Rich, I know you can’t see the ball from the back seat, but if you could, you’d be rolling with laughter,” I said. I was flying Rich Manor’s new Super Decathlon in left-echelon formation 20 feet from our old friend Saratoga SP photo ship, and my lazy feet were out of practice at flying an airplane with considerable adverse yaw. The ball bounced back and forth out of its cage as I maneuvered on the Saratoga, the slip indicator only occasionally stopping in the center. It had been several years since I’d flown a Super Decathlon, and my rusty technique showed. Gotta unlearn those bad habits, I thought. Too many hours in Mooneys/Bonanzas/Malibus/Centurions and other modern designs that forgive poor rudder coordination.
The good news was that the new American Champion 8KCAB was an absolute joy to hold in place for Jim Lawrence’s camera. The fast ailerons and sensitive elevator provided quick response for maneuvering on the photo ship, balanced by a high drag profile that allowed me to drive the airplane into position with power and stop it exactly where I wanted it by simply easing back on the throttle (an interesting contrast to the previous day’s air-to-air session in a Citation CJ-2, a slightly cleaner design). I even tried some rolls, loops and hammerheads for Lawrence’s lens, and the responsive taildragger was forgiving and obviously more proficient than I was.
In fact, the Super Decathlon has always represented one of the best combinations of utility, comfort and aerobatic talent in the two-seat, sportplane class. Since its introduction in 1977 as a powered-up version of the original Decathlon, the 180 hp Super Decathlon has represented perhaps the best compromise between a utiliplane and a pure acro trainer.
Super Decathlons were originally Bellancas, produced between 1977 and 1980. American Champion purchased the type certificate in the early 1990s and began delivering Supers in 1992, followed closely by Scouts and Citabrias, the latter under the name Explorer. The new company reasoned the original airplane was a well-thought-out design and elected to leave the basic machine alone. As a result, the 2003 Super Decathlon remains essentially the box it came in back in the late ’70s.
That’s not to suggest there have been no changes, just none that are visible. In addition to increasing horsepower on the 150 hp models (to 160 hp), American Champion initiated installation of all-metal wings, though the airplane remains fabric-covered. Older Super Decathlons utilized Sitka Spruce spars with aluminum ribs. The debate regarding wood versus metal has been raging for at least 70 years and will probably endure for another 70, and there are still plenty of champions for wood construction. Some pilots argue that wood is a more logical material for aerobatic airplanes than metal because wood has no memory. Stress it short of breaking, and it will return to its original shape. Metal is inherently stronger, but flex it enough times, and it will eventually fail. Aluminum advocates argue wood will break at a lower G loading. There are no longer any wood wing acro airplanes produced in the U.S., if that tells you anything.
Aerodynamically, the Super Decathlon is a fairly simple machine. In contrast to the derivative Citabria, the Super Decathlon’s airfoil is a semi-symmetrical, NACA 1412 section with beefier spars and additional trusses to withstand loads of +6 and -5 G’s. Though the wing is unfettered by flaps, it does sport aileron shovels. Shovels, sometimes called spades, are a kind of poor man’s power steering that help lighten roll forces by deflecting down on the up aileron and vice versa on the opposite side to gather more relative airflow.
Inside the airplane, controls couldn’t be much simpler, and systems are mostly non-existent. All electrical switches are mounted on a panel directly above the pilot’s left shoulder where they’re accessible to either seat. Elevator trim is also positioned on the left side panel where both pilots can reach it. Only the starter, mixture and prop controls are dedicated to the front cockpit. A conventional joystick controls pitch and roll, and the rudder pedals are large and effective. The tailwheel is steerable, and an extra stab on either brake pedal will kick the rear wheel into full caster, allowing easy maneuvering in tight spaces.
Power is provided by an AEIO-360-H1B Lycoming, rated for 180 hp at 2,700 rpm, fitted with an inverted fuel and oil system and capable of sustained inverted flight for up to two minutes. Two constant speed props are available on the Super Decathlon, a 74-inch, all-metal Hartzell or a similar diameter, composite MT design. The composite prop is seven pounds lighter, and since Manor has no plans to operate from dirt strips where rocks or debris might chip the blades (not repairable on a composite), he chose the lighter prop.
Any time you fly with a power loading of 10 or less, you can expect good acceleration, and the Super Decathlon doesn’t disappoint when it’s time to take the active. With 169 square feet of wing above and 180 hp out front to lift only 1,800 pounds, the Super leaps off the ground in less than 500 feet and starts uphill as if its tail was on fire. Equally important, the Super Decathlon generates good ascent in the 3,000- to 6,000-foot range where pilots will practice aerobatic maneuvers. This should make the Super a viable trainer at medium-density-altitude airports such as Albuquerque, Denver and Salt Lake City.
Like many two-seaters, the 8KCAB benefits disproportionately from lighter takeoff weights. Book spec for climb at gross is 1,280 fpm, but the airplane will do better at reduced weights with only one soul aboard. In the ’70s and ’80s when Super Decathlons were still Bellancas, I ferried a half-dozen of the type from the company’s plant in Osceola, Wis., to California for distributor Ed Carlson and regularly saw climb rates of 1,200 to 1,300 fpm flying solo. Even at the full 1,800-pound gross, the airplanes often manage to reach their factory promise.
Conversely, cruise performance isn’t the trump card of the Super Decathlon, in case anyone cares. Logically, you shouldn’t expect big cross-country numbers with struts, wheels and flying wires hanging in the wind. Manor’s final delivery trip from Wichita to Long Beach, Calif., suggested a reliable cruise speed of 120 knots on about 9.5 gph. With 39 gallons maximum, that limited endurance to three hours plus reserve, worth 350 nm between pit stops.
The Super Decathlon’s designated mission is aerobatics, and that’s how Manor plans to use his airplane. In the real world, Manor sells new and used Cessnas for Tom’s Aircraft in Long Beach, but he keeps the Super Decathlon as a pet and hopes to launch a basic aerobatics course in the near future. The instructor ordered the Super from the factory in early 2003 and configured it specifically for teaching. He deliberately avoided gyros or a vacuum pump because he hoped to fly the airplane primarily for vertical and inverted fun. Similarly, the avionics package consists only of a Garmin GPS/COM and transponder, more than enough but less than too much for VFR operation.
The result is an empty weight of only 1,334 pounds, leaving a useful load of 466 pounds. With two 170-pound pilots in the seats, the airplane will still carry 20 gallons of fuel, more than an hour’s worth of hard acro. Fill the tanks on Manor’s Super, and cabin load is limited to 226 pounds.
The Super Decathlon truly shines in aerobatic mode. It’s certainly one of the most comfortable ways to learn acro, as the tandem cockpit is fully enclosed, the heater works reasonably well and the airplane has plenty of cabin room in every direction. If you’re sitting up front, visibility is generous in most quadrants, and the overhead skylight allows a good view straight up (straight down if you’re inverted). If you’re riding in the rear, instructor seat, the panorama isn’t quite so impressive, but visual cues are still good for normal acro.
Though the Decathlon’s teardrop-shaped wing lends itself to inverted flight better than the conventional Citabria airfoil, negative maneuvers are restricted to outside loops, English bunts and inverted spins. A truly masochistic pilot could probably fly a Super through the advanced class in aerobatic competition, but he’d have to work at it.
In inside mode, however, the airplane is easily capable of all the standard tricks—loops in all their variations (Immelmanns, split S’s and Cuban eights), the gamut of rolls (half vertical, aileron, barrel, slow and snap), hammerheads and similar maneuvers. It’s probably a stretch to claim the Super Decathlon has no bad habits, but I haven’t encountered any in 25 years of flying the type.
To my mind, the Super Decathlon has always struck a perfect balance between the super-sensitivity of a Pitts or Extra and the gentlemanly response of a Great Lakes or Waco. Fully developed roll rate is quick but hardly telepathic, probably 90 degrees/second, and pitch authority is happily in that middle ground between dangerously fast and too slow. Though Decathlons have never been touted as serious aerobatic machines, they make excellent trainers, a great way to familiarize straight-and-level types with the vertical and inverted world.
When it comes time to return to Earth, the lack of flaps doesn’t penalize descent rate, as slips are only a pedal away, and you can plan on descent rates as high as 1,500 fpm with power off. If there’s a need, you can even carry the slip into the flare, kick it out at the last second and touch down as if you planned it that way all along.
Some taildraggers have a deserved reputation as squirrels during landings, but the Super Decathlon isn’t one of them. It’s probably the most docile and forgiving conventional gear machine I’ve flown. Even if you throw in a crosswind, the Super takes it all in stride. The airplane welcomes Navy-style, kerplunk landings, tailwheel first, or it will accommodate conventional wheel landings, flown onto the ground main gear first. Like most tailwheel designs, you need to fly the airplane all the way to the chocks, but that’s easier in an 8KCAB than in most other types.
|Factory Comparison:||2003 Super Decathlon||2003 Pitts S2C||2003 Extra 300L|
|Cruise Speed, 75% (kts.):||127||150||170|
|Fuel Burn, 75% (gph):||10||14||14|
|Climb Rate (fpm):||1280||2900||3200|
|Service Ceiling (ft.):||15,800||21,000||16,000|
|Takeoff Distance (ft.):||495||554||377|
|Landing Distance (ft.):||425||750||581|
|Useful Load (lbs.):||460||470||440|
|Wing Loading (lbs./sq. ft.):||11||13||17|
|Power Loading (lbs./hp):||10||6||6|
|Landing Gear Type:||Conv/Fixed||Conv/Fixed||Conv/Fixed|
|Fuel Capacity (gals.):||39||29||44|
|Sources: Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest, Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft|
Perhaps the best news is the price. The American Champion 8KCAB is the least expensive aerobatic trainer on the market by a huge margin. There’s little question the Pitts S2C and Extra 300L are more capable aerobatic airplanes—both compete successfully in the unlimited class—but both models exact a more severe economic penalty. In aerobatic training mode, dual rental rates for both of the latter types typically run at least $250/hour, whereas new Super Decathlons sometimes are available for just over half that. Insurance considerations often constrict flight schools from renting any of these types solo, so that’s not normally a consideration.
There’s no escaping the conclusion that the Super Decathlon is a happy little airplane that probably was designed on a Friday night. It’s an exciting machine, dedicated to the premise that man cannot live on speed alone. With maneuverability only slightly limited by controls and power, the American Champion proves conclusively that there are three dimensions to flying.
For more information, contact American Champion Aircraft at (262) 534-6315 or log on to www.americanchampionaircraft.com.