The Push for More
Aerobatics is a category of flying that has been with us in one form or another almost as long as powered flight. Perhaps this should be no surprize as humanity has always seemed to have a fixation of not only driving the technology we create forward, but also pushing what we create to its very limits. As far as civilian aviation is concerned, specialist aerobatic aircraft may well be the ultimate expression of that drive.
Competition level aerobatics exists at four main levels: Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited. Aircraft designed with the Unlimited class in mind are highly specialized machines indeed, with little if any consideration given to any type of flying outside of top tier aerobatic competition when designing them.
An aircraft of the Unlimited class sacrifices nearly everything else in the pursuit of combining high thrust with low weight that will allow the aircraft to perform all the required moves for the class and yet not tear the aircraft apart in the process.
Needless to say, an aircraft of the Unlimited class is not one for the novice pilot. Indeed, any pilot that advances as far as the Unlimited class will have amassed hundreds of hours of flying hours before reaching that level. They will also be a very physically fit individual quite worthy of being seen as a top level athlete.
The Extra 300 first flew in 1988 and became an iconic machine in the Unlimited category through the 1990s. Let’s spend some time with it:
An Insider’s Knowledge
The Extra 300 was created by Walter Extra (1954-), an award winning aerobatics pilot from Germany who created his own aircraft company in 1980. The Extra Aircraft company is located near the Rhine river in the town of Hunxe, in the North Rhine-Westphalia state of Germany.
Beyond being a decorated aerobatics pilot, Walter Extra also is qualified as a mechanical engineer. The impetus to create his own aircraft company was to create a machine fit for the Unlimited class that would be an improvement on the aircraft by other designers that he had been flying up to that point. His experience as a competitive pilot and his professional engineering qualifications ensured that he could achieve that goal.
The first aircraft developed by Extra Aircraft was the Extra 230 which first flew in 1983. While the Extra 230 was the direct ancestor of the Extra 300, one needs to go back rather further to see where the Extra 300 lineage really starts.
The Extra 230 and 300 are extreme developments of the Stephens Akro, an American aerobatics design from the late 1960s. While quite rudimentary compared to the Extra designs, the Stephens Akro was a popular and successful design that could be homebuilt and lent itself well to modification.
What links the Stephens Akro to the Extra designs is the Akro Laser Z-200, a one-off modification of the Akro that won a number of aerobatics championships between 1975 and 1982 in the hands of American pilot, Leo Loudenslager (1944-1997).
The Akro Laser Z-200 served as the basis for the Extra 230 design. The Extra 230 was fairly conventional in design, featuring a tube steel frame fuselage with wooden wings. A refined version of the 230 was created and called the Extra 260, though very few were ever made.
The Extra 230 was a very popular and successful aircraft that was produced from 1983 to 1990 and set the stage for the watershed event that the Extra 300 would be to the aerobatics world.
The New Standard
The usual desires for reduced weight and increased power that drive competitive aerobatics also primarily drove the leap from the Extra 230 to the Extra 300. However, it was rather more than just competition in the air that led Extra to create the machine that would become their flagship product for three decades.
Materials and manufacturing processes figured very prominently in the evolution of the 230 to the 300. While the 230 had some carbon fibre composite structures in it, the 300 would include much more composite materials in its structure. Significant among these was the wing of the 300, which was of fully carbon fibre composite construction as opposed to the plywood wings of the 230.
While the plywood wings gave the 230 light weight, the material itself was maintenance intensive and difficult to control the quality of. Walter Extra was having difficulty finding plywood of a suitable quality to make wings from and so made the decision to make the wings of the 300 from carbon composites. The dividends of this decision were enjoyed from the factory all the way to the end users of the aircraft
The first advantage of switching to composite materials was that quality control was much easier right from the start. Carbon composite was a much more predictable material than plywood and this reduced the amount of testing time required for each individual aircraft leaving the factory. The predictability of the composite material also reduced manufacturing time as factory workers assembling the aircraft didn’t have to worry about the sort of variability plywood could have from one piece to another.
For the end user, that same predictabilty resulted in reduced inspection and maintenance time which resulted in reduced operating costs. The composite wing also gave the desired weight savings as it was lighter than plywood. An additional benefit the composite wing gave to the end user was a substantial increase in structural strength that allowed for higher performance in competition.
Another advantage the Extra 300 came with was that it was designed as a two seat aircraft from the start. For an Unlimited class aerobatics aircraft to have two seats as an option is a very unusual thing and the two seat option made the Extra 300 attractive to flying schools that offered aerobatics courses as well as experience rides.
While nobody could ever accuse the Extra 300 of being an aircraft for the novice, it is known as a pilot friendly aircraft for its class and the two seat option makes it easier and quicker for a pilot to learn and master the 300 than some of its contemporaries.
The qualities of the 300 have given it popularity in team as well as individual aerobatics. There are a number of civilian aerobatics teams around the world that use the 300 to perform while the military air demonstration teams of Chile, Jordan and Malaysia all use the 300 as their mount.
The Extra 300 Family
Since its first flight in 1988, the Extra 300 has seen more design evolution than perhaps any other aircraft in its class. For an Unlimited class aerobatics aircraft design to have lifespan of three decades and still be in production and competitive is truly a remarkable thing and testament to the drive of the designers to keep pushing for more from it.
Another unusual aspect of the 300 is that it has demonstrated an adaptability to other flying categories that some of its contemporaries in the Unlimited class have not. While always having aerobatics at the heart of the design, the 300 has also been adapted to air racing and touring.
As of mid 2020, almost 800 examples of the 300 had been built across a dozen variants and sub-variants:
Extra 300/300 S
The Extra 300 was the baseline two seat model of the 300 family. The aircraft took its name from the 300 horsepower Lycoming engine that powered it.
The Extra 300 S is a single seat development of the baseline 300 that also features a reduced wingspan and improvements to flight controls.
Extra 330 SX and Extra 300 SP/SHP
The 330 SX was a more powerful development of the 300 S that included a 330 horsepower engine and larger control surfaces on the tail. A number of 300 S models were refitted with the larger rudder of the 330 SX.
The 300 SP was a variation of the 300 S that had reduced weight and the 330 SX rudder fitted to it.
The 300 SHP was a higher performance variant of the SP.
Extra 300 SR
The 300 SR was a version fitted with a wing optimised for racing. Most specifically, it was designed for the Red Bull Air Race series that ran from 2003 to 2019.
Extra 300 L/300 LP
The Extra 300 L is the most produced of any member of the 300 family. It’s a two seat variant with the wings set lower on the fuselage than previous versions. The repositioned wing had no effect on the aerobatic qualities of the aircraft, but did make entering and exiting the aircraft easier for the pilot.
The 300 LP was to the 300 L what the 300 S was to the baseline 300; a weight reduced version with higher performance for competition flying. As of 2020, the 300 LP is still in production.
Extra 330 SC/LX/LT
The Extra 330 SC was developed to replace the 300 SP and 330 SX. It’s a single seat competition level aircraft with an improved roll rate over previous members of the aircraft family. The 330 SC really is the ultimate development of the Extra 300 design as pilots flying it have won the biannual World Aerobatics Championships five times: 2009, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019.
The 330 LX is a two seat version of the SC.
The 330 LT is a development of the LX that is aimed at touring. Retaining most of its aerobatic abilities, the LX includes a baggage compartment and has all the required cockpit instruments and avionics required for longer cross-country flying.
As of 2020, all three of these versions are still in production.
Extra 330 LE
First flown in 2016, this was a fully electric powered single seat version powered by a Siemens engine. In 2017, it set new speed records for electric powered aircraft and became the first fully electric powered aircraft to tow a glider aloft.
The Extra 300 Today
In 2019, Extra debuted their Extra NG, a fully new aerobatics machine that will hopefully prove a worthy successor to the Extra 300 legacy.
With a lifespan much greater than most aircraft in its class could hope to have, around 800 produced and still more being made along with a healthy demand for the type on second hand markets; the Extra 300 family is far from flying into the proverbial sunset.
Still a top notch performer in competitions and a reliable crowd pleaser at airshows, your chances of seeing a member of this aircraft family being put through its paces are far from remote.
This link will take you to the official website of Extra Aircraft.
This link will take you to the website of the Blades, an Extra 300 based civilian aerobatics team that’s well known on the British airshow circuit. The site has lots of good pictures of the team’s aircraft.
This link will take you to the website of Belgian aerobatics pilot, Kristof Cloetens. It’s a good “Voice of experience” type website that will give you insights into the life of an aerobatics pilot as well as judging criteria for competitions and so forth.
I would like to extend thanks to Mr. Christian Hochheim of Extra Aircraft for providing me with extra information that filled some blanks I encountered while doing research on this article.