Flight test: ACA 7EC Champ
- Credit: NA
It could have been a contender: while ACA’s much improved 7EC was the best Champ of all – and popular with owners – it only saw limited production | Words: Bob Davy - Photos:Keith Wilson
My first assignment as an aviation writer was an Aeronca Chief, the side-by-side ancestor of the tandem American Champion 7EC Champ you see before you.
Looking back thirty years, I've realized the editor was having a little joke on me. That first Aeronca experience remains in my bottom ten flights?including the ones involving an accident.
Built in the late thirties, the Chief was already fifty years old, never restored?read falling apart?and powered by the original 'matching numbers' 65 hp engine (well, maybe that many horses when it was new but not any more).
And the airfield was experiencing a gale straight across its runway. I needed nearly full power to taxi through the long grass between hangar and runway, the takeoff roll felt like it crossed two counties and the climb rate was 350fpm at best.
The Chief felt 'out of control', largely unresponsive to my pitch and roll inputs, with crazy adverse yaw from the ailerons, the aircraft flying me instead of me flying it.
A gust of wind would have it hurtling towards the ground, and then another back up to the clouds again. It was an awful flight. Of course I shouldn't have flown an underpowered aircraft in windy conditions (so not all the aircraft's fault then.)
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Check forward in time, and here we are at the spectacularly named Raleigh Executive Jetport (KTTA) near Sanford in North Carolina, where I have just found out that the Curtiss C-46 Commando military transport aircraft we are due to fly has blown a tyre. There isn't a spare.
Photographer Keith has a bright idea. 'While we're waiting,' he says 'let's go and fly the Champ'. To be honest, I'd rather not. But Keith's enthusiasm wins the day and I soon find myself walking over and strapping into a new American Champion Aircraft Champ?a 100hp (thank God for that) descendant of that pre-war aircraft I flew many years ago.
Not quite the same old Champ…
There cannot be many readers who are unfamiliar with the original Aeronca Champ, or 'Airknocker' as it was affectionately known by some. Designed to meet the post-war demand for light aircraft, Aeronca designed the 7AC Champion with a 65hp Continental engine, a high wing, fixed undercarriage and tandem seating for two. In its original form it had a cartoon-like bulbous fuselage and a sliding window.
A number of variants followed including the 7AC, 7BC (military L-16) and 7CC (with a Continental C90 engine of 90hp). The 7DC (with a Continental C85 engine) and the 7EC (with a Continental C90 engine) were the last Champs produced by Aeronca before it finally ended production in 1951. Nearly 2,000 examples of the original Aeronca-produced Champ are still flown around the world and have something of a cult following among their owners.
The type certificate was sold to the Champion Aircraft Corporation who placed the 7EC Champ back into production in 1955, before flirting with a nosewheel version?the 7FC Tri Traveler?which was powered by engines of anything from 135 to 150hp. In 1964, Champion set the precedent for today's aircraft in certifying a 100hp version of the Champ, powered by the Continental 0-200.
In 1970, Champion Aircraft was acquired by Bellanca, which built 71 Champs between 1970 and 72 alongside aerobatic stablemates, the Citabria and Decathlon.
Jump forward to the new millennium, and it is now American Champion Aircraft (ACA) carrying the torch for the Aeronca/Champion line, having taking over from Bellanca in 1988. ACA restarted production of the Decathlon, Citabria and Bellanca-developed Scout in 1990, but it wasn't until 2000 that the company revived the grandaddy model, the prototype of the 'new' 7EC Champ making its first flight that year.
And it was not until 2006 that ACA finally certified this latest iteration in the Normal/Utility category.
You might wonder why the process was so slow: the model number and the engine are the same as the 1964 variant and this 2006 model has the old tail, cowling and fuselage profile?but that is where the similarity ends.
When ACA decided to offer the new Champ in 2006, they were entering a very competitive marketplace with the LSA offerings. Even Cessna tried - and ultimately failed - with their short-lived Cessna 162 Skycatcher. The marketplace was flooded with a plethora of designs, many from former eastern European countries and most powered by the Rotax 91X-series of four-cylinder engines.
These included the Sportcruiser, the Breezer and the Remos GX, to name just a few. In the USA, the offerings which gave the Champ its toughest time were the Piper Cub derivatives - and especially the Carbon Cub with its sparkling performance on both wheels and floats. Sadly, the days of the ACA Champ were short lived.
Production ceased in 2016 with only 40 aircraft being completed. With this relatively low production number and with the aircraft still being supported by the ACA factory, second-hand ACA Champs are rarely seen in the marketplace. Most owners seem to hang on to them and if they do come onto the market, the prices are usually firm.
ACA's Champ has windows, door, windscreen and interior from the Citabria. The starboard wing comes from a 7ECA (now called the Citabria Aurora) and carries an eighteen US gallon tank. However, for the lighter and lower-priced Champ the port wing conforms with the old 7EC design which, while it is structurally identical to the Citabria wing, carries no fuel tank.
The aircraft thus only carries eighteen US gallons (68 lit) of fuel, of which only seventeen are useable. The spring-bow undercarriage did not need to be as heavy and robust as that used on the Citabria, so additional weight savings were made there too. The aircraft also has a rear window, wooden propeller and squared-off wing tips, although some of the Champ purists do not appreciate this final modification to the aircraft's original outline.
So far, so good. Now comes the clever bit. ACA may have certified the aircraft in the Normal/Utility category but by designing it with a maximum all-up weight of just 1,320 lb they made it eligible for the new Light Sport Aircraft category (see 'Sport Pilots and LSA', right).
So, for the first time since 1972, you were not only able to buy a brand new Champ but could operate it as an LSA on a much easier to obtain?and maintain?Sport Pilot License.
In its basic form the 7EC Champ was priced at $85,000, nearer to $130,000 when kitted out with a good level of equipment. An attractive prospect, especially for those who just wanted to do a bit of fun flying? or older pilots who appreciated being able to continue flying simple aeroplanes without medical worries and costs.
Let's go flying
Matt Walsh, the CEO of Elite Aircraft Services and a good friend of Keith's had very kindly 'borrowed' the aircraft from its owner, Jacques Mistrot, for us to fly. Matt also owns and operates an almost new ACA Super Decathlon, which he loves and in which he regularly teaches aerobatics.
Matt would accompany me on this trip and introduce me to the new Champ. My feelings are mixed as we get busy with the modern harness, close the door with a reverberating twang, and get ready to jazz its little cans.
As I climb in? which feels slightly easier than boarding a Cub?I get a big surprise. The interior fit and finish of this modern version of a Champ is more like that of a high-end car than a classic taildragger. The cream leather seats and panelling impart a feeling of luxury?I do like those ACA-badged cast alloy rudder pedals?and the fuel gauge in the wing root instead of the those all too easily misread sight tubes you get in a Cub?the Champ's competitor from the start.
It is clear that plenty of attention has been paid to details in what is fundamentally still a rudimentary cockpit. A modern radio rack occupies the right side of the panel, but this remains very much a VFR aircraft. The placard on the instrument panel forbids flight in precipitation (so as not to damage the wooden propeller) and also intentional spinning?don't worry ACA, it didn't even cross my mind!
Back to basics: the engine is started by switching on both mags and the battery, operating the priming plunger to the left base of the panel, then setting the wall-mounted throttle and pressing the starter button in the base of the panel. The engine springs into life after a couple of blades. I check oil pressure is rising, bring the avionics on line and then settle down to wait for the engine to reach operating temperature.
This is a nice place to be sitting, similar though not the same as in the rival Cub's cabin. The Cub has a tiny bit more wing (three inches) and the fuselage is a foot longer, plus there are other differences.
For example the original Chief and Champ had oleo undercarriage legs rather than the crude and draggy external bungee arrangement used by Piper. This modern Champ has proper spring steel legs and disc brakes as standard, so is definitely a step up. Indeed, Cubs are twice the price of Champs and so far I'm struggling to work out why that should be. Maybe getting this aircraft into the air will reveal all!
Taxying is a doddle, the rudder pedals light and effective with toe brakes for extra control. The aircraft has a steerable tailwheel which you can align for ground manoeuvring either by judicious use of the brakes or by pushing sideways on the fuselage.
I can actually see over the nose, so the view forward is definately better than out of a Cub, and we are soon at the hold doing the simple run-up and vital actions. The throttle, carb heat and elevator trim are all mounted on the cockpit wall, and nicely grouped so that everything comes easily to hand and we are quickly ready to go.
I line up on the tarmac and slowly progress the throttle forward while holding the stick back. No surprises there, so I carry on all the way to full power holding a gentle swing with a press of right rudder. The tail comes up at around twenty knots?slightly quicker than in the Cub?and I hold it in that attitude until we fly off cleanly at fifty.
I let the speed build up to 65kt and transition to a climb, 700fpm showing on the VSI. This has to be the easiest taildragger to fly?It almost feels as if a pilot with no tailwheel time could jump in and get it off the ground without difficulty. The only other aircraft I can think of that is as easy as this is the Jodel D140 and indeed that taildragger was my very first?after just fifteen minutes instruction I was flying by myself.
Jacques Mistrot (pronounced 'Mistrow') started in aviation when he was a US Naval officer on a Polaris submarine. 'I wanted to learn how to fly but only had one month between my submarine patrols so I studied all of the ground materials while I was on the sub and took the written. I then got my licence while on leave, in just thirty days.'
Jacques did his cross-country over Hawaii, which was challenging as the strips were invariably short and suffered regular crosswinds. 'When I moved to Colorado Springs, I bought several Bonanzas, followed by a B58 Baron, and a B90 King Air. Then I bought a beautifully-restored Stearman, which was my first tailwheel experience. It was a difficult aircraft to handle and I very quickly learned how to wheel-land the aircraft - essential, if you wanted to see anything out front. This was followed by a lovely Citabria.'
Jacques continued to own four-seat tri-gear types including Cessna Columbias and, latterly, a V-tail Bonanza. 'Having two aircraft at any one time drove my wife mad but I'd got bitten by the tailwheel flying bug.' He purchased the Champ 'from a guy in Florida who had brought it from new and had only put about ninety hours on it.
'I flew it back from Florida and have put about 250 hours on it since then. I just love it! It goes very slow but you really get to enjoy the scenery, something I never really enjoyed when I was flying the Bonanzas. I love flying it around slowly, and in the summer I take the door off and enjoy the fresh air (I have an STC that allows this). It's the nearest thing to a helicopter without a rotor!'
Why a Light Sport Aircraft? 'I don't even have to have a third-class medical to fly it… it's just the perfect plane for me to go into my later years in life and I hope I can fly until I'm eighty… I'm 72 now and I am just enjoying the heck out of it!'
This 100hp Champ is definitely not as light on the controls as the original 65hp version but compared to other two-seaters the controls would still be classed as light. The Citabria (which of course set backwards spells 'airbatic') is intended for aerobatics and has more engine power and?as introduced on the Citabria by ACA?spades on the ailerons, transforming performance and handling. In terms of aileron response, the 7EC Champ sits somewhere between the two extremes represented by the original Champ and the ACA Citabria.
One thing the Champ could do with is some kind of balance indicator. Because there is no slip ball, I find myself flying a little out of balance more often than normal?in front you're under the C of G, yawing around in blissful ignorance whereas the instructor or passenger in the back gets full exposure to your lack of flying skill.
In the cruise the 100hp Champ is nudging 80kt or 90mph. The 65hp original could make 80mph, either case slightly quicker than a Cub of the same power, but none of these aircraft are about speed!
At the bottom end of the range I try a stall which happens at about 45mph indicated, accompanied with a gentle mush. These aeroplanes can only just manage to kill you, if you let them.
I am beginning to realise that the old Chief I flew and today's Champ are like chalk and cheese. The Chief I flew all those years ago was a dog and this aeroplane isn't?except I've got to say it's just not as nice as a Cub. The ailerons for instance are more sluggish and elicit an almost laughable amount of adverse yaw.
The Cub's controls are lighter and more responsive. A certain Cub-owning magazine editor later agrees with me. (In the interest of balance, its should be said that Keith flew the 7EC after Bob and he had no criticism of the Champ's ailerons - Ed.)
Let's see what it's like in the circuit. Downwind I slow to 70mph, then 60mph on final in calm conditions. Over the hedge, I stop looking at the ASI as there's no need to, feeling the aircraft through the seat instead.
I chop the throttle and flare into a three-point attitude, the aircraft feeling like its flying itself onto the runway. You really don't have to do much. Take off and landing roll are slightly longer than in a Cub by approximately twenty per cent; that's not a lot!
Available in the UK?
Unfortunately, as the 7EC has been factory built and certified in the Normal/Utility category in the USA, it is only available in the UK in the Normal category, to be flown by those holding an international licence (not an NPPL) and Class 2 medical.
In theory the 7EC would appear to be light enough to comply with the recently-announced European 650 kg ultralight category?but nobody seems to have latched on to that yet, and with the aircraft out of production there's little incentive for anyone to investigate this possibility.
So the home Champ experience is likely to be confined to flying one of the originals. With a quick stroll through the ads, I couldn't find a second-hand Cub of any kind for less than $35,000 but you can get a used Champ for half that. Although I'm trying to, I don't understand why.
Maybe the Champ in any form is not quite as nice as a Cub but whichever model you are looking at, it's certainly more than half as good!