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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

American Champion Super Decathlon: Flight With Greg Koontz

A pilot for practically as long as he’s been breathing, Greg Koontz takes the definition of “aviator” to new heights

It’s always fun to fly with really good pilots, especially those who are better than you. (In my case, that’s practically everyone.)

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The 8KCAB is well laid-out: All flight and system controls fall readily to hand, and the overhead “eyebrow” windows allow for visibility in practically all directions

The inverted oil and fuel systems also allow limited outside maneuvers. A small header tank holds enough fuel for two minutes of inverted flight, and Koontz uses the time to fly a variety of negative maneuvers, including an outside loop with an outside snap on top. Having done enough outside loops to know just how much they hurt, I have great respect for Koontz’s precision and stamina.

For those masochists who enjoy pushing the limits, the Super will endure +6/-5 G’s, enough to challenge anyone’s gastrointestinal tract.

One of the joys of the Super, however, is that it’s not limited to gut-wrenching aerobatics. It’s an easy machine to climb in and out of, even for bulky pilots, and there’s a small baggage compartment behind the rear seat (though all baggage must be loaded through the single, right-side cabin door).

The big, semi-symmetrical wing is designed more for lift than for speed, and that results in impressive climb for only 180 hp—adequate to levitate above the desert heat in summer or handle the high-density altitudes of Denver, Colo., or Cheyenne, Wyo. Despite the birdcage of struts on each wing, the Super also turns in respectable cruise numbers. Max cruise is listed at 128 knots, but even if you accept 125 knots, that’s a reasonable number considering the airplane’s considerable drag.

Better still, if you’re willing to wear your parachute during cross-country travel, you can throw in an occasional loop or roll just to liven things up.

With 39 gallons aboard and a burn rate of 9.5 to 10 gph, the Super makes a decent cross-country cruiser, capable of three hours of endurance plus reserve, or almost a 400 nm range. If you’re into off-airport operations where bush missions are often out-and-back, that means an operation radius of 200 nm.

As you might expect of an airplane with the lineage of an Aeronca, the Super also sports the ability to handle short, relatively rough strips with ease. An unobstructed, 1,000-foot slice of grass or turf is usually plenty to ground the Super or lift it back off. Not bad for an airplane with a wing bereft of flaps.

It’s almost a cliché to call any tailwheel airplane easy to land, but if any taildragger deserves that accolade, it’s the Super Decathlon. Of all the conventional-gear airplanes I’ve flown, I can’t think of any that are as universally forgiving as the top American Champion model.

Back in the days when the Bellanca Champion line was built in Osceola, Wis., hard by the Minnesota border, I picked up a dozen or more Scouts and Super Decathlons, ferrying them to the West Coast, and on those airplanes without wheel pants, it was always fun to look for interesting, unpaved places to land. I remember plunking into dirt and grass strips all over the Midwest and Southwest on the 1,500 nm trips to California.