Citabria and Decathlon Review
Affordable fun flyers with good aerobatic and a little bush capability as part of the bargain.
Owners who fancy a little light aerobatics—or even semi-serious competition—might lust after a Pitts S1 or an Extra 300. But then reality sets in. Those airplanes require no small degree of skill to simply fly safely and that’s before we consider the insurance premiums.
And that’s why so many owners inevitably gravitate toward the American Champion Citabria or the Decathlon, starter aerobatic airplanes that turn out to have much more capability than many realized until they take a close look.
These models have a lot going for them. The Citabria and Decathlon aren’t expensive to buy or maintain, they don’t have any serious gotchas and a pilot of average skill can learn to fly and land them safely. Moreover, they can double as respectable back-country flyers, which is something you’re not likely to do in a Pitts or an Extra.
The airplanes are still in production at American Champion’s factory in Rochester, Wisconsin, from whence come full support for all the models.
As result, the Citabria is right up at the top of the list for those looking for a simple, fun flying machine capable of most inside positive-G aerobatics. (Citabria is “airbatic” spelled backwards.) Available in several versions, with varying powerplants and equipment, the Citabria and its stablemate, the Decathlon, have a great deal to recommend them to the recreational flyer.
Citabria and Decathlon History
It’s fair to say the Citabria goes back a ways—all the way to the beginning, in fact. It’s based on the Champion 7-series air- frame. The similar, although more rugged, 8 series is used for the Scout bushplane and the more fully aerobatic Decathlon.
There are a few things to watch for when looking for a Citabria, most notably the wooden wing spars found in pre-1990s models. There’s also the possibility of strut corrosion, similar to what Piper and Taylorcraft owners have been finding for some years. The good news is that American Champion can retrofit new, all-metal wings onto older airplanes for owners who prefer them, and many Citabrias have undergone the upgrade. In addition, a gross weight boost for the metal-spar versions adds utility.
The Citabria traces its roots back to the Aeronca Champion (which everyone called the Champ), one of the crowd of postwar tailwheel trainers that included the Piper Cub, Cessna 120 and Luscombe. The postwar production boom resulted in tens of thousands of these airplanes, but by 1951the market was saturated and production ended.
The 7EC Champ was returned to production periodically and is now being manufactured for the light sport market by American Champion as the Champ, with a 100-HP Continental O-200 engine. It’s the only light sport entry that’s also a fully certified airplane. In 1959, the first airplanes that would eventually become Citabrias appeared, dubbed 7GC. In the years that followed, a fistful of airplanes debuted, each called Citabria.
Eventually there were six variants. In some cases, the differences between models are minor, in others more significant. The nomenclature can be confusing, so here’s a run- down:
• 7GC—Produced only in the 1959 model year, it had flaps and a 140-HP Lycoming O-290.
• 7GCB—Essentially the same as the 7GC, but with a 150-HP Lycom- ing O-320; produced from 1960 to 1964.
• 7GCAA—Aerobatic, with the same Lycoming as the 7GCB. No flaps. Introduced in 1966 and in production today as the 7GCAA Citabria Adventure.
• 7GCBC—Aerobatic, same as the 7GCAA, but with slightly longer wings and flaps. Also introduced in 1967 and in production as the 7GCBC Citabria Explorer.
• 7KCAB—Introduced in 1966 as a more capable aerobatic ship, with a fuel-injected 150-HP Lycoming and inverted fuel and oil systems. It was produced through the 1977 model.
• 7ECA— Introduced in 1964 as an aerobatic follow-on to the Champ. Originally, it had a 100-HP Continental O-200, soon replaced by the 115-HP Lycoming O-235. It is in production as the 7ECA Citabria Aurora.
The 8KCAB-150 and -180 appeared in 1971 and 1977, respectively and sported both more power and constant speed props, which are nice for combination aerobat/cruisers. A 210-HP version of the Decathlon, called the Xtreme, has just come out, more horsepower and a 33 percent increase in roll rate puts it head and shoulders above anything American Champion had previously built.
Most of these airplanes were built by Bellanca, which went under in 1980 at the beginning of the GA slump. A brief attempt was made to revive the line in 1984, but the timing wasn’t right and production stopped again. American Champion acquired the Type Certificate in 1988 and started production in 1990.
In 1990, American Champion started delivering Decathlons, followed by the Scout in 1993. 1994 saw the reintroduction of the 7GCBC Citabria, followed by the 7ECA in 1996 and most recently the 7GCAA.
The 7GCBC model has proven the most popular, followed by the 7KCAB. (Not sure about prodcuction numbers; currently the 8KCAB is the most popular, followed by the 8GCBC). The latter, built as a low-end aerobatic airplane capable of inverted flight, did not last largely due to competition from the Decathlon. The Decathlon, with its shorter wings and semi-symmetrical airfoil, was a better buy for aerobatics, though the 7KCAB is still a fine airplane.
Today’s Citabrias are essentially the same airplanes introduced decades ago (although American Champion offers engines with up to 210 HP), with one significant difference: the wing structure. The Bellanca airplanes had wooden wing spars, which sometimes suffered cracks and were the subject of ADs.
American Champion came up with an all-metal structure and incorporated it into all new aircraft. Owners of earlier models can also have the new wings retrofitted.
The cost is steep at (depending on model) $16,000 to $25,000 per set plus $1200 to $1400 installation and $2000 for fabric and paint, but the new wings boost the gross weight, are free of repetitive inspection requirements and certainly increase the resale value of the airplane.
The factory can also supply new, improved front struts for $990 a set and aileron spades for $550. All of these are worthwhile improvements to older aircraft. When shopping for a Citabria, extra consideration should be given to upgraded models.
Offering the upgrades has proven a shrewd business move, affording the factory a source of cash flow that isn’t dependent on the sale of new airplanes while simultaneously reducing its liability exposure.
Citabria and Decathlon Handling
As tailwheel airplanes go, the Citabrias have benign ground handling characteristics, making them excellent transition training airplanes. Nevertheless, pilots with little or no tailwheel experience must remember the fundamental differences between conventional and trigear airplanes. On the ground, tailwheel machines are more prone to swapping ends due to the location of the center of gravity aft of the main landing gear.
This means the pilot absolutely must stay alert to side loading of the landing gear. Staying on the centerline and being unfailingly in command of the rudder are keys to success. It also means that the ailerons must be properly positioned for the wind when on the ground. If you fail to do that, you can wind up in a ditch during the landing rollout. This is a common Citabria accident scenario.
Once aloft, the Citabria is forgiving in virtually all flight modes, although it is definitely a rudder airplane requiring work to keep the ball centered due to adverse yaw. The elevators and rudder are nicely harmonized while the ailerons are comparatively heavy and less effective. Adding spades corrects this characteristic and are, in our opinion, worth the price.
Stalls are mild, giving aerodynamic warning whether flaps are up or down and stall speeds are as low as about 40 knots for the flap-equipped 7GCBC. Citabrias will spin nicely if the ball is not near the center at the stall. Spin recovery is positive, but requires several hundred feet, even if initiated immediately. Although stressed and certificated for loops and rolls, the Citabria is not a serious competition-level machine. It’s ideal for initial acro training and unadulterated fun, but only the 7KCAB has an inverted fuel and oil system. The other variants are generally limited to positive-G or G-neutral maneuvers such as inside loops, barrel rolls and the like.
One potential handling trouble spot is PIO (pilot-induced oscillation) during landings. Although not unique to Champions, the spring-steel main gear can bounce the airplane if the pilot dumps it too hard or if he or she fails to go around. More bounces, a groundloop and/or nose-over and/or prop strike can result. To prevent these, touchdown for a wheel landing should be as close to zero-rate as possible and for three-pointers, as close to the stall as possible, with the stick firmly back. Too fast and like most taildraggers, you’ll bounce once, or twice ... or more.
Citabria and Decathlon Performance
The cruising speed of the Citabria is sedate: 100 to 110 knots or so, depending on model, so a number of owners use them for travel. The extra power afforded by the larger Lycoming shows up mostly in greater climb rates. The longer wings of the 7GCBC help; according to Champion, the 7ECA climbs at 740 FPM, while the 7GCAA moves up at 1167 FPM and the 7GCBC climbs at 1130 FPM.
Takeoff and landing performance are impressive, particularly for the wood-spar 7GCBC. According to the Aircraft Bluebook, takeoff ground roll is only 296 feet, and a 50-foot obstacle can be cleared in 457 feet, although in our opinion, those numbers are a tad optimistic. Landing distance over a 50-foot obstacle is also in the 900-foot range, with about a 500-foot ground roll. (Older airplanes with lower gross weights will do somewhat better.)
Citabria and Decathlon Loading, Ergonomics
An important thing to note about the new metal wing structure is that it gives the 7GCBC Citabria a gross weight of 1800 pounds, compared to 1650 for the older models. Gross for the 7GCAA and 7ECA was upped in early 2001 to 1750 pounds for metal-spar versions. The Citabrias, especially early versions, are not known for their load-carrying capacity. While the lifting ability varies according to model and equipment. In general, it’s not possible to fill the seats and tanks at the same time. When two large people wearing parachutes consider aerobatics, they may be approaching gross weight even before fuel is added. Owners report that staying within the CG envelope is not a problem.
The cockpit of the Citabrias is laid out so that everything falls easily to hand. Solo is from the front seat and visibility is fair in flight. In the three-point attitude, the nose doesn’t block forward visibility. The front stick length gives just the right lever- age for the control gearing, especially with aileron spades. The rear stick is short and instructors report that it often takes both hands to get full aileron deflection in a roll in a non- spade aircraft. Each throttle (one for each seat) is where one reaches almost unconsciously with the left hand; the carb heat knob is immediately below.
Most Citabrias have toe brakes, although some of the earliest have that bane of many a pilot’s existence—heel brakes. Front seat travel is limited and short pilots may have difficulty getting full rudder throw without using an extra back cushion. Citabrias are some of the better airplanes for tall pilots, especially as the high roofline means not having to bend over to look out the side windows. The seats are surprisingly comfortable and the cushions snap out quickly when it’s time for parachutes. The panel is low and slender, making installation of more than VFR instruments and radios challenging. Headsets or ear plugs are a must as the cockpit noise level is about on par with the proverbial boiler factory.
The Citabria fuel system is utter simplicity, with three sump drains, one direct-reading mechanical gauge in each wing root and a simple fuel selector. Fuel supply is by gravity feed, of course, but as with all Lycomings, there’s also a boost pump.
Citabria and Decathlon Maintenance
Although maintenance is simple, it pays to seek out a mechanic who’s familiar with tube-and-fabric airplanes and, if looking at an airplane with the older wing, who has experience with wood. The covering is Dacron, which is durable, although not good for a lifetime. Owners suggest keeping the airplane out of the sun, since a re-cover job can be costly and time consuming.
Owners and mechanics tell us that aside from making certain the ADs are complied with, especially AD2000-25-02 R1 on wooden spar airplanes, a serious look at all of the fuselage tubes, especially those aft and low, for corrosion and proper inspection of the wooden spars, there are no particular trouble spots to watch for when shopping for a used Citabria. Early model wing struts had thinner, .035-inch wall thickness as compared to the more recent .049-inch wall thickness. AD 77-22-5 called for replacement of the old struts, and most if not all airframes should have the heavier struts installed; the presence of a placard limiting speed to 153 MPH is proof of the thinner struts.
Also watch for cracked seat backs. There have been accidents in which the pilot’s seat back failed, planting his torso on the aft stick with disastrous results. The landing gear U-bolts can develop cracks, especially in airplanes subjected to rough fields or training.
It’s difficult to find a Citabria that has not been groundlooped at some time in its life, simply because they are tailwheel airplanes. A groundloop by itself is not cause for alarm; the trouble arises when the loss of control results in a wingtip and/or prop blade hitting the ground or the landing gear being damaged. Wing damage repair is not always recorded in the logbooks, so inspect any Citabria for wing repairs, especially, as the experts tell us, that most wood spar compression cracks can be traced to an impact event, usually from a groundloop. A full set of service bulletins should be a part of any owner’s library, since they can point out areas of weakness.
The new wing structure was developed as the result of cracks in Decathlon wing spars, not those of the Citabrias, so the presence of wood is not necessarily a deal-killer. Nevertheless, years of movement of aluminum ribs against a wood spar means we’d look carefully before buying a wood-spar Citabria.
Students can err and blast right through redline airspeed, so a buyer should assume that an airplane capable of aerobatics has been doing them and that pilots have made mistakes in the process, so inspect the wing and tail carefully.
Fortunately, the Citabria’s systems are simple and inexpensive to maintain, so previous owners are more likely to have kept things up to snuff than owners of more complex, expensive and labor-intensive hangar queens.
Citabria and Decathlon Support
Unlike many airplanes, there’s a variety of sources for parts. First and foremost, of course, is American Champion. They’re located in Rochester, Wisconsin (262-534-6315), or on the web at www.amerchampionaircraft.com. We like the fact that the factory puts a number of its service bulletins and technical information on its website as a free service.
Another source is Santa Paula, California, home of Air Repair (805-525-8616) and Screaming Eagle aircraft (805-525-7121), a pair of shops that specialize in the line. Air Repair can sell you copies of all the factory service bulletins, a worthwhile investment.
For owner support, it appears the Citabria Owner’s Group has disappeared, but there’s a Bellanca Champion Club based in Coxackie, New York, with a website at www. bellanca-championclub.com. This site doesn’t seem to have a great deal of technical information available, but there is a member forum.
Citabria and Decathlon Owner Feedback
I purchased my 2004 7GCBC Citabria Explorer in 2008 with 100 hours on the tach. I have put 400 hours on the airplane since I bought it. I was not sure what I wanted when I bought this airplane. I was looking for a tailwheel, tandem-seat plane that I could fun fly and something newer so I would not need to work on it. I have a pressurized twin that I fly for my business; it is fun to fly, but a different kind of fun.
I had never flown a tailwheel and I did not have much trouble learning to fly the Citabria. I stayed on the ground when the wind was more than 5 knots until I became more proficient in the airplane. After 50 hours, wind was not a problem. However, if it is blowing 20 knots and gusting, it is a handful on the ground.
I flew some aerobatics in the aiplane with Greg Koontz, but after flying in his Decathlon, I learned that the Explorer model is not the best aerobatic plane. It was a good learning experience, but I have not cared to do any more in my airplane.
I bought Trick Air Skis in 2010 and, living in the north, it opened up a whole new type of flying. Trick Air makes a good package, but because it requires 8.50 tires, when the skis are off, the wheel fairings cannot go back on without a tire change. But the larger tires will handle unpaved strips much better.
Last summer, I flew the airplane to Alaska with another pilot who flew a PA-12. The Explorer performed well against the 150-HP PA-12 as a benchmark. The next trip, I will put bush wheels on. Flying into the back country strips, I found that the standard gear is short even with 8.50 tires. Plus, it was rough and I am sure not all that good for the airframe. I met other pilots with Citabrias and they had bush wheels plus Scout landing gear. The added angle of attack this gives is a plus getting off short and rough fields.
I have added an Air Wolf oil filter kit to the airplane after getting back from Alaska; 25-hour oil change intervals on a long trip was inconvenient. I have VGs on the airplane and that really makes getting slow landing on skis or short fields comfortable. I have an STC for flying with the door off and I usually have the door off all summer unless there is precipitation forecasted.
Having had this airplane for a few years, I am glad I have the GCBC model. If you want to fly in and out of short fields, the flaps are an advantage and 160-HP is needed. The airplane does not have a great useful load, but since I am usually by myself, I don’t have any loading problems.
Annuals cost me about $1000, but I am sure I could find a lower price by shopping around. I take it to the same shop that maintains my twin. The only other expense I have had was to replace the battery. The first year I paid $2000 for insurance, and last year it cost me $1400 with the same company for $100,000 hull and $1 million smooth liability. I plan on 6.5 gallons/hour at the power setting I use and the airplane carries 36 gallons. I don’t have an autogas STC, but plan to do that.
I bought the airplane looking for something fun to fly after work and on weekends. I can fly a long trip home in my twin and look forward to pulling the Citabria out of the hangar to unwind for an hour. When I bought it, I never thought I would have it on skis in the winter or camping with it on a river in Alaska. The airplane filled the need I was looking for, plus more.
Jim O’Day, Fargo, ND
Owning my Super Decathlon has been a dream come true. Some background: My close friend Bob bought this Decathlon from a Canadian club back in 2009. It had a Canadian registration and was then re-registered with the FAA.
Bob, who is a professional aerobatic pilot, and I ferried this aircraft from Calgary, Alberta, to Bloomington, Indiana. Since May 2009, Bob provided me with superior instruction every time we flew together. I know this Super Decathlon inside and out. When Bob decided to sell this Decathlon, I knew I was the perfect new owner.
Costs to operate is approximately 10 gallons an hour averaging traffic pattern, cruise and acro. Cruise slightly less. Maintenance and annual expense is not out the ordinary. My Decathlon has been meticulously maintained because of the Canadian CAA. The CAA requirements have been transferable to the U.S. requirements, so annual costs are typical.
What’s it like to fly? Keep the ball in the center. This is the best trainer in the air. Anyone can loop in an acrobat airplane, but the slow roll in an American Champion is something to be mastered. This is, by far, the best trainer of aerobatics because of its nimbleness. The slightest touch can make the perfect maneuver.
American Champion/Bellanca has a great organization of followers who can support any and all Decathlon owners.
Insurance on a Decathlon is surprisingly inexpensive, provided the owner has the experience in tailwheels as well as time in a De- cathlon. The cost is roughly $100 a month, give or take.
Tyson Sampson, via e-mail
This article originally ran in the June 2012 issue of Aviation Consumer magazine.