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License to Learn: Somebody pinch me

The world’s easiest airplane to fly

It’s called an Ercoupe. Built by Fred Weick and first manufactured in 1939, the two-place coupe was so revolutionary that even birds tweeted about it.

Rod MachadoIt’s called an Ercoupe. Built by Fred Weick and first manufactured in 1939, the two-place coupe was so revolutionary that even birds tweeted about it. It was stall proof, spin proof, and crosswind proof (in the sense that you land it in a crabbed condition). Most models didn’t have rudder pedals because they had rudder, aileron, and nose gear interconnects. You steered it like a car, on the ground and in the air. No rudder pedals? Automatic coordination? Steer like a car? Somebody pinch me.

The little coupe is easily recognized by its H-shaped, twin-rudder tail. When spying the airplane for the first time, one student pilot said, “It looks like a baby Lockheed Constellation.” This explains why one Ercoupe I saw has a sticker on the fuselage that read, “If found, please drop in mailbox. Postage will be paid by owner.”

I love the Ercoupe for several reasons, but primarily because it is so darn easy for students to fly. Back in the mid-1970s, I soloed one student in about 4.5 hours at John Wayne Airport. While my student was a quick study, the lack of rudder pedals made the airplane easy to master. In fact, with the proper ground study beforehand, it’s possible for an apt student to solo the airplane over the weekend at a nontowered field. Isn’t that a great way to reduce the presolo dropout rate? Before the student even thinks about dropping out, he’s ready to solo.

One of the reasons the Ercoupe is simple to fly is that it doesn’t stall. That’s right. It’s nearly impossible to exceed the wing’s critical angle of attack for the same reason that students with enormous beer bellies have trouble stalling an airplane—they can’t get the yoke back far enough to induce the wings to exceed their critical angle of attack. No, I’m not claiming that stall/spin accidents decline in the months after Oktoberfest. This concept simply illustrates how Fred Weick defanged the Ercoupe by restricting its aft elevator travel, thus making it stall/spin proof.

On the other hand, let the slow flyer beware. You can get spanked on the backside of the power curve. Let yourself get too slow while pulling aft on the yoke and you might enter a sort of “deep mush.” This results in flopping onto the Earth’s surface at a serious rate of descent—a rate that’ll replace your belt buckle with the knot in your tie. Don’t go there.

Another thing that makes the Ercoupe easy to fly is its ability to land in a strong crosswind without using a crosswind technique. That’s right—no technique required. You simply turn the airplane so that its ground track matches the white line on which you’ve been cleared to land. Your only obligation thereafter is to flare for touchdown. No kickout, no sideslip, no crosswind technique required. Fred Weick’s superstrong tricycle gear absorbs the side loads, flexes, and automatically aligns the airplane with its previous direction of motion.

Yes, the airplane is easy to fly, so why didn’t it achieve Elvis-like popularity over time? While there are several good reasons to explain this, one instructor opined that the airplane didn’t look lethal enough to be considered a manly machine. Hmmm. How would that conversation go with an airplane salesman?

Buyer looking at Ercoupe: “Could this airplane hurt me?”

Salesman: “Well, it’s less likely to do so than other airplanes.”

Buyer pointing to one-man mini-jet with tiny, little wings that stall at 180 knots: “What about this bad boy?”

Salesman: “You mean the LWAT, the Last Will and Testament? You bet. You’re as good as vaporized right now.”

Perhaps the only downside to learning in a rudderless Ercoupe is that your pilot certificate is restricted to an airplane without rudder pedals (a restriction that’s easily removed). On the other hand, it will be easier for pilots to call you a “good stick” because that’s the only flight control you have.

I’d love to see Ercoupes manufactured again. Perhaps someday, two constellations will align properly, and shortly thereafter, we’ll see more baby Ercoupes on the flight line. They wouldn’t need delivery by stork, either. They could fly themselves to their new homes.


Rod Machado’s latest book is the How to Fly an Airplane Handbook.

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