The Walter Extra has become the gold standard for Unlimited Aerobatic aircraft. Many contenders have attempted to dethrone the Extra 300 – but it has just got better and better – and by most estimations, left the others far behind. The proud owner of the latest Extra in South Africa is Jason Beamish – son of air show supremo Larry Beamish. Being Larry’s son was undoubtably a huge launching platform for young Jason, but he has now matured into a world class aerobatic pilot in his own right. Larry ruefully acknowledges he invested a lot on Avgas during Jason’s development.
Jason’s first experience of the Extra was his dad’s venerable 1990 Extra 300 – with the mid-mounted wing. This aircraft was acquired from the Chilean Air Force Halcones Team, and registered ZS-EXT, along with another, registered ZU-EXT as a non-type certified aircraft. Jason learned his trade flying the old Extra 300 until it was getting a bit long in the tooth.
The Extra range of aircraft have been developed progressively: the wing was mounted lower to create the 300L (for Low wing), weight reduced and the engine power increased from 300 to 330 hp. Handling was continuously refined until it became a true thoroughbred. The latest Extra is now a thoroughly proven airframe — and is certified. Certification may not seem all that important for an unlimited competition aerobatic aircraft, but it allows it to be flown professionally at air shows on an Aircraft Operator Certificate (AOC). This gives sponsors, insurers and air show organisers an important additional level of comfort. The Extra may not be the fastest — speed is more the remit of the Zivko Edge that was made for Red Bull Air Racing, but it is generally considered the best all-rounder.
Like the development of the Extra, Jason Beamish has also just been steadily improving. Years of punishing aerobatic formation training with his Dad in the Extras has made him a world class formation aerobatic pilot, who is now part of the Team Extreme – flying regular air shows in China. He has also flown with Zoltan Veres – including a spectacular close call while flying under a bridge in formation in Hungary.
For the Beamish clan to afford a new Extra 330LX was a huge reach, especially given the depreciated value of the South African Rand against the US dollar. But with Jason’s abilities (and some help from his Dad’s connections!) it didn’t take too much arm twisting to persuade a key sponsor with savvy marketing skills in the form of Absolute Aviation to support the ultimate Unlimited aerobatic display plane. And it no doubt helped that SA Aerobatic champ Nigel Hopkins had recently acquired an Extra 330LS single seater and was co-sponsored by Absolute – so the two aircraft could be more than the sum of two separate planes wowing the crowds at air shows around Southern Africa.
The Origin Of The Species
Forty years ago Walter Extra designed a fully aerobatic light aircraft, the Extra 230, to meet the needs of competition aerobatic pilots. The Extra 230 first flew in 1983 and featured a Dacron covered wooden wing, designed for sustained inverted flight. The Extra 300 was a development of the 230 with a mid-mounted wing, this time featuring a carbon fibre spar with carbon composite covering. The fuselage comprises lightweight yet incredibly strong alloy tubing clad with a non-load bearing skin. For inverted flight the wing has a symmetrical aerofoil mounted with zero angle of incidence.
Having the wing mounted at the centre of the fuselage means that the aircraft can roll around its axis more precisely and that the airflow across the wing remains constant. It would be the ideal location were it not for a couple of small problems: it reduces pilot visibility, making it difficult to taxi and land the aeroplane. An aircraft that’s difficult to taxi is a problem - but not an insurmountable one. Landing, though… well, that really is quite an important part of the flight, particularly if you plan on re-using the aeroplane.
So with this in mind, when Walter Extra developed the newer 300, he offered it with the option of a low wing. The low wing version, known as the 300L, has become the weapon of choice for most of the company’s customers for air show displays and aerobatic competitions. But competition relentlessly demands innovation. The state of the art advanced, and eventually the Extra 300L was being outclassed, particularly in power-to-weight ratio and the roll rate for classic Aresti competition flying. Also, a more powerful version was required by the French Air Force. They no longer wanted to use their indigenous CAP 232s and so wrote a specification for the 330’s roll rate, stick forces and many other enhancements, and demanded that it must be civilian certified.
A further limitation on the 300L was that for freestyle flying, the control surfaces aren’t big enough to maintain very high angles of attack or keep positive control down to zero airspeed. This is this a key requirement to maintain control at very low airspeed — for example in stall turns. Bigger control surfaces were thus needed. And so the Extra 330 was hatched in 2007, featuring the larger IO-580 engine producing either 315 certified or 330 uncertified horses in the Thunderbolt version used in the USA.
Walking around the Extra, you cannot help but be impressed by the excellent build quality and finish – rare in a no-compromise aerobatic aircraft. The quality and thickness the paint is equivalent to a luxury car. The interior has a level of finish that demonstrates Walter Extra’s passion for producing a superior product. The seats are covered in grey leather and once you slide into the cockpit you discover that they are surprisingly comfortable.
The Extra is flown from the back seat – so a front-seater does not significantly move the centre of gravity, and thus change the handling. The rear cockpit is narrow but once in it, it is surprisingly comfortable. The instrumentation and avionics package is basic, primarily to save weight.
Power-to-weight ratio is all important and so the 330LX is considerably lighter than the 300L and the larger Lycoming IO-580 engine is usefully more powerful. Walter Extra had been asking Lycoming to develop something with more power for the past ten years – but it wasn’t simply a matter of bolting on a new and larger engine.
Propeller manufacturer MT specially developed a lightweight composite propeller to absorb the additional power. The wide-chord blades give more thrust at lower airspeed. There’s also a more streamlined spinner to reduce drag.
When shaving weight off an aerobatic plane, you don’t just start using smaller this and lighter that. It must be done while keeping the ultimate strength in mind at all times. Nothing can be compromised. In the case of the 330LX’s evolution from the 300L, the weight came off through the use of technology and careful planning. For instance, the push-pull tubes in the control system are now carbon fibre and the firewall was lightened using titanium. So that elusive – and expensive – aircraft designers’ objective of increasing strength while simultaneously cutting weight has been achieved. The 330LX airframe is rated at plus-and-minus 10 Gs, but loaded to destruction shows that its limits actually exceed 24Gs. What is perhaps surprising are the relatively low limiting speeds. Manoeuvring speed Va (for full control deflection) is just 158 knots and never exceed speed (Vne) is 220 Knots.
Describing his Extra 330SC, Nigel Hopkins says that the roll rate increase was tackled in a very non-Extra way. The ailerons are hinged so that, when deflected past a certain amount, the leading edges protrude a sizable distance above or below the wing. In so doing, it appears that rather than acting like regular ailerons that generate lift by changing the camber of the wing, these create a slot effect. At large deflections, this effect makes the aileron act as if it is a separate surface that generates lift on its own, independent of the wing. This is probably where the increased roll rate (420-450 degrees per second) gets its start. Although the new trapezoidal planform of the ailerons has to be pointed out to be noticed, the unusual shape also helps in the roll rate department. Rather than being rectangular, as is traditional, the aileron tips are quite a bit wider than the roots. By moving the centre of pressure of the aileron outboard, it gains leverage and can, with less effort, move the wing more quickly.
An even more subtle change is seen in the taper of the wing. At the tip the chord is shorter, which, when combined with the new aileron, achieves the desired roll performance.
Unlimited aerobatics has become about tumbling. The trick of making an aeroplane somersault end over end in a more predictable manner has to be something of a black art, part of which includes making the plane snap roll outside better. This Walter Extra knew how to do, but some of those changes, notably the new horizontal tail, helped in both areas. He changed to slightly thinner aerofoil sections with less radius on the nose. This made them more critical, so he could get them to stall more predictably. The span is shorter and the elevator balances are noticeably different.
At the same time that Extra was looking for better performance, he also included some changes that gives the aircraft greater utility. Specifically, the aerobatic header tank is now 26 gallons, which is almost twice what it used to be. There can be no fuel in the wing tanks while doing hard aerobatics, and that can make the trip back from distant practice areas a bit marginal. The bigger aerobatic tank also gives peace of mind to actual aerobatic practice.
Flying The 330LX
Entering the cockpit is typically Extra: use the step on the fuselage, stand on the seat squab (which seems sacrilegious) and then slide your feet down under the instrument panel into the rudder pedal straps. To save weight, the pedals on the LX are not electrically adjustable as on the older Extras. The seat is three-way adjustable, allowing all pilot shapes and sizes to get comfortable. It takes about two minutes to do the necessary pulling out and re-insertion of pins to move the seat.
Engine start is straightforward and welcomes you with a throaty bark from under the cowl. The big Lycoming AEIO-580, with its Gomolzig 6-in-1 exhaust sends pulses of power through the airframe and into your body, adding to the plane’s already formidable presence.
Jason Beamish takes us through a first-hand experience of flying his plane: On takeoff the additional power over the old Extra is immediately evident. The rudder is big enough to counter all the torque the engine can produce from a standing start so keeping straight for a full power takeoff roll is not a problem. Tail-up it flies off at around 60 knots.
This plane has real power and an amazing willingness to climb. You can jump off the ground and head for the heavens. Like a Rolls Royce it has ‘sufficient power’ so flying the Extra 330 has an arcade game-like quality to it. If you pull the stick back it can climb 2,000 ft vertically, and as Nigel likes to show – it can pretty much hang on its prop like a helicopter.
The first thing you notice is the lightness of the controls compared to the 300. This is a plane which you really fly as though it is wings strapped to your back. You just think where you want to position the aircraft, and with barely any wrist movement on the stick it goes to exactly where you want it to be.
The key difference is in responsiveness. Because the carbon fibre pushrods are lighter and stiffer, the breakout forces are lower, and the aeroplane reacts a lot quicker. The ailerons now have a large horn balance on the end and when the leading edge of the horn is centred it wants to stay in that neutral position. The Extra 330 is wonderfully sensitive to control inputs but it’s all beautifully balanced and harmonized without, for instance, the insane pitch sensitivity that the SBach has. The Extra responds instantaneously to even the most minor stick movement and each input is precisely accurate.
Having bucket loads of power is an advantage. Wherever possible ‘lightness has been added’. The empty weight of the 330LX is just 605 kg, whereas the old 300L was 670 kg, so it’s a remarkable 65 kg lighter. What the plane is made for, is aerobatics. The Extra 330 goes up vertically as if it had been built by SpaceX, which makes it great for vertical displays such as stall turns and tail slides. On the way up, look at the sight gauge on the wing tip to ensure that it’s aligned with the horizon. With the wing showing no symptoms of being stalled, for a stall turn, as the airspeed drops to zero, push the rudder and over she goes. There is that wonderful moment when you are looking straight down at the ground with almost no sound. It seems to take an age before you hear the airspeed pick up. Again, look across at the wingtip at the sight gauge to ensure that the aircraft is absolutely vertical and then, once the speed has picked up, pull back and lift the nose to the horizon.
You can comfortably cruise cross country at 170 knots, (which is fast for a symmetrical wing), burning 13 USg\h. There are 31 gallons in the wings, which with the header tank gives a total of 57 gallons usable, which gives a solid three hours of cruise with a decent reserve margin.
Aim for 140 knots in the circuit. The approach is flown at 85 knots, aiming to cross the fence at 75 knots. There are no flaps – so sideslipping is standard – which also improves the view forward. You can get it down and stopped in 250 metres and the takeoff roll is even less, thanks to the light weight and abundance of power.
To Sum Up
The Extra 330 is an impressive bit of kit. It is plane that gives pleasure in many roles: as an Unlimited Aerobatics mount, as an aerobatics trainer or passenger experience aircraft, and also as a fast and reasonably comfortable tourer. Extra reports that many buyers see their Extras as ‘lifestyle machines’ – like a Porsche 911. It is a wonderfully versatile high-performance machine. Most owners won’t want to compete in unlimited aerobatics but it’s great to own a beautiful and responsive thoroughbred which can - if you ever get the urge.
In summary, although to the untrained eye the 330LX may look just like a 300L, they have very different flying characteristics, control response and performance. The improvements have come about through three things: more power, less weight and larger control surfaces. Add to that the excellent build quality and superior finish, and you can see just how special the Extra 330LX is. It’s even comfortable for two and with its usable range, a one stop flight by Jason to Cape Town for the Stellenbosch Air show and this photoshoot with Justin de Reuck was easy.
What’s the price of a thoroughbred? The asking price for the 330LX is in the region of 450,000 US Dollars — 400,000 for the aircraft and another 50,000 for basic options and shipping. So you need deep pockets and the skills and ability to impress generous sponsors. But that’s what Jason Beamish and Nigel Hopkins have managed with prime sponsor Absolute Aviation, with support from Century Avionics and Skeerpoort Verspreiders for fuel. By all accounts the relationship is working well for both the pilots and the sponsors. It is a great example for other companies.