Citabria Pilot Report

It just doesn't seem possible! There's no way fifteen years (Ed note: now 40 years!!! Even more unbelievable!) could have elapsed since Champion set the sport aviation world on its ear by doing the unthinkable . . . building an aerobatic airplane! But it has been that long and, for better or worse, the "Citabrick" has made its mark on a generation of pilots who discovered aerobatics in this canvas dumptruck of an airplane. It's been called ugly, slow, bulky, heavy on the controls and any number of unkind things, and all of them are correct. But, don't forget; when the Citabria popped out of the womb, aerobatics had been dead nearly twenty years. It was an all but unknown sport. A lot of the aerobatic world owes the Citabria more than a small debt of thanks. It became the Stearman of our generation and, like it or not, it is a measurable part of our heritage.

The Citabria, as the whole world knows, is, or rather was, a rehashed 7AC Champ. In the early 1960s the little Champ was still batting around trying to earn its keep as a trainer, and was doing the excellent job it always had. However, flight operators with tailwheel Champs were trying to swim upstream, the nosewheel had almost completely converted aviation. The Champ lineage would have ended right there, had they not decided on one last desperate attempt at saving her. A few gussets, a little more metal, and they had the Citabria, which is Airbatic spelled backwards which still rates as a classic example of 1960s marginal marketing.

Champion, who had bought the design from the Aeronca company in the 1950s, then started on a major program that eventually evolved the Champ/Citabria into a complete product line. The thing had engines from 100 hp to 180 hp stuffed in it. It's been festooned with flaps and spray booms, fat tires and long wings, constant speed props and greenhouse doors. But it was, and is, still a Champ. With twice the horses of the original, the bird is only twenty-five to thirty mph faster and with super aerobatic symmetrical wings and all the hot aerobatic stuff on it, they couldn't destroy the soul of the Champ. It still has a very naive, likable flying quality about it that makes it feel comfortable to a pilot in an amazingly short number of hours. It's got that "old shoe" feeling.

The original Citabria really was a revamped Champ. The only outward differences were squared off wing tips and tail surfaces. The very first ones, even retained the "V" gear of the Champs and had a 100 hp Continental in the nose. These are very few and far between these days because Champion almost immediately changed to a 115 hp Lycoming (7ECA) and junked the expensive-to-build "V" gear in favor of a spring steel leaf gear.

Many of the instructors at the time moaned plenty about that spring steel gear. The old gear allowed you to drive down final and plant the mains on with little or no trouble, something that was mighty appreciated when both the wind and the student were crossed up. The spring gear was just that, a spring. It took a lot more technique for a student to master wheel landings. If he dropped it in or tried to force it on from a few inches up, he'd start crow-hopping down the runway like a motorized pogo stick. Everybody learned to live with it, of course, and in all probability, it made better pilots because they had to work harder to make a good wheel landing.

The basic Citabrias only saw a few minor aerodynamic changes during the span of their production. The elevators were produced in three flavors, each with an increasing amount of aerodynamic balance, which went a long way to reducing elevator stick loads. After Bellanca bought the company and started the Decathlon series, of course, the wings were completely redesigned. The Decathlon went to a nearly symmetrical airfoil and sealed ailerons to give the airplane better inverted performance. Along the way, the cowling was cleaned up considerably, but the new one piece construction made it difficult to fully inspect the engine during preflight.

When it came to problems, the Citabria/Decathlon series certainly had theirs. It's hard to tell how many of these would have never shown up if the airplanes hadn't been aerobatted, but just about all of them have been akroed plenty, at this point in time. Many of the problems were fixed quickly, but some lingered on for years and years.

One of the really long term problems of early Citabrias was their fabric work. An airplane that was regularly akroed could count on the belly fabric coming apart at any time between 200 and 400 hours. With proper taping and some ceconite glue, these problems disappear, but beware of factory fabric. It is basically awful on all but the very latest airplanes.

Wing fairings were another real problem. The PK screws holding them kept working loose and the fairings would flap in the wind. Also, fuel tanks, in the early birds, were really fond of leaking, especially those in the 150 hp, fuel injected airplanes, because they saw more inverted work. Today, however, most of the tanks that were going to leak, have leaked, and theoretically should have been repaired. The first fiberglass doors also had a neat trick; in inverted flight, if you forgot the top latch, they'd snap in half with a tremendous bang. That's why Decathlons all have two or three upper latches on the doors.

Undoubtedly the most serious problems surfaced in the Decathlons. The Decathlons allowed you to get into some really gut bending maneuvers so other weaknesses popped up in a hurry, not the least of which was a wing structure that liked to disintegrate. The AD issued called for rebuilding of all ribs aft of the main spar because of cracks. We've seen at least one Decathlon that when the wing was opened up, the leading edge ribs were almost all broken and the leading edge was about to leave the airplane. We've not heard of any inflight wing failures, however, and all flying Decathlons should have had the AD complied with by now.

Another really serious problem was collapsing seat backs. The front seat would break under G, letting the pilot fall backwards against the rear stick. Again, we know of no fatalities, but some airplanes were badly damaged due to excessive control loads and, in all probability, there were some crashes that we don't know about.

Editorial Input from 2006; The wooden spars of the original airplanes were fine until the 1990's, when a serious cracking problem developed. These generally are horizontal cracks running out from under the plywood doublers right where the wing struts come into the spars. It's important any airplane be inspected thoroughly for this problem. The inspection method should involve one person peaking through the inspection panels with a flash light while someone else twists the wing at the tip. This makes the cracks in the spars offset enough to be much more visible. Champion replaced the wood with metal in the 1990's, but still lost a few aircraft before the new spars were slightly redesigned. Today, American Champion is anxious to get wood wings off the market and offers an attractive price to those who will swap their old wings in. This doesn't mean the wood spars should be avoided, just carefully inspected.

All of the engines used by all variations of Citabrias could best be described as bullet-proof. There are no better engines than the 150/180 horse Lycomings. In the Citabrias, however, there are a few things that could shorten their lives. The inverted fuel systems on the injected 150s were great, but the oil systems were fair to lousy. It wasn't until Bellanca changed to the Christen system in the 70s that you could be assured more than forty-five to sixty seconds of oil pressure upside down. If an injected 150 hp Citabria has been used much for training, have the oil analysed before you John Hancock a check.

The only problems with the inverted system in the Decathlon is that it uses a header tank that's too small for extended outside aerobatic instruction. Since the main tanks gravity feed into the header tank, it's possible to run the header tank dry. It's very seldom that you'll run two or three minutes inverted and run the tank out, but its not uncommon at all to be doing a lot of outside or inverted maneuvers and not spend enough time right side up for the header tank to refill after each use. All that happens is that the engine coughs and spits, forcing you to fly right side up long enough for the header tank to refill. That's no problem unless you're doing a low level air, how and don't have the luxury of gliding around waiting for the tank to fill.

The Citabria/Decathlon interiors have always been fairly well done, especially when you compare them to an old Champ or a Super Cub. The instrument panels are practically airline quality (well, almost), with room for at least one radio and some gyros, should you want to go cloud busting (stranger things have been done). The master and all the switches, including the mags are on a small panel above and behind the pilot's head on the left side. If you are wearing a chute or shoulder harness, they are cleverly placed just out of your reach. The angle, by the way, is just right so that stretching back with your left arm almost always brings on a charlie horse.

The early 70s Citabrias use the archaic heel brakes the Champ was reared with. They present no problems to somebody brought up on them, but they are sadly out of place today. The front brakes are carefully positioned so that when you've got the rudder bottomed and need brake in the worst sort of way, you can't reach the brake pedal with your heel without releasing some rudder. That makes the airplane harder to handle in a crosswind than is necessary. At the same time, however, it should be noted that toe brakes on taildraggers are probably responsible for more problems and bent props than anything else. So, maybe the heel brakes aren't so bad after all.

The dual wing tanks read out in gauges mounted in the wing roots. They usually reads just a little low in a three-point position, giving a small margin of safety.

The Citabria/Decathlon taxies about as easily as any taildragger ever invented. However, if the tailwheel springs are stretched from doing snap rolls, you'll find yourself using more brake than you'd want, especially in a good breeze.

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. 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.

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.

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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