That Little Ercoupe

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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.

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 different.

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 mid-western winters.

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 big airplanes!

Crosswind technique

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 own.

Speed control

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.

Fuel system

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 wouldn't.

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.

Low maintenance

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.