The New Tiger Flies

Picking up where American General left off, Tiger LLC builds a sporty if not blisteringly fast cruiser at an affordable price.

If a taste for nostalgia could be bottled, labeled and sold, the world of general aviation would be swimming in cash. No other industry has quite the penchant for warming up old products and taking another run at the market with designs that are decades old.

Cirrus and Lancair have broken this mold but Cessna has essentially built its entire piston product line on designs that trace their roots-if not their very type certificates-back to the 1960s, at least. Yet another example of revisited marketing comes in the form of the new Tiger, a sporty four-place design built first by American Aviation, then Grumman-American, then American General and now again by a new start-up called Tiger LLC.

As we reported in the July 2000 issue of Aviation Consumer, the original Tiger type certificates were purchased by Tiger LLC from the remains of the defunct American General operation and a new, purpose-built plant was constructed in Martinsburg, in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, specifically to build a new Tiger. The companys business plans are modest but, if all goes as they hope it will, follow-on products will include a faster version of the Tiger and a resuscitation of another 1970s design, the GA-7 Cougar twin.

A Slow Roll
When we visited the Tiger plant two years ago, it was merely an empty shell awaiting fixtures, materials and a workforce. By this spring, the plant was operational with a staff of about 60 people building airplanes at the rate of about two a month. Obviously, thats not nearly enough airplanes to make a go of it but Tiger is still awaiting its production certificate from the FAA, thus each airplane is inspected by an FAA representative at various assembly stages. Tiger expects the production certificate late this summer.

When the Tiger was evolved by Grumman-American in 1975 from the lower-powered Traveler, it carried on with a revolutionary construction designed to be both strong and fast to build. And that remains true yet today. Rather than the traditional semi-monocoque construction of skins riveted to ribs and formers, the Tiger consists of a single-piece fuselage made of aluminum skins bonded to the sort of light honeycomb structure found in military and commercial transport aircraft. There’s hardly a rivet in the thing.

The fuse is actually three separate bonded sections that are then joined again by bonding. In the rear fuselage, conventional ribs are used, but these are bonded, not riveted. The wings are also bonded structures over conventional ribs, consisting of four pieces-an inner and outer panel-which slide onto a massive tubular spar made of formed 2024 T-3 aluminum nearly a third of an inch thick. The fuel tanks are in the inner two wing bays, which are sealed by the bonding process.

As when American General built the Tiger in its Mississippi plant, the major bonded components are subcontracted by the same company: ChemFab, which despite the Tigers comings and goings, has remained in business and retained the tooling to build Tiger components. ChemFab uses an improved Boeing bonding process that has proved strong and durable in the field. Critics of bonding claim that its susceptible to degradation and delamination and although the early Tigers had some troubles with debonding, it affected few airplanes and once corrected, was never an issue again.

Bonding is also used to attach control surface skins to conventional ribs, although the horizontal stabilizer gains additional stiffness for being bonded to honeycomb ribs. The fuselages and wings arrive at the Martinsburg plant as shipsets and are assembled to completion.

Compared to the typical Cessna or Piper, there’s less assembly. We don’t know the build-hour budget for the Tiger but judging by what goes into the fuselage-control circuitry, wiring, seats, upholstery and avionics-we would guess that build time is substantially shorter than for the Cessna 172 and probably the Cirrus SR20, both of which might be viewed as competitors.

Tigers Harry Eckert, who has been involved with the Tiger from day one at all four companies, told us that the assembly line is essentially identical to the Greenville, Mississippi line designed by American General but that quality control inspections have been improved. After some initial rough spots, the AGAC Tigers were considered squawk free; Tiger LLC hopes to improve on that record.

We inspected the demonstrator carefully for paint goobers, slack upholstery and generally stuff that didnt look right. The fit and finish-especially the carbon fiber cowl and control surface gaps-looked crisp to us. On an eyeball basis, the airplane looked better than the typical new Cessna.

New vs. Old
We were told that the Tiger is identical to the original but that requires some clarification. When American General took over the production around 1990, it made significant enough changes to require an amended type certificate, which is what Tiger LLC is using to produce the current airplane. In other words, the new Tiger is an AGAC AG-5B, not the original AA-5B.

Even at that, there are still some improvements over the American General version. Harry Eckert told us that an important change is in corrosion proofing. Aluminum parts are alodined and treated with a Boeing bond-prime system while steel parts are cadmium plated. In early Tigers, corrosion proofing was an option and consisted of zinc chromate for the aluminum parts.

AGAC Tiger owners will notice a major difference in the interior. Although the seats retain their basic design, the upholstery and headliner are in leather rather than cloth. There are other cosmetic changes, including better placarding, shorter throttle and mixture levers, improved lighting and better sound insulation, something we noticed when flying the demo aircraft. The glass has a gray tint rather than green used in previous models, not that the difference is noticeable, however.

Beyond that, its the same old Tiger, which is to say the thing is a slab-sided box pulled through the air by a 180 HP Lycoming O-360, the same engine used in the Piper Archer.

Eckert calls the airplane super simple and it is that. The fuel system consists of two 26-gallon wing tanks, with a single, highly accessible tank switch offering left or right, with fuel gauges prominently displayed above the switch.

The control circuitry has conventional yokes with cables to the surfaces and an anti-servo trim system, with a wheel on the console for trim changes. There’s no electric trim. The electrical system is a single-bus design with a 70-amp alternator and split master switch to cut out the alternator. Circuit breakers are located to the far right, as in newer Piper products.

One improvement Tiger LLC didnt make but should make is a split-bus electrical system to include an essential bus for emergency situations. The aircraft retains its vacuum driven instruments yet it has no back-up vac system, something we see as both a throwback design and a liability lightning rod, given that both Cirrus and Lancair are moving toward more reliable electric-only panel instruments and even Cessna has dual vacuum systems. True, you can add back-up vacuum as an aftermarket item, but the airplane should have it coming out of the factory.

The landing gear is dirt simple; spring steel leaves for the mains and a tubular stalk for the nose wheel, which is free castoring. Steering is thus by differential braking only, until the rudder gets some bite at fast taxi speeds. While the steerable nosewheel seems to have gone the way of Cabbage Patch dolls, we have to say we miss it. Differential braking eats up pads and is generally less smooth and less precise than a steerable wheel. However, a free castoring design is simpler, lighter and requires less maintenance.

Flight Demo
Were pleased to report that the new Tiger flies exactly like the old Tiger, which is to say honestly, with no real surprises or vices to speak of. Its fast enough, although not blisteringly so, and is more fun to fly by dint of good handling than is a Cessna 172 or an Archer.

Ingress is a practiced art. The sliding canopy opens to reveal the two front seats in their entirety and a workable portion of the rear seats. The leather seat cushions hinge from the back of the seat, revealing the metal seat pan, upon which you can plop your Nikes and then lower yourself into the seat using the canopy bow as a handhold. Awkward the first time but like mounting a bicycle once youre accustomed to it. The sliding canopy, of course, is the Tigers great appeal and the fact that it can be opened in flight at 112 knots or below is a plus. Not that most owners do much of that sort of thing, since the noise and wind are terrific. On a summer day, however, the canopy is a godsend during taxi; bring your sunglasses.

And if you do much weather flying, bring an umbrella; a big one. In moderate rain, the cockpit will ship some water by the time you mount the wing, settle into the seat and pull the canopy shut. From our instrument instructing days in a Tiger, we recall a certain pervading dampness until the heater dried things out.

The undeniable downside of the canopy is safety, or lack thereof. If the airplane flips during an emergency landing-and our research shows that many airplanes do-there could be an egress problem. Even if it doesnt flip but the fuselage becomes distorted by impact forces, the canopy could jam. The most effective solution is to carry an impact hammer in the cockpit to chop open one of the windows for exit. This is hardly ideal, in our view, but other manufacturers have made great strides in crashworthiness while the Tiger remains unchanged.

Seating in the Tiger is noticeably high and upright; the canopy rail is at elbow level but with excellent visibility forward and out the sides of the canopy, which has a single window on each side. Seat adjustment is a conventional rail and lock system but with no handhold other than the front bow, seating adjustment is best done with the canopy open.

Starting the Tiger is like any other Lycoming except with a twist. Reminiscent of Continental installations, the Tiger has a push-button electric priming pump rather than the manual plunger found in the original models.

As noted, ground handling is done via differential braking. The turn radius is the aircraft length plus a foot or two and although the aircraft is precisely controllable on the ground, we found the brakes to be unpleasantly stiff, requiring practically a leg lift to get the thing stopped briskly out of a fast taxi. Precise taxiing requires either a lot of speed or deft footwork and no squeamishness in stomping the brakes when necessary.

One aspect of handling that requires adjustment is the airplanes perceived deck angle. After takeoff, Tigers demo pilot, Bill Crum, reminded us that the sight picture over the nose to achieve the recommended 90-knot climb looks more like level flight than a climb and level flight looks like a descent until you confirm that the VSI says it isn’t.

With two people aboard and about 250 pounds under gross weight, we noticed an initial climb of 1000 FPM which soon declined to the 600 to 700 FPM range or about what the POH says to expect, adjusted for gross weight. Overall, the performance is similar to an Archer but the Tiger is a shade faster.

Leveling off in cruise, first at 2500 feet then at 4500 feet, we tried some informal speed runs in the airplane. At full throttle-about 2625 RPM-we noted a true airspeed of 135 knots and at 4500, we recorded 139 knots. The Tiger isn’t equipped with a fuel flow instrument so we can only judge fuel flow by the POH says it should be, about 11 GPH leaned for best power at both altitudes and high power settings.

The Tigers best cruise speeds are in the 4000- to 8000-foot range, above which its power declines rule out any increases in TAS. On balance, the airplane is a 130-knot ride, give or take, making it faster than both the Archer and Cessna 172, but sucking wind against a Cirrus SR20. At more economical cruise speeds, the Tiger can be counted on to deliver about 125 knots while burning between 9 and 10 GPH. In our view, this makes it a good cross country machine for moderate distances but certainly not a continent eater.

It carries sufficient fuel-51 gallons usable-for five hours of endurance, with reserves, so a 500-mile IFR trip is easily doable and with its avionics and autopilot, its equipped to do such a trip. Speaking of which, the aircrafts standard $219,500 price includes a pair of Garmin 430s, a Garmin 340 audio panel, a Garmin 327 transponder and an S-TEC System 30 autopilot, the guts of which are contained in the turn coordinator. The autopilot has no autotrim but it does have altitude hold, which is more than sufficient for this category of light aircraft.

The far right side of the segmented panel is wide open and would easily fit an MFD, with room to spare for other gear. As equipped from the factory, we think the only control element the aircraft lacks is electric trim, which we would like to see. The trim wheel is located forward on the center console and is awkward to reach; better to have it between the seats, in our view or electric. The airplane comes standard with a Horizon digital tach, but its placed on the far left side of the panel, where it lives in a shadow cast by the glareshield. We found the low-contrast LCD tach digits difficult to read and, if it were our airplane, we would install an HSI and move the tach into the hole now occupied by the number 2 VOR head.

Handling, Loading
Sometime in the past, the Tiger got labeled with the description fighter-like handling. Were not sure how that got started but we’ll confess we probably contributed to it. Although it has a canopy, the Tigers resemblance to a fighter ends there, for its neither fast, aerobatic nor armed. It is nimble, however, and more fun to hurl around the sky than your average four-place cruiser.

We found the current model to be light in roll and pitch but quite stiff in yaw, suggesting either control circuitry friction or failing memory on how the old Tigers rudder felt. The pedals arent pushing a nosegear steering link so, in our view, it should feel lighter on the feet than it does.

The Tiger is extraordinarily stable in all flight regimes; trim it hands off-even in a turn-and it will hold that attitude and quickly damp any disturbance. This makes it a first-rate instrument airplane, especially for training. Roll response is quick and, interestingly, the ailerons remain effective throughout the stall, something most airplanes cant claim. The stall is docile with no tendency to drop a wing. The POH says spin recovery is conventional, although the airplane is not approved for intentional spins.

Like a Cessna, there’s a strong pitch-up moment when the flaps are deployed and you have to get busy on the trim wheel as they extend. Conversely, properly trimmed for approach, watch for a strong pitch-up tendency when power is applied for a go around. It doesnt take heroic strong arming to defeat this, but the nose can pitch up briskly while youre getting the airplane re-trimmed and under control.

There’s nothing hard about landing a Tiger and although it will forgive errors, it will also bounce if you pound it onto the runway. Approach speeds in the 65- to 70-knot range work we’ll enough, although it will fly slower at lighter weights and probably should be, given the tendency to float. Even out of a 65-knot approach, we floated a bit on touchdown. Because of the visibility over the nose, the pitch at touchdown is lower than you imagine it should be but its easy to acquire the right sight picture after a few tries. Any competent pilot should have no trouble with it.

Loadwise, the Tiger is basically a 900-pound payload airplane. Gross weight is 2400 pounds and the demo we flew had an empty weight of 1505 pounds, leaving 895 pounds for fuel, people and bags. With full tanks, you can carry 583 pounds or three people and modest bags. That said, we don’t think of the Tiger as a strong four-place design. For one thing, the rear seats are awkward to get into and there’s not as much footroom as you’ll find in an Archer or a Cessna 172. One plus, for two-person travel, the rear seats fold forward, opening up an expansive cargo area.

The Tigers CG loading range is narrow and elongated but will stay within bounds with two people up front, full fuel and 50 pounds of cargo. The CG is actually forward tending for most loadings, thus if your two frontseaters are 225 each and there’s no baggage, you’ll be under gross but on the edge of the forward side of the envelope. The baggage compartment limit is 120 pounds and even if you manage to stuff another 50 pounds over that with a 120-pound pilot upfront, you’ll just hit the aft limit.

The Tiger has often been called an honest airplane. We take that to mean that its about as fast as it looks, has no particular handling vices and wont put undue strain on your bank account. We think thats been and remains an accurate assessment.

The Tiger was designed to be a fast build airplane with simple systems that require little maintenance. Owners of both Grumman American and American General Tigers consistently report that this is indeed the case. Not much breaks on Tiger and when it does, the fix is usually easy, despite the fact the companies who supported those airplanes are long gone. Tiger LLC, by the way, doesnt support older Tigers, just their own new production. Support for older Tigers continues to be ably provided by Fletchair, Inc. (900 Randolph St., Houston, TX 77061, 713-641-2023 )

The bottom line question, of course, is the new Tiger a good value? The answer depends on what youre comparing it against. At $219,500, the Tiger can best be termed mid-priced. Its cheaper than a comparably equipped Cirrus SR20 although we use the phrase comparably equipped loosely, for the Cirrus is a more feature-rich airplane. We think three other comparisons are worth noting, the Cessna 172 SP, the New Piper Archer and Diamonds DA40 Star.

The Cessna retails for about $181,900, but doesnt have a comparable avionics package, in our view. (We prefer the Garmins.) The Diamond Star-again, with Garmin avionics-sells for about $214,000 while the Archer with a pair of Garmin 430s sells for about what a Cirrus does, $226,610. Of the five airplanes, the Cirrus is the fastest, then the Star, then the Tiger, then the Archer, with the Cessna pulling up the rear. New Piper claims the new Archer cruises at around 128 knots but our speed runs with older models against the Tiger consistently put the Tiger out in front. And the Cessna Skyhawk SP runs close if not with the Archer, so for practical purposes, the Tiger, Archer and Cessna run together.

Obviously, if speed is important, the Cirrus aces this field by a long shot. Nothing else is close. It also carries a little more payload and, in our view, has more modern and capable systems. Were not sure how Tiger will address this gap but we think they should update the vacuum/electrical system.

The Tiger has something the others lack, which is a certain panache and sportiness that seems to resonate with buyers to whom raw speed and new-age glitz don’t appeal. For those buyers, the Tiger represents a fair value although not what we would call a bargain. Tiger LLC has made minor cosmetic improvements and we hope they make more, especially with regard to back-up safety systems and improved crashworthiness to match the likes of Cirrus and even the new Cessnas.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Checklist.”
Click here to view “Who Are These Guys?”
Click here to view “The Tiger Enters a Market Flush With Choice.”
Click here to view “The Tiger Mystique: One Owners View.”