Battle of The Champ!

It was the battle of two post war training greats: the Cub and, the perhaps over confidently named opponent given the fight hadn’t happened yet: the ‘Champ’! These two iconic training aircraft went head-to-head to win the attention and passion of new aviators across America. Both fantastic aircraft, both offering pros and cons and both with a huge fan base still today. It was the aviation equivalent of VHS vs Betamax. But which was the Champ!? Let’s take a look…

AvBuyer  |  11th April 2024
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    The AvBuyer editorial team includes Matt Harris and Rebecca Applegarth who contribute to a number of...

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    Designed by engineer Ray Hermes and built by Aeronca (Aeronautical Corporation of America), an aircraft production business based in Ohio, USA, having first opened its doors for business all the way back in 1928 from their Cincinnati office. 

    The first example that flew was the prototype of course, and the year was 1944, closely followed into the sky by its production line successors in 1945 (some 10 years later than the Cub’s very first appearance). 

    With the close of WWII, the US government forecast a huge increase in civilian aviation interest and indicated that some 200,000 aircraft per year would be needed to meet the approaching demand. As it turned out it was closer to 20% of that projection but the industry was brimming nevertheless with enthusiasm, passion and a commercial drive to fulfil the approaching needs of the growing GA population. And indeed, Aeronca did their part and responded with one of the greatest success stories in the history of light aircraft production! 

    The Champ was designed with a metal tubular construction, wooden longerons and covered with fabric, and is often found today sporting a paint scheme classic of that era. A fixed pitch 2 blade wooden propeller pulled the aircraft through the air driven by a 65hp continental engine (other engines were used in later variants of course). 

    Seeing the way ahead 

    The Champ was designed as a direct competitor to the already hugely successful Piper Cub. Aeronca’s design team looked at the pros and cons of the well established Cub and explored ideas on what could be improved; one of the most notable considerations was improving pilot visibility during ground taxiing, and the take-off and landing ground roll. In the Cub the pilot sits in the back seat (not counting the Super Cub version), both Cub and Champ have a two place tandem seating configuration, in this position the pilot is sitting further aft placing you lower down compared to the front seat, and indeed looking around the passenger’s head to see the instruments and where you’re going once the tail was up! In the Champ, the pilot can fly from the front seat, so was higher up and had an unencumbered view ahead. The cabin of the Champ was also a little wider and used a more conventional car style door to get in and out compared to the Cub which had a long door hinged at the top and bottom and split horizontally along the middle (resulting in an upper and lower parts that latched together in the middle when closed). 

    As word got around the orders started flooding in. In 1946, the companies highest production turnout was nothing short of astonishing, seeing peaks of over 30 aircraft built a day! But the boom of buyers was far less than predicted, and it didn’t last as long as hoped. So, after some 8,000 aircraft were built, production shut down in 1951. Four years after the last Cub rolled out the Piper factory and with a production number of less than half.

    But you can’t keep a good Champ down and certainly it wasn’t out for the count! Such was its appeal that it was ready for a second round when, in 1955, a company by the name of the Champion Aircraft Corporation purchased the design from Aeronca and put it back into production. 

    The Champ continued through several variants of evolution and improvement, and ultimately gave birth to the Citabria in 1964. of the greatest success stories in the history of light aircraft production! ”

     A new Champ! 

    This new dawn of the Champ found a number of distinguishable features; from the outside you can note the now squared off fin and wingtips, and from the inside at the controls; by an upgrade in performance and power! Now sporting a 100hp engine (a year later upgraded again to 150 hp), and a playful and encouraging personality of wanting to fly upside down! When the Citabria made it firsts appearance it was the only commercially produced aircraft in the US certified for aerobatics. By 1968, fuel injection and an inverted oil system were stock components. 

    The next big milestone in the Champs evolution was yet another production shift in the hands of Italian designer Giuseppe Mario Bellanca (who built the Wright-Bellanca WB-2 which interestingly was Charles Lindbergh’s first choice for his Spirit of St. Louis transatlantic flight, but they couldn’t agree terms so instead Lindburgh had to go elsewhere to complete his endeavours). 

    Bellanca and the Champs relationship were subject to many enhancements to the type in 1972 with the roll out of the very capable Decathlon and later the Super Decathlon. Both developed with aerobatic performance leading the design modifications.

    At the time George Michael’s hit song “Faith” was topping the music chart in 1988, a new company took the Champ under its wing. And they certainly had ‘faith’ in the Champs excellent pedigree. The name above the factory door was American Champion Aircraft Corporation, no relation to the previous company of a very similar name. They took certification approval for the Champ and it’s cousins: the Citabria and Decathlon. 

    The aircraft that still reassembled the lines of the original Champ was now quite a different beast. This aerobatic delight that was the Decathlon was now stressed to +6g / -5g and included an aluminium spa, a narrower wingspan (33.5ft reduced to 32ft) and sported a different aerofoil shape to improve aerobatic performance, and an increased powerplant. 

    Production continues into the longest stretch of all its former cousins as aircraft roll out the door even to the present day. The Champ family (cousins included) can now be counted to over 10,000 aircraft and have a lot to be proud of. From basic training all the way back in 1945 to some fairly hard-core aerobatic bouts of more recent years. As it turned out, perhaps the Champ (and it’s legacy to come), wasn’t so overconfident when originally named after all! 

    But Betamax or VHS!? Now there remains the question that has caused a friendly division in the GA piloting world and watchful audience for some 70+ years! The truth is, the Champ and Cub are both justifiably worthy of heartfelt praise. Sure, the Champ has a better view out the front and a proper door, but the charm of the Cub is never better than flying off a grass strip with the doors open, you can clearly hear the wheels brush through the grass just before touchdown. And to soar around on a summers evening in a cub is frankly a defining connection between modern flying and its grass roots. But then… to feel the sportiness of the Champ, its personality, its superb handling (especially in the later versions) and not to have to ask the passenger to keep their head to the right so you can the ASI and runway ahead, is definitely something to appreciate and be grateful for (especially if the front passenger of the Cub needs a haircut!). Actually, I think it’s an unfair comparison, perhaps the Cub and the early Champ are actually of a different era. An aircraft of the mid 1930’s is always going to be different to that of one introduced a decade later and of course the Decathlon series is frankly a different aircraft to that of the original Champ. So, I’m afraid… I’d want one of each in the hangar! Ladies and Gents… we’ll have to call it a draw!

    Aeronca Champ (7AC)

    Wingspan: 10.6 m
    MGW: 553 kg
    Powerplant: Continental A-65, 65 hp
    VNE: 129 mph
    Cruise speed: 90 mph
    Service ceiling: 12,500 ft

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