Flying Lessons: When Cheetahs Were Fast

A look back at the once revolutionary aircraft.

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(January 2011) — The envelope had been forwarded twice by the time it got to me. I tore open the top seal and pulled out a worn 8½- by 11-inch color brochure, its binding coming apart, with a cryptic note paper-clipped to its top edge, asking for the brochure to be forwarded on to me. I took the note off and saw a color image of two Grumman aircraft in front of a large executive hangar beneath a headline that read "If you do your thinking on the ground, you'll do your flying in a Gulfstream American."

A Gulfstream American — funny. Tigers and Cheetahs have been casually referred to as "Grummans" for so long that I'd all but forgotten that, for a time, they were actually produced by Gulfstream. (The exact lineage starts with American Aviation, which produced the first two-seat AA-1 Yankee Clipper and the first four-seat Traveler. American was then sold to Grumman, which changed its name to Grumman American. In 1978, Grumman sold that division to Gulfstream, which renamed it Gulfstream American. Gulfstream produced the aircraft for only a short time, however, before it shut down production of all its piston-powered aircraft in 1979.)

I turned the page and realized quickly that the object in my hands was an original 1979 sales brochure for the Cheetah and Tiger aircraft. One page featured the new, cutting-edge technology involved in the aircraft's construction. Another offered a half-dozen customer testimonials, complete with photos of the customers. A double-page spread listed the standard and optional equipment lists for both the Cheetah and the Tiger. More pages waxed poetic about the flying abilities of both aircraft. There was a complete 1979 price list and a special pullout feature (although the decaying binding meant every page had become a kind of pullout feature) listing 34 reasons the "new" Cheetahs and Tigers were better than their competition.

It was remarkable. All the parts and pieces looked so fresh and new. The paint was so shiny. The interiors were … well, I'll get to the interiors in a minute. But flipping through the pages brought to mind the scene at the end of the movie _Field of Dream_s, where Kevin Costner's character, Ray Kinsella, sees his deceased father, John Kinsella (played by Dwier Brown), as a young baseball player on the magical field.

"I only saw him years later, when he was worn down by life," Costner says wonderingly. "Look at him. He's got his whole life in front of him, and I'm not even a glint in his eye."

By the time I encountered my Cheetah, it was already more than two decades old. Its paint was faded, and its fairings were ragged, worn down by the years and miles it had traveled. But here, in the brochure, I got a glimpse into how it had once looked, back when it was new — when it had its whole life in front of it, and I wasn't even a glint in its eye.

It's an odd thing, getting a glimpse of someone or something you know well — or think you know well — from a time somewhere in the distant past. I still look at my parents' wedding pictures and struggle to square those impossibly young, vibrant faces with even the early memories I have of them, 10 or 15 years down the line. Multiply that times 10 for my grandparents or other people I met only in the late stages of their lives. These glimpses offer a valuable reminder that all things change, and things have not always been — and will not always be — the way we perceive them now.

When I told people I was flying the Cheetah across the country last August, the typical response was a stunned "Wow! In that thing?" The implied but unspoken thought behind that statement being "in that basic, slow and antiquated piece of machinery?"

Nobody would respond to a Cirrus SR22 owner flying across the country with that kind of stunned amazement. The Gulfstream brochure was a reminder that there was a time when a lowly Cheetah was very close to state-of-the-art for a four-place, fixed-gear, piston-powered airplane. The brochure even touted the "space-age" technology behind the Cheetah's design.

"Because Gulfstream American airplanes were designed after space-age technology became available," the brochure argued, "their strength comes not from rivets and heavy metal, but from the metal-to-metal bonding and honeycomb panels that take away weight, yet still give them more muscle to stand up to the demands you create for them."

Ah, yes. It's true. The Cheetah and Tiger were revolutionary in their bonded wing design. Speed master Roy LoPresti designed their cowlings, and the fuselages incorporated NASA low-drag air scoops (as the brochure was quick to point out). There are, of course, some downsides to that bonded wing design (one production year had problems with the glue, and the aircraft all have high repainting costs because the wings can't be chemically stripped). But back in 1977, all those elements — in addition to the airplanes' fiberglass gear struts, one-piece windscreen, easy-open engine cowling and "sliding air conditioner" (the ability to slide the cowling back during taxi, and even during slow flight, for better cooling inside the airplane) — were the latest and greatest in airplane design.

Then, of course, there was the speed. The mid-'70s saw the dawning of the "efficiency" era, when speed limits and automobile sizes decreased and fuel economy became a driving force in all things mechanical. So high on the Cheetah's list of attributes was its ability to get more than 11 mpg, at a speed above 120 mph. The miles per gallon measurement brought me up short for a moment because nobody talks about airplane performance in those terms today. We talk about gallons per hour, not miles per gallon. Was Gulfstream trying to capitalize on potential customers' sudden focus on the mpg rating of their gas-guzzling cars? Or did everyone in aviation talk in those terms back then? I wasn't a pilot in 1979, so I can't say.

In essence, Gulfstream was saying that the Cheetah burned less than 11 gallons per hour, even full out. I've always thought the Cheetah was something of a sky slug because I flight-plan at 105 knots (even though I sometimes do better than that) and generally burn about 10 gph (although I usually fly lower than the textbook 8,000 feet). But 105 knots is more than 120 mph. And at 10 gph, that does equate to slightly more than 12 miles per gallon. What's really fascinating about those numbers, though, is that back in 1979, they were apparently impressive enough for Gulfstream to brag about them. My, how things have changed!

Not that all that change is a bad thing. To put the time warp in perspective, 1977 was the year the original Star Wars movie hit the movie theaters — along with Annie Hall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Saturday Night Fever. Which means disco was in vogue the year my Cheetah was built, along with polyester drip-dry suits, plaid pants, big collars, loud paisley prints and the first round of platform shoes. Not to mention, orange-cushioned living room chairs and avocado green and harvest gold kitchen appliances. I'm sure I'm not alone in shuddering at the memory.

In fact, the most amusing part of the Gulfstream brochure was the page where it proudly displayed the interior designs available to lucky new Tiger and Cheetah owners. The marketing copy boasts, "We believe your little corner of the sky in a Tiger or Cheetah should be every bit as pleasing and comfortable as your home or office … and almost as beautiful in appearance as the custom decor in a Gulfstream II executive jet."

Looking at the accompanying photos, I cringed to think of what executives endured back then in their custom jets and office suites. One photo showed a kind of awful fake-plush blue velour interior (described by the brochure as "the attractive blue interior used in the Tiger"). The photo beneath that showed an Austin Powers-worthy red-and-white, wavy-stripe Cheetah interior — on both the seats and the side panels — that the brochure referred to as a "rugged red, white and blue stripe" design. Rugged? Psychedelic nightmare is more like it.

Thank goodness times have changed! I wasn't in love with my Cheetah's nondescript tan interior when I bought it, but looking at the Gulfstream brochure, I gained a whole new appreciation for that tan interior.

Which is to say, once again, everything is relative. Tan is a good thing when you consider the possible alternatives. And whatever is cool and cutting-edge today will be tomorrow's also-ran — or worse, tomorrow's embarrassing memory. (That goes for way more than just airplanes.) Perhaps it's the universe's way of keeping us all humble, Cheetahs, Tigers and SR22s included.

Yet, I am very grateful to Gary Weaver, the thoughtful reader who sent me that brochure. It reminded me that my airplane isn't inherently an underpowered and marginal aircraft with which to take on adventure. Sure, we have better and faster aircraft today. We also have aircraft selling for half a million dollars. And once upon a time, my lowly, timeworn Cheetah was an impressively efficient, advanced and capable aircraft — with 34 distinct features that placed it (at least in Gulfstream's eyes) ahead of its more established competition.

In a way, the Grumman/Gulfstream American aircraft may very well have been the Cirrus of their day: new construction; new materials; faster and more efficient with an eye toward the simplicity of fixed gear, simple systems and an ergonomically efficient cockpit layout; less successful, of course. But then, they were produced at the very end of the last boom. Everyone got out of piston production in the 1980s.

Does that realization change anything now? Well, yes and no. My Cheetah still flies the same as it always did. But as Ray Kinsella learned by seeing his father as a young man, glimpsing the past does change the way you look at things in the present. When I look at the Cheetah now, I will be more likely to remember that somewhere beneath its faded paint is a brand-new airplane that — long before Apple computer coined the phrase — thought differently about how a little airplane could fly.