Taildraggers on the Cheap

For a mere pittance, you can buy a classic 1940s taildragger. To avoid nasty surprises, don't skimp on the pre-buy.

If youre undecided about how to get the most from your mid-life crisis, consider the romantic possibilities of a taildragger. you’ll turn heads, make friends and spend surprisingly little money in the process. Unless youre easily surprised. In this two-part series on airplanes with their tails where they belong, we’ll examine whats available at opposite ends of the market spectrum, beginning with the almost affordable tailwheel airplanes of the 1940s.

There are lots of choices, from classic Piper Cubs to Stinson Station Wagons, but we’ll focus on five common variants of the lower horsepower, single-engine, two-seat types: The Piper J-3 Cub; Aeronca 7AC Champ; Luscombe 8A; Taylorcraft Bs and the Cessna 120/140 series. (In a later issue, we’ll survey newer, more expensive taildraggers.)

Clash of the Titans
Before World War II, during the so-called Golden Age of aviation, there was much industrial cross-breeding and backstabbing in airplane building. In Wichita, Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman sold Travel Airs until each thought he had a better idea and they went their separate ways. Further north, Don Luscombe, of Iowa, co-founded Monocoupe but decided to go it on his own and designed the airplane that bears his name.

William T. Piper and C.G. Taylor teamed to produce the Taylor E-2 Cub, which remained in and out of production through the mid-1990s, having morphed into the Super Cub. Super Cubs are plentiful but come with super prices. we’ll stick with the most common model, the 65 HP Piper J-3 Cub built between 1945 and 1947. (The J came from Jamouneau, Pipers engineer.)

Piper was the money man who backed Taylors genius until that marriage hit the shoals and Taylor fled to Ohio, determined to destroy the Cub beast hed created. The Taylorcraft Model A sent shivers down Mr. Pipers back, and with the whiff of blood in his nostrils, Taylor upped the ante by upping the horsepower, introducing the Taylorcraft B series.

Pre-war B models include the BLs, BFs and BCs with Lycoming, Franklin and Continental engines respectively. Postwar, Taylorcraft introduced the immensely popular BC-12Ds.

Most notable changes from pre-war to post-war Tcrafts include the addition of extra ribs to the wing, modification of the trim system and enclosing the cylinders in the cowling. The BC-12D is reported to be faster than the older models-although thats debatable. But its just as cramped. Shoulder width is a snug 37 inches, similar to the Luscombe 8A and Cessna 120/140s. An Archer, by comparison is 42 inches wide. All the Tcrafts we’ll review have side-by-side seating with yokes instead of sticks. There’s a stick conversion but its very rare.

The Aeronca (Aeronautical Corporation of America) people-businessmen all-werent so resentful of Piper, but still thought they could invest their wartime profits to grab a share of the post-war boom. Shamelessly, they took the Cub concept-two seats, one motor, big wing-and created the 7AC Champ.

The accent was on comfort. The cabin was wider than the J-3 with enough headroom for a 46 fedora. Champs have a 55-pound baggage area, a real door and, best of all, they can be soloed from either front or rear. Magneto switch, carburetor heat, fuel shut-off and trim are accessible to both seats, although awkward from either.

Both occupants have heel brakes. Champs have terrific visibility from the front; fair from the rear. Cub pilots solo from the rear, where the instrument panel is a distant blur and the runway is something you watch out the side door.

Ah, but what a door. It splits open horizontally in two halves with the upper half attached under the wing and the lower section hanging in the breeze, doubling as a stall warning as it floats up before the wings quit. Tip: Close it to keep out the cow flop when you land pastures-the Cubs natural environment.

At Home on Turf
While not bush airplanes, these vintage taildraggers operate nicely on unimproved surfaces, which demand tough gear legs. Cubs and Tcrafts have inexpensive bungee shock absorbers. Simple and springy when new, they require serious muscle to replace every two to three years. Aeroncas use an oleo strut shock absorber thats good on either hard or soft surfaces but are a nuisance to service. Landing gear parts for the Aeroncas are readily available but brutally expensive.

Luscombe gear has a common shock absorber-very tough. Even tougher is the Luscombe Silflex gear which is not recommended by all owners as damage from a bad landing can telegraph to the airframe rather than being limited to just the gear itself.

Brakes are generally crummy on antiques. Luckily, theyre not as important on rough grass surfaces. Champs, Tcraft, Cubs and Luscombes came with mechanical heel brakes that take getting used to. Some have been modified to hydraulics or a combination of mechanical and hydraulic. Luscombe and Tcraft brake pedals are ridiculously close together and usually just on the pilots side, which makes instructing in one a real giggle.

If you see the old Goodyear wheels/brakes on any model, including Cessna 120/140s, plan to change to newer Clevelands. An older style die-cast Cleveland wheel found on Champs has a recurring AD to check for cracks. Good luck finding replacements. Conversion to modern Clevelands costs from $700 to $2100 plus labor, depending on type. Safe Air Repair sells a 7AC toe brake conversion for $2173 and if the price doesnt stand you on your nose, the brakes will.

For truly anemic stopping power, look no further than the Taylorcrafts Shinn brakes. Tcraft pilots are known for creeping run-ups because the brakes wont hold. Parts are available from Nagel Aircraft Sales of Hesperia, California (760-948-1908) or Univair. Cessna 120/140s are the only models in our review with toe brakes as standard equipment. They work fairly well.

Comfort, Performance
All the models have fixed seats, although Cessna had minor adjustments. Cabin heat in the Champ and Cub is lousy at best. Taylorcraft and Luscombe have better heaters mainly because the pilot and passenger are so snugly crammed together they keep each other warm. Cessna 140s have passable heaters, particularly in the summer.

With power in the 65 to 90 HP range, cruise speeds vary significantly. Luscombe and Taylorcraft hold the speed crowns. On 65 HP, a well-rigged Luscombe 8A cruises at 90 to 110 MPH, burning about 4 GPH. The Taylorcraft BC-12D with 65 HP turns in about the same performance. Owners can argue which is faster. Our nod goes to Luscombe just because it looks faster.

Its a healthy step down in cruise speed from Luscombe to Aeronca Champ. The 65 HP Champ should get 80 to 85 MPH on a good day. By running the throttle wide open, I can indicate 90+ MPH in my Champ but it shakes all the loose change out of my pockets.

The Cub is slower yet. Both Champs and Cub owners have been known to wipe bugs from the trailing edges of their wings. The reason we fly is to be in the air, not to get somewhere. At 4 GPH and $1 per gallon for car gas, you can afford to float up there for a long time. Speaking of gas, all fuel systems in these airplanes are gravity fed. The Champ uses a Ford Model A gas gauge (honest) that sticks out of the tank in the cabin. The gauge tends to leak when the tank is full so don’t be surprised if you see gasket sealant smeared across the glass.

Luscombe uses the same gauge only mounted behind the pilot. Parts can be ordered from your local 1932 Ford dealer or Snyder Antique Auto of New Springfield, Ohio (216-549-5313). Cubs and older Tcraft had the wire and cork which, unless the wire gets bent, is infallible. Rule: When you don’t see no wire; you don’t got no gas. Cherokees should have a system that reliable. Cessna 120/140s use direct reading wing-root gauges that are easy to ignore and occasionally leak; look for stains.

Least glamorous of the lot are the Cessna 120s and 140s. Telling them apart is easy, although its tough finding a 120 that hasnt been highly modified. The 120 has no flaps and no rear window and came with non-electric Continental 85-HP engines, although many buyers opted for the electric system that was standard on the fancier 140.

The 140A had a 90-HP Continental. Some have been modified to 100-HP Continentals and even larger Lycomings. Both the 120s and the early 140s had metal fuselages and cloth wings. The 140A has a single strut and metal tapered wing similar to that later used on the 150. Some cloth wings were metalized which adds about 30 pounds and is akin to colorizing of classic black-and-white films. When pre-buying a 120/140 check for damage to the gear boxes-the place where the spring steel gear legs attach to the fuselage.

When it comes to speed, the Cessna 120/140 does about 95 MPH and burns 5 to 6 GPH GPH; 110 MPH is not uncommon in a Cessna 140A. Visibility is poor although the overhead skylight helps in those 3 G turns. Unfortunately, the skylights can leak causing corrosion in the spar carry-through. Comfort is not a strong point in the small Cessnas. If youve flown a Cessna 150-tight, noisy-then youve got the idea. As the tailwheel rattles across the ground sound amplifies up the fuselage so you feel, as Gary Miller, 140 afficionado, says, …like youre sitting in the wrong end of a megaphone. Bench seats can be retrofitted to 150 seats.

Simple Engines
At the heart of the small airplane market (except in 120/140) is the 65-HP Continental engine, which is about as simple as you can get. Four cylinders, two magnetos, eight remarkably expensive spark plugs (M41E non-shielded, approximately $20 each) and a carburetor are the basic package.

No vacuum pumps, no electric system (hence no starter or lights), no fuel pumps-not much to go wrong in this system and it has a healthy 1800-hour TBO. When you hit overhaul time, however, your options are discouraging. The 65-HP engines arent favored by overhaul shops-too small, too odd, too hard to get parts.

Luckily, many Continental 65 parts are interchangeable with 85-HP parts. Superior Air Parts (800-487-4884) offers Millennium 65-HP cylinders; buy all four, no core exchange, $3385. Camshafts and other Continental parts are available from Fresno Air Parts (209-237-4863).

Crankshafts are getting rarer by the minute. Two good sources: Aircraft Specialties Services of Tulsa (800-826-9252) deals mainly in bottom end parts with a niche in the Continental 85 HP market. They have approval to grind both 65-HP and 85-HP crankshafts. They also offer an STC for a Continental O-200 crank in 85-HP engines. Air Support International of Marshfield, Missouri has a supply of tapered crankshafts-all overhauled. Theyre working on approval to offer .020 under crankshafts as we’ll as building new ones.

Air Support will overhaul a 65 HP but they warn it will be expensive; in the $12,000 to $14,000 range. Air West of San Carlos, California (415-593-8403) overhauls all 65 HP through 100 HP for $10,600 ($9500 FBO price); firewall forward, new Millenium cylinders and using your repairable crank and case. You can overhaul one in your basement but it wont cost much less. Continental will sell you a new O-200 for $21,000.

All of these airplanes can be modified to accept larger engines but there’s more to it than bolting on more horses. To change a 7AC 65-HP Champ to a 90 HP, for instance, requires a larger dorsal fin, a modified cowling and engine mounts plus extra fuel tanks in the wings. Cruise speed wont increase much and added weight from the battery, starter, generator eats up the hoped for advantages from extra power.

Magnetos in these engines are either Bendix, Slick or Eisemann. Bendix mags have a couple of recurring ADs. If overhauled by a reputable shop, theyre not a problem. Eisemann made a wonderful magneto that should give trouble-free service until the coil craps out without warning. Carry a spare (about $135). Mags can be overhauled by Arn-Air, a certified repair station in Bayard, Iowa (712-651-2255).

Routine maintenance is easy on the 65 Continentals. Plan to change your own oil every 25 hours. Without a filter, you’ll drain the old oil and remove and clean the screen to check for metal. Takes less than an hour and costs $15.

Many of these models have disposable Brackett air filters which you never clean and reuse. Not all models have STCs for Brackett, so check the paperwork to make sure. Speaking of paperwork, all of these airplanes are approved to run on car gas but only with an STC.

True, midwest farmers ran them for decades on tractor gas without any trouble (or taxes), but the FAA insists that you have an STC before pouring half-price auto gas into your airplane. Call Petersen Aviation in Minden, Nebraska (308-832-2050) or EAA (920-426-4843) for the STC. The price is $1 per horsepower.

Personally, Ive been disappointed with auto gas for two reasons: It stinks and Ive had trouble getting my 65-HP Continental to idle properly when using car gas in cold weather. Then again, with car gas, I don’t get sticking valves and loaded plugs that 100LL produces. Take your choice.

Fifty years is a long time for a piece of machinery to be in the field and many of these airplanes have spent their lives literally in fields. Be ready for serious expenses on what seems to be a cheap purchase.

Corrosion plagues all airplanes. It settles in low places like tailwheel tubing clusters, door frames or lower longerons. All-metal Luscombe airframes are singled out with ADs to check the wing for corrosion and the vertical stab for cracks. Cessna 120/140s are wont to crack as well, so get out the magnifying glass.

Mice love old airplanes, although not in the way you might. One sniff inside the cabin on a warm day usually alerts the buyer to their corrosive presence. They love rib stitching, upholstery, wires, wood, rubber, insulation-in short, anything they can sink their teeth into. Watch for wasps, too. Usually these invaders arent completely wiped out until the fabric is removed for recover.

With modern synthetic fabrics instead of the old cotton, owners let covers run for 20 years or more. So spar cracks can go undetected for decades. Still, don’t believe that lifetime fabric means a lifetime without recovering.

A recover on the average Taylorcraft should run about $2500 in materials with a good rule of thumb being double that amount for labor. Except for minor patches, a recover job is a major repair, requiring a Form 337 to be filed.

As the owner, you can work with your A&P to recover the airplane, but you’ll need the IA to sign off the work. Also, if the airplane was originally certified with a cotton cover, thats what you’ll have to use when you recover unless you obtain an STC for new material.

Any repainting of fabric or use of a rejuvenator should remind you that the fabric is not forever and you may be spending many thousands at the next annual to recover. If the airplane has been painted or repainted with enamel, make sure a flex agent was employed. Better yet, walk away.

NDH? Right
Its rare to find an old airplane with complete logbooks. If you do, be prepared to read between the lines. The phrase, no damage history is an admission that no one has bothered to record the history of the airplanes damage. You should feel more comfortable with an airplane with a complete paperwork history that includes 337s and logbook entries that acknowledge any damage and spell out the repairs.

Properly repaired, a scraped wingtip or buckled landing gear shouldnt scare you off. Even a cracked spar can be spliced safely. Unexplained repairs to a wingtip should alert you to look for potential unseen damage in the spar. At the time of this writing, all Champs are under the threat of a proposed AD (Docket No. 97-CE-79-AD) that, if approved, would require cutting into the upper surface of the wings to install inspection holes to check the spars. Of course those holes would leak and cause more problems than they prevent, but thats another story.

Beware of the overhauled engine. A good bath in the parts washer, a quick paint job and new gaskets passes for an overhaul in some parts. Without supporting documentation, there’s no way to know whats inside an engine. Hire a real mechanic whos been around these airplanes for 52 years to crawl through your intended love. Even though cheap to buy, these airplanes can be expensive to own if major repairs are needed.

Still, because theyre so simple, most old taildraggers don’t have nasty AD baggage. Luscombes have the wing corrosion and complicated control cable AD. High-wing Pipers have a strut AD. Most have been replaced by now and new struts can be bought from Univair.

Most of the other ADs go back decades and should have been complied with. If logbook history looks thin, get the airplanes complete airworthiness history and registration history from FAA Records/Registration in Oklahoma City (405-954-3116). Make this part of the usual title search in your pre-buy background check. If nothing else, its fun to look at all the old repairs made over the years.

How They Fly
Purists argue over the nuances of each model but realistically, if the competent pilot becomes comfortable in one, flying any of these airplanes and transitioning to the others is easy.

All served as primary trainers. Figure out the approach speed and the climb speeds; practice a bunch of stalls and the rest is just seat of the pants flying. None have killer stall characteristics if flown properly. Knucklehead stunts such as buzzing or cross-controlled flight on slow base to final leads to predictable results.

We see an uncomfortably high rate of stall/spin accidents, particularly in the Cubs, Luscombe and Champs. The Tcrafts and Cessna 120/140s have lower fatality rates. Advice: don’t look for stall warning devices, look for a good instructor.

Broadly speaking, the Luscombe, Taylorcraft and Cessna 120/140s are touchier than the Aeroncas and Cubs on landing. Springy 120/140s had a propensity for nose-over accidents so wheel extenders were introduced. By extending the axle forward, the problem abated.

Crosswind landing gear were also available as was just learning to properly land in a crosswind. One plus for the Cessnas are the toe brakes-unimagined luxury to Champ pilots. Luscombes and Tcraft tie for the worst brake pedal set-up, but you can get used to anything with enough terror. On the bright side, weak brakes reduce your exposure to nose-over accidents.

Ground looping is the over-rated fear of all wannabe tailwheel pilots. Yes, its possible-and likely if youre asleep at the wheel or stick-but not as imminent as pilot lounge lore would have it. Rarely injurious to the pilot or passenger, the ground loop is more common in the Luscombes, Tcrafts and 120/140s than the Cubs or Champs. Again, good training lowers your exposure.

Taildraggers are only taildraggers on the ground and each one handles a little differently. Champs and Cubs take the prize for ease. Cessna 120/140-particularly the 140A-have a more solid feel on the approach and good straight-ahead visibility through the landing flare. Cessna 140s have flaps but theyre not as effective as later 150 flaps.

The Taylorcraft, with its low wing loading and clean airframe loves to fly, which means it loves to float. It does slip nicely, however. The Luscombe is probably the most misunderstood of the lot. Because it looks like a Cessna 120/140, its wrongly assumed that it will fly like one. The Luscombe is one of the sweetest flying machines available with lots of rudder, light elevator and slightly heavy ailerons. But it can be tricky on the long, stiff gear and damn near impossible to climb in and out of with any grace. Like the 120/140s and the Tcrafts, the Luscombe visibility stinks except over the nose.

Of the lot, the Champ is probably the heaviest on the controls, particularly in ailerons. But were still talking fingertip control. Warning: Unless you know every stringer, spar and bracket in these 50-year-old-birds, don’t consider them aerobatic.

The Cub is the Cub. A sewing machine motor attached to a butterfly. Pure slow-flying pleasure with an inflated price tag. Theyre not rare. Altogether, 14,125 Cubs were built through 1947, 6320 in 1946 alone. Its the one everyone fell in love with and love comes at a premium.

Our advice: Buy a Champ and use the thousands you’ll save to….buy another Champ.

What To Buy?
If you want a comfortable cross-country flying machine, forget any of these airplanes. Look for a four-place taildragger or conventional gear airplane. (One possible exception: The Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser, essentially a wide Cub with a 100 HP engine, an electrical system and electric starter and 100 MPH cruise.)

Otherwise, any of these airplanes fill the bill for cheap, fun flying in exchange for a certain commitment of ownership. you’ll need to accept their quirkiness and the fact that AOG for parts may amount to months not days.

In pure value, we think the airplanes rank this way: Champ at the top, with Taylorcraft, Luscombe and Cessna 120/140s tied for second, the Cub in third place, because of its inflated price.

Decide with your heart or with your wallet. But don’t take too long because the price of romance isn’t getting any cheaper.

Also With this Article
Click here to view the Taildragger Checklist.
Click here to view the Taildragger Price Guide.
Click here to view “Taildragger Ownership: A Lifestyle Thing.”

-by Paul Berge
Paul Berge is a freelance writer, CFI and former air traffic controller. He lives near Des Moines, Iowa.