Buying A Used Aircraft: Decathlon And Citabria

Ranking high on the list of fun airplanes to own, these aerobats are easy to care for with the right preventive care and experienced mechanics.

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The Citabria is a proven design, based on the Champion 7-series airframe. The more rugged 8 series is the more fully aerobatic Decathlon. Pre-1990s Citabrias have wooden wing spars, and with that comes the possibility of strut corrosion. The aerobatic 7GCBC model, with slightly longer wings and flaps, is arguably the most popular with first-time aerobat pilots, followed by the 7KCAB, a more capable aerobatic ship with a fuel-injected 150-HP AEIO-320-E2B Lycoming engine and inverted fuel and oil systems.

Citabria: Structural Improvements

Today’s Citabrias are essentially the same airplanes introduced decades ago, though with a significant difference in the wing structure. The Bellanca airplanes had wooden wing spars, susceptible to cracks and other issues inherent with a wooden structure, and were the subject of FAA ADs. Luckily American Champion tamed that dragon and came up with an all-metal structure. Better yet, American Champion can retrofit new, all-metal wings onto older airplanes, bringing a gross weight increase and a price tag of $20,000 to $27,000 per set, plus additional costs for installation, fabric and paint finishing. Also, part of the Citabria and Decathlon current lineup is the flagship Xtreme Decathlon. With a redesigned cowling and a 30 percent increase in roll rate, you’ll pay upward of $200,000, according to the latest Aircraft Bluebook.

You won’t go fast in these airplanes. The cruising speed of the Citabria is 100 to 110 knots or so, depending on the model. The extra power from the larger Lycoming shows up mostly in greater climb rates, rather than in cruise speed. The new metal wing structure gives the Citabria a gross weight of 1800 pounds, compared to 1650 for older models. The cockpit and panel controls are laid out so everything falls easily to hand. Fly solo from the front seat, and visibility is fair in flight.  

Low Maintenance, Lots Of Fun

Though not always the case with taildraggers, the Decathlon and Citabria have great ground handling, as they’re more prone to swapping ends due to the location of the center of gravity aft of the main landing gear. Once airborne, these airplanes are forgiving in virtually all flight modes. They’re rudder airplanes, and require work to keep the ball centered due to adverse yaw. Still, for pilots wanting a taste of aerobatics to sharpen skills or to simply grin from ear to ear, Decathlons and Citabrias are tough to beat for the money and simplicity.

There’s nothing particularly complicated about maintaining these airplanes, but it pays to take them to a mechanic who’s familiar with tube-and-fabric airplanes. It’s a skill that not all techs possess, and eventually owners will be faced with even minor fabric repairs. The covering is Dacron, which is durable though not good forever. Most owners suggest keeping them out of the sun when possible, and certainly hangared when not flying them.

We have long used the Citabria line as a shining example of good tailwheel handling, and we hope that the hardened insurance market recognizes it, too. But face it, these are still taildraggers, and because of the center of gravity being aft of the main landing gear, they are not tolerant of an inattentive pilot on landing or takeoff. Our scan of recent NTSB reports in the line not surprisingly found 34 percent involved runway loss of control (RLOC) in all but a few on landing, and about a quarter involving training ops.

“Citabrias are more comfortable than Cub-iteration aircraft,” said owner John Ewald. That’s something we’ve heard often since they offer more head and shoulder room, and allow you to sit in the airplane, rather than wear it. Some equip their airplanes for IFR, and it’s not uncommon to find basic IFR panels with Garmin GNX 375 GPS navigators and even small EFIS models, although we suspect the majority of Citabria and Decathlon owners avoid hard IMC. Many sport panel-mounted portable GPS units, which may be just enough for local travel.

CURRENT MARKET: We can’t stress enough the importance of good prepurchase evaluations for any used Decathlon and Citabria, looking hard at repair history—especially to the fabric and other structure. Obviously later-model planes bring top dollar in the current market, and 1970s vintage 7KCAB models typically retail around $36,000, whereas early 2000s models are closer to $90,000. Looking at the 8KCAB-150s, a 1980 model retails around $58,000, and a 1998 typically retails for $110,000, according to the Winter 2021 Aircraft Bluebook.

For a deeper dive on the Decathlon and Citabria, head to Aviation Consumer and the Used Aircraft Guide, where you’ll get a detailed model history, historical resale values, recent FAA ADs, competing model speed/payload/price comparisons and a detailed current NTSB accident scan summary.

Larry Anglisano is a regular AVweb contributor and the Editor in Chief of sister publication Aviation Consumer magazine. He's an active land, sea and glider pilot, and has over 30 years experience as an avionics tech.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. “The Bellanca airplanes had wooden wing spars, susceptible to cracks and other issues inherent with a wooden structure,”. Total nonsense. There are many other aircraft that have wooden spars and they last as long as metal ones. For instance the Viking series or most high performance aerobatic biplanes. They might in fact last longer as they do not corrode as aluminum does. Modern adhesives and surface coatings make the wooden spar better than ever. Spruce remains the ideal wood but there are great alternatives for less money, including laminated spars such as those from Steen. ACA makes a fine aircraft but they also have made a good business from convincing Citabria and Decathlon owners that their perfectly safe airplanes will fall from the sky unless they get the expensive conversion to Aluminium. Damaged spars are of course a different story, regardless the material.

  2. As far as I know, may be wrong, but been flying or associated with Aeroncas since 1958. Other then one older Citabria, I do not know of one wood spar failure in any of the Aeronca products through these many years. That older Citabria that did fail had been rode hard and put away wet and apparently had a crack in the spar when someone was finally able to pull it apart. You can actually pull anything apart with enough force. The spar AD happened after that. Many Aeronca product wing rebuilders go for another wooded spar again instead of switching to metal. And usually the original 70+ year old wooden spars are just inspected and used again in the rebuild.

  3. The Aeronca type clubs have been on the look out for reports of wing spars that have deteriorated over time to the point of being un-airworthy. To my knowledge none have been found. I bought a Champ project that had been partially disassembled after an inspection reported a damaged wing spar. On closer inspection, the spars were not damaged and were airworthy.
    In my experience, the cluster of frame tubing at the rear corrodes due to the repeated accumulation of water/moisture over many years. This happens as a result of being the at the low point inside the fuselage particularly if in a humid and rainy environment. This area should be examined carefully both at pre-buy and annual inspection. I don’t know of any incident related to this problem but I’ve seen tubes badly corroded but reparable (at significant expense) by an experienced and skilled AP.
    To be fair to the author, wing spars and their attachment hardware must/should be examined closely. Doing this is a challenge but can be done if the recommended inspection ports are installed and the inspector has a knowledge of the various appearances of spruce wood.

  4. I was a salesman for Bellanca’s in the late 70’s. I went to the Osceola (factory) many times to pick up brand new Citabria’s and Decathlon’s. This article informs, but potential buyers should understand that we are talking about planes that may look alike, but are very different in their capability & characteristics. The Citabria is a fine airplane with a flat bottom wing and is “ok” for basic aerobatics, but you will soon tire of the sluggishness. You can get an inverted system with these, but with that wing, not of much use. On the other hand, the Decathlon has a symmetrical airfoil and can actually fly inverted and do stuff that any fledgling aerobatic pilot is looking to learn. My personal preferences were at the two extremes of the lineup. The basic 115hp 7ECA (no flaps) is a great little economical tandem tailwheel plane. At the other end, if you want a Decathlon, I highly recommend the Super D, 180hp version with a constant speed prop. If aerobatics are your mission and you buy the 150hp fixed pitch version, you may second guess that choice. Plus, the constant speed Super Decathlon actually cruises pretty fast. I just realized I’ve had these few brain cells waiting decades to help me make this one comment 😉