These were your grandfathers airplanes. After World War II, Piper, Aeronca, Taylorcraft, Luscombe and ERCO (Engineering and Research Corp., maker of the Ercoupe)-cranked out thousands of easy-to-fly two-seaters to meet temporary post-war demand. Today, you can buy one of these LSA-qualified antique airplanes for around $25,000. Spend more, get more; less and look for rust, worn engines and old fabric. Many old airplanes qualify for LSA provided theyre two-seaters or smaller with a max gross weight of 1320 pounds. Well review five popular models: Pipers J-3, the Aeronca 7AC, Taylorcraft BC-12D, Luscombe 8A and the Ercoupe 415C, the only tri-geared airplane in the lineup. These are by no means the only choices in LSA-compliant light aircraft. But they are certainly the most realistic. Obscure makes such as Interstates might qualify for LSA, but werent built in significant numbers for our list. The dopey 1320-pound weight limit nixed airplanes that shouldve been LSA, namely the Cessna two-seaters: 120, 140 and 150.
These were your grandfathers airplanes. After World War II, Piper, Aeronca, Taylorcraft, Luscombe and ERCO (Engineering and Research Corp., maker of the Ercoupe)-cranked out thousands of easy-to-fly two-seaters to meet temporary post-war demand. Today, you can buy one of these LSA-qualified antique airplanes for around $25,000. Spend more, get more; less and look for rust, worn engines and old fabric.
Many old airplanes qualify for LSA provided theyre two-seaters or smaller with a max gross weight of 1320 pounds. Well review five popular models: Pipers J-3, the
Aeronca 7AC, Taylorcraft BC-12D, Luscombe 8A and the Ercoupe 415C, the only tri-geared airplane in the lineup.
These are by no means the only choices in LSA-compliant light aircraft. But they are certainly the most realistic. Obscure makes such as Interstates might qualify for LSA, but werent built in significant numbers for our list. The dopey 1320-pound weight limit nixed airplanes that shouldve been LSA, namely the Cessna two-seaters: 120, 140 and 150.
Legacy LSAs are simple airplanes and most had some portion of the airframe covered in doped cotton, which was usually replaced with synthetic fibers as these became available. Whatever the covering, after 20 years, it should be recovered, sooner if stored outdoors. Recovering is a labor-intensive job and could cost $30,000; do it yourself for less.
All legacy LSAs carry relatively small loads. Ballpark, figure two 1940s average people (170 pounds), fuel and-maybe-25 pounds of baggage.
Except for the Ercoupe, the other four airplanes were equipped with heel brakes, a setup that transitioning pilots might find awkward. It shouldnt matter, because old brakes were universally lousy. Thats actually an advantage for tailwheel airplanes, since it minimizes the chance of nosing over from aggressive braking. The Ercoupe has a single brake pedal and no rudder pedals. None of the airplanes reviewed in this report have flaps.
Cubs, Champs, Luscombes and T-crafts have no electrical systems, which means theres no starter motor, so you hand-prop the engine to start. Hand propping, like machete juggling, takes skill. Incompetence gets you nicknamed “Stubby.”
Piper J-3 Cub
Roughly 19,000 Cubs were built between 1938 and 1947. The Cub began life in the early 1930s as the Taylor Cub. After Messrs. Taylor and Piper split up, Piper introduced the J-3, sporting a four-cylinder, 65-HP Continental engine, which powers many older LSAs. It was a great engine for what it was-cheap and simple-and some parts are still available, although original Continental cylinders are often replaced with new Millenniums.
Whatever the aircraft model, if it was upgraded to higher horsepower, theres a
chance it no longer qualifies for LSA. Check the logs and specs carefully for this. If youre serious about LSA, make sure thats what youre buying.
The J-3 Cub was simplicity itself with tandem seats, stick and rudder controls, throttles on the left side of the fuselage and a clamshell door on the right. Generally, older airplanes were not built for comfort. The Cub PIC flies and solos from the rear seat, making for poor visibility over the nose with the tail low. Its marginally better in cruise. The panel instruments are five feet away, but thats okay, because there arent many and whats there are often inaccurate. The Cub, like most Legacy LSAs, is a seat-of-the-pants machine.
Although the welded steel, fabric-covered J-3 fuselage is hip-hugging narrow, the rear seat is wide enough for most modern butts. One 12-gallon tank is located near the front-seat passengers knees. The fuel gauge is a cork float with a wire poking through the filler cap. See no wire-got no gas. Each of the five LSAs reviewed here qualify to burn autogas. The Continental 65-HP engine sips about 4 GPH. Usually, theres no cockpit mixture control on these engines.
Performance isnt a word casually applied to Cubs-cruise is at 75 MPH. Your numbers may vary depending upon skill and quality of instruments. Takeoff performance, though, is exceptional, making short strips J-3 accessible. Power to clear the trees at the end, however, may be lacking.
The Cub is easy to fly. Stalls are honest, likewise spins. No real scary tales here, provided the pilot flies good basic stick-and-rudder technique. As with all but the Ercoupe, the PIC must fly coordinated; slipping turns will blow your hat off with the door or window open.
Except for the Ercoupe, you cant drive these LSAs around the sky. All but the Ercoupe are more challenging in crosswinds than most tri-geared airplanes. J-3 Cub prices range from $25,000 to $55,000, depending on the sanity of buyer or seller. The Piper Vagabond is a short-wing, side-by-side seating version of the Cub that also qualifies for LSA. Cheap and fun to fly, its cramped and is not our pick against
Aeronca 7AC Champ
Aeronca (Aeronautical Corporation of America) produced about 8000 Champs and the modern version of the line still exists in the American Champion series. The basic design morphed into a string of variants, including the Citabria. The 7AC was certified in 1945 and was built until 1948. Often confused with Cubs, Champs generally cost far less and are faster and more comfortable. Some even have cabin heat and some of those even work-like an old VW bus.
Like the Cub, the 7AC Champ is a tandem, two-seat, taildragger with a 65-HP Continental. There the comparison stops. The Champ is, dare we say, more modern-everythings a bit more streamlined. The fuselage is wider and a conventional door replaced the Cubs clamshell. Pity, because flying with the door open on a summer afternoon is heaven in a Cub, less so in winter.
The Champ has a sliding window on the left side. Where Cubs have bungee shock absorbers, the Champ uses an oleo-spring strut that cushions all but the worst
landings. Be sure the struts have been properly serviced, which includes changing the hydraulic fluid and not simply by greasing the bushing. Jack up the airplane to check the gear legs for slop. If a 7AC Champ has military “No Bounce” gear, it may not qualify for LSA.
A 7AC takes off and lands at 60 MPH and cruises-depending on whos telling the lies-at 85 MPH. Its nose tank above the pilots knees holds 13 gallons and has a Model A Ford gas gauge atop the instrument panel. These are often broken and backed up by a Cub-like wire and float gauge.
Its hard to say which is easier to fly, the Cub or the Champ. Both demand positive hand/foot coordination. The Champs stall characteristics are benign, but distinct enough to make a good primary trainer. The PIC flies and solos from the front seat where visibility is excellent. Spins are difficult to induce when flying solo because the forward CG makes the airplane want to naturally recover from the stall. With two onboard, the stall/spin is clean and recovery simple: Let go. The Champ is fairly light on ADs. Wood-wing 7AC Champs have an AD requiring a one-time inspection for spar cracks. Other models require a yearly inspection or replacement with metal spars. American Champion sells complete replacement wings to eliminate the AD.
If you like the Champ but long to snuggle shoulder to shoulder with your special someone, then consider the LSA-qualified, side-by-side Aeronca 11AC Chief. It flies like a Champ and costs less. It also has side-by-side yokes rather than sticks.
C.G. Taylor left Piper in 1935 to form Taylorcraft, which still exists but doesnt produce airplanes. It holds the Taylorcraft type certificates and produces some parts. The Taylorcraft BC12D was built in the post-war boom years, and about 2800 were shipped. The BC12D has side-by-side seating that can best be described as intimate. Visibility is fair over the nose and poor elsewhere. That aside, this is a sweet flying airplane, ideal for the beginner shopping in the $17,000 to $27,000 range.
Faster than Cubs or Champs, the BC12D is lighter on the controls and its semi-symmetrical wing produces less drag. Its a long, light airplane thatll float when youre even slightly too fast on final. Conversely, it floats off the runway on takeoff.
The pre-war Taylorcraft BL/BC/BF65s (L for Lycoming, C for Continental, F for Franklin) are similar to the BC12D and qualify for LSA. Most BL/F65s engines were replaced with Continentals, but this doesnt make them BC65s. The Type Certificate designation doesnt change, merely the powerplant, so examine the paperwork to make certain its been updated properly.
As with Cubs and Champs, Taylorcrafts are relatively low maintenance, but airplanes over a half-century old do rust. AD2007-16-14 requires replacing or inspecting all four of the wing lift struts, something thats been a bit of a big deal for many owners. We recommend replacement. Theyve served their time and should retire.
An alternate means of compliance (AMOC) allows for a detailed radiograph or ultrasonic inspection thats repeated every 48 months. Better to buy new, sealed, oil-filled struts and fuggetaboutit for the next 60 years. Univair (univairparts.com) offers a set for about $2000, plus shipping. Airframe, Inc, in Alaska (supercubs.com), which normally makes Super Cub parts, also offers Taylorcraft struts for $1800, plus shipping. Piper struts are subject to a similar AD but can be inspected (in lieu of replacing) through a tedious punch test. As of this writing, T-craft petitioners hope the FAA will approve this same AMOC. We still recommend new struts; theyre kind of important and replacing them isnt all that costly.
Often mistaken for a Cessna 140, the Luscombe Model 8A was built before and after World War II and is the sports car of the Legacy LSAs. It has a semi-
undeserved reputation for being difficult to land. With its 65-HP engine, it cruises faster than Cubs or Champs and is a delight to maneuver. It has snug side-by-side seating, with a 14-gallon fuel tank located behind the seat aft of the small baggage compartment. Its fuel gauge is tough to read without twisting your neck laThe Exorcist.
Discomfort continues with almost unreachable heel brakes on the pilots side only. Instead of yokes, the Luscombe has joysticks. We like that. The big difference between the Luscombe and the previous three LSAs is the semi-monocoque aluminum fuselage construction. Check everywhere for corrosion, particularly dissimilar metal corrosion where aluminum meets steel. An 8As wings could be either fabric or metal.
Visibility is good over the nose, even with the tail low and is fair to the sides, but the skylight helps in 60-degree banks. The landing gear legs are the same width as the Aeronca Champ, but the single shock absorber makes the ride feel stiff. The rudder responds quickly, so new pilots might find themselves over-controlling, compounding its squirrelly handling reputation.
Crosswind and short-field performance is good, but 65 horses wont climb at high density altitudes. With any of these old airplanes you learn to fly the wing, not the engine. Despite minor inconveniences, we recommend this airplane for the sportier sport pilots willing to advance their tailwheelin skills for about $23,000.
Okay, stop giggling. “Coupes” are cute in a playground way, with their interconnected ailerons and adorable twin rudder. Lacking rudder pedals, you drive this low-wing monoplane around the sky. Its ballyhooed “unspinnable” nature is achieved in part by limiting elevator travel.
Pilots used to actively incorporating rudder and opposite aileron in crosswind landings will find themselves mashing the rudderless floorboards as the Ercoupe impacts the runway in a crab. Amazingly, itll straighten itself out…the way a dead cow straightens out when dropped off a moving truck.
We cant say were crazy about this airplane. But, enough there are Coupers who are to make this a viable alternative to the previous four entrants. If you have lazy feet, the 75-HP Ercoupe 415C may be for you, although we find it underpowered. Over 4000 were made and plenty are still dri…er… flying.
Ercoupes hide corrosion in the wing center section, tail-everywhere-so a thorough pre-buy is a must. Univair is a good choice for parts. Price wise, a good 415C can be found for around $25,000. That includes an electrical system, so you can start your Coupe and drive it around the ramp and skies like a car (doing 95 MPH), even at night.
If youre serious about LSA-and manyAviation Consumer readers tell us they are-you have some choices to make. New LSA airplanes, of which there are several dozen to pick from, are selling for north of $100,000, some up by the Arctic Circle type north. Some are all composite, some metal and fabric, some all fabric. Some have steam gauges, but lots of the new LSAs have modest glass cockpits, such as the Dynon D-180.
For one-third (or less), you can get 70 year-old steam-gauge technology redolent with the smell of decades worth of gas and dope. For many buyers, that whiff of nostalgia will be all it takes. For others, we recommend caution. These legacy LSAs are not terribly comfortable and if you cant fly coordinated and learn to use your feel, theyll be neither pleasant nor kind, especially on the runway. Used models are in various states of maintenance and may need work-a lot of work. If a recover is necessary, it may cost more than the value of the airplane itself. (See October 2007Aviation Consumer for more.)
So which is our top pick? Theres no slam dunk winner, because we think the LSA legacy market is an emotional one. You buy a Cirrus for geographic travel, an LSA for time travel. Our top pick valuewise is the the 7AC Aeronca. It has decent performance, is readily supportable and isnt too expensive.
Tied for second are the Taylorcraft and Luscombe. Theyre a little harder to find and a bit quirky compared to the Champ. One up from the bottom is the J-3 Cub, purely on price. Although perhaps the most supportable of all the legacy LSAs, we think its overpriced for what it does. Last pick is the Ercoupe. They arent cheap and, in our view, lack the charm and cache of the taildraggers which, except for the Cub, are all bargains for beginner or lingering pilots.
Legacy LSAs do require specialized flight instruction, but on the plus side, theyre fun to fly when flown properly, even the silly Coupes. Apparently, your grandfather knew what he was doing.
Paul Berge is a CFII, writer and former air traffic controller. He owns a Champ and lives in Iowa.