Howie Hughes Classic Flying Sports Car: The GA-55 - 912

Last edited: 28 February 2022, 3:15pm

Words & Images: Rob Knight

The weather was great, little wind, and I selected runway 22 at Boonah just because the vague wind drift suggested that I should. The horizon was clear with a cloud base at around 3500 feet and visibility to burn. Peter Davies had, indeed, chosen a delightful day to take his GA-55 Lightwing out for a road-test at Boonah.

Take-off was typical; of the Lightwing design: early right rudder input to stop the left nose swing followed by a rapid reduction in that rudder as the airspeed quickly rose. Another small flick of right rudder as 8o horsepower’s worth of gyroscopic force pulled the nose left again as the tail came up. Then we were airborne.

0438 has the older, full instrument panel design which provides a slightly higher cowl to the pilot eye, but there was still horizon over the top. With the attitude set to give us our Vx of 65 knots we climbed to 800 feet indicated and turned towards the training area south of Mt French.

The aircraft was trimmed hands free and I needed just the merest touch of right rudder to counter the slipstream effect. The wings remained level as I released the stick so there was no residual roll requiring aileron application. I stop-watched 30 seconds of climb, and, in that time, we rose from 900 feet to 1260 feet so I could calculate the rate of climb as being 720 fpm: an excellent value with two up and half tanks.

We levelled off at 3500 feet and set 4800 RPM and trimmed. When she settled down, she continued to fly hands-off, the ball in the middle, with a steady 77 knots IAS. About the same airspeed that Howie would have boasted of when she left his showroom in Ballina. Again, the nose attitude was just a little higher than other Lightwing models built with Howie’s Helivue panels, but noticeably lower than, say, a Cherokee 140.

After a lookout we entered a medium left turn. The entry was by the book, just a light touch of into-turn rudder to balance the small amount of aileron that was used. In the turn, at about 15° bank, I released the stick and removed my feet from the rudder pedals. The aircraft very slowly rolled further left and the nose started to slowly fall against the horizon. The altimeter began unwinding as we entered a spiral dive. Everything was absolutely normal.

After returning to 3500 feet, I checked a medium, right turn with similar results. Then we did a maximum rate turn to the left. With full power and about 60° bank, the ASI fell to indicate only 48 knots but that wasn’t true, we would have been stalled at that speed with this bank angle. We were seeing the results of pitot tube position error causing the under-read on the ASI. All perfectly normal.

Hasel checks were absolutely normal, and the lookout clearing turns showed no other traffic anywhere. With Mt Alford ahead of the nose to keep straight on, I slowly closed the throttle and maintained height in the time-honoured entry to a basic stall. The stick, always light anyway, grew even lighter as I drew it back to maintain height, and the rudder required just a small amount of increasing input to keep straight as the airspeed reduced. At about 50 KTIAS with a faint shudder to show her revulsion at being so abused, she gave up flying, the nose sagged, and she quietly rolled about 5° left. Recovery was instantaneous as the stick went forward and the rudder stopped the yaw. Recovery was within about 30 feet. Flaps lowered made little difference to stall speed or characteristic except for a slightly higher nose attitude at the break.

The stall with power was exactly the same, albeit with a higher nose attitude as we reached the critical angle and she broke away. The nose pitch down was a little more sudden, and the roll went a little further but her reaction to a stall with some power on was without issue.

I provoked her with a little rudder at the break, but even with 5000 RPM there was little change in her characteristics except for the increasing rapidity of the stall onset characteristics and the compressing of time in her resulting actions – AS LONG AS I STOPPED YAW with rudder. If I allowed (or provoked) yaw at the point we reached the critical angle, she dropped her left wing very pronto, and showed signs of continuing the ubiquitous spiral pilots are taught to avoid. And spiral it was – the airspeed tended to rise and recovery was again, instantaneous with forward stick and rudder to stop the yaw. Height loss was generally around 350 feet so her performance, even in a provoked stall was rather lady-like and not savage.

Flying back to Boonah, I refreshed my memories of the GA design from a pilot’s perspective. The visibility was classic for any side-by-side taildragger with a high wing and no dihedral. The seating was close but not as “intimate” as one experiences in a Cessna 150. The seats were comfortable and there was room to move a little. The harness was comfortable and that’s about all one can wish for in such an aeroplane.

The glide is absolutely normal – 65 knots is published as the best glide speed at MAUW and she required just a whiff of rudder to keep straight, and the ball in its place. She trimmed out well and a forced landing in this aircraft would provide no unusual factors to consider. The cockpit layout is completely conventional with fuel taps easy to reach (unlike some very modern ultralights) and all switches and controls within very easy reach.

We joined the circuit for 04 and set up our first approach. The wheel landing went perfectly normally and the wheels rumbled along Boonah’s grass for a few feet before we applied power and went around. The 3-pointer, with which we finished the flight, was also totally conventional and we rolled out past Nigel’s hangar before taxiing clear.

This is a delightful aeroplane. Light on operating costs with its 80 hp Rotax, but high (relatively speaking) in its cruise speed due to its single strut and tapered wing design, the latter reducing its induced drag, I am surprised that Howie didn’t make more of this model.

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