|Photographs by Dave Higdon|
Anytime a vector takes me across the scene of a hot-rod show or an ad hoc drive-in gathering, memories of weekend nights spent idling through hometown cruising spots nearly always sweep me back to my teenage years. That never happened with an airplane, though. Until, that is, those same hot-rod images flashed back to me upon my first glimpse of Aviat Aircraft's 110 Special, a 1932 race design modernized into an all-around personal airplane for two.
The long, low lines of the high-wing design, those short windows, and its stiff-tailwheel ride over the tarmac combined to launched me back to my drive-in cruising days as swiftly as a cat shot flings a fighter off a flight deck. The sleek, steep sweep of the cowling reinforced the street-rod aura and the unmuffled exhaust note growling from the flat-four Lycoming shrouded inside drove home the point, too. Those features, plus the pair of white, fuzzy dice dangling from a frame tube and the eight ball finishing off the elevator-trim handle made it clear: This 'Coupe is made for serious fun.
There was no escaping it. Aviat's latter-day incarnation of this 67-year-old design looked and sounded positively chopped and channeled in the best custom-rod tradition. Aviat's highly engaged staff further encourages the custom-rod image with their nickname for the 110: "The 'Coupe."
Utterly appropriate, in light of both its heritage and its future.
Certificate holder Ed Saurenman brought Aviat Aircraft president Stuart Horn the original 1932 Monocoupe design as a type that could expand Aviat beyond its range as the maker of the Husky and Pitts while building on the same in-house skills already employed to produce both specialty designs. Indeed, reviving the Monocoupe 110 Special racer gives Aviat a product positioned to capture pilots interested in flying fast, in flying far and with the capability for the odd aerobatics fling available as a bonus.
The 'Coupe's hot-rod styling visually bridges the eras of then and now.
And that hot-rod-with-wings approach was the brainchild of Horn and his staff, building on Saurenman's adaptation of a 200-horsepower Lycoming AEIO-360 in place of the 145- and 185-horsepower Warner radials on the first seven 110s.
Although some details of the 'Coupe's final configuration remain in flux, most of its equipment and finish are already frozen. Of course, in addition to the engine change, Aviat's designers substituted airframe and covering materials and avionics unavailable when the 110 was still part of the Monocoupe product line, from 1932 to 1950. But Aviat's changes take nothing away from the 110 Special's precise handling. Its ability to maneuver at high speeds close to the ground instills the confidence that racers of aviation's Golden Years must have coveted in their mounts and which can be all too rare today.
And the loops, the hammerheads, spins and, heaven help me, the rolls — snap, barrel, aileron, as quickly as you make them and as many as you can stand — take little more effort than the unconscious translation of thought into stick motion.
Come along for a ride and be among the first to sample the formidable speed, solid handling and dynamic aerobatic capabilities of the 2000 110 Special. Just watch out for those white fuzzy dice; they don't always hang straight down.
Depending on the maneuver, they can rise and fall with each pass of the horizon or orbit around some invisible point from taut strings.
And you don't want to get snake-eyed over the old drive-in profiling Aviat's new "'Coupe de Thrill."
Man, if the gang from the Class of '68 could only see me in this 'Coupe. All those now-bald jocks would ogle in wonder while former cheerleaders-turned-grandmothers would give a stack of used pompoms for a ride. And what a ride, this 'Coupe.
At the basic end of the equation, the 'Coupe is your fundamental, straightforward, honest stick-and-rudder airplane. Nothing more than your simple, proven steel-truss fuselage; strut-braced, no-dihedral wood-frame wings, covered in aircraft-cloth; all perched atop conventional landing gear. The straight-back fuselage sports two doors and four short windows, one in and behind each door. Throw in the bungee-sprung main gear, stiff tailwheel, stick-and-rudder controls, and you could have any one of dozens of classic designs.
Similarly, a Deuce Coupe is nothing more than a 1930s budget automobile with all the basics and an updated engine and drive train. It's in the details of the basics where the differences emerge.
For example, this bird's wings span only an inch more than a mere 23 feet, all curving lines thanks to their graceful elliptical, semi-scalloped planform; almost 80 percent of each trailing edge is aileron that grows in chord from root to tip. No flaps clutter up the lifting surfaces nor complicate the design with unneeded control linkages. The short vertical stab looks far too small for the aerodynamic job it performs; likewise, the horizontal surfaces, both fixed and moveable, seem undersized. But together, the compact size and contoured lines of the tail feathers fit the hot-rod image to a bucket-T. And, as you'll read below, the control surfaces deliver all the power needed to impressively maneuver the 'Coupe through its paces.
The 110 Special carries the hot-rod theme into the cabin interior. For example, Horn and his staff detailed the 'Coupe with pleated leather seats, a hardwood panel, wool carpeting, and with that bad-boy-image Eight Ball trim knob, the fuzzy dice, of course, and the capper of the cabin: bright-polished rudder pedals custom-crafted into shiny silhouettes of four bare feet.
The combined effect is like something straight out of an R. Crumb comic. About the only thing missing from this nostalgia flight is a Hurst gear shift knob on the control sticks, Buddy Holly on the A.M., a poodle-skirted Saturday-night date in matching bobby socks and saddle loafers, my white sports coat and a pink carnation.
If drivers performed pre-drive inspections to the same extent we take our walk-arounds, your French fries wouldn't cool in the time it takes. So much hot-rod hardware sits open to inspection. Other than the occasional need to de-cowl the 'Coupe for periodic checks firewall-forward, little more than looking and touching something already visible is required for preflight inspections. In fact, some parts of the 'Coupe control system provide more access than the average airplane, including the aileron and elevator control links and rudder connections visible inside the cabin. Modern rod-end bearings finish out every pivoting connection in the linkage, making the controls smooth, precise and lash free.
The toughest checks: oil and fuel, each of which demand a ladder, unless you exceed six feet; then, only checking the fuel and securing the caps need some added elevation.
If conducting the outside checks is easy and logical, getting into the cabin is nearly as simple — and less contortion-inducing than some other tailwheel high-wings. Just open the door (to be top-hinged on the production units) back up to the fuselage, lean backward into the cabin, grab an overhead tube with both hands, pull yourself up onto the seat, swing in your legs, belt yourself in, latch and lock the door. It may take a bit of practice and it helps to be limber of limb. But no one of average flexibility should need chiropractic care because of 'Coupe-induced bending.
If cabin access is a bit different, little else departs from common practice. For example, starting the four-cylinder mill is typical of modern fuel-injected Lycomings: with the mixture pulled to idle cut-off, run the boost pump until fuel pressure peaks; with the pump off, hit the starter and advance the mixture to full rich when the engine catches and rumbles to life; adjust the idle and mixture to the temperature and elevation, sit back and listen to a sound reminiscent of an old flat head V-8 Ford or in-line eight-cylinder Duesenberg. As the needles work their way into the green, we can work our way to the active at Afton.
Anyone familiar with the all-American hot rod knows that these custom cars have some drawbacks as practical transportation, occasionally including limited visibility and little luggage space. In those regards, the 'Coupe is similar.
Luggage space, while not as Spartan as one of Aviat's other two offerings, the Pitts Special for instance, should suffice for two traveling comfortably. Thank the 'Coupe's side-by-side seat configuration.
Conversely, the 'Coupe affords its occupants no straight-ahead view on the ground because of to its tailwheel stance. But simply swing the fuzzy dice port and starboard with small S-turns and the world ahead quickly appears beyond the short, tapered cowl hugging the Lycoming.
The tailwheel/rudder combination made a snap of turning and stopping the 'Coupe, with no strong tendency to over-control or grab or chatter. A better taildragger pilot than me might better judge the sensitivities of the steerable tailwheel and the efficacy of those big Cleveland brakes. But steering seemed positive and proportional to me, as my toes adapted to the feel of the brakes and the sensitivity of the tail wheel during my taxi out to the run-up pad. And from my perspective, if the 'Coupe gave me little trouble, most other pilots should face even fewer worries.
In the time it took me to discover the taxi traits, we taxied just over a mile from Aviat's ramp to the Runway 34 run-up pad, allowing the 'Coupe to warm fully along the way.
With a warm engine, a clear runway and only the final checks between ground and sky, it's almost show-me time.
Run-up is also typical for the engine: advance the throttle to set power at 2,000 rpm, lean for the 6,200 msl field elevation, check the left mag, then the right — an easy chore with the 'Coupe's electronic tach calculating each magneto's drop and the resulting differential — cycle the prop a couple of times, and bring the power back to idle.
As my toes swing the 'Coupe in line with Afton's Runway 34 centerline, Saurenman gives me a nod; brakes set, the 200-hp Lycoming hits 2,700 rpm and with the stick near neutral, the 'Coupe vaults ahead the instant the brakes come off.
At 65 indicated, tail up and level, the world visible through the glass, the first Aviat 'Coupe lifts swiftly off Runway 34, the Lycoming growling its strength through the unrestricted stacks.
Initial rate of climb easily pegged the meter beyond its 2,000-foot rate limit at max climb power, 2,700 rpm and 22 inches of manifold pressure. Yeah, only 22 inches; remember, we launched from just over 6,200 msl to start with. At 48 F, it may seem less than warm, but for this elevation, it's cookin' outside. And it's cookin' in the 'Coupe. The 'Coupe stayed hot in the climb as we passed through 7,000 feet, pattern altitude at Afton.
Power back to 2,500 rpm, trim for 110 indicated, and the 'Coupe is still charging skyward at more than 1,000 feet per minute. This power setting and airspeed lowers the deck angle to give an unobstructed view of the world ahead, mountains, horizon and sky. In this configuration, the 'Coupe needs only four minutes to get us above the 11,000-foot mountains south of Afton, as we steer 175 to an appointment with the inside edges of the 'Coupe's envelope.
Meanwhile, the ensuing 40 minutes of my first cruise in the 'Coupe helped me adjust my reference standard for "cookin'" to something a few degrees hotter, smoking, perhaps. In fact, "smokin'" may come closer to the impression this so-hot 'Coupe burned into my mind on this evening.
South out of Afton, the terrain rises less quickly to a much-lower height and rolls more gently than terrain along any other cardinal heading. And there's nothing to disturb down that way save a few cows, mountain sheep and antelope, an important consideration for our mission considering how low we'll "stoop" to fulfill our ambitions. Down here, through this shallow, narrow valley, Horn promised me a ride equal in visual sensations to the view from the saddle of a "hover bike" in a Star Wars saga, driven to eye-tearing speeds scant feet above ground. That fast, that radical, that close to trees and terrain. Horn overstated nothing in his description.
Within 15 minutes of takeoff, Saurenman has the 'Coupe settled into cruise mode a little more than a wing-span away from the smooth, rounded slopes of a river valley.
For the next five minutes we raced the 'Coupe a few scant feet above a wide, shallow river, following its random ambling through the amber grasses of alpine meadows flanking its banks. Making almost three miles a minute, the landscape and flora blur into an autumnal smear of glowing golds, translucent reds and fading greens and browns, whether scant feet away off the left wing or directly below our wheels.
Where the river turns, we turn; where it drops off a short ledge we pitch down appropriately; and when towering trees stand together like slalom gates, we split the middle in knife-edge flight as easily as the best downhill skier. The 'Coupe's natural feedback through the stick keeps alive the connection between man and machine, providing an aerial action in direct response to pilot thought and input.
When the setting sun stretches the mountain shadows to the east edge of our river-bottom road course, we know time's come to turn the 'Coupe back toward Afton.
But climbing to clear the 11,000-foot terrain and turning northwest to exit the valley didn't end the fun and frolic of cruising in the 'Coupe de Thrill.
Cruising back toward Afton, now nearly 70 miles away after only 25 minutes aloft, gives me time to run some numbers impossible to tackle while flying some combination akin to equal parts air racer, moonshine runner and slalom skier. Outside the cabin the air temperature at 11,500 MSL showed as 38 chilly degrees, yet warm enough above standard for the density altitude to hover near 13,500.
Throttled back to a cruise setting, we gallop along at a whopping 167 KTAS - at 11,500 msl, where at best the 'Coupe makes 65 percent power. Questioning the results, we check the run again and again run the numbers through the old speed wheel: Yep, an honest 193 mph.
Can't say whether to expect Aviat to adjust upward its book speed for the 'Coupe, from the 160 knots the company expected. Other manufacturers have enjoyed some great responses from buyers who found their new planes faster than the pessimistic book numbers the factory knowingly printed despite better flight-test numbers. If the 110 Special doesn't break 170 KTAS at 75 percent power, with all the fairings and gap seals not-yet installed during my flight, well, the next malted's on me.
With fuel flowing in the mid-ten gallon-per-hour range, cruising range for the 'Coupe should be more than respectable enough for long-distance travel — approaching 600 nautical miles — particularly considering the speed available per leg. Who could object to a three-hour tour?
Landing the 'Coupe posed no special problems, demanded no exotic technique, just the coordination of a light hand and nimble toes common to many other tailwheel planes.
The numbers run a bit higher than, say, an Aeronca or Taylorcraft, even higher than an RV-6, but not out of line for the wing size and weight involved. Touching down at 70 knots indicated made for relatively easy transitions from totally in control aloft to totally down and back in control.
Again, the trick, if that's what it is, seems to be that blend of hand touch and toe feel always in demand when the third wheel comes in last.
And the 'Coupe has more than ample control authority to deal with conditions across a wide range. They are much the same traits that make the 'Coupe an entertaining aerobatic outlet — control authority to spare, power to execute — plus, of course, the strength to withstand the overloads of mistakes.
Seldom do aerobatic pilots actually reach the load limits of their machines, and most of the most-common acrobatic maneuvers fall into that scale. Spins, scarcely over one G; snap rolls, hardly even two; loops, not even four; and the plane is rated for six.
The treat of knowing the differential between those loads and the airframe's limits, and having the authority to execute accordingly, is, well, like having Dad's permission to take his new fuel-injected Corvette cruising on a Saturday night. Similarly, tossing the 'Coupe around the air outside Afton is pure treat made up of equal parts guilty pleasure and unadulterated adrenaline.
Nose down to 180 indicated, raise it smoothly to 3.5 Gs on the meter, hold the attitude and release the backpressure as the horizon returns in the opposite spot through the windscreen. Continue to ease off the backpressure until time to pull out of the dive to level again. Congrats, you've just done a loop.
My biggest problem: Like a great roller coaster ride, the ride through the loop ended too quickly. So, the 'Coupe being my E ticket to self-stimulated thrill, we did another.
The aileron rolls nearly lasted too long for me photographing the horizon swapping sky and terrain every couple seconds for a half-minute - particularly since my vantage point for a couple dozen rolls was through the viewfinder of a camera.
The sacrifices demanded of this work Ah, well; can't fault the 'Coupe for doing its job.
Camera safely stowed, linking roll after roll after roll after roll tumbled my own gyros a lot less with me in control of horizon decisions.
Saurenman flew with me three times in the 'Coupe, and for a fourth lift in Wyoming, Aviat's chief test pilot Mark Hiner exposed me to the capabilities of the formidable Pitts S2-C, a lighter, more-powerful, specialty machine of legendary prowess. Indeed, flying the Pitts gave me something of a rudimentary yardstick for comparison between the Pitts and the 'Coupe.
My impression? Unless aerobatics dominate your reasons for flying, the two-hole Pitts does little the 'Coupe can't. Admittedly, the Pitts can be expected to outshine the monowinged racer where unusual attitudes are concerned, making any maneuver more quickly, more easily and maybe even in less cubic airspace. But for other flying missions, whether tooling around on weekend jaunts, traveling cross country to a get-away destination, the 'Coupe gives away nothing in comfort or capability or cruising velocity.
And, on top of that, the aerobatics serve more as the whipped cream on the malted.
For this blend of capabilities, one must give credit to the original designers, and their devotion to the mission of the 110 Special: speed in a modern, personal airplane.
Interestingly enough, what counts today matches what counted 67 years ago, when the first 110 Special first emerged from the Monocoupe factory. And the new 'Coupe delivers every ounce of speed possible, thanks to the head start provided by the original designers.
The Monocoupe creators worked to reduce drag at every conceivable source in that day, resulting in an airplane devoid of what's considered shortcomings of many factory planes today — and fodder for after-market speed-hardware suppliers.
Some examples: The original 110 Special sported gap seals at every control-surface joint, whether aileron-to-wing, rudder-to-stab or elevator to stab; every intersection of structure received a fairing to smooth the air flowing around that juncture, whether the wing/fuselage convergence, strut-to-fuselage or strut-to-wing. Naturally, the landing gear received their own streamlining, the gear-to-fuselage points, the gear legs and, of course, the wheels, with smooth, proportional wheel pants. And there's more. The designers went even farther, fairing out of the airflow all the brake hardware and many of the fasteners exposed to the air in the tail surfaces.
The biggest drag source left when the first 'Coupe first flew: that big, round, draggy radial engine.
Which brings us to where Saurenman and his design team achieved the lion's share of the 'Coupe's improved performance: firewall forward.
To start with, the form factor, frontal area, power-to-weight and power-per-inch ratios of the AEIO-360 engine give the Lycoming four-banger a distinct advantage in each area over any radial available in the 1930s — or today, for that matter.
To finish, the details attended to inside the new cowling focused largely on reducing cooling drag to the greatest extent possible without resorting to lengthy, time-consuming and expensive objective testing.
Aviat's composites staff made two completely different cowls and the experimental-shop folks integrated the cowl with an internal cooling plenum chamber with baffling that keeps cooling air out of the cowling space and directed through the engine.
Fortunately, Saurenman's well-informed, more seat-of-the-pants testing, seems more than a suitable substitute, given the 'Coupe's numbers.
As noted above, what worked well in the '30s continues to work well today, while what made an airplane attractive then works now, as well.
Between what Saurenman retained and what was shed from the original, what makes the contemporary 'Coupe hot stuff remains true to the design's original purpose — and better. For example, operating and maintaining radial engines today imposes burdens on the operator absent for those of us flying behind the flat four- and six-cylinder engines dominant in today's airplanes.
The advantages, beyond those mentioned above, include lower purchase costs, maintenance and parts expenses. The new-generation composite prop translates rotation into thrust as smoothly as any two blade I've flown, and makes a good match for the 'Coupe's aerobatic abilities, not to mention the weight it saves.
Panel accoutrements, once set, will also tilt the Coupe more toward the 21st century than the middle-20th. And inside the cabin, the eras melt away to a time when black leather jackets, chinos and Brylcream were standard fare for post-war teens.
The cream and brown leather seats, the hardwood panel overlay and plush wool carpeting all blend with the 'Coupe's low-slung lines into an image of custom cars cruising the hometown "strip" that could fit into the frames of "American Graffiti."
Only the wing structure itself is unchanged, made of wood ribs and spars, exactly like what flew with the original seven. In fact, it's hard to believe an airplane with such attractive traits only exists in single digits, seven, to be exact. But that's all the 110 Specials that Monocoupe built between the design's origins in 1932 and when the last rolled off the Monocoupe line as the last airplane the company ever made in 1950. Those numbers make Aviat's proof-of-concept prototype only the eighth 110 made.
Of course, given Horn's plans for the 'Coupe, its status as something unique won't last as long as its status as a hot-rod with wings. With certification expected by year's end, Horn anticipates deliveries of about 30 by the true end of the millennium, 2001.
And by then, Horn expects Aviat to be near to its next goal, certification and initial production of the upcoming Millennium Swift, a modernized version of the 1940s Globe Swift, made an even-faster traveler with new aerodynamics, a hot IO-360-ES Continental making 210 horses, made entirely from CNC-produced sheet metal parts.
But there are doubts in my mind that either design will interfere with the market for the other.
When the 'Coupe's engine barks to life, the song of those four-into-two straight exhaust pipes makes me want to strap my honey into the right seat and go looking for a race — or at least a cheeseburger and a shake at Ardy and Ed's in Oshkosh.
Heck, if one of those roller-skating waitresses could finesse an overloaded aluminum tray onto the inside of a cabin window, we should be able to roll the 'Coupe like Bob Hoover — without spilling a drop of a milkshake or a cherry Coke.
And should anyone be bold enough to take it up on a race, be forewarned: You may only get a rear view — at least until the pilot takes his victory roll and shows you all the other views of this 'Coupe designed to thrill.