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10 Wooden Airplanes You Can Buy Or Build

And a few you’ll only be able to dream about.

Beech D-17 Staggerwing
Beech D-17 Staggerwing. Photo by Shutterstock

As we progress well into the second century of flight, most of us take to the sky in machines of metal or advanced composites like carbon fiber and Kevlar. The science is solid and techniques well established for flying machines of these materials. But if you step away from the mainstream types most commonly decorating the ramp at your local airfield, you may well stumble across wooden airplanes that survive as antiques, warbirds and homebuilt designs, as well as a few types built more recently. There are even a few designs in current production—one featured below is a throwback to the days of old, while another is a Light Sport Aircraft utilizing a wood wing to stay below the 1,320-pound gross weight limit. 

At the outset of aviation, wood was a logical material for aircraft construction. Lightweight alloys were still anything but common, but wood was widely available and used for everything from bridge timbers and railway coaches to furniture and buildings. Technically, some metal structures did take flight as rigid airship frames before the Wright brothers even started building gliders. But for the first several generations of aircraft, wood was a critical design component. From the early pioneers through the Golden Age air racers, wood allowed for strong structures with a smooth finish that didn’t require rivets disrupting the airflow. It could be used in a number of methods. The earliest flying machines were often a skeleton of wooden frames, with a fabric skin stretched over it. As machines gained speed and a need for strength, plywood skins formed over ribs, stringers and bulkheads made for a strong structure without a lot of weight. Even as aluminum became a popular building material for aircraft, wooden spars, such as on Piper Cubs until early 1946, persisted as a light and affordable component. Many of the lighter Cubs sport spars of spruce or fir. Wood spars continued in new-production Champs, Citabrias and Decathlons until the 1990s.

Even today, wood persists in plenty of homebuilt designs and even a few certified aircraft in current production. Wood is light, strong and, unlike metal, it doesn’t have a “memory.” It either breaks, or it doesn’t. Metal, on the other hand, can be observed failing as you bend a paperclip back and forth several times. With each bend, it deforms more easily, and when it finally does break, it does so with less force than originally needed to bend it. Wood is far from a perfect material, though. Termites aren’t so much a threat as rot—moisture is the enemy. Having a mechanic who is knowledgeable and comfortable with wood structures is key. Let’s take a quick look at 10 types, some old and some new, to see what a broad variety of wooden wonders might decorate an eclectic aviator’s logbook.

3. Bellanca Super Viking

3. Bellanca Super Viking
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3. Bellanca Super Viking

There are few names going farther back in aviation with designs you can still fly today than Bellanca. The Super Viking was the culmination of a long line of designs attributed to Giuseppe Bellanca, who designed and built a long line of pioneering aircraft, including the first enclosed cabin monoplane, as well as the WB-2, which Bert Acosta and Clarence Chamberlin used to set the world’s longest distance record for unrefueled flight in April 1927. The WB-2, incidentally, was Charles Lindbergh’s first choice of design for his Spirit of St. Louis. The Bellanca lineage of airplanes peaked with the Viking series, a four-seat, 300-horsepower design. The plywood and mahogany wings gave excellent performance and light weight. Debbie Gary, a trailblazing airshow performer, flew routines in the Super Viking for years, highlighting its handling and maneuverability.

Bellanca Super Viking

Seats: 4

Height: 7 ft 4 in

Wing Span: 34 ft 2 in

Length: 26 ft 4 in

Wing Area: 161.5 sq ft

Airfoil: Bellanca B

Empty Weight: 2,217 lb

Max T/O weight: 3,325 lb

Range: 802 nm (max. fuel)

Service Ceiling: 17,000 ft

Rate Of Climb: 1,170 ft/min

Takeoff Run To 50 ft (15 m): 1,420 ft

Landing Run From 50 ft (15 m): 1,340 ft

Cruise Speed: 163 kts (TAS, 75% power, max. cruise)

Stall Speed: 61 kts (wheels and flaps down, CAS)

Never Exceed Speed: 196 kts (IAS)

Powerplant: Continental IO-520-K 300 hp

Photo by Magnus Manske via Flickr

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