If you’re familiar with Avid Flyer or Kitfox aircraft, you know at least something about Just Aircraft’s Highlander. Its pedigree “path” is somewhat meandering but leads to an excellent flying machine born of a rich airplane design heritage. If you’re not au fait with some of these US companies, not to worry – there is now an Australian importer of these sturdy machines with a similarly proven heritage.
Dean Wilson was the originator of this now-proven design shape. The first departure from Wilson’s Avid Aircraft company was Dan Denney, who went on to offer the Kitfox. Denney’s prowess as a marketer brought international fame to the Kitfox and, over the years, the sale of nearly 3,000 aircraft. At one time Denney Aerocraft was among the largest suppliers of kit-built aircraft in the world. What had been an ultralight design evolved into a successful two-seat homebuilt, but that wasn’t the end of the evolution behind Wilson’s original creation. Denney sold his company to Phil Reid, who renamed the company SkyStar.
A Well-Evolved History
Another break-off from Avid Aircraft and Denney Aerocraft was Flying K Enterprises, which introduced the single-seat Sky Raider. Denney Aerocraft and, for a time, SkyStar, chose not to pursue a single-seater, leaving an opening for the new Flying K Enterprises company.
Flying K’s miniaturized Kitfox had much in common with the better known two-seater. The two were so similar that when SkyStar later offered its Kitfox Lite single-seater, Flying K built the welded fuselages for them.
In a logical progression, Flying K followed with the Sky Raider II, which featured a small aft seat that could be used for an occasional ride. No flight controls were installed for the second occupant.
Further splintering followed, the companies building aircraft based on Wilson’s original work. Flying K led to Just Aircraft in 2001, which introduced their Summit, a variation on the Sky Raider II model.
The path from Flying K to Just Aircraft was somewhat rocky and had an unfortunate side. Among the kit-builders, former Flying K employees Kathi Jo Zehr and Troy Woodland began developing a fabric-covered steel design of their own, which they named the Summit. They named their company Just Aircraft.
The Summit enjoyed good sales. It led to the Escapade, which tested a configuration better regarded for flight instruction or pleasure flying with a friend; Just Aircraft remade the Escapade into a side-by-side 2-seater.
In the summer of 2004, Just Aircraft introduced their new Highlander marketing the model as an “upgrade” to their Escapade.
Shown in taildragger form where the Escapade was usually displayed in tri-gear form (though both models can be configured either way), Just Aircraft positioned the Highlander as a bush plane. It has an extended wing with vortex generators that increase low-speed performance, a larger elevator and rudder, heavy-duty gear, large wheels and brakes, and an 8-inch Maule tailwheel. The Highlander is also manufactured with attach points for floats, lots of cabin area, and an extra-large, one cubic metre cargo area.
The Highlander I flew wasn’t a factory plane. Instead, it was a homebuilt constructed by a novice with Just Aircraft’s Builder Assistance Programme to create his Highlander. The Highlander was nicely equipped, including an EFIS system and a Garmin 296 moving map GPS (on top of the panel). The EFIS had airspeed and altimeter information in addition to a large range of engine information. Besides these electronic instruments, an array of “steam gauges” had been precisely installed, providing an analog backup to the digital devices.
Trim and flaps controls are between the seats for easy access by either occupant. The trim control is just to the left of the flap handle. Trim proved quite responsive, especially when putting the nose down.
The flap lever offers three positions with push-button detents. Flaps are discreet; they are not flaperons as has been common on Avids and Kitfoxes that preceded the Highlander. A fuel shut-off lever is positioned on the floor in front of the flap handle.
The starting procedure called for both master switches to be on; they were positioned on the right side of the panel alongside switches for the strobe light, nav lights, and landing lights (seen in the photo of landing gear).
Above the key start switches on the panel’s left side are two more switches. An unlabelled one is for a fan to circulate cabin heating. To the right of it is a map light; I didn’t need either of these switches.
To stop the engine, simply retard the throttle and switch it off via the key switch, then flip off the master switch.
The Highlander seats have some fore and aft adjustment to accommodate occupants of different sizes. The windows open separately from the doors, using two latches. You may have either the door open or the window open in flight. Any time you wish, you may open and close either windows or doors, a feature I appreciated.
The door is held open with a gas piston, which is mounted only on the door’s aft side. This is a good location as you are unlikely to bump it with your head, but I worried that the door might be negatively affected by having its only support at the rear. It turns out I had no reason to worry; the doors stayed securely in place when we opened them. While you may open the doors or windows in flight, you’ll probably want to slow the Highlander down first or the wind force inside the cabin may be significant.
Both the clear turtle deck and skylight let lots of light into the cabin. They also allow you to see above and ahead in turns, if sufficiently banked.
A 1-cubic-metre storage area is provided behind the seats, and the factory indicated the seats could fold forward or could be laid all the way back to form a bed. Just Aircraft also reports, “The seats are also adjustable to fit pilots 150 cms tall up to 200 cms tall.” For my average 5-foot, 10-inch height, the cockpit seemed spacious and the reach to all controls was very acceptable.
In upgrading the Escapade to the Highlander, Just Aircraft gave the aircraft more power, wing features to help it take off and land slower, and a sturdier gear system with large tyres and wheels. They also fitted hydraulic brakes that offered quite a strong slowing force.
Just Aircraft says the Highlander has two metre centre-to-centre landing gear, and a tough bungee cord suspension system.” I didn’t get the chance to test the Highlander’s bushplane capability but it did provide a comfortable ride that absorbed the undulations of a sandy soil. It also offered excellent ground clearance for bush operations since the gear is extended in length. It seems a perfect workhorse for outback operations.
With 100 horses pulling this light airplane (empty weight is only 270 kgs, less than most light-sport aircraft), takeoff was rapid. The factory states 90 metres when dual – and only 40 metres when solo – and my experience suggested this was truthful. Landings would later prove again the low-speed characteristics of the Highlander’s vortex generator-equipped wing as we rolled out in the same runway length as had been used for takeoff.
Conditions were rather variable with 25 kmh winds gusting up to 30 or 40 kmh. We landed straight into the wind so the velocity wasn’t much of a factor. Through the airborne rowdiness, the Highlander showed strong control authority.
Though the flaps did all the work of slowing this slow-speed-capable design, the Highlander also permitted good slips to landing. The powerful controls allowed me to get the airplane positioned with a large sideways angle that used the fuselage to pull the airplane down toward the runway.
In addition to qualifying the Highlander as a bushplane by using beefy gear and tires, Just Aircraft enhanced the upgraded model by installing a larger balanced elevator and rudder plus a larger trim tab. These changes help accommodate slow-speed handling when landing in smaller spaces that one might find when bush flying.
As I flew the Highlander, my hand felt comfortable resting on my leg, though this meant I had to hold the joystick below the actual grip handle. The light touch needed to manoeuvre the airplane meant this hand position presented no hardship.
In slow flight I was able to hold the Highlander at just above stall or about 70 kmh with full flaps extended. During this exercise only 4,400 rpm was needed. The roll rate slowed considerably as would be expected, but response remained very acceptable.
The airplane exhibited a very strong roll rate, though the rudder pedals were a little on the heavy side compared to the joystick. Sometimes such lack of perfect harmony can be fixed with linkage adjustments. Because of dissimilarity of control pressures between the rudder pedals and stick, my Dutch rolls were not as smooth as I’d have preferred. However, this situation is not uncommon for a responsive aircraft. In fact, I believe the Highlander is considerably better than what I found on early Kitfox models I flew. In those older airplanes, keeping the ball in the centre while doing any turns, much less Dutch rolls, proved fairly challenging.
Powered by the 100-hp Rotax 912S engine – compared to the 80-hp
Escapade I’d previously flown – the Highlander seemed much more spirited even though it weighs a few kilos more (somewhat due to its heavier landing gear and tires). As noted earlier, takeoffs consumed very little runway and climb was strong at about 1,000 fpm (the turbulent day made accurate measurements very difficult).
Aloft at 4,600 rpm we were seeing 135 to 140 kmh. I liked flying around at 4,600 rpm, part of my search for low noise and vibration power settings: a very efficient setting that saves fuel.
At a higher power setting of 5,400 rpm, we saw a shade over 160 kmh: the trimmed Highlander cruises at about 170 kmh at cross-country altitudes. This matches Just Aircraft’s published figures perfectly.
Like the Avid and Kitfox predecessors, the Highlander’s wing uses quite a bit of undercamber, which may account for its slower cruising speeds. But this same quality contributes to its good slow-speed characteristics and some say this helps the handling remain light and responsive.
All stall characteristics were good. Accelerated stalls broke out level in each direction, though such turning stalls went the opposite way somewhat past level when performed in a right-hand turn. I didn’t detect anything that seemed threatening in any of the stalls, and all stalls were recovered without adding power.
The Highlander revealed the expected amount of adverse yaw for a responsive aircraft. This result was a little more emphasized to the left than the right, no doubt a function of propeller P-factor. The delay in coming around was a bit longer to the left.
My evaluation of longitudinal stability also turned out well. After setting cruise power and assuring level trim, I lowered the nose and released. While the leveling response took somewhat longer than I expected, the Highlander did not bob back and forth through several oscillations as is common even in highly stable aircraft; it quickly came back to a stable attitude.
When I raised the nose and released, the Highlander never lowered the nose much, but it did move back and forth, seeking its trim position. The difference between this and the previous longitudinal stability trial may be little more than my precision at trimming. As mentioned earlier in this article, the trim was quite responsive with a rather coarse amount of input precision. I may have not had the Highlander as precisely trimmed as I’d like.
What’ll It Be?
The fuselage comes pre-welded in powder-coated 4130 chromoly steel. The factory says completing the Highlander kit should take the average builder between 400 and 600 hours to finish. They say they often have kits currently ready for delivery.
The Highlander kit sells for $26,500. Adding a 100-hp Rotax 912S engine, engine mount kit, prop, instruments, and finish painting and interior will bring the total closer to $60,000 plus the value of the builder’s time.
One of the most popular features of the Highlander is the quick-folding wings (even if buyers often don’t use the capability). Factory personnel say the wings can be folded in less than two minutes without disconnecting control linkages or surfaces. Even the Pitot/static air system disconnects easily and quickly.
If a taildragger isn’t your preference, both the Escapade and Highlander offer a choice between tailwheel or tricycle landing gear, and both are said to be “an easy swap.”
For many sport pilots, the Highlander makes an excellent flying choice in the bushplane theme. Its kit pricing puts the aircraft within the budget of a large number of pilots. Will one of them be you?
WORDS: Dan Johnson