Here’s one for you: Next year, 2014, the Citabria will be 50 years old. And for all intents and purposes, whether purists like to admit it or not, the Citabria marked the birth of modern aerobatics in 1964. Up to that point, as every gray-dog aerobatic pilot will remember, aerobatics was only available through the purchase of something like an aged military trainer or clapped-out Stearman duster. Suddenly, the sweaty unwashed masses had an aerobatic airplane that was easy to fly, affordable and most of all, readily available. From that point on, interest in aerobatics exploded and American Champion’s Xtreme is their latest addition to that akro tradition.
As the starter forced blades past the nose and I pushed the mixture in, the new-to-the-Decathlon 210 hp (up from 180 hp) Lycoming AEIO-390-A1B6 up front caught fire, and I heard an oh-so-familiar voice come through my headset, “Air show boss, this is Koontz in the red Xtreme. Give us a slot, and we’re outta here.”
Greg Koontz, air show pilot, long, longtime acro instructor, was holding down the back seat. He was also doing the comm work as we wiggled our way out of Sun ‘n Fun between air show acts. When he’s not flying air shows, he has his own grass runway north of Ashville, Ala., where he runs a unique B&B-based akro flight school and Champion dealership (see www.gkairshows.com).
Greg and I have been good friends since…well…neither of us knows for sure when we first met. It was the early ’70s, and it seems as if Citabrias, and later Decathlons, have always been mixed in there somewhere. As we taxied down the Sun ‘n Fun 2013 show line in the brand-new Decathlon Xtreme, we were just continuing the tradition of him introducing me to the newest product from American Champion.
I find the very fact that the company was willing to spend the money to further refine the Super Decathlon to be a verification of the vitality of sport aviation: They took what was already a good airplane and made it better because they saw a solid market represented by aviators who placed pure fun and performance high on their airplane buying list.
Before we run down the list of improvements and do the pilot report thing, let’s get one thing perfectly clear: Even though the Citabria/Decathlon line of aircraft are probably the best aerobatic trainers available, they are definitely NOT one-trick ponies. In fact, I sometimes think their aerobatic image keeps people from discovering what’s a tremendously useful series of aircraft that are really good at a wide variety of things, and offer the pilot and his passenger terrific utility and enjoyment at the same time. If a pilot buys a Citabria/Decathlon and, for some perverted reason, never does even a roll in it, he’ll still very much enjoy the airplane.
“Koontz,” the air boss’ voice said, “you’re good to go.” The T-6 act had just landed, and they were letting us out. I squeezed the throttle forward, as we arced on to centerline, forcefully bringing all 210 horses to life. And what a life it was! I have over 1,000 hours instructing in a wide variety of Citabrias and Decathlons, but none of them answered the throttle like this one did. Even with Greg folded up in the backseat, we were off the ground in nothing flat and, even though we had a crosswind, I couldn’t tell it was there: The airplane tracked perfectly straight with no help from me.
Then I started trying to hold climb speed, which turned out to be a totally new experience for me in the type.
Citabrias climb okay. Nothing spectacular. Super Ds do much better. Quite well, actually. The Xtreme, however, is well named because it really gets with the program. Greg had told me that a good, no-sweat climb speed would be 80 mph, which is about what a normal Citabria climbs at but is well above best rate-of-climb numbers. However, I pulled the nose up. Then I pulled it up some more. Still too fast. It wasn’t until we were climbing at an almost uncomfortable nose angle that the airspeed settled down to 80 mph.
Then I glanced at the VSI and got a shock: 1,400 fpm! And we were 10 mph over best-rate-climb speed. Plus, between Greg and me, we put the airplane right at gross weight (it has 610 pounds useful and we were using most of it). This is definitely NOT your grandfather’s Citabria/Decathlon. Later I saw 1,600 fpm, then to amaze me even more, Greg said, “If you didn’t have my big butt back here you’d be seeing a solid 1,800 fpm!” Incredible!
The extra 30 hp and more efficient prop are instantly noticeable. Plus, even with the heavier engine, through a series of weight-saving stuff like composite floorboards and lightweight starter/alternator, they netted a 30-pound reduction in weight. It all adds up to better climb performance.
I played with different climb speeds as we worked our way up to cloud base at about 5,000 feet, pushed the nose over and brought the power back to 24 square, about 75% at that altitude. I was doing clearing turns and generally scoping out the area when I looked down at the IAS. It showed nearly 140 mph, and I thought I was going downhill. But the VSI said I wasn’t. Ditto the altimeter. Here we were at five grand at cruise power and showing 140 IAS. That means this thing was truing something on the high side of 150 mph. Is that possible? Their spec sheet says it is. It says the airplane tops out at 165 mph and cruises 155 mph (135 knots), which, given the kind of airplane that it is (traditional high-wing, lots of struts and other draggy stuff) is incredibly fast. However, knowing that most of American Champion’s goals in building the Xtreme were aimed at improving its aerobatic capabilities, I dropped the nose a little to see if their efforts had paid off.
As the speed came up to 145 mph (which proved to be unnecessary, btw), I pulled the nose up, zeroed the elevator pressure and leaned into the ailerons, matching them with some rudder, to see if their roll rate improvement mods worked. And they definitely did. I’m positive I’ve done thousands of aileron rolls in Citabrias and Decathlons over the years, so I have their roll rates, or lack thereof, permanently stored in my memory banks. Citabria roll rates are best described as “leisurely.” Decathlons are “okay” and notably better than a Citabria. The Xtreme, however, is a sizeable amount that’s faster rolling than even a Super D. This is due to the ailerons, reportedly designed for American Champion by Kevin Kimball of Kimball Enterprises.
The new ailerons borrow on what’s commonly referred to as Super Stinker technology, as introduced by Curtis Pitts on his S-1-11 Super Stinker, and as used in modified form to great success on Kimball’s series of Model 12 Pitts biplane variants, as well as a few other recent aircraft designs. These are new concept ailerons in that they incorporate the tried and true concept of being “symmetrical,” meaning they’re significantly fatter than the wing, both top and bottom, which greatly aids in keeping the airflow attached and improving the aileron’s effectiveness even at small deflections and low speeds. Where the ailerons differ over most, however, is the way the nose of the aileron interacts with the cove in the back of the wing where it’s attached.
Where most ailerons are fit into the aileron wells in a way that gives minimum gap top and bottom and that gap stays constant, the Xtreme ailerons have noticeable gaps while in a neutral position, and the gap changes with deflection. As the aileron is deflected, the nose of the aileron, which is slightly pointed rather than being rounded, closes the gap, which rapidly increases the effectiveness of the aileron the further it’s deflected. It’s a little like on-demand power steering: Near the neutral position, there’s little or no difference between the Xtreme and a normal Decathlon. However, the further the ailerons are deflected, the more the roll rate increases. I did a handful of full-deflection rolls trying to guess how much the rate is increased, and my best guess is around 30%. It’s enough to be immediately noticeable by anyone used to flying the older wings. However, not everything is absolutely perfect in aileron-land.
It appears that the factory’s plan was to get by without spades (the shovel-looking things that hang down from lots of aerobatic aircrafts’ ailerons and lighten the stick forces) by moving the aileron hinge point back. This usually lightens aileron loads. However, something within the modifications conspired to actually make the ailerons slightly heavier (at least from my perspective) than those on a Super D. I’m betting money that they’ll wind up putting spades on the airplane or maybe move the hinge point even further back: It’s a shame to have all that beautiful new performance, both in roll and climb, but have to work harder to enjoy it. Spades are a no-brainer, quick fix that the company has used often before, so if they decide to do it, it won’t be a stretch for them. This is a personal opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.
We frolicked around for a while and generally had a good time looping and rolling our brains out with a little inverted flight to reconfirm what I knew before: Decathlons are light years better than Citabrias in that department, but it helps a lot if a little down trim is used to lighten the forward stick loads, something I conveniently forgot until later. As Greg proves during his air show routine, the airplane is a superior “outside” airplane, meaning it will handle anything upside down and negative “G” with the best of them.
I spun the airplane down from altitude (child’s play to come out on heading) and was starting to work our way back into the pattern, when the air boss told us to circle south and they’d let us know when he had a hole he could fit us into. That was fine with me, as I was enjoying myself. In fact, the 10 minutes we spent droning back and forth south of the field gave me a little time to luxuriate in the cross-country feel of the airplane. I had forgotten how good the view is over the nose of any of the American Champion line: You can actually see straight ahead and down better than most aircraft because you can sit fairly high in it. And the view to the sides is unparalleled, thanks to tandem seating. I also had time to assess the seating, which wasn’t only comfortable, but could be adjusted fore and aft. Up and down adjustment is via the stack-of-cushions method.
Cleared for the approach, Greg only gave me one hint on how to land the airplane, and that wasn’t to be surprised by the drag generated by the 76-inch composite MT prop. But I was surprised anyway. As I curved onto the centerline of Lakeland’s 9 Left (aka, the taxiway), I fixated on the threshold as my reference point, and brought the power back as I normally would in a Decathlon. Wrong! Almost immediately, my reference point started moving up the windshield, and I squeezed a few more ponies out into the slip stream, probably just enough to bring the prop blades up off the down stops and cut down on the drag. That stopped the point moving, the airplane flew down final and the needle held onto 80 mph as if it were welded there.
It has been a long time since I’ve flown a taildragger that would let me see so clearly over the nose as it was flared. I’m used to having to squint at what can be seen on either side of the nose for alignment and height information. In truth, I had to work to keep from flaring too much. Obviously, I was overthinking it because just a little flaring and some attention in holding the three-point attitude resulted in a better-than-I-deserved three-point.
It wasn’t until the left main touched first that I realized I had forgotten about the crosswind and was automatically compensating for it. Regardless, the airplane tracked perfectly straight and, in looking back at the experience, I’m not sure I remember moving my feet at all after we were on the ground. It’s so simple, you shouldn’t be allowed to log taildragger time in it.
So, is the Xtreme an extreme Decathlon? A Super Super-D, as it were? Yep, it definitely is. Anyone who has flown either Citabrias or Decathlons in the past won’t even be off the end of the runway on their first takeoff before they come to the same conclusion. If they liked the earlier airplanes, they’re going to absolutely love this one! In fact, if someone has never flown anything similar, they’re going to judge the Xtreme as being a terrific-handling, superior-performing airplane, regardless of what went before. So, it appears that the development money American Champion spent on mods will turn out to be a worthwhile investment. Good for them!