Husky A-1C in Southern California
4:19 a.m. That’s what the clock read as I stared at it for the fifth time in an hour. I was trying to sleep and it just wasn’t working. The hours dragged by in my tiny motel room in Afton, Wyo., across the two-lane highway from the Aviat factory where they build Pitts and Husky aircraft. Outside my window, I saw little snowflakes floating off the roof every now and then, dislodged by early risers running to their freezing cars to get the engines warmed up. The rest of the country was well into the lush unfolding of spring, but Afton hadn’t received the memo yet and was still clenched in the fists of a relentless winter. Through gauze-thin curtains, I could see the brilliantly clear Wyoming night.
I was here to see the newest Husky A-1C, with its Garmin G600 glass panel, 200 hp engine and other fineries. I would fly the plane back home to California, across hundreds of miles of Rocky Mountains, through desolate Nevada deserts and into the hubbub of Southern California’s crowded airspace. It was to be a small adventure—one that I had eagerly agreed to when I found out I’d be doing it with an aviator friend, Robert Stewart, territory manager for USAERO, an authorized Husky distributor for the Southwestern United States.
We had been in Afton for a few days—guests of Stu Horn, president of Aviat Aircraft, who had given us open access to his 72,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and its cadre of skilled workers. It was a look deep inside the workings of this unique operation, and one I took full advantage of as I learned how these incredible aircraft are born.
Aviat was the first manufacturer to offer the Garmin G600 glass panel on its new aircraft. A stripped-down version of the G1000, the G600 system provides the Husky with IFR capability.
Aviat produced its first Husky aircraft in 1985. Frank Christensen, designer of the Christen Eagle aerobatic biplane, conceived the Husky after trying to purchase the design of the famous Super Cub from Piper. Piper turned him down, so Christensen decided to start with the basic idea of the Super Cub and improve on it. Super Cub owners had long had a wish list of things they would improve if given the opportunity. Christensen took these ideas, applied computer-aided design (CAD) principles, and “supered” the Super Cub. The result, the A-1A, was certified by the FAA in 1987.
To understand the Husky, you have to understand the environment from whence it comes. Afton, Wyo., is perched at 6,100 feet in a wide valley that’s part of the Salt River Range in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Afton is one of 13 tiny towns that dot Star Valley on the far western edge of Wyoming and some 130 miles south of Yellowstone. People here go back several generations and are inextricably tied to the outdoors and beauty around them. The pace is slow, and the long winters give locals a patient and caring nature. The deep lapis skies are usually clear, and the air is bone-dry. It’s a perfect place to build airplanes.
On my second day at Aviat, I received a Husky checkout, and it was my first glimpse into what this airplane could do. Above what seemed like an infinite blanket of the whitest snow you can imagine, factory pilot Steve Anderson led us into a small valley, lined with tall pines and small, rounded mountains. “That’s where we’re landing,” pointed Anderson, his head nodding once. I looked out and saw nothing except a small path that led to some barns. “Where?” I inquired, trying not to sound dumb. “That strip there,” he answered. All I saw was more snow.
Full flaps came down, and Anderson slowed the Husky down to 60 mph. It was a pleasure watching this experienced pro casually line up on some invisible runway. I quickly realized the “strip” was the miniscule path I had seen; no more than some mud between snow banks. With ice and mud flying all around us, Anderson put the Husky down and stopped in what I swear was an unbelievable 150 feet. After meeting the strip’s owner and chatting about the weather, it was my turn to fly the Husky back to Afton.
Hold the brakes, full throttle and all three notches of the 60% span semi-Fowler flaps. I held the stick back as we started to roll, and Anderson told me to keep away from the snow banks. I tap-danced on the rudder pedals—mud flying—and bounced down what now looked like a narrow chute. In a few seconds, I could feel the Husky wanting to fly, and it came up like an eager puppy trying to please its owner. This was fun!
At Afton, I made a “standard” Husky landing: One notch of flaps abeam the numbers and slow to 70 mph (the airspeed indicator is marked in mph). Another notch on base, then slow to 60 mph on final, adding the last notch. Anderson had me trim full nose-up as we approached the numbers, and had me add a smidge of power. I did so and put the Husky down so softly that a feather bed would have felt hard by comparison. (Little did I know that my ego-gratifying greaser would come back to haunt me later.) Anderson seemed satisfied I wouldn’t wreck his airplane, so we said our goodbyes, knowing tomorrow I’d launch for California.
Back at the motel, my lack of sleep faded into excitement about the flight ahead. After a huge $4 breakfast, Robert Stewart and I met Horn at the factory on a deserted Saturday morning so he could open the hangar and pull out our ride home through the Tetons.
The Husky can carry a lot of stuff. We loaded four large duffle bags, camera gear, heavy jackets and flight gear into the baggage area behind the rear seat, as well as into the aluminum-lined aft stowage compartment, where Horn showed us how long items (like skis) can be carried. With an empty weight of 1,320 pounds and a gross weight of 2,200 pounds, the A-1C can haul full fuel (50 gallons useful) and two 200-pound people with ease.
It’s important to understand that the newest changes in the A-1C make it a very different airplane from the 180 hp version. While the feel and handling are essentially the same, the various enhancements make a capable airplane even better. The additional 20 hp, for example, yields about six knots better cruise at a fuel burn of about 9 gph (versus 7 gph in the 180 hp A-1C). The J.P. Instruments EDM-930 is linked directly to the G600, giving more accurate range predictions and allowing more exact mixture leaning, among many other capabilities.
Enhancements for the 2009 model include a larger keyed-entry door, vernier mixture control, a lighter and more responsive tailwheel, and the Garmin G600. Aviat is the first aircraft manufacturer to offer the Garmin glass panel, and Horn tells us that most Huskys are rolling off the assembly line fully IFR-equipped. Options include the EVS-100 enhanced-vision system and various wheels and tires.
An extraordinary feature of the Husky is its range and fuel efficiency. On May 12, 2009, Indiana pilot Kris Maynard flew his Husky A-1A for 15 hours, 3 minutes and 20 seconds on a single tank of fuel! He covered more than 1,200 statute miles and averaged 3.156 gph at a groundspeed of 68 knots. The Husky’s not a speed demon, but then again, that’s not what it was designed for.
Back in the Husky’s cockpit, we had the engine started and waited as the frigid outside temperature made the warm-up a slow process. I had time to luxuriate in the 16-G-rated Oregon Aero seats made especially for the Husky. The five-point, padded aerobatic harnesses are a huge improvement in this newest A-1C. They don’t dig into your neck the way the old restraints did. The larger side door also makes getting in and out much easier.
As we climbed, elevator-like, into the indigo blue of dawn in Afton, we both noticed the incredible view. This airplane was made for vistas like these, but we decided to stay low—where an airplane like the Husky belongs—to enjoy the postcard panoramas of this truly grand part of the West. The sliding window on the left made photography a breeze and would be great for summer flying.
Early models of the Husky had heavy ailerons that were redesigned starting with the A-1B model. Our Husky banked without effort, and the spadeless ailerons felt absolutely buttery in the cold Wyoming air. Control pressures were well harmonized in all three axes, though the aircraft used a good dose of right rudder in the climb. The high-capacity cabin heater worked too well, and we settled in for a shirtsleeve flight.
Below us, small towns faded to nothing, and we were all alone above the violet, snow-capped peaks. We showed a consistent 101 mph indicated airspeed throughout the trip, with a miserly 7 gph fuel consumption. There wasn’t a single cloud between Wyoming and California, and we trotted above the vastness, listening to Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass on the iPod connected to the Husky’s intercom. This was flying!
Our first challenge was Utah’s 11,750-foot Timpanogos pass—a treacherous tunnel of wind. We approached cautiously and watched for any sign of rough air—ready to turn around while we could. Below us, ragged granite peaks reached up like the gnarled fingers of an old crone, looking to pull the Husky out of the sky. But there wasn’t a lick of wind. We sailed through, looking up at the pine trees and waving at skiers in the distance.
We reached St. George, Utah, and it was my turn to land. By now, the midday heat had churned the air, and the airport—famous for its gusty conditions—had a crosswind. I was supposed to impress Stewart with my tailwheel-landing prowess, but the “smidge” of power I added on final was too much, and we floated down the runway...and floated. The Husky loves to fly, and it’s sensitive to excessive speed. After a seeming eternity, I wonked it down in the worst landing I’ve ever made. My ego battered, I was temporarily assuaged by the Husky’s incredibly easy ground handling. I think I heard Stewart laughing.
We swooped down along the emerald waters of a deserted Lake Mead and orbited Hoover Dam, the Husky serving as our ideal aerie. The Garmin panel became indispensable as we entered the hazy airspace of Southern California, with night coming on and a marine layer threatening. Our tired eyes scanned the glass display as we put down in Long Beach, with plenty of fuel to spare for another go.
I was sad pushing the Husky into the big hangar. Somehow, it seemed out of place with its muddy tires flaking dirt onto the epoxy floors, dirtying the shiny white airplanes around it. But I knew it belonged here. While these other airplanes would transport their unknowing owners across thousands of miles of faceless cross-countries in the clean isolation of 10,000 feet, the Husky would see things its brethren never would. It would know pilots who are happiest with stick on the right, throttle on the left and the sweet satisfaction of a grass landing, or a hidden dirt strip high in the backcountry. The Husky would know it gives confidence—and, in an emergency, options—to its pilots. The Husky is an airplane for adventures. I smiled at the thought and patted my cross-country ride on the nose one last time. We—and the Husky—were home.
| Building Huskys The Aviat Way
While most manufacturers “just don’t build them like they used to,” Aviat still does
“This factory is the longest continuous single-engine piston aircraft manufacturing facility in the nation,” says Stu Horn as I walk his shop floor and breathe in the vintage vibe. It’s a real treat standing in a building that has been making airplanes since the 1930s. For the past 25 years, it has been turning out Huskys and Pitts. This is Aviat Aircraft in Afton, Wyo.
The “factory” is really several buildings housing different stages of the manufacturing process and sitting on a five-acre swath of land next to Afton’s only airport. As I tour the facilities, I notice that each building is uniquely dedicated to its own part of the building process while contributing to the whole. As I talk with workers who number their days here in decades, it becomes even more apparent that these aircraft are born, not made.
For Husky aircraft, it’s the detail that counts. Take, for example, something as simple as the machine screws used to hold the various body panels and cowling together. Aviat places a tiny nylon washer—by hand—on each screw so that the paint behind it is never marred. There are hundreds of them.
While most aircraft are assembled and then painted, leaving unpainted sections of aluminum where panels overlap, Huskies are fitted together, then each panel is removed and individually painted so the entire panel is sealed with paint. Further, each piece of aircraft tubing is oiled inside and seal-welded, then coated with a special epoxy paint sealant prior to assembly. Horn says all this prevents corrosion—something a backcountry airplane is vulnerable to.
Paint is applied in a proprietary method, with so many different layers that running your hand over a painted section feels like running a velvet glove over the well-waxed fender of a vintage Rolls-Royce automobile. Wire harnesses are hand-run, Ceconite fabric is stretched and sewn by hand, and stripes are laid out and painted manually.
Even the workers at Aviat are different. While I’m sure most would take a Hawaiian vacation over work, each employee I spoke with had a positive, cheerful attitude about working at Aviat. “People ask me what I do and I tell them I get to build airplanes!” smiles Rebecca from the Husky final-assembly building. “I actually love my job.”
While Aviat’s methods seem “old world,” there’s much more to it. Robotic machines stamp out aluminum panels as computers track the movement of thousands of parts—some just a fraction of an inch in size. The entire process is amazing to behold and shows the quality and care that goes into the finished Husky; something owners have known for a long time.
Ultimately, Horn and his team are quite proud of the aircraft they manufacture, and their past success is proof that attention to detail works. The Husky has consistently been a top-selling aircraft and is recognized for superior craftsmanship and its manufacturer’s dedication to its customers.
“What are you doing?” I ask a woman as she meticulously applies scallop-edged fabric tape to stretched Ceconite seams. Her intense eyes follow each inch of the tape. “I’m strengthening these seams,” she answers brightly. “The pinked edges—the scalloped ones—are stronger than the straight edges most people use, and we make them extra wide to make them even stronger. We want to make the strongest airplane we can.”