Dave Ammenti is a humble, hard-working guy. His hangar at San Carlos (California) Airport is filled with the ever-growing airframe of a Sportsman 2+2 that he’s been building. Pilots familiar with the breed recognize the myriad changes from the basic design—flush riveting for the wing, careful systems placement, artful composite interior pieces including an extended baggage bay—and know they are in the presence of someone who simply loves to build.
But don’t take the Sportsman project as gospel. Outside the hangar is Ammenti’s GlaStar, started in 1996 and completed in six and a half years. The two-seater is done with such obvious care and finesse that you almost don’t want to touch it. The polished metal surfaces glimmer in the sunlight. In taildragger configuration, Ammenti’s GlaStar appears purposeful, jaunty. Inside, it’s cleaner than your high school’s cafeteria ever was.
“I knew I wanted to build an airplane back in the early 70s,” Ammenti says. “I had flown into South Lake Tahoe one afternoon and was on the ramp tying down my Bonanza when two gentlemen landed in their two beautiful Midget Mustangs. After talking to them I knew [building] was something I wanted to do. Before that day I was unaware of the Experimental option.” Like so many who are suddenly made aware of the Experimental/Amateur-Built world, Ammenti’s eyes were now wide open.
“Fast forward to 1995,” he continues. “I’m on my way to Oshkosh for the first time in a friend’s T-34. I was planning to order an RV-6. I wanted to use the airplane to camp and fish—my wife, Anne, likes the camping and I like the fishing. I was not fully satisfied with the baggage space and load carrying of the -6 so wanted to look at an actual airplane to see if it would work. While wandering through OSH looking for other options, I found the GlaStar. It seemed to fit all my needs much better than the RV-6, and if I remember correctly, the sales brochure estimated 900 hours’ build time. Wow, I thought that I could build that in one year. How naive I was! I took delivery of the kit in May of 1996. The first flight was January 31, 2003. That 900 hours and a year turned into 2700 hours and six and half years. But it was worth every hour I spent building.”
State of the GlaStar Nation
What Ammenti’s GlaStar represents is actually a bit more than superb workmanship. That he no longer owns it reflects a reality in today’s economic climate. Simply put, GlaStars are now just old enough to be a supremely good value on the used market, both as completed, flying aircraft and as partially completed kits. This concept is not lost on Tom Nolan, who now owns Ammenti’s GlaStar. He watched Dave building it and says, “I just waited for the day when Dave was ready to build again.”
In the grand scheme of things, the two-seat GlaStar may rank among the more under-appreciated kitbuilt designs around. Occasionally overshadowed by the faster Glasair designs, the GlaStar was nevertheless popular among second-time builders and was, in fact, designed to be significantly easier to build than any kit of the same general size.
Current market forces have pushed the values of many older designs downward, and the GlaStar is no exception. Completed aircraft are widely available, and with 400 flying examples (from some 900 kits sold), the market provides many opportunities. What’s more, the GlaStar has proven to be a simple, reliable design with few “gotchas” to trip up the unwary. In the summer of 2010, flying GlaStars could be had for between $50,000 and $85,000, depending on equipment, engine selection and other options. In addition, partially completed kits have been on the market for around $20,000. That’s a lot of airplane for the money.
A True Composite
A key component of the GlaStar design is its mix of construction materials. It’s a composite aircraft in the true sense of the term, with a fiberglass fuselage shell, chrome-moly steel-tube main fuselage structure, and sheet aluminum for the wings, horizontal stabilizer, elevator, rudder, ailerons and flaps. In fact, the fiberglass components are what you might consider semi-structural, in that the major airframe, engine and landing-gear loads are all borne by the steel-tube “safety cage,” as the company called it. This construction method does weigh a bit more than a pure aluminum design, but it provides the builder with a strong backbone and reliable “hard points” for the major structures.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. “The current configuration was actually the result of a salvage operation,” says Ted Setzer, who co-founded the company that designed and sold the Glasair kits in the 1980s, and continues to work as a development man at Glasair Aviation. “Back in the Stoddard-Hamilton days, we were in a speed race with Lancair. We had the Glasair III, and then Lancair introduced the IV. But we were also looking at where this speed race was taking us, and we were concerned about the end game.” Would ever-faster airplanes continue to be viable? Would they ultimately outstrip the average pilot’s abilities, and was this a defensible position?
The company took a bold stance. Rather than push ahead with ever-faster aircraft, Stoddard-Hamilton shifted focus to a more practical model. This new airplane would have to hold the same performance margin over traditional certified airplanes as the Glasair line did, but be easy to fly. That definition included low stall speed and docile handling, and the poster child for those characteristics in the certified world was the Cessna 172.
Controllers will forever be calling your “Cessna,” but the GlaStar is dramatically more sleek, aerodynamically efficient and fun to fly. Tri- or conventional gear, your choice.
“We wanted to make an airplane as easy to fly as the 172,” Setzer recalls, “but that had much better performance. It had to get into and out of shorter strips, fly faster in cruise and carry more.” Because the company had literally built its reputation out of fiberglass, the first thought was to make this new design the same way. “Tom Hamilton [designer of the original Glasair] had this idea in his head he called the GlasHawk,” a design close in concept to what would become the GlaStar, says Setzer.
“We contracted with an outside company to build the tooling and a prototype, but the manufacturing technology just hadn’t caught up with our ideas.” Indeed. The all-glass design was difficult to get as light as needed, and the tooling became prohibitively expensive.
“We pulled the plug,” says Setzer. “It was the hardest thing I’d done. I felt like we really needed this new design to move forward, but we just couldn’t get the production aspects worked out. We never did build a prototype.”
That could have been the end of the idea that culminated in the GlaStar, but Tom Hamilton was soon introduced to a new piece of technology: a CNC (computer numerically controlled) router purchased by a local machine shop. This device could take a sheet of metal (aluminum or steel), cut it to shape and drill holes in precisely the right spot; it would become the enabling technology for what we now call match-hole construction. (Match-hole construction allows major pieces to be, in effect, self-jigging, and it eliminates the need for the builder to lay out and drill the thousands of rivet holes required in a conventional aluminum structure.)
“When we saw that,” Setzer says of the CNC router, “we knew that it was possible to really get the build time down.” Now the GlaStar concept had legs, and Setzer joined with his brothers, Tom and Mike, along with Dick Anderson and Bud Nelson to create Arlington Aircraft Development, which would develop the GlaStar outside of Stoddard-Hamilton.
GlaStars have a single baggage access door on the left side. Your RV-flying friends will be envious of all the camping and fishing gear you can carry.
As development continued, the design matured. The steel-tube cage was partly the result of aesthetics. To get the composite structure around the doorposts strong enough, it would have to be quite large—large enough to be intrusive to visibility and cabin room. Steel tubes could carry the load with a smaller footprint, and offer the added benefit of creating an easy-to-build (for the company) main structure that tied the engine, wingspars and landing gear points together. This became a signature part of the GlaStar design, and it’s credited—along with the low stall speed—for the airplane’s good safety record.
Renamed from GlasHawk, the GlaStar debuted at Sun ’n Fun in 1994, a partially completed prototype rolled out at Oshkosh that year, and the first flight took place that November. It was powered by the then-new Continental IO-240, a four-cylinder version of the company’s IO-360 six-banger, making 125 horsepower. It was a good match, but soon the company wanted more performance, and swapped the 240 for a 160-hp Lycoming O-320, which would become almost the de facto engine for the GlaStar. There are a few out there with the 180-hp O-360, but this was never a completely factory-sanctioned upgrade, and it required some additional work to make it fit.
A 150- or 160-hp GlaStar is a well-balanced, extremely pleasant airplane to fly. Performance is good considering the compromises inherent in the overall design. When you balance the cruise speeds—anywhere from 125 to 140 knots, depending on power and overall airframe cleanliness—with the low landing speeds brought by the 128 square feet of wing, it’s clear the company made the right choices. Handling is benign almost to a fault, with slightly heavy roll forces but still moderate (if slightly lighter) pitch forces. The airplane is positively stable at all reasonable loadings, and has enough rudder to show your friends an eyeball-widening sideslip—the big fin makes the GlaStar weathervane vigorously.
In terms of systems, the GlaStar is about as simple as they come. Originally it had manual everything—flaps, trim, you name it—but many builders opted for electric trim on the conventional elevator-mounted tab. Another tab, actually a servo tab fitted to one of the ailerons, was successful in reducing roll forces, but the flap lever is always going to take a hefty tug. (When the Sportsman was developed from the GlaStar in the late 1990s, many of these quirks were banished.) Sink rate with full flaps and power at idle can seem sporty for a Skyhawk-trained pilot, but it also allows the airplane to get into short fields in the hands of an experienced GlaStar stick.
Left: V-shaped delta fins improve stall behavior. Another set resides ahead of the ailerons to improve their low-speed effectiveness. Right: Cowl flaps help cool the O-320 engine. Baffling quality determines an individual airplane’s cooling capacity, but GlaStars generally do not cook their engines.
Getting It Done
In the years Ammenti has flown his GlaStar, it achieved all of his objectives. Among his fondest recollections was the first flight of his own airplane, and then taking his wife for her first flight in the GlaStar. “I did not notice at the time, but Anne got real quiet on final. When we got on the ground she told me she thought we were going to fall out of the sky because our speed was so slow. Our last airplane was a Cessna 310, and its over-the-fence speed was twice that of the GlaStar, but it never occurred to me to brief her on that.”
GlaStars, in addition to their forgiving flight profile and inherent ruggedness, have another advantage today: The parent company is still around. True, the GlaStar is no longer offered as a new kit—the improved albeit more-expensive Sportsman essentially killed it—but many components are shared between the two. Many of the systems are the same, and the design employs many off-the-shelf solutions ahead of the firewall. All specified hardware is aircraft-grade, including everything in the cable control system. Taildragger GlaStars are well-suited to unimproved strips, but the trigear models should be landed with some care—the nosewheel was substantially upsized for the heavier Sportsman. While the cage includes sockets for both gear styles, installing a different configuration is time-consuming the first time; however, once done, the airplane can be converted back and forth quickly.
Support is key, whether you’re buying a flying example or finishing another builder’s kit, and here the GlaStar is in excellent shape. For those who complain about the cost of new kits and bemoan the fact that some of the least expensive homebuilts lack utility—it’s time to flip through an issue of Trade-A-Plane and check out the GlaStar listings. We call it bang for the buck.