Experimentals come in all shapes and sizes these days. Spoilt for choices, it’s hard to pick the one that will give you the best experience.
The best experimental planes are the perfect aircraft for your needs. They include:
- Lancair IV-P - fastest top speed and cruise speed
- Extra 300SC - best for aerobatics
- Lancair Evolution - best for seasoned pilots
- Pelegrin Tarragon - best overall
- Velocity V-Twin - best twin
- Hummel H5 - easiest to build
With experience in nearly every aspect of aviation imaginable, I have long admired all types of certified and non-certified aircraft, and even worked for a company who used to sell experimentals prior to completing my flight training.
Experimental aircraft are one of those classes of aircraft that’s somewhat misleading. The general public, and indeed many pilots, often assume they are aircraft (particularly military ones) currently under development.
However, at least as far as the FAA registry and flight regulations are concerned, these are not the only types of “experimental” aircraft (these, in fact, are known as demonstrators). Instead, the FAA uses it as an umbrella term for a variety of aircraft types that don’t fit into any of the other aircraft categories laid out by the FAA.
For the purposes of this article, I am only including aircraft that fit into at least one of the following categories:
- Kit aircraft
- Light sport aircraft
As such, no UAVs, demonstrators or air racers - all of which also fall into the “experimental” category - have been included.
When looking at the “best” of anything, it’s important to take into account the differences in pilots’ needs. After all, some will need speed above all else, whilst others will need something like simplicity, range or any other number of factors.
As a result, each entry on this list covers a different aspect of potential needs. These aircraft are chosen as they are the best in their particular sector based on my years of experience in the aviation industry and with experimentals in particular.
Lancair IV-P - Fastest Top Speed and Cruise Speed
The best experimental plane that you can use for frequent personal transport on long distances is the Lancair IV-P. The 'P' in the model name refers to the fact that this experimental plane is pressurized, making it one of the few pressurized experimental kits available on the market.
But that's not the only reason this plane takes the top prize among all experimental planes to be the best personal transport experimental plane. This plane, even when it is flying at its top cruise speed of almost 350 miles per hour, is, by far, the smoothest plane you will ever fly. And that includes Normal Category General Aviation twins.
Another reason this is one of the best planes ever designed, and not just in the experimental category, is because it is one of the easiest planes I've ever flown. Whether it's high-speed long-distance runs, or lazy-eights and chaendless, the aircraft handles with crisp yet graceful personality.
The flight characteristics that make it one of the best - like its handling, speed, and agility, sometimes are enough to make you forget that it also shines because it can be all those things while carrying four adults. When you want an aircraft to be your personal transport, you want to be able to take family, associates and friends.
If the plane has just seats for four but load limitations dictate just you and a bag, then there is no point. The Lancair is not that way. Its four seats can take 4 FAA-sized adults and still be able to top off the tanks.
With a fuel capacity of 90 gallons and a twin-turbo engine which burns 20 gph, flying at FL290, the Lancair can leap across 1300 nautical miles and still land with IFR reserves intact. It can do that without needing its passengers to tether themselves to oxygen cannulas because Lancair pressurized the IV-P.
And they did it with an aircraft made almost entirely of composites and similar other components. Its fuel burn of only 20 gph also makes it one of the most fuel efficient aircraft out there.
Whether you’re a passenger in the Lancair, or the Pilot in Command, the comfort you feel from smooth flight is only amplified by the characteristic peace you feel in the relatively spacious cabin. The thicker walls of the composite not only have good sound absorption qualities, making the cabin quieter.
Closer to earth, the Lancair proves itself yet again as it is able to leap off the ground on take off, and come to a halt on landing in fairly short distances. It is not necessarily a bush plane, but its wing area means it can land on turf, does really well coming in and getting out of paved and unpaved runways. Just needing 1500 feet to get out and under 2000 feet to get in, the Lancair can get to just about any airport in the country, or in the back country for that matter where there are lots of short runways.
The IV-P has optional speed brakes. Whenever possible you should get it, just because this plane was not designed to go slow, and so when you do want to slow it down, it will take a lot of effort and preplanning. In most cases, pilots extend the landing gear and deploy the flaps to decelerate, but since that can’t be extended until you’re at 145 kias, your descent profile from FL290 can get tricky.
But that’s about the only thing that you have to watch out for - speed management. Other than that the aircraft is as simple to fly as your first complex trainer.
When it comes to experimental planes, each design is built to do something specific really well - let’s call it its mission. The Lancair’s mission, something it does better than any other experimental aircraft out there, is to travel cross country quickly and comfortably without any fuss.
Extra 330SC - Best Experimental for Aerobatics
One of the sleekest, meanest experimental designs out there that looks as good with military livery as it does with racing stripes is the Extra 330SC - a low wing single engine aircraft tested for up to positive and negative 10Gs.
This single-seat plane has won numerous world titles, including the World Champion Aerobatic Aircraft numerous times. The Extra 330 SC has conventional wings and is one of the most robust builds in the world. It can take high-g maneuvers and perform with crisp agility that is limited by only the pilot’s skill.
The entire aircraft is built using advanced materials in addition to the advanced technology. That results in superior handling, low empty weight, high useful load, and better performance. The Extra SC works well as a sole transport vehicle, meaning you can take this on business trips. It would be the equivalent of arriving in an exotic sports car.
Able to travel at 200 knots, it has an endurance of 3 hours excluding VFR requirements. That lets you get to a meeting 500 nautical miles away. The aircraft is VFR-only, and other than a recreational pilot’s license or a Private Pilot’s license, there is nothing more you need to fly the plane.
It is the best aerobatics plane on the market because of its inherently negative stability profile that allows the aircraft to be manipulated into numerous attitudes of flight with relative ease. The high-wing loading design and relatively large ailerons result in lighting quick roll rates exceeding 400 degrees per second.
The increased roll rates and roll stops allow the aircraft to perform crisp maneuvers with military-like precision.
Aside from its ability to perform advanced aerobatic maneuvers, the reason the Extra 330 SC is the best in my view is that it is just amazingly fun to fly. From its rapid acceleration and short take off rolls, to its extended inverted flight ability, the 330 SC takes experimental flying to a whole new level.
The 330 SC is also one of the few aircraft to repeatedly win world championships and be the world’s number one choice among professional aerobatic champions. It is sold in the United States as an experimental aircraft since it is certified that way by the FAA but in Europe, it is fully certified as an aerobatic aircraft and often takes part in championships in the Unlimited Category.
The 330 SC is one of the best experimental kits also because of its engineering. Not only is the design well balanced and negatively stable, the aircraft is structurally superior to most production aircraft. This is from a structural perspective and from the use of advanced materials, since the aircraft is mostly made of composites, giving it huge structural integrity.
From an engineering perspective, the 330 SC sets the standards for experimental flying, highlighting stability benefits more so than aerodynamic ones that most engineers who are attempting to beat speed records do.
This is the other reason this aircraft, to me, flies so well. It’s more than just the aerodynamics, structure, and propulsion that has been meticulously bought together, it's also about human factors - the ergonomics of flight.
The cockpit, for instance, is snug, and offers a good feel for the aircraft, making the aircraft almost a natural extension of your body. Combined with the large bubble canopy, the 330SC provides unparalleled views of the flight environment.
While stability issues are primary in the design of the SC330, aerodynamics has not been abandoned. The aircraft hits the sweet spot when it comes to power-ascents to set up for a roll, and has the right drag profile to allow the plane to use drag as part of its maneuvers to result in some physics-defying moves.
Its advanced design includes a full carbon fiber wing assembly which integrates the fuel tank within, built strong and able to remain rigid with a steel roll cage that adds to the ability for the wing and body to withstand sustained 10G maneuvers.
Lancair Evolution - Best Experimental for Seasoned Pilots
The Lancair Evolution is fast, and built for pilots who know their way around speed and sophistication. From the moment you climb into its p[lush leather cockpit the luxury and advanced capability of the plane is evident.
The plane, while advanced, is easy to operate. From this perspective, a newbie can handle it. It’s as easy as driving the minivan to the grocery store. Even setting the power for takeoff is a breeze. Just key in your gross weight and the onboard computer calculates everything, including how much power to tap from the engines when the time comes.
In fact, the engines are not even physically connected by a cable or a push rod, it's connected by data cables to a computer. The computer gets the pilot’s input based on where the pilot places the throttle, and the computer tells the engine what to do based on environmental conditions.
When you’re using your experimental plane to get from point A to point B, and you want it to just get you, your passengers, and your cargo there, there is nothing better than flying the Lancair Evolution.
This plane is the best experimental plane for seasoned pilots because it is fast and it is as fully automated as you could possibly want it. The only thing it can’t do is taxi, takeoff and land by itself.
The Evolution is so powerful that if you don’t already have a good understanding of speed and timing, and a sound understanding of navigation, pressurization, turbine operation, it is going to get away from you and that is more likely to happen to a low-time newbie than an old hat.
Most of the aircraft is fully automated. You can program the auto pilot like a corporate jet pilot programs the FMS on his flight deck. Everything is at the push of a button or mouse-like controls on a digital screen. The cockpit is a full glass cockpit with advanced data and weather at our fingertips.
It’s so advanced, it's hard to believe that it is built from a kit. Afterall, not every kit plane can reach 270 knots (true airspeed) at FL280 carrying four occupants and golf clubs. And with all that power and reliability of a turboprop providing the power for thrust and pressurization, the feeling of having a Pratt and Whitney PT6 provides incredible comfort.
The flight deck is so advanced that it is possible to add autothrottles to the already-included FADEC setup. The auto throttles will allow you to set the autopilot for your climb, giving you the ability to set the climb speed and rate of climb while flying flat-footed and hands free. This is one of the major aspects of this plane that gets me the most excited - it's powerful and digitally advanced.
The Evolution is a serious piece of machinery. It can get you across 1,290 nautical miles - that’s like going from Key Largo to Boston on a full tank of gas in just under six hours. Non-stop.
And since it's powered by a turbine, you get bleed air de-ice systems. At 29,000 feet, you won't get into icing that often since going around towering columns of visible moisture that can be easily avoided since you have satellite weather feed on board.
Then there is the ability to perform like a mid-size jet, but when you return to earth, it behaves like an ultralight with the ability to get down and stop in less than 1200 feet of runway. Take-off is the same. It just needs 1200 feet. And since it can land on turf, you can fly it from the backyard of your beach house in Florida to the clearing near your cabin in Massachusetts.
Pelegrin Tarragon - Best Overall
The Pelegrin Tarragon is arguably the most fun experimental plane to fly. It is simple, with just the necessary VFR equipment installed, it seats two in tandem. While it's not fully aerobatic, it is a lot of fun to fly with the ability to do Lazy-8s, chanedells, loops, barrel rolls and even powerful enough to do knife edges.
Completely built from pre-preg carbon, the aircraft can handle significant loads in flight. The fuselage, from firewall to strakes is made as a single unit that is then mated to the cantilevered wing resulting in structural strength and flight stability that is uncommon for aircraft in this price range.
There are two reasons the Tarragon makes it to the list of the best experimentals, and specifically for the plane that is the most fun. The first reason is that the Tarragon is an absolute beauty and those who love the attention to detail will be pleased with this aircraft as every inch of it is meticulously molded and machined.
The Tarragon’s parts and panels are built to within tolerances of ten-thousands of an inch, giving them a snug fit when putting it together. Once painted, the Tarragon looks smooth and lends itself like a canvas to an artist to be painted on in any color scheme you see fit.
The second reason the Tarragon makes it to the list is because of the absolute pleasure pilots feel when flying this plane. It is as easy - or easier, to fly than the first primary trainer most pilots have stepped into.
The forward seating position is snug, giving the pilot a powerful connection to the plane. Sitting precisely on the centerline of the aircraft, and very close to the aircraft’s center of gravity which allows the pilot to feel the plane pitch and roll around him. Flying it for a short while can very quickly give the pilot a good feel for how the plane behaves and reacts.
When it comes to doing aerobatics, where you sit relative to the center of gravity determines how much you feel the plane. In essence, this is the only plane I can safely say, looks, and flies like a fighter jet. The fabricators have done such a good job of designing and manufacturing the fiberglass panels that the plane has no rattle and looks amazing, without any break in reflection lines - usually indicating poor assembly, workmanship, or molding.
Once you retract the gear, the Tarragon wants to do nothing else but fly so it accelerates quickly toward its screaming 190 mph top speed and climbs at its regular 2,500 feet per minute to get to its ceiling of 25,000 feet in just ten minutes from brake-release. But what is really amazing is that all this sounds like it will guzzle fuel. But it doesn’t.
The Tarragon is one of my personal favorites not because it costs about $50 an hour to fly, excluding purchase costs. But that number tells me how efficient and effective this plane’s design is. And, that is important to me. It sips just 4 - 4.5 gallons per hour and still gives me 190 miles per hour and 11 hours of endurance.
For a new builder, the precision of the fit will make it tremendously easy to put together. There are no parts that you will have to fabricate yourself. Everything is in the box. Even the engine and the prop. You have a choice of three engines, and there is the rumor of a turboprop engine being considered.
In my personal opinion, no matter how inexpensive this plane, how sleek it looks, or how little fuel it consumes to burn the airways, this plane is my personal favorite because it is just a pleasure to fly. It makes even the novice look like an ace aerobatic pilot.
Velocity V-Twin - Best Experimental Twin
Then there comes the time when you want to build yourself a twin engine aircraft. Whether it's for the surety over bodies of water, or you just like the sound of a twin telling you that you have two of everything. Whatever your reason, there is only one twin engine experimental aircraft that will come close to sweeping you off your feet and that is the Velocity V-Twin.
It looks like something out of a futuristic James Bond movie, and so right off the bat, the looks make it a winner. Most people who first look at it mistake the V-Twin for Beechcraft’s Starship with the twin pusher configuration and forward canard.
The design is one that would work well for new pilots, giving them the comfort of an added engine, and the comfort that a canard-configured aircraft like the V-Twin is next to impossible to stall (as its stall speed is in excess of 100 kn) and that makes it next to impossible to spin.
This Twin looks and feels like a Caddilac. Even the process of getting in is easy, and just because it's an experimental doesn't mean it has to look and feel like it was built in a garage. It doesn’t. It looks like it was built in a master craftsman’s lab.
Coming back to it looking like a Caddilac, it begins as soon as you walk up to it and pop the door. It’s a gull wing, and that means you don’t have to be a contortionist to get into the plane like most other experimental planes make you do. Don’t get me wrong, I love tight cockpits for aerobatic stuff, but when I am out with the family or taking a trip, comfort and redundancy are my main concerns.
The V-Twin satisfies both accounts.
The leather interior and padded ceiling go a long way in making it aesthetically a winner, the extra sound-proofing does a lot to absorb the sound, which is already minimal since the engines and the props are in the rear and as you fly forward, the frequency you are exposed to is less invasive.
Speaking of sounds, the vibration levels are pretty well muted as well. Not only are your ears spared, but so are your tactile perception of vibration since the composite structure insulates the cabin from aerodynamic and mechanical vibration to a high degree, keeping the cabin cozy enough to enjoy the in-flight entertainment that you can opt for in the avionics package.
Even with the added capacity you get to carry four adults and luggage with full fuel, the V-Twin will still hurry along at 185 knots (true) with just 75% horsepower. That should tell anyone who is observing that the plane has to be sleek enough to slip through the air for it to be able to get those kinds of numbers. And it is.
The thing that makes this aircraft the best of the experimental twins is that it does not fly like a twin, especially when one engine quits. Look, the whole point of getting two engines, aside from having two of everything while paying for two of everything, is about playing the numbers.
The odds of both engines quitting is rare and when one does, you have the other to keep you aloft. But people are scared away from twin engine aircraft because the moment one engine quits, most planes want to turn into the dead engine and roll toward it and make it harder to fly. Uncomfortable, I know. But that's because most twins have their engines out on their wings pretty far away from the centerline, and that creates a greater moment.
The V-Twin’s engines are closer to the center line and as soon as one stops generating thrust, there is some yay, but easily managed. Flying around to the nearest airport with one prop feathered, is a non-event on this experimental twin and that is one of the main reasons the V-Twin makes it to this best list.
Hummel H5 - Easiest Experimental to Built
And finally we have the best experimental plane that is easy to build and the least expensive of all the planes on the list. For under twenty grand and 1000 hours of build time you can be up and flying in a Hummel H5.
The Hummel H5 is a low wing, single seat, single engine aircraft. If you have never built an experimental plane before and you’d like to dip your toes into the shallow end of the pool, this is the plane you want to get.
But if you think you are a little more along in your building skills, Hummel actually offers three options. The easiest is what comes with blanks. Blanks are sheet metal pieces that are all cut and ready for you to assemble according to their highly-detailed plans. But if you like, they will just sell you the plans, and you can do everything from cut the pieces, weld them yourself and put them together. Which you choose depends entirely on how skilled you are in metal work.
Putting this plane together will bring about hours of fun but less challenges as they are pretty straightforward. It should take someone with average tool skills about 800 hours to build it out, if you take the least complicated option that Hummel sells. If you just buy the plans, it will take as much as 3000 hours of work.
Once the plane is built, you will find that it's a single seater that has ample baggage allowance. A respectable 1000 foot per minute climb and a better than expected 130 mph cruise up at 7,000 feet is enough to get you to enjoy all the golf clubs in a five hundred mile radius.
Coming back to the building. The Hummel H5 makes it up to the top of the easy to build list for the simple fact that it is the only one on this list that uses a car engine, a VW engine to be precise, which you can get easily.
The other reason that contributed to the H5 making it to the top of the list is that it is made of all metal. From the structural tubing to the sheet metal skin that covers everything from the wings to the fuselage and control surfaces.
The beauty of working with metal is that it has a lower learning curve compared to learning how to work with composites. And, most folks are already set up or have workshops they have access to that can weld and shape metal more so than shape composites.
As far as flying the Hummel H5 is concerned, anyone with just 25 hours and a Recreational Pilot’s License will be able to pull it off. Aside from having a stick instead of a yoke, the plane is as simple to fly as an old barnstormer.
The flight characteristics of the H5 are unexpectedly brilliant.. For something that is as simple as the Hummel, it flies more straight and true than I would have otherwise anticipated. and handles on all three axes with such precision and grace that pilots are usually surprised. It is well balanced and positively stable.
The cabin will accommodate a stature that is 300 pounds and up to six and a half feet tall. Anything larger than that and you will have a little problem fitting into it or enjoying the plane. Likewise, its maximum gross weight clocks in at 850 lbs, a remarkable feat given how small the aircraft is.
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood