By Budd Davisson, Air Progress. March, 1981


The visibility is also better than just about any taildown airplane invented. An average height pilot can just about see over the nose and can easily see the centerline by stretching. But visibility is so good out the sides that you don't need to see over the nose. It's placarded to be soloed from the front, but this has been done from both ends. The only noticeable difference is that the plane snaps and spins quicker with only the back seat occupied. In the Decathlon the prop control is in front, which precludes soloing from the back, which is illegal anyway.
Takeoff difficulty is strictly a function of the pilot, because the airplane does exactly what you ask it to do . . . nothing more, nothing less. If you keep your head out of your pocket and correct for any meanderings right off the bat with a little rudder pressure, you'll have no problems. Go to sleep and let the nose get away out of line and you'll be doing your Fred Astaire number on the rudders. It’s almost impossible to lose the airplane on takeoff, but there have certainly been some interesting departures noted.

  Both seats of the Citabria are extremely comfortable but the front seat gives the best view. With just a little neck-stretching the average pilot can see over the nose on the ground.

Citabrias are really excellent shortfield airplanes, and many consider them better than Super Cubs. The Scout variant, with the 180 engine, flaps and big wings, is a hell of a bush plane and is as good as just about anything except an L-19. The 150 hp will lift themselves out of just about anything and, with any wind at all, they can be coaxed off in less than 200 feet. But there's a ton of difference between the 115 and 150 jobs in the way they accelerate and climb on takeoff. The 150 climbs twenty percent better and is ready to fly almost as soon as the tail is up. The 115 needs more time to accelerate before you can lift it off. As it happens, the 150 hp Decathlons climb slower than the Citabrias because of the different airfoils. The 180 hp Super Decathlons, naturally, make back the difference.

Control feel depends a lot on what you're used to. If you're an old DC-3 or Viscount driver, you'll love the Citabria. If you're used to something a little lighter like a Cherokee, you will find the Citabria a little stiff. If you're used to Yankees or Swifts, you'll think you're in a three yard dump truck. The airplane will do what you tell it to, but you have to put a lot of muscle behind the stick to get the message across. A solid hour of thrashing around in a Citabria is roughly equivalent to digging a ditch from Van Nuys to Newark. The Decathlons have much lighter ailerons and the newer Super Decathlons could even be called pleasingly light. None of them are going to make you feel like you're in a Pitts, but Bellanca made some measurable improvements towards the end of the production run. The entire breed has enough elevator so that you can stall the machine in any attitude at practically any airspeed and it will stall. It's not what you'd call hairy, but it does have a nice crisp break and you do have to release back pressure to get it flying again. They've been stalled straight up, straight down on their backs and in all sort of goofy positions, but just relaxing back pressure and waiting is all that's needed. Stalled inverted, on the top of a loop, it will half-roll out and put you right side up again.

As an aerobatic airplane, the Citabria isn't, but it has no peer as an acrobatic trainer because it makes you work. It will do all the inside maneuvers, but it isn't going to help you one damned bit. However, if you've got a Steve Reeves right arm and spend the time, you can make the airplane fly fairly well. It's nearly impossible to hurt yourself in it because it just won't go fast enough and you can't pull hard enough. Right side up redline is as far away as the sound barrier and the airplane usually stalls before the G loads reach really dangerous proportions. In a prolonged inverted dive, redline will show up pronto, but that's just about the only way to get that kind of speed.

Without an inverted system, the basic Citabria is naturally limited to positive G maneuvers and the airplane doesn't really have the structural beef to do outside loops or bunts safely. However, even with the inverted system, a Citabria on its back is a little like a Greyhound in the same position. That flat bottom wing only wants to lift in one direction, so inverted you spend a lot of time with the stick pushed out of sight under the panel. In normal aerobatics, the 150 hp does a fairly good job of holding its altitude, but the 115 spends a lot of time climbing after each maneuver

The Decathlon, on the other hand, is a hell of an acrobatic airplane. It will never be a Pitts, but it does a damned fine outside loop and can be coaxed into a vertical roll now and then. The 180-hp Decathlons are measurably better than the 150 hp jobs, if only because of their increased climb and lighter controls.

Landing a Citabria is like landing almost any other tailwheel airplane, only easier or harder, depending on the mistakes you make. If you plant it on straight in a three-point, and there isn't much crosswind, it will roll absolutely straight with little or no help from you. If you drop it on in a crab, it will do what its supposed to do, careen across the runway heading for the bushes. At that point, you get to show your stuff, as a pilot. The Citabria/Decathlon has plenty of rudder and will let you recover from some of the damnedest situations you've ever seen. But it is possible to overcontrol it and get yourself in even deeper trouble. Generally, however, if you just give the aircraft its head and let it stabilize for a split second, then gently pressure it with rudder and/or brake in the direction you want to go, you've got it made. The Citabria can be a very, very forgiving airplane and you have to work fairly hard to actually do a ground loop.

  It's hard to believe there's a Champ hiding in there somewhere!

The price range on Citabria runs the gamut from $7,000 to $13,000 for early 115 hp models, $9,500 to $15,000 for newer 150 fuel injected ones. (Ed Note: you can about triple that for 2006 prices) The price should be (but isn't always), based on the condition of the fabric and the number of past problems that have already been corrected. If the choice were between one with good dacron or ceconite that punches in the high green versus one with average fabric but has lots of instrument panel goodies, I'd take the stripped down model with the best fabric. You can always bolt a radio in but getting fabric redone correctly can be a real bitch.

Decathlons are a goodly chunk more expensive than Citabrias. They run from $12,000 to $16,000 (Ed note: we wish!) depending on engine and general, condition. Stay away from medium to high time, ex-training Decathlons. It would amaze you to see what a student can do to an acrobatic airplane and still live, but the airframe suffers. A privately owned Decathlon can generally be akroed fairly hard and still be in good condition. Also, make certain all the ADs and especially the service bulletins have been complied with if you plan on doing a fair amount of outside work, check to see how old the elevator cables are because they stretch like crazy in outside work and only last sixty to 100 hours a set. Likewise check the elevator downstop and stop bolt. At least one pilot has had to bail out of one when the downstop bolt hooked the edge of the stop pad, locking the elevator in the full down position. Make sure the stop-bolt hits the pad square and in the middle because Bellanca's quality control seems a little sloppy in that area.

  It's as svelte as a Farmall, and at least that reliable.

What the Citabria/Decathlon lacks in glamour and excitement it more than makes up for in usefulness and pleasure. It's a comfortable 115 to 120 mph airplane that allows you to play both bush pilot and fighter ace. It will carry just about anything you can put in it and still take care of you in some really bad situations. The Citabria will teach you about flying without demanding that you be an ace, but it will make an ace out of you without you even realizing the fact.

The Citabria may not be the choice of hotrocks, but years from now we may find the Citabria high on the list of airplanes to be restored. By then we will have realized that, like the Stearman and the Jenny before it, the Citabria represents the spirit that existed at the beginning of an era and by restoring the airplane you gain a little of the spirit yourself.


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