The Ercoupe was an oddball airplane. With no rudder pedals, it could get "interesting" to fly in crosswinds. It was underpowered, cramped and slow. But this strange little machine sure was fun to fly...and cheap! Phil Rowe reminisces about some of his Ercouple experiences back in the '60s.
May 1, 1998
|About the Author ...
Phil Rowe is a retired USAF navigator and R&D engineer, and now does
freelance writing, mostly about his own flying experience in 33 types and
models of military aircraft, from props to jets.
Phil served in a variety of
aircrew positions, as: celestial navigator, radar navigator and bombardier,
electronic warfare officer, flight engineer and photo reconnaissance systems
operator. He also served as flight test engineer on three projects. Favorite
airplanes include the RF-4C, B-58A, B-52D and a few light planes - including
If you enjoy Phil's writing on AVweb, check out his
more stories about aviation, travel, camping, and more.
My little green and white Ercoupe (N3948H) was a joy to fly.
Its bubble canopy and low wing afforded great visibility,
allowing easy scanning for other traffic and enjoyment the view.
Of course, some folks thought the airplane was a bit unusual. It
didn't have rudder pedals, only a wheel for controlling flight.
Its combined aileron and rudder system was unique. It also had
a limiting collar on the elevator control travel of the wheel to
preclude excessive nose up, potentially leading to stalls. The
only foot controls were the wheel brakes. You drove the plane
through the air or on the ground like an automobile. Very
That Ercoupe, a small under-powered two-seater, was hardly a
high-performance machine. Its little 75 horsepower Continental engine,
fitted with a longer-than-standard fixed-pitch cruise
propeller made it mighty sluggish on climb-out. I recall struggling
one day for two hours to get it above 8,500 feet!
That's all she'd do.
She wasn't exactly a speed demon, either. Top speed was
at best 120 knots.
But, she was an economical bird to fly. She sipped barely five
gallons of gasoline per hour, except during climb-out. Then
she'd slurp down petrol at a ravenous seven to eight gallons per hour.
Of course, that wasn't usually much of a problem, because we never tried
to climb very high.
The plane actually belonged to a friend, also stationed at
Bunker Hill Air Force Base, Indiana. I got to use it almost as
much as he did, though, in exchange for helping him buy
insurance and getting the bird onto the base. It nested snugly
in the big heated hangar where Aero Club birds were kept. That
was terrific, especially in the cold and snow of those
My friend and I took turns flying it. Fortunately, our duty
schedules meshed almost perfectly. He was on alert when I was
not, and vice-versa. So it was almost like having my own
airplane, without the headaches. Such a deal.
We each contributed two dollars per hour of flight to a kitty
dedicated to annual inspection and repair costs. And with
80-octane avgas at twenty-five cents per gallon, she was very economical to
operate. Hmmm...did I mention that this was back in the 1960s?
Flying her from that Air Force base presented some interesting
experiences. That tiny little airplane was dwarfed by the
B-58 bombers and KC-135 tankers. We had to be really careful not
to get in their way or caught in the jet wash of their huge
engines. We must have looked like a gnat to the commanders of those
Since the plane had no separate rudder control, taking off and
landing under crosswind conditions could be challenging, or at
least quite different from conventional airplanes. Having a
200-foot wide runway made handling crosswinds a lot easier, because
we could take off and land on a diagonal, while remaining on
the pavement. In fact, if the crosswind was strong, the takeoff and
landing roll wasn't much longer than the runway was wide.
On narrow runways, crosswinds were a bit more interesting.
On takeoff we'd typically roar down the runway until speed
exceeded that needed for liftoff, and then quickly yank her airborne
to avoid scrubbing the tires in crosswinds. For landing we'd
establish a crab to compensate for the winds and firmly plop her
down, while letting go of the control wheel. She'd straighten
out, like an arrow, and track down the runway pretty much on her
One cold but sunny winter day, I got to practice some
ground-controlled radar approaches. Traffic was especially light at the
airfield and the GCA controllers
were willing to practice their skills on me. They guided me to a
long straight-in approach to the runway, taking me eight miles
or more off to the northeast of the base and then directing me
back for landing. My airspeeds were around 90 knots, making me a
barely moving target on their radar scopes.
After two or three practice approaches, they suddenly asked me
to expedite my landing. There was a B-58 "Hustler"
coming in behind me at
its usual 220 knots approach speed. I was becoming a problem.
"Okay, GCA. I'll expedite," I responded. Soon I was just a mile
from the end of the runway, screaming along at 120 knots. That
was as fast as I could go, believe me. Still it wasn't enough, so GCA told
me to turn left and clear the traffic pattern. Within seconds
that big jet roared past me for landing. I decided that Ercoupe
wasn't meant to mix it up with the big boys.
On another flight, a fuel system problem highlighted one more
unusual feature of the little Ercoupe. On a short hop to Fort
Wayne, just 60 miles northeast of Bunker Hill, I noticed that
the float gauge indicator of the reserve tank looked low. Sure
enough, I was burning fuel out of that little tank forward of
the instrument panel, and not from the wing tanks. The float was
dropping down, indicating that the reserve tank was no longer
full. Normally, fuel is pumped from the wing tanks into the reserve tank,
and from there it gravity-fed to the engine. So normally, the reserve tank stays
full unless the wing tanks have run dry.
I wondered if it was really a dropping of the reserve tank fuel
or, perhaps, a bad float. The fuel gauge was pretty basic:
a small metal rod, protruding up
through the reserve tank gas cap provided a simple and direct
indication of how much fuel the tank held. A full tank pushed
the float to its topmost position and plenty of rod was visible.
But now the rod was shorter, by half, indicating a low
fuel condition. The fuel gravity fed into the engine carburetor,
so long as the reserve tank held fuel. I feared that soon it
Upon landing at Fort Wayne, I taxied over to the repair shop in
a big wooden hangar. The mechanic confirmed my suspicions that
my fuel pump was not filling the reserve tank. A replacement
pump solved the problem. I was on my way, seventy-five dollars
poorer, within a hour. Luckily, we had enough money in the
maintenance kitty to cover that expense.
In the two or three years that I enjoyed the luxury of access to
that little airplane, we repaired very little. A new battery and
a replacement windshield were the only significant fixes I recall.
Most of the
routine servicing and minor repairs we did ourselves. Ercoupes
are very simple airplanes.
I sure miss flying that delightful little airplane. But what I really miss
most of all is the low cost of flying which no longer exists. At today's
prices, I can't even afford to fly anymore. Too bad.