RANS S-20: The Cub Archetype Done Better

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One of my many character flaws is a complete disinterest in filling out forms of any kind including, Iím sorry to say, logbooks. I scribble down the legal requirements for currency, but thatís about it. As a result, Iím not quite sure when I last flew an airplane that wasnít an LSA. Might have been an Eclipse demo or perhaps Diamondís DA-40 diesel when I was in Austria last spring. Sadly, Iíll never be able to boast of the impressive number of types Iíve flown, but then if I donít care, why should anyone else?

Flying new LSAs is all but unavoidable because there are so many of them. Just at the Sport Aviation Expo over the weekend, there were three new ones and a couple of variants on existing designs. We try to fly as many as we can because readers and viewers are interested in these new designs. And frankly, I prefer flying simple little airplanes over squiring around a collection of aluminum or composite whose purpose seems to be moving a sophisticated avionics package and an iPad from A to B.

This has caused me to reset my thinking about light sport airplanes. Itís all but an article of faith that LSAs are overpriced and undervalued, a discussion weíve had in this forum ad nauseam.† Not wishing to have it again, I will say this about most of the light sport airplanes Iíve been flying: high priced or not, many are definitely better airplanes than what went before them. While some are reheats of traditional Cub-type designs, they simply fly and perform better. Whether that better is commensurate with the higher price is a buyer-beholder thing.

While at the Sport Expo show, I had a generous amount of flight time to compare RANS new S-20 Raven to my own J-3 Cub. RANS is a prolific designer of mostly experimental amateur-built airplanes, but theyíve got a fly away LSA model in the S-7LS and the S-20 will eventually be the same, although itís an EAB kit for now. The S-20 is a side-by-side taildragger with a 100-hp Rotax 912. So six decades after the J-3, why is the S-20 so much better?

Although itís about the same size as a Cubóitís actually a foot-and-half shorter with a five-foot less wingspanóitís vastly more commodious inside. With its tandem seating, the J-3 is tight and there is absolutely no convenient place to put stuff like a tablet or a kneeboard, while the S-20 has a large, easy-to-reach baggage compartment. And for a small airplane, the S-20 has so much cabin width that thereís no risk of shoulder rubbing.

As for the ergos and ventilation, the S-20 is quiet and warm compared to the J-3ís drafty and cold. Itís been 40 degrees here in Florida this week and those drafts that seep through the Cubís door and window chill the charm. Iím reptilian in my choice of temperature range. Iíd rather sweat than shiver.

As for handling, the difference between the two is stark. The old Cub has a ton of adverse yaw and while that makes it a good teacher for rudder use, itís not necessarily a desirable aerodynamic characteristic. The S-20 isnít quite feet on the floor, but it has little adverse yaw. One thing I donít like about many of the LSAs coming out of Europe is too-light control forcesóthis is definitely not desirable in any airplane. A couple of years ago, I slapped my fish scale on the stick of a Remos and found that the control forces were too light to measure and there was zero breakout force from a centered stick. The J-3 is quite heavy in roll and predictably, a little lighter in pitch. The S-20 splits the difference; itís light in roll, but thereís measureable force there. It feels like it ought to feel.

Just to show how the limitations of design ingrain habits, when I was taxiing the S-20, I was S-turning, this despite the fact that you can see almost as well over the nose as you can in a Cessna 150. While having the forward view blocked during taxi is part of the J-3ís old-world charm and accurately represents the pungent experience of 1930s flying, I wouldnít order that feature in a new airplane. Ditto for the brakes. Itís true that if youíre doing things right, you donít really need brakes in a taildragger, but thatís not the same as having BINOSóbrakes in name only. I donít mind being able to stop vigorously when necessary. Iím pretty sure I can avoid the noseover.

With 25 more horsepower than our Cub, the S-20 is a better climber and faster than the J-3. Part of that is due to lower drag. I notice this when flying any of the Cub-type LSAs. Despite being very current in the Cubólike 15-landings-a-week currentóIím always too fast and too high in the newer airplanes. By habit, I tend not to use the airspeed indicator as a reference, since I donít do that in the Cub. And that means until Iíve done a few landings, I tilt toward the fast and floaty instead of the slow and certain. Taildragger skills are only so transferable, at least for me.

This is especially noticeable in the pattern, where I like to fly a tight turn-in thatís perfect for the J-3, but will yield a too-high approach in something like the S-20 or the Legend Cubs. Since I seem to have trouble curing myself of that tight pattern, I do a lot of slipping to short final. Nothing wrong with that; itís a skill that needs to be kept alive.

As I mentioned in Fridayís blog, the arrival procedure into Sebring was a bit of a goat rope and rather than stooge around in circles over Lake Jackson, Randy Schlitter and I flew over to nearby Avon Park for some touch and goes, where we found a gusty crosswind up to about 15 knots. Iíll tackle that in the Cub, but the S-20 feels significantly more sure footed in such conditions, suggesting to me that the center of gravity is probably closer to the gear than it is in the Cub. When the S-20 plants, it doesnít have that Iím-about-to-break-loose-for-the-tulies feel that the Cub sometimes does.

Unforgiving ground handling will teach you the all-important lesson of staying on your game until the airplane is back in the hangar, but again, I wouldnít specify that in a new airplane. The Cub just happens to be that way.

In its fly-away LSA form, the S-20 will be in the mid $120,000s fully equipped, which is typical of what LSAs in the class cost. Iíve already explained in detail why I think these prices are about what they should be, given the cost of building new airplanes in a market that canít sustain volume. If you want to rage about how outrageous that price is, be my guest. But by now, itís a lost cause, Iím afraid.

For a third as much, you can find a nice, restored Cub that will be a terrific fun flyer. But in the end, the S-20 is just a faster, more comfortable and more sophisticated airplane. Itís not just incrementally better, itís a lot better. And seriously, if 75 years of progress didnít make it so, it would be scandalous indeed.†

Click here for a video report on the RANS S-20.

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Comments (16)

I was skeptical to say the least when I started training in a LSA. One could not help but think it was a lawnmower with wings at first sight. But with all the options available from very clever designers and engineers they are astonishingly feature-packed.

Posted by: Matthew Lee | January 19, 2014 1:49 PM    Report this comment

It fascinates me that the most popular LSAs are not the sleek composites but the Cub-alikes, the old format simply upgraded and improved.

Posted by: Richard Montague | January 19, 2014 8:20 PM    Report this comment

Nice article. I did 5 hours in an 85 horsepower Jabiru LSA last year and came away impressed. It's built like a surfboard but the handling was great. It felt like a sharp little toy. The guy kept apologising for it but I kept cutting him off to tell him how much I liked it. It changed my attitude to LSAs.

Posted by: john hogan | January 19, 2014 11:40 PM    Report this comment

"Cubs, Cubs and Cubs"? I'll give all the "cloned" variants of Cubs another 10-15 year run at best. Why? Nothing brilliant here - just the demand and market will soon be extinguished as the "aged/nostalgia" flyer (major buyer?) now 60-75 and "baby boomers"+ fades away. Only a limited utility (need) market in rugged terrain or more isolated regions will keep them in business. Incidentally, my first "dual" experience was in an original Piper J-3 in 1956 - REAL fun at its best!

On LSA in general - the more contemporary and TOP brands will survive after a hundred or so will go the same way as the "Hudson" of the late 40's and early 50's - my guess anyway.

Posted by: Rod Beck | January 19, 2014 11:50 PM    Report this comment

Consensus reality. Applies to the 'judgement' of LSA along with the group who rage about their price points.

To consider that a C-162, J3 Cub, Ercoupe, Luscomb 8, Aeronca 11ac, many others, including my tough little homebuilt are 'lawnmower(s) with wings', guess I shouldn't be surprised. My classic Beetle usually makes kids and the young-at-heart happy when they see it, but tends to enrage the 'real' drivers in feature-packed 'real' trucks and suv's who often yell to me to purchase a 'real' car at my earliest convenience.

Unfortunately, the light usually turns green before I can recommend several good books on the difference between phenomenological reality and consensus reality vs. individual perception. Oh well.

The S-20 looks like a terrific airplane. Upgraded modern advancements on a popular, solid design. Just like my Beetle. Looks to be as much fun to fly, too, as my car is to drive.

Posted by: Dave Miller | January 20, 2014 1:00 AM    Report this comment

The reason that the remakes of the "old classics" like the Champ, T-Craft and Cub are the most popular models of LSA is NOT because of all of the "old guys" waxing rhapsodically about learning how to fly as a youth, but rather because these "original" light airplanes were just that - Light Airplanes - and their contemporary counterparts are simply exhibiting the best of the old and incorporating modern manufacturing/materials.

Sleek, fast LSA airplanes are expensive and ultimately unpopular because flying an 800 pound airplane at 138 miles per hour has not proven to be a very comfortable experience for most. However......flying a 730-800# airplane at 100 miles per hour (or less) is an immeasurably pleasant experience.

Posted by: Chunk Yeager | January 20, 2014 8:46 AM    Report this comment

It's not the destination, it's the journey. Well put Chuck.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 20, 2014 9:18 AM    Report this comment

Amen to all Paul's comments. I built and flew an S-7 for 10 years after gaining a number of hours in Champs, Cubs, C-150s and the like. The S-7 outflew them all dozen times over. Yep -- a just plain better airplane, and Im sure its side-by-side sequel, the S-20, has gained a few steps on the S-7. Randy's that good.,

Posted by: John Sullivan | January 20, 2014 9:30 AM    Report this comment

Have really enjoyed your Youtube videos, Chunk...ah, I mean Steve. ;)

Posted by: Dave Miller | January 20, 2014 12:03 PM    Report this comment

Paul, good editorial.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 20, 2014 4:16 PM    Report this comment

No argument about the improvement of the new planes over the old. What is missing from the new manufacturers though is basic salesmanship. Look at the old magazines and see how many ads there were for the Cub and how it is the airplane you should learn to fly in. Mr. Piper had salesmen on the road all the time running down leads. Cubs were put on display at Macy's, they had mass formations at all the major airshows. Mr. Piper personnally delivered speeches at new airport dedications. They had easy financing arrangements, advertisements in matchbook covers, etc.

Today, you have to be in the club to even know that Ran's sells an LSA. Van's factorybuilt RV-12 is a very well kept secret.

A man I used to work for had a very appropriate slogan over his desk: "Nothing happens until somebody sells something". By the way, he is a very successful airplane salesman.

Posted by: Stephen Phoenix | January 21, 2014 11:22 AM    Report this comment

We need to revitalize GA. We need to create a greater demand for a family of flight training aircraft as the C150-172-182 series. We need to incresase the new pilots ranks and recall the old ones into action. We need the Big Three, Piper, Beech and Cessna's marketing strategies of old. We need lower prices and/or we need more money. If impotent - then shut up and just fly.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 21, 2014 6:43 PM    Report this comment

"Nothing happens until somebody sells something".

I'd probably say nothing happens until somebody wants something. It's this conundrum we find ourselves in when valiantly trying to promote GA.

Mum's the word for me, Rafael, when it comes to creating demand, increasing new pilot starts, marketing a lopsided cost-return concept, or lowering costs. The satisfaction and reward we found in personal flight is met by indifference and techno/virtual satisfaction today, and I ain't fightin' it. See you in the sky, for as long as I'm able.

Posted by: Dave Miller | January 22, 2014 1:54 PM    Report this comment

Roger my friend. On your three.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 22, 2014 3:46 PM    Report this comment

"Nothing happens until something is sold"! And nothing could be more TRUE!

The "problem" is the entire GA industry has been relying on the outdated "production marketing concept" and ZIP competent marketing management. It's been "top heavy "with technical wizardry and gurus for decades; witness the "Flying Car" with absolutely NO practical real world application.

When's the last time you've seen an article on the "breakeven point" of a new LSA or the start-up capital required to open a small FBO in this or any aviation publication for that matter?

And the industry wonders WHY it's failing?

Posted by: Rod Beck | January 22, 2014 11:01 PM    Report this comment

Man they are expensive for a kit, just priced the basics from Rans and its $32,525

Posted by: phil grainger | February 6, 2014 8:39 PM    Report this comment

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