May 1, 2006
By Alton K. Marsh
"Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster." — From the character Oscar Goldman on the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man.
Piper Cub, tailwheel airplane. Out of production and barely alive. Pilots, we can build it again. We have new technology. We have the capability to build the world's first glass-cockpit Cub. Better than it was before. Better, stronger, faster.
Two new Cub designs from competing companies are in production, thanks to the light-sport movement; both are safer, thanks to stronger airframes, and faster, cruising in excess of 80 KTAS.
Both blend the best of several original Cub design features and add original ideas of the builders. The light-sport rules allow greater innovation as long as the manufacturer can show the FAA that its aircraft is in compliance with industry-agreed-upon standards. It is self-certification, and instead of an airworthiness certificate, the FAA airworthiness representative awards a "special" airworthiness certificate.
One aircraft is from American Legend Aircraft Co. in Sulphur Springs, Texas, an hour's drive east of Dallas, while the other is built by Cub Crafters Inc. in Yakima, Washington (a two-hour drive west of Spokane). Both are designed to recapture the J-3 Cub experience, although no Cub ever had a glass cockpit. Both companies offer an electronic flight information system and electronic engine monitors made by Dynon Avionics in Woodinville, Washington, that were originally made for the Experimental market but can be installed under light-sport rules. GPS moving maps also are available, making both competing Cubs all-glass if the owner desires. So far, about 140 of you have ordered one or the other of these new Cubs, but fewer have opted for the glass cockpit.
And what is the Cub experience? It's discovering new sights from the air like a county fair and realizing that you can smell the funnel cakes. It's rocking your wings at a hot air balloon and having the balloon pilot wave back. It's hearing blades of grass slap the tires as you settle onto a sod runway.
A less desirable part of the original Cub experience was hand-propping the engine, since Cubs had neither an electrical system nor a starter. Both new Cubs have both, perhaps a blasphemy to Cub purists but no problem at all to those who have grown accustomed to having hands and heads. While these Cub-alikes — one company prefers the term look-alike — are still made of steel tubes covered by fabric, the tubes are now stronger and the airframe has been redesigned for improved safety. These are full-size aircraft, not scaled replicas. Interestingly enough, both airplanes come within inches of matching the 1938 J-3 Cub's wingspan and length, and both use the 100-horsepower Continental O-200 engine. The engine has re-entered full-scale production at Continental.
Although the experience is unique, these are still tailwheel airplanes and require more skill for takeoffs and landings than do tricycle gear aircraft. Are tailwheel airplanes less safe than tricycle-gear aircraft when flown by low-time tailwheel pilots such as light-sport pilots? Jim Richmond, president of Cub Crafters, answers the question this way:
"I can say the same thing when you land a nosewheel airplane on soft grass runways. If you put weight on the nose it can dig in and flip you over or knock the nosewheel off. Does that mean we should make airplanes that land only on pavement?
"I think half the sport of flying is to get to grass runways and reasonable landing spots that are very safe — that are within the capabilities of the tailwheel airplane — that other people can't get to. Maybe there is a little more skill involved with takeoffs and landings, but that skill is rewarded with the ability to go more places safely."
Both companies got their start by keeping old Cubs alive. Prior to the Sport Cub, Cub Crafters had rebuilt original Piper Cubs for 25 years and had even won FAA certification for its Top Cub design (FAA designation CC18-180) based on the Piper Super Cub (PA-18-180) in 2004. American Legend Aircraft had rebuilt various tube-and-fabric aircraft for 18 years under a former business that won an award at Oshkosh in the 1990s for a J-3 Cub restoration. That same airplane won a dozen additional awards at various events around the country.
Both companies have widened the cockpit — American Legend Aircraft by 3 inches and Cub Crafters by 4. There are additional similarities: American Legend Aircraft's Legend Cub is available on floats, and Cub Crafters plans to offer floats as well. Also, both firms are looking at the possibility of adding airframe recovery parachutes and air bags to their aircraft.
Pricing of the two models is similar, with the advantage at this writing going to American Legend Aircraft, where the base price is in the $80s, as the real-estate people say (it offers two slightly different models, one with an open engine-cowling at $84,000 and one with a closed cowling at $87,000), while the out-the-door price of most pending orders is $93,000. With most options installed, including an all-glass cockpit (again, both instruments and moving map), the price could reach $105,000. At Cub Crafters the base price is $99,500 but the average out-the-door price (additional fuel tank, flaps, and avionics) is $110,000. With most options including the glass cockpit installed the total could reach $120,000. Obviously the costs are double and even triple those of many used Cubs on the market today (see " Budget Buy Piper J-3: Cub Yellow," October 2005 Pilot).
The approaches taken by the two companies differ slightly. American Legend Aircraft officials emphasize the vintage experience, keeping the outward appearance of the aircraft the same as that of the early Cubs, using 1950s-style illustrations in promotional materials, and having personnel wear period clothing at airshow displays. In a break with tradition, the company offers two doors, adding one on the left side.
Cub Crafters has instead opted for a jazzy new engine cowling to win market acceptance but also emphasizes in its marketing material the Cub's historical status as a legend. There was debate within Cub Crafters over whether to offer a new paint scheme to go with the sculpted cowling, but the prototype came out in the classic yellow. Cub Crafters has decided to offer an alternative paint scheme as is done with its Top Cub.
At this writing American Legend Aircraft had total orders for 65 aircraft and had delivered 22, while Cub Crafters had orders for 76.
Competition between the two companies is strong, which is a nice way of saying that Cub Crafters filed a suit in a federal court in Sherman, Texas, asking a judge to determine which company had the greater right to promote its product as a Cub — especially when used with the word Legend. Cub Crafters also lays claim to the paint scheme of a yellow airframe emblazoned with a black lightning bolt on the side. Documents filed by Cub Crafters in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas state that Piper cancelled its "Cub" and "New Cub" trademarks in 1986 and 1987, respectively, and that the "Super Cub" trademark expired in 1997.
Is The New Piper Aircraft happy about the emergence of these two aircraft that include the word Cub in their names? Not in the least. A spokesman said the Cub is the intellectual property of Piper and represents the heritage of the company. Piper has informed the FAA that it does not intend to accept responsibility for the safety record of the aircraft.
American Legend Aircraft is located at the tailwheel-friendly Sulphur Springs Municipal Airport. In addition to a paved runway, the airport has a grass runway with a picnic table at one end. It so happens that within the group that gathers at the table on Friday nights there is a remarkable set of talents — enough to form and run American Legend Aircraft. "When you look at all the guys, we couldn't have put together a better team that could make something as successful. We all just started out as flying buddies," said Danny Goggans, an airline pilot who tests the Legend Cub and provides demonstration rides. For now, the company is spread across two leased shops, but a new 24,000-square-foot building is under construction.
Operations and certification chief Kurt Sehnert retired from Intel in California (where he worked on Centrino chips) and just happened to move down the road from Goggans, who recruited him for American Legend Aircraft. He wanted to retire within a 50-mile circle around Dallas, but Sulphur Springs wasn't even in the circle. President Tim Elliott, a principal investor, is a topnotch marketer who is president and chief executive officer of the Internet company Access E-Forms, which sells electronic forms used to automate the operation of a hospital or doctor's office. Elliott's dad, Roger, sometimes pulls all-nighters to see that the grass runway is watered. Production manager Darin Hart, also a principal investor, ran a tube-and-fabric restoration business and builds luxury aircraft interiors. Pat Bowers, an artist, ran the restoration business with Hart.
Hart and Elliott went to EAA AirVenture two years ago to buy a Super Cub kit and put it on floats (there is a lake next to the airport). The manufacturer said he could deliver one in a year and a half. "We said we weren't going to wait a year and a half," Hart said. "So I told Tim, 'Let's start from scratch and build our own.'" Goggans and the other friends then persuaded Hart to build a light-sport Cub rather than a fully certified one. "There are so many pilots around here that don't have a medical," Goggans explained. (Light sport aircraft can be flown with a valid driver's license if the pilot has never been denied a medical certificate.)
"We wanted the airplane to look like a Cub because a lot of our market learned to fly in one," said Elliott. "Structurally, the wings and fuselage are very different." The company started in September 2004 and the first aircraft flew on March 10, 2005.
Hart explained how his Legend Cub was designed: "By moving the wing-attach points outboard to locations like those on a Super Cub, we were able to raise the seat and get more visibility over the nose. The baggage compartment is larger because we used the same structure as a Super Cub on the back end.
"We did cross-bracing for safety, because it has been proven that when the [older] Cubs had a wing strike the wings would fold up and the single brace would collapse on top of the pilot's head. Our floor panels and doors are all honeycomb-composite materials. We use the AmSafe inertial-reel seat belts for safety. We added an electrical system and a starter to avoid liability."
The company fabricates the fuselage and wing, but buys ailerons and landing gear from other manufacturers. In the future the gear will be made in Sulphur Springs. The company also buys the same wing struts, engine mount, and engine cowling that were used for a Piper PA-11, and does not plan to build those parts. In all, features from five aircraft contributed to the Legend Cub design. Since the cockpit is 3 inches wider top to bottom, that puts the main landing gear 3 inches farther apart and makes the wingspan 3 inches longer than in the original Cubs. The Sport Cub is 4 inches wider, but in the middle, so it does not affect the wheelbase or wingspan.
The most memorable aspect of a recent flight test was a demonstration of the Legend Cub's stability by Goggans, who is also a tailwheel instructor. In a 30-degree-bank turn with hands and feet off the controls, the slip-and-skid ball magically centers itself. Goggans attributes that to American Legend Aircraft's decision to increase the normal 1-degree dihedral found on older Cubs to 3 degrees. I was surprised at the Legend Cub's stability during landing in the crosswinds that day, and suspect that the extra dihedral could be the reason.
Goggans suggested I also fly from the back, since the aircraft can be soloed from either the front or back. In the back I felt that there was inadequate legroom on the left side, and did not particularly like how the round trim wheel — one difficult to operate — shoved against my ankle so that my left heel was nearly over the left heel brake. However, a solution was already in the works. The second aircraft under construction in a nearby building used a trim crank — not a wheel — in a more convenient location, and, as I later discovered when that aircraft was finished and displayed at Oshkosh, provided more room on the left side. While the option to have both doors open in flight was intriguing, I found that when taking off from the back I wanted at least the bottom half of the left door closed to keep the propeller slipstream off me. Cub Crafters says it, too, will offer a second door as an option.
Weight-and-balance calculations showed the aircraft could carry Goggans and me but would have been overweight with full fuel (two 11-gallon wing tanks are standard). The empty weight is now listed in American Legend brochures as 850 pounds, but at this writing it is actually five pounds heavier than that. The company is looking for ways to achieve the final five pounds to allow for the highest useful load possible. Here's a neat feature: To make partial fueling easier, the company put orange float balls in the gas sight gauges so that the fuel level can be observed from outside through the skylight while refilling the tanks.
The Legend Cub comes standard with the two doors, an electrical system, and a starter. A wood propeller and standard (nonglass) flight and engine instruments are included. Radios, avionics, and lights are options. Other options include a Garmin 250XL moving map and Garmin transponder with encoder, a leather interior, vortex generators, and strobe and position lights.
With the introduction of the Sport Cub, Cub Crafters now manufactures two aircraft and continues to rebuild older Super Cubs. A new building next to the present Cub Crafters factory at Yakima Air Terminal/McAllister Field Airport is nearly completed and will house Cub refurbishment operations that have supported the company since 1980. That leaves the original factory free for the manufacture of the Part 23 Top Cub and light-sport Sport Cub.
Prior to certifying its Top Cub the company was building Piper PA-18 Super Cubs under the FAA's spare-and-surplus-parts rule that allowed new construction as long as there was an original Piper data plate. The FAA also agreed to permit new data plates to be manufactured as long as the data plates named both Piper and Cub Crafters. That rule was changed in Congress in 2004 to prohibit new construction even if there is a data plate. Company founder and current owner Jim Richmond and his son, Nathan, refer to it humorously as the "Cub Crafters law."
Both aircraft were flown for photos with this article, first the Top Cub and then a few minutes later the Sport Cub. The Top Cub taxied easily and precisely, tracked perfectly on takeoff, and made me look good on landing. Once in the flare with power off, thanks to the vortex generators, it seemed there was more than ample time to gauge the amount of back-stick pressure required for a smooth touchdown. Its cruise speed on that day matched the pro-mised 104 KTAS. Well rigged, it flew level with hands off the controls.
Then I jumped into the Sport Cub. Since the aircraft was still receiving improvements almost daily I didn't think it would be fair to do a speed test, stalls, or other maneuvers. However, the company claims 95 knots true airspeed for this airplane, but company officials know they can flight plan for 100 knots when traveling to an airshow. The first aircraft was to be delivered in April at this writing. I noticed that during taxi the Matco steerable tailwheel required help from the heel brakes for making tight turns. The company has since decided to offer an option for the steerable Scott 3200-type tailwheel. The aircraft tracked well in the takeoff roll and took off in a few hundred feet. It was perfectly rigged and was easy to maneuver into the precise formation-flight positions called for by photographer Mike Fizer.
Like the Top Cub, it is soloed only from the front. The comfortable rear seat is a carbon-fiber-reinforced design that is easily stowed in the ceiling. Some of the problems I saw were those of any newly built aircraft. There were electronic gremlins in the radio — since fixed.
Richmond explained his design philosophy this way: "The Sport Cub design came from my 25 years of rebuilding Cubs and I was always saying to myself [that] if I ever get a chance to start from scratch on a project, this is what I'm going to do. One of the highest on that list was a door big enough to get big guys in and out of. So we enlarged the door by 13 inches fore and aft, and we widened the fuselage 4 inches at the shoulder so that a big guy can sit in the airplane and feel comfortable.
"I have also told myself for years that if I ever had a chance to redesign the fuselage, I would put the top longerons up at the top of the airplane, which makes it stronger, lighter, and easier to build.
"The Sport Cub is based on a PA-18-95 [Super Cub]. It is the same wing; and the tail feathers, wing, rudder, main gear, and the propeller are all in the same relative position as the PA-18-95's. We haven't changed the wing. That's why it flies like it does; it flies just like a PA-18-95. When you put the Top Cub and Sport Cub side by side, the Sport Cub is 4 inches wider, but the wingspan is identical, the length is identical, the tail feathers are identical. The wheels are rolling in the same plane," said Richmond.
The aircraft is designated the CC11-100 (CC stands for "Cub Crafters"). "The '11' is a reminder of the Piper PA-11, which was virtually identical to the PA-18-95," Richmond said.
Its most distinctive feature is its contoured composite-construction engine cowling that features a lightning bolt in a metal emblem over the air filter at the front to match the lightning bolt on the side. The cowling was the brainchild of Richmond and Cub Crafters engineers. "We were trying to get away from the boxy look," Richmond explained.
The Sport Cub comes standard with one 12-gallon wing-mounted fuel tank with an option for a second tank, vortex generators, a radio, toe brakes, a wood propeller, an electrical system with starter, and a steerable tailwheel. Options include flaps for $4,900 and a $9,900 deluxe VFR panel with analog flight instruments and a Garmin GPSMap 396 GPS plus a Garmin 327 transponder and Garmin SL40 radio. There is also a $17,900 glass-cockpit avionics package that includes the new Dynon FlightDek-D180 with engine monitoring and flight instruments, a Garmin GPSMap 396 with XM WX weather and moving map, a Garmin SL40 radio and Garmin GTX 327 transponder with Mode C, and an intercom. Light-sport rules limit maximum gross weight to 1,320 pounds.
The Top Cub, the company's Part 23 certified model, has a 2,300-pound maximum gross weight and a 180-horsepower engine. With a 1,100-pound useful load, I could carry myself, full fuel, and 575 pounds of cargo. Of that, 205 pounds can go behind the rear seat and the rest must go in the second seat location. The second seat is removable. The Top Cub comes standard with a shock-mounted instrument panel, an electrical system and starter, Oregon Aero 26G safety seats, vortex generators, and a 54-gallon fuel capacity. There are very few options after that: A few of them include a choice of propellers, tires, leather interior, and three radio packages ranging from $10,000 to one costing $20,000 that includes a CD player. It does not have a glass-cockpit option as the Sport Cub does, and generally goes out the door at $164,000.
E-mail the author at email@example.com.
Links to additional information about Cubs may be found on AOPA Online.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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