Akro for Under $100K: Wide Variety; Use Caution

$100,000 will buy a lot of used, factory-built, aerobatic airplane—from a Cessna Aerobat through a Pitts S2-B—but do a careful pre-buy exam.

There has long been a subset of pilots with a certain sense of adventure and the burning desire to own an aerobatic airplane. While most lust after an aerial hotrod such as one of the Extra 300 series or a Sukhoi Su-29, economic reality means putting something a little less impressive into the hangar.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what’s available in the world of used, production aerobatic airplanes for under $100,000. While that isn’t chump change, it’s still less than the price of most new LSAs—and it provides a pleasantly large selection.

We can’t cover every type of airplane that can legally fly aerobatics and is priced under $100,000 and still do justice to those out there in reasonable numbers. Accordingly, we’re going to skip over the warbirds and some of the 1940s airplanes that are probably legal for aerobatics because of the certification standards of the time.

We’re also repeating what we’ve often said about the damfoolishness of doing aerobatics in a normal category airplane: Every year, a certain number of pilots kill themselves by botching aerobatic maneuvers in a normal category airplane. While the certification design load requirements for a normal category airplane are higher than the G-loads seen in basic loops and rolls, there is absolutely no margin for a mistake. We’ve seen too many accident reports where pilots have removed the wings of normal category airplanes during aerobatics.

Cessna Aerobat
In 1970, Cessna beefed up the structure of its popular 150 trainer with additional stringers, nearly doubling the number of rivets and using heavier wing struts to strengthen an already sturdy airframe. The Aerobat never got much respect because it wasn’t especially macho and it had a nosewheel. Get over that, however, and it’s more than adequate for basic, positive-G aerobatics.

The Aerobat’s obvious weakness is lack of power. It loses altitude diving for entry speeds and clawing back up for the next try is leisurely, to say the least. Energy management is something Aerobat pilots learn early.
The controls are well-harmonized. Rolling maneuvers require some coordination, as the yoke has to be turned upside down to get full aileron deflection.

Anyone who learns to do clean aerobatics in an Aerobat will have little trouble stepping into an airplane with a stick. An Aerobat teaches good habits simply because they’re essential to complete maneuvers with any grace.

Where the Aerobat shines is in snap rolls and spins. Due to the sweep of the wing at the strut attach point, the effect of yawing the airplane as it’s stalled is magnified slightly. The airplane enters snaps and spins smartly. It recovers from snaps and spins more crisply than its competition.

Prices, according to Vref, are about $19,000 retail for the 1970 Cessna 150 Aerobat and escalate to $43,000 for the 1986 A152. The 150 Aerobat seems to command about $5000 more on the retail market over the non-aerobatic 150—for the 152, the premium for the Aerobat is as high as $9500.

There have been, and are, many models of the Citabria, an outgrowth of the Aeronca C-3, K and Champion line. All start with the number “7” and are followed by a series of letters. In general, the lower-powered models have 100-HP Continental or 115- or 118-HP Lycoming engines and a choice of flapped or no-flap wings, while the bigger engine versions have either 150 or 160 HP.

All have fixed-pitch propellers. The 7KCAB has no flaps, 150 HP and was the only version with an inverted fuel and oil system. As with the Aerobat, the lower-powered versions take their time getting to altitude and sacrifice speed and altitude in each maneuver. The Citabria has a stick and a tailwheel, both aesthetic essentials in the world of aerobatics, although the tailwheel means a higher landing accident and insurance rate.

All are soloed from the front seat, which is a plus for visibility. Unfortunately, the Citabria doesn’t have well-harmonized controls, most noticeable of which are the far too heavy ailerons. Spades, which reduce aileron forces and improve roll rate, are worth the price on a used airplane and worth retrofitting if not already installed.

The bigger engine Citabias cruise at an honest 110 knots on about 7 gallons per hour and get into and out of small strips nicely. Flying aerobatics, then slipping down final over the trees into a grass strip on a summer evening in these airplanes is the sort of thing that inspires poets.

The Citabria and Decathlon share one highly desirable trait: They’re among the most docile of tailwheel airplanes on the ground.

Either airplane does excellent wheel or full-stall landings, and both are good choices for a tailwheel airplane checkout. For the person seeking an all-around airplane, it’s difficult to go wrong with a Citabria or Decathlon.
7KCABs were built from 1967 through 1977 and range in value from $24,000 to $34,000. The 150- and 160-HP GCBCs (wing flaps, no inverted fuel system) start at a low of $25,500 and exceed our $100,000 limit with the 2010 model year. Small-engine Citabrias can be had for as low as $22,250, with the 2010 model valued at $94,000.

The Decathlon developed from the 150-HP 7KCAB Citabria, keeping the same power with an inverted fuel and oil system, while adding a constant speed propeller, symmetrical airfoil and a shorter wingspan.

The result was a very good, intermediate-level akro machine. With plus 6 and minus 5 G load redlines, it will do all positive and negative akro reasonably well. As with the Citabria, the Decathlon’s ailerons are too heavy for its elevator and rudder; spades are essential.

In 1980, the Super Decathlon was introduced. It is a 180-HP version that addressed many of the complaints of those who wanted more from the 150-HP version. Most recently, American Champion introduced the 210-HP Xtreme Decathlon at a price point we’ll above our arbitrary limit.

All of the Citabrias and Decathlons must be loaded carefully. Two adults with parachutes often means that no more than about half fuel can be carried.

150-HP Decathlons are valued at $28,000 for the 1971 model, through $63,000 for the last year of production, 1994. Super Decathlon values start at $71,000 and go up past our $100,000 limit with the 2004 model.
caution: Wood spars

The wood wing spar Citabrias and Decathlons are the subject of AD2000-25-02R1 regarding repetitive inspection of the spars. If there is damage, the spar must be replaced. This means a new set of all-aluminum wings—$25,000 for a Citabria, $29,000 for a Decathlon—before installation cost.

American Champion’s website (www.americanchampionaircraft.com) does a superb job, in our opinion, of providing technical support, with Service Letters, on the spar inspection and wing replacement.

Beech Musketeer
During two years of the production run of Beech’s entry-level four-place machine, the Musketeer/Sierra, there was an aerobatic version. The 1969 B 23, now valued at $24,000, and the 1970 C 23, valued at $25,000, are worth serious consideration if you want nearly the ultimate flexibility in a personal airplane.

The Musketeer has a rightful reputation for not being a speed demon. However, it has a large, comfortable cabin, carries a decent load and has the lovely, smooth, solid handling common to the Beechcraft line. As with other four-place airplanes that have aerobatic capabilities, the Musketeer’s rear seats cannot be occupied for it to be in the Aerobatic category.

Without an inverted fuel and oil system, only positive-G maneuvers are approved, and the 180-HP Lycoming up front gives it enough power to fly them reasonably well. We note that William K. Kershner, the well-known aviation writer and educator, started his Ace Aerobatic School (which eventually became Sewanne Aerobatic School), with a Beech Aerobatic Musketeer, giving aerobatic and spin training to hundreds of pilots.

Aerobatic Bonanza
In the late 1960s, Beechcraft was approached by Lufthansa and the air forces of Mexico and Iran to create a training aircraft that would have the capabilities of the T-34 Mentor, but with side-by-side seating. The result was the E33C and F33C Bonanzas, built for the 1968 through 1970 model years. Apparently, only one went directly to a private buyer in the U.S.

Many of the aerobatic Bonanzas have found their way back to the U.S. from their original overseas owners. To retain their aerobatic certification, they have to have an aerobatic kit installed. It involves a tail beef up and installation of large, triangular “stall strips,” as are on the A36 Bonanza, for aileron control at high angles of attack.

Not surprisingly, the aerobatic Bonanzas fly much like the big-engine T-34s—with controls nicely harmonized in all axes and a heavy enough and linear stick-force-per-G to discourage overloading the clean airframe. The airplane does pick up speed in a dive and 285-HP helps make for great, sweeping loops and barrel rolls, although the roofline does require some leaning forward for the pilot to pick out reference points in those maneuvers.

Values for the 1968 and 1969 E33C are $80,000 and $85,000, respectively, with the 1970 F33C coming in at $90,000.

Great Lakes
In the mid-1970s, the Great Lakes design was resurrected and put into production. The company has changed hands a few times since then, and the Great Lakes is currently being built by Waco Aircraft in Battle Creek, Michigan.

The airplane is a tandem, two-seat biplane with a 180-HP Lycoming AEIO-360 (although some have 200 HP) and an inverted fuel and oil system. The open cockpit Lakes is, simply put, hugely fun to fly. It’s larger than the Pitts and more draggy so vertical maneuvers are limited. Inverted work is as good as the Decathlon, and snap rolls are great fun. With the swept upper wing, it “unhooks” and “rehooks” cleanly. Ground handling is every bit as good as the Citabria and Decathlon.

A pre-purchase should concentrate on corrosion, engine condition, mounts and propeller condition. Prices run between $40,000 and $70,000.

Pitts Special
The vast majority of single-place Pitts Specials were homebuilt, however, there were, and are, production versions of the S1-S and S1-T. The two-place versions, S2-A -B and -C, are all factory-made airplanes. The S1-S and S2-C are still coming off of Aviat’s production line in Afton, Wyoming, with Aviat providing support for the older models.

Single-place birds have either 180 or 200 HP up front. The S2-A has a 200-HP Lycoming, while the S2-B and -C have a 260-HP Lycoming, giving them impressive vertical ability and cruise speeds upward of 150 knots. All have full inverted systems.

A Pitts is about as small a biplane as can be imagined to carry one or two people, fuel and a large engine. They are exceedingly clean and, to put it mildly, go like crazy. Even with higher-performing machines in the competition world, a Pitts still can win at almost all levels in competition except Unlimited.

The controls are we’ll harmonized, although quite a bit of nose-down trim is required for inverted flight. For one who came up in akro flying an Aerobat or Citabria, the overwhelming feeling is it’s only necessary to think about a maneuver to fly it. Most of those pilots overcontrol a Pitts the first time out.

The airplanes are initially hard to land because they go precisely where the pilot tells them to—immediately. Once that’s figured out, they’re not bad. That said, it’s utterly essential to get a good checkout before you fly the airplane home, or you run a significant risk of tearing it up on your first couple of landings.

In addition to the standard aerobatic pre-purchase checklist, look for slop in the control system. It often just requires an adjustment, but bearings can be worn out. Make sure the inspection holes have been cut in the underside of the wings, an indication that the owner has been looking at the structure. Look to see if the spinner and nose bowl line up. If not, the bushings on the engine mounts are worn and are allowing the engine to sag. It can result in the alternator being pushed into the nose bowl and the exhaust hitting the front of the firewall as we’ll as crushing the air box.

Prices for the single seaters tend to be between $25,000 and $50,000, depending on condition, age and equipment; figure on $55,000 to $65,000 for an S-2A and from $40,000 to $100,000 for an S-2B.

Final Thoughts
In buying an aerobatic airplane, keep this in mind: The ragwings should thus be hangared. Storing them outside even in mild climates is a bad idea. Factor that into your buying decision.

Frankly, we like all of them: prices for Aerobats indicate that they have finally gotten the respect they deserve; the Aerobatic Musketeer may be underpriced for its capabilities; Citabrias and Decathlons are the comfortable, reliable old boots of the aerobatic world and, to this day, for the price, there simply isn’t anything that compares to a Pitts.