Rudders? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rudders


As the only U.S. citizen in Iowa who’s over 35 and not running for president, I have the freedom and civic responsibility to bring up delicate topics and speak, perhaps too frankly, about their effects on all our lives. One aviation topic was not even alluded to in this year’s hit summer replacement TV series, Presidential Debate Chorus Line. Warning: Although it deserves closer scrutiny, this subject may not be suitable for all pilots, particularly those who suffer from pedal anxiety performance issues (PAPI). Hey, you were warned but just couldn’t look away.

As a tailwheel instructor, I know that many pilots have no feet or at least can’t seem to find them on takeoff or landing. Others know what feet are “technically” supposed to do—yeah, yeah, press rudder pedals in a crosswind to keep the tires from rolling off their rims—but would prefer, instead, that technology offer alternative solutions to the extreme demands of pushing rudder pedals. Good news: There’s an app for that. In fact, it’s been there for decades.

When I say, Ercoupe, you might think, “Funny-looking airplanes that seat two, have no rudder pedals, despite sporting twin rudders and are the butt of jokes by uppity Cub and Champ pilots, but golly-gee, are so darn cute I wish I flew one … without being seen doing so, of course.” Or, like billions of humans floating above this planet in pressurized suspension, it’s possible you’ve never heard of these quirky old monoplanes and their devoted but equally quirky owners who, as I write, are holding their National Ercoupe Convention in Knoxville, Iowa. Don’t think that presidential candidates who can’t pass up a gathering of more than three people in Iowa won’t throw an elbow to have their photos taken amid a gaggle of Coupes—as cute as a basketful of puppies—pretending to know what they’re viewing while posing at the controls of 70-year-old airplanes that once almost revolutionized aviation and may yet make aviation great again.

Ercoupe is almost a generic name for an airplane designed in the 1930s by Fred Weick of the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO). Weick, along with John Thorp and Karl Bergey, later incorporated the cuddly bits of the Ercoupe into the Piper Cherokee near-four-seater, and despite adding real rudder pedals, Cherokees retained a trace of their progenitor’s cuteness but gained just enough attitude to win a supporting role in the 1964 James Bond film, Goldfinger. Pilots galore rushed to Piper FBOs after the movie’s premiere and were likely disappointed, discovering that life doesn’t always imitate film. But, hey, it got ‘em to the airport, and that’s a start.

The Ercoupe was the result of a government/private partnership to design a safe and practical aircraft that, well, frankly, during the Depression few could afford. By 1940, after testing several variants, the Ercoupe 415 hit the market just in time for World War II to take every potential pilot off that market and plunk them into just about anything but an Ercoupe. As with other aircraft manufactures, ERCO did its part for the war effort and in 1945 relaunched with the model 415C, cranking out over 4000 of them in 1946 alone. Advertised as spin-proof and requiring “no footwork,” Coupes sold well until the inevitable bust deflated the postwar boom.

ERCO sold off the Ercoupe rights, and over the next few decades the type certificate passed from one dreamer to the next. Forney, ALON, Aeronca and Univair among others have kept Ercoupes on life support. I’m surprised Amazon hasn’t snatched it up. Mooney bought into the losing hand and euthanized the dream with the redesigned Mooney M10 Cadet, ensuring doom for the Ercoupe lineage by replacing the Coupe’s signature twin rudders with a single Mooney-like vertical fin that required pilots to use (send the children from the room) rudder pedals.

Snake oil comes in many flavors as do promises of airplanes that “land themselves … won’t spin” or are otherwise impervious to the immutable laws of aerodynamics. Ercoupes can and do crash. They can and do stall, might not technically spin, but they do crash just like real airplanes. Since 1962, 591 Ercoupes of all stripes have entered the NTSB accident/incident reports. Of those, 59 were fatal accidents. Of those deadly ones, the perennial reaper of continuing VFR flight into IMC killed the most; little different from other GA accidents. Stall accidents, usually when turning base to final or climb-out to crosswind, claimed the next deadly level. Showing off with low-altitude passes killed those who hit trees and power lines plus those who yanked and banked, imposing extreme loads on aging airframes with rare but deadly inflight breakups. In short, stupid kills pilots in all types of aircraft. Only one cure, and it ain’t found in an app. Doubtless, you know what it is.

I have no idea if the FAA will ever follow through with its whispered 2018 tease to possibly raise the maximum gross weight for Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) from 1320 pounds to 3600 pounds. To do so would make all models of Ercoupe as well as everything else I fly—Citabria, Cessna, Pipers—once again available to many without medical certificates. I no longer fly IFR and rarely fly at night (it’s too dark), so daytime VFR limitations don’t bother me.

The Ercoupe 415C is the ubiquitous of the supposedly unspinnable Coupes and is prized because of its max gross weight being below the FAA’s current ludicrously arbitrary 1320 pounds max for use as LSA. Even though at the top of this article I said I was not a candidate for president, I was lying, which proves that I am a candidate. As your General Aviation Party (GAP) candidate, I promise to appoint a GA pilot as FAA Administrator, eliminate all medical certificates and replace the Air Force One Boeing 747s with Ercoupes, because … well, it would look so damn cute at Andrews AFB, and the world could use a smile.

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  1. Nice piece. Instructors everywhere are wondering: when can we expect to read the sequel – “We don’t need no stinkin’ trim?”


  2. Wonderful article. Since you put your hat into the political ring, “Make Aviation Great Again”…MAGA…endorsed by the General Aviation Party (GAP)…now officially a party made up of me and you…I guess two makes it a party…you have my vote!. Long live the grand Poobah of the GAP! Long live Ercoupes and other cute airplanes!

  3. Hey … YARS … don’t forget me, too. I have my red hat ready. 🙂 Can I be the Sergeant-at-Arms (aka, the Enforcer)?

    Good article … you made me laugh, Paul. I, too, no longer fly when it’s dark or in those big white things. Funny how gettin’ older makes you wiser. And, I once almost ate the weenie in — of all airplanes — a C150 doing one of your low show off passes. As my life flashed before me, I actually thought … “Of all the airplanes to die in!” Fortunately, I got it climbing before I met the pine trees.

    Seriously, though, if only two things happened, there’d be substantial growth in GA. Raising the MGTW of Light Sport would not only attract (and re-attract) many but it would alleviate the need for all that FAR23 testing and TSO’s which the rewrite didn’t fix. 3600 lbs would be awesome! Also, if they’d institute the “Primary-non Commercial” airworthiness category from the FAR Part 23 rewrite recommendation Appendix G-4, existing GA airplanes would see some relief, too. Is it OK if I don’t hold my breath waiting ?? But hey … if you appoint a GA pilot as Administrator, maybe it would happen before we all are wearing bibs or pushing up grass. I’d promise not to call him, “Mikey.” (inside joke for those with a long memory).

    — LARRY

  4. No, no, no. For the sequel: “We don’t need no stinkin’ flaps.”

    I’ve only flown one once, but the Airbrick . . . er Brickcoupe . . . er ErrorCoupe has truly unbelievable glide characteristics.

  5. If hat color will represent the General Aviation Party campaign, red is eliminated. Blue skies, blue oceans, turquoise waters, blue taxi lights, Navy Blue Angels, ultramarine blue of the Air Force – and don’t forget blue FAA headers (everybody like that one?) compile the obvious choice.

    But even my old ears can still pick up the rumblings of vitriolic protest, so how about white? Here come the white hats to rescue GA because, indeed, the world could use a smile. Where do I register?

  6. The problems with the idea of a so-called idiot-proof aircraft (that can’t spin and/or stall, or don’t need rudder pedals), like the Ercoupe, Long-Eze, and many others, is that it is just a dream, no more no less.

    The Cessna 337 was supposed to be the safest twin there ever was, but the accident records tell another tale (Swedish Coastguard had several, all lost, some just disappeared over the North Sea), John Denver lost his life when he managed to deep stall his beloved Long-Eze.

    Here is an interesting article by Richard Harris about the safe plane:

    • The Ercoupe did not need rudder pedals, did not stall in the real sense, it was not an idiot proof airplane.. But your argument really falls apart when you begin quoting accident statistics on a DIFFERENT airplane, an airplane that weighs 3 times as much, has retractable landing gear, two engines, seats six, and adjustable props. There is NO comparison to an Ercoupe which apparently you never even flew.
      I “stalled” an Ercoupe 200 feet from the ground with full passenger load and full fuel tanks. It recovered and I flew on. The only thing that you could not do without the rudder pedals was a 4 point roll. You could however do a barrel roll if you had enough altitude.

  7. My Ercoupe had flush riveting, all metal, and a controlable Beech Roby prop and upgraded 85Hp Continental. I could get off the ground in under 1000 feet and cruise at over 125mph. I loved it and wish I still had it. Sold N111J when I had a medical problem that turned out to be a false alarm. There are faster planes, but none I ever had could hunt thermals like “Homesick Angel”. With the cockpit open I would fly rill I smelled what smelled like “hot water on a broken rubber hose”, a smell familiar to those of us that drove cars before 1960, and then I would begin circling in a thermal to gain altitude.