It’s always fun to fly with really good pilots, especially those who are better than you. (In my case, that’s practically everyone.)
Greg Koontz is certainly one of those. An air show aviator for most of his life, Greg rebuilt a Cub when he was 18 and has been in the air show business ever since—nearly 40 years. Currently, he flies his signature American Champion Super Decathlon as practically an extension of his thoughts.
For those of us who have spent our share of time in the agile, little 8KCAB, flying with Koontz in his chosen air show mount is a revelation. He does maneuvers in the airplane with a precision that most of us will probably never be able to duplicate.
Operating out of Sky Country Lodge (www.skycountrylodge.com) in Ashville, Ala., Greg and his wife, Cora, run an unusual bed-and-breakfast flight school, which specializes in aerobatics, strangely enough. A Master CFI-Aerobatics, Koontz can take students as far as they wish to go, from a simple tailwheel checkout to a full-on aerobatic course including most of the maneuvers the Super Decathlon can perform.
I caught up with Koontz at 2008 Sun ’n Fun in Lakeland, Fla., where I asked him first about his choice of air show airplane, the Super Decathlon.
“It’s a great teaching machine, and the economics make it a viable air show airplane as well,” says Koontz. “Not everyone appreciates that. It’s a little larger than the Pitts or Extra, and that makes it easy to see. It doesn’t have the power or the horizontal or vertical agility of the others, but I like it because it does most of the same maneuvers at a slower speed. This allows me to solve one of the biggest problems at air shows—keeping the act in front of the crowd.
“It’s also important to remember that many people at air shows aren’t pilots, and they may have a tough time appreciating a triple snap to a Lomcevak in an S2C. The Super doesn’t really do even a double snap, and I confine my air show routine to fairly conventional maneuvers that happen slowly enough that everyone can appreciate them.”
Last year, Koontz flew some 20 air shows, but he also instructed some 111 students in the ways of the Super, many through full tailwheel checkouts and on through his standard acro course—loops, rolls, hammerheads and spins. “I’m one of those instructors who’s bullish on tailwheel training,” says Koontz. “I’m convinced that familiarity with tailwheels produces a better pilot than just nosedraggers. A tailwheel checkout helps a pilot land any airplane well—conventional or tricycle gear.”
Koontz should know. He has more than 7,000 hours of instructing, most of it in tailwheels. He got his air show start in 1974, joining Colonel Ernie Moser’s Flying Circus out of St. Augustine, Fla. Koontz has flown a variety of air show acts over the years; most recently, he has become renowned for his Super Decathlon aerobatics and for his “World’s Smallest Airport” stunt in which he lands a Piper J-3 Cub on an iron grating atop a moving pickup truck.
|Koontz views the Super Decathlon as ideal for air show crowds because it’s larger, and thus more visible than other airplanes, and it performs maneuvers at slightly slower speeds, keeping the act in front of the crowd|
In the real world, Koontz has worked as a corporate jet pilot and has accumulated some 22,000 hours of flight time, much of it teaching pilots the ways of the Super Decathlon. He’s sponsored by American Champion, and the manufacturer is predictably enthusiastic about Koontz’s air show work, exposing the Super’s talents to thousands of pilots each year. There might be other pilots doing air shows in Super Decathlons, but I can’t think of one.
Unlike some other aerobatic airplanes, the 8KCAB is a supremely comfortable machine, 30 inches wide at the hips. For one thing, the airplane is well laid-out. All flight and system controls fall readily to hand, with all electrical switches mounted on a panel above the pilot’s left shoulder. Visibility from the front seat, with the overhead “eyebrow” windows, allows a view in practically every direction during acro. Trim is confined to the elevator, and it’s ridiculously uncomplicated, a direct connection to the stick. If you’re so inclined, you can easily control the airplane’s pitch with the trim control.
According to Koontz, the Super makes a great classroom for aerobatics, partially because its comparative lack of power demands that you learn good coordination and proper energy management. The Super sports an extremely comfortable tandem cabin, wide and tall, and easy to mount in either seat.
In addition, it’s capable of pretty much any maneuver students are willing to try (provided they’re not into Lomcevaks). Aileron spades provide a kind of power steering to lighten roll rate, and the airplane’s quick elevator response makes it easy to pitch to vertical entries.
The 8KCAB will neither snap with a Pitts nor roll with an Extra, but it makes for a comfortable trainer for students, or a confident air show vehicle. In the hands of an expert like Koontz, it can pull off a double snap on a downline or a half vertical roll up with a hammerhead off the top.
|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.
|Veteran air show pilot Greg Koontz is among the few aerobatic performers flying a Super Decathlon at shows.|
The Super is imminently controllable in crosswinds, allowing hard slips to maintain centerline or bleed-off altitude. In short-field mode, it can fly approaches as slow as 60 knots, 55 knots in smooth air if you’re on top of it. Stall speed is a slow 46 knots, so even 55 knots provides the 1.2 Vs buffer.
Normal-category gross is 1,950 pounds against a typical 1,400-pound empty. In other words, add 39 gallons of fuel and you’ll have just over 310 pounds for people and things in nonacro mode. Predictably, the aerobatic weight limit is slightly lower: 1,800 pounds. With full fuel, a typical Super Decathlon will have allowance for a single pilot. In order to fly hard aerobatics, you’ll need to download fuel to half that or less.
As alluded to above, the Super Decathlon has a nonaerobatic brother, the Scout, that’s designed more specifically for bush work and is adaptable to floats, skis or balloon tires. I’ve seen numerous Scouts serving in the outback of Alaska and Canada. The Scout features a gross weight of 2,150 pounds, boosting payload by 200 pounds.
In standard trim, adequate for basic VFR, a Super Decathlon is priced at $146,900. This makes the top American Champion a reasonable trainer, especially in contrast to the two other dedicated trainers: the Liberty XL2 and the Diamond DA20 Eclipse. If you’re a believer that a tailwheel design turns out a better pilot, the Super might make an interesting trainer choice. [Access both “Liberty XL2: A Trainer With A Difference (P&P March 2007) and “Diamond DA20: A Trainer With Attitude” (P&P August 2008) at our online home.]
According to Koontz, the Super Decathlon’s greatest talent is simply that it’s the most forgiving airplane he could possibly imagine for aerobatic instruction. “I spend about 300 hours instructing in the 8KCAB each year,” Koontz comments, “and I can tell you that students universally love the airplane. They quickly discover that it has more talent than they ever imagined and that flying it is easier than they could have hoped.”
Koontz spends another 200 hours flying the Decathlon and other types in air shows and in cross-country travel between shows around the southwestern states.
When I asked Koontz if he had any desire to step up to an Edge or an Extra, he said, “Those are great airplanes, and I have nothing but admiration for the pilots who fly them to the limits in air shows. For my purposes, however, the Super Decathlon offers me more than enough performance and versatility at a price that makes it easy to turn a profit, and that’s a big part of the bottom line.”