This Continental-powered kitplane is modified for factory production and has safety features and a luxurious flatscreen panel.

By Nick Bloom (Pictures: Keith Wilson)The Zodiac is a significant aeroplane, because it is produced to a formula that we soon might be seeing in the UK, once EASA (probably in a year or two) introduces its own version of the American Light Sport Aircraft. We should eventually see the Zodiac being marketed in Europe.

It’s an ingenious formula that starts with Chris Heintz’s well-established Zenith kitplanes. Ingenious, because kitplanes are designed to be easy to build by semi-skilled labour with a minimum of equipment. The FAA knows the design – it’s been around for decades – and trusts it. Another part of the formula is to manufacture the components and assemble the final product in places like Mexico City and Missouri where it can be done cheaply and well to keep costs down and quality high – then you can say the aircraft is made in America and spares don’t have to be imported. Finally, do your market research and fit whatever the customer wants.A large chunk of the American market consists of older guys who are worried about renewing their Medicals and alarmed at the rising cost of operating their complex single. They and their wives are worried that they aren’t flying enough to keep up their skills… and the reason they’re not flying more is that they don’t feel safe any more. They want something easy to fly and cheap to operate, but it’s also got to have a lot of safety features. For these customers, flatscreens for instrument flying (in case you get into trouble), ballistic parachutes and air bags are increasingly a ‘must’. The aircraft might be an LSA, but it should have the look and feel of the CS prop retractables the customer has been flying until now: metal, not composite, toe, not finger brakes and a Continental flat-four, not a Rotax. Handling should be steady, not frisky. The AMD Zodiac is intended to meet all of these criteria and I’ve been invited to put one to the test. Since many American airfields are prone to hot and high conditions, it’s appropriate that I’m flying it at Carson City, which has an altitude of 4,500ft and is surrounded by rising ground and hills. An observant customer might think the Zodiac a little crude and flimsy at first sight. The pop rivets don’t look as professional as solid ones. The construction includes plates riveted over the skin here and there. The wings look as if they could have done with one more rib per side. However, the cockpit interior tells a different story. This one has beautiful hand-stitched upholstery and the flatscreens look clean and modern. Probably, most customers won’t see much past the gleaming paint. The lines are a little crude, perhaps, but a good paint scheme has made this tried-and trusted airframe look modern and upmarket. Best of all, the makers have done a great job with the engine cowling and the cockpit transparency. All in all, the Zodiac can’t be faulted on its looks. STEP THIS WAY

There’s a step behind the trailing edge. You lift your foot over the flap onto the wing, swing the big canopy upwards and forwards and step down into the cockpit. It is just possible to put your feet directly onto the floor, but most people will have to put one shoe on the seat first. The seats are very reclined and it feels rather like sitting in a deckchair. I find the front of the seat is pushing against the backs of my knees, but a little cushion in the small of my back would probably fix that. Company pilot Bill says he finds the reclining seat comfortable, one of the Zodiac’s selling points, and looks genuinely surprised when I say that it might not be to everyone’s taste. I have to laugh – there’s a cup holder between the seats. Apparently this is nonstandard, but the customer wanted one, and that’s what he’s got. Like most LSAs the Zodiac is fitted with control sticks rather than yokes. They have push to talk buttons and an electric trim control. Each occupant has a throttle plunger, which means the pilot in the left-hand seat can fly with either hand on the stick – a nice touch. I have a little difficulty in getting the canopy to lock: I have to ground two catches, one each side via a central lever that’s behind my right shoulder. With Bill holding the right catch I manage it. He says when he has to close the canopy on his own, he uses both hands on the catches and his elbow on the lever. The camera ship has started its engine, the daylight is beginning to go, so I have to ‘expedite’ (lovely aviation term for ‘get on with things’). There isn’t much to do: strap on our three-point harnesses, plug in our headsets, master switch on, mixture in, auxiliary pump on, a few strokes to prime, crack the throttle plunger, twist the start key, and the Continental bursts into life. Switch on the flatscreens, a Dynon Avionics EFIS-D100 on the left and an EMS D120 on the right and a GPS between them. As usual, I’ve forgotten for the moment how they work – for now, they are just a jumble of information. No matter, I’ll catch up later. Bill advises first stage flap, which is set via a switch on the instrument panel. I hold the toe brakes, test the mags and carb heat, Bill says we’re clear to go and off we trundle, following the Cessna onto the runway. Taxiing is utterly straightforward, with toebrakes, a steerable nosewheel linked to the pedals and a seating position that gives a good view ahead and of the wingtips. We have time to run through the pre-flight checks and exchange a thumbs-up and then the Cessna heads off. When it’s half way down the runway, I push home the throttle plunger. Acceleration is brisk. The elevator comes alive early and I unload the nosewheel. The aircraft feels light and needs some right rudder to track straight.

After a run of perhaps 250 metres we’ve reached 65mph and I raise the nose a little higher. The Zodiac lifts off a moment later. The elevator is loaded, but holding the trim switch on the joystick back for a second unloads it. The aircraft is giving a smooth ride and the controls feel firm and not over-sensitive, which would reassure anyone used to heavier aircraft. The climb rate is only around 500fpm. However, climb would be a lot faster at sea level. Raising flap helps by perhaps another 50fpm. I’m needing to hold right rudder in the climb. We catch up the cameraplane and run through the photoshoot, which is a good way to get to know any aircraft. The Zodiac seems well-mannered and responsive and the view of the cameraplane is excellent. When we come to the head-on shot and I need to cross the controls, the rudder proves to be effective. Even with full slip we have enough power to draw closer to the cameraship. In the breakaway shot (rolling away to show the aircraft’s underbelly), the ailerons work well, producing a good roll rate. ON THE FIRM SIDE

The controls are well-harmonised, a touch on the firm side and effective in all three axes, making this a pleasant aircraft to fly, though not the kind of LSA that begs to be thrown around the sky; the Zodiac has a calmer personality than that. You can make turns without rudder, but they are noticeably out of balance; adding a little rudder is more graceful. The aircraft is pretty stable, and can be left unattended for a while without dropping a wing. You can keep the wings level with rudder alone while folding a map. The view out for map reading is excellent. Bill says that at normal altitudes, he cruises at 115kt with the engine turning over at 2,550rpm and consuming 5.5usgph. The two wing tanks hold 28 gallons, so endurance is a creditable five hours.When I try the clean wings-level stall, it comes at 45kt with a modest nod of the nose and no wing drop. We mush down if I hold back stick, but the descent rate isn’t severe and the aircraft can be held wings level with aileron. With flap set, the stall occurs at around 38kt (indicated) and the descent rate is reduced. In a turning stall, the wings selflevel. Altogether the stall behaviour is remarkably docile.

Apparently the crosswind limit is 20kt. I’m getting the hang of the left-hand screen now, and can interpret the artificial horizon and slip ball, ASI and variometer without any hesitation. We have to wait a while, orbiting above the airfield before dropping down for some touch and goes. With the Zodiac trimmed out and at 65 per cent power, lazily circling, one couldn’t ask for a better platform for observing the ground below. The aircraft’s stability means that I barely need to touch the controls. With the engine throttled back, the noise level is low. The view is superb and the reclining seats comfortable. Bill and I chat in a desultory way. FOREARMED

Bill has warned me several times that the elevator is rather sensitive. So far I haven’t found it particularly powerful – as I said earlier, the controls seem well-harmonised.Apparently, though, this is what catches out the potential customers he flies with and he says it happens during landings. Well, forewarned is forearmed. We drop down in a fairly steep dive, with the throttle back to around 30 per cent and join the circuit downwind. Raising the nose gets us back to the flap limiting speed of 80kt so I can lower full flap. I’m high on the approach, but sideslipping gets us lined up. 70kt seems to work fine at this point, and the Zodiac runs smoothly down the approach gradient. I let the speed drop back to 65kt, and ease back on the stick to round out. Bill is right, at these lower speeds, the elevator does become rather more sensitive, but since I’m expecting it, I don’t have any pilot-induced oscillation. We skim over the runway with the throttle closed and the flare isn’t particularly long. Within 150 metres of crossing the threshold, we touch down smoothly on the mains and I can gently lower the nosewheel. Full throttle at this point gets us airborne shortly afterwards for another circuit. I fly three circuits altogether, to give the cameraman who’s stationed by the runway a chance to produce enough photographs, and the Zodiac is very pleasant and good natured in all of them. For the final landing I try to see how short I can make it and brake shortly after lowering the nosewheel. This brings us to a full stop within less than 300 metres. The Zodiac is a very pleasant aircraft to fly, and seems to meet its marketing criteria well. According to Steve Lewis, one of two American distributors of the type, 360 have been built. The design is certified for IFR flight (allowable in the USA for LSAs) and of the twelve he has sold so far, eight were fitted out for instrument flight. ONE HAPPY DOCTOR

Steve says a typical customer was a doctor who had decided to sell his 1981 Turbo Cessna RG after admitting to himself that he had only flown 130hr in the last ten years. “The guy had added every modification he’d read about, but he’d become scared to fly it.” Steve persuaded him to take a flight in a Zodiac. “It was a revelation, because he’d forgotten how easy flying could be. He bought one, and when his wife heard about the ballistic parachute option, she insisted he had one fitted. He just told me in the last four months he’s flown 65 hours in it. Now he’s flying every weekend for that $100 hamburger. He says it’s reinvigorated his flying career and motivated him to renew his IR rating. Last I heard, he was saying how he’d flown three instrument approaches in his Zodiac.” Which just goes to show that the Zodiac formula must be right.