Backcountry airplanes are supposed to have tailwheels and stand at jaunty angles, their long propellers raised above the rocks and tall grass that their big main tires roll over. They’re supposed to exude single-minded purpose.
Short takeoffs and landings from rugged surfaces are their reason to exist—and every other design consideration should be subservient to that intention. If that means backcountry airplanes are saddled with poor forward visibility, low cruise speeds, and directional instability on the ground, so be it. Bush pilots have long reveled in the notion that their airplanes demand exceptional pilot skill, and everyone whose opinion matters knows it.
The NXCub makes a mockery of all this.
On the ground, it sits at a level attitude, which gives the pilot wrap-around and over-the-nose visibility. The combination of a Lycoming IO-390 engine, Hartzell propeller, and sleek carbon-fiber cowl makes it exceptionally fast for its category (150 miles an hour true at 6,500 feet). And the muscle-bound tricycle landing gear itself makes ground handling stone simple, even on gravel, wet grass, and other slippery surfaces.
I recently traveled to the CubCrafters facility in Yakima, Washington, to fly the NXCub, and I expected to despise it. I’m a tailwheel traditionalist. Aesthetics matter, and I believe in old truisms such as “An airplane that looks good flies good,” or even “Form follows function.” I adore the original, tailwheel XCub and regarded the announcement of a nosewheel version as another sign of the dumbed-down times we live in.
Brad Damm, vice president of sales and marketing at CubCrafters, walked me around N82XC, a gleaming XCub that seemed perfect in every way except for the training wheel up front. The beefy nosewheel structure is obviously engineered for abuse. It’s made of thick weldments, and it wisely uses rubber donuts as shock absorbers so there’s no danger of losing fluid or air pressure in remote locations. There’s also a pin in the nosewheel assembly that can be removed on the ground so that the nosewheel can swivel 360 degrees. (A big red light on the instrument panel illuminates if the pilot turns on the electronic master switch with the pin removed).
Once inside the airplane, visibility is excellent, and there’s no reason for S-turning while taxiing as in a tailwheel airplane. Engine run-up is normal except that the engine has dual electronic ignitions rather than magnetos.
With two heavier-than-FAA-standard adults, full fuel (50 gallons), a sunny 55 degrees Fahrenheit at Yakima’s McAllister Field (YKM, elevation 1,100 feet), and no wind, the NXCub took off in six seconds after a ground roll of 300 feet. And that was a normal, rolling takeoff, not a short-field effort.
Damm said the NXCub takes off and lands even shorter than the tailwheel version.
“You can raise the nose and put the wing at a higher angle of attack during the takeoff roll,” he said. “On landing, you can brake much more aggressively than you would in a tailwheel airplane.”
We flew to a nearby grass strip at Buena (WA97) for a series of takeoffs and landings on wet grass. Normal approaches were flown at 60 miles an hour, and short-field approaches slowed to 50. Even with the slick surface, landings were consistently under 300 feet.
“Get on the brakes hard,” Damm advised. “You can even touch down with the brakes locked and not hurt anything on this surface.”
Next, we flew to a gravel strip on a hillside with a steep, 20-percent incline.
“Expect the ground to come up to meet you,” Damm warned.
We had a slight tailwind when landing uphill, but directional control wasn’t a problem in the NXCub. It was just fun. After an hour of flying, we returned to Yakima and landed on Runway 27. A 5-knot headwind assisted us, but we easily made the first turnoff at the 500-foot runway mark with light braking.
I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to the NXCub and was amazed at how stress-free our relatively strenuous flight had been, even for a pilot brand-new to the airplane.
Damm said CubCrafters is gathering feedback before deciding whether to seek FAA certification for the NXCub. I’m certain the project will go forward, and the implications for adventure aviation will be big and long lasting.
By building and validating such a capable and distinctive nosewheel airplane, CubCrafters vastly expands the number of pilots who can confidently fly to remote, rugged airstrips. A doctorate level of tailwheel knowledge simply isn’t required anymore for such ambitious journeys.
Realistically, the number of NXCubs is likely to remain relatively small because it’s an expensive airplane (retail price: $338,000) for its category with a highly specialized mission. But CubCrafters has proven the nosewheel concept and made it socially acceptable. And everyone else who builds competing airplanes has taken notice.
Will rival Aviat respond with a nosewheel Husky? Will American Legend or American Champion produce nosewheel versions of their backcountry models? Will someone get a supplemental type certificate to retrofit Piper PA–18 Super Cubs with nosewheels? I suspect they will—and those efforts will further popularize adventure flying, STOL competitions, and add to the already impressive number of backcountry airstrips available to pilots seeking to expand their horizons.
The NXCub is an ugly baby when viewed from the outside. But the world looks awfully good from the inside.
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