Plane & Pilot
Thursday, April 1, 2004

The New Super Decathlon

American Champion 8KCAB offers some of the best aerobatic talent in the two-seat, sportplane class

decathlonRich, I know you can’t see the ball from the back seat, but if you could, you’d be rolling with laughter,” I said. I was flying Rich Manor’s new Super Decathlon in left-echelon formation 20 feet from our old friend Saratoga SP photo ship, and my lazy feet were out of practice at flying an airplane with considerable adverse yaw. The ball bounced back and forth out of its cage as I maneuvered on the Saratoga, the slip indicator only occasionally stopping in the center. It had been several years since I’d flown a Super Decathlon, and my rusty technique showed. Gotta unlearn those bad habits, I thought. Too many hours in Mooneys/Bonanzas/Malibus/Centurions and other modern designs that forgive poor rudder coordination.
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The Super Decathlon truly shines in aerobatic mode. It’s certainly one of the most comfortable ways to learn acro, as the tandem cockpit is fully enclosed, the heater works reasonably well and the airplane has plenty of cabin room in every direction. If you’re sitting up front, visibility is generous in most quadrants, and the overhead skylight allows a good view straight up (straight down if you’re inverted). If you’re riding in the rear, instructor seat, the panorama isn’t quite so impressive, but visual cues are still good for normal acro.

Though the Decathlon’s teardrop-shaped wing lends itself to inverted flight better than the conventional Citabria airfoil, negative maneuvers are restricted to outside loops, English bunts and inverted spins. A truly masochistic pilot could probably fly a Super through the advanced class in aerobatic competition, but he’d have to work at it.

In inside mode, however, the airplane is easily capable of all the standard tricks—loops in all their variations (Immelmanns, split S’s and Cuban eights), the gamut of rolls (half vertical, aileron, barrel, slow and snap), hammerheads and similar maneuvers. It’s probably a stretch to claim the Super Decathlon has no bad habits, but I haven’t encountered any in 25 years of flying the type.

To my mind, the Super Decathlon has always struck a perfect balance between the super-sensitivity of a Pitts or Extra and the gentlemanly response of a Great Lakes or Waco. Fully developed roll rate is quick but hardly telepathic, probably 90 degrees/second, and pitch authority is happily in that middle ground between dangerously fast and too slow. Though Decathlons have never been touted as serious aerobatic machines, they make excellent trainers, a great way to familiarize straight-and-level types with the vertical and inverted world.

When it comes time to return to Earth, the lack of flaps doesn’t penalize descent rate, as slips are only a pedal away, and you can plan on descent rates as high as 1,500 fpm with power off. If there’s a need, you can even carry the slip into the flare, kick it out at the last second and touch down as if you planned it that way all along.

Some taildraggers have a deserved reputation as squirrels during landings, but the Super Decathlon isn’t one of them. It’s probably the most docile and forgiving conventional gear machine I’ve flown. Even if you throw in a crosswind, the Super takes it all in stride. The airplane welcomes Navy-style, kerplunk landings, tailwheel first, or it will accommodate conventional wheel landings, flown onto the ground main gear first. Like most tailwheel designs, you need to fly the airplane all the way to the chocks, but that’s easier in an 8KCAB than in most other types.

Labels: Piston Singles


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