Errol van Rensburg this year established Global Aviation Products (GAP) on the Gold Coast. GAP provides distribution for both factory-built and kit aircraft to Australian customers and handles all aspects of distribution, technical support, spares, distribution and holding, and aspects relating to marketing and sales of the Sling range.
“Slings are currently being used in numerous flying schools in South Africa, are being built by a number of home builders and are flying in the USA, Europe and Australia,” Errol tells Aviator. “Sling’s major competition comes from the VANs range of ‘RV’ aircraft and as a factory-built aircraft it competes with the full range of light sport and light aircraft from around the world, including Jabiru, the Czech Aircraft Works aircraft, Sportcruiser, CT, Cessna, FK and others.”
Errol has been involved in aviation for more than 30 years, not only as a pilot, but also in technical, management, business and manufacturing capacities. In his time he has witnessed many changes, both good and bad.
“I believe that general aviation has become really expensive for the average enthusiast, and as such we’ve seen the tremendous growth in the recreational or LSA-type markets,” Errol says. “In the technical arena, regulation has assisted in many areas, but unfortunately has also led to a lot of “red tape”, causing a lot of frustration between the regulator and the industry.
“However, technology has created many positive improvements, and has become really affordable, especially for the home builder or experimental type market. Who would ever have dreamed of the day when you can have a home- built aircraft with full EFIS capabilities, GPS, 3-D Terrain mapping, Moving map display, Highway in the Sky, full engine management, Auto pilot and many more for only $60,000!?”
As Australia’s distributor for the Sling range, Errol believes that compared to the competition, the aircraft is in a class of its own.
“The design is robust, of all-metal construction and with dimensions similar to those of GA types but with the running costs of recreational aircraft,” he says. The performance of the aircraft is first class, the controls well balanced, and although it’s extremely easy to fly – with dual controls for pilot and co-pilot and large control surfaces for excellent explosiveness – according to Mike Blyth, it handles like a small fighter jet.
“Flying schools in South Africa are lining up to buy the Sling to replace their fleet of older Cessna and Piper aircraft as a result of the robust nature of the design,” Errol says. “The Sling 2 is currently offered at highly competitive pricing, and comes standard as factory built with a Rotax 912 fuel-injected motor, Warp Drive propeller, MGL Explorer EFIS, leather interior, analogue instrumentation, electric flaps and trim, and paint to customer specification for under $120,000 (excluding GST). As a kit, the price for a complete airframe kit is only $35,000 (excluding GST).”
According to Errol, the Sling can be fully built in less than 600 hours total time. “All parts are CNC punched, pre-drilled, with a minimum amount of tools needed to complete the build,” he says. “No special tools, other than a Pneumatic Rivet Gun is needed, and all jigs, such as “wash-out” jigs for the wings, are included in the kit. The kit comes complete with all AN-hardware, cables, wheels, tyres, Matco brakes and axles, etc.”
The Aircraft Factory is confident that the Australian pilot’s desire to handle a strong, all-metal, aesthetically-appealing aircraft that is both comfortable and practical, will be a good selling point on the local market.
The Sling, with its huge 150 litre fuel capacity, reliable Rotax engine, 44 inch wide cabin, and a 35 kg storage compartment behind the seats makes it a very versatile aircraft, especially in the experimental category. With a cruising speed of 118 knots, stall speed at 40 knots, take-off roll of only 183 metres (MAUW), and a range of 1,200 nautical miles, the Sling is a tough package to beat. The seats are extremely comfortable, and can accommodate with ease the most physically diminutive pilots to those in the larger six feet five inches category.
So how will the Sling range handle Australian conditions?
Considering South Africa and Australia have similar climates, from humid coastal regions to the hot, arid dry desert type areas, the aircraft should prosper Down Under. All Sling Aircraft metal parts are extensively treated to withstand corrosion, and extreme weather conditions, and the main spars are fully anodised before assembly. All skins, ribs and stringers are alodined, and primed before assembly.
In order to assist future builders, Errol van Rensburg’s marketing strategy for the Australian market included building his own Sling 2 aircraft before embarking on a sales drive. “The aircraft was fully built in less than five months, and we have just completed the mandatory 25 hours of flying in order to start attending fly-in’s, airshows, etc. We have a number of prospective buyers, but most of these buyers are waiting to fly the aircraft, and we hope to close a number of deals soon. We have just received two complete kits from the factory in South Africa, with two complete factory-built aircraft ordered for delivery in February 2013.”
Errol’s marketing plan will include targeting training schools, recreational pilots and GA (experimental category) pilots. “A total of 120 aircraft (Sling 2) has been sold worldwide in less than three years of production, while orders have been received for 17 Sling four’s,” Errol says. “The production of Sling four aircraft will only start in 2013, while a total of fifty Sling two aircraft are currently flying, with the rest in the build process.”
As someone who has just arrived on Australian shores, Errol is reluctant to comment on the state of the local aviation industry. He does, however, make some pertinent points about the demise of GA and the rise of recreational aviation.
“I would not like to comment on the situation, as I believe that I still need to learn a lot about the Australian situation, but it seems that we may have a similar situation here as in South Africa, where the cost of regulating the industry has led to a huge increase in the cost of aircraft ownership, which may ultimately lead to a slow death for GA. On the other hand it creates a huge opportunity for the experimental and recreational markets, and the suppliers of products to these markets.
“Traditional manufacturers of light aircraft may feel threatened by the number of new manufacturers, but should also take note of the affordability as well as the technology offered in these newcomers to the market. Another issue of concern should be the bigger demand for Mogas at “all” airports, as most of the recreational aircraft are now flying with Mogas instead of the higher priced Avgas.
“Generally speaking, aviation seems to be a dying sport. You need to look at the average age of the members of flying clubs to realise that something is wrong, it is either too expensive to fly, or we are just not doing enough to attract young people to this industry anymore.
Maybe the new influx of technology is a way to encourage the young?
“There’s plenty to look forward to,” Errol says. “Computer-aided design packages have revolutionised not only design of aircraft, but also the amount of effort required to build them. New materials, especially composite materials, and the combination of different materials has led to some exciting designs, and we will see lighter and stronger aircraft, with smaller, more fuel efficient engines with less and less horsepower continuously. These improvements can be seen on the latest Sling 4 Aircraft, with a 914 Rotax 115 horsepower motor, with a MAUW of 920 kilograms, empty weight of 470 kilograms, and usefull load of 450 kilograms! This is a true four-seater, with only 115 horsepower!”
The Airplane Factory has grown since it opened with five employees four years ago. Today, the company employs more than 70 people and the production rate is eight aircraft per month. But as soon as the Sling 4 goes into production, the rate will be increased to accommodate this extra demand.
The distinctive nose cowling with its “Shark-like” appearance sets the Sling apart from other aircraft. And in this case, the old saying of “If she looks good, she’ll fly well” appears to be true in every sense. There’s a good bet that Australia will soon become home to quite a few South African Slings.