I have lost count of how many different ag aircraft that I have had the pleasure to conduct evaluation flights in over the years. It makes for some very interesting reading in my logbooks. Last year, I was invited by Embraer to make an evaluation flight of its production version Ipanema EMB203. Of course, I was delighted to oblige and in fact made the flight earlier this year. I was not disappointed.
After jumping through a series of “hoops”, ANAC finally gave me permission to fly the aircraft under my U.S. Commercial Pilot’s license. That in itself was an interesting feat made possible by the good people at Embraer. The flight was scheduled to be at the Ipanema factory on the municipal Botucatu Brazil airport.
Everyone knows Embraer is a world leading business jet manufacturer. The company also produces the Ipanema ag-plane with a history stretching over 46 years with more than 1,360 units sold and over 1,200 airworthy aircraft registered. The Ipanema models started with the EMB200 in 1970, followed by the EMB201 in 1974, then came the EMB202 in 1992. The EMB202 was falling short of customers’ expectations and Embraer realized this needed to be addressed.
Over a period of several years, Embraer conducted a market study to determine exactly what should to be done to meet customers’ needs. They found there were six major concerns from Brazilian ag-pilots; performance (28%), capacity (24%), financial/operational benefits (24%), safety (14%), support (7%) and comfort (3%). The project focused on attending to 70% of their customers’ needs. Furthermore, Embraer identified its marketplace as the small Brazilian ag-aviation operator and farmer. They did not see any other ag-aircraft manufacturer that could meet this need.
From the data gathered, Embraer claims an increase of 30% in the productivity of the Ipanema EMB203 using a wider wingspan and a five mph airspeed increase, along with increasing the certified gross weight by 100 kg.
How was this done using the same engine as the EMB202? Not only was the wingspan increased by 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) from 11.07 (36.3 feet) to 13.3 meters (43.6 feet), but the wing dihedral was decreased from 7° to 5°. The angle of incidence in flight was decreased. Newly designed smaller winglets replaced the older version. The trailing edge aileron and elevator spoilers were removed, increasing the roll rate of the aircraft and reducing drag. The vertical stabilizer was given a 31% increase in area, providing more directional control and less effort with an increase in the size of the rudder horn. The wind-driven air-conditioner was removed and replaced with an engine-driven unit, that alone lowered drag by 10%.
Although the same engine was used as in the EMB202, the Lycoming IO-540, its horsepower rating was increased from 300 bhp to 320 bhp by burning ethanol instead of av-gas. All EMB203s are ethanol powered. The first engine start of the day is made using av-gas from a small independent airframe fuel tank of 10 liters (2.64 gallons) and once started the engine is switched to ethanol. Fuel consumption is approximately 100 l/hr (26 gph).
Embraer has done what I’ve always said should be considered when designing an ag-aircraft and that is to focus on the aircraft’s aerodynamics. It is relatively easy to increase horsepower to offset drag, but more challenging to reduce drag aerodynamically. Sometimes drag is a component of extra lift that is needed in all ag-planes. However, Embraer identified drag that could be eliminated while maintaining an ag-plane with adequate lift.
Now, it was time to find out if all the claims about the EMB203 were true. It was an overcast, but warm day with a little rain falling. It had been raining before the morning of the scheduled flight and continued to rain afterwards. I was very fortunate to have a small time window to conduct the flight in legal VFR conditions from the Botucatu airport.
After staring in awe at the beautiful paint scheme of the EMB203, I climbed into the cockpit for my pre-flight briefing by Embraer’s Lúcio Spinelli and Chief Pilot Maurício Leite. One of the first things I noticed was the much improved ergonomics of the cockpit. The perforated leather seat was far more comfortable than the seat of Alan Poulson’s EMB202 that I flew several years ago. I appreciated the safety of the seatbelt airbags. Instead of the 110° angle of the EMB202 rudder pedals, the EMB203’s are positioned forward 14° more, providing a better angle for my feet.
Once seated, I looked over the instrument panel. It was very neatly organized, everything within arm’s reach, all the important items directly in my line of sight creating a spacious feeling. Looking up, I could tell the turnover structure was somewhat higher. I was told that the tubing had been reinforced improving cockpit safety.
Lúcio Spinelli, an Embraer engineer, demonstrated to me how to start the aircraft in the av-gas mode, then switch it to ethanol with a fuel control lever in the cockpit. It is a simple procedure, but I envision the possibility of a pilot forgetting to switch to ethanol and having a fuel exhaustion problem later.
The EMB203’s 264-liter (70-gallon) fuel tanks were full and the 1050-liter (277-gallon) hopper was preloaded to about 600-700 liters (160-185 gallons). Normally, my first flight in an evaluation aircraft is with an empty hopper. However, Embraer wanted the first flight with a partial load due to weather limiting my time to fly to one flight.
Honestly, upon takeoff the aircraft may as well have been empty; it flew as if so. I had no way of measuring the takeoff distance, but my best estimate was approximately 250 meters (about 800 feet). There was little or no wind assist with the takeoff.
Climbing to approximately 100 meters (300 feet), I made several wingover maneuvers, increasing the bank with each maneuver from 45° to finally 90°. I did not stall the aircraft because I find it more informative to bring the aircraft to the verge of the stall and see if I receive adequate warning signs of an impending stall. I don’t know of any ag-pilot that stalls his aircraft. Identification is the key. The EMB203 is a very gentle stick shaker, completely stable.
The aircraft handled beautifully with very light rudder input. Also notable was the reduced amount of aileron travel needed to bank the EMB203; control stick movement was minimal. I can understand how this will reduce pilot fatigue; a combination of less leg and arm movement.
Satisfied with the handling of the EMB203, I descended to a few meters above the runway to make spray passes. During my first couple of spray passes, I porpoised the aircraft. That is an indication to how light the EMB203 is on the controls. It only took about three passes to get the feel and make spray pass entries smoothly. I noted the airspeed was 120-125 mph using 25” manifold pressure and 2,500 rpm for the 2.18-meter (86 inches) propellor.
Most of my turns were in the 30-second range, some less. I don’t advocate hammerhead turns, but do perform wingovers for clean up passes on field ends when the aircraft is light. The EMB203 is far more nimble than my memories of flying the EMB202.
As with the takeoff, the landing with an empty hopper was a non-event using about 200 meters (700 feet) of runway; less with more practice. I made three, just to prove the first one was not luck! All Ipanemas are relatively easy to land. However, the larger vertical stabilizer with its increased rudder horn, makes the EMB203 even easier to land and maintain directional control. Like with horsepower, you never have too much rudder (usually).
The design and support teams at Embraer have done a fantastic job with their Ipanema EMB203 project that is now a complete, certified ag-aircraft. Although, it is only certified in Brazil. By looking for ways to improve a tested and proven airframe through aerodynamics, the EMB203 offers Brazilian ag-operators the ultimate ag-plane with the lowest operating costs in its class, a significant increase in productivity and superior comfort for the pilot.