Text and photography by Budd Davisson
Air Progress, August, 1979
"In the beginning, there was the Aeronca C-3"
Flight, in its most elemental form, was Icarus, flinging his fluffy little body off a cliff only to find that Copper Tone didn't work on feathers. Flight in its second-most elemental form was me, floating around over St. Augustine, Florida in a contrivance that would have made Da Vinci giggle . . . the C-3 Aeronca, an almost-airplane whose chromosomes are heavily tainted by an ancestor's illicit love affair with a box kite.
As the first successful "light" airplane, the C-3 is the seed from which the maple tree of general aviation sprouted. That makes it a maple seed. And, until you've floated, wafted and flopped around in a C-3 in a decent wind, you don't know how accurate the maple seed comparison is (to you Californians, Texans and Okies, a maple seed is one of those winged seed things that floats in the wind).
In the late twenties and very early thirties, "light" aircraft were Travel Airs and Bird biplanes that dwarfed their pilots and threw shadows the size of small towns. The most common engine, the 90 horse OX-5 was the size and weight of a Volkswagen and a normal propeller nearly out-spanned a Pitts. They were, in a word, big. Since the engines had the power-to-weight ratios of granite slabs, the engineers (mostly converted bridge builders) had to go for big wings, which meant more wires and struts, which meant more weight, which needed more wing, etc., etc. The Europeans had been playing with some puddle jumper designs, but nobody here had made any serious attempts at designing a really practical light aircraft for the masses.
By 1931, the Aeronautical Corporation of America (later Aeronca) decided to take a crack at the problem and found the first obstacle was that there weren't a heck of a lot of small, inexpensive engines to chose from. Solution: Build your own engine! Right from the beginning, the goal was to build an airplane that would cost a fraction of the fabric pterodactyls, then in vogue. They figured by cutting everything to the minimum, including the engine, they would come out with a cheaper airplane.
The late, but legendary, Ernie Moser putt-putting around over St. Augstine, Florida. The two-cylinder engine's 36 horsepower were pretty puny ponies.
It didn't take a genius to figure out that hanging a 400 pound V-8 or radial boat anchor in the nose meant you needed a house boat to float it. So one of their designer types decided to reduce the number of cylinders. Four was probably the original number but some smart alec in the shop made a wise crack about "Gee, if four is good, two would be fantastic and none would be even better."
After taking the guy's funny cigarettes away from him, somebody began to think seriously about the minimal number of parts in a two-cylinder engine. And so it came to pass that unto Aeronca was born a two-cylinder engine that would have looked right at home under an old Maytag washing machine (am I the only one who remembers those?). On a good day and burning high octane kerosene, car gas, cheap bourbon or whatever was handy, the E-113 Aeronca twin could crank out 36 rather spindly horses. Not exactly a Merlin, but then it was so light a single man could install it.
Of course, when you've only got 36 anemic ponies to drag you around, it's no secret that you'd better have a hell of a lot of wing span, if you expect to climb. So the designers tacked on what looked like a fair amount of wing. Only it wasn't a fair amount, it was a huge amount! With a span of 36 feet and a gross weight (not including rocket pods or ordnance) of 925 pounds, the C-3 was much more lightly loaded than some buzzards and hoot-owls I happen to know.
36 ponies also means you aren't going to use the latest Bendix TSO'd radar units, and you're going to be pretty picky about what kind of stereo system you install. Weight is the enemy of tiny motors. So, since cantilevered wings require a lot of heavy internal structure, the designers went for totally wire-braced units. On the ground the entire mess hangs from a bunch of wires attached to a pylon on top the "cabin." In those days, drag. apparently, was something they thought was a unique form of male dress code and had no aeronautical importance.
Exactly how they arrived at the concept of putting the engine at eye level and tucking your feet under it is not known. However, there are consistent rumors floating around the C-3 community that one of the original designers on the project (later promoted to the old CAA, then FAA as chief of design evaluation) had lied about the exact nature of his credentials and was actually an un-employed cartoonist. This would explain many things . . . C-3 and otherwise.
Anyway, that is the rather nebulous, and mostly untrue, history of the development of the C-3. How-ever, a few facts about how the C-3 was designed do stand out as being both true and amazing. Also, a little frightening. EDO equipped at least a couple of them with floats, which must have almost doubled the weight of the airplane. Imagine, 36 horse-power and floats!!! A licensed built version was cranked out in England, but the bathtub cockpit arrangement was altered with a set of doors (pre-cursor of the Aeronca "K"?) and the squat little landing gear was clean-ed up to use a single leg.
Many schools used them for flight training, including one operated by Ernie Moser, owner of the one in which I did my St. Augustine sight seeing. Imagine seeing a bunch of C-3s operating out of the same training strip. It must have looked like a training ground for baby moths (mothlets?).
If one is truly objective and looks past first appearances, the C-3 is one of the cutest and most innovative pieces of design work to come from that era. Reportedly, it is even the first to use all metal ailerons. Even today, you'd be hard pressed to find an engineer who would even consider designing a two-place airplane with only 36 horses and a minimum of moving parts. Actually, the C-3 has all the normal components for an airplane, it's just that they are arranged a little strangely. You have to fly one before you discover that the C-3 is not just another ugly face.
These days, one does not find C-3s (or the earlier single place C-2) tied down at every little airport. As a matter of fact, if they're found at all, they are stuck back in the corner of a hangar playing the role of neighborhood hangar queen. Not so with N13094. She's the around-the-patch- plaything of Ernie Moser founder of AeroSport in St. Augustine and one of the very early pushers of sport aviation. His EAA number is only 204, and he was looping WACOs and landing Cubs on top of trucks before the War. Ernie makes certain his C-3 gets its share of exercise by inviting dozens of pilots to squiggle between the wires and take her up. Ernie loves showing folks where aviation got its start.
Ernie and his son, Jim (current president of AeroSport), have an extraordinary love affair going with aviation, and it shows in the effort and direction they've put into AeroSport. It is an operation that has to be experienced to be believed.
Six or seven years ago, St. Augustine Airport was another of those just-about-to-crumble ex-military fields that litter the Florida landscape. Fairchild had an IRAN operation there for a while, but when it closed, it looked like there were going to be a lot of weeds growing up through the cracks. Then along came the Mosers. There were three airplanes on the field at that time. Now there are over 130 and only two of those are twins. Their operation is strictly sport oriented, and because of that, has attracted a sizeable number of the sporty type pilots who are tired of being picked on at other airports. The outcome is that they've been able to survive at the FBO game, something that many others have found is damned hard to do. In addition, they've breathed so much life into the airport, that it is an absolutely gorgeous layout, with lots of T-hangars, large maintenance and restoration shops, avionics, the whole nine yards. A lot of towns would love to have somebody perform the same type of transformation to their airport. But, then, not many are as capable as the Mosers.
It doesn't get any more basic than this, although the ever-present threat of an engine failure keeps you close to airports. Also, a number have been spun in because of heavy handed pilots.
One of the Mosers' secrets of operation is to make it fun. And the C-3 is an important part of that fun. Eventually the C-3 will be part of the museum complex the Mosers plan to build across the field. It will actually be an operating part of the airport made to look like a 1920s flying field and will house the dozens of flying antiques on the airport. With St. Augustine's tourist trade being what it is, the C-3 is about to be-come a star. The "museum'" actually will be an operating old-timey airport, with the "exhibits" being flown on a daily basis.
As with most antiques, the C-3 came to the Mosers as a basket case . . . in a very tiny basket. The airframe was a simple, make-a-bunch-of-parts-and-build-an-airplane restoration. The engine was not. There weren't a whole lot of the E-113 en-gines built in the first place and most of those have long since been turned into beer cans. Many of the parts in the Mosers' little coffee grinder had to be custom made, including the pistons.
The day it came time for me to be drafted (or wafted) into the C-3 club, the weather was doing its best to blow everything in the area flat as a fritter. So, we got out real early one morning, feeling as if we had outfoxed the weatherman. Well, you can't always be right. It was eight o'clock in the morning and palm trees already looked like their hair was being parted in the middle. We went up and played cat and mouse for a while, trying to get some pictures of the C-3 out of a Citabria but decided to call it quits as a nearly-lost case.
Back on the ground, I fell out of the Citabria in my usual graceful manner and saw Ernie standing by the C-3, motioning towards the empty cockpit. "What?" I thought, "He wouldn't send a young kid like me up in a creepy crate like that!" But he did.
I ambled over to the C-3, feeling a little foolish in my genuine Navy, fire retardant, Nomex flight suit with the pockets stuffed with all the appropriate equipment (including a ham and Swiss on rye). My wardrobe appeared to be carefully calculated to lead up to the answer, "Why, yes, I do fly. How did you know?" On the other hand, how does one dress to fly a C-3? In a pair of baggy pants with suspenders and floppy shoes? Actually, Mork would look right at home in a C-3.
Incidently, one quite literally must lower oneself to fly the C-3. The wing is only waist high and to get in requires ducking under the wing, finding a man-sized opening in the wire bracing and threading your way through it to the cavernous non-door to the cockpit. Once hunched over in front of the door, it's anybody's guess as to the proper boarding procedure. I started by trying to stick first one leg in then the other. That, however, left most of me lying on the grass outside. I finally worked out a variation on the basic womb-exit technique where I crawled in head-first, crouched in the seat in a semi-embryonic position and worked my feet down to the rudders and my head into the upright position. I think.
The cockpit (and I use the term loosely) is "different" (and I under-exaggerate). The stick is to the left of center about six inches, presumably so the pilot can sit on the left. The throttle, however, is in the upper center of the "panel" (and again I describe in very loose generalities). Since it's both unnatural and obscene to fly with a stick in the left hand and the throttle in the right, I found myself flying slightly cross handed. After all, if God had wanted man to fly with the stick in his left hand He wouldn't have put the throttle on the left side of the Pitts.
There is a line of tiny little pedals spread across the floorboards with equal distances between them all. First I tried the left two and nothing happened, and I realized there was some sort of combination that I was missing. So, I punched the last one on the left and watched to see which one moved the other way and it turned out to be the third one from the left (I think).
The instrument panel isn't. There is a giant padded area that covers the entire top half of the bulkhead in front of you and extends, in an inverted "V" shape well above your head when on the ground. Under that is a flat space with three dials the size of steamboat gauges: airspeed, tach and altitude. None of these are any damned good, however, because the padded portion of the panel protrudes enough that you have to squinch down in the seat to see under it and read the gauges.
I don't generally take this long scoping out such a rudimentary cockpit, but I had plenty of time to think about it while I tried to clean out the plugs. The engine had been idling while I hopped onboard and all the plugs were fouled (both of them). So a couple guys held the airplane back while I worked the throttle up and burned off the plugs. At no time did the guys at the end of the wings appear to be straining even the slightest to hold the airplane back and my confidence in this fugitive from a Maytag factory was waning rapidly.
Eventually, the engine stopped skipping a beat and my heart started skipping them. I pushed the throttle the rest of the way forward and the guys politely ducked under the wings as I started moving forward. Slowly. The clatter from up in front was just that . . . a clatter. A high quality lawnmower sounds much, much smoother, if only because its power pulses are muffled rather than being accentuated by tiny little stub exhausts. Then we were movinig faster. But, not much. The clatter began to increase in rhythm and I could actually feel the controls begin to work. I pushed the stick forward and the tail sagged into the air and stayed there. By this time, I was certain we were moving faster than I could run. But not much. Then, the maple seed came alive and floated back into its own element. And I watched.
I didn't have the slightest inclin-tion to bring the power back, once airborne. As a matter of fact, I'm not certain that I knew what to do. Nobody had told me what speeds to use, and the only comment I had to go on was that 50 mph hour is . . . "awfully fast" . . . so I tried to hold something around 45 mph as the airplane meandered vaguely upward and vaguely to the right. Ernie had told me to drift to the right so I'd have a better chance of making it back, if the engine quit. An unusual piece of advice I thought, until I found he has had it quit on him six different times!
Six times!! I had already made up my mind to keep the airplane direct-ly over the airport.
The fairly brisk wind combined with the not-so-brisk speeds of the C-3 to give me three or four minutes to get used to the airplane before I came to the end of the runway. Oddly enough, the C-3 doesn't seem nearly as blind as it should. Even in a climb the nose is over your head, but the way the cockpit is shaped you can easily look around it. The seat forms the bottom of a triangle with the nose and engine at the top. But, your head is near the narrow top of the triangle so its easy to look out to the sides and guestimate your direction of flight. Also, since you aren't exactly streaking through the heavens, you have plenty of time to correct any directional wanderings you didn't plan.
By the time it came time to make my first turn, I was no longer fighting the strange feel of the machine. Only the vague, lackadaisical controls bothered me. There was plenty of control to make the airplane do what I wanted, but that wasn't always enough to overcome what the wind wanted me to do. Like a leaf in a fast moving stream, the C-3 is totally at the whims of any gust, breath or belch mothernature decides to aim at it. I didn't even try to correct for most of the turbulence because it wouldn't have done any good. The C-3 rides over them like the bit of thistle down it is.
In terms of performance, I never really figured all the numbers out. I never saw anything higher than 60 mph on the clock and I couldn't come close to reading the altimeter ... the needle was bouncing so much it blurred across a band 1000 feet wide. The one bit of performance, which is hard to ignore is that it glides like there's no tomorrow. I must have been up around 1500 feet when I started considering making a landing. It took me almost a complete lap of the field to get it down to 800 feet to make even a semblance of an approach.
Throughout the entire flight the airplane kept whispering, and then yelling, ". . . RUDDER. Use RUD-DER, Dummy!" It wasn't a matter of using enough rudder to balance the ailerons, it was just the other way around. Everything was done with lots and lots of footwork, something I had to remember as I turned final.
I only brought the power all the way back once. When I did, the engine sounded like it was going to stop dead. With only two cylinders and a featherweight prop, it doesn't have a heck of a lot of inertia going for it. So, I kept just a tad of power on as I fluttered down final towards the grass alongside one of the main runways.
The wind was more playful than dangerous; jabbing me here and there with a precocious gust or a quick downer. In any other airplane, it wouldn't have been noticeable. In a C-3 it was really fun. As I passed low over a cross runway, I needed a quick jab with the throttle to stop a downer. then I throttled down and prepared to flare. All this time I was trying to hold around 45 mph, which gave me the ground speed of an armadillo.
Okay, there it comes. Gently, gently. flare. Ooops! I suddenly found myself another
20 feet in the air, looking down off the top of a gust. Poking the nose somewhere
in the down-ward direction. I woke up the two-cylinder rubber band for just a
second to stop the rate of descent and flopped back to earth like a pooped albatross.
Roll-out must have been less than 100 feet because the touch down was at about
35 mph and the tail skid was digging in to slow me even faster. Since a C-3
has no brakes of any kind, I was glad for the tailskid . . . right at that moment
anyway. As I tried to taxi back, I learned to hate it because I never could
get it to turn worth a damn, not even by gunning the throttle and partially
lifting the ail. They finally had to send somebody out to grab a wing tip and
I would have to say, now that I've flown it, that the C-3 is an interesting
little machine. It gets more "interesting" the stronger the wind.
It is as docile and forgiving as a heavier-(but not much)-than-air-machine can
be, although it doesn't exactly knife through the air like a rapier. At first
its marginal controls are distracting. At the end, they become endearing, as
remembrances of the way things used to be.
As I crawled out from under the wing, one of the guys asked me what I thought
of the C-3 and the first thing that came to mind was, "It flies like a
butterfly." And that can't be all bad.
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