Blow Your Own Doors Off


This appeared in an Aeronca web discussion; I’m paraphrasing, but it’s a perennial issue of minimal importance, requiring in-depth review: Can the 7AC Champ be flown with its door removed? Answer: Yeah, pull the pin(s), extract door, go fly. Follow-up: Is there an STC permitting door removal? Yes, and I’m guessing a few Champ owners were unaware or don’t care and fly without the door anyhow. It’s fun, so let’s consider door-on vs. door-off logic and/or consequences.

Forty-one years ago, while shopping for a J-3 Cub—an airplane I’d never flown but long adored—I fell in love with the 7AC Champ, because it was half the Cub’s price. I’ve flogged this cost analysis before, and it’s unrelated to aircraft performance, which should be overlooked when romance is in the air. They’re both slow and burn car gas at 4 gph. Both turn heads, and both are called Cubs by the unwashed masses. In unadulterated forms, both typically have 65-HP engines without pesky electrics. Occupants will be miserably cold in winter, plus bits of spring and fall, depending on location. I’d purchased my Champ in Santa Cruz, California, where weather is an illusion. Except lately, where it’s a brutal reality but don’t worry, droughts will return. Always do.

One attraction to the Cub was its door. Clamshell halves, the top piece swings up to latch beneath the wing, where it sometimes remains attached in flight, while the lower half drops like a college student’s dirty jeans on a dorm floor, there until graduation. It’s sublime. Fly along at low speeds and altitudes, wind ruffling what’s left of your hair while drying your eyeballs in uncoordinated turns. Splattered bug innards lash the rear-seat occupant, coating skin and togs with a patina of real aviator moxie. It’s the next best thing to what we grass strip delinquents really seek—open cockpit flying.

The problem with open cockpit is that it’s best enjoyed in warmer months. Come winter, the experience requires deeper rationalization than what fuels lesser aviation endeavors. Here’s a quote by Henry Townsend, from Bootleg Skies, on open cockpit flying in 1929: “Sitting in that open cockpit on a cold morning it … it’s, well, I don’t know. It lets you know you’re alive, somehow. Sounds stupid, doesn’t it?”

Yes, Henry, it does. You’re fictitious and not kidding anyone. I know, because my lust for flying without overhead cabin restrictions led me to buy a Marquart 180-HP, open cockpit biplane back when I still clung to a shard of romantic youth. It was great. Exactly what I’d sought since loafing around Ramapo Valley Airport, New York, in my early teens when absolutely no one wanted me near their aircraft. Can’t blame them.

Studies conducted under an IHOP* grant by the Institute For Predetermined Studies (IFPS) in Promise City, Iowa, concluded that there is nothing better in flight—possibly in life—than open cockpit biplane flying (tailwheel, from grass runways). What research didn’t mention, though, was cold air chased wimps like me beneath a Plexiglas canopy, where solar heat keeps things survivable.

Open cockpit flying in above frigid temps was everything I wanted in aviation. Four wings stitched together with struts and wires added the necessary drag to remind me how important it was to forego destinations and enjoy the sky. When temps dropped, I swapped the windshield for a full canopy that opened like a coffin lid, vaguely similar to a Messerschmitt bf 109’s. This was disconcerting should we flip inverted and become trapped after a botched landing, so I attached a sheathed hunting knife to my shoulder harness to give the false comfort of an emergency escape tool. Although never needed, it imparted an extra layer of self-image cool, and flying open-cockpit biplanes is largely about imagery.

Water vapor is a nuisance inside airplane canopies or cabins on cold mornings. Most pilots breathe, although I’ve had to remind some students to do so. Breath holds moisture, which adheres to chilled Plexiglas like scandal to politicians. To mitigate, we crack cabin windows, and in the winterized Marquart, I’d start the engine with the canopy secured, then with power at idle, release the latch just enough to circulate fresh air.

Inevitably, one late winter afternoon I forgot to relatch. With engine gauges in the green beneath a fetchingly blue sky, I advanced the throttle to taxi through the gray slush when—SLAM! The slipstream grabbed the unsecured canopy and twisted it from its piano hinge with Jupiter’s wrath, reminding me that surrendering to comfort came with risk. But flight demands balancing risk with reward, and the ratio must be considered before altering aircraft equipment.

Back to the web query. Is it legal to remove a Champ’s door? Yes, with the STC (there’s an STC for everything). Get an IA to do the paperwork if you want the merit badge, although the airplane won’t notice one way or the other. But the authorities might.

I doubt if 12 people in the FAA could properly identify a 7AC in a lineup with Cubs or know about the door-off STC. I certainly didn’t when I bought my Champ and, because I wanted that unconfined Cub experience, at half-price, I removed my Champ’s door to see how it would fly. Flew fine. No adverse characteristics until all the papers (registration, airworthiness certificate …) flashed around the cockpit during climb-out then disappeared through the open doorway.

Later, standing at attention before one of the dozen FAA employees who knew something about Champs, I pleaded ignorance while groveling for forgiveness and paperwork replacement. (Insert trombone whah-whahs here).

Lesson learned? Possibly. Open cockpit is great with minimal downside. Likewise, Cubs and Champs with windows open or doors off on warm evenings are also great. Getting caught with your paperwork knickers around your ankles? Priceless to the FSDO rep stifling a smirk while mulling your fate and wishing that she, too, flew a Champ.

* Iowa House Of Parody; no rights reserved; no cows too sacred

Other AVwebflash Articles


    • Hey, Iowa is the birthplace of Rejection Slip Theater! Parody, irony, rejection–it’s all here.

  1. My Stinson 108-2 flew just fine with the door off to parachute out of, probably needed the STC too, never even thought about it. Jumping out of the J-3 was a bit more of a production, remove the rear stick so you could climb out of that seat, lean out with your hand on the tire being careful not to snag the ripcord of the chest mount reserve and fall out. The airshow when the pilot flying from the front had to reach back to reinsert the stick and then climb over the front seat back, slip and fall on the stick was a bonus. Back in my reckless youth in 1970, great fun!

    • The real IHOP (Iowa Hose Of Parody) members always meet in undisclosed locations, which we don’t even disclose to members. Might explain the low turnouts….

  2. The Air Force L-16A (Aeronca 7BCM) was fitted with a jettisonable door as standard equipment and in the 1960s we frequently flew our surplus Civil Air Patrol L-16 with the door off. A red handle inside the cabin rotated to pull the pins.

    Charles L. Cook

    My Times With The Aeronca L-16A

    by Charles L. Cook

    As a teenager, I was blessed with the opportunity to join Civil Air Patrol, basically Scouting with airplanes. Our CAP squadron was one of the few with its own airplane, assigned to us by the state’s Wing headquarters, which was used for cadet orientation flights, search and rescue missions and proficiency flying. It was an ex-USAF L-16A, which was essentially a civilian Aeronca Champion with more horsepower and plexiglass, circa 1947.

    Once I had earned my pilot’s license in 1961, I became rated as a squadron pilot and could fly the old L-16 as much as I could afford to; avgas was 50 cents a gallon, and we contributed $5 an hour for upkeep. My job’s weekly take-home pay was about $40 so I eked out a few hours per month. I flew cadets, performed practice search missions and generally built up flying time while awaiting my notice from the county Draft Board for induction into military service.

    I loved the old fabric-covered taildragger; with its 85-hp Continental, it was reasonably peppy, climbing well and cruising at about 85 mph. The meager 13-gallon fuel supply behind the firewall meant that one only had about two hours of useful endurance, but that was about as long as it was comfortable to occupy the bare-bones cockpit. There was no electrical system, so starting required a team effort, one person to hand-crank the propeller and one to man the throttle and brakes. Since we were operating as an auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force, we were also supposed to follow USAF procedures by posting a fire guard with an extinguisher in hand.

    The Champ-style curved control stick fitted into the palm much more nicely than the Piper Cub’s straight-up broom handle, and the soft oleo landing gear struts handled our rough grass runway like a baby carriage. In winter, we had to pick our days, wrap up in multiple layers of clothing, and attempt to manipulate the mechanical heel brakes in rubber overshoes. There was a knob labeled “cabin heat” but its function was rather symbolic. Spring, summer and fall, on the other hand, were the L-16’s prime seasons. Occasionally, we would remove the jettisonable door for photography and fly au-natural.

    On March 7, 1965, a particularly bright and welcoming day, I had nothing better to do and decided to see just how high I could make the little airplane climb. Most L-16 missions were flown within 2000 feet of the ground, and in my total flying experience I had never seen more than 5000 feet on an altimeter. Located as we were in the Midwestern plains. My plan was to simply fly a box pattern around our small city to stay oriented, until I reached the plane’s absolute ceiling.

    Up we went, patiently putt-putting along at what I had been taught was Vy. The military had specified fuel injection for its L-16A engines, rather than a carburetor; there was no provision for a mixture control. Gradually, the landscape’s scale grew smaller and smaller, and even the town’s borders became indistinct. In a half-hour I was up to 10,000 feet MSL, still hammering away but now taking several minutes to complete a circle of the long altimeter hand.

    The engine never missed a beat. Evidently the fuel metering system compensated for the thinning air. It was noticeably colder, as I had anticipated, but full cabin heat, such as it was, provided only enough warmth to keep my toes from becoming frostbitten. We moved up past 12,000, then 14,000 and eventually 15,000 and 16,000–I was amazed to still be crawling upward, focused as I was on the height gauge. Finally, at 17,000 feet, she ran out of all desire for further ascent. I hauled back on the stick to notch another 100 feet and, as the wing stalled out, closed the throttle and began the return trip.

    Looking around, I couldn’t see any landmarks in the flat Midwestern tableau to confirm my position. Probably hypoxic, I hadn’t kept track of my circuits during the final half-hour. I also hadn’t anticipated just how long it would take to fast-glide back down to a normal altitude. I had no navigation equipment other than a sectional chart, no nav radio, just eyeballs. Anxious to hurry things along, I kicked the L-16 into a spin for multiple turns, until I became nauseous. I recovered on a cardinal magnetic compass heading, and frantically looked for something I recognized.

    Down below 10,000 feet, things started to appear from the hazy maze. I found a town I recognized, about 25 miles east of my home airport. Evidently the winds aloft had drifted my climbing pattern. I kept clearing the engine with bursts of throttle to make sure it was still running and soon was back in the traffic pattern. My landing was nothing to brag about and I was a little wobbly when I climbed out of the plane, but I had indeed ascertained the L-16A’s maximum ceiling.

    Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken a camera along to verify my efforts, so only my memories of the event supported my claim. I doubt that any of my squadron mates wanted to repeat my effort. Old N6084V was retired a few years afterward; I still miss the old girl.


  3. Hi Paul,
    great stuff. I havent seen an article from you in awhile. thanks for the chuckles.
    fellow atc’er KMRY,

    faa retired.

  4. In the beginning: Young dumb Com’l IFR SES Pt. 135 pilot; I would fly my 185 on floats with the right door off quite frequently for local news reporters in Fabulous Florida Keys. Aircraft handled just fine-and I got paid. You needed an STC? Who knew?!

  5. Thanks for continuing to keep Ramapo Valley Airport alive; the airport where Bill Beard and Walter Gengarelly gave me and 3 friends the chance to learn to fly in exchange for lineboy work during the 1960s. The deal of a lifetime.

    • Bob, I applied for a line boy job at Ramapo Airport in spring 1972. I wrote on the application, “I’ve been hanging around here for ten years, so you might as well pay me.” No openings until I got the call–actually my mother answered the phone–offering me a job on September 28, 1972, the day I entered the Army. I returned three years later to rent a C-172 and make some of the worst landings ever witnessed at Ramapo.

  6. Paul, was that your A/C registration certificate I saw floating down over Spring Valley, NY ?
    Hahaha… great story. Used to fly my straight tail ’59 Cessna 150, my Ercoupe 415 C/D, my Cherokee 180, my Aeronca 11AC Chief (with door and all parts intact- at least I hoped) and my Cessna 120 out of Ramapo. The good days…

    • Frank, I have many fond memories of Ramapo, Spring Valley, NY. Last time I was there was late 1975. Great little airport. What a loss.

  7. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the chuckle. I always know it’s you just by the title of your articles. I have quite a collection. I do love open cockpit flying. Got a chance to hop a ride in a Stearman last weekend. I was driving past my buddy’s hangar and he was dragging out the Stearman. With a sad face, I asked “what are you doing?” It was pathethic enough for him to ask if I wanted to go along. Well duh….the answer is always yes! There is nothing like it! I did sort of forget that it’s a bit cooler up there but I wasn’t about to waste time grabbing a jacket.
    By the way, I just started reading Bootleg Skies. See someone has a copy. You can thank Ann Pellegrano for that.
    Cheers from Gwen in Fredericksburg, Texas

    • So you’re the one with the Bootleg Skies copy! We may need to print another. And we should all be thankful for Ann…for many reasons. She’s amazing.

  8. Sorry for the topic change but……

    20 Years ago today March 31, 2003 we woke up to Meigs Field closure “XXXX” 😢. The Aviation community went very negative. Were predictions for Aviation’s future accurate?