When I think of my recent flights in Sportair USA’s Bush iCub, they’re soaked in rich, golden yellow—Cub Yellow to be precise. Inside and out, the fabric-covered, balloon-tire-riding, classic-looking taildragger—with an Apple iPad in the front panel, no less—is one colorful, beautifully built variant of the Piper J3/SuperCub ethos that dominates S-LSA sales in America. Clearly there’s a thread of Cub Love stitched into almost every pilot’s heart.
Bill Canino, head honcho of Sportair USA and former Air Force jet jockey, wanted another airplane to gap-fill his stable of light-sport offerings. But he didn’t want just another Cub clone. “Our aircraft line,” says Bill, “fits a variety of missions. For cross-country, in comfort, with some baggage, we’ve got the Sirius. For something fast, lively and very maneuverable—with a great view—we’ve got the Sting S4. For amphibious hull flying, there’s the SeaRey.”
“But we wanted a plane for hanging around the airport or for backcountry landings, with a door or window to open for the breeze, float-capable too, all at a more affordable price than what’s out there. We didn’t feel the other Cub makers had fully addressed the ‘off-road’ market niche.”
Since Zlin Aviation already made a Cub-like airplane (the Savage), Sportair worked with the Czech Republic maker to craft the design into a fun line of four Cubbies: the iCub, Bush iCub, Cruiser and Classic.
He envisioned the line of fun flyers ($77,900-$99,900, all fully equipped) for the “Walter Mitty” crowd: people seeking a Super Cub-like experience, whether it’s local grass or dirt-strip flying, landing on the edge of a favorite lake for camping or flights evoking a simpler time in aviation.
The iCub and Bush iCub from Sportair USA come standard with a 64 GB dockable iPad for the pilot in the front panel and an iPhone for the copilot in the back seat.
To help burnish a 21st-century image rather than be a slave to the original J3, the iCub and Bush iCub come standard with a 64 GB 3G dockable iPad in the front panel and an iPhone for the rear “copilot.” All four models solo from the front seat, too, unlike the nose-heavy J3. There’s tons to say, for which I invite you to check out www.cub-aero. For our purposes of introduction, let’s take some hops in the Bush iCub.
Tight, Solid, And…
One can only visit the thesaurus so many times for alternatives to describe the iCub’s chief appeal, so let’s just cut to the chase: It’s fun. It’s really, really fun.
I put nearly three hours on Bill’s demo plane. It’s his own doggone fault. He so loves trolling around above the landscape, that all I had to do was walk within 50 feet of the iCub, and he was dragging me toward the cockpit.
Climbing aboard is typical of the breed. Once you’re accustomed to pretzel-bending limb and spine, it’s a breeze. The iCub makes it easier with a big, one-piece, five-foot-wide door rather than the J3’s clamshell style. It latches up in flight (below 60 knots) for open-air flying—a big part of what the Cub is all about.
The cockpit feels just right for new and seasoned tandem pilots alike: The dual throttle levers; the big, scalloped pitch trim wheel; and the flap handle all live on the left side, below the window. Seats are cushy and nicely upholstered, too. Toe pads for the hydraulic brakes sit atop the metal tube-style rudder pedals. I prefer them over heel brakes.
Fit and finish? Top-notch.
Bill folded his lankiness into the back so I could have the catbird seat. Riding the Bush iCub gives a truck-driving view, thanks to the higher deck angle afforded by the standard 26-inch balloon tires and shorter-than-J3 mains-to-tailwheel distance. Visibility is no sweat though: Tandem cockpits are narrow. You can use whatever combo of S-turns and head-in-propwash moves you favor to get to the starting line.
Patterns On The Grass
Move the snug, smooth Rotax 912 ULS throttle forward, and raise the tail, and the broad world rises into view over the cowl. Tailwheel airplanes are fun to fly—once you get basic rudder flying down: This isn’t flatfoot flying, brothers and sisters!
My first few launches show me how responsive iCub’s rudder is. Overcontrol, especially on the hard deck with balloon tires, and you’ll yaw-wobble all over the place. Ease up on the pedal action to enjoy quick and smooth response. Everything calms down, of course, on grass, which is what those cartoon-sized wheels are for anyway.
On launch, fly the tail up, roll on the mains and you’re up and away before you know it. Do a short-field, tail-low launch, and you pop off in under 300 feet (book is 280 feet). Once up, the view is classic Cub-fabulous, thanks to the side windows and one-piece windscreen that runs from engine to aft turtledeck. Crank a high-bank turn and you’ve got a great panorama view through the top.
$37.83 Per Landing
Bush tires are pricey. Bill likes to say every paved-runway landing costs $20 in scrubbed-off rubber. My first misaligned attempts surely cost more, judging by the expensive-sounding “Scriiitch!” and the airplane’s sudden bolt for the sidelines. Once we switch to grass, my acumen magically improves. Those “boingy” tires really smooth out rough ground. We shoot a bunch of landings into shortish sections of infield grass and have a ball.
The Bush iCub has a beefier airframe and landing gear than its nonbush siblings. All four Zlin models benefit from Rotax’s lighter weight. “You don’t need longer coupling with an engine mass that’s 100 pounds lighter,” says Bill. “You’re less likely to ground-loop and can recover easier.”
Sportair’s customer service philosophy includes transition training for all customers. “Even if you buy a used airplane from us, that training is free.”
Sportair linked up with Loni Habersetzer, a noted Alaskan Cub driver, (www.cubdriver749er.com), to help develop the Bush iCub and create an advanced bush-flying program that will take taildragger skills further. “You’ll land on the runway, grass, then the same spot every time, then do that with the same precision whether downwind, crosswind, on sand, at the edge of a lake, on rocks, at high altitude, on…” Hey, you had me at “same spot.”
That Engine Thing
Sportair’s choice of the Rotax over a “traditional” aircraft engine was deliberate. “People committed to ‘traditional’ aviation engines simply because that’s how it always was may miss the many advantages of modern engine design. I’m committed to a reliable powerplant, whatever name it has. I want the one that performs the best, has the best fuel economy and gives me the best performance per weight. I trust the Rotax design. It’s proven itself to us for over 15 years, has a 2,000-hour TBO behind it, and is an efficient, true aeronautical engine.”
A Galaxy airframe reserve parachute or seatbelt airbags from Amsafe are being evaluated. “Whatever best increases the safety factor. A lot of bush flying never gets above 1,000 feet. Neither our Sting nor the Sirius are in the NTSB accident database. We want the same thing for the iCub.”
Impressions from my iBushwhacking: I like the four-point harness. Throttle to idle, turn the ignition key to start, and the Rotax fires right up—no hand-propping this baby. It’s hot: water bottles stowed in the wing root above? Check.
Ease in throttle and we’re rolling on the grass: very little rudder needed. Full power, 5,700 rpm, tail flies right up—great view—and easy on the rudder, boy, easy…The grass falls away smartly with pitch up to a steep Vx at 55 knots. Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah! Little rudder needed during climb. Love the trim wheel: intuitive, smooth and effective. The first few turns reveal firm but moderate-force harmony in pitch and roll. Overall, less rudder required than a J3—that’s the shorter tail coupling. At cruise settings (5,000-5,200 rpm), I’m seeing 87 knots.
We level at 3,000 to pull some turns. The iCub is so tight, solid, smooth. While doing stalls at idle and full power, Bill explained that the leading-edge vortex generators hold laminar flow to the wing at higher angles of attack. Indeed, the mini nose-breaks come with only a gentle burble of warning. Feed in power, and we’re flying, pronto.
During my first approach, Bill chooses to say this is his first flight with anyone except the Zlin instructor. Brave man! Landings with balloon tires on the runway, in addition to costing Bill that $37.83 each in burned rubber, take me some getting used to. Grass makes it much easier to develop some touch.
Any J3 pilot should feel right at home in this cockpit. I love the extra power and performance. Newcomers to tailwheel flight will appreciate the fine job Zlin and Sportair USA have done with construction quality, excellent performance and easy handling. The iCub and Savage models provide, as Bill Canino says, “an airplane for people who want real bush flying, and also allow experienced pilots to scale back to something fun, something that brings emotion back into their flying.” Speaking purely from that emotional point of view, iCub delivers on the fun factor—big time.
The “i” In iCub
|Larry Martin, Sportair’s marketing director, wondered how to present the Zlin Savage as “more than just another Cub.” To enhance the appeal of lower price and off-airport ops, he and Bill Canino chose Apple’s iPad. “We told our local FSDO that the iPad would not be wired to the aircraft, and used only in airplane mode. They were happy with it.”
The standard-equipment iPad (with 10-hour battery) dominates the center of the front panel, which also sports standard ASI, compass, inclinometer, altimeter, tach, engine gauges, Hobbs meter, PS Engineering PM1000II intercom and ELT. The iPad’s internal accelerometer makes for a cheaper GPS alternative. Although its “assisted GPS” isn’t true satellite navigation, as a preflight/inflight weather and airspace-planning tool, it’s absolutely crackerjack.
Here are a few great apps, and visit www.planeandpilotmag.com for an even larger selection:
• ForeFlight’s Mobile HD has moving maps depicting radar, satellite, VFR and IFR charts, fuel prices, lightning and lots more.
Expect an onslaught of future aviation apps for the iPad. And when you land, just undock and take it to the hotel or tent to web-surf, watch movies or, as Bill Canino suggests, “Look at survival info: iTriage, First Aid, animal track identification, knot tying, etc. And the guy in the back seat can do the same stuff with his iPhone 4.”
If the iPad helps Sportair carve out marketing contrast between itself and its primary competitors, well, just consider that iGravy.