“An Affordable Bush Aircraft”

Text – Julian Smith, Keaton Perkins, Guy Leitch. Pics – Bruce Perkins and Noel Sellick

Africa is a naturally strong market for a locally developed and built, yet thoroughly proven, light sport bush plane. The Bush Cat is one such aircraft that has evolved into what many consider the almost perfect, tough yet affordable, bush plane.

THE SOUTH AFRICAN AVIATION INDUSTRY is blessed with a number of successful light sport aircraft manufacturers, either building foreign designs under licence, or entirely new aircraft. Rainbow SkyReach is one of the more successful of these manufacturers.

Rainbow SkyReach has been producing the Cheetah, and its updated version, the BushCat, for over 19 years with over 200 now flying and many kits under construction. SkyReach is a SACAA approved aircraft manufacturing organisation and reassuringly, it meets international ATSM and CS-LSA standards.

THE GENESIS OF THE BUSHCAT

The BushCat can trace its origins back to a French design called the SkyRanger which achieved almost 1000 sales worldwide, with a number flying in South Africa.

The simplicity and strength of the basic SkyRanger design was recognised by well-known weight shift microlight supremo Mike Blyth, who founded Rainbow Aircraft at Springs airfield to develop the SkyRanger. (Mike went on to develop the fantastically successful Sling Aircraft). Under Mike Blyth, Rainbow Aircraft had developed the Safari, Echo, Safari and Cobra series of weight shift trikes, however a need for a cost effective and rugged 3-axis bush aircraft was identified in the late nineties. From the SkyRanger concept an entirely new design was created – the Cheetah. The Cheetah is no longer manufactured, but the factory still supports the model and keeps a full range of spare components on hand. SkyReach now has 35 full time employees who do all composite work, sewing and machining in-house.

The first flight of the Cheetah took place in 2001. It was originally known as the Rainbow Cheetah and through constant development and improvement became the Cheetah XLS. The latest generation of the aircraft is now known as the BushCat.

‘thoroughly developed and tested’

The BushCat structure has been progressively developed to become a thoroughly tested aircraft certified to an ultimate load of +6G and -4G at its LSA maximum weight of 600kg (1320lbs). The design was handled by SkyReach’s in-house aeronautical engineering team. The BushCat was then passed on to the test pilots at the Test Flight Academy of South Africa in Oudtshoorn, who were responsible for flight testing and post-design changes.

Mike Blyth moved out of the business and it was eventually sold to the Maritz brothers with Mike Gill as General Manager, who led the development of the airframe into the BushCat – which is the subject of our test.

The BushCat iteration of the Cheetah XLS incorporated significant design changes. The most important is the wing, which was changed from the original standard Clark-Y aerofoil to a more symmetrical profile, which is identifiable by the convex camber of the lower surface.

The other key improvement was to the empennage. The horizontal tail surfaces were made 50% larger and the vertical surfaces about 30% larger. Evident is the move away from the Cheetah’s large fixed ventral fin (under the tail) to a fillet along the top of the fuselage.

The undercarriage was given a welcome clean-up with the complex steel tube structure replaced by a simple sprung aluminium landing gear with hydraulic disc brakes.

As the BushCat, the design has achieved broad market acceptance, with many aircraft exported to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, Poland and the USA. The company is currently working with potential European distributors to expand its footprint into the EU.

Like all aircraft, the manufacturer is always improving as customers demand more and more, and in late 2021, further upgrades were made. SkyReach retains two aeronautical engineers on staff, so this really is a thoroughly developed and tested light sport aircraft. The subject of our test is the latest tailwheel version, ZU-IMS.

ON THE GROUND

Major developments have been an increase of up to 50% in empennage size – giving excellent controlability in all flight regimes.

The BushCat’s primary structure is fabric-clad aluminium tube structure construction. The aluminium tubes are bolted into welded stainless steel brackets. The factory says the reason behind this is that parts can easily be replaced and bolted on, should repairs be necessary. This is obviously helpful if stuck out in the bush. The simplicity of this design also reduces manufacturing cost and time.

The aluminium airframe is covered with a trilaminate composite rip-stop fabric, commonly used for racing yacht sails. It is strong and durable and has proved itself able to stand the test of time against the elements. SkyReach gives customers the choice of five colours in various pattens to form their own design for their aircraft covering. The composite parts of the aircraft can be painted – further making the exterior of the BushCat customisable.

In its taildragger option the BushCat looks purposeful yet compact. The long landing gear legs are fitted with hefty 8.5 x 6 tyres and the enlarged empennage is evident – as is the sturdy Matco tailwheel assembly.

The BushCat features easily removable doors which can be refitted in less than three minutes. This is especially useful for in-flight photography or game spotting.

Standard engine is the 100hp Rotax 912ULS. SkyReach say it will have to fit the 912iS sometime in the near future, however the carburettor fed 912ULS fits in perfectly with he KISS ethos of the BushCat.

The engine is easily inspected with clamshell cowls that come apart in seconds. This particular aircraft was fitted with the larger radiator kit as used in Australian and Namibian aircraft. I am told it is not a necessity in South Africa.

A carbon composite 3-blade prop finishes off the front end with a bright red spinner.

‘The Hawker Hurricane aerofoil’

THE COCKPIT

The panel is wide and shallow and filled with big old fashioned steam gauges – even for the secondary engine instruments. The only gesture to modernity is Garmin G5 which also operates as an EFIS PFD for those who prefer modern glass and airspeed in knots, but as we shall see, this is a mph aeroplane. Instrument panels are 100% customisable by the buyer/ builder to suit budget and mission, ranging from full ‘steam’ round gauges to the Garmin G3x.

There is a single centre-mounted Y-shaped control stick between the seats. In order to accommodate the central control stick the designers created two interconnected throttles mounted at the end of the armrests. Both arm rests can be raised for exit and entry into the cockpit, without affecting the throttle position. Sticking to the simplicity ethos, the flaps are controlled by a roof-mounted lever.

That this is a slow aeroplane is immediately evident from a quick glance at the big round air speed indicator. The white flap arc starts at just 45 mph. The green arc runs from 51 to 89 mph and the yellow arc runs from 89 – 105 mph – which is Vne. So it is clearly never going to do 100 KIAS– not even downhill.

The fuel tank is located behind the seats and there is a generous sized baggage bay in the tail cone – accessed via sturdy zips from either side of the fuselage. Being able to zip open the fuselage also makes it easy to inspect the control runs.

FLYING THE BUSH CAT

Michael Paxton was the pilot for our test and he showed me the most recent aerodynamic updates. The aircraft now has vortex generators behind the wing leading edge, new Wig Wag LED landing lights in the wing plus new LED navigation and strobe lights.

The wing struts attach behind the cockpit, so you approach from the front and duck under the wing. Swing the door up, then slide your behind onto the seat and lift your legs in. You do not have to carefully hoist a knee over a control stick. The seats are comfortable and there is generous headroom, making the cockpit big enough for almost all pilot sizes.

Taxing is easy for a taildragger thanks to the large tyres and hydraulic disc brakes. The view forward across the engine cowling is sufficient so as to not have to weave to see ahead.

Michael did the first takeoff from runway 08 as we had a crosswind from the right. Within 100 metres the tail was up and we were almost instantly airborne. No flaps were used on the first takeoff.

Port Elizabeth has huge runways so to gain insights into real bush operations we chatted to Keaton Perkins who flies a BushCat on game patrols in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. He says he prefers to takeoff using full flap – which is an arbitrary 29 degrees. Keaton runs it up to 4200 rpm against the brakes and the tail immediately comes up – even while stationary. This is indeed a plane with enough power. At brake release he pushes the stick and the throttle forward simultaneously as the natural tendency on brake release and the application of full power is for the nose to rise. Almost immediately you are indicating 45 mph (just 39 knots!) at which speed, with a bit of nose-up trim dialled in, it elevates off the ground.

Flaps up, best angle of climb Vx, is just 50 mph, but that means you can see nothing but sky ahead, so a 60 mph climb is preferred. At that speed you will be going up at around 1000 fpm, depending on load.

‘50 mph across the fence’

The BushCat can be flown happily with the doors off which makes it great for game work and aerial photography but speed is placarded to a 70 mph limit.This aircraft has a particularly coarse prop which limits the engine to about 5400 rpm in level flight. He says a 90-95 mph cruise may be expected, depending on tyre size. Slowing to 80 mph gives a claimed 5-hour endurance. This was well tested in 2016 when two BushCats took part in the epic 15,000 km Crete to Cape vintage air rally.

The controls are somewhat heavy but well balanced, and they make the aircraft stable in all flight regimes. The single control stick falls readily to hand and fulfils the power in left hand, stick in right hand, preference of many fighter pilots. Despite the light 600 kg LSA limit and high drag design, the airframe holds its speed surprisingly well.

The BushCat feels sturdy and safe and the stall really is benign. There is no clearly defined break – the nose just mushes down. Keaton says that at times he has really abused his BushCat and tried to stall it at an 80-degree bank. There is a rumble felt through the control stick and then, if he just relaxes back pressure on the stick, the wing immediately unloads and it flies away happily at 55 mph. Interestingly, the seat squab can get in the way of full aft stick, so the pilot has to change his grip to get his hand fully in front of the stick.

APPROACH AND LANDING

For our test assessment, returning back to PE we were given Runway 17 and on final slowed to 55 mph, with one notch (being 17 degrees) of flap. The removal of the Cheetah’s large ventral fin was evident in the cross-wind controllability.

Keaton says that he prefers wheel landings and thus approaches at a faster 60 mph. For shorter strips a good approach speed is 55 mph but below that the ailerons are getting sloppy. A true short field landing can be flown at 50 mph across the fence but with power on as it can be hard to arrest the descent without it. With its light weight and high drag and it will just drop out from underneath you without power.

Thanks to the big increase in empennage size, the elevator maintains authority right through the stall and reducing the danger inherent in many high wing light sport aircraft of running out of up-elevator and so not being able to hold the nose up on landing. It is easy to get the BushCat down and stopped in 50 metres.

CONCLUSION – AND COST

The BushCat is designed around four principles: simplicity, ruggedness, low cost and safe low speed handling. And it is, above all, affordable fun!

It is available either as a kit, or as a complete ready-to-fly aircraft, and as either a taildragger or with a nosewheel. Buyers also have the option of floats or skis.

A new BushCat with a navcom radio, transponder, custom colours, and MGL EFIS sells standard for about R1.2 Million, or you can order the firewall back kit for R325,000 excluding VAT. It’s a lot of fun for the money.

SkyReach BushCat
SPECIFICATIONS  
PriceR1.3m ready to fly
Length5.7 m
Height2.3 m
Empty weight340 kg
Maximum take-off weight600 kg
Useful load260 kg
Fuel capacity94 litres
Wing area13.58 m²
Wing span9.6 m
Aspect ratio6.8
Maximum wing loading41.2 kg/m²
EngineRotax 912 ULS
Maximum power100 HP
Power loading5.6 kg/HP
Fuel typeAvgas or mogas
  PERFORMANCE  
Cruise Speed90 mph
Endurance5 hours
Range450 sm
Stall speed45 mph
Takeoff roll100 metres
Landing roll75 metres
Paint scheme is fully customisable.

Two BushCats flew the 10,000 km Crete to Cape rally in 2016.

SkyReach

Hangar 27 Springs Airfield

Dal Fouche, Springs

Gauteng, South Africa

+27 (0)11 817 2298

sales@fly-skyreach.com

www.bushcat.aero

SkyReach is a SACAA approved manufacturing organisation – approval number M68

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