American Champion Citabria/Decathlon

Inexpensive, simple and robust, the Citabria is a great way to enter the world of aerobatics

For many of us, flying means getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible without breaking the bank. Thoughts of the owners next airplane typically involve such things as bigger engines, retractable gear, turbocharging and the like.

But there’s a whole different flying experience, one where its enough just to get aloft and enjoy a fine day, perhaps throwing in a few lazy loops and rolls along the way – true recreational flying. The explosion of the homebuilt and ultralight industry in recent years is testament to the demand for simple, inexpensive airplanes suited to this relaxed mode of flight. But for those who don’t fancy experimentals, choices are few and far between, especially if aerobatics are part of the mix.

The American Champion Citabria is right up at the top of the list for those looking for a simple, fun flying machine capable of limited aerobatics (Citabria is airbatic spelled backwards. Apparently Citaborea just didnt sound right). Available in several distinct versions, with varying powerplants and equipment, the Citabria has a great deal to recommend it to the recreational flyer: Simplicity, economy, few vices and-not insignificantly-support by a viable manufacturer.

The Citabria, which remains in production, is based on the American Champion 7-series airframe. The similar, though more rugged, 8 series is used for the Scout bushplane and fully aerobatic Decathlon, which are not covered here.

There are a few things to watch for when looking for a Citabria, most notably the wooden wing spars found in pre-1990s models. There’s also the possibility of a strut corrosion , similar to what Piper owners have been finding for some years. The good news is that American Champion can retrofit new, all-metal wings onto older airplanes for owners who prefer them, and many Citabrias have undergone the upgrade. In addition, a recent gross weight boost for the metal-spar versions adds utility to the fleet.

The Citabria traces its roots back to the Aeronca Champ, one of the crowd of postwar taildragger trainers that included the original Piper Cub, Cessna 120 and Taylorcraft. The postwar production boom resulted in tens of thousands of these airplanes, but by the time the 1950s rolled around the market was saturated and there was a production slump that took with it several designs, including the Champ.

In the mid-1950s the line was revived and the 7EC Champ began rolling out the factory doors again, remaining in production through the 1962 model year.

In 1959, the first airplanes that would eventually become Citabrias appeared, dubbed 7GC. In the years that followed, a fistful of airplanes was rolled out, all called Citabria.

For whatever reason, certain manufacturers choose to name their airplanes in a very confusing way, making it quite an exercise to figure out exactly which model is being talked about. Maule, Mooney and Bellanca (which built the Citabria before American Champion came along) have all done this.

In the case of the Citabria, there are six variants, all bearing the same name. In some cases, the differences between models are minor, in others more significant:

7GC-Produced only in the 1959 model year, it had flaps and a 140-HP Lycoming O-290.

7GCB-Essentially the same as the 7GC, but with a 150-HP Lycoming O-320; produced from 1960-64.

7GCA -Aerobatic, with the same Lycoming as the 7GCB. No flaps. Introduced in 1967 and in production today as the 7GCAA Citabria Adventure.

7GCBC-Aerobatic, same as the 7GCAA, but with slightly longer wings and flaps. Also introduced in 1967 and in production as the 7GCBC Citabria Explorer.

7KCAB-Introduced in 1967 as a more capable aerobatic ship, with a fuel-injected 150-HP Lycoming and inverted fuel and oil systems. It was produced through the 1977 model year.

7ECA-Introduced in 1964 as an aerobatic follow-on to the Champ. Originally, it had a 100-HP Continental O-200, soon replaced by the 115-HP Lycoming O-235. It is in production as the 7ECA Citabria Aurora.Most of these airplanes were built by Bellanca, which went under in 1980 at the beginning of the GA slump. Bellanca has returned and is building Vikings. The line of taildraggers was sold to American Champion, which made a brief attempt to revive the line in 1984; the timing wasnt right, though, and production ceased again.

With the revival of interest in new general aviation aircraft in the 1990s, however, the conditions for a restart of production were more favorable. In 1992 American Champion started delivering Decathlons, followed a year later by the Scout. 1994 saw the reintroduction of the 7GCBC Citabria, followed by the 7ECA in 1996 and most recently the 7GCAA.

The GCBC model has proven the most popular, followed by the KCAB. The latter, built as a low-end aerobatic airplane capable of inverted flight, did not last largely due to competition from the Decathlon. The Decathlon, with its shorter wings and semi-symmetrical airfoil, was a better buy for aerobatics, though the KCAB is still a fine airplane.

Todays Citabrias are essentially the same airplanes introduced decades ago, with one very significant difference: the wing structure. The Bellanca airplanes had wooden wing spars, which sometimes suffered cracks and in the Decathlon were the subject of ADs. American Champion came up with an all-metal structure and incorporated it into all new aircraft. Owners of earlier models can also have the new wings retrofitted. The cost is steep at $11,000 per set plus $600 installation and $500 to 900 for paint (7ECA, 7GCAA and 7KCAB; the 7GCBC is $1500 more), but the new wings boost the gross weight, are free of repetitive inspection requirements and certainly increase the resale value of the airplane.

Given the nature of our litigious society, its clearly in American Champions interest to get as many of the old wings out of circulation as possible. This is reflected by a core charge of $2000 per wing, refunded on return of the original wings-even those with cracked spars.

The factory can also supply new, improved front struts for $990 a set and install aileron spades for $500. All of these are worthwhile improvements to older aircraft. When shopping for a Citabria, extra consideration should be given to upgraded airplanes.

Offering the upgrades has proven a shrewd business move, affording the factory a source of cash flow that is not dependent on the sale of new airplanes while simultaneously reducing its liability exposure.

For a taildragger, the Citabria has benign handling characteristics. Pilots with little or no taildragger experience must bear in mind the fundamental differences between conventional and trigear airplanes, however.

On the ground, taildraggers want to swap ends, due to the location of the center of gravity aft of the landing gear. This is not a problem as long as the pilot stays alert to side loading of the landing gear (Tracking the centerline is everything, one pilot told us), which requires extra attention be paid to the rudder whenever the airplane is on the ground.

Once aloft, the Citabria is delightful, though once again its markedly different from the average trigear airplane. The typical Cessna or Piper is not terribly dependent on properly coordinated flight: Not so with the Citabria, which is definitely a rudder airplane. Failure to keep the ball centered results in a mushy, uncomfortable ride. This characteristic is due to a propensity for adverse yaw, which becomes more important when performing aerobatics.

Though capable of loops and rolls, the Citabria is far from a competition-level machine. Its ideal as an introduction to the experience and for casual use, however. As noted above, only the 7KCAB is suitable for negative-G maneuvers. The other variants are limited to positive-G or G-neutral maneuvers like inside loops, barrel rolls and the like.

Stalls are straightforward, with plenty of aerodynamic warning. Older models have no stall warning horn. The stall speed is quite low, particularly in the flap-equipped 7GCBC, which has a Vso down around 40 knots according to the factory.

One potential handling trouble spot is PIO (pilot-induced oscillation) during landings. Though certainly not unique to Champion aircraft, the spring-steel main gear can bounce the airplane back up into the air if the pilot dumps it too hard. If he or she fails to go around, another bounce, groundloop and/or nose-over and/or prop strike can result.

Unsurprisingly, the cruising speed of the Citabria is pretty sedate: 100 to 110 knots or so, depending on model.

The extra power afforded by the larger Lycoming shows up mostly in considerably greater climb rates. The longer wings of the 7GCBC help here also; according to American Champion, the 7ECA climbs at 845 FPM (not bad for an airplane with an O-235), while the 7GCAA moves up at 1,280 FPM and the 7GCBC climbs at 1,345 FPM.

Takeoff and landing performance are impressive, particularly for the 7GCBC. According to the Aircraft Bluebook, takeoff ground roll is only 296 feet, and a 50-foot obstacle can be cleared in 457 feet. Landing distance over a 50-foot obstacle is 690 feet, with a 310-foot ground roll.

An important thing to note about the new metal wing structure is that it gives the 7GCBC Citabria a gross weight of 1800 pounds, compared to 1650 for the older models. Gross for the 7GCAA and 7ECA was upped in early 2001 to 1750 pounds for metal-spar versions.

The Citabrias are not known for their load carrying capacity, unlike some legendary taildraggers. While the lifting ability varies according to model and equipment, in general its not possible to fill the seats and tanks at the same time, never mind the baggage bin. But once again, thats not really much of an issue with the Citabria; its not built to be a cross-country machine.

Owners report that staying within the CG envelope is generally not a problem.

Taildraggers usually have old fashioned controls, which we feel are in many ways superior to the typical control yoke arrangement. An hour in the cockpit of a Citabria may we’ll convince you that control yokes are for the birds. Using a stick is easy and intuitive and, more importantly, it stays out of the way. There’s actually room to fiddle with charts and flight logs without having a yoke blocking your lap.

The throttle quadrant is where it should be for a right-handed person, under the left hand. Same for carb heat.

The rudder pedals and brakes, however, are another matter. The rudder pedals are at the front corners of the cockpit, so the pilots feet are splayed far apart. Earlier models of the airplane have heel brakes, which (while they do work well) are tough to get used to.

On top of that, seat adjustability is limited, so those who are short find that their legs are straight out, spread wide apart, and the stick is too close to the crotch. Pilots who are very tall might have trouble, too.

The seats are comfortable, though, and there’s sufficient head and shoulder room for most. Visibility is reasonably good, considering all the struts and so forth that are in the way. One notable feature is the Citabrias relatively high roofline; tall pilots wont be stuck looking at the wing root, unlike some other high-wing designs. The panel is low, affording good forward visibility.

The noise level is about on par with the proverbial boiler factory. Headsets are mandatory if you wish to maintain your sanity or understand a single word said on the radio. This is particularly important in training situations: The instructor is not sitting next to the student, and it can be hard to hear any shouted commands.

Panel space is, not surprisingly, pretty limited. Nevertheless, its possible to fit some gyros and enough electronics for IFR flight in todays ATC environment, though nobody will ever mistake the Citabria for an instrument platform.

The fuel system is utter simplicity, with three sump drains, one direct-reading mechanical gauge in each wing root and a simple fuel selector. Fuel supply is by gravity feed, of course, but there’s also a boost pump.

Maintenance, ADs
Though maintenance is simple and low-cost, it pays to seek out a mechanic whos familiar with tube-and-fabric airplanes and, if looking at an airplane with the older wing, who has experience with wood.

The covering is Dacron, which is quite durable, though not good for a lifetime. Owners suggest keeping the airplane out of the sun if possible, though, since a re-cover job can be costly and time consuming.

Carl Petersen, president of the Citabria Owners Group, says that aside from making certain the ADs are complied with, a good look at the fuselage tubes and proper inspection of the wooden spars, there are no particular trouble spots to watch for when shopping for a used Citabria. He did point out that early model struts had thinner, .035 wall thickness struts, as compared to the more recent .049 wall thickness; AD 77-22-5 called for replacement of the old struts, and most if not all airframes should have the heavier struts installed; the presence of a placard limiting speed to 153 MPH is proof of the thinner struts.

One reader from Australia pointed out the possibility of corrosion in the elevators. After purchasing his Citabria, he spent an additional 10 percent of the purchase price correcting corrosion problems. Amongst these was corrosion in the forward part of the elevator, caused by water collecting due to a lack of drain holes (the airplane had been kept outside, with the stick tied back to prevent movement of the controls). The same owner reported corrosion in the window frames and nails working loose in the wooden wing spars.

Based on current and past reader feedback and examination of SDRs, other maintenance points of particular interest are corrosion in the tubing, particularly in the vicinity of the tailwheel and aft of the baggage compartment. Also watch for cracked seat backs (there have been accidents in which the pilots seat back failed, planting his torso on the aft stick with disastrous results, and the area has been the subject of AD 89-18-6).

The landing gear U-bolts can become cracked after a while, especially in airplanes subjected to rough-field or training operations.

Beware of any airplane thats had any sort of wing damage; Carl Petersen notes that most spar compression cracks can be traced to some sort of abuse such as a wing tip strike during a groundloop. Speaking of wings, there’s a recent AD covering the wing rib nails. A full set of service bulletins should be a part of any owners (or prospective owners) library, since they can point out areas of weakness.

As noted above, the new wing structure was developed as the result of cracks in Decathlon wing spars, not those of the Citabrias, so the presence of wood is not necessarily a deal-killer. Nevertheless, an AD came out in late 2000 mandating repetitive inspections.

Another notable AD surfaced in 1998; 98-2-8 calls for inspection of the inner bore of the crankshaft for corrosion pits or cracks. If nothing is found, thats good news; all that needs to be done is an anticorrosion treatment. If cracks are found, the crank gets replaced. But if pits are found, the inspection needs to be repeated every 100 hours until overhaul, when the crank gets replaced.

Other type-specific ADs include 96-18-2, which deals with inspection of the front strut attach fittings.

When shopping for a Citabria, the buyer should be alert for damage resulting from accidents typical to taildraggers: Evidence of groundloops or even nose-overs, properly maintained fabric and so forth. Tube and fabric airplanes (particularly those with wooden parts) do much better if kept hangared, so that should be a factor in any purchase decision.

Also be alert for signs of hard use. Many of these airplanes are used for patrol, banner towing, bush operations, training and other purposes that are notoriously hard on aircraft.

Fortunately, the Citabrias systems are simple and inexpensive to maintain, so previous owners are more likely to have kept things up to snuff than owners of more complex, expensive and labor intensive hangar queens.Possible strut AD

The FAA considered an AD on the wing struts rgarding corrosion, similar to the one that FAA applied to the Piper taildraggers some years ago, but the proposal ultimately was withdrawn.

According to information on the Citabria Owners Group Web site, the Citabrias struts are built differently than the Pipers and are therefore not subject to the same sorts of failure due to a welded structure that extends we’ll up from the lower end. FAA raised the issue in response to several service difficulty reports from the field, not accidents.

Reportedly, the agency isn’t being as Draconian as it has in the past; COG president Carl Petersen noted that the FAA is working with the owners group to determine if the AD should in fact proceed, and if so, what action would be appropriate. Instead of simply handing a directive down, they came to us first, he said. Its the way things ought to work…very encouraging.

The fact that the AD was withdrawn, however, does not mean that potential buyers can ignore the area entirely. The SDRs imply that some conditions may induce corrosion.

Unlike many airplanes, there is a variety of sources for parts. First and foremost, of course, is American Champion. Theyre located in Rochester, Wisc., (414) 534-6315, or on the Web at

Another place to go for parts and service is Santa Paula, Calif., home of Air Repair, (805) 525-5553, and Screaming Eagles, (805) 525 7121, a pair of shops that specialize in the line. Air Repair can sell you copies of all the factory service bulletins, a worthwhile investment.

For owner support, there’s also the Citabria Owners Group, which can be contacted on the Web at (a good site with lots of resources including on-line manuals and a discussion forum), or by mail at 636 Iona Lane, Roseville, Minn. 55113.

At the very least, pilots owe themselves some time in one of the Champion line. Theyre special-purpose airplanes, to be sure, but pleasantly different from the run-of-the-mill modern airplane. Some stick time will show many pilots a side of aviation theyve never seen before.

If the mission (low, slow, and entertaining) meets the pilots needs, the Citabria is a worthy choice.

Owner Comments
I have 600 hours in a 1976 7ECA with a Lycoming O-235-C1 (115-hp, 2400 TBO) with Cermicromed cylinders (circa 1990). I used it to learn how to fly in Alaska, after which my wife and I used it extensively for travel. The birth of our son required more seats and I now fly a Maule.

It is honest on the ground and in the air. Handling is light, effective, and predictable. Aileron control is disproportionately heavy, but still light. This plane must be flown whenever untied in winds greater than about 10 knots. It easily wind-vanes. Correct control deflections with differential breaking are required. Ailerons can be used to assist steering the plane on the ground with wind.

Elevator control is very light. Ive found that all landings are best made using a thumb and two fingers, even in gusty conditions. Hamfisting will over control the elevator, resulting in a hard landing. All control surfaces provide authority during the entire landing rollout. Landing rollout on the windward main and the tail requires finesse to near stop. Uninformed passengers add to the workload at this critical time. I never attempted landings with more than a 15-knot direct cross wind.

Neither the engine nor the chromed cylinders ever caused problems. Compression remained fairly constant in the mid-70s, and minimal maintenance remained routine. Mine did not have an oil cooler, but some did. In air temperatures of more than 80 degrees F, oil temperatures must be closely watched, especially in climb.

The Citabrias tandem seating gives excellent visibility. Those with low instrument panels (some had high panels for additional instruments) give excellent forward visibility for ground maneuvering and flight. The side window base lines are low, giving excellent visibility.

Wings impede upward visibility. Back seat visibility, though not bad, is limited to the sides. Front seat comfort once allowed a six-hour non-stop flight. However, the back seat limited my comfort to one hour (I have poor posture to begin with). No one Ive flown with has complained of discomfort in the back seat, including a friend of 6-foot 180 pounds on a five-hour non-stop flight.

Getting in and out of the airplane can be a trick, but once mastered can be executed with the grace and ease of a ballet movement. Loading with the back seat in place is not easy. Two people ease the operation considerably; one person outside to hand baggage to the second kneeling backward in the back seat.

Useful load was 590 pounds; gross weight was 1650 pounds. The plane could carry me, a week of camping gear, full fuel, and my 80-pound wife. CG was never a problem at gross with a 180-pound passenger in the back seat.

Aerobatic flight reduces the aft CG limit for which I have no experience. Five years ago in bush Alaska, hourly cost was $35/hour for 150 hours/year; this included auto gas, oil, hull and liability insurance, maintenance, and engine and prop reserve.

I performed as much maintenance as the law would allow, and some under supervision. There were no hangars and tie down was free (the sun is hard on paint and fabric).

For comparison, in the lower 48 today, a few dollars more per hour for 200 hours per year keeps our Maule M5-180C in the air. Lots of flying and simple airplanes keep cost affordable.

Dave Schultz
Via e-mail

I know you generally publish comments from pilots but I thought you might like to hear a passengers point-of-view. My husband bought a Citabria 7ECA after flying a 1939 J3 Cub (65 HP, no electrical system) for 10 years. He was looking for a new plane that came closest to his Cub without the maintenance headaches. Well, this is it. I love the comfort of the Citabrias roomier seats, the retro look, and the ability to do night flying now. Weve flown across the country several times and people are always coming up and asking Is that a new plane or an old plane?

The plane cost him $52,900 (1996 base price) and he added $11,835 optional equipment. American Champion worked with him to customizeit just the way he wanted it. Oh, another thing he misses is the ability to open up the whole side while flying like he did with his Cub … but I don’t.

Gita Belmont
Rancho Mirage, Calif.

I own a 1975 7KCAB Citabria. While I use the airplane mostly for pleasure and limited aerobatics, I do take it on a cross-country now and then. Because the POH does not give information on startup/taxi/climb fuel burn, time or distance, I simply plan for 8 GPH. This turns out to be fairly accurate when cruising at 9,000 to 12,000 feet and 2450 RPM.

The takeoff performance at gross weight is surprisingly good even during the summer months at high elevation airports in the mountains of northern Arizona and New Mexico.

One major source of problems has been the Bendix fuel injector servo used on the airplanes Lycoming AEIO-320-E2B engine. My particular servo has been pulled for repair four times-twice while I have owned the airplane. The last time it was pulled in response to a failure of an internal seal in the servo which caused it to deliver too much fuel to the engine. This flooded the engine, which rendered it incapable of delivering more than about 1,500 RPM without running very roughly.

During the summer the engine tends to run hot, with oil temperatures reaching 230 degrees after long climbs. With the engine running this hot, there’s some problem with vapor locking in the fuel lines; however, use of the boost pump has eliminated any fluctuating fuel pressure problems.

With an oil consumption rate of about a quart every eight hours and annual costs which run only a few hundred dollars, the airplane is relatively inexpensive to operate. If I need parts, they can usually be obtained through American Champion Aircraft.

The Citabria is a lot of fun to fly and is a stable taildragger to handle on the ground. All in all, its a wonderful little airplane.

Peter Baker
Phoenix, Arizona

Also With This Article
Click here to view charts for Resale Values, Payload Compared and Prices Compared.
Click here to view the American Champion 7KCAB Citabria features guide.