These days it’s hard to imagine that a wood and fabric four-place piston single like the Bellanca Viking still exists, but it does. And although there aren’t great squadrons of them around, the Viking retains a loyal, almost cultish following.
That’s because there’s really nothing quite like the Viking. There’s a lot to like. The aircraft handles well with few gotchas and it’s so strongly built that owners still delight in showing the famous factory picture of a dozen cheerleaders standing on the wings. “Try that with an aluminum airplane,” goes the advertising tag line.
The Viking’s family tree traces its roots back to the Bellanca Cruisaire, a triple-tailed retractable taildragger design reminiscent of aviation pioneer Giuseppe Bellanca’s early designs. The first Model 17 Viking appeared in 1967, powered by a 300-HP Continental IO-520-D. The model evolved gradually, but other than the engine, there were few major changes. The Continental-powered Viking was called the 17-30, while the 17-31, introduced in 1969, was powered by a 290-HP (later 300-HP) Lycoming IO-540, either normally aspirated or turbocharged. Either engine was available for much of the early production run; the 17-31 was discontinued after 1979 and in 1996, the Continental IO-550 was made available as an option. Some earlier airplanes have been retrofitted. The original hydraulic gear and flap actuation system was redesigned midway through the 1968 model year with the introduction of electric flaps.
The original fuel system—five tanks, two fuel selectors, eight possible combinations of selector settings and several sometimes incomprehensible gauges—was simplified to a left, right and aux system in 1974. After that mod, the fuel mismanagement accident rate for Vikings dropped dramatically. Production continued at a modest rate—in the peak production year, 1973, just under 200 were built—significant volume by modern standards, but a trickle for that era.
Bellanca Aircraft Corp. went bankrupt in 1980, the year things turned sour for the entire industry. In 1984, the company got back on its feet and started building Vikings again on a limited, custom-order basis. Only nine were built in 1984 and 1985 and none in 1986. About 38 were produced between 1984 and 2005.
In 2001, Bellanca went bankrupt again. In 2002, a group of six Bellanca enthusiasts bought the company from the state of Minnesota and established Alexandria Aircraft Co. LLC. Their immediate goals were to provide technical support and parts to owners and A&Ps in the field.
By early 2010, however, market conditions no longer supported this enterprise and the assets of the factory were put up for auction.
There are about 1360 or so Vikings in the fleet, most of which are Continental-powered. The owners of AALLC also reduced parts prices substantially and rewrote the type certificate for Continental-powered Vikings, which helped prospective buyers looking to replace a run-out Continental IO-520 engine with a IO-550.
And there are enough Vikings on the market to offer buyers a good choice at remarkably good prices. According to the Aircraft Bluebook, early Continental-powered 17-30s hover around $30,000 while mid-1970s Vikings are in the high $40s. The latest models, which the Bluebook shows as 2001, are listed at $205,000. We found several for sale online. All things considered, these prices represent a good value, but Viking experts told us that prices have dropped recently.
Look for one that has flown regularly and, above all, has been hangared or at least sheltered. Moisture in the wings is the biggest threat to the value and the airworthiness of the airplane and drying them out at 160 knots is the best thing for them, owners say.
The Viking is nothing if not sturdy. Inside the wing are two laminated wood spars running the length of the wing, connected by a system of ribs. Inside the fuselage is a latticework of stout steel tubes that form the engine mount, then carry through the fuselage to form the tail. Add laminated spruce forming one axis and a steel roll cage forming the other and you’ve got a very sturdy airframe with better occupant protection than many modern designs can claim. By modern standards, the Viking is a credible but not exceptional performer. Normally aspirated models cruise at around 160 knots, 10 knots slower than heavy singles like the Cessna 210 and A36 Bonanza. The turbo helps, of course. Haul the airplane up to FL200 and you’ll see 190 knots. On the other hand, a Viking will outclimb a 210 or an A36.
The book claims 1210 FPM and owners report similar numbers. For all its power, the Viking’s useful load is typically 1000 pounds or so and even less with a lot of equipment on board. That’s in the range of an average 200-HP retractable, such as a Mooney or Arrow. On top of this, the big engine requires a lot of fuel, which further limits the cabin load.
Fuel capacity is either 60 or 75 gallons, but owners say there don’t appear to be many 60-gallon versions. In fact, aux tanks in early models bring the total to 92 gallons. “With full fuel, my 1973 Viking will carry three passengers, or two passengers and baggage,” one owner told us. This payload is typical of all aircraft of this era. Commented another about his turbo: “Lycoming engine, heavier than the Continental, plus two turbos, equals a pathetic full-fuel legal load of two adults plus bags.” Compare that to a Cessna 210, which has a useful load pushing 1400 pounds in some cases and can typically haul 92 gallons and four people plus baggage.
But the Viking has always been more sports car than pickup truck. With all four seats occupied by FAA-standard humans and 100 pounds of baggage, the airplane can ship maybe 40 gallons of avgas—enough to fly 250 miles with IFR reserves. However, most owners of post-1973 Vikings comment that they’re content with a choice of full seats or full tanks and insist that their bladders usually give out before the fuel does.
“The way the Viking handles will put a smile on your face; very smooth and responsive controls,” said Lange White about his 1967 Viking. White isn’t alone with his sentiments.
The Viking is almost universally praised for its light, smooth aileron control. “The Viking is a very stable aircraft in turbulence and IMC conditions with no Dutch roll due to the very ample vertical stabilizer. It rolls and handles like a sports car—not like a station wagon,” reports owner David Alger. “My Viking has the same empty weight as the Lance I used to fly, about 2225 pounds. But the control feel and harmony are just wonderful. Low-speed control on the Viking is excellent and makes short field operations easy, and the stall is very mild. It’s also a very good IFR platform, not twitchy and pleasantly light on the controls,” says Mark Sellers.
Landing can be tricky, however. Power off, with gear and flaps out, the Viking has an awesome sink rate that owners liken to Steinway pianos. The steep descent angle, however, does allow a skilled Viking pilot to make short landings and the excellent climb rate enables the airplane to depart from short fields just as well.
The Viking’s cabin dimensions are modest at best, a reflection of its 1930s design heritage. “The cabin is small for two guys my size,” reports a 210-pound Viking pilot. Even a rabid pro-Viking zealot admitted that the cabin is “not roomy.” Not as tight as a Mooney, maybe, but no 210, either.
Interior appointments draw raves. Many Vikings have a leather or crushed-velour upholstery that puts the chintzy interiors of Pipers and Cessnas to shame. Cabin noise, on the other hand, is high, although some owners tell us it’s no worse than other aircraft. “A Viking is certainly no louder than any other single-engine GA aircraft of similar vintage. Anyone flying any single-engine GA airplane without ANR won’t be able to hear much after a while anyway,” says Craig Gifford.
We don’t think there’s much to differentiate the two normally aspirated engines from an ownership point of view. The turbo is another matter. Prospective buyers should carefully consider whether the extra acquisition cost, complexity, fuel consumption and potential overheating problems are worth the benefits of turbocharging. Since it’s a turbonormalized system—you get full power all the way to the flight levels rather than an extra boost on the ground—in most cases (outside the Rockies, at least) the answer is probably not. One reader who owned both advised against the turbo version.
The gear system is robust, but there’s apparently some confusion in the field about exactly how to adjust the limit microswitches to make the system work well. The emergency gear extension in a Viking is two-thirds foolproof and one-third tricky. When the mains retract, they fold forward and are held there under pressure, so dumping pressure causes them to fall into the slipstream and lock.
Step one of the emergency extension procedure is to slow the airplane to 90 knots, so the over-center spring can push the nosegear through the slipstream and let it lock. No cranking or huffing and puffing necessary—just slow the airplane down.
Owners were all but unanimous in emphasizing the need to hangar a Viking. “Absolutely imperative!” said one. “A crucial necessity,” echoed another, although one reader insisted a shade hangar in a dry climate is good enough.
“I keep my Viking inside. But I would keep any airplane I fly IFR inside. Wood deterioration is a function of moisture content. Keep your wood dry and rot can’t happen. Simple as that. That said, I often fly in rain and leave the plane outside on trips,” reports Mark Sellers.
The primary reason is to prevent the accumulation of moisture that can trigger wood rot in the wing, but it’s also a good idea to protect the fuselage fabric from ultraviolet radiation and moisture.
The “lifetime” Dacron covering will last a long time in a hangar, but owners report the need to recover in as little as six years if the airplane is left outside.
Factory support for the model is, well, iffy. Still, owners and techs say parts are generally available from Alexandria Aircraft LLC and the website is still up at www.bellanca-aircraft.com. Furthermore, the airplane’s rag, tube and wood construction means that not every mechanic will be familiar with high-level repairs, but support isn’t really an issue if you know where to go. There are a few standout shops that know these airplanes
“I personally don’t worry about AALLC because it’s really the shops at Rocket, Weber, Witmer and MARS (nicely covering all parts of the U.S.) that keep these airplanes flying. The future of 100LL poses a far greater risk to the Viking future than the status of the factory,” says Craig Gifford.
Resources, Type Clubs
We’re told by Viking owners and techs some of the best resources for prospective buyers include the Bellanca-Champion Club, led by President Robert Szego. Find it at www.bellanca-championclub.com.
Expert Tech Advice
When it comes to maintenance, the Viking is comparable to other complex airplanes in terms of cost as long as it’s properly maintained. A lot of the difficulties with the wood wings are related to inadequate or incorrect maintenance practices. This is because many techs simply aren’t trained how to inspect and repair wood and fabric structures.
You’ll find a variety of Vikings during the hunt. Here’s a quick reference. There are three basic models of the Viking: the Continental-powered 17-30 and 17-30A, the normally aspirated Lycoming-powered 17-31 and 17-31A and the turbonormalized Lycoming-powered 17-31TC and 17-31ATC. The “A” designates a type certificate change that increased the gross weight and added some other modifications. The most produced version is the 17-30A Continental-powered Viking. Early versions of the Viking had the IO-520-D. This changed to the IO-520-K in the early 1970s. The change is identified externally by the presence or absence of a cowling-mounted air filter under the crankshaft, which the IO-520-D has. In 1996 Bellanca added the IO-550-F to the type certificate. This change allowed the IO-550 to be installed on all 1979 and later airplanes without an STC. The main gear door STC, referred to as the four-piece door, was standard on production aircraft around 1973. Aircraft after 1992 have a factory-produced three-piece main gear door.
Starting in midyear of 1973 the fuel system was simplified by the addition of interconnect hoses, making the three tanks installed in each wing act as a single tank. These airplanes had a slightly smaller optional aux tank in the fuselage. The aux tank was downsized to gain more baggage space. In 1989 the fuel system was changed again to decrease the unusable fuel and add to the capacity. The wing tanks remained the same size, but an additional feed line was added that runs from the outboard tanks to the inboard tank and the vent, while reconfiguring the fuel return lines.
Air/oil struts were incorporated into the A-model aircraft as part of the gross weight increase. Some earlier aircraft have been upgraded to air/oil struts. In 1979 there were major changes forward of the firewall with the addition of cowl flaps and hydraulically actuated nosegear doors. The two-piece doors were added in 1976.
When shopping for a Viking, my advice is to bring it to a mechanic who knows Vikings. There are four Viking specialty shops scattered around the country. They are Weber’s Aero in Alexandria, Minnesota, Rocket Aviation in Plainview, Texas, MARS in California and Pasquale Aviation (my shop) in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Several of us have been working on creating publications to build the knowledge base among technicians and pilots. There’s a video detailing how to properly inspect the Viking wings at tinyurl.com/ycetdwzd. We’re also creating a prepurchase inspection document, similar to what ABS (American Bonanza Society) has for Beech models.
A concern with wood wings is rot. But wood rot isn’t a widespread issue for properly maintained Vikings—and that includes keeping the wings dry. Consider that wood doesn’t fatigue like metal does. All of the Viking wing failures were due to severe rot at the inboard end of the spars. This type of rot would have been prevented/detected if the airplanes had proper maintenance. Wood is the original composite structure. For the most part the wings are held together with resorcinol glue. Resorcinol has proven to be extremely durable and long lasting. It is not affected by chemicals or moisture, plus it differs from epoxy in that it isn’t affected by heat. This allows Viking wings to be painted in any color without degrading the structural integrity of the wings. There is no service life limit on the Viking wings. Wood wings can be repaired by a skilled technician using common tools. I have done in-depth repairs to Viking wings such as spar splices and complete re-skin jobs using tools that can be sourced at a big box hardware store. The repairs don’t require the use of vacuum bagging and specialized heat sources. All gluing can be completed at room temperature. The downside: Glue repairs done by the inexperienced can lead to trouble and are a good reason to have a Bellanca specialized mechanic complete a prebuy evaluation.
As to fabric and paint, there are two weights of fabric used as the base covering material. The wings use a lightweight Dacron fabric; this used to be called Ceconite 104 and is now called Uncertified Light. The fuselage and flight controls are heavyweight Dacron, or Ceconite 101. For the most part this fabric can last the lifetime of the airplane, but it degrades from UV light. Complete fabric recovering jobs are generally the result of paint failure.
Plenty of factors affect the longevity of the paint on any fabric airplane. As the paint ages it cracks, which can be repaired (to a point). Eventually, they become so numerous that it makes more sense to start over and recover the airplane. Pay close attention to the overall paint condition, and find out if the airplane has been repainted recently. If the paint looks like alligator skin, it might be best to look at another airplane.
It might not make sense to buy a Viking in need of a recover because it simply costs a lot. I tell people it is similar to buying the airplane again because the base price for a recover at a Viking shop usually starts around $45,000. Add other tasks like painting the landing gear and installing mods, and the project gets pricey.
Beware of finish work shortchanged, done by simply sanding and painting the airplane. This often includes using an automotive urethane finish. The airplane will look great when it is finished, but the extra paint only accelerates the cracking the paint job was trying to hide.
As for parts, one of the best things about working on the Viking is very few parts require advanced manufacturing. This means the Viking is more field serviceable than many other airplanes and isn’t as expensive.
A good example is the landing gear, with its welded steel struts. Occasionally a crack will develop along a weld, but most of the time I can have the crack repaired at my local welding shop that specializes in motorsports.
If a landing gear part is damaged beyond repair the factory, Alexandria Aircraft, still supplies parts and usually has them in stock. If it isn’t in stock, they will make it for you. The turn time on most newly fabricated parts is generally a couple of weeks.
Perhaps the most desirable of the line are 1979 and newer airplanes due in part to increased cruise speeds afforded by the cowling and nosegear changes, while the IO-550 adds to the appeal of these airplanes because they are the fastest Vikings for operating between 7000 and 10,000 feet. The turbonormalized Vikings will do slightly better as the altitudes get well into the flight levels. However, I generally recommend getting a turbo if you need to operate in the flight levels. The maintenance can be intensive.
Dave Pasquale, Pasquale Aviation Pottstown, Pennsylvania
Viking Accidents: Fuel Related
One of the challenges facing airplane designers is where to put enough fuel to give the machine decent range. Complex wing structures on early airplanes made the process particularly difficult.
Our review of the 100 most recent Bellanca Viking series accidents brought to the fore the fact that the line descended from a design that simply didn’t have space in the wings for large fuel cells. The solution to the problem of carrying enough fuel for the larger engines of the newer models was to install more tanks—wherever space could be found. We know of at least one model Viking that sported seven fuel tanks.
Any time an airplane has more than one fuel tank it leads to the perennial human factors problem with such designs: With distressing regularity, pilots cannot manage to coordinate positioning the fuel valve(s) so as to maintain a supply of fuel to the engine. Of the 31 fuel-related accidents we examined, the majority involved fuel exhaustion in the tank selected while at least one other tank had more than enough fuel in it to take the airplane to its intended destination.
We think fuel management is a buyer beware matter for anyone considering a Bellanca Viking. To make matters worse, at least a half dozen of the accidents included reports that the fuel gauges were either not functioning or were inaccurate—a double whammy for a complex fuel system.
We did feel for the pilot who, after sunset, requested that his Viking be serviced with 40 gallons of fuel. The fuel ticket showed 40 gallons were delivered and he paid for 40 gallons of avgas. The fuel gauges were not working. Shortly after reaching cruising altitude the engine quit due to fuel exhaustion. Following the forced landing that damaged the airplane but not the pilot, the investigation disclosed that the lineman who fueled the airplane had somehow put four, rather than 40, gallons into the wing.
Nonfunctioning fuel gauges were a symptom of what we felt to be a certain lack of enthusiasm among some Viking owners for maintenance. Nine accidents involved corrosion or bad welds on main landing gear and nosewheel steering components. Those led to gear collapses or abrupt excursions from the runway when the nosegear touched down. There were 18 engine power losses, of which more than half were due to lack of maintenance or improperly performed maintenance. Examples included a corroded fuel manifold valve on a Viking that had been sitting for nearly two years and an oil filter adapter that was installed incorrectly causing an oil leak that lead to oil exhaustion and a seized engine.
There was only one inflight breakup of a Viking that we found—a pilot picked up a load of ice, lost control and got going so fast that the airplane came apart.
Pilot judgment was a factor in several Viking accidents: There were 10 fatal crashes involving VFR into IMC, an unusually large number for any type of airplane. Airport personnel warned one Viking pilot about poor runway condition so he decided to depart on the adjacent road. It seemed like a wise decision until shortly after liftoff when he hit a bush with a wingtip and spun to an abrupt halt.
I currently have a 1998 Viking. It’s one of the last Vikings built and has a Continental IO-550 engine. My first Viking was a 1969 model that I owned in a partnership. Since that we partnered on a 1970 model and in 1978 I bought my own 1976 model. The reason for that was I was getting carpal tunnel symptoms from constantly changing fuel tanks.
In 1980, I couldn’t resist the temptation of the changes made in the Viking in 1979 and 1980 and purchased a 1980 model. This was probably the best-flying Viking I have had. I love flying the 1998 model for the IO-550 engine and all the instrumentation it has, and I have 4200 hours in it, but it is not quite as precise as was the 1980 model.
For equipment it has a Garmin GNS430, Shadin fuel computer and a Shadin altitude management system, ADS-B Out with a BendixKing KT74 transponder, Garmin GDL52 for ADS-B In data, PS Engineering audio panel, an S-TEC 60-2 autopilot, electronic tachometer, a standby electric vacuum pump and Pulselight LED landing lights.
In the five Vikings I have had I have over 8000 hours total. In nearly 50 years of flying Vikings along with other high-performance singles, I have to say that it is a most enjoyable aircraft to fly. It is steady in turbulence, strong, acceptable to being fully loaded and handles like a sports car and not a station wagon. The systems are quite simple by comparison and parts are readily available. The online Viking owner’s forums are ready to offer great suggestions to any query. If there is one niggling criticism I have it is with the nosegear vibration. The basic problem is that it has reverse caster which leads to “wobbling” if everything is not just right. Rocket Aviation has been able to correct it when it happens, but it is still an irritation.
I did an analysis of a four-year period from 2014 to 2017. I flew 831 hours in these four years. The average was $128 per hour. This includes all repairs, maintenance and new equipment purchased (all six ECI cylinders had to be replaced last year due to the AD on them). I also purchased a Garmin GDL52, GDL39, aera 660 GPS and a new transponder.
In the 8500 hours logged in Vikings, I have landed them on dirt roads, grass strips and gravel runways in the U.S., Canada and Mexico so I consider it a well-used airplane. There will always be the sidelong looks for it being a wooden airplane, but the high-quality workmanship both inside and out is unquestionable.
N9678E is a 1978 Bellanca Super Viking 17-30A. I purchased it in November 2016 with approximately 2100 hours on the airframe and 300 hours on the 300-HP Continental engine. This is the second Super Viking I have owned; the first was a 1971 model which I enjoyed having from 2000 to 2002. It is important to keep the Super Viking in a dry, moisture-free hanger and as long as this is the case, the airframe should last virtually forever with proper maintenance. Moisture is not good for the wooden structure, just as it is not good for aluminum structures of conventionally constructed aircraft.
I have not found N9678E to be any more expensive to maintain than any other single-engine, high-performance retrac. It’s important to have a mechanic who is familiar with the annual inspection procedures (especially for the wings), but all other systems like the landing gear are typical to a Bonanza, Mooney or an Arrow.
There are several shops across the country that specialize in the care and maintenance of Super Vikings and in addition, some very active online forums, where there is a truly vast wealth of information available to the owner/pilot.
I paid $42,000 for N9678E. Since the purchase, I have had the propeller overhauled ($3200) and have upgraded the avionics to include an L3 Lynx NGT-9000 for ADS-B In and Out ($7600), a Garmin GTN650 navigator, a GMA345 audio panel and a GI-106B CDI ($16,700).
These new components, coupled with a three-axis autopilot, give me a very capable IFR certified platform for a fraction of the investment of a Bonanza, Mooney or Commander 114, as a few examples, while enjoying very similar performance. With an instrument rating and 350 hours in type, my annual insurance premium is about $1600.
From a performance standpoint, I flight plan for 150 knots and 15 GPH at 23 inches of MP and 2300 RPM. The 300-HP Continental engine is somewhat thirsty, but I chose the Super Viking because I wanted a lot of excess power to get up and out of my airport, which is located in an area of limited off-airport landing sites.
The handling characteristics are superior in every respect. The smooth, laminar flow wing makes for very responsive control inputs while at the same time offering a very stable instrument platform. Some have equated the feel to that of a Ferrari as opposed to the truck-like feel of a Bonanza.
N9678E has a useful load of 1004 pounds. Most flights, I keep the aux tank empty so with 60 gallons onboard, that leaves 644 pounds left for passengers and luggage. With the aux tank filled, there is 75 gallons onboard, which translates close to five hours of flight time (without reserves).
My wife and I recently flew to Savannah, Georgia, from the Detroit, Michigan, area for a short vacation. With favorable tailwinds we could have made the trip without stopping, but elected to make one fuel stop.
Bottom line is your bladder will not last as long as the range of a Super Viking. While some would characterize the cabin as snug, it is larger than a Mooney, but not as spacious as a Bonanza or Commander.
I love this airplane. For the $70,000 investment, it’s hard to beat the performance/cost/fun ratio. I would strongly encourage your readers to investigate the Super Viking if they are looking to upgrade to a high-performance, complex single engine.
It does require proper transition training as airspeed control is imperative (especially in descents) and with 300 horses up front, proper control inputs on takeoff are necessary. But oh, the smile that forms on your face!