Pulling the nose up, the forward visibility still surprisingly good for a tandem taildragger, I put the needle of the airspeed indicator—yes, there’s still a needle—right at best rate of climb, 70 mph—yes, there are still miles per hour, too. Mindful that this is the clean configuration stall speed for a lot of singles, I kept it there, watching the VSI settle in at 1400 fpm as we ascended through 3,500 feet. Rising toward us in the near distance was the evergreen forest of the Cascades, blue-green ridges and mountains, snow still thick on the distant, yet massive peaks of Adams and Rainier.
As we climbed out, we left behind the Yakima River Valley and the rain desert that surrounds it. Beyond the settled land, with its cities and towns, patches of irrigated green, fields of grapes and hemp, lay endless stretches of dry, rocky and rugged land, etched hard with gorges and rock peaks, muted browns and oranges, situated on the shore of the tidal wake of the Cascades.
Yes, we were headed in the right direction, toward high terrain, tall trees and the kind of flying this airplane was meant to do.
The airplane I was flying was the brand-new, top-secret XCub, the latest project of the remarkably American aviation business CubCrafters of Yakima, Washington. By now, there was no doubt left in my mind, having done some pattern work at a cozy grass strip near the CubCrafters Yakima factory, that this was no ordinary Super Cub. Don’t get me wrong, the PA-18 is a great airplane; it’s just not one that can do what the XCub can. CubCrafters isn’t a new name to aviation enthusiasts. Over the past decade, the homegrown company has taken the kit and LSA world by storm with its Carbon Cubs of various iterations. The airplane, regardless of the category and engine bolted on up front, is a superlight and powerful LSA/SLSA/Experimental that’s one of the best-selling light planes in the world.
The XCub is a whole different ballgame, a clean-sheet Part 23 airplane that CubCrafters has been developing behind the scenes for the past five years. CubCrafters’ introduction of the airplane was a carefully crafted process designed to ensure that no one got the wrong idea. CubCrafters would start selling the XCub when it was done and when it could start delivering them very shortly thereafter. (See the below for more on the process.)
By The Numbers: CubCrafters 2016 XCub
The airplane flown for this report was a late preproduction model outfitted with 26-inch Tundra tires, the base package avionics, and Launch Edition paint and Launch Edition leather interior. The review airplane was also outfitted with mechanical engine ignition; the airplane will come standard with dual electronic ignition and batteries. All specifications are preliminary pending certification.
Launch Edition price: $297,500 (after the 20 Launch Edition models are sold, a “standard” configuration with base interior and paint will be available; the price is expected to be higher, but has not been set yet)
Price typically outfitted: $305,795 (includes 26-inch Tundra tires and ADS-B package—Garmin GDL 84 with Flight Stream 210, full 2020 compliance)
Seats: 2 (Tandem)
Engine: Lycoming 180 hp O-360 C1G
Propeller: Hartzell Trailblazer (2-blade, constant-speed composite)
Height: 8 ft. 4 in.
Length: 23 ft. 10 in.
Wingspan: 34 ft. 4 in.
Wing area: 174.8 sq. ft.
Cabin width: 30 in.
Max Takeoff wt: 2,300 lbs.
Standard empty wt: 1,212 lbs.
Useful load: 1,088 lbs.
Full fuel payload: 794 lbs.
Baggage capacity: 26 cubic ft./180 lbs.
Fuel capacity: 49 gal.
Takeoff distance ground roll S.L.: 170 ft.
Max climb rate S.L.: 1,500 ft./min.
Service ceiling: 14,000 ft.
Max speed: 153 mph
Max range: 800 nm
Cruise speed (75% power at 5,000 feet): 145 mph
Landing distance (ground roll): 170 ft.
I hope it’s well known, but if it isn’t, let me state it for the record: Part 23 certification of a two-seat light airplane is a bear, or more accurately, a large group of grumpy bears. The sad fact is, getting FAA approval for a small VFR-only airplane that touches down at 35 knots is far too similar to getting approval for a 400-knot, sub-12,500-pound jet. Historically, the FAA has made little distinction between the two types of craft, though there are high hopes that will change with the Part 23 rewrite that’s currently working its way through the FAA’s adoption process.
CubCrafters founder Jim Richmond was aware of the effort required; he’s been at this game for better than 35 years, and he’s dealt with the FAA in every certificating light plane in every conceivable category, including some you might not even have realized were categories. Well, every category except one, that is, until now, until the XCub. The obvious question was, why didn’t Richmond and team wait for the new relaxed regs to come around? The answer, he shares, is that he didn’t want to wait, that the uncertainties of the “new Part 23” represented too big a risk to the timetable that CubCrafters had in mind for the XCub, an airplane, Richmond seems to feel, that’s the culmination of a career spent rebuilding and manufacturing airplanes conceived in the early 1930s in Central Pennsylvania. As Mark Twain often joked, it would have been wise for Cub creators and purveyors C.G. Taylor and Bill Piper to hold onto their hats, for they might wind up miles away from there, in this case, around 3,000 miles away.
Cubs are everywhere in the culture of aviation history. Arguably the most recognizable brand in light aviation, the Cub was a Depression-era jolt of Cub-yellow fun contrasted on the green grass of hope. It was, as I probably don’t need to say, a huge hit. More than 20,000 of what are essentially J-3 Cubs made their way into the hands and seats of the pants of hundreds of thousands of pilots over the years. It’s hard to pin down just how many Cubs are still flying, but it’s a lot of them, thanks to the fact that they’re built really well and they’re built to be rebuilt. With their basic architecture of welded steel tubing, wood and aluminum, there’s nothing on a Cub that can’t be fixed. The same holds true for the many post-J-3 models of Cub-like airplanes that succeeded the J-3, including the most famous and highly sought after of them all, the PA-18 Super Cub.
It was the Super Cub that lured Richmond into the aircraft manufacturing game, and even then it was a deliberate process, a 20-year process, in fact. Richmond, whose father was an aviator and a fur rancher in Washington and Alaska, raised Jim on the backcountry and the badass airplanes built for flying there. The family planes included a DC-3, lucky kid, along with a few more modest bushwhackers, including, yes, the PA-18 Super Cub.
As a young man, Richmond did contracting work, including installing insulation and air conditioning, but his life was about to change when he spotted an ad in Trade-A-Plane from a guy who had 50 war-surplus Cubs that he’d bought from a seller in Italy. Richmond figured if he bought three of them, he could then flip the other two and have an airplane for himself. With a little smooth talking, Richmond convinced a banker of the soundness of his plan, and got a loan and the Cubs. The first sale was possibly the easiest in aviation history. Richmond trailered it home and parked it in the yard after a long drive to Yakima from the seller’s hangar in Texas. When he woke up the next morning, there was a buyer, cash in hand, to buy the as-yet-to-be-advertised J-3. Selling airplanes in his sleep. The second one went nearly as fast, and Richmond, just like that, was an aircraft owner.
The journey from there to aviation business was just as unlikely and involved so many twists and turns that a full retelling would command an article by itself, if not a complete volume. Suffice it to say that after getting into Cub ownership, Richmond, already an A&P, began repairing and then rebuilding Cubs and Super Cubs. That, somehow, through the encouragement of the FAA, believe it or not, turned into a business building complete airplanes without an existing data plate using a certification method known as “Spares and Surplus.”
By using this manufacturing approach, a company like CubCrafters could build an airplane entirely from spare parts, surplus parts and parts manufactured under PMA. The resulting airplane, while it might seem like a Frankenstein, in theory, just looked and flew like a Super Cub (an improved one, at that). Despite the lack of a data plate or even the proverbial ashtray (for the famous “ashtray-up restoration”), these airplanes could be and were approved by the FAA. CubCrafters built a lot of airplanes using just that method.
That all ended, however, when then-TC holder Piper Aircraft (the company has since changed hands a few times) wanted to put an end to the practice and lobbied its congressman to pass a law requiring that any future spare-and-surplus aircraft makers get the approval of the type certificate holder. In the case of CubCrafters and its spare-and-surplus Super Cubs, the TC holder at that time was Piper, and, you guessed it, they declined to give their okay to anymore spare-and-surplus Super Cubs coming out of Yakima.
This turn of events left Richmond with two options: fold up shop or start manufacturing his own airplanes. Richmond chose the latter, in part, because CubCrafters already had robust spare parts manufacturing and aircraft assembly capabilities. The result was the Top Cub, for all intents and purposes, a PA-18 Super Cub clone. The company got type certification for its Top Cub in 2004.
CubCrafters, as you probably know, went on a few years later to carve a niche for itself in the LSA world, first with its 100 hp Sport Cub and later with its more powerful Carbon Cub, a light sport model with performance that would rival that of a Super Cub were it not for the somewhat silly performance limitations of the Light Sport Category. The Experimentals of the Carbon Cub, the SS and FX models, offer even more performance than the factory-built SLSA version.
It’s a rare day when a company comes out with a new Part 23 airplane certification, though interestingly enough, there have been a few, and very different ones, to emerge lately: the HondaJet, the Diamond DA62 and the Mooney Acclaim Ultra (the last of which isn’t technically a new certification, but as close as you can get without having to go through the process).
The XCub is that rare bird, though CubCrafters probably will suffer the understandable assumption that its new airplane is just another iteration of its Cub lineup.
The truth is, apart from its classic configuration—that is, being a high-wing, tube-and-rag, tandem-seating taildragger with a USA36 airfoil—there’s almost nothing about the XCub that’s derivative. It is, in essence, a clean-sheet airplane with classic looks that leverages CubCrafters’ extensive knowledge of the type and the manufacturing process, allowing it to produce an airplane with leading performance at an attractive price.
There are probably a few things that Super Cub aficionados will note about the outward appearance of the XCub, one of which is surely the spring-steel gear. Bungee gear would have been the classic choice, but CubCrafters had one huge goal in mind for the XCub: speed. Just about everything different about the new model, in fact, is related to the quest for higher speed. In addition to the new gear, you’ve got smaller tires (not pictured here), available wheelpants (coming soon), new gap-sealed ailerons, extreme attention to light weight, a more powerful and lighter engine, a constant-speed Hartzell Trailblazer prop, more components made of fiberglass and carbon fiber, and great attention to aerodynamic efficiency, something that seems to go directly against the grain of classic Cub-style design. And CubCrafters did all of this, it points out emphatically, without sacrificing the kind of slow-speed performance that Super Cub fanatics yearn for.
In addition to speed, style was a huge concern for CubCrafters in conceiving the type, and the company worked hard to craft a Cub that appealed to pilots who wanted not only Super Cub-plus performance, but a quality of ride that few other bush planes offer. Aviat, with its fine Husky, a direct competitor to the XCub, has achieved great success with its iconic taildragger modeled decades ago expressly after the Super Cub.
The high-style approach cuts both ways. While even most dyed-in-the-wool bush pilots have come to love the safety benefits of computerized avionics, there’s a lingering sense that bush planes should be Spartan affairs, tubes and rag not only describing the materials used in the construction, but the entirety of the structure. With the XCub, the interior is slick, with carbon-fiber panels creating an interior shell, even on the door/window, that not only are attractive, but quiet, and durable, too, says the company. The seats, especially the front one (the pilot’s seat), are comfy and cushioned, a big upgrade, in fact, from CubCrafters’ oft-maligned minimalistic sling seats in the Carbon Cub. The company says it was seeking to make the interior a best-in-class experience, and it has at least come close to that. The photos accompanying this story clearly show the quality and clean design of the seating area, and while photos can sometimes be deceiving, if anything, the experience of the XCub interior is even better than it looks on the printed page. Yes, there are cup holders, and yes, you’ll be able to get fancy avionics in the airplane before long, too. The model I flew had a VFR package with steam gauges augmented by a panel-mounted Garmin 796 portable. For what we were doing, it was fantastic. Would I want IFR capability in an XCub of my own? You betcha’.
FLYING THE XCUB
When I showed up at the home of CubCrafters in Yakima to fly the XCub, I was surprised and delighted at how homegrown and organic, to use the company’s word, the facility is. The space is a patchwork of hangars and shops, airplanes and tools shoehorned in where they fit, with offices occupying an upstairs loft seemingly added on by a weekend handyman. The company, it almost instantly became clear to me, is the result of individual passion that blossomed into a manufacturing concern, as opposed to one developed with venture capital-built glass walls and mainframe computers before the first metal for the first plane was cut. The site feels profoundly American and essentially honest, which, once you get to know Richmond, is in the DNA.
The plan was to fly the XCub with Randy Lervold, CubCrafters general manager (what he doesn’t do at CubCrafters I’ve yet to find out). I confessed my rustiness with taildraggers, information that Randy used to formulate a plan that would give me a chance to get the feel again in an easy environment before heading up to the big rocks.
The physical act of climbing into any Cub is a different experience than stepping into a modern sheet-metal wonder, and that’s both bad and good. You wear a Cub as much as you sit in one. With glass on both sides and, in the XCub, glass above, there’s a sense of oneness with the outside world that you simply can’t get in a Cirrus. The classic-configuration gatefold door/window of the airplane is both substantial and superlight, and the closing and latching mechanisms are positive and solid, with an idiot-proof front-and-back positive-locking indicator that assures the door is closed when you think it is, not that it would be a tragedy of Pitts-scale proportions if it weren’t. CubCrafters was still working out just how fast you can fly the plane with the doors open, one of the many last-month works in progress toward certification they were buttoning up during my visit.
Start-up is easy. The production airplane will have electronic ignition, but the not-quite-ready-for-primetime example I got to fly still had magnetos. The engine, moreover, is non-fuel-injected, so there’s a carb heat control, too. Much of the rationale behind these equipment choices was to get lighter weight—electronic ignition saves many pounds of weight, and the carbureted O-360 is substantially lighter than the fuel-injected “IO” model.
Taxiing out, I got the message that it’s much easier to see over the nose of the XCub than many taildraggers I’ve flown; you even can see a good deal around the edges of the cowling, so when you have to do S-turns, the bends in the S’s aren’t much more than easy meanders.
It always seems odd and somehow wrong to be taking off in a pretty taildragger from a paved runway, a long paved runway, at that, but there we were. Yakima Tower cleared us to go, I checked flaps notched at the first increment, poured the coals to it and waited for—a fraction of a second. I pushed forward slightly, we hit flying speed—rotating at 50 mph—and I rotated. I adopted the previously mentioned nose-way-up best-angle attitude, and up and away we went.
There are two standard techniques for takeoff, one with two notches of flaps, which feels more like levitation than rotation. Apply power, hold the stick back, and wait a precious few seconds, and you’re flying. Dump a notch of flaps as soon as you’ve got a positive rate of climb, and away you go. The other technique, which gives you much better visibility over the nose, is to use a single notch of flaps, apply power, lower the nose to a near-level attitude and rotate much as you would in a tricycle-gear airplane.
One of the design goals for the XCub was to create a smooth-flying taildragger with good roll response and smooth control feel. It took me all of 10 minutes to get that this was one mission CubCrafters could put in the “accomplished” file. The airplane I was flying was slightly out of rudder rig (which is what I’ll continue to tell myself), so I had to work a little harder than normal to coordinate my turns. Still, the roll response is great, not too great, mind you; this is an airplane intended for low-and-slow bush work, not for flying acro, and the feel of the push-rod controls was positive and smooth, just as CubCrafters was shooting for. Off across the Ahtanum Ridge, and we found some quiet space and did some air work—Dutch rolls, steep turns, stalls of various flavors; recovery was as easy as applying power and a little back pressure, as nothing happens too fast in this airplane. On steep turns, it bears noting, the overhead glass allows you to see “forward” in the direction of the turn, something that comes in handy, in theory anyway, for spotting traffic, or, in a more common scenario, for keeping an eye on terrain as you’re maneuvering about in the mountains.
After our air work, we headed over to a little 2,600-foot grass strip in nearby Buena, Washington. Pronounced “bew-enna,” in true Gringo fashion, the strip was a great place for practice circuits. Randy pointed out that I flew the airplane looking to be smooth and in control—a very nicely delivered critique on my flatland flying style, and he suggested I “just tell the airplane what to do instead.” His gracious point was well taken—a HondaJet, the XCub is not, nor should anyone want it to be. I took the cue and started to fly the airplane like a bush plane, and suddenly it came alive in my hands.
My approaches at Buena were grassy goodness. As we came in on our 500-foot pattern, I rounded the turn toward the strip, avoiding the ill-placed clump of tallish trees on short final and popped over the white picket fence, flaring over the lush green grass, culminating in a full stop just for short-field fact-finding. I had a couple of bumps and hops here and there, but the airplane, I found, wants to return to stable nose-high, low-speed flight, and I was able to recover from each bounce with at least a little grace. One landing was rubber-meets-grass perfection. I rolled it on like an old pro, and I pretended, I admit, that it wasn’t at least partially a lucky flare.
Next stop was Tieton State, a grass strip situated in the Cascades on the shores of Rimrock Lake, but before we started our climb, Randy volunteered to give me a low-level tour of the Yakima River. His expert flying showcased not just the beauty of the river and the thousands of birds who live around it, but the beauty of the XCub for taking such tours. With no humans or structures around for miles, Randy went down low, and we watched as the cottonwoods and scrub oaks lining the banks and dotting the gravel bars blurred past green, with flocks of Canada geese and lone herons alighting as we passed, their mottled reflections on the river’s surface flying faithfully in formation with them. One could get used to this kind of flying and living.
“Your airplane,” Randy said, and he wiggled the controls back to me. “My airplane,” I acknowledged back. And we climbed up toward the Cascades, targeting 6,500 feet, an altitude, Randy said, that would allow us to crest the ridge dividing the rise from the heart of the Cascades and the groomed great strip that lay among the tall pines, a fitting reward.
We leveled off at 6,500 to get a read on the airspeed. The normally aspirated engine in the XCub will get its best performance at sea level, so I wanted to see what kind of cruise we’d be seeing at an intermediate altitude. CubCrafters is aiming for a top-level speed of 150 mph, but at that altitude and with the big, 26-inch tires on the XCub I was flying that day, such a figure wasn’t in the cards. We did, however, see a true airspeed we calculated at right around 135 knots, which is mighty impressive in its own right. With smaller tires and maybe even wheelpants at a lower altitude, will that figure improve? Doubtless. Will it hit 150 mph? It’s certainly possible. The point is, however, that the XCub is much, much faster than a Super Cub, which makes it a more practical cross-country airplane (despite the stories of epic flights that Super Cub pilots will doubtless relate).
The other point is that CubCrafters did it without sacrificing at the low end. This I discovered at both Buena and Tieton State, where I was able to make short-field landings, despite my shaking off a bit of dust, that left little doubt that it’s not all technique that contributes to the great short-field capabilities of the XCub, but it’s the airplane itself. At Buena, for instance, I was able to do full-stop landings and then simply take off again, no taxi back necessary. And this was at a 2,600-foot strip and I had plenty of room to spare. These airplanes simply don’t need much room to do their thing, which is one of the big reasons why they’re such a blast to fly. The world, at least large swaths of it, becomes your runway.
Up at Tieton State I was in heaven, and I can see why it’s such a bucket-list airport for so many pilots wanting to cut their teeth on mountain flying. The strip itself is long by backcountry standards at just over 2,500 feet, but when you’re arriving from the west, which the winds dictated on the day of my flight there, the approach is dramatic, as the runway, hidden by the tall trees surrounding it, doesn’t come into view until you’re turning final for it, after skirting an imposing saw-toothed monolith on the left and a giant wall of rock on the right as you wind your way down between serrated ridges of treetops. Yes, it’s as dramatic as it sounds and just as much fun.
The landing technique is easy enough. Approach with an eye to hitting 50 knots over the fence with two notches of flaps, bleed off speed in the flare, hold it off, keep your happy feet dancing to keep the airplane heading straight, and you’re as good as landed. On my one landing at Tieton State, I left more than two-thirds of the runway ahead of me, and with minimal braking, too, and less-than-Alaska-ready technique.
The XCub represents a major accomplishment for CubCrafters, and not just because it’s a certified airplane (or at least it should be by the time you read this). The fact is, it’s a terrific new certified airplane, one that pushes the limits of the Cub model well beyond what many assumed was possible. With the XCub you get comfort, great fast and slow performance, 800 miles of range, creature comforts and more all in an airplane that’s just as much at home skipping around the gravel bars as it is cozying up in the hangar at the city airport you’re stopping at for business meetings before beating a well-earned retreat on Saturday morning, off someplace where herons and eagles fly free and real runways are made of grass.
Check out the newest XCub and other fantastic single-engine airplanes in our latest Piston Singles Buyer’s Guide.
XCub: An Airplane Done The Right Way
As you can probably surmise from our “surprise” cover, the launch of the XCub was a closely guarded secret, but exactly why CubCrafters kept the new plane under wraps until it was ready to deliver it isn’t immediately clear. Unless you ask them, that is, because they’re not shy about telling. Then again, if you get to know CubCrafters founder and president Jim Richmond, the reason behind the secrecy is no secret at all: Richmond believes in delivering what he promises. The program was done differently in a number of what I find to be extremely refreshing ways, especially in light of the controversial ways a couple of other high-profile programs have been grinding into being. No secret here on the who I’m talking about. CubCrafters’ approach is with an airplane in a category that’s far more complicated than the years-long self-serve LSA certification being slogged through by Icon Aircraft. Part of the difference in results surely can be explained by experience. This isn’t CubCrafters’ first time at the tailwheel rodeo. But part of it is clearly philosophy. Richmond and team make clear that the XCub develop was completely self-funded, organic (which might mean the same thing), and done without taking a single preorder, as opposed to taking thousands of deposits. The result is a stable program, with none of the hype or agita, that promises deliveries not years, but weeks after launch. Maybe this approach should be written into the Part 23 rewrite being worked on by the FAA as we speak.