Any way you look at it, CubCrafters is one of the success stories of American aviation in the 2000s. With a lineup of Experimental, LSA and Part 23 models, along with doing extensive refurbs of existing Super Cubs, the company has forged a place for itself in the world of backcountry flying while selling a lot of airplanes in the process.
The founder of the company, Jim Richmond, who started things rolling in Yakima a few decades ago, knows every inch of the Cub, and, for the record, by “Cub,” I mean “Super Cub.” In fact, the name of the company might as well be “SuperCubCrafters,” because that model, and not the J-3, is Richmond’s muse. But more to the point, the founder and still guiding force has taken this one area of interest and spun it ingeniously in numerous directions. What started as a company offering mods and “refinements,” to use its word, to existing Super Cubs went in directions that Richmond himself surely never saw coming.
These products are usually anchored with a clever core idea, as with the Carbon Cub LSA, a great-performing Cub-style LSA with an outstanding power-to-weight ratio that outdoes its inspiration in every imaginable way (except, perhaps, sheer charm). Its X-Cub is a Part 23 model (not a small accomplishment) that’s fast, powerful, fun to fly, capable and rugged.
While a number of the company’s planes have pushed the comfort level of Cub traditionalists, the latest model, the cleverly named NX Cub, takes that final, no-holds-barred leap into the ring with the most brazen affront to Cub orthodoxy ever—the thing has a nosewheel.
And what a nosewheel it is, too—it’s probably more accurate to call it a “nosewheel system” because unlike some companies of yore that sawed the tailwheel off the back and welded it to the front—okay, I exaggerate—CubCrafters has given this a lot of thought, and the results are, well, outrageous. Now, what flavor that outrage takes, “outrageously wrong” or “outrageously awesome,” is in the eye of the beholder. And don’t laugh. Bush-flying types think of themselves as ruggedly practical, but when it comes to how they like their flying, there are plenty of style points involved.
As you’ve been reading in these pages, backcountry flying is hot, with more pilots taking to remote strips than ever, and in a wide variety of models, everything from the latest high-tech wonders from Aviat and CubCrafters to kitplanes and outright antiques. It’s a growing niche segment of pilots who are stretching their legs by trying something challenging and exciting, and it has both qualities in abundance.
And I’d be remiss not to say upfront that a lot of the pilots who fly the outback do so for a living, a fact with implications that inform the way they fly and the way they view backcountry flying, not that this fact keeps them from flying recreationally once they’ve clocked out for the day.
But a lot of the aviators newly attracted to backcountry flying are doing it because it offers them a host of rewards you just won’t find flying around the patch in a 172, not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are so many things you can do in a light plane: travel to see family and friends; journey across the state (or country) to do business; or, often, just head out to a new destination for reasons that aren’t even adequately covered by the concept of the $100 hamburger. This kind of flying can be incredibly rewarding in its own right.
I don’t believe that backcountry flying is inherently a better experience than what we think of as more conventional kinds of flying, though some of its most die-hard adherents believe just that. And to hear them talk about it, it’s no mystery what pulls them in, and it’s not a short list.
The romance is a big part of it, for sure. And it’s real, too, a rugged, rough weave of beauty and design, nature and machine, and plane and pilot (if you’ll forgive the plug).
When I say that the romance is real, I mean, it’s not made up. The machines that are most widely used in the segment aren’t identical—there’s a world of difference between a Cessna 185 and a Piper Super Cub, two favorites of those who ply backcountry strips. The former is an all-metal, four- to six-seat, 260- to 300-hp tiger, and the latter is a tube-and-rag holdover from the early days of aviation that does its thing with 180 hp or less.
But owners of both planes can look each other straight in the eye and shake hands as members of a community that’s as much about what its members share in common as what they don’t. A 185 and a Super Cub, in case you haven’t figured out where this is heading, share one component in common—a tailwheel. Pilots who fly planes with a nosewheel, well, those sorts are okay, too, they guess.
A Nosegear Cub
Enter the latest entrant into the sandbox, or gravel bar, maybe, the NX Cub—“NX” being short for “Next,” as in, “next generation.” Which is quite a claim when you’re talking about Cubs, right? Borrowing heavily from the design of the X-Cub, the NX isn’t a clean-sheet airplane. It is, depending on how you look at it, an upgrade, a modification or maybe even a defiling of the pretty great airplane that came before it, the X-Cub, not to mention the Piper product that got the wheels rolling way back when. That all said, it’s such a big step that the NX Cub makes, it stands up for itself, literally and otherwise, admirably
The crazy thing is, it’s convertible. Its gear can be reconfigured to be in back or in front, but not, to the best of our knowledge, anyways, in both places.
Like the X-Cub, the NX is fast, better than 150 mph, and its performance isn’t nearly as good as its tailwheel hangar mate; it’s better. The NX can, according to the company, land using a third less runway than the X-Cub
The company is embarking on a spring tour with the plane, which it says it’s still in the process of deciding whether to produce or not. Which makes sense, except that the work is already done, and it’s really impressive work, too. More on the aforementioned nose gear system in a bit, but take my word for it. It’s a work of art. And if that most controversial of configuration-changing components does even close to what the company says it will, it’ll be revolutionary, too.
CubCrafters shared with us an extensive overview of the NX Cub, which opened our eyes to just how inventive an approach the company took to the design. For starters, the system is, as we said, convertible, but for our purposes, we’ll focus on what’s different—the nose gear.
CubCrafters says that it had a short list of goals for the new Cub. It had to be robust enough to handle real backcountry operations and not just a Sunday brunch at a manicured grass strip. Think gravel and ruts. It also had to be reliable, something that’s a part of the fabric of backcountry philosophy. When the closest repair shop is a couple of hundred miles away with no roads between here and there…yeah, reliability is a big deal. To hit that mark, the designers ruled out hydraulic/air seals, and there are no steering mechanisms to maintain. The philosophy, in short, is this: If it’s not there, it can’t break. Finally, it had to be convertible from nosewheel to tailwheel.
The wheel/tire itself doesn’t look very large, and for good reason. It’s not. The 19-inch diameter tire is pretty pedestrian, but there’s a bit of magic here. Because the pivot on the trailing link gear isn’t on the axle but on a pivot several inches forward of the tire, the tire behaves as though it’s much larger than it is. If this isn’t immediately apparent, forget the actual wheel and think of an imaginary one with an axle far forward of the surface area of the tire (it runs 8X6 tires, again, hardly the stuff of big tire lore). The effect is that the 19-inch diameter gets multiplied several times into a much larger apparent diameter, a whopping 51 inches, according to CubCrafters. So while that little tire might look too puny to the do the job, it’s not because the tire acts much bigger than it looks. It’s not like CubCrafters invented trailing link gear—it’s been around for a long, long time—but it’s a novel approach for a bush plane and one that makes nothing but sense to us.
The other magic here isn’t magic at all, just smart design. On most planes, the nosegear is connected to a structure that’s bolted directly to the firewall. That, says CubCrafters, and every mechanic everywhere, is a big weak point of nose gear design in general. On a hard landing, you can buckle the firewall, so if you feel like writing big checks and benching your plane for a few months, that’s a good way to do it. And rugged, backcountry strips are the enemy here.
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What CubCrafters does with its design is to attach the nosewheel’s trailing link suspension to a heavy-duty truss that’s attached to the engine mount, not the firewall. This transmits the loads almost directly upward with no long-lever action to amplify those loads, thereby increasing the potentially destructive loads on the firewall.
Like you’re probably thinking, we figured the new nosegear configuration would cost plenty in terms of top speed, but, yeah, we’re apparently both wrong. CubCrafters’ designers spent many an hour working to optimize the shape of the cowling and its inlets to make not only a cute smiley face but an aerodynamic solution that keeps the nosegear version of the X-Cub trucking at better than 150 mph.
And lest we forget the whole idea behind this new bird, it’s a lot harder to ground-loop a nosegear airplane than it is a taildragger. Is there something about flying a taildragger that’s intrinsically cool and fun? Absolutely! But there’s risk, if not so much to life and limb, then certainly to pride and bank balances.
If and when this plane comes to market, and we fully expect it to, though that’s just our guess, we’re also guessing it will cost in the same general ballpark as the X-Cub and come with Garmin glass, a beautiful interior and finishing touches that belie the backcountry pedigree of the machine.
How briskly will the new plane sell, if, indeed, it does hit the market soon? Well, if history is any guide, when Cessna rolled out the blasphemy that was essentially a 170 with a nosewheel, something it designated the 172, more than a few folks plunked their dollars down to get one of their own even though there was no shortage of existing Cessna pilots who thought the nosewheel was pure sacrilege.