Editor's note from 2001: The Davis DA-2A was the first homebuilt I ever flew. I've flown them off and on since then and I'm still convinced that they are one of the most overlooked designs out there. With a A-65, they are good and with a C-85/90 or 0-200 they are sensational. In this day where so much is being spent on speed, there's something to be said for a super easy to build airplane that cruises at 125-130 mph on 5 gallons an hour.
The strange little V-tailed Davis DA-2A is nothing new on the homebuilt scene. It's been flitting back and forth at fly-ins for six or seven years now. Though it's not disliked, it somehow manages to go relatively unnoticed in a world of super-exotic airplanes. The Davis isn't as fast as a Thorp, it won't lomcevak with a Pitts, and next to a Midget Mustang it looks like a packing crate. Sleeker, faster, sexier backyard bug-smashers are the eye-catchers, but in a contest for the most underrated homebuilt, the Davis DA-2A should be the winner.
While half the world sighs over the BD-5, and Pitts smoke obscures anything that won't go straight up, the Davis stands by itself and offers something called practicality. Here is an airplane that can carry two adults and a child at Cherokee 140 speeds with only half the horsepower. While many homebuilts have a reputation for demanding more piloting savvy than a Sunday pilot can muster, the Davis handles about like a Cherokee with a thyroid problem. It's actually easier to fly than a Cherokee. The BD-5's compound curves may provoke sighs from its admirers, but the Davis stands in the wings and reminds us that nothing is simpler to build from scratch than flat skins and square corners.
I feel guilty that I haven't jumped to the Davis' aid before. The first time I saw the Davis was in Norman, Oklahoma, where I was nursing a sick Cessna 195 back to health. One day I stepped around the usual pool of oil under my airplane's nose, and, to and behold, nestled under one wing was the cutest, most angular aluminum airplane I had ever seen. Leeon Davis had decided to tie his newly finished DA-2 next door.
Davis was an experimental metal worker at Aero Commander's prototype facility, and since he wanted an airplane, but didn't want to sell his wife and kids to get one, he decided to build his own. He wanted to make it an easy airplane to duplicate, so he had to use his experience to simplify rather than complicate. He drew up plans for the simplest metal shape that would enclose two people and baggage, use a Clark Y airfoil and get lots of lift out of a tiny package.
The Davis fuselage is a box with the cockpit section framed by small, square steel tubing. All formers, frames and other skeletal parts are short pieces bent up on a brake, then riveted together. A form block isn't needed. A fuselage normally has complicated fittings and reinforcements to mount the wings, but the Davis doesn't. The spar runs through the middle, and the fuselage sits on it; the two are joined by simple flat sheet stiffeners.
The swept-back main gear is steel tubing, a la Steve Wittman, and the go-cart-wheel nose gear is a cross between a vocational shop project and a Mooney The nose roller is mounted on the end of a piece of tubing that telescopes into another longer piece. The bigger tube is filled with rubber doughnuts that act as shock absorbers. No air, no oil, no springs. Simplicity.
The wings are as simple as the gear. Forming ribs, flanging lightening holes and getting rid of distortion are the kinds of tasks that discourage would-be homebuilders, but Leeon has the rib problem knocked. He uses normal sandwich-type form blocks for rib forming but rather than trying to stretch the metal around the corner, he beats it over with a plastic hammer. Then he gets rid of the distortion-causing excess by pounding the flanges into flutes filed in the form blocks. Result: perfectly straight ribs every time.
I don't know how long it took Leeon to make his butterfly tail work, but the final solution was incredibly simple. The mixing unit that gives elevator and rudder motions to the two surfaces consists of a couple of U-shaped steel pieces nested inside each other, gimbled so that rudder cables work one and elevators the other. Works like a charm.
There are many ways to find out how an airplane flies, and I lucked out with the Davis. I flew it for 13 hours, and made almost 100 landings in nearly every kind of wind condition with every kind of load. How did I wangle all the time? I hopped passengers at the EAA annual convention, in Rockford (Editor's Note from the year 2001: yeah, I've been a this game a LONG time!)
Because Leeon is well known for his super-simple approach to building airplanes, and because that kind of know-how is in such demand at the convention, he spends more time talking than flying. He is hard-pressed to give rides to those who want them. I was eager and free. Did I want to help him? Sure. Had I ever flown a Davis? No. How about a Cherokee? Yes. Okay, get in and go flying.
That was how I checked out in the Davis. We went to a nearby field, and he turned me loose. He kept comparing his plane to a Cherokee, and he was right except in one respect-it does everything better. Taxiing out for takeoff, I found that all I needed to steer the nose wheel was my big toe; the stick was like a toothbrush in my hand.
Sitting at the end of the runway, looking through a square windshield, I felt I had forgotten something. The cockpit feels like any airplane the size of a Cessna 150, but as I glanced out the side windows I realized what was missing-the wings. There aren't any. The nearly normal-sized cockpit sits between two tiny stubs that can hardly be called wings.
The throttle is mounted high in the middle of the squarish panel to clear the fuel tank; pushing it in produced the clatter of 65 horses and acceleration that felt just like a Cherokee's. I didn't have to steer it, and when I tried to lift the nose wheel at 70 to 75, I accidentally lifted the entire airplane. I was going flying in spite of myself.
It climbed at 500 to 600 fpm at 85 mph and felt like a fighter. In level cruise it squeaked along at 115 mph indicated and did everything it could to bolster the fighter image. Its controls are beautiful. It has plenty of stability but if you want to bend it around a corner, it reaches out with those teeny ailerons and cranks over into a bank so effortlessly you'd think you were in a Pitts. Sensitive? No, just smooth and enjoyable.
The V-tail behaves like the old-fashioned rudder/stabilizer combination; there's no trace of the well-known "Wichita Wobble" that plagued the early Bonanzas.
I played around with glides up high because I expected a vertical glide-path the second I reduced power, but I couldn't tell much until I was back in the pattern. Leeon had said "... like a Cherokee," so I got the carb heat and the power out and set up an 85-mph glide. It actually glided. It wasn't like a standard-class Cirrus, but it stayed up at least as well as a Cherokee and probably better. I moved the power in a bit to catch the runway before it ran away from me, then started to flare. I could have let the plane land itself. The fat blanket of air under the wings let it find the runway leisurely, the stiff gear bumping solidly on to the pavement.
Now I knew I could fly it, but I wouldn't know the whole Davis story until I started stuffing people into it. Several incidents are testimony to the airplane's performance and forgiving nature: To keep the airliners out of the EAA traffic pattern, the FAA had us turn base before crossing the runway that intersected the end of the one we were using. It was like landing on the shank of a T without touching the top of it. There really wasn't a final because base leg was pointed right at the end of the runway. We were also supposed to get down and off the runway in the first half because the last half was being used for takeoffs. I was skipping down a right-hand base and turning final with my wingtip practically in the bushes, but I couldn't get down short enough because the Davis wanted to keep on flying. Eventually, I was killing power on base and making a power-off carrier approach, turning right into flare and eliminating final completely. No matter how big the load, the Davis did it every time.
One passenger, a stubby 240-pounder, swore he couldn't possibly wedge himself into the cabin. When he did get in (barely), he bet we wouldn't get off the ground. We weren't over gross technically, but we needed a lot more power to get moving---the wheels had started sinking into the grass. We didn't have STOL performance that time, but we did get off---again, "just like a Cherokee."
On another day, the wind was getting bouncy but we were still making carrier approaches because it was the only way to get in. It kept me a lot closer to the grass than I liked, and I thought it would be a problem. No sweat. Even when I wandered into the slipstream of a departing Mustang while only a few feet off the ground, a few quick jabs with the stick told the Davis what I wanted it to do, and it did it.
Crosswinds are the Davis' meat. It sits so close to the ground that the wind has a tough time sneaking under the wingtip. It doesn't matter, though, because the tubing gear will twist (it almost castors) and you can plunk down in a crab and let the gear take care of you.
The Davis DA-2A is an easy airplane to overlook. But it shouldn't be. It should be scrutinized, the wing attachment fittings should be examined, the "ruddervator" mixing unit explained and the landing gear ought to be perused. Only by touching and crawling under and around can you really understand what the Davis is. It's the much-talked-about, but almost nonexistent simple airplane. And, it hasn't compromised anything except curvy esthetics for this simplicity. It's an extremely well-engineered, strong airframe, and it has baby-carriage flight characteristics. If you sit down and really look at the Davis, it's not a bad-looking package after all. But what the package contains and what it offers the homebuilder is what makes the Davis DA-2A a downright beautiful flying machine.