A Dream Machine
How should I equip my plane?

By: John Ratliff (AKA Rat)

I love this question because it always brings out the emotion of the FlyChallenger group. I faced this question when I struggled with the decision of what to add to my Challenger. Some will tell you to build it light, no matter what, build it light, but if you don't like the look or performance then you're going to add some weight. There is no way around it. The intent of this article is not to persuade you to add or omit any one option, only to look at them in a realistic way.

Let's face it, the Challenger is a pretty good plane right out of the box. If you build your Challenger with saving weight as the goal, then you really shouldn't add anything to the basic kit. No battery, electric start, radio, brakes, fiberglass nose, wingtips, gap cover, doors, strut fairing, wheel pants, flaperons and the big one, (GASP!) no 10 gallon tank. But who does that these days. Let's take a look at these items individually.

Covering. Before you order your wings you will need to decide what covering material you want. You have a choice of either Dacron, sometimes referred to as "sailcloth" or Polyester, more commonly known as "Polyfiber, Superflight, or Stits." You certainly can save some weight by using sailcloth but will suffer with longevity and durability. Some say that unprotected dacron if left outside will not last more than a year. Besides, the amount of weight would be negligible at best and would add just a bit of drag as compared to Polyfiber.

Dacron is a traditional covering for ultralights and is available in different colors and combinations. Polyfiber has been used for many years as aircraft covering. Although we use a lighter, uncertified fabric, it is finished in every way the same as a certified airplane and has longevity, durability, and speed on it's side. An airplane finished in Polyfiber can last many years even stored outside, and perhaps decades if stored inside. Whatever you decide for the wings, the fuselage and tail are covered in Polyfiber.

Battery. This is an easy one. If you are going to have something that requires power, then you'll need it. Now what requires power in a Challenger? A radio perhaps, but you can get very good handheld radios today that are internally powered. GPS, . . . well that's the same as radios. The portables are truly a spectacle of modern technology and all that I have seen can be self powered much longer than a Challenger can fly. If you have aspirations of instructing or carrying passengers you'll need an intercom. Really good portables are available that are internally powered as well. Transponder, well that's the one. If you are going to fly in an area that requires one or if it just makes you more comfortable to have one, then you'll need a battery. Think I forgot about the starter? Read on...

Starter. Who needs it? Well, some do. My dad suffered with bursitis in his shoulder and could not have possibly used a pull start. Other than that he was just fine. If you find you need it, by all means install one. If you just want it, it'll cost you just about 25 pounds if you add the weigh of the starter, battery, wire and electronics needed. Now don't try that in-flight restart excuse with me either, Turbulence Aviation has plans for a fine "in cabin pull start" system that's free for the downloading.

Turbulence Aviation, Click on their "Utility" icon from the main page.

Brakes. Well if you're going to build light, then don't add brakes BUT when you need them, you really need them in a bad way. I was recently told by a very experienced GA Instructor that no one needs brakes on a Challenger. I asked him, what if I need to get into a really tight spot during an emergency or stop on a taxiway behind his Cessna with the wind at my back? He didn't have an answer other than "hmmm." That "hmmm" says a lot.

Gear. Nope you don't need different gear. The factory gear works just fine, as long as you fly just fine. BUT if you look at it from a different angle you just might want it. If you ordered the 6 inch aluminum wheels and brakes from QCU, it will cost you $405.00. If you tell the factory when you order your fuse that you are going with Michael Harrison's gear package, they will credit you with $300.00. That's a total cost of $705.00.

Michael's gear (aluminum 6 inch mains + front, better brakes AND fiberglass gear) will cost you about $750.00 with shipping. If you bend the factory gear just once, you just paid for the fiberglass gear. I'm told the entire setup will save you a couple of pounds compared with stock setup. Bill Volcko can help keep you from scraping your nose with his nose gear. In addition to providing some much needed shock absorption for rough fields, it is lighter and stronger than the factory's .

Oil injection. This I am trying to decide as well. I like the idea of just adding gas, checking the oil and go fly and let the thing take care of itself, but I also like the tried and proven KISS method. Luckily, oil injection will come with your engine so that decision can wait. I think I will mix mine for the first few hours then decide where to mount the tank. I once fried an outboard motor on a boat because I thought I added the oil to the gas but didn't. Tough one.

Gauges. Digital or analog? Well, EIS doesn't replace a bunch of gauges, it just combines the functions of those gauges IF you pay for those functions. Might save you a little weight but not money. I suggest you fly with someone that has EIS and someone that doesn't then decide. Some might try to sway you by saying EIS is more accurate. Well a digital watch is no more accurate than an analog watch; either will tell you the time, both can be wrong. An EIS will report what the sensors tell it just like a "steam" gauge. I really don't see an advantage either way . . . just whatever you prefer.

Flaperons. Well, they really should be called "trimerons." Yes, the QCU brochure says "A retrofit accessory giving the pilot complete pitch trim and in the flap position they slow the landing speed for landing in those really short fields." If used as flaps they can, if deployed too much, reduce aileron authority. They work awesome for trimming out the stick forces and for that purpose alone they are worth installing. Be careful using them in the fully down position.

Larger windshield and doors. Are you gonna be flying during cooler weather? Ever rode a motorcycle in the winter? If so, the question will answer itself. What I mean is, if you are comfortable riding in the winter without the protection, don't get them. If you want the extra comfort, then yes.

Fiberglass. This is mostly for looks but it does help with performance a bit. With each piece there is a weight trade off. For example, if you install the nose then you wont need the aluminum, cloth, and paint that would have been there. Same thing with the wing tips. You loose the aluminum, fabric and paint that would have been there.

Wingtips do shorten the wingspan and will give you better speed and increased roll rate. A wing gap cover of some sort is needed. It doesn't weigh much so you might gain a pound or two there by using fiberglass. In most planes you will gain speed if you add wheel pants; in a Challenger you probably wont notice it. They do look nice and will keep debris off of your wing and fuse and out of your prop. If you only fly from a paved strip you don't really need them.

Strut farings. Adding strut fairings is probably the best single thing you can do for a Challenger's performance. Some say you gain as much as 10 to 15 miles an hour increase in cruise. More importantly, the fairings will increase fuel economy. Top speed and cruise will increase with less fuel being burned.

This is not all that important if you just stay around the patch, but you may want to go cross country one day. It is just about the only option that will literally pay for itself in fuel savings over time.

Ten-gallon tank. Should you install the ten-gallon tank? I don't know of anyone that hasn't. The only advantage of installing a 5 gallon tank is in the rare case of someone attempting to build a legal part 103 ultralight Challenger I. If that is your intention then none of these options are for you and the 5 gallon tank is your only choice. If you are building a Challenger II, then there is only the disadvantage of less endurance with the 5 gallon tank. Some have installed even larger tanks from Turbulence Aviation and some have gone as far as adding tanks in the wings.

Gross weight is even a bit negotiable, kinda, sorta... You are the builder so you get to decide what is to be your gross weight. Now some will argue that anything over what the factory says is gross, is over gross. Fact is, if you order a Challenger with all of the factory options available, and then add that "true 500lb payload," you will be "over gross."

The nitty gritty of the question about options. I have found that asking, "What is your dream machine?" is like asking what would you change about your child to make you love them more. Most will tell you something like "build it just like mine cause it's perfect."

Now you have to figure out how to create yours, and it's going to be just like raising a kid . . . fun, painful and confusing at times but well worth it in the end. How long will it take? As long as it takes. And in the end, you'll probably think yours is perfect (if I had just done this or added that).

Still confused? The good news is all of these options can be added after you have flown your Challenger. Some are easier to add during the initial build, but if you really want to wait to see what you want, just build it and fly!

Good luck and have fun.

John Ratliff
(AKA Rat)