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Great expectations

The Extra 330SX replaces a legend

Few airplanes enter the world with such high expectations—or big shoes to fill. The new Extra 330SX is the successor to the 330SC, a game-changing design that has dominated international aerobatic competition for more than a decade. Pilots flying SCs have won the past five FAI World Aerobatic Championships, and in 2022 eight of the top 10 finishers flew SCs.

Photography by Jim Waltz.
Zoomed image
Photography by Jim Waltz.

Now, company founder and chief designer Walter Extra is replacing the SC with the SX, which he says is quicker, more agile, and less physically punishing to fly through high-G maneuvers. He expects the SX to become a world champion and the pilots who fly it to regard it as the finest and most capable aerobatic competitor ever built.

“That sounds like a lot to ask of any airplane,” Extra said during a recent interview at his headquarters in northern Germany. “But I’m convinced our confidence and high hopes for the SX are justified. I anticipate the pilots who fly the SX will fall in love with it.”

The changes made to the SX are more than skin deep. Its center of gravity was brought closer to the middle of the airplane by moving the 330-horsepower Lycoming AEIO-580 aft and the cockpit forward. The cockpit was widened for better ergonomics, and the full-span ailerons were redesigned to increase roll rate and crispness while lightening control forces.

The SX retains Extra hallmarks such as a steel tube fuselage frame and a fabric belly aft of the cockpit. Extra said there would be no weight savings in making the SX entirely of carbon fiber, and the strength of steel tubing has been proven through many years of hard flying in other Extra models.

Extra is seeking European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) approval of the SX in early 2024 with FAA certification to follow.

Regarding the bottom-line business case for replacing the SC while it’s still winning championships and selling well, Extra says there really isn’t one. The company doesn’t do polls or market surveys, and Extra doesn’t seek advance purchase agreements before launching new models. He only starts the process when he believes his team can deliver meaningful performance improvements, and he only introduces new aircraft after they’ve been extensively tested and refined.

“Our real goal is perfection,” he says. “We’re constantly looking for new materials and manufacturing processes that bring us closer to that elusive goal.”

Extra, age 70, says his only regret about the SX is that it didn’t exist decades ago when he was an active aerobatic competitor.

“This airplane just does what you want it to do, and it allows the pilot to concentrate on the maneuvers themselves without thinking about the airplane,” he said. “I wish I’d had it when I was competing.”

‘Go have some fun’

A break in the wall of gray clouds blanketing northern Germany appears an hour before sunset—and the Extra Aircraft crew is ready.

Marcus Extra, 32, is production manager and test pilot at his father’s company as well as an Unlimited aerobatic competitor. He’s flown the SX prototype more than anyone else and he’s been monitoring the satellite weather while I’ve been peppering him with questions about the new airplane.

“If you’d like to fly the SX, this looks like the time to do it,” he tells me in lightly accented English. “This is Germany in November, after all, so the low clouds and rain are likely to return soon.”

I’ve spent much of the day scrutinizing the airplane, sitting in the cockpit, and familiarizing myself with it. Now, it’s time to strap in.

Only a few pilots in the world are capable of flying the SX to its full potential—and I’m not one of them. But aviators recognize artful design, craftsmanship, control harmony, and precision when we find it.

“You don’t have to race a Ferrari to appreciate driving it,” Extra said. “Go have some fun.”

Spellbinding acceleration

Aesthetically, the SX is a study in symmetry. Its proportions could have been sculpted from marble.

It’s got the same engine, propeller, and empennage as its predecessor, the SC, yet its lines are less aggressive. The SC’s ultra-long Corsair-like snout is gone, and the SX pilot sits on the wing—not behind it.

The side-hinged canopy blends smoothly into the turtledeck, and that tapers back to the empennage where mass balanced, counterweighted control surfaces are devoid of cosmetic swoops or flourishes. (Walter Extra quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”)

Carbon-fiber wings have a symmetrical airfoil and full-span ailerons. The ailerons have oversized horns at the tips and small spades underneath. Both features are meant to increase roll rate while reducing the stick force required to reach full deflection.

The wings contain ferry fuel tanks (32 gallons), and an 18-gallon “acro tank” plumbed for inverted flight is located inside the fuselage.

Climbing in begins by placing your right foot on a peg behind the wing, then stepping onto the wing itself with your left foot. Swing your right leg into the cockpit and then stand directly on the seat and grab the steel cockpit frame with both hands to lower yourself into the spartan cockpit.

The interior is skeletal with no cushions, side panels, or insulation. The seat moves up and down, fore and aft, and the backrest can be tilted. The rudder pedals adjust fore and aft, too. A five-point Hooker ratcheting harness cinches the pilot firmly in place.

The electrical master switch, fuel pump, backup avionics power, master avionics switch, and circuit breakers are located on a single subpanel. The centerpiece of the panel is a 7-inch Garmin G3X with synthetic vision and engine instruments. An analog airspeed indicator and altimeter are placed on either side.

The tall, ramrod straight control stick gives the pilot mechanical advantage during abrupt maneuvering, and a single button atop the grip is for radio transmissions.

A throttle with a handle the size of a butcher’s knife is placed on the left side of the cockpit with a rocker switch to click the smoke system on and off. Vernier propeller and mixture knobs are placed on the right side of the cockpit.

Elevator trim is operated through an electric switch on the right side of the instrument panel. The switch is an unusually remote location, but trim is seldom needed during flight. The center of pressure doesn’t change in a symmetrical wing, so the pilot sets the elevator trim at the beginning of an aerobatic sequence and doesn’t touch it during the sequence.

Engine start is normal for a fuel-injected Lycoming, and the AEIO-580 purrs at idle through a six-in-one exhaust.

Forward visibility is limited on the ground so the pilot must S-turn during taxi to clear the area ahead. Runup is standard although the pilot must be vigilant about holding the hydraulic Beringer toe brakes firmly to avoid creeping and keep the stick full aft to hold the tail down at high power.

I announce my intentions on the traffic advisory frequency, squawk 7000—the German VFR transponder code—and point the SX’s three-blade MT propeller at the far end of Runway 26 at Dinslaken/Schwarze Heide Airport (EDLD). A quartering 12-knot wind and cool, 55-degree Fahrenheit day promise a relatively short takeoff roll. Pushing the throttle to its forward limit produces a roaring, exhilarating, all-encompassing, crescendo of power and the rate of acceleration is spellbinding. Holding a tail-low attitude gets the SX’s main wheels to off the ground in about five seconds after a 700-foot ground roll.

I let the SX accelerate in a level attitude until it passes through 140 knots near mid-field on the 5,000-foot runway. Then I start a climbing right turn into the aerobatic box on the north side of the airport and am immediately impressed by the lightness, responsiveness, and crispness of the SX controls.

Reducing engine/propeller rpm to 2,500 decreases the roar, but the airplane doesn’t slow down. It’s still climbing at 140 KIAS as it blows through 2,000 feet agl and I level off.

My first maneuver, a lazy 8, is mostly to get my bearings and pick out some landmarks for orientation. There’s a small area of moderate rain to the southwest and it appears to be moving toward the airport, so there’s no time to dally.

A barrel roll, loop, half-Cuban 8, reverse half-Cuban 8, and hammerhead reveal some of the airplane’s power and grace. Elevator forces are light and linear, and it’s surprising how fast the SX goes fast. Point the nose down momentarily and it’s pushing 200 knots.

I start each over-the-top maneuver at about 185 KIAS, and the onset of positive G is instantaneous but not abrupt. And the airplane has the energy to sustain high Gs because it is so reluctant to slow down. I try to keep the Gs moderate purely for reasons of self-preservation, and my introductory maneuvers register about 4 to 5 Gs apiece. But the SX is rated to plus or minus 10, and its ultimate load is estimated at more than 20, so this isn’t even a light workout for the aircraft. The looping maneuvers typically cover about 1,800 feet from bottom to top, and the hammerhead rises 2,000 feet during a 12-second vertical climb.

My favorite aerobatic maneuver is an avalanche—a loop with a snap roll at the apex—and the SX snaps with alacrity.

Rolling maneuvers show off the SX ailerons, and they’re incredibly powerful. Full deflection roll rate is about 400 degrees per second, but getting to full deflection is a two-part process.

The ailerons feel normal with linear stick forces and a positive centering tendency for the first half of their travel. But when the pilot commands full deflection, those massive horns near the wing tips get a powerful aerodynamic boost, and control forces get lighter while roll rate increases. The SX ailerons have a split personality: Clark Kent in the traffic pattern, and Superman in the aerobatic box.

The 18-gallon acro tank has plenty of fuel remaining and there are many more maneuvers I’d like to try—but the rain showers are getting uncomfortably close, so I reduce the power and line up with rain-soaked Runway 26 for landing. There are no flaps to lower, the landing gear is down and welded, and the mixture is already rich, so the sole task on the prelanding checklist is pushing the prop lever forward to high rpm.

I fly a curving approach onto final and modulate the power with a target airspeed of 100 knots. I also add some nose-down elevator trim to give me some pressure to pull against. The runway glistens as I cross the fence at 90 knots, reduce engine power to idle, and work the stick all the way back for a three-point landing. The tailwheel touches slightly before the mains, but once all three wheels are in contact with the pavement, the airplane tracks straight ahead despite the quartering wind.

I don’t know Extra’s secret to taming tailwheel airplanes, but the SX continues a long line of company aircraft with a well-deserved reputation for benign ground handling.

An American ideal

Extra Aircraft is a thoroughly German company, but its origin story follows an American ideal.

An aspiring young pilot, Walter Extra, travels to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1980 to compete in an international aerobatic competition, and U.S. aerobatic legend Leo Loudenslager wins the contest in a Laser 200, a monoplane of his own design.

Extra, a mechanical engineering student, realizes that biplanes like his own Pitts S-1 are obsolete and sets out to make something better. He designs and builds the Extra 230 and it becomes a sensation. Elite competition pilots around the world hire him to make airplanes for them, and a company is born.

Extra Aircraft has now delivered more than 850 airplanes with constantly improving materials, production techniques, and an unmatched reputation for quality. Extra’s two sons, Eric and Marcus, have both joined the 100-employee firm and hold key positions: Eric runs the maintenance shop and Marcus is in charge of production.

“They do 90 percent of the hard work and that allows me to focus on the 10 percent that I enjoy most,” Extra quips. “It also allows me to cut my hours in half, so now I only work from nine to five.”

Extra produces 24 new airplanes annually, and he’s a passionate safety advocate. His first fully carbon fiber aircraft, the two-seat Extra NG, has undergone strength tests far beyond any regulatory requirements. His airplanes also have gained a following among recreational pilots who< don’t participate in aerobatic contests but want the peace of mind of knowing their airplanes are built with broad safety margins.

Extra Aircraft has a sales and service facility in Deland, Florida, where factory airplanes are assembled and maintained for U.S. customers.

Extra has long worked closely with Doug Vayda, a U.S. aerobatic pilot and Extra representative who has sold Extras for many years, trained new pilots, and provided suggestions—often loudly—about features that matter most to U.S. customers. Glass-panel avionics, autopilots, greater range, cockpit heat, and more creature comforts are usually at the top of Vayda’s list—and he takes pride in the fact that many of those things are now standard equipment on new models.

“You’ve got to yell and scream and stomp your feet sometimes to get through to these German engineers,” Vayda says. “Then we all go out and drink beer, laugh, hug, and we’re a family.”

Extra says he doesn’t do any formal market research, and his gut-instinct forecasts sometimes miss the mark. He expected to sell about 25 SCs based on previous single-seat designs, for example, but ended up producing 101—four times his original estimate.

The SX is an exotic, niche product with a tiny potential market. But it promises to extend the company’s lead in prestigious international aerobatic competition for many years to come.

“We don’t have to sell huge numbers of SXs for me to be happy from a business standpoint,” Extra says. “It’s the airplane’s performance that I care most about. We live in this sport. We’re pilots. We want to advance the state of the art.”

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Photography by Jim Waltz. Photography by Jim Waltz. Walter Extra’s latest design, the 330SX, is meant for the most rarified levels of international aerobatic competition—but the company founder and accomplished aerobatic pilot isn’t opposed to hanging out in the single-seat airplane over his native Germany, either. The sculpted appearance of the SX makes it aesthetically appealing, but the airplane is designed for performance, not looks. Photography by Jim Waltz. Photography by Jim Waltz. Photography by Jim Waltz. Photography by Jim Waltz. Photography by Jim Waltz. Photography by Jim Waltz. Photography by Jim Waltz. Photography by Jim Waltz. Photography by Jim Waltz.
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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