Many adventure aircraft are among the most docile machines in the sky. We call them adventure aircraft because their purposes are most often not the standard personal/business transport. They can be used for those missions, but their more common tasks have to do with bush or utility flying, the latter often on your choice of landing gear, wheels, skis or floats. Alternately, adventure aircraft teach us aerobatics or allow us to visit places without airports. Strange as it may seem, we fly adventure aircraft for the sheer adventure of it.
If you look back far enough in aviation history, you’re bound to run across the venerable Champ. The Aeronca Champ 7AC’s origins stretch back to the 1930s, but thanks to the efforts of Jerry Mehlhaff, owner of American Champion Aircraft in Rochester, Wis., you can still buy a new variation of the Champ, though a significantly upgraded one. Today’s Champ flies beneath aluminum wings, whereas the original had Spruce wings. The modern airplane employs the 100 hp Continental O-200D engine, basically the Cessna 150 powerplant, rather than the old 65 hp mill of the 1940s. Perhaps best of all, the Champ is one of the few certified airplanes that also can be flown as an LSA. Cruise is about 80 knots following a 700 fpm climb, and you might want to think twice about operating out of Denver in summer, but the fun quotient is high, and the price isn’t. Price: $120,900.
If you need more horsepower and want to add basic akro to your repertoire, the Aurora, the second airplane in the American Champion line, may be the machine for you. This one features 118 hp. It’s a metalized version of the basic Citabria. You can’t do any exotic akro tricks with the Aurora, loops and rolls are pretty much the limit, and even then only through proper energy management, but you can dip your toe in the water of aerobatics and have fun in the process. Some flight schools employ Auroras as unusual attitude trainers, but the engine is carbureted and there are no inverted systems, so negative maneuvers will starve the engine of fuel and oil. The model also makes a great Sunday-go-to-burger flyer, a tractable machine for those out-of-the-way airport restaurants. Useful load is typically 600 pounds, which works out to full fuel and 400 pounds of people and stuff, generous for a two-seater. Price: $136,900.
In keeping with the basic premise of our new aircraft guide, American Champion has a model specifically named “Adventure.” This is essentially the Citabria configuration again, but in modern dress. It comes standard with the Hershey-bar airfoil and fixed-pitch Sensenich prop, but power has been bumped up to the 160 hp Lycoming O-320. This shot of additional adrenalin makes vertical maneuvers more fun, since better climb means less time spent climbing back to altitude. If akro isn’t your thing, not to worry. The Adventure’s extra power pushes cruise to 117 knots on about nine gph. This translates to about three hours’ endurance, worth 350 nm. Gross is 1,750 pounds, and payload works out to a fairly generous 340 pounds. That’s two folks plus toothbrushes. One peripheral benefit is a TBO of 2,400 hours, one of the highest of any piston engine. Price: $142,900.
Explorer/High Country Explorer
If your mission is off-airport operation, and you need an airplane capable of fitting into short, unimproved strips or no strip at all, American Champion’s Explorer may be the model for you. The Explorer enjoys a larger wing and flaps to allow operating in less than 500 feet of improvised runway. The optional High Country Explorer does even better with an additional 20 hp out front and standard 8.00×6 bush tires. The result is an airplane that bridges the gap between the old 7-series Citabria and the more serious Scout. The gear is sprung higher to provide better prop clearance, and the big wheels allow the airplane to operate in rough or soft terrain with less chance of incident. It’s one of American Champion’s top models for bush operation. Price: $146,900.
Ah yes, my good friend the Super Decathlon. Jerry Mehlhaff elected not to change the name of the Super Decathlon, primarily because the airplane is recognized as one of the most comfortable and capable aerobatic trainers in the sky. Fitted with a 180 hp Lycoming AEIO-360H, inverted fuel and oil system, and capable of accepting an optional smoke system, the Super D can fly the large majority of maneuvers in the akro handbook, including a few outside tricks beyond the scope of the Citabrias: full outside loops, outside snaps, vertical rolls (when properly coordinated) and many other aerobatic exercises.
Although the Super was never intended to be competitive in aerobatic competition, the type has won the Sportsman class many times when properly flown. Better still, however, the Super isn’t limited to akro training. It can climb at 1,200 fpm from sea level and cruise at 115 knots. The new Super Decathlon Xtreme ups the power ante to 200 hp for even better performance. Bring along a parachute, and you can even change your whole attitude en route. Price: $175,900.
American Champion Scout
No, the Scout isn’t an aerobatic design. Its talents are dedicated to bush operators, and I’ve seen a number of the type operating on extra-large bush tires in Alaska, landing on sand bars, in tiny meadows and other unlikely destinations. The Scout sports longer wings than the Adventure, a taller gear stance to protect the prop, large-span, long-chord flaps and the carbureted 180 hp Lycoming used on other American Champion models. The Scout is approved for operation on wheels, skis and normal/amphibious floats, and that makes it a popular machine in the Far North where the change of seasons makes continuous wheel operation impractical. Dirty stall speed in standard configuration is only 43 knots, and the actual break is so gentle, some pilots feel comfortable approaching as slow as 1.05 Vso, practically in the buffet. Landing roll can be little as 300 feet, a football field in the backwoods. Price: $170,900.
Aviat Husky A1C
In a sense, the Husky is exactly the kind of airplane you’d expect from Aviat Aircraft of Afton, Wyo. When real-estate entrepreneur Stuart Horn acquired the company in 1996, he quickly placed emphasis on the Husky, a utility aircraft intended to conquer the outbacks of Canada, Alaska or wherever there were no runways. To that end, the Husky has progressed to the A1C, incorporating evolutionary changes to improve the breed. While the Husky is a totally original design, it relies on the heritage of the Super Cub, one of the premier bushbirds of all time. Fitted with 180 hp for max performance and maximum lifting capability, the Husky doesn’t need much space for departure and arrival. As a result, the Husky can make its own runways on muskeg, deserts, water or snow. The Aviat airplane requires a minimum distance to claw its way into the sky, usually less than 200 feet, and an even shorter space to land to a full stop. Of all the short-field, two-seat aircraft available for backwoods operation, the Husky may be the most comfortable and the most modern. Like the Cub before it, the Husky has become a durable contender for flying into places without runways. Price: $218,262.
I’m one of those lucky people who was able to graduate to a two-place Pitts shortly after I received my private pilot’s license. That transition was an eye opener, flown in the initial 200 hp Pitts S2A, but in the subsequent 45 years, I’ve been fortunate to step up to the 260 hp S2B and the improved S2C. The S2C can do the full gamut of aerobatic tricks, right up through the lomcevak (an end-over-end somersault) and double hammerhead, and slightly modified gear geometry makes it an easier airplane to land than the original, as well.
Aerobatic schools use it to train pilots all the way up through the unlimited class, and while it doesn’t have the power of an Edge 540 or an Extra 330, it can fly virtually all the vertical maneuvers with ease. Some pilots regard a biplane as a better machine for akro. Many owners contend that a Pitts often seems psychic and can perform maneuvers you didn’t know you could do. The S2C is a dedicated aerobatic machine, however. It has only 28 gallons of fuel capacity with 260 hp to feed, so it’s not much of a cross-country airplane. Aviat doesn’t build S2Cs on a scheduled basis, but the airplane is still technically in production, and they’ll build one to your specifications. Price: ask for current price when ordering.
Some airplanes achieve iconic status without even trying. The Beech Staggerwing was one. The Spartan Executive was another. Two more that became legendary and had their lifespan extended indefinitely are the Waco YMF and the Great Lakes 2T1AT. These are both open cockpit biplanes, and Peter Bowers of Classic Aircraft in Battle Creek, Mich., has made it his personal mission to assure the latter two aircraft will continue ad infinitum.
The revived Waco has been around for a quarter century, and Bowers is proud of the fact that the airplane is still handmade, just as it was in the 1930s. Of course, today’s airplane is the beneficiary of modern materials and assembly processes, but the engine is still a Jacobs radial, though upgraded to 300 hp, materials have been dramatically improved, and predictably, avionics are light years ahead of what was available on the original airplane.
Seating is still two plus one, front to rear, in honor of the airplane’s frequent sightseeing mission. (Two new era Wacos still fly tourists around the colorful, red cliffs of Sedona, Ariz.) Max fuel is only 72 gallons and cruise is a mere 105 knots, but slow can be a virtue in this airplane. Classic Aircraft continues to have faith in the future of the past. Price: $429,000.
Great Lakes 2T-1A2
Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Great Lakes biplane, as it was the first open cockpit four-winger I flew after earning the license to learn. To be honest, the one I flew had been ridden hard and put away wet, but it still always managed to find another cheek to turn to this amateur akro pilot. Now, Peter Bowers has brought the Great Lakes back to life. Bowers has been in process of reviving the design for several years, and his end product finally earned certification and saw the light at Oshkosh this last year. The Great Lakes is smaller and more agile than the Waco—it’s a pure fun biplane in miniature, flying behind a 180 hp Lycoming AEIO-360 and Hartzell constant speed prop. Like the Waco, the original Great Lakes dates back to the 1930s, but the current product from Classic Aircraft is updated in practically every area. It’s still a quick-handling machine, and akro maneuvers include virtually all the gentlemanly loops, rolls and hammerheads. As with the Waco stablemate, cruise is only 105 knots, but the kind of pilot who’ll buy this airplane probably won’t care. Price: $245,000.
CubCrafters Top Cub
CubCrafters Top Cub
As the name implies, the Top Cub is the apex of CubCrafters’ line of certified Cubs. It comes standard with a carbureted 180 hp Lycoming, among general aviation’s most durable engines. Gross weight is 2,300 pounds, and that represents a 550- pound improvement over the final Piper Super Cub. Fuel supply is now 50 gallons, and useful load is 1,100 pounds. That means full fuel payload is an impressive 800 pounds, and remember, this is a two-seater. Payload is a primary criterion for bush airplanes, and with two standard folks in the seats, you’ll still have more than 400 pounds of cargo allowance. It’s a tough bird, too, significantly hardened against stupid pilot tricks. The gear is now three inches taller, seats are Oregon Aero, and the restraint system complies with the FAAs 26 G rule. If you need to haul a lot into a small space, the Top Cub may be just the airplane. Price: $219,395 (2012).
Walter Extra was an aerobatic competitor with some better ideas. Following competition for the 1982 World Aerobatic Championship, Extra set about building his own version of the ideal aerobatic airplane. The result was hailed by many as something of an ultimate akro machine. The basic design evolved from a 230 hp machine to a 260 hp design, then a 300 hp airplane to the current 315 hp Extra 330. Roll rate is on the order of 270 degrees/second, and the airplane has pitch response so quick, you may think you’re maneuvering an F-16 with fly-by-wire. Walter Extra recognized that a faster cross-country version of the airplane might be a good seller, and accordingly, he developed a quicker traveling machine, the 300LT, that still retained the aerobatic response available on the more full-blown models.
Extras come in single-seat and two-seat models with wings mounted at mid fuselage and lower fuselage. All the Extra airplanes have excellent climb, usually 3,000 fpm or more, and cruise of 170 knots or better. Air show pilots Mike Goulian and Plane & Pilot‘s own Patty Wagstaff have been strong Extra boosters for years, and chances are good, if you ever fly an Extra, you’ll join their cheerleading squad. Prices: 330LT two-seat touring, $438,000; 330LX hard core, two-seat aerobatic, $407,500; 300L basic two-seat $368,500 ll.
Gipps Air Van
Gipps AV-8 Air Van
George Morgan and Peter Furlong, of Moreland, Australia, designed the AV-8 Air Van during a period of 10 years to accomplish a specific mission—haul the largest possible load around the Outback. In fact, it’s pretty much unmatched in that part of the world and many others. As the designation suggests, it’s configured for eight seats, seven of them in quick-change mode, that allows them to be swapped for flat floor space if the mission demands. Morgan and Furlong must have done something right, as today, there are some 170 Air Vans flying in such out-of-the-way places as Canada, Alaska, the Congo, Botswana, New Zealand, New Guinea and other locations where what you can carry is more important than how fast you can get it to the destination.
Plane & Pilot flew the Gipps Air Van in Spring 2012, and it had all the hauling characteristics of a Dodge Ram truck, only faster. Payload was more than 1,200 pounds with the standard normally aspirated 300 hp Lycoming (the airplane is also available a turbo that boosts power to 320 hp). In-flight handling is excellent, right down to the 56-knot stall speed, partially a tribute to the USA35B airfoil. Piperwith aficionados will recognize that aerodynamic section as the basic Cub wing but, in this case, it’s 208 square feet large. No one is liable to worry much about speed on a Gipps Airvan, but for those keeping score, it’s 134 knots. Price: $761,030 (turbocharged).
Maule has built so many models of its basic STOL taildragger that it’s hard to keep track of them all. You can buy Maules in a bewildering variety of modes: two seats, four seats or six seats, a nosewheel or a tailwheel, piston engines from 160 to 260 hp or a turbine out front, oleo or leaf spring suspension and enough variety of options to satisfy an Alaskan bush pilot or a family man from Dallas. The Moultrie, Ga., manufacturer can put together whatever combination of ingrdients you need, but the latest Maule is the M9-235, a conventional gear airplane aimed at the bush market. Like most Maules, the M9’s primary claim to fame is its impressive useful load, but Maules have many other talents to keep you engaged. The M9 scores a 50-foot takeoff distance of only 791 feet at gross. As with so many other airplanes in the Adventure class, cruise isn’t that impressive, 137 knots (about the same as a stock Skylane) but how fast do you need to fly to haul a moose out of a meadow in South-Central Alaska and fly it back to Anchorage?
Peterson’s Performance Plus
Let’s say you have a garden-variety Cessna 182 in decent condition that you’d like to transmogrify into something better. The King Katmai may be just your ticket. Todd Peterson has been converting Skylanes to legitimate bush birds for years. Peterson is the father of the earlier Wren conversion, and the King Katmai is his more recent attempt to reduce runway requirements. The major innovation on the King is the longer wing that provides improved short-field performance and more abbreviated landing characteristics. Stall speed is just 31 knots! Peterson Performance Plus offers a number of additional options. The top-of-the-line full King Katmai conversion mounts a 300 hp, IO-550 engine out front plus the forward canard and extended wings. Price: $140,000.