It all started with a bathtub. In the late 1920s, the cost to rent the airplanes available was a dollar a minute—that’s over $14 in current dollars. The over 100-HP radial engines necessary to power the boxkite biplanes weren’t cheap to run. Naturally, there were a lot of people trying to come up with an airplane that would be more affordable for the many who lusted to fly.
The first company to successfully cut the cost of flying to something affordable for the middle class was the Aeronautical Corporation of America (Aeronca), an outfit that had money and wanted to build airplanes. It teamed with Jean Roche, a genius engineer employed by the Army’s aeronautical research facility in Dayton, Ohio, and who had come up with a single-place airplane that could be paired with a two-cylinder engine that was, wonder of wonders in those days, reasonably reliable.
The Aeronca C-2 rapidly earned the nickname of “Bathtub” because it looked like one; however, it was so inexpensive to build and operate that, despite coming onto the market almost simultaneously with the October 1929 worldwide financial collapse, it sold in volume.
By 1931 Aeronca had widened the C-2 to make it a two-place airplane, which it christened the C-3 Collegian. Advertised as an airplane that could be operated for five cents a mile, the C-3 is credited with starting the first general aviation boom.
In 1936 the “J” series of Cubs from Taylorcraft—later Piper—became the C-3’s first serious competitor. With better handling, more room, a little more power and even sporting the same yellow and black paint scheme as the C-3, the new generation singles nearly put Aeronca onto the aeronautical ropes as it struggled to come up with a competitive design before World War II.
In 1944 Aeronca flew its first Model 7 Champion, a two-place, tandem single, which was soloed from the front seat—to compete directly with the Piper J-3 Cub, which was soloed from the rear. Sales of the Model 7 Champ began within months of the end of World War II.
The Model 7 Champ evolved, first with larger engines and later, as the aerobatic Citabria, into a line that included airplanes with and without flaps, a number of engine choices and a brief foray into nosewheel and twin-engine versions—but all have been two-seat, tandem airplanes. An additional line, the 8 series, was added, creating the 8KCAB, a laminar-flow wing, serious aerobatic airplane with a number of engine options, and the 8GCBC Scout, designed to work for its living.
While the airplane line grew, its ownership changed hands a number of times, eventually becoming American Champion Aircraft residing on the airport in Rochester, Wisconsin, a stone’s throw from Milwaukee.
With the current, frustratingly stagnant general aviation market for new airplanes, we wanted to see how American Champion was dealing with the challenges, so we went to the factory.
Not surprisingly, American Champion still builds the Champ—the model 7EC—although now only on special order. Power is a 100-HP Continental O-200 swinging a fixed-pitch wooden Sensenich prop. The Champ is the only airplane in American Champion’s product line that falls within the light sport weight and speed limits. Base price is $132,900.
During our visit, company co-owner Jerry Mehlhaff Jr. told us that he thinks the company may have built its last Champ as it’s his opinion that BasicMed has probably killed the light sport market.
The next step up the ladder is the Citabria series, with four models—all aerobatic, all with fixed-pitch props and all with 35 gallons of usable fuel.
The most basic is the 7ECA Citabria Aurora, with a 118-HP Lycoming O-235 up front, a gross weight of 1750 pounds, a 630-pound useful load and a 75 percent power cruise speed of 115 MPH. As with all Citabrias, it is aerobatic with load limits of plus five and minus two Gs. Base price is $149,900.
The 7GCAA Citabria Adventure is priced at $155,500, and has a 160-HP Lycoming O-320 engine and a cruising speed of 124 MPH at 75 percent power. Useful load is 550 pounds, some 80 pounds less than the model 7ECA.
The 7GCBC Citabria, the only version with flaps, now has two engine options: the Explorer model with a 160-HP Lycoming O-320 and the High Country Explorer with a 180-HP Lycoming O-360.
The Citabria Explorer has a gross weight of 1800 pounds, useful load of 550 pounds and cruises at 126 MPH at 75 percent power.
The Citabria High Country Explorer has two gross weights—for aerobatics it’s 1800 pounds, in the normal category, it’s 1950 pounds. Base price for the Explorer is $165,500; for the High Country Explorer, it’s $213,900.
What started out as a re-winged, better Citabria with inverted fuel and oil systems, the 8KCAB Decathlon series evolved from a decent aerobatic trainer capable of outside maneuvers—its load limits are plus six and minus five Gs—into something that will take its pilots well up the line in aerobatic competition for a reasonable price.
There are two versions of the Decathlon: the Super, with a 180-HP Lycoming AEIO-360 engine, and the Xtreme, with a 210-HP Lycoming AEIO-390 engine. Both models have constant-speed, MT composite props and 39 gallons of usable fuel.
Both airplanes have a gross weight of 1950 pounds in the normal category and 1800 in the aerobatic category.
Base price for the Super is $230,000 and $255,000 for the Xtreme. We profiled the Xtreme in the April 2014 issue of Aviation Consumer.
What started as the workhorse of the American Champion product line, the 8GCBC Scout, has evolved into what we consider to be one of the best of the backcountry recreational airplanes on the market.
The basic Scout is equipped with a 180-HP Lycoming O-360 engine and constant-speed, MT prop. Gross weight is 2150 pounds. Useful load varies with the optional equipment installed, which can include huge tundra tires—but figure on about 790 pounds. The airplane is a camel—new Scouts all have 70 gallons of usable fuel, so endurance can be upward of seven hours. With what we feel is a realistic empty weight, 370 pounds can go in the cabin when the airplane is loaded with full fuel.
Cruise speed for the Scout at 75 percent power is 130 MPH. Base price is $246,900.
Pouring another 30 HP into the Scout to create the Denali was akin, in our opinion, to giving a power lifter steroids—without the side effects. Aggressive weight reduction efforts during design of the Denali Scout meant that only 20 pounds of useful load was lost when the heavier engine was hung.
Cruise speed went up to 136 MPH with the power increase. We recently flew a Denali equipped with the optional Hartzell Trailblazer composite prop.
We had been told that it bumped cruise speed by 2 or 3 MPH. During a trip we made of over 1000 NM, true airspeed averaged 142 MPH at 75 percent power. We profiled the Denali in the October 2014 issue of Aviation Consumer. Base price is $272,900.
During our visit in June, Jerry Mehlhaff Jr. took us through the three-building factory where we saw that skilled craftsmen and women were still building and refurbishing steel-tube-and-fabric airplanes largely by hand. On first look it seemed as if the production methods hadn’t changed since the day the first Champ was shoved out the door.
The reality is much more complex. Manufacturing costs are a constant undertone. Computer-guided laser cutters turn out aluminum wing ribs in less than two minutes rather than the hour it took previously. They were silent by the time we walked through at 9 a.m.—peak period electricity pricing means they run only very early in the morning.
Even though American Champion has been putting dope and fabric on airplanes for decades, it is still refining the process, looking to improve the finished product even further. Most recently it worked with the manufacturer of the glue used in the process to refine the composition to reduce the cure time.
A third paint booth has been added so there is enough space so that everything has time to dry in the dust-free environment of the paint booth. That matters when there may be two or more layers of primer and three to five top coats of paint applied to any given surface.
Production has settled down to two new airplanes a month, although Mehlhaff said that the “sweet spot” for the factory is four. That led him to aggressively move into the world of aircraft refurbishment and insurance rebuilds.
With fixtures for wings and fuselages for models going back through the 1960s, a wrecked aircraft can go into its original jigs and fixtures and come out “essentially new except for the data plate.”
Owners also bring in older machines for refurbishment, which come out as nearly new airplanes for a fraction of the price. Mehlhaff says he’s no longer amazed by some of the mods owners seek. With a Designated Engineering Representative (DER) and Designated Airworthiness Representative (DAR) in-house, getting FAA approval for modifications has proven to be straightforward.
The factory includes an approved repair station so owners bring their airplanes in to have their annual inspections performed by some of the same people who built them.
Mehlhaff said that there will continue to be progressive design changes to the line. The company doesn’t do model year changes, it upgrades models when something new is designed, tested and approved. Some changes are big, such as lighter and faster ailerons on the Decathlon and the climb and speed boost provided by the Hartzell Trailblazer prop, but most are more modest such as a better powder coating for the steel fuselage tubing.
Mehlhaff also said that the company is aggressively working to support airplanes in the field—which has worked to keep their values high, which helps with new aircraft sales.
As we finished up our talk at Oshkosh, Mehlhaff said that we should watch for more design changes but wouldn’t say what they might be.
Decathlon Alleron Hinge Support Cracking Resolved
From the days of the C-2, Aeronca ailerons have had a reputation for being heavy and not generating a particularly exciting rate of roll. Not long after the Decathlon was introduced, spades—which look just like their namesake shovel—were attached to the underside of the ailerons to reduce control forces. While they did that, they did not noticeably improve the roll rate.
When American Champion looked at putting a larger engine into the Super Decathlon it was faced with a 39-pound empty weight increase, which—according to Jerry Mehlhaff Jr.—would turn the airplane into a single-place machine. American Champion engineers redesigned portions of the airframe of the Decathlon to accomplish a 50-pound weight reduction in creating the Xtreme. The result was an 11-pound increase in useful load for the Xtreme over the Super even with the heavier, more powerful engine.
Fourteen pounds of the weight loss came from redesigning the ailerons. They received a new cross section that included reshaping the nose, moving the hinge line and making them fatter—the nose bulges above and below the wing, similar to the design of the Pitts Model 12. The new ailerons were also installed on the Super.
An unexpected, according to Mehlhaff, set of results to the aileron design change was much lighter control forces and a roll rate increase from 90 to 120 degrees per second at full deflection.
The combination of the increased roll rate and ability of the Xtreme Decathlon to hold a vertical up line longer because of the power increase meant that it could successfully compete at a higher level in International Aerobatic Club (IAC) competitions. The Super Decathlon is not competitive at the Intermediate level in IAC events—the Xtreme is.
Mehlhaff told us that the stresses imposed on the aileron hinge support area on the Xtremes that were being used for more aggressive maneuvers caused premature wear in the area. One pilot reported a stuck aileron in flight—he was able to free it and land without incident. Postflight inspection revealed cracking around the aileron hinges.
American Champion issued Service Letter 442 with procedures for inspecting the area and began work on a redesign of the affected structure. The SL 442 inspection involves removal of the wingtips, opening inspection covers and removing some fabric.
In April of this year, the FAA issued an AD mandating the SL 442 inspection prior to further aerobatic flight. Sixty-one airplanes were affected by the AD.
We were at the factory in June and were told that the redesign was complete and the data had been presented to the FAA for final approval.
Mehlhaff said that information from inspections that had taken place confirmed that only a few airplanes showed signs of advanced wear, all were Xtremes and all had been used for high-G aerobatics on a frequent basis.
When we spoke with Mehlhaff at AirVenture, he advised us that the redesign had been approved by the FAA and repairs to affected airplanes were about to start. The company will provide retrofit kits free of charge. He said that all airplanes still under warranty will have the airframe changes made under the warranty. The company will be offering to do the changes for out of warranty airplanes at the factory for well under the company’s cost.