Cub vs. Champ: Which to Pick?


When Elaine Kauh and I were shooting the Cub vs. Champ shoot-out video (scroll to the bottom of this page), it was the first time I’d ever flown these two vintage taildraggers back-to-back in any kind of organized way. I’d flown the Cub plenty and the Champ a little less often, but with months or years separating the stick time. But hop out of one and climb into the other and the differences between the two are quite noticeable; maybe even dramatic.

And although I didn’t realize this, they should be different. The J-3 didn’t change appreciably from its pre-World War II roots to the peak civil production after the war. But the Champs, as most of us know them, are post-war airplanes and the degree to which aviation technology changed between 1938 and 1946 is nothing short of stunning. Not all of that-in fact, maybe little of it-was applied directly to rag-and-tube taildraggers, but I strongly suspect the Champ enjoyed a lot of rub off from what constituted a good flying airplane-call it an embrace of best practices, I guess.

This manifests itself across a range of design points. First, the Champ is nearly a foot shorter than the Cub, but the cabin area is longer and wider. It’s much easier to get into and once you are in, it’s absolutely commodious compared to the Cub. The forward visibility is better in the Champ, thanks to a larger windshield and the fact that the pilot sits up front. In the Cub, the view from the rear solo seat is quite restricted and is worse yet with a passenger in the front seat. Seeing past someone’s head during landing is a skill unto itself.

Performance can be apples to oranges because each airplane can have several different engine choices. Our comparison was between a C-65 in the Cub and a C-85 with a case and crank upgrade in the Champ, making it nearly the equivalent of an O-200. The Champ, a 7DC, climbed better and cruised faster, although the Cub really matches it in takeoff performance.

Ground handling is a toss-up. From the backseat of a Cub, you’re either going to do S-turns, lean out the open door or run into something. You can’t really relax for more than a few seconds; it’s absolutely blind. From the Champ’s front seat, the view over the nose is splendid, with no need for S-turns or even neck craning. Braking and turns I’d give to the Cub. We just installed Grove disc conversions on our J-3 and the braking and turning performance is terrific. The Champ commonly has cable-controlled drum brakes with a lot of hysteresis in the cables. That means you have to anticipate the need for brakes a couple of seconds before you really need to turn or stop. Plus, the heel pedals are awkwardly placed compared to the Cub’s.

Pilots who’ve flown the Champ but not the Cub may get a whoa moment when the tail comes up on takeoff. It pops up almost the instant the throttle hits the firewall and it takes little stick pressure to hold it there. The Champ is just the reverse; it takes a lot of stick force to push the tail up and it takes its sweet time getting there. The Champ’s tail is a lot heavier to lift when moving it, too, probably because the gear is further forward relative to the center of mass.

That may create another little quirk. I can’t prove it, but I think the Champ groundloops more readily than the Cub. In addition to being shorter, the Champ’s gear is also four inches narrower. You notice this when rolling out. If the Champ starts to depart a little, it will rapidly turn into a lot if you’re not right on the rudder. To me, the Cub is slower to aggravate, but once it’s 20 or 30 degrees off the track, you’re going for a ride.

The J-3 defines the concept of kite. It has low wing loading and fairly poor lateral and longitudinal stability. Ours, in fact, defies hands-off trimmed flight or maybe even any kind of trim. It does have a phugoid, of sorts, but you never quite know where it will terminate when disturbed. (Trim is done via a cord that works a jackscrew to adjust the horizontal fin’s angle of attack.) The Champ has a proper trim tab controlled by a cable and is relatively precise. It won’t trim hands-off quite the way a 172 will, but it’s close, especially with two people aboard.

The Cub has pleasant control forces; not feather light like so many LSAs are, but just right. Good thing, too, because you have to fly it constantly and the stick has that spoon-in-oatmeal feel. The Champ is noticeably heavier in roll compared to the Cub, but its pitch forces are about the same. Both airplanes have mushy, easy-to-recognize power-off stalls, but both will tip into a spin if you get lazy on the rudder. But, at least in the Cub, it takes deliberate effort to get the spin properly wound up. It wants to diverge into a spiral.

Landings were the real eye-opener for me. Our Cub was down for about six months, getting repairs on some gear damage and installing the Grove brakes. On the first post-maintenance test flight, I did three landings, all of them perfect three-pointers. Sweet, I thought; haven’t lost a thing. Then for the next couple of weeks, for some reason, I couldn’t buy a decent three-pointer. They weren’t horrible, mind you, just lacking that indescribable satisfaction of feeling the stick go slack just as the wheels kiss the grass. Anybody can land a Cub; but it takes work and practice to make the landings look and feel pretty.

The Champ, on the other hand, is a gift to pilots with hands of stone. Where the Cub’s bouncy bungees will launch the thing into low earth orbit if you try to stuff it on the runway before it’s ready, the Champ’s oleos will soak up excess energy and smooth out a three-pointer. (Check out my landing at 6:50 in the video. Anyone can do as well.)

If I were rich enough to own one of each and hangars to keep them in, which would I fly more often? Probably the Cub and definitely so during the summer. Despite all its warts, the Cub has something no other popular vintage taildragger does: the clamshell door that you fly wide open most of the time. Of a warm summer evening, there’s nothing quite like it in aviation, including biplanes. Its nap-of-the-earth, elemental flight qualities never seem to grow old. There is no simpler, more direct way to put 500 feet of sweet Fanny Adams between you and the ground.

But when the temperature drops-for me, that’s about 65 degrees-the hatch gets dogged, but it’s of little help. That leaky door is drafty and loud. That’s where the Champ excels, with its latch door. It’s quieter, warmer and more comfortable, with a heater that actually works. That’s important for people like me who have reptilian cooling systems.

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