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Cape Town - The brief: Make a Light Sports Aircraft (LSA) that is sexy, beautiful, stable and responsive in the air. It must tick all the boxes for a purchase of the heart too.
Designer Mike Blyth, who has been sketching aircraft since he could hold a pencil, did just that. He created the Sling. This sleek good-looker, certainly hits the G-spot for aircraft aficionados.
The Sling was the perfect ammunition for Blyth and partner James Pitman to take on the Goliaths of international aircraft manufacturers. Without the rich aviation heritage of the US, their story reads like a case study out of Malcolm Gladwell’s book: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.
This nimble start-up company had the perfect credentials to create new solutions to old challenges. A passion for flying, design, out-the-box thinking and nous enough to create the perfect aircraft. Slowly. Their timing was spot on.
Other manufacturers were trying to jump the queue by cobbling designs from all over the world in a haphazard fashion while keeping it under the 600kg limit for LSAs. Not Pitman and Blyth. With slow but perfect timetabling over four years, they created what esteemed Californian aviation journalist Dan Johnson describes as “a brilliant product of careful engineering and a patient development schedule”.
So what brought these two “high-risk entrepreneurs” together? Pitman, by his own admission, “made lots of money by fluke”. A lawyer with a BSc in physics, he joined a uranium company as legal adviser. With shares. When the company was sold, he made what he calls “a quick buck”.
Fiscally secure, he went back to his passion for flying and attained his Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL). Blyth was looking for a backer at the time so they took off in perfect formation to form the Airplane Factory.
“Initially we were going to be the design house only but soon started to manufacture. Start-up costs were huge and we had to import 90 percent of the components, including the the1200cc Rotax engines,ourselves.”
The duo took four years to develop the prototype. They flew it for 20 hours then started re-designing parts with which they were not satisfied. Their next developmental prototype attained the perfect control harmony of pitch, roll and yaw. It’s a good-looker, too.
In 2009 Mike and James flew around the world via Oshkosh in the prototype Sling 2, and in 2011 Mike, James and fellow pilot Jean, flew around the world in the opposite direction in their Sling 4 prototype.
“We had always wanted to fly around the world,” says James, “so we did it. Twice. In 2013 we flew our first production Sling 4 up the west coast of Africa, across the Atlantic to Canada and on to Oshkosh in Wisconsin, the site of the greatest airshow.
“With more than a million visitors it was the perfect spot to showcase an experiential aircraft.”
The return journey was from Osh up through Canada to Greenland, over the North Pole to Iceland, then England and down through Europe and once again the west coast of Africa.
“The flight back was fantastic,” says James. “The plane went absolutely beautifully. We had a flat tyre in Morocco but apart from that not a single problem.
“Oh yes, in Dakar the fuel was severely diluted – but she never skipped a beat. What started as a slightly wild adventure turned into a really brilliant marketing junket.”
Such was the excitement and positive feedback around the Sling that the team went back into full production on their return. With just five employees they created the first Sling for the market. Today they have 120 staff and have sold 148 planes… and the market is snapping them up.
A test flight and mini flying lesson in one of the many Slings at Morningstar airfield seems the perfect way to spend a day. The air is alive with small aircraft – gyros, gliders, microlights and, of course, our bright yellow Sling. Although not as convoluted as the soap opera of airspace above a busy commercial airport, the radios crackle continuously, exuberant chatter on the headsets. The love of flying is palpable as the Sling takes to the skies.
Pilot Mark Bunning says: “There is no competition for the Sling.” And it’s not spin-doctoring or marketing hyperbole.
“Sure you can get a cheaper plane but with the Sling for just under R1 million, you gets what you pay for.” He goes into pilot speak: “The perfect balance between manoeuvrability, speed, comfort, safety and stability.”
The Sling is larger, faster, safer, more stable, forgiving, and is manufactured out of aluminium for strength. The Sling 4 even has a ballistic parachute in the unlikely event of a problem. Er… parachute? He explains how the plane has to be flying under 300km/h. The chute rockets out the Sling floats down like a sycamore seed. Enigmatic Bunning says: “It’s not always a good thing to pull the chute.” Not a conversation to be had while you are flying 1 500 feet above sea level.
The plane responds instantly to the almost imperceptible movement on the joystick which was evident when this rookie Biggles took control. Initially the horizon kept disappearing as if the plane were in a heavy swell until just the right touch – as light as a butterfly alighting. Finally the plane settled into what Bunning describes as “responsive but not skittish”.
If you are a DIY kind of guy then you can have the Sling delivered in kit form. Otherwise the factory in Johannesburg will build it for you. It’s a fantastic touring plane, popular with flight training schools, and it’s also an excellent transition to building hours towards a commercial pilot’s licence.
To fly the Sling 2 you need a National Pilot’s Licence, which is 600kg or less. You need a PPL for the four-seater Sling 4, which is 600kg or over. All in all, expect to pay around R65 000 for lessons. But apart from the ground schooling, expect this certificate to be a helluva lot of fun.
If you need to nip off to Joburg from Cape Town for a meeting at a cruising speed of 200km/h the Sling will get you there in about six hours and you can do it hundreds of times. The 1200 cc Rotax engine is good for about 400 000km. Or you can go round the world.
And the Sling is the perfect little light sports aircraft. Just ask the queue of wannabe owners waiting for delivery.
David has certainly outwitted Goliath and created the perfect little fighter, and yes, it is SEXY enough (make that Sierra, Echo, Xray Yankee) to create a whole generation of Slingphiliacs.
l See www.airplanefactory.co.za for information.