Have a look at the various aircraft types parked on the ramp of a busy general aviation airport, and the mission of each quickly becomes evident. Lancairs and Mooneys utilize their sleek lines to achieve speed and efficiency. Well-worn flight school aircraft spend their days enduring all the various lessons learned by the steady stream of students. Stately business jets stand at the ready to whisk their VIPs off to faraway destinations. And should you happen to spot an Ercoupe standing apart from the crowd with its distinctive retro design and open canopy, it becomes clear that it was designed with fun flying in mind.
But fun is only part of the Ercoupe’s formula. When it was designed in the 1930s, it introduced a number of safety features that were, at the time, as futuristic as the Buck Rogers comics of the era. Even today, the Ercoupe enjoys an enthusiastic following.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, aircraft designers stuck with similar playbooks. For the most part, light general aviation aircraft took the form of fabric-covered taildraggers with tandem seating and control sticks. The formula worked, but stall and spin accidents and ground loops were commonplace, and aerodynamicist Fred Weick began experimenting with aircraft designs that would eliminate them.
In 1936, Weick teamed up with a company called ERCO, which stands for the Engineering and Research Corp. He was tasked with designing a new two-place general aviation airplane and was given the freedom to take an innovative approach that challenged the existing norms.
To increase stability on the ground, he introduced steerable tricycle landing gear. To reduce the number of stall and spin accidents, he combined the aileron and rudder controls and eliminated rudder pedals altogether, making it impossible to fly in an uncoordinated state. The pilot would use the yoke to steer the airplane on the ground as well as in the air. Finally, he packaged it in a sleek aluminum fuselage with twin vertical stabilizers and a clever canopy that could be opened in flight.
The result was an airplane that the Civil Aeronautics Administration—the predecessor to the FAA—proclaimed “characteristically incapable of spinning,” and it earned a reputation as a fun, safe and easy means of getting in the air.
Ercoupes of various permutations were manufactured by a handful of different companies between 1940 and 1970, but the vast majority were built by ERCO. They built the first 112 examples of the Ercoupe in 1940 and 1941 and called it the 415-C. There was no 415-A or 415-B; the C simply indicated that it was powered by a Continental engine, and the number indicated that the Ercoupe was ERCO’s 415th product.
After a pause in production during World War II, 1946 to 1950 brought mostly minor changes to the airplane, and the various ERCO models (415-C, 415-CD, 415-D, 415-E and 415-G) differed mainly in horsepower and gross weight. In today’s market, the most noteworthy ERCO models are the 415-C and 415-CD. These have a gross weight of 1,260 pounds and are the only Ercoupes that qualify for LSA rules, meaning no standard medical certificate is required to fly them.
From 1958 to 1959, a company called Forney resumed production, renaming the airplanes the F-1 and F-1A Aircoupe. These were equipped with the Continental C-90 engine and had metalized wings. Approximately 25 F-1As were produced by Air Products Co. when the company changed hands. A total of 163 were built.
After another pause, Alon Inc. continued production with the C-90-equipped A-2 Delux. The Alon models utilized a bubble canopy that slid back to provide access to the cockpit, which was slightly wider than previous Ercoupes. All had metalized wings, and some utilized spring-steel main gear legs in place of the traditional trailing-link main gear. A total of 297 examples were built between 1965 and 1967.
The final manufacturer of the Ercoupe family was Mooney, which built 59 examples of the M-10 Cadet between 1969 and 1970. The Cadets are perhaps the easiest variants to pick out of a crowd because they eschewed the original twin-vertical-stabilizer arrangement in favor of the trademark Mooney vertical stabilizer with traditional rudder pedals.
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A survey of Ercoupes listed for sale at the time of this writing found 15 examples ranging in price from $15,500 to $30,000, with a median price of $22,250. The median airframe time was a relatively low 2,259 hours.
The vast majority of examples on the market were 1946 to 1948 models built by ERCO, and most were equipped with the 85-horsepower Continental C-85. Because Ercoupe listings are scattered among all the various manufacturers that built them over the years, it’s important to scan through the listings and search for those names. Doing so can reveal a handful of Alon-, Forney- and Mooney-built Ercoupes cataloged separately from the more commonplace ERCOs.
An Ercoupe’s distinctive design makes it stand apart from most other airplanes parked on a ramp, and unique features become apparent as you climb into the cockpit. Instead of doors, the Ercoupe has two flexible plexiglass windows that are pulled up from each side to meet in the middle in a manner similar to the cover on a roll-top desk. To enter, simply pull down one of the windows, hop in, and then pull it back up to the center position over your head. The airplane can be flown with both windows down at any speed, giving it the feel of an open-cockpit airplane.
At approximately 39 inches wide, the cabin has just a bit more space than comparable two-place aircraft of the era, and the lack of rudder pedals provides quite a bit more legroom. It’s still a small airplane with cozy accommodations, though, and the baggage area behind the seats is relatively shallow. Extended trips require careful packing.
While the earliest Ercoupes lack electrical systems and, therefore, must be hand-propped, the vast majority are fully equipped, and the startup process is no different from any other airplane equipped with a small Continental engine.
Taxiing, however, is very different. Because the aileron and rudder controls are interconnected, one simply steers the yoke in the desired direction and uses the single foot pedal to apply the brakes. No differential braking is available, but steering on the ground is easy and precise.
At gross weight from sea level in standard conditions, the 415-E requires 2,100 feet to clear a 50-foot obstacle, and with most Ercoupes weighing around 900 pounds empty, the full-fuel payload can be modest in the LSA-compliant models.
Cruise speeds vary by engine, but 100 to 105 mph is common. One owner upgraded his C-85 engine with an O-200 crank to achieve a relatively brisk 117 mph cruise speed while burning about 5 gallons per hour.
In flight, the Ercoupe’s handling is well-mannered and unremarkable. Steep turns are easily performed, and the ball stays perfectly centered throughout the maneuver. While power-on stalls occur with a mild break, power-off stalls have no break at all and amount to a high sink rate with noticeable buffeting. Positive roll control is maintained throughout slow flight and into stalls.
The stall and spin resistances of pre-E-model Ercoupes are achieved in part by limited upward elevator travel, so it’s important to maintain speed on final in those models. This will ensure the elevator has sufficient authority to arrest the rate of descent and properly flare.
The 415-G manual calls for an approach speed of 72 mph, and landing is simply a matter of reducing power, leveling off a foot or two above the ground, and allowing the airplane to settle onto the runway.
Crosswind landings are surprisingly unremarkable given the lack of rudder pedals. The Ercoupe’s landing gear was engineered to touch down in a crab, and doing so doesn’t generate the harsh side loads one might expect. Instead, the trailing-link main gear simply nudges the nose into alignment with the runway, and the airplane settles onto the ground without complaint. The small size of the vertical stabilizers greatly reduces the airplane’s tendency to weather-vane.
A number of Ercoupes have been modified with rudder pedals to replicate the controls of a traditional airplane. While this might sound appealing to pilots who prefer traditional controls, owners report that the modification lacks rudder authority and effectiveness.
Provided an Ercoupe’s airframe has absolutely no corrosion, it can be an easy airplane to own and maintain. Because a reasonable number were built, parts are plentiful. Univair owns the type certificate and produces new parts, and usedercoupeparts.com is a highly regarded source for used parts.
There are 26 airworthiness directives that apply to Ercoupes of all types, viewable on Univair’s website. Approximately eight are recurring, and these are considered to be relatively simple and easily addressed by an A&P.
Corrosion is the most significant concern, however, and any prospective owner should ensure a mechanic familiar with Ercoupes thoroughly inspects the wing spar with a borescope to confirm that no corrosion exists. A wealth of information and support is available from the Ercoupe Owners Club.
When evaluating various types of aircraft for purchase, most of us tend to take a technical approach. We collect metrics, assess performance figures, and carefully calculate the precise operating costs inherent to each type in an effort to determine which is most perfectly suited to our needs.
The Ercoupe is unique in that some of its most significant strengths aren’t easily quantifiable and won’t show up in spreadsheets. The 1930s-era retro-futuristic look, the relaxed confidence of sure-footed crosswind landings, and the feeling of resting your arm out the window as the scent of freshly cut hayfields swirls through the open cockpit on a summer afternoon make it truly special.
For the pilot who values these sorts of qualities and has less need for cruising speed, payload and short-field capability, the Ercoupe delivers on the dream of aircraft ownership in spades.
This story appeared in the April/May 2021 issue of Flying Magazine