Photos and Text by Budd Davisson
Air Progress, July, 1974
Bellanca's Wooden Vunderkind: Viking 300
Watching the angular arrow of wood and fabric taxi onto the ramp, I couldn't help but marvel at the history behind the Bellanca Viking, whose basic design is actually far older than I am. The plush EI Dorado interior and space-age avionics may be a far cry from the early pin-ball styling of the original 1937 Bellanca Junior, but the basic bones and lines show that the Viking 300A and the Junior are much more closely related than many other aerial father-and-son acts now being produced. The Viking graphically shows just how far the industry has, or hasn't, come in the past 37 years. It was far ahead of its time when born, and is still considered by many to be the Ferrari of the four-place light airplane field, but in some ways it's still an anachronism.
What an absolute headwrecker the original 14 series Bellanca Junior must have been when it popped into the 1937 aviation scene. Lean, trim, and so fast for its power as to be sinful, it flitted around like a mosquito among the Staggerwings and Reliants then in vogue. Its happy little 90-hp Ken-Royce, or LeBlond, radial could drag it along at over 120 mph and what a song that tiny round engine must have sung.
The Viking can be had with 300 hp in the nose from either Lycoming or Continental
After the war, the cramped three-place fuselage of the Junior and its radial engine gave way to an equally cramped four-place cabin and a motley procession of flat engines (120-, 150- and 165-horse Franklins; 190- and 230-hp Lycomings), but the lines and size remained almost exactly the same. As I looked over the 1974 Weld-wood wonder that I was to explore for the weekend, I had to remind myself that the vital statistics of the Bellancas haven't changed a fraction of an inch since the very first junior: 34 feet of span and 161 square feet of wing to hold it up. However, two other important numbers have changed mightily over the years: The cowling now stables 300 giant horses rather than a very wobbly 90, and the Viking weighs in 500 pounds heavier when empty (2,250 pounds) than the Junior did at gross (1,700 pounds). Unfortunately, modern performance figures reflect the added weight more than the higher horse-power.
The Viking has always been the darling of the typewriter prophets, so it gets its share of press coverage. Aviation writers love to borrow a Viking and go romping off to San Juan, Barbados or Peoria because the airplane has so much class. Because of this, you'd have to be a hermit not to know the familiar "built by Old World craftsmen a piece at a time" story. It's a theme that would wear thin if it weren't so true. Bellanca is the last builder of four-place people haulers to hold out against cookie-cutter assembly line methods. The wood wings are the result of a 60-year love affair with spruce, and really are built by master elves a piece at a time. Modern glues and sealers have made a good thing even better. The factory is fond of pointing out that there has never been a failure or an airworthiness directive against a Bellanca wing, regardless of age, and the stuff they dip the finished wings in pushes any possibility of rot far off.(Editors Note from 2003: They cant say that about Bellanca wings any more. Only a couple years after this was written, several lost wings prompting a major flurry of ADs).
The jungle gym of chrome-moly tubing begins at the motor mount and ends at the rudder post, giving the passengers one of the best crash-survivability structures flying. It's not light, and it's not easy to build, but it makes one hell of a crash cage. The fuselage sets aircraft structures back 40 years, back to the days when you could hit the ground pretty hard and not worry about the airplane collapsing and wrapping itself around you.
Both the wings and the fuselage get a finishing cover of dacron and dopea surprising change from the fiberglass cloth they used during the '60s. Although the Dacron's life will average only about 10 years (a number that varies drastically depending on storage, use and care).
As any engineer will tell you, there's a lot to be said for wooden wings; they have an infinite fatigue life (almost), and they can be made incredibly smooth. But they cost more than the same animal in metal and not only is quality spruce getting tough to find, but finding men who are artists with chisels is no easy task either.
The airplane I managed to con the factory into giving me was a shiny, new 1974 job with enough options and avionics to raise the $34,400 base price up to a sizzling $50,000 plus (From the 2003: that sounds pretty silly now, doesnt it?).
I think I should mention from the very beginning that I'm what's known as your basic Bellanca buff. I've been flipped out over them since the first time I wiggled into a 230hp triple-tailed job years ago. They've always been a hundred yards the other side of ugly, and the Bellanca engineers who designed the original cardboard constellations must have thought leg-room an unnecessary option. But they were the best flying airplanes around.
Wheels actually hang out of wing but are concealed by the Fiberglas clamshell doors.
Preflighting the airplane revealed a curious combination of intelligent innovation and questionable planning. The cowl, for instance is a well-made two-piece affair with two rather smallish doors for access to the dip-stick and oil filler cap. To inspect the engine you either have to remove a bunch of screws and split the cowl or be satisfied with peeking through various holes. They were thoughtful enough to mount a remote gascolator drain right next to the dip stick so you don't have to suffer through the usual gas-down-the-elbow routine while fumbling under the nose for the quick drain. I like that little bit of added convenience. The wing drains, on the other hand, are almost totally invisible, being mounted inside the bottom of the wing and reached through a small, nail-sized hole. To drain them you must use a special cup supplied by Bellanca that has a plunger sticking up out of it, which you insert in the wing hole and push. It's an extremely clever and aerodynamically clean way to handle the tank drains, but it takes a lot of scrounging around and knee-dirtying to get at them. Even the Bellanca sales type who was checking me out had trouble locating the drains. There has to be a better way.
Throughout its long career, Bellanca has always had a reputation for building spectacular performing airplanes with rather unspectacular, dowdy interiors and panels, but the Viking has changed that image once and for all. As I popped the door open and slid across into the left seat, I was knocked out by the plushness that leaped up and sucked me inside. Boarding may not lend itself to displaying your more graceful movements, but the contortions have their rewards because the entire cabin reeks of class and incredible detail. Only the tiny remnants of a piece of masking tape on a window frame kept the cabin from being a hundred-point concours winner, but ninety-nine sure ain't bad. Absolutely nothing else being produced touches it.
This particular demonstrator was done in a zowie blue naugahyde and fabric that was brilliant, but at the same time very tasteful. The only gripe heard from those who romped through this aerial playroom with me was about the headliner material. It's a blue version of the usually mouse-colored mohair that '48 Hudsons and others used so ineffectively. It looked like it would dirty very quickly and the texture didn't come up the modern levels set by the rest of the interior. A vinyl headliner is available as an option and would sure be worth the extra bucks.
The panel is exactly what an airplane instrument panel should be. There are no cutesy design gimmicks aimed at hiding the fact that you're in an airplane, like the all-too-familiar plastic and fake wood automotive syndrome. Rather, it's black and businesslike with most of the goodies right where they should be. A number of the engine instruments (manifold pressure and tachometer included) are the vertical kind with floating needle indicators. They were almost impossible to read at first, but inside of an hour or so they became as familiar as the old-fashioned clock gauges.
Viking interiors are built for speed and are a little tight.
It's easy to see why Bellanca is using so many vertical gauges-they need the room. The limited cockpit depth means the panel must jut upward a fair amount to give enough space to mount the array of gadgets most modern pilots think they need. But, even with a sizeable hump in the panel, they've had to squeeze switches and knobs into just about every corner of the panel and onto consoles on both sides of the cockpit.
The only thing about the entire airplane that struck me as being just plain stupid was the location of the fire extinguisher. It's on the floor behind the pilot's seat, precisely where he can't reach it and the passenger can't avoid it. That doesn't show much planning. However, balancing off the fire extinguisher faux pas is the placement of the fuel selector and tank gauges. The selector is between the seats and is one of the easiest to work and best located ones I've ever seen. The selector is coupled with a system of lights under the fuel gauges. The selector lights the bulb below the indicator of the tank that's in use, so there's no guessing about whether or not you're working on the fullest tank.
As I strapped in, I mentally gave Bellanca a gold star for mounting shoulder harnesses (cross-over chest belts that snap into the top of the seatbelt buckles) that are both effective and comfortable. Since I planned to sneak into the far corners of the Viking's flight envelope, the belts made me feel a little more secure. More manufacturers should show the same concern.
The Viking that the factory decided to risk in my hot little hands was powered by a 300-hp Continental rather than the Lycoming option of the same horsepower. The Lycoming costs an additional $1,870. The Continental rating of 300 horses is good only at takeoff settings and max-continuous is 285 hp. The starting procedures for the Continental are a little weird because you just shove everything to the firewall-throttle, mixture and all-and start cranking. A shot of primer from the three-position boost pump switch gets fuel pressure up to keep the fire lit. This boost pump switch, incidentally, is one of the several important controls that are hidden by the yoke. Following the recommended starting procedures rewarded us with lots of noise immediately, but later we played with different types of starting techniques and found you could usually treat it like any other big fuel-injected engine.
The Viking is cursed with one of those gadgets that many swear by, and others swear at: the vernier throttle. Words cannot describe my own loathing of the vernier. It's a pain to taxi with and proved to be an even bigger problem during touch-and-goes in turbulence. Every pilot who flew the airplane with me had the same remark, "Get rid of that lousy vernier." There are a lot of situations in which it's nice to have, but when you need lots of power in a hurry, the vernier can prove disastrous. To be fair, though, it must be mentioned that both Cessna's and Beech's big singles have verniers.
Nice place for a fire extinguisher!
The first takeoff was memorable only because nothing happened. The airplane was in the worst possible situation: warmish temperatures, gusty wind with hard-edged turbulence, and we were full up with all seats occupied and all the gas we could cram into the two 30-gallon wing tanks. As the throttle went in, the noise built to a pretty respectable din (even though we had the three-blade option, which is supposed to be quieter) and we were pushed further and further back into our seats as the IAS lunged toward takeoff speed. With a little coaxing from my check pilot, Bill Briggs, I lightened the nose at 60 IAS and lifted off at 80 mph. The second we were off the ground the airplane let it be known that it wanted to climb. There was no hesitation, no riding on ground effect. Just a healthy leap off the runway into a stable climb.
As I jerked the gear up, Briggs leaned over and shouted (he had to to be heard) in my ear "Don't bring the power back below 90 mph or the gear will come out again."
"Oh, fantastic!" I thought. I had one of those idiot proof gears aboard. Hiding it under the not-too-clever name of Auto-Axtion, Bellanca has seen fit to protect us from ourselves and our insurance companies by fit-ting the Vikings with an automatic gear extension system. Theirs makes more sense than some, but it has its drawbacks. The gear automatically goes down anytime the IAS drops be-low 90 mph unless the throttle is full open or the master is off. So, if you don't keep your hand to the wall un-der 90 mph, you'll be greeted by three winking lights on the panel. Once you've hit 105 mph, it's supposed to retract again.
Cleaned up and accelerated to a climb speed of 110 mph, we showed a welcomed 1,000 fpm plus on the VSI, which got us out of some fairly severe ground turbulence pronto. When light, the Viking is a real climbing fool.
The second I cranked over into a left turn to head for Boston, I fell in love with Bellancas all over again. Their ailerons are sensuously smooth and the roll rate is quick and tight. At first there's a slight tendency to over-control in roll when fighting turbulence, but that disappears quickly, leaving you with the feeling that you're flying a four-place Pitts.
However, as much as I loved the ailerons, I hated the elevators, and this proved to be one of the more irritating aspects of the Viking to almost everybody I introduced it to. They didn't like the control harmony, or the lack of it. The combination of light quick ailerons, relatively heavy elevators and a moderately ineffective rudder goes a long way toward ruining the grace of the airplane. It's like dancing with a beautifully agile girl who's wearing combat boots. Although, with that short tail, lightening the elevators too much might cause new pilots to porpoise.
In cruise, those firm elevators combined with the short tail moment make just about everybody, myself included, work to hold an accurate altitude. It just didn't want to sit in one place, especially in rough air. If you displace the nose suddenly by jabbing the yoke, it takes nearly four oscillations, at a minute apiece, to dampen the movement. Then it sits at a particular speed and altitude until the next bump and starts searching all over again. If I were to do a lot of IFR work in it, I think I'd like to have the altitude-hold, which is offered as a Century series autopilot option.
I've got to give Bellanca a lot of credit for being one of the few totally honest companies when it comes to performance figures. We actually found some of their numbers a bit conservative. At 75 percent of power, we consistently indicated 180 to 185 mph and were trueing 190 mph and up, while Bellanca lists only 187 mph in their advertising.
You really feel like an airline pilot when you're humming along in a Viking at 11,500 feet on top of a broken deck, squawking 1400, playfully switching the DME mode back and forth and watching minutes and knots magically appear in the windows. This is the domain of the Viking. Running high and fast, getting the driver from here to there as quickly as possible.
Since altitude steals manifold pressure quickly, the turbocharger option, worth an additional (and incredible) $8,000 and 20 to 40 mph (223 mph at 24,000 feet!) could really put a head on the high-altitude experience.
As we neared Boston; where I was to drop Bill Briggs, Bellanca regional manager, we lowered the nose and shot down through a gigantic (and legal) rift in the clouds showing 2,500 to 3,000 fpm down on the VSI. The handbook says emergency letdowns can give as much as 4,500 fpm, if needed. Now, that's what I call coming down!
As soon as the airport was in sight, Briggs started talking about pilots who have trouble landing the airplane because they play with the throttle too much and don't adhere to the recommended method of setting it up on final at 90 mph and 15 inches and flying it right onto the runway. He was trying to offer me advice in a subtle manner. I pretty much ignored him, as I still felt very awkward in the machine and was working much harder than I had expected to.
With the gear out at 140 mph, I started messing with the power, and, as predicted, found myself bobbing all over the glide path. The sink rate, even at pattern altitude, seemed to build up very fast when the power was reduced, but at the time I didn't think much about it. After I left the throttle alone, the Viking flew the pattern as if it knew where it was going, and I kept the power on right into the flare, screwing the throttle out as I brought the nose up. It was a near grease job, or as close as I ever get, and I had no problem keeping the nose up as long as I wanted.
The nose gear is direct steering, like a Cherokee, so it stays cocked if you have a little rudder in it. I held the nose up long enough to make sure things were square with the world so the nosewheel wouldn't jerk us to one side.
With the amenities of borrowing the airplane completed (I promised Briggs I'd bring his airplane back), we loaded up for the trip home. As I was rolling back onto the runway, I congratulated myself for being such an ace, transitioning to this hot, new superbird so smoothly. But my delusions of aeronautical grandeur were shortlived, as my next landing poked a lot of holes in my ego and taught me a lot more about the Viking.
I work out of a tiny airport in north Jersey that's got some of the strangest winds around. Its 2,000 feet of asphalt actually jut out into lakes at either end, forming aircraft-carrier type fan-tails four or five feet higher than the adjacent water. Combine this with high ridges on either side of the runway and you have the makings for all sorts of violent turbulence right off the end of the runway. It may not sound like much, but on windy days, it's been known to humble more than a few hotshots.
As I got the flaps out and turned final, I thought I had the airplane and the airport psyched out. With the sink rate of the Viking, I figured all I'd have to do was cautiously jockey the power to stay on glide path and put the mains right on the end of the runway.
I had expected some downers and was ready to fight them, but even though I knew what to expect, things went to hell in a hurry. I suddenly found myself very busy fighting turbulence while keeping that damned vernier release knob depressed. The airplane just wasn't reacting the way I expected. When a downdraft would start sucking us toward the water, I'd hit the power, but it didn't take effect until we were into the next updraft and then I had to yank it off. When I saw I had the runway made, I committed the final mistake-I pulled the power off. The airplane's natural sink rate combined with a slight downdraft, and threw us toward the runway at a frightening rate. It happened so quickly that all I could do was yank the nose up before contact. Thanks to a fat cushion of ground effect, the touchdown wasn't hard at all, but we were skating along like a shuffleboard puck on a freshly waxed board. To make matters worse, on rollout I let the cocked nosewheel touch the runway for a second, which yanked us off the centerline rather abruptly. Chalk one up for the airplane.
After thinking about it for a while, I thought I'd figured out my problems with the airplane, but I wanted to see if other pilots had the same hang-ups. Besides, some of Bellanca's advertising prose says "docile as a trainer," and "gentle as a lamb," and I wanted to check that out on a bunch of different pilots with varying skill levels. So, the next morning I rounded up a herd of local tirekickers including a fairly low-time Mooney owner, a flight instructor, a Debonair owner and a couple of airline pilots.
I sat in the right seat and watched all these pilots go through the same embarrassing short-field learning process I did. The problem seemed to center around controlling the sink rate in turbulence, and the vernier throttle. Only the airline types got by without having the airplane fall out from under them on at least one landing.
In researching the problem, I went upstairs and played a little with sink rates. At the prescribed 15 inches, with gear and full flaps, the Viking comes down at a very comfortable 700 to 800 fpm, about like a power-off Cherokee. Screw the power out just a smidgen, to 12 to 13 inches and the VSI leaps up to something in the neighborhood of 1,200 fpm. Bring it all the way out and the needle rockets up to 1,800 to 2,000 fpm, and that's a fantastic sink rate for a single-engine airplane. All of this was happening at an indicated airspeed of 90 mph. At slower speeds it's even more dependent on power.
One of the really surprising aspects of the Viking's slow-speed characteristics is the gentle nature of its stall. Power off, it runs out of elevator and either breaks slightly or just continues mushing at around 70 mph. But with 15 inches of manifold pressure, we were down around 55 mph at full gross before anything started to happen and then we had the wheel all the way back and were only sinking about 500 fpm.
Knowing how the power affected the sink rate, I started cautioning the troops about not making large power reductions on final, which helped a lot, but didn't completely solve the problem. We still couldn't get the hang of maintaining an exact glide path through turbulence to land on a prescribed spot. If we ignored landing on a spot and held the power to go motoring right down on to the first quarter of the runway, the airplane was a pussycat to land, even in the gusty wind. But, trying to punch holes in turbulence to put it right on the end of the concrete still caused all sorts of problems.
Still puzzled, I did a little more high-altitude research with the sink rates, this time not how to start them, but how to stop them on command. It turned out that while it takes a reduction of only a couple of inches of manifold pressure to start the sink rate, it takes a pretty healthy poke with the go-stick to stop it. In the case of a 1,500fpm sink, it took nearly 20 inches to stop it immediately. This is exactly how most super-high performance birds fly, even jets. Once you get a sink rate or deceleration rate started, it takes the "lucky three"-time, power, altitude-to get it stopped.
Something that would make the entire Viking landing process a lot less troublesome would be a different type of flap switch setup. As now designed, you can only select two flap positions, 23 degrees and a whopping 45 degrees, nothing inbetween. The pilot has to be able to pick other flap settings, preferably with a continuous action switch, so the switch could be pushed down to a certain point and the flaps would stop at the deflection indicated. That way, you could set up a power setting and partially control the glide path by dropping flaps a little at a time. Right now, when you go for the last notch, you've got a pretty healthy pitch and speed change to watch for. That's one reason the recommended procedure is to get all the flaps out at least halfway down final.
Also, I wish they'd relocate the flap switch because I got tired of guys fondling my left knee as they reached under the passenger's wheel for the flaps. And the gear lights should be moved up to the top of the panel so they'd be easier to cross-check just before touchdown. Now they are at the extreme bottom of the panel, partially hidden by the yoke.
I should probably make the point that in nine out of 10 situations the Viking is only marginally more demanding than most airplanes of the species. Okay, so it's no Piper Cub and it asks that you fly it strictly by the numbers, but it's this subliminal challenge to improve your piloting technique that makes the airplane so attractive to so many. Ferraris, Aston-Martins and the like are far from being easy cars to drive well. The Viking falls into the same macho-machine category. Once you've learned to handle its few idiosyncrasies, the performance and the gut feeling of personal accomplishment you're rewarded with is well worth the effort. Incidentally, when the turbulence died down a little, we found we had no problem at all in getting down and stopped in 1,000 feet.
Bellanca has a brand-new management and engineering team that has taken dead aim at the Viking's problems. Because of that, I predict the next two years will see the Viking cruising well over 200 mph with the same engine, and its overall efficiency and handling characteristics will be fine-tuned to make the airplane easier for more people to live with. This is important if they hope to persuade Skylane and Arrow drivers to transition into their airplane. As it is now, a low-time Skylane pilot would age 10 years during his first Viking approach into a short field on a rough day.
At a sticker price of $34,000, the Viking really has very little direct competition. It's most often compared to the Bonanza, which isn't really fair since the Bonanza costs a frightening $47,000. The Rockwell Commander 112 starts at a tad under $30,000 as does the new production Mooney 21. For $39,000 you get a lot more room and load capacity in a Cessna Centurion, but it would take a Centurion II at $44,000 to come even close to the Viking's interior appointments.
One other problem in buying a Viking is finding your local Viking dealer so you can get a ride. The location of Viking dealers is the best-kept secret in aviation. If you want to try a Viking on for size, call the factory in Alexandria, Minnesota, and have them point you in the right direction.
I wish Bellanca had the money to match their enthusiasm. I think they've got the right combination of people and mental attitude to build an all-new airplane based on the Viking's concept of performance, handling and interior, but using modern materials and techniques. It would be a world beater. Unfortunately, FAA certification being what it is, both expensive and lengthy, we'll probably see the same Bellanca airframe STCd beyond recognition and produced for another 37 years. Oh well, worse things have happened. But somehow, I just can't see a spruce-and-tube airplane with a fanjet-or can I?