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Luscombe Silvaire - No Wood, No Nails, No Glue!

February 27, 2018

Considered ahead of its time, the Luscombe Silvaire has never been a common sight in SA, perhaps because of its reputed tricky ground handling. But is this reputation deserved, or is the Silvaire a little-known treasure?

 

 

 

Designer Donald Luscombe’s first venture into aviation was starting the Central States Airplane Company, which manufactured the Monocoupe in the late 1920s. The Monocoupe was an inexpensive, fully enclosed, two seat aircraft that became popular with sport and racing pilots of the era, winning multiple race titles.

The Monocoupe was a mix of a wood and steel-tube frame with a fabric covering. Luscombe believed wood and fabric construction was too expensive and inefficient, and saw the future of general aviation in all metal construction. In 1933, to build on this idea, he formed a new company – Luscombe Airplane Corporation.

The initial offering from this new company, the Luscombe Phantom, had a beautiful metal fuselage with a fully enclosed radial engine. Ironically, its high price resulted in a limited number of airframes being sold, and its complicated compound curves proved time consuming and expensive to manufacture. To make matters worse, the ground handling was terrible, which scared away other potential customers, and perhaps started the reputation that would follow through to Luscombe’s subsequent designs. Luscombe needed something simpler and cheaper than the Phantom.

After a simplified version of the Phantom failed to catch on, Luscombe was approached by Continental Motors. Continental had developed a small 50-hp horizontally opposed engine and was looking for an aircraft manufacturer brave enough to try it. Although initially concerned about this new technology, he eventually agreed. As a precaution, the new design had a round firewall that would fit a radial engine if the new ‘pancake’ engine didn’t work. So was born the Luscombe 8 Silvaire with the new Continental engine – the round firewall was retained throughout production ... just in case.

The Silvaire flew for the first time in 1937. Its competitors, the J3 Cub and Aeronca Chief, were still using tube frames, fabric and wooden spars and ribs, whilst the Luscombe had an all metal fuselage with metal spars and ribs, but rag covered wings. An all metal wing for both the 8A and more powerful 8E was available post War. Their marketing mantra was ‘No wood, no nails, no glue.’

 

FIRST SIGHT

My introduction to the Luscombe Silvaire was an airframe awaiting restoration at Rand Airport. It was peering out of the hangar like a puppy looking for someone to rescue it. Since then I have always been fascinated by it, but I always thought my chances of flying one were slim.

There have never been many in South Africa, with only around five flying in the country at the moment. Then Derek Bird, of Bird Aviation, introduced me to Derick Van Schalkwyk, who not only invited me to do a flight test, but to also do my conversion.

Derick had recently purchased ZU-ECH, a fantastic example of a post War Luscombe 8A. The aircraft spent many months on the market with many potential buyers not recognising its potential. Most had been turned off by the modest 65 hp, unsure that it would offer sufficient performance for a metal aeroplane on the ‘reef’.

Derick had always lusted for a classic taildragger, but because he flew on an NPL, it had to be an LSA. With an all up weight of only 1,200 lbs (545 kg), the Luscombe 8A fitted the bill. It would, however, be his first taildragger. When you approach a Luscombe from the front, its nose looks like a squirrel caught with two acorns in its mouth – not helping its reputation for having ‘squirrelly’ ground handling!

As with all aircraft in this category, weight is the enemy, and ECH has fabric covered wings. Additionally, they left the factory without the heavy radios and electrics of the 1940s. With the demands for communication in modern skies, radios are a must, but luckily there are lighter radios available, and most examples today are fitted with some electrical systems. ZU-ECH has a wind driven generator protruding between the gear legs to provide electrical power.

Unlike most other light aircraft of the time, which had their engines uncowled with the cylinders out in the breeze, the Luscombe’s engine is fully enclosed in a beautifully formed metal cowling. The cowling opens on each side for easy access to the necessities. As with most of these small engine installations, there is no dedicated oil cooler fitted. Instead, oil cooling relies on airflow, entering through the intake just below spinner, to flow over the bulbous oil sump.

Continuing the walk-around, one of the most notable external characteristics is the size of the control surfaces. In comparison to its post-War contemporary, the Cessna 140, the ailerons are nearly twice the size. Their wings are about the same length as a Cub – 35 ft – but wing area is 140 sq feet vs the 159 sq feet, as the Luscombe’s chord is much narrower. Unlike the 140, both the 8A and 8Es lack flaps.

The undercarriage is an unusual design. Luscombe wanted the airframe as aerodynamically clean as possible, and the bungee style gear normally associated with aircraft of that era was considered too draggy. Instead he developed a welded steel cantilever system with a single spring and oil strut in the centre. The support struts are then faired over and the wheels can accommodate wheel pants. The system worked well but didn’t cope well with high side loads, which made it susceptible to collapse during a ground loop.

 

FLYING THE LUSCOMBE SILVAIRE

Climbing into the Silvaire will be a little tricky for bigger guys – not a problem for me – however once seated, the cabin feels sufficiently spacious. The panel is sparse with only the bare minimum instrumentation centrally located on the panel. The airspeed indicator and turn and slip are biased toward the left-hand side and, noticeably, like a Piper Cub, the classic rpm gauge works in the opposite direction. Master switch, lights and other electrics are turned on by pull switches rather than rocker switches, and the trim sits between the pilot and passenger. Luscombe was never fond of yokes and so dual controls sticks extend from the floor with a single throttle in the centre of the panel.

Most 8As require hand swinging the prop to start, and ECH is no exception. If done alone, this can involve quite a shuffle. First checking the mags are off, throttle is back and the aircraft is chocked, the engine is primed and the prop is pulled through. Then final check of the chocks, throttle set and mags on. The engine generally starts within the first couple of turns. Once started, the throttle can be pulled to idle, remove the chocks and climb up into the cockpit. Visibility over the nose is excellent and there is little need for S-turns whilst taxiing.

On the ground, two things become apparent. The most noticeable is that the heel brakes are useless and run ups should be done as quickly as possible. No matter how hard you push with your heels, the aircraft will creep forward. Additionally, the brake pedals are not placed in line with their respective rudder pedals and are instead placed between the two. To get to them, you need to pull your heels up and in towards the centre – much like first position in ballet. This takes some getting used to but, for the most part, brakes are not needed other than in very gusty conditions. Many experienced Luscombe pilots have commented that if you have to use brakes in a Luscombe, you are not flying it right. Considering this was a trainer, the absence of brakes on the right-hand side adds weight to this argument.

Secondly, the Luscombe’s undercarriage is incredibly stiff. This, plus the short throw on the rudder pedals, may be where Luscombe gets its reputation for being tricky. Any pedal input translates into a direct and equal movement of the aircraft. There’s no lag as there is on a Cub which allows you to ‘pedal’ down the centre line. The Luscombe is therefore less forgiving and requires small precise movements when called for.

On the 8A, the fuel is in a 14 USG tank in the upper rear fuselage, just behind the occupants. This unusual placement can, at steep angles of attack, slow the flow of fuel towards the engine. To prevent this, the POH has the rather strange suggestion of taking off with the carb heat pulled to hot. The theory is that by limiting the power of the engine, the angle of attack at takeoff will be lower, thus preventing the drop of fuel pressure. As I generally like using all available horses, keeping carb heat cold and the takeoff angles shallow would be my suggestion. In practice, the takeoff angle would have to be uncomfortably steep before there is any effect on the engine.

Takeoff requires slightly biasing the rudder in the opposite direction to the torque – right rudder pedal – with small corrections to keep on the centreline. With those long wings, the Silvaire is ready to fly at just over 45 mph and once airborne will accelerate briskly to climb speed. 

Climb performance on ECH’s 65 hp is better than a 65-hp Cub. In fact, I’d say it was on par with the 85-hp Cub I did my initial taildragger conversion on. With ¾ tanks, two people on board and a density altitude creeping into the lower 8,000s, the Luscombe had no difficulty achieving 450 fpm. Not bad!

Once in the air, the Luscombe proved to be one of the nicest light classic aircraft I have flown. The controls are light with impressive control harmony. The rudder has very little breakout force but there is noticeable adverse yaw that comes with those long wings, so rudder work takes a little bit of practice. Pre-tensing each turn with a little rudder seems to be the best way to keep the ball in the middle.

The Luscombe Silvaire flies much like a fast Cub, and once mastered, steep turns can be such fun that you won’t have to venture too far from the field to get a smile on your face.

It’s in the cruise, however, that it really impresses. It’s quick for its horsepower. The 8A will do around 95 mph burning around 15 litres. This gives it a little over 2,5 hours with a safe reserve. The 85-hp 8E with 25 USG wings tanks will give about 100 mph at around 20 l/hr.

Stall speed is around 40 mph and is benign with a clean break and very little wing drop, provided the aircraft is rigged correctly. The large control surfaces remain effective all the way through to the stall. However, with the little breakout on the rudder, it’s worth ensuring the ball is kept in the middle, especially during power on stalls. It wouldn’t take much rudder input to put the aircraft into a spin. 

Depending on the variant, the approach is flown between 60-70 mph. The clean aircraft needs to be persuaded to slow down and those long wings will give some float if you have any excess speed in the flare. Only a few later models were fitted with flaps, so squeezing the plane into a slip is the best technique when you find yourself a little high and fast. Any excess energy on touchdown with the stiff undercarriage will translate into a ‘bounce’ and the aircraft will start flying again. Generally, I prefer fully stalled, three pointers. Wheelers take a little more work and, as with all taildraggers, there is a null zone when the tail is still flying but the rudder loses authority. As this happens, lowering the tail onto the steerable tailwheel will prevent any direction loss. Once settled the aircraft tracks straight and has no ill manners.

Subsequently, I have had the opportunity to fly the slightly heavier 8E. In terms of practicality the later 8Es and Fs win hands down, but the lighter, ragwing 8A is the most fun to fly. With an all up weight about 200 lbs lighter than the 8E, there is very little climb performance difference between the two models. At most, you might get an extra 200 fpm.

Fuselage tank equipped models are lighter on the controls than those with wing tanks. This is especially true in the roll axis where the added inertia of the tanks is evident.

As a junior taildragger pilot with only around 50 hours on various taildraggers, I stepped into the Luscombe with some apprehension as I contemplated its reputation. Having now flown it, I can say that its reputation for poor manners is unwarranted. lt makes you work a little harder, but it’s rewarding. It’s a fantastic aircraft which is by no means a difficult taildragger. Derick obtained his initial taildragger endorsement within 10 hours, which is on par with most other initial taildragger conversions.

Donald Luscombe achieved his goal with the Silvaire of designing an aircraft that was inexpensive and simple, yet offered sporty performance while not being too difficult to fly.

With the Silvaire, Luscombe secured orders for the Civilian Pilot Training Programme which also secured vital aluminium when it was being rationed to support the War effort in Europe. So, what when wrong? Why are there so few around?

Unfortunately, with both financial difficulties and personality conflicts within the company, Donald Luscombe lost control of his company and eventually resigned in late 1939. Aircraft development continued until the USA entered the war. However, the new owner of the company was deemed an enemy alien due to his Austrian citizenship. The company was then taken over by the War Department, and began producing non-aviation supplies during the War.

After the war, the factory moved to Texas in the hope of capitalising on the expected post War demand for light aircraft, by reproducing the successful 8A. The 8E and 8F were developed with electrical systems, larger engines and more range. Production took too long to get into full swing and the flood of wartime trainers into the aircraft market slowed orders. When the four-place Luscombe 11 proved unsuccessful and with the Cessna Birddog beating the tandem Luscombe T8F for a new liaison aircraft for the USAF, Luscombe closed its doors in 1949. Limited production continued for a few years with production rights and type certificates passing through a few hands. In the end just under 6,000 Luscombe 8s were produced. In comparison, Cessna produced almost 8,000 Cessna 140/120s and Piper produced almost 20,000 Piper Cubs.

Those that have flown one will tell you, it is a hugely underrated aircraft, over-shadowed by the better marketed aircraft manufacturers of the time. The airframe has proven a strong design with modifications for engines up to 150 hp being quite common. There has even been one modified with a turbine engine.

As classic aircraft go, it’s one of the best kept secrets. I consider myself lucky to have flown one.

 

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