Shortly after the end of World War II, during the late 1940’s and into the early 1950’s, a number of lovely little American aircrafts, designed and built specifically for basic flight training and recreational use, became available. In the free world, aviation enthusiasts were able to acquire inexpensive quality aircraft such as the Cessna 120 and 140, a Piper Cub, Vagabond or Cruiser , an Aeronca Chief or Champion, a Luscombe Silvaire, or one of the various Taylorcraft models.
These aircraft were all fitted with four cylinder engines that produced either 65 or 85 horse power. All of these aircraft were tail draggers. At that time, light aircraft fitted with tri-cycle undercarriages were only just coming on to the market and they were very definitely in the minority.
As mentioned earlier, one of these light aircraft was the Aeronca Champion, an aircraft that had actually been designed and built for the US Army Air Force towards the end of the war. It would be employed there for reconnaissance and liaison missions.
Of all the other aircraft that were readily available for acquisition, the Aeronca 7AC Champion and the Piper J3 Cub were slowest in terms of performance and capability. Both were powered by the 65 horse power Continental “O 65” engine and they both offered seating for two people in a tandem configuration.
Of the two aircraft, the Piper J3 has always been the most popular, partly because so many more of them were built than the Aeronca. A stock-standard unmodified J3 Cub costs slightly more to buy than a Champion does, but the subject of which aircraft offers the better package, some 70 years and more since they were built, is still being debated.
To my knowledge, there are only a few of these aircraft in South Africa. Four or five of them would be a fairly realistic figure, all owned by friends and colleagues of mine.
The Aeronca Champion is the easier of the two to get into or out of. Its cockpit area surpasses, fairly convincingly, the spaciousness and comfort of the Cub’s. Unlike the Cub, which is flown from the back seat, the pilot sits up front and the visibility from that position is really very, very good. The passenger’ seat is also generous in size and comfortable to sit on. Like the Cub, there are dual controls. The baggage space is big enough to carry a small, carefully thought-out, supply of food and baggage for a two to three day fly-away.
The aircraft has to be hand-started as it has no electrical system and therefore no self-starter. Power for the radio comes from two motor-cycle batteries.
An airline pilot friend of mine, Rodney Chinn, recently acquired an Aeronca 7AC Champion to fly during his retirement. We decided to put my J3 Cub up against his aircraft to see which aircraft performed best. Both of us carried a full tank of fuel and only the essential supplementary equipment such as the radio, batteries, fire extinguisher, first aid kit and strips.
Rodney took-off ahead of me in his Champion. My take-off distance in the Cub was far less. After take-off he throttled back so that I could move into a loose line abreast formation with him, sufficiently distanced from his aircraft so that my machine would not be affected by the disturbed airflow from his wings.
A climb was then initiated. On Rodney’s call we both went to full power. The Aeronca slowly crept ahead of the Cub, whilst out-climbing it at the same time…Not dramatically so, but enough to convince anyone that it was both the faster aircraft and the one with the greater rate of climb.
In cruise, the Aeronca was also the faster aircraft, but not excessively so. The two of us would have been able to fly a long cross-country trip in a loose formation without ever having to make significant power changes in order to stay close to one another.
The same sort of test was done on the descent. Starting off in a line abreast formation again, we both locked the position of the throttle and commenced a power-on descent. For a third time, the Aeronca forged slowly ahead of the Cub, proving that it was certainly the more streamlined and efficient of the two aircraft.
Where the Cub comes into its own though, is that when it is being manoeuvred in a spirited fashion, it certainly has, in my opinion, the better handling qualities. This is particularly so in the rolling and yawing planes. Another plus for the Cub is that it may be flown with the two doors that are on the right hand side, wide open, giving fantastic visibility.
The Aeronca is easier to land than the Cub is and the undercarriage’s shock absorbers flatter even the most hand-fisted of pilots with the softest of landings.
Which aircraft would I choose to own?…..Both! ….Of course!