How recreational planes became the ultimate way to road trip

Forget the road trip. The next time you're planning a city-to-surf escape, why not take to the skies?

Representing a new high in recreational flying, the Italian-produced Blackshape Prime is a sporty little number made predominantly from carbon fibre and decked out with a sleek blue leather interior.

Unlike many recreational planes it has retractable wheels. That, along with its in-line, two-seater formation, helps the zippy single-rotor craft hit maximum speeds that can rival a sports car, with a cruising speed just shy of 300kmph. Plus it doesn't have to contend with the 110kmph road speed limit or bumper-to-bumper weekend traffic.

Up, up, and away

PLA Aviation Services owner Nick Waugh secured an exclusive license to import the nimble craft in Australia after falling in love with a picture of a sporting red version, bought by a best friend in Holland.

"I thought, 'I've got to go and get myself one of those'," Waugh chuckles as we sit down together at PLA's hangar at Tyabb airport on the Mornington Peninsula, about 70km south-east of Melbourne (less than 10 minutes in the Blackshape). "I'm one of those big boys toys people."

Though the resources sector businessman intended to get one for personal reasons, both for fun and to speed up business trips around Australia, the opportunity to import them presented itself while he was test flying it in Holland.  

Go your own way

Remarkably, if you want to fly the Blackshape for yourself, and beyond the limits of the airstrip, you only need to tick off 30 hours to get a recreational pilot's license. While the plane isn't available to hire, you can test fly it for $300, for as long as you want in one day.

If you do decide to front up $300k to own your own, PLA requires 50 per cent up front, the rest on delivery, and they'll refund any test flights as well as travel costs to and from the airstrip.

Waugh thinks the Blackshape will appeal to off-duty commercial pilots who enjoy the buzz of flying high in their downtime and executives like himself who love to indulge in luxury vehicles.

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"I hate flying in a commercial jet," Waugh says. "Working in mining, that's all I do. But there's something about being in the front of a small plane that's unbeatable. There's a big difference when you're up there yourself, looking out that window and you're in control."

Thrill factor

He's not wrong. I went up for a test run with Waugh's fellow PLA pilot Ian Loveridge on a gloriously sunny afternoon, with Port Phillip Bay's azure brilliance glinting below us and only a little bit of heat-driven turbulence over land.

Headphones and microphone on, I felt a little Top Gun. Though I was in the backseat, Loveridge let me take control of the dual stick machine for a brief moment, long enough to bank left and right a couple of times, and it's an incredible responsive beast.  

If you're not privy to your own landing strip and personal hangar, you can easily rent space in a group situation, with 20 or so together working out at around $100 per week. Though sharing isn't always caring, Waugh notes. "There's this thing we call hangar rash, when someone dints your plane and doesn't tell you."

The joy of cruising in the compact Blackshape, which can go 1100km before touching down to refuel, is that you feel like you can reach out and touch the sky. Waugh says there's nothing like it, particularly flying along the coastline where you can take it down as low as 500ft, not far above those road trippers.

"It's extremely quiet too, almost eerie, like you're gliding. As you're flying towards Melbourne and you see it coming very, very fast at you, it's really exciting."