The Pilot's Lounge #127: Unfairly Maligned Airplanes

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

The Pilot's Lounge

"You moron." Visiting the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport is usually one of the highlights of my day. That greeting, however, caused me to think that this wasn't going to be one of those days. I'd stopped by to see who was around and found that the column I had written last month about post-war GA airplanes that were not ever going to win "best in show" had not been read with universal enthusiasm. Let's just say there were those who had strong opinions. They were more than willing to express those opinions with some volume. From all directions. It was not pretty and I began to wonder how long it would take to get to the exit. "Don't you know nuthin'? Where do you get off sayin' bad things about the Beech Duke? It's one of the coolest looking airplanes ever built." Hey, it does look good, but had the aerodynamics been worked out, it would have been something like 30 knots faster. "And the Starship; you were nowhere near hard enough on that thing." Look, it wasn't that bad, it just wasn't that good, and folks did have to lug their baggage all the way down the aisle to put it in the baggage compartment. "Why didn't you put Piper's Turbo Lance in there? It was a gas-sucking, hot-running pig that wanted to dive for the runway when you added power to make a go around." Yep, I messed up there. Overlooked the airplane entirely because, as I was going through the Piper line, I only thought of the normally aspirated Lance, which was a pretty good machine with a passenger-pleasing cabin. "And the Cessna Cardinal -- you should have put that under-powered puppy in there; and the single-engine Grummans because of their twitchy controls; and how could you have said anything negative about the Globe Swift? It was a fantastic airplane ... don't you know nuthin'?" About that time, Doc Walt and Captain Lee materialized from opposite sides of the room and ran interference for me as I fled. Once we were out of the building, the three of us turned and walked toward my hangar. Captain Lee's mouth was a thin line, a sure sign that she was more than a little angry. "Did you notice that the ones most critical of a particular airplane had never actually flown it? It always amazes me how freely people jump in and criticize a plane with very little actual knowledge. This one pushes some of my buttons, but prejudice fed by ignorance is why perfectly good airplanes get maligned. I am afraid that part of human behavior is that we listen to others and take their opinions as truth rather than find out for ourselves that the opinions are often based on half-truths and rumor." We walked for a while in silence. Captain Lee was calming down and Doc Walt got that twinkle in his eye he sometimes gets. "Lee, you know as well as I do that anything that takes more than a modicum of skill to fly gets a bad rap pretty quickly from the infidels." I thought Lee was going to take offense to Doc Walt's tone of voice, but she didn't. She paused briefly and said, "You nailed it; it's how Old Wive's Tales get perpetuated. You just made me think of the Pitts Special; it was not an easy airplane to learn to fly and it was some time before I was convinced that I knew where it was going on landing. But once I got comfortable in it, wow, the stuff I could do with it. It seems to me that a lot of times the airplanes that are a little more difficult to learn to fly are the ones that have the greatest capabilities and reward you the most when you figure them out." The conversation ebbed and flowed as we walked. We ran into Gladys and Dave and found that they were pretty adamant that a lot of the airplanes with bad reps got them for reasons that reflected more on the capabilities of the pilots who spoke ill of them than on the true natures of the airplanes; a little like the adage that a poor carpenter blames his tools. Lee, Dave and Gladys all have a lot more flying experience than I and Doc Walt has wrestled some pretty impressive airplanes and I've always valued his opinions. So as the conversation went on, I did a lot of listening. I came up with a list of a few airplanes that somehow got poor reputations but are, in reality, pretty darn-good flying machines. I also had confirmed what Captain Randy Sohn has said for years: Don't put a lot of stock in negative tales of an airplane until you've flown it and can see for yourself.

The Cessna Cardinal

Cessna 177 Cardinal

Admit it. You look at a Cardinal -- especially a 1968 model, the first year of production -- and the reaction is to say, "Underpowered." On top of that, you might have a memory of someone saying it had twitchy controls. Those are the two accusations that unfairly dogged the Cardinal line throughout its production history. Only in the last few years has the word gotten out just how far ahead of its time the Cardinal was and what a great personal airplane it is -- and the used prices now reflect that reality. Nevertheless, the old labels are difficult to shed, and get repeated by those who don't know any better, as they hang around the airport and solemnly pass on knowledge they don't possess. I certainly admit that there have been times when flying, no matter what airplane I was in, that I wished it had more power. However, it sure seems to me that when a particular model airplane out-climbs and out-runs another model airplane that has precisely the same engine and is similar size, claiming that the former is underpowered is a rank distortion of the truth. And, if you don't read the manual for an airplane, proceed to load it well above gross weight, select an airspeed for climb that is 10 mph below Vy, and then don't understand why it climbs poorly, perhaps the fault might not lie with the airplane. Few people now recall that Cessna started building airplanes in 1927 and didn't put a wing strut on any of them until the 120/140 series at the end of World War II. By the mid-1960s there was some feeling at Cessna that it was time to go back to the cleaner lines it had been known for with its slick airplanes of the mid-1930s. Step one was to create a cantilever wing for its top-of-the-line single, the 210. Flight testing was completed and the change was introduced for the 1967 model year. The airplane was a great success. The next logical step was to create a cleaner version of its best seller, the Cessna 172. For the 1968 model year, the 145-hp 172 would cease to exist and the clean-sheet Model 177 Cardinal would take its place. (The 172 had a six-cylinder, 145-hp, Continental engine from its inception through 1967.) Cessna decided to go with a lighter-weight, four-cylinder, Lycoming engine that produced 5 more horsepower for the 177. The 210 wing was lightened slightly for the smaller 177. The resulting Cardinal was far sleeker than the 172, had a wider cabin than even the 182, and a wider, tougher landing gear. Plus, to compete with the Piper Cherokee and Beech Musketeer, the 177 had a stabilator rather than a horizontal-stabilizer/elevator combination. The benefit of the stabilator was reduced weight and drag. The Cardinal was an airplane that just plain looked fast. Testing had gone so well that plans were being made to replace the Cessna 182 with a cantilever-wing Model 187 in model year 1969. Once the Cardinal was in the hands of owners and renters, however, serious problems arose. Because of the complexity of the airframe, with its compound curves, the 177 was heavier than the 172, so it had less useful load -- but no one seemed to read the owner's manual to figure that out. (No POHs in those days.) It had four seats, so pilots put four people in the airplane. The 177 had nearly 10 gallons more usable fuel than the 172, and pilots filled the tanks along with putting four people in the airplane. With full fuel and four adults, a Cardinal was way over gross. Vy was about 10 mph faster than in the 172, but pilots flew it at 172 speeds. Rather than read the manual, pilots howled about lack of climb performance and whined mightily that the airplane was underpowered; after all, it couldn't be their fault. Cessna had mistakenly figured that pilots would load their airplanes per the owner's manual. It was one of two errors the company made in assessing real-world behavior of private pilots. The second error was to overestimate their skill once in the airplane, because they made the controls noticeably lighter and more effective than the 172. The ailerons and rudder for the 177 were light and very effective; a 177 can handle some pretty incredible crosswinds. To harmonize with the ailerons and rudder, the stabilator was made light and effective. The number of degrees of deflection of a stabilator per inch of movement of a control wheel, as well as the force involved, is a decision made jointly by test pilots and engineers during development of any new airplane. Once the effectiveness of the stabilator was set to match the other controls on the Cardinal, it turned out that a significant number of pilots could not cope with a pitch control that remained effective at low speeds. Those pilots were used to making fairly large control inputs when coming down final in airplanes that were not particularly responsive in pitch at approach speeds. When those same pilots got to yanking and shoving on the Cardinal's wheel, the airplane responded. Right now. Pilots overcontrolled in the flare and broke nosewheels off with alacrity. In fact, a prospective buyer of a Cardinal is always warned to check the condition of the nose gear and firewall-attach area. With the "underpowered" complaints from the field, as well as the cry to bring back the old, familiar boot that was known and loved, Cessna decided to resurrect the 172 in the second half of 1968. The 150-hp engines that were going to go into the Cardinal were diverted to a new model 172. The 172 went on to be the largest selling civilian airplane in history, largely because it will tolerate astonishing levels of abuse from those who may not have kept their skills up to snuff. Cessna looked at the market and decided that, because it didn't have an airplane in the 180-hp niche and both Piper and Beechcraft did, the logical thing would be to bow to uninformed public pressure (gee, that would have to be a first) and bump the power of the Cardinal to 180 hp. It did so. (Even with 180 hp, there are some who still insist the Cardinal was underpowered.) What has always struck me as interesting is that if you take a 1968 177 with 150 hp and a 1968 172 with 150 hp, load each to gross weight, and then take off side by side (this has been done and carefully documented and published), the 177 will out-climb the 172. With full fuel in each, the 172 will hold more weight in the cabin; however, the occupants will be squeezed together tighter than in the 177. Once in level flight -- even with the bigger cabin -- at every power setting the 177 is always at least one knot faster than the 172. Yet the 177 got the rep for being underpowered. Cessna did change the gearing of the stabilator in 1969 and again in 1970, each time slightly increasing the force required for pitch change and decreasing the amount of deflection per inch of travel. However, the claim of "twitchy" control in pitch did not go away until the introduction of the Grumman American Traveler, Cheetah and Tiger, each of which had deliciously quick controls and were even more responsive in pitch than the Cardinal. For the good pilot, the airplanes are a joy to fly; however, and not surprisingly, they are also subject to a high rate of pilot-induced oscillation landing accidents and -- guess what? -- broken nosewheels. If you get a chance to fly -- or better yet, to own -- a Cardinal, grab it. It was ahead of its time, efficient and capable, and it truly rewards a good pilot who will not overload it and caresses the controls rather than manhandling them.

Luscombe 8

Luscombe 8

"Yep, you just look at one of those Luscombes and it'll groundloop. Take you right off the runway, probably pick off at least one runway light on the way and leave you sitting among twisted metal somewhere out in the weeds. If you're smart, you won't get near one of them things." Good grief. If you ever wanted aviation's shining example of poor carpenters blaming their tools, it is the Luscombe. Don Luscombe left his position at Mono Aircraft, maker of the speedy Monocoupe, in the early 1930s. There are those who assert he was kicked out for shady financial dealings, but that's neither here nor there. His avowed goal in life was to build an all-metal, GA airplane. In 1933 the company bearing his name marketed the Luscombe Phantom, a very attractive, radial-engined, two-place, tailwheel airplane that happened to look a lot like a Monocoupe. Unfortunately, it had such horrible ground handling that, records show, a number of sales were lost when new owners demanded their money back after the first flight. It is perhaps there that the reputation for groundlooping attached itself to the Luscombe line; for some reason, once a dark cloud has been erected over a product in aviation, pilots seem eager to keep it there no matter what improvements or corrections are subsequently made. The next Luscombe, the Model 4, a scaled-down Phantom, had better ground handling. It was merely lousy. Few were sold. In the later 1930s, Continental developed what was called the "pancake" engine -- what we now refer to as a horizontally opposed engine -- and encouraged Luscombe to see what sort of airplane could be wrapped around it. The timing was propitious: The flat engine worked well, weighed much less than a radial and was far cheaper to build and operate. Don Luscombe happily developed the two-place Model 8 and, in the process, met his goal of making the first all-metal GA airplane. It was a hit, with hundreds selling before World War II and thousands after. The Luscombe 8 has rudder pedals with a comparatively short throw for the degree of rudder deflection generated. The rudder is effective. Combine those two with a relatively narrow landing gear and heel brakes that aren't always willing to brake, and you have a challenge on the runway. If a pilot overcontrols on landing rollout or on takeoff, the airplane is less forgiving of error than in perhaps a J-3 or the even more docile Champ. Less forgiving does not mean the airplane will groundloop at the slightest provocation; it just means that one has to pay attention when the airplane is on the ground. After all, thousands of pilots received their flight training in Luscombes and did just fine, thank you. (In fact, if the Luscombe you are dealing with displays a proclivity to aggressively seek out the toolies on landing, there's a good chance that there is a gear misrigging or brake problem.) In the spectrum of ground handling of tailwheel airplanes, all require a pilot's undivided attention, but if one puts the Champ and Citabria near the most docile end and a Pitts Special near the "Ohmygod, where is this thing going?" end, the Luscombe is slightly on the easy side of the middle of the pack. It's easier to handle on the ground than a Stearman, and has excellent visibility over the nose -- better than almost all tailwheel airplanes. It's not a milquetoast's airplane, but it's certainly not the ogre it's sometimes made out to be.

American Yankee

American Yankee AA-1 Clipper

"Man, you don't want to fly that thing; if you slow it down, it'll fall right out of the sky. God forbid if you stall it, the thing will whip right over into a spin that will go flat quicker than you can say, 'Aunt Sadie' and it's all over." As one might expect, it just ain't so. The American Yankee Clipper (to give it its full name) was the production version of a two-place, folding-wing, homebuilt known as the Bede-1. Developer Jim Bede, one of the more colorful and -- in my opinion -- affable scalawags in aviation, started his tradition of repeatedly demonstrating that he had the ability to design an incredibly cool airplane and the inability to put it into production with the Bede-1. Once Bede was gone from the scene, the airplane -- now known as the AA-1 American Yankee Clipper -- completed certification and in 1968 began deliveries, marketed both as a trainer and personal airplane. It was faster than its competitors, thanks partially to a wing optimized for low drag at cruising speed. The tradeoff was a higher stall speed than those same competitors. Tied with very light, responsive controls, particularly in pitch, inexperienced or not particularly adept pilots could, and did, inadvertently stall the airplane, with sometimes nasty results. While the stall is somewhat abrupt, it is not as sharp-edged as another two-place trainer, the T-6. The Yankee's stall break is definite; however, it also "unstalls" easily and definitively if the wheel is moved forward. It does not tend to roll off at the stall unless the ball is not centered. The spin paranoia came about because the airplane, as with numerous other types, could not meet the requirements for certification for intentional spins. Unlike those others, however, a large-lettered, red, "Spins Prohibited" placard decorated the instrument panel. I do not know why such a sticker was installed, but it got the attention of a lot of pilots and created a lot of negative talk. My guess is that the controls are so utterly delightful that it almost seems a shame that the airplane is not aerobatic and, unless a warning were presented in what might be considered a shout, pilots would try to spin the airplane on purpose. The Yankee does not have a proclivity to spin and does recover easily from a cross-control stall before anything bad happens. Yet, if you are foolish enough to intentionally spin one, you are unlikely to successfully recover from the maneuver prior to impact. During various certification and other flight tests, pilots involved in attempting spin recovery found the pressing need to make use of the spin 'chute. (A spin 'chute is a parachute attached to the aft portion of the airframe specifically for slowing down the airplane and forcing the nose down if it will not come out of a spin. The parachute is ejected after use and a successful spin recovery). It is wise to keep in mind that such has been the case with a lot of other airplanes that are not certified for intentional spins, yet they are not similarly maligned on the subject with the Yankee. The Yankee is a tremendously fun airplane. Its higher stall speed requires respect and the cruise-optimized propeller means leisurely acceleration to flying speed, so it is not at home on short runways. It demands a sensitive hand on the controls; however, it is by no means deserving of any rap for poor low-speed handling or stall behavior. As an experienced Yankee pilot once said, "You fly it like a transport on takeoff and landing and like a fighter once you get to altitude." I've never been able to come up with a more succinct description of operation of the Yankee.

Cessna 411

Cessna 411

"Yep, lose an engine on that thing and it'll yaw so violently and then roll upside down and augur in so fast that you won't even have time to feather the prop on the dead engine." Hoo, boy, is that nonsense. The Cessna 411 was the first of Cessna's cabin-class, 400-series twins, built to compete with the Beechcraft Queen Air. It came out in 1965. To get the power needed for the performance desired, Cessna did as Beech had been doing and installed geared engines. In this case, they were among the first versions of Continental's geared series of engines, the GTSIO-520-C, developing 340 hp. As with any early product, the engine suffered from reliability issues; the subsequent versions, developing 375 hp and used on the Cessna 404 and 421, proved longer-lived. The 411 was fast and had a better single-engine rate-of-climb than almost any other piston twin. It also pushed the technological envelope in a number of areas, which meant that it needed to be maintained aggressively, which was expensive. Two years later, the pressurized 421 -- which looked very similar but with more powerful GTSIO-520-D engines, putting out 375 hp -- debuted and, in the next two years, killed off the unpressurized 411. Cessna did use a fuselage very similar to that of the 411 for its unpressurized 401 and 402. Owners soon found out that keeping a 411 airworthy was not cheap. For example, the large cowl flaps are operated by specialized electric motors. And they must operate for appropriate cooling in the climb and to allow continued flight should an engine fail: Because of its drag, the cowl flap on a dead engine has to be closed or it is unlikely the airplane can hold altitude even with its otherwise stellar single-engine rate of climb. When a cowl flap motor gives up the ghost, a replacement -- when it can be found -- costs thousands of dollars. The result is predictable. Over the years, when I've looked at 411s sitting on the ramp, I often see the cowl flaps wired into a 3/4 open position because the owner did not replace the operating motor when it wore out. The downside is two-fold: The engine overheats in climb and, should it fail, it pretty much dooms the pilot to a forced landing. The 411, as with any high-performance twin, demands that an engine failure be handled correctly: The offending engine has to be identified, its propeller feathered and the cowl flap closed. Rudder forces are relatively high, although within GA limits and well below those of transport-category airplanes. By regulation, a transport-category airplane can require a maximum of 180 pounds of rudder force at Vmc (minimum single-engine control speed), while a GA airplane has an upper limit of 150 pounds. The only GA airplane that hits the 150 pound number is the Beech Duke. The 411 comes in just below at 145 pounds. There were a number of lawsuits against Cessna on the 411 in the 1980s and a lot of arm-waving about single-engine handling, partially based on arm-chair aerodynamicists saying that the high-aspect-ratio rudder was too "skinny" to control the airplane. The FAA got involved and did a complete set of recertification single-engine-handling flight tests. They gave the airplane a clean bill of health, but, the OWTs live on. The reality is that the 411 set the tone for 400-series handling. If you have ever flown a 401, 402, 404, 411, 414 or 421, you have experienced some of the most pleasant-to-fly GA airplanes ever built. I've flown the 411 with one engine caged. It is like about any other piston twin. It is fully controllable down to Vmc (in my flights, I was able to fly it below published Vmc without any problem) and can make turns in either direction on one engine. Whether it climbs or descends on one engine depends on the loading, altitude, air temperature and whether you have followed the checklist. The current problem is that the engines have a relatively short TBO and the systems are expensive to maintain, so the selling price is so low you may be able to buy one with a credit card. Those who succumb to the siren call of a low purchase price rapidly discover that $600 per hour probably won't come close to covering operating expenses, so maintenance gets deferred, as does training. And when the ill-maintained, overheating engine fails, the pilot struggles to do single-engine work he hasn't practiced recently, can't close the cowl flap because the motor died months ago, pulls the nose up vainly trying to climb and gets well below Vmc and crashes, there is an unfortunate tendency to blame the airplane. Let's put these OWTs to bed. Then again, maybe we shouldn't get rid of the OWTs. I'm hoping to buy an airplane in the next year or so, and if people keep bad-mouthing good airplanes, maybe I'll be able to afford one that I might not otherwise be able to buy. OK, now class, remember: The Luscombe ground-loops without provocation, the Cardinal is under-powered, the Yankee ... See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.
/