Ask anyone who has actually worked an open-cockpit airplane for a living and most will tell you the same thing: Open-cockpit airplanes can be a pain in the butt. Yes, you can hear and feel exactly what the airplane is doing, but you’re freezing part of the time, sweating part of the time and getting your brains beat out all of the time. In the old days, open cockpits were simply drafty, not romantic. Why, then, are more open-cockpit sportplanes flying today than at any time in the last 50 years?
The answer is a complex amalgam of emotions that have absolutely nothing to do with rational thinking or logic. Certainly, even though not all open-cockpit airplanes are old, an appreciation for history is a factor. Going topless also offers a feeling of abandon that only motorcyclists and open-cockpit pilots share, plus you feel a connection with a simpler time. A ton of personal, mechanical and historical factors intersect, but when it’s all said and done, it always comes down to one word—fun.
Flying an open-cockpit airplane is so much fun that even when you’re cold, wet or hot, you wouldn’t trade it for anything. Anyone who has a soul instantly realizes that as they drop down into that open hole, they’re about to have an experience that exists nowhere else on the planet.
Plus, it’s attainable at so many different financial levels. You can spend as much or as little as you want. They aren’t just for the wealthy. They’re also for those who are seeking something a little different than the run-of-the-mill airplane.
Incidentally, there’s often an assumption that open cockpits only come sandwiched between two wings, but that isn’t always the case. There are monoplanes that let the occupants enjoy wind-tanned cheeks, tears streaming back from the eyes and the feeling that you may never be warm again.
Today, there’s a wide variety of open-cockpit airplanes. Some are as old as dirt, some are merely old and a surprising number are brand-new. Some are homebuilts and come in a box labeled “Water me and I grow into a biplane.” Others roll out of factories as FAA-certified airplanes, and still others come out of much smaller “factories” as custom-built aircraft that look old but, in truth, are as new as today. We’ve picked a few of our favorites in each category so you can see how wide and wonderful the world of open cockpits can be.
We’ll stick with the more conveniently acquired aircraft that can actually be bought and flown as if they’re normal aircraft because their engines and airframes are fairly easily supported.
Stearman: Because something like 11,000 of them were produced during WWII and they lived second lives as crop-dusters, the Boeing-Stearman PT-13/17 (N2S to the Navy) is the hands-down winner in the biplane survivor category. Many hundreds are flying, most powered with a 220-hp Continental radial, and you can count on them to leak oil, burn gas and give you more fun than is probably legal. They ask only that you stay awake on landing. They’re available in everything from basket cases to pristine show birds, and prices range from $80,000 to $130,000. The cockpits are huge, and even big guys won’t feel crowded.
The Clan WACO: WACO produced both open- and closed-cockpit biplanes throughout the 1930s, and its open versions carry a bewildering series of designations. It built lithe, little birds, like the RNF, and big honkers, like the Taperwing. However, the most commonly available today is the UPF, which also wore fatigues during WWII, and features a two-place front cockpit. Most use the same 220 Continental radial as the Stearman. The cost to buy one may vary between $80,000 to $100,000.
Fairchild PT-19, PT-23 and PT-26: The Fairchild line of low-wing Primary Trainers (PT, get it?) included the six-cylinder, inline, 200-hp Ranger-powered PT-19 and PT-26 (essentially the same, but the PT-26 has an enclosed, sliding canopy), and the identical PT-23, with its 220-hp Continental radial engine. The airplane features silky smooth controls and gentle ground handling. The rag-and-tube fuselage requires a reasonable inspection for corrosion, but its massive all-wood wing needs an intense inspection for rot and glue-joint integrity. Any of the Fairchild trainers is among the most enjoyable flying airplanes of their era. Both the Ranger and the Continental radial are still easily maintained because of the huge number of engines and parts produced during the war. Depending on the condition of the airplane, the price to buy one may go from as low as $10,000 to $70,000.
Ryan ST Series: The low-wing Ryan STs include the long-nosed, Menasco-powered STA/STMs, which were, and are, the most sought-after examples of pre-war, open-cockpit monoplanes, and they aren’t cheap at $130,000 and up. The wartime PT-22 used a five-cylinder, 160-hp Kinner for power that requires a little more tinkering than the 220 Continental, and the all-aluminum airplane (rag wings) is much less forgiving than any of the other PTs. It has high-speed stall and spin characteristics that require a good checkout. The airplane is much smaller than any of the other PTs and runs about $50,000 to $80,000.
Homebuilt Open Cockpits
From the day the first homebuilt airplane flew (the Wright boys), the open cockpit has been a staple of the homebuilt movement. Even in this era of fast-glass super-homebuilts, open cockpits abound and lots of used open-cockpit homebuilts are available.
Hatz: The 100- to 150-hp Hatz is a modern antique that can be built in your garage. With a traditional structure throughout (tube fuselage and wood-and-fabric wings), many are treating their owners to the open-cockpit experience at a fraction of the price of an antique. As easy to fly as a Cub, it accommodates two adults of almost any size with ease. The asking price to own one can vary between $10,000 to $40,000.
Pitts Special S-1 Series: The single-place Pitts ($15,000 to $45,000) is the hot rod of the open cockpits. Hundreds have been built with everything from 85 hp to 200 hp and are guaranteed to amaze and delight. Quick to both fly and land, Pitts pilots never have a bored expression on their faces.
Smith Mini-Plane: A single-place biplane for the less adventurous, the Smith has been built in huge numbers since its introduction in the late 1950s. Perfectly happy with 100 hp or less, good, solid examples change hands all the time for $10,000 to $15,000.
Baby Great Lakes: The Baby Lakes slogan always has been “Champagne performance on a beer budget,” and that’s not far off. A tiny biplane that really performs on 65 hp to 100 hp, the airplane continues to attract those who want to spend as little as possible and get as much as possible. Project airplanes may cost around $9,000 to $12,000.
Bowers Fly Baby: A professionally designed, low-wing, all-wood, man-carrying model airplane, the 65-hp Fly Baby can be flown by virtually anyone. Hundreds are flying, and cheaper aviating doesn’t exist. Costs may vary depending on the condition, but plan on spending between $7,000 to $13,000.
New Open Cockpits
Although the pickings are a little slim in brand-new, open-cockpit airplanes, they’re out there, but none of them are cheap.
Classic WACO: WACO Classic Aircraft Corporation in Battle Creek, Mich., has been cranking out new, FAA-certified WACO biplanes since 1986. Over three dozen of the airplanes are cruising the skies and they easily seat two people across in the front cockpit. No slouch in the speed department, the airplane will cruise at 120 mph to 130 mph on its 275-hp Jacobs radial, and many of its type feature cockpits as well-equipped as any light twin. Expect to spend at least $319,500.
Repro WACO: Besides restoring award-winning WACOs, Roy Redman of RARE Aircraft has been producing custom-built, new WACO kits and completed airplanes for some years. The big, agile Taperwing WACO is his most popular bird and among the fastest biplanes of its size. Again, when it comes to modern, big, open cockpits, nostalgia ain’t cheap, weighing in at $300,000. The good news is that it’s new and you can paint it any color you want. No, really!
Aviat Pitts Special: Although usually seen with a streamlined canopy, Aviat’s fire-breathing akro bird, the Pitts Special, has an STC conversion to dual open cockpits for those who seek a 175-mph biplane that doesn’t know right side up from upside down. Depending on which model and age, it’ll run from $55,000 to $180,000.
The open cockpit is a true anachronism that refuses to die because it offers such enjoyment. So, look around, pick a flavor and drag the silk scarf and helmet out of the closet. If you’re going to go topless, you have to dress the part.