If you had the choice between buying a real J-3 or an LSA knockoff of a J-3, wouldn't you pick the real McCoy? I used to think it was a no brainer. I'm not so sure any more.
I stopped by the home of the American Legend Aircraft Company in Sulphur Springs, Texas, located about an hour east of Dallas, to fly the company's brand new little Cub clone. I love flying taildraggers off of grass strips. I was really looking forward to it.
The weather looked good in the forecast, but I filed IFR in the Cherokee Six, as usual, and headed the hour-and-a-half or so up there from Austin. Sixty miles out from SLR as I milled along under sunny skies, I dialed up the AWOS and was surprised to hear the report: seven miles and 400 overcast. My initial thought was that there was perhaps a flock of birds circling low over the sensor, but I arranged with Fort Worth Center for the GPS approach to Runway 36 just in case. As it turned out, I needed it. As I neared the airport I saw the low but thin deck hanging over the airport. I commenced the approach, descending into the clouds. As it turned out, the ceiling was a bit higher than 400 feet by just enough that I was able to get in.
I'd already figured out that the Cub flying part of the visit would have to wait, as the Legend Cub, like every other LSA, is strictly a VFR airplane. This gave me time to meet with the nice folks at the company, to tour the factory, and to have a bite at the locally colorful Red Barn across the street-bring cash, as they don't do American Express, or any other plastic, for that matter. By the time we got back to the airport, the overcast had sizzled away and it was a nice day for pictures and grass strip flying.
Now, when I use the word "clone" to describe American Legend's airplane, I use it in the broadest sense. Neither in construction nor in design is the Legend Cub a true clone of the J-3. While it is certainly a stylistic offshoot, this new airplane features a number of materials, technology and structural updates to C.G. Taylor's early-1930s icon. And the way those improvements have been implemented has been smart. While the Legend Cub looks, flies and quacks like a Cub, the bottom line is that it is in nearly every respect a superior airplane to the J-3. (Note: Cranky traditionalists can direct their hate mail to email@example.com.)
Some of the differences between old and new are obvious. With this Cub you get a pair of doors, one on each side of the airplane. Not only can you get in on either side; you can keep both big portals open in flight, making the Legend Cub a wonderful sunny day flyer. And speaking of choices, once you've decided which side to climb in on, you can pick the seat you fly from, even if you're going solo. In the J-3, of course, for balance reasons you solo from the back seat, which has a certain charm to it while making little sense otherwise. And you'll notice the lack of the little black gas cap and float indicator on the nose of the airplane. The Legend Cub has got the fuel in two wing tanks.
Structurally, the Legend Cub is more akin to the PA-18 Super Cub than to the J-3. With an all-metal fuselage (4130 chromoly steel) and wing structure (built-up aluminum), updated landing gear (disguised to look like old-fashioned bungees), the airplane is built strong, and to last. The only wood on the airplane is a strip of red oak in each of the wing tips that defines the rounded edge.
In addition to simply being a cool airplane to fly (more on that later), the Legend Cub stands as an example of just how far we've come in aviation manufacturing. With nearly every part on the airplane modeled in SolidWorks, a 3-D computer-aided design software program, each example of this Cub, unlike vintage Piper taildraggers, is nearly identical to the next one. And with this technology, American Legend can track changes in the design, identify part numbers in case of problems down the line, and it can communicate with its vendors at the speed of light. The dramatic result was that design work began in January of this year, the prototype flew in March, and the company earned S-LSA certification on July 21. Read that timetable again. This kind of schedule is simply unattainable at any price under Part 23.
Of course, this is the whole idea behind the Light Sport Aircraft Rule, which has deregulated the industry, allowing companies to build very simple two-place airplanes without it costing millions or taking five years. Tim Elliott, who along with Darin Hart founded American Legend, said that the total "certification" effort looked as though it were going to cost around $250,000. By contrast, Cirrus Design reportedly spent close to $50 million to get its 160-knot Part 23 SR20 certified.