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Import from Italy

Tecnam’s P-Mentor is a thoroughly modern trainer

A pair of hilly islands off the coast of Naples, Italy, loom larger and larger through the windscreen of the Tecnam P-Mentor trainer.

Tecnam P-Mentor

Anfiteatro Campano; Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Italy. Photography by Chris Rose The P-Mentor incorporates technology such as a highly computerized engine, digital avionics, and LED lights.      A nosewheel shock absorber is built for taking the  punishment student pilots are sure to dole out, and mud on the tire is a remnant of the grass airstrip outside the Tecnam factory. An all-Garmin IFR instrument panel allows students to use current technology throughout private, commercial, and instrument training. The landing gear handle, gear lights, and a warning system are meant to prepare students for complex airplanes from the outset of flight training.

The Mediterranean Sea is placid, and the evening air is still as our two airplanes start a series of lazy orbits about 800 feet over the water and the islands with their craggy hills serving as a backdrop for this memorable photo flight.

This is my first flight in a P-Mentor so I’m taking in every detail—and right now, the flying part is pretty effortless. The P-Mentor’s controls are crisp and harmonized, visibility is excellent, and the Rotax engine and constant-speed MT propeller provide instant acceleration and deceleration.

But the unknowable question about the airplane itself is how it will stand up to the brutality of the flight training market for which it’s intended. The P-Mentor’s paint seems too lustrous; its leather interior too refined; and its two-screen, IFR, Garmin panel too advanced and tightly integrated for the ceaseless punishment it’s sure to receive as a primary, commercial, and instrument beast of burden.

Cessna and Piper set a torture standard worthy of the Marquis de Sade with 152s, 172s, Warriors, and Archers that somehow soldier on, day after tire-squealing day, through seismic landings, abrupt power changes, side-loaded touchdowns, locked brakes, turbulence, and massive temperature swings. Yet these resilient relics somehow manage to absorb the abuse for decades on end.

Stress test

I arrive at Tecnam’s production center and gleaming steel and glass headquarters about 25 miles north of Naples where Lorenzo De Stefano, the company’s chief experiment test pilot, gets right to the flying.

“I’ve been deeply involved in testing and modifying the airplane throughout the process,” said De Stefano, a former Italian Air Force F–104 pilot. “I’m too close to all the details. You’re free to evaluate what we’ve done with a fresh perspective.”

Up close, the metal airplane has some notable brawn. The metal wings with carbon-fiber leading edges are held together by sturdy button rivets with protruding round heads instead of more aerodynamic and labor-intensive flush rivets. The fuselage and control surfaces employ pull rivets that simplify construction. The thick nose gear has its own shock absorber as well as a 5.00 by 5 tire just like the main landing gear.

The P-Mentor is based on the P2002, a light sport, low-wing aircraft, and the new version retains the low wing, side-by-side seating, sliding canopy, and stabilator. The main differences are the P-Mentor’s bigger size and greater fuel capacity, wings that contain far larger slotted flaps, a constant-speed MT propeller, and Rotax 912iS engine.

Climbing in begins with a big step up onto the wing, then lowering yourself into the cockpit while stepping on a carpeted pad just in front of the leather seats. The seat adjusts fore and aft and the rudders are fixed. The seating position is comfortably upright, and the placement forward of the wing leading edge enhances downward visibility.

Slide the canopy forward and lock it with three metal latches, left, center, and right.

The cockpit is 42.5 inches wide (about the same as a Cessna 182 Skylane). Each pilot has a floor-mounted control stick, and a shared throttle and propeller control are mounted on a pedestal at the center of the instrument panel.

The all-Garmin panel in this high-end example has a pair of 10.4-inch G3X displays, a GI 275 backup instrument, a GTN 650 nav/com, and GFC 500 autopilot. The only accessory it lacks is an airframe parachute, and Tecnam officials say about 90 percent of P-Mentor buyers opt to skip the chute.

Stress test number one for the P-Mentor is simply taxiing to the runway and taking off. The narrow taxiway at Tecnam’s home airfield is rough and uneven, and it leads to a lumpy turf runway with clumps of tall grass interspersed with barren areas of gravelly dirt. The P-Mentor’s steerable nosewheel makes for precise taxiing, however, and its stiff shock absorber keeps the two-blade prop well clear of the weeds.

With flaps set at 15 degrees for takeoff, I pull the control stick full aft for a soft-field takeoff. With the throttle full forward, the non-turbocharged, 100-horsepower Rotax whines at 5,800 rpm while the prop turns at about 2,400 rpm and acceleration is moderate.

The stabilator becomes effective at about 20 KIAS and lifts the nosewheel smartly off the grass, and I relax back-pressure to keep from over-rotating. The main wheels break free of the rutted ground in 10 seconds at about 55 KIAS.

Once airborne, I hold a 10-degree nose-up pitch attitude as the airplane accelerates to 70 KIAS. Raising the flaps at 500 feet agl allows the P-Mentor to accelerate to 80 KIAS and establish a 900-foot-per-minute climb. The outside air temperature is 85 degrees Fahrenheit, the density altitude is about 2,000 feet, and the airplane with two adults and 20 gallons of fuel is about 250 pounds shy of its 1,587-pound maximum takeoff weight.

I raise the landing gear handle just because it’s there, but the move accomplishes nothing mechanical. The P-Mentor has fixed landing gear, and the handle—as well as three red/green gear position lights—is simply there to imbue students with the habit of raising and lowering the landing gear handle and checking the lights at the right moments. (The airplane also is equipped with a gear warning system that blares if/when a student reduces power to near idle with flaps deployed and the landing gear handle in the up position.)

I reduce prop rpm to 2,250 by pulling back on the blue knob and level off at 1,500 feet. Indicated airspeed settles in at 105 KIAS (115 KTAS) while the engine consumes about five gallons an hour of unleaded fuel.

The hazy summer air is choppy as we turn south toward the distant outline of towering Mount Vesuvius and the ruins of ancient Pompei. The P-Mentor’s wing loading of 12.4 pounds per square foot is about two pounds lighter than a fully loaded Cessna 172S Skyhawk.

The P-Mentor doesn’t have rudder or aileron trim, and a rocker switch atop the stick grip (not a manual trim wheel) adjusts pitch trim. The airplane’s inherent stability and well-balanced controls give the impression that it’s a much larger and heavier aircraft than its actual empty weight of 959 pounds.

Our photoship takes us through a series of left- and right-hand orbits, and the P-Mentor makes following those maneuvers second nature. The bubble canopy provides an expansive view, and pushrods make the ailerons and stabilator seem friction free. Sharply angled metal tabs affixed to the control surfaces provide aerodynamic centering. There are Roman ruins and much to see in this region and De Stefano, who was raised in nearby Naples, provides a fascinating narrative. After the air-to-air photo session, it’s time to visit the corners of the P-Mentor’s flight envelope, and we break off to maneuver over the airport.

At 100 KIAS, a series of full-aileron-deflection banks from 45 degrees left to right and back again show a maximum roll rate of about 60 degrees per second. There’s no noticeable adverse yaw, and stick forces are moderate and linear.

Slow flight is remarkably steady and sedate whether the electrically actuated flaps are up, partially down (15 degrees), or fully down (30 degrees).

Unaccelerated stalls are almost impossibly benign, and they’re preceded by an attention-getting aural warning (“Stall! Stall!”) as well as a flashing red annunciator light at the top/center of the instrument panel. Holding the stick full aft at idle power results in the nose dropping about 10 degrees below the horizon at 46 KIAS (flaps up) accompanied by a slight chatter in the stabilator but no lasting disruption in airflow over the wings. The same is true of power-off stalls with flaps down, except the bobble takes place at 43 KIAS.

Power-on stalls with flaps up or approach flaps and a 1-knot-per-second deceleration are also yawners. The nose nods and the stabilator buffets, but airflow over the wings never completely separates—and there’s no wing drop whatsoever.

Approaches and landings are genteel affairs. The P-Mentor settles into its groove on final approach at about 65 KIAS with full flaps, the prop set to high pitch, and the landing gear handle down to avoid the horn sounding. The fuel/air mixture setting is automatic so there’s no M in this GUMP check.

Cross the threshold, flare in ground effect, pull the throttle to idle, and hold the stick full aft to keep the nosewheel off the washboard runway as long as possible. The main wheels touch down at about 56 KIAS, and the nosewheel meets the turf at about 48 KIAS.

Press lightly on the hydraulic Beringer toe brakes to stop, and then raise the flaps and slide the canopy open to draw in fresh air. Two cockpit vents keep the air circulating while the airplane is flying, but it’s not enough on the ground on a warm summer day.

Whether you’re flying visually, or making an IFR approach by hand or via the Garmin GFC 500 autopilot, the P-Mentor responds with a pleasant mix of stability and precision. It’s a forgiving airplane that will do its utmost to resist inadvertent stalls and spins. Yet it obediently responds to pilot inputs with ego-stroking accuracy.

Sexy for a reason

The P-Mentor’s main attraction on paper is fuel economy. Its highly computerized Rotax engine consumes about five gallons of unleaded fuel per hour at cruise. That’s about 60 percent the fuel burn of a traditional four-cylinder, air-cooled, 160-to-180 horsepower engine that uses much more costly leaded avgas. In 250 hours of flight training, that’s about 1,000 gallons of fuel savings compared to most legacy trainers.

The P-Mentor’s non-turbocharged Rotax 912iS is fuel injected and not susceptible to carburetor ice, an important consideration for an airplane designed to fly in clouds.

The P-Mentor’s manufacturer, Tecnam, isn’t particularly well known to U.S. pilots, and the company is quite a story in itself. The privately owned Italian firm with a 75-year history (see “A Family Affair,” sidebar above) is deeply committed to piston general aviation and is making major investments to expand and refine its piston product line.

Tecnam is the world’s third-largest builder of FAA-certified piston-engine airplanes (behind Cirrus and Textron), and it’s in the midst of a self-funded project aimed at adding 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space to increase production well beyond the 230-or-so airframes its 540 employees currently make annually.

Tecnam’s product line includes the Light Sport P92, the four-seat, diesel- or Lycoming-powered P2010, the Rotax-powered P2006 multi-engine trainer, and the hulking P2012 Traveler short-haul passenger airliner. They cover a wide range of missions including flight training, personal ownership, commercial travel, and military patrol or aerial surveillance. Tecnam makes about 85 percent of the parts used in its aircraft, and about the only components it buys are engines, propellers, avionics, fuel selectors, and tires.

The P-Mentor received European EASA approval in 2022 and the company anticipates FAA certification in the fourth quarter of this year. About 140 P-Mentors have been sold to date, and customers include four U.S. flight schools that have made fleet purchases.

The P-Mentor is meant to compete squarely against new primary, commercial, and instrument trainers. Its value proposition is fuel efficiency—both in low consumption and the ability to use unleaded gasoline. It’s tempting to compare the P-Mentor to the sleek European category of sub-600-kilo “ultralights”—many of which contain similar engines and avionics. But those sporty, fast, mostly retractable-gear airplanes aren’t trainers, and they’re not certified under more stringent FAA Part 23 standards.

The P-Mentor faces competition from the aging fleet of legacy trainers that are currently racing to meet demand for future airline pilots. Those airplanes generally carry lower acquisition prices and higher operational costs—yet they appeal to flight schools because they’re known quantities that mechanics know how to fix when they break.

Tecnam officials say legacy trainers lack modern avionics, safety features, automation, and good looks that attract young pilots seeking airline careers. Tecnam says its trainer is tough enough to hold up to the rigors of flight training while its aesthetics appeal to new students.

“The P-Mentor is sexy for a reason,” says Fabio Russo, Tecnam’s head of research and development. “New pilots have got to feel drawn to it. The airplane has to appeal to them on a personal basis, and we’re convinced the P-Mentor’s aesthetics will be a major advantage in today’s marketplace.”

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Dave Hirschman
Dave Hirschman
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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