Its that leisurely, midsummer country flying, where you can smell new-mown hay through the window that has real romantic charm. (If you dont know what we mean, grab an early Richard Bach book.)
Options for the low-and-slow set include the $100,000-plus Aviat Husky or flying lawn chair ultralights. But reliable, cheap, slow airplanes once were as common as mayflies in a farm meadow.
Collectively known-by those who dont own them-as puddle-jumpers these two-seaters emerged in the brief post-World War II aviation boom.
There were many successful designs, among them the side-by-side two-seaters such as: Luscombe, Cessna 120/140, Taylorcraft and Aeronca Chief-bargains all.
Tandem-seat tailwheelers include: Interstate Cadets, Porterfields, the overly-hyped Piper J-3 Cub, and the Aeronca 7AC Champion, known as, Airknockers, or simply, The Champ.
The first C-model Aeroncas appeared in the late 1920s with the model Ks and early Chiefs arriving in the 1930s. The popular 7AC Champion was introduced in 1945 and when production stopped in 1948, nearly 7200 had rolled off the line.
The Champ is similar to other trainers of the time, with a strut-braced high wing, conventional gear, tube-and-fabric construction, tandem seating, and a non-electric 65-HP Continental engine. A 13-gallon fuel tank sits forward of the instrument panel where it can leak on the pilots knees.
In 1947, two more Champs were introduced, the 7CCM, with a 90-HP Continental, and the 7DC, with an 85-HP mill. Both are rather rare: Only 124 CCMs were built and 184 DCs.
Production of the two airplanes ended in 1950 and 1949, respectively. There were other postwar Aeroncas: Most notably, the Chief and the four-place Sedan.
The industry slowdown of the 1950s killed off Aeronca production, although the lines genes found their way into the Champions, which appeared in the mid-1950s and morphed into the better-known Citabrias, which are still built under new model names today by American Champion Aircraft (ACA) in Rochester, Wisconsin (262-534-6315). American Champion displayed what would be a remake of the Champ at Oshkosh in 2002, but thus far, the company hasnt found an engine suitable for the type. Stay tuned on that project.
New, the 7AC Champ cost $2395, a not-inconsiderable sum in those days. That was, by the way, $200 more than the J-3 Cub, although the Cub is now worth more than the Champ probably because of image as much as anything. That Cub image kept the Pipers price wildly inflated relative to its competition for years. The Champ owners we spoke to noted that they own an airplane not unlike the Cub for which they paid half the price.
As Cub prices skyrocketed, bargain hunters discovered the Champ. The going rate for an average-condition Champ is now nearly double what the airplane was going for in 1992. Athough still less than the Cub, some are priced within $1000. Cub prices, while still climbing, have been doing so at a steadier pace.
For years, airplanes like this were a cheap way to fly. Today, however, theyve reached classic status and many are worth considerably more than airplanes that are both younger and more modern. The Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest pegs the 7AC Champ at an average retail of $14,000 some $1000 more than a 1959 Cessna 150. Prices, though, vary greatly and are dependent on the quality of restoration work done.
Its possible to find a bargain and the cost of ownership is about as low as it gets. The diminutive Continental burns less than 5 GPH and many Champs have autogas STCs for even more reasonable fuel costs. With few systems, theres little to break or maintain.
Make no mistake, the Champ is basic aerial transportation. Its a classic stick-and-rudder machine and demands properly coordinated flight. Straight-ahead, coordinated stalls are no problem, with a good, clean break. However, a cross-control stall is quick and can sneak up on the poorly-trained pilot whos asleep-at-the-stick.
Stall-warning systems were still in the future when these airplanes were built, so its important to keep the ball centered. With these airplanes you learn to fly the wing and not the engine. The student who approaches these types wanting to know its numbers is already behind. This is seat-of-the-pants flying; the numbers will follow in their own fashion.
The Champs stall behavior is typical of the postwar two-seaters and contributes to their rather dismal stall-spin accident record. An extensive multi-year survey conducted by the FAA in 1979 disclosed that the Champ had far and away the worst stall-spin accident rate of all 33 aircraft examined: 22.47 per 100,000 hours, compared to only 1.42 per 100,000 hours for the Cessna 150. Thats not to say the airplane is difficult to handle, only that the pilot has to pay attention when flying slowly-sound advice for any aircraft.
Like its competition (and unlike many more modern airplanes), the Champ was expected to earn its living performing spins. Initiation is easy to the left, but requires some more work to enter to the right. Recovery is fast and sure.
Cruise speed on a good day is about 80 MPH, faster than a Cub but slower than the same horsepower Luscombe. Its not uncommon to look down and see traffic passing you.
Takeoff is straightforward and the Champs low wing loading makes short-field operations easy, with ground runs of only a few hundred feet. With only 65 HP, climb tends to be a leisurely at less than 400 FPM.
Keeping those cross-control stalls in mind, landing is also simple. This is not to say you cant slip on final. It slips beautifully and loves to wheel land. As with other taildraggers, the pilot must watch out for a tendency to groundloop.
Experienced pilots downplay this, but the FAA study cited above showed that the tail wheel Champ has a groundloop accident rate more than five times that of the tri-cycle geared Cessna 150 (duh!).
A trip through the NTSB stats from 1992 to 2002 show 60 reported accidents, five of which involved fatalities. Three fatals were from stall/spin accidents, one cause was undetermined, and one involved a bonehead buzz job into power lines. Of the remaining 55 non-fatal accidents, 12 were stall/spin, eight were caused by engine failure with carb ice being a favorite culprit (the Champs carb heat capabilities are weak).
Four accidents were caused by simply flying into obstacles, five were lost in hand-propping accidents, two ran out of gas, and the biggest Champ buster was loss of directional control on the ground, better known as groundlooping. Lesson: get a real tail wheel instructor whos experienced with low-powered antiques to teach you how to start, taxi and fly the Champ.
The Champ is light and hasnt got much lift capacity. Empty weights run about 740 pounds. To put this in perspective, thats one-third the weight of a small car or about as much as a big motorcycle. Its absolutely mandatory to tie it down or itll get blown over. More commonly, itll simply tip onto a wing and crack the wooden spars.
Gross weight is 1220 pounds, for a typical useful load of 480 pounds. Theres a small baggage bin behind the rear seat.
The Champ has much better visibility than most of the other postwar taildraggers, due to its large windows. The left side windows slide open, which is sweet in warm weather and bracing in winter.
Of course, its drafty even with the windows closed and the noise level is alarmingly high to those unfamiliar with antiques. A good headset is a must. Dress warmly in winter; the heaters stink.
There arent many. No electrics, no flaps, no vacuum pump, few instruments…all of which means that theres less to manage. Fuel is carried in a 13-gallon tank. Unlike the Cubs classic piano-wire-on-a-cork fuel gauge, the Champ has a dial (a Ford Model A gauge-no kidding), set forward of the instrument panel and leading directly to a mechanical movement in the tank.
Some owners dont like it, since it has a tendency to leak, allowing the fuel stench into the cabin.
The fuel selector is a simple on-off valve located on a panel adjacent to the front seat back where either occupant can reach it. The mag switch and carb heat knob are also located there.
An STC is available for wing tanks, which increase flexibility when flying solo. With two aboard, there isnt enough useful load to put any gas in them.
The landing gear is more streamlined than the Cubs bulky bungee arrangement. Instead, the legs have oleo struts built into them.
Wonderful gear, the oleo struts, but brutally expensive to replace when damaged. Proper servicing-and good landings-are the keys to gear life longevity.
There are two kinds of brakes-Goodyear mechanical drums and Goodyear discs, both operated with heel levers. Neither is all that good, but old tailwheel pilots agree that good brakes just get you into trouble.
The wheels and hubs are subject to a recurring AD requiring an inspection for cracks. Replacements are expensive.
The original prop was wooden and more prone to wear than a metal prop. Wood props are noticeably less vibey in flight but metal ones-which are getting hard to find-give better performance. With no electrical system, starting requires hand-propping.
The panel couldnt be simpler-tach, airspeed, altimeter, compass, and an engine gauge or two. Some Champs have been fitted with a venturi to drive a turn-and-bank indicator. No IFR ops here, obviously. You need to give clouds a wide berth but thats why you keep a Cessna 210 as your second airplane.
Of real concern when buying a 55-year-old airplane is the issue of repair. The good news is that there isnt a whole lot to go wrong with an airplane like this. The bad news is that working on a half-century-old taildragger is not like repairing a shiny new Piper.
Mechanics who understand the foibles of rag wing airplanes can be hard to find, but fortunately there are some still around. It pays to shop around for a mechanic before shopping for an elderly airplane. In particular, its a good idea to find someone who knows how to deal with fabric.
Aeronca is gone as an airplane company, but parts are available from a variety of sources, including the ubiquitous Univair, Safe Air Repair (in particular for PMA-approved replacement wooden wing spars) Superior Air Parts and the modern Citabria people at American Champion Aircraft, which owns the 7AC type certificate. There are a few individual bits and pieces that may be hard and/or expensive to find, including retaining clips for the disc brakes, cranks for the Continental engine, parts for the oddball-but magnificent-Eisemann magnetos and windshields.
Ive have owned a 1946 Champ 7AC in partnership with two other people for about eight years and have accumulated about 450 hours in it. The Champ is our fly for fun airplane and it doesnt get any cheaper. I doubt that an ultralight could even come close.
We hangar ours (required for any fabric airplane that you care about) and our fixed expenses are $984/year for the hangar, about $360 for insurance and $140 for an annual for a total of $1484 a year fixed expenses or about $500 for each partner.
We have an auto-fuel STC and average about 4.5 GPH. At my usual 80 hours a year, my cost to fly comes out to be about $11/hour. The only big expense weve had in the eight years was a top end on all four cylinders last summer for $600. Needless to say we do most of the maintenance ourselves under an A&Ps supervision. The airframe and A65 engine are stone simple to work on. Unfortunately not many mechanics understand these old airplanes and the ones that do are dying off.
Ours was acquired as a basket case and when it first flew, we each had about $1500 in it. We added two 6.5-gallon STCd wing tanks when we covered it giving it 26 gallon /24 usable.
Climb is anemic, cruise is at 83 MPH (faster than a Cub, slower than a Luscombe), ventilation and view are tremendous (both windows open on ours), cabin heat is nonexistent, the noise is incredible and the brakes (more later) are not to be trusted.
We each get the airplane for a week in rotation from Thursday through the following Wednesday. Its a great fly-to-lunch airplane.
The gear is not as strong as a Cubs so you should avoid dropping it in but the oil damped struts make landings smoother. You can easily operate it in and out of 300 feet (no obstructions, of course) on grass without using the brakes.
Useful load on ours is 440 pounds. With full fuel that leaves 284 pounds for people with five hours of fuel usable. A more rational 13 gallons/2.5 hours leaves about 360 for people.
The extra fuel comes in handy when youre going somewhere by yourself and wont have fuel available when you get there.
About the brakes. There are two kinds of Goodyear brakes found on the Champs. The disc brakes are better but they are held in place with clips that are made of expensivium and they occasionally pop out and are lost. The brake pads are also made of the same material. Just check the Wag-Aero catalog and youll see what I mean.
The drum brakes are cheaper to get parts for but there is a mandatory AD requiring inspection of the drum/hub for cracks every 50 hours. Neither brake system is very effective but that is probably a good thing with any taildragger.
The good news is that if you plan your flying so you dont use the brakes except for run-up, you wont put much wear on them and theyll last a long time (we have yet to replace ours in 1100 hours but we have lost several clips).
Bottom line, more fun for less money than you thought possible in aviation. Forget ultralights and if you dont have a medical get a Champ and fly it under the provisions of the Recreational Pilot certificate.