I could smell the pine trees below as I turned base and the nose of the little taildragger I was piloting pointed toward a sheer rock wall. When I turned final, the runway was still invisible. It was at the end of a narrow gorge that followed down the mountainside.
Tracking that line, I continued my descent, skimming the treetops of the dense forest. Finally, it appeared — the beginning of the scenic 2,500-foot-long grass strip of Tieton State Airport (4S6), located on the shoreline of Rimrock Lake’s Lonesome Cove in the Wenatchee National Forest in Washington. I monitored my airspeed closely, keeping it right at 50 knots, and continued this challenging and exhilarating approach through the confining gorge.
As I dropped below the treetops that surrounded the runway, my hands and feet began the dance that is so critical in the final stages of a tailwheel approach. Like a drummer using the full drum set to accompany a complicated jazz tune, I worked to coordinate the throttle, stick and rudder pedals to make sure the big fat main tires and trailing tailwheel of the brand-new CubCrafters XCub touched the green grass surface at the same instant, straight down the center of the runway. This is flying, I marveled.
I had the pleasure of flying this brand-new XCub, just announced by Yakima, Washington-based CubCrafters, with the terrific guidance of the company’s president, Randy Lervold. The airplane was in the final stages of achieving Part 23 certification, a feat that was completed in June. XCub is not a Cub that will meagerly mosey out of its den. It is ready to attack the backcountry with its 180 hp Lycoming O-360 engine spinning a constant-speed composite Hartzell Trailblazer prop. If you are fortunate enough to spot this recently born species, the XCub is easily identified from the other CubCrafters airplanes by its sizable “shark gills” on each side of the composite cowl, which are there to provide extra cooling for the engine.
Initially based on CubCrafters’ successful Carbon Cub, the XCub took nearly six years to reach the end of the most current and stringent amendment of the Part 23 certification process. With the FAA working on the certification rewrite, the XCub could be one of the last piston-powered airplanes funneled through this arduous process. The question now is: Was it worth the effort?
Ever since Piper delivered the first Cubs in the late 1930s, the tandem two-seat taildraggers have been winning the hearts of pilots. The yellow airplanes appeared to exude happiness unlike any other, and the success of the original J-3 was stellar right from the start. Thousands of Cubs left the Piper factory in the first several years of production, and upgraded models followed. The culmination was the 180 hp PA-18 Super Cub, an airplane that has become so popular that well-maintained ones 40 years old and even older are selling for well over six figures today.
The reason for the high resale value is that Piper stopped producing the popular airplane in 1994. But plenty of pilots love going low and slow, and so new companies emerged to bring modern Cubs to the market. One of those companies is CubCrafters.
CubCrafters was formed in 1980 by Jim Richmond, who today acts as the company’s CEO. Richmond inherited his love of flying from his father, whose harebrained business ideas often involved airplanes. When Richmond was in his early teens, his father secured a 99-year lease on an island in southern Alaska, where he attempted to farm mink and cattle. The island was accessible only by airplane or boat. “I never took that boat ride,” Richmond says. Instead, they flew in his father’s Cessna 206, Douglas DC-3 and Piper Super Cub. That experience “made me realize what you can do with an airplane,” Richmond says.
When he founded CubCrafters, his goal was to make Super Cubs better by restoring and repairing the aging fleet. Through the years, the company evolved to develop STCs for improvements to the design. In 1999, CubCrafters started building PA-18 airplanes under the FAA Spare and Surplus rule.
In 2004, CubCrafters took a major leap as a manufacturer by introducing its first Part 23-certified airplane — the Top Cub — along with achieving the coveted Part 21 production certificate. However, at its core the Top Cub is not a big departure from the PA-18, and it never became a great success.
CubCrafters has seen much better results with its Experimental and Light Sport Aircraft, the first of which was the Sport Cub with a 100 hp engine. The crown jewel of the fleet is the more advanced Carbon Cub, of which there are several models. The Carbon Cub SS production LSA has been the company’s best seller, with 303 delivered, representing nearly half the total CubCrafters production run of 634 airplanes and kits.
The company’s recent success justified the construction of two new 12,000-square-foot buildings at the south side of Yakima’s MacAllister Field (KYKM) where there is already a composite shop in operation. The headquarters and current production line are located on the northeast side of the field, and a total of 160 employees are on the CubCrafters payroll.
The success of the Carbon Cub spawned the idea for the XCub, which CubCrafters initially conceived as a certified version of the LSA with a greater useful load. While most companies announce their intent to build a certified airplane, then search for funding and sell deposits only to deliver the airplane about a decade later, the XCub was completely self-funded, and CubCrafters kept its little secret until certification was nigh.
By the time the XCub design was finalized, no more than about one-third of the XCub and Carbon Cub parts were the same. Rather, some of the new features will now trickle down to the Carbon Cub models. Unlike earlier CubCrafters airplanes, the ailerons in the XCub are controlled through pushrods, making control feel more direct and providing a swifter roll rate. However, CubCrafters stuck with cables for controlling the elevator and rudder. A light, fingertip grip is all that is required around the stick, yet the controls are by no means sloppy. It feels just right, as any good Cub descendant should. The same is true for the rudder input. The angle of the pedals provides a comfortable position for the feet, and there is plenty of rudder authority. Unlike older Cubs, which have heel brakes, the brakes are on top of the pedals.
In addition to the pushrods, CubCrafters decided to modify the aileron design. The upper and lower surfaces of the ailerons are now aerodynamically shaped, and the cove was increased to maximize performance.
Another big modification that makes the XCub easy to spot is a composite dorsal fin that protrudes from the horizontal stabilizer forward along the fabric-covered fuselage. The fin provides improved directional stability at higher speeds. In addition, the horizontal stabilizer has a new leading edge, also composite, which improves airflow and stability.
The door-and-window section is much improved, providing a better seal and making it easy to close the cabin with one hand. There are two handles to secure the window section, but they work together so there is no need for a solo pilot to twist around to access the rear handle.
For my flight, we had a light load — less than a third of a tank of fuel and about 320 pounds worth of people for a total weight of around 1,760 pounds, well below the 2,300-pound max gross weight. The airplane I flew, Serial No. 3, had an empty weight of 1,310 pounds, providing a useful load of nearly 1,000 pounds, even with luxuries such as leather seats and 26-inch Tundra tires. Subsequent serial numbers are expected to be even lighter.
For pilots who want to push the envelope, the takeoff distance can become ridiculously short. Conducting a fairly benign short field departure, my estimated ground roll was still less than 200 feet. Per Lervold’s recommendation, I put in two notches of flaps, held the brakes, added full power, released the brakes, and held the stick about an inch aft of neutral until the airplane smoothly released off the pavement of Runway 27 at KYKM.
In the grass at Tieton State Airport, we played with the more typical takeoff technique of using one notch of flaps and pushing forward on the stick to roll only on the main wheels for a few seconds before lifting off. Both techniques worked great in the XCub, though the two-notch, aft-stick method appeared to be more effective for getting off the ground in a hurry.
Initially targeting the best angle of climb speed, 51 knots, we saw 1,100 fpm. At 70 knots we saw 1,200 fpm, and by the time we reached the departure end of the 7,604-foot-long runway at Yakima, we were already at 1,500 feet agl.
The XCub’s wing, basically identical to the airfoil of the Piper Super Cub, gives the airplane exceptional flight characteristics. I had fun playing around at speeds way below the indicated 46 mph stall. Working with power and pitch, I had the airspeed indicator pointing at zero without falling out of the sky. The stall is, as would be expected, very benign.
Playing around with steep turns showed me how beautifully balanced the XCub is and how quickly it can turn to get out of a tight spot, if necessary. XCub fits in the utility category with a maximum load of positive 4.4 G and negative 1.76 G. Like the furry mammal from which the original name was derived, this Cub is a winner in the backcountry.
In addition to its flight characteristics, the XCub brings a lot more versatility than its predecessors. If you want to travel somewhere, you don’t need to study every inch of the surface below as you would flying in Piper’s old Cubs. The J-3 Cubs I’ve flown pretty much climb, cruise and land at around the same speed. You would be hard-pressed to reach 100 mph in cruise. The Super Cub and its derivatives certainly brought more capability, but the XCub really is a new species with speeds that make it a realistic traveling airplane.
There is no true airspeed indication on the Garmin Aera 796 unit, but the groundspeed was right in front of me. At 6,500 feet and an economy cruise power of 21 inches of manifold pressure and 2,100 rpm, we flew 106 mph into the wind and 133 mph in the opposite direction for an average of 120 mph (105 knots), with the 26-inch Goodyear Tundra tires providing a lot of parasite drag. At that power setting, we were burning 6.8 gph, according to the Electronics International CGR-30P engine-monitor gauge. With a full load of fuel, we could have flown for more than six hours with a safe reserve and covered about 800 miles.
At a power setting of 23 inHg and 2,450 rpm, we burned 11 gph for a groundspeed of 130 mph into the wind, which would have made our TAS approximately 144 mph. That may not be lightning fast but should be considered terrific for a light tailwheel airplane with fat tires. With regular wheels, the top cruise speed for the XCub is published at 149 mph (129 knots). However, CubCrafters’ marketing manager, John Whitish, says the top speed in Serial No. 4, which is flying with regular tires, has demonstrated 153 mph at 4,500 feet in level flight.
With calm surface winds, we approached Tieton’s runway from both directions, and I had an opportunity to do several three-point and wheel landings. The XCub I flew had spring gear, which helped make my landings smooth for the most part, though some were on the firm side, and one I would characterize as a “kangaroo.” The quest for the perfect tailwheel landing is one I have always cherished.
As much as I loved flying the XCub, nothing in life — and certainly not in aviation — is perfect, and I found a couple of peculiarities in the design.
One thing that takes a bit of getting used to is the flap mechanism. Flaps are adjusted with a large handle in the upper left corner of the cockpit. The location of the handle makes it easy to access, and each flap setting is in a notch to prevent slippage. To get the first flap in position, you have to push slightly forward before grabbing the trigger to release the latch. For the second and third notches, however, you need to pull back before the handle will release. It took a few approaches to get used to the opposite action.
The new slotted flap design allows for air from the underside of the wing to flow over the flap surface. With the additional lift, the pitch increases a great deal with each flap setting. Lervold advised me to fly with some nose-down trim before adding flaps. Without using that technique, retrimming was definitely required after each notch to prevent going too slow.
There is no question that the flaps do what they were designed to do — provide the additional lift required at slow speeds for the airplane to become a terrific backcountry machine.
The control stick’s position and grip were in just the right ergonomic position for my hand. In the Carbon Cub, I would grab the stick below the grip, which didn’t necessarily bother me, but in the XCub, I could rest my arm on my leg while accessing the handle in comfort. I would, however, have preferred the electric trim switch to be mounted at an angle rather than straight up and down. I had to change my hand’s position to push it.
The XCub’s panel currently offers only basic VFR capabilities with round gauges for airspeed and altitude; a tiny but terrific Trig TY91 comm radio, which allows you to monitor two frequencies simultaneously; and a Garmin Aera 796 GPS system. For pilots who are used to a landscape of glass gadgets, this may seem insufficient. However, the panel provides ample capability for VFR cross-country flight, and its simplicity reduces the cost and empty weight.
With the stellar useful load, you can fill the baggage compartments with a total of 230 pounds worth of gear. There is a decent amount of space, and you can access the baggage through a separate access door, which is nice.
Another area where the XCub excels is its beautifully styled cockpit. It has a dozen cleverly placed compartments for notepads, pens, wallets and more. There are also two cup holders, two 12-volt ports and four USB ports logically placed around the cockpit.
The first 20 XCubs will depart Yakima for $297,500. These airplanes will essentially be identical with the same paint scheme and leather interior, the only differences being the landing-gear, tire and Garmin ADS-B options. The XCub is designed to land on pavement, dirt, grass, water and, eventually, snow, though the initial certification does not include skis. Customers have a choice of either spring or standard gear for the same price. Two float options, one amphibious ($69,995) and one straight seaplane floats ($44,995), both built by Whipline, are also available. Every XCub rolls out of the factory the same, so the landing gear configuration can easily be modified later.
With as much as 1,088 pounds of useful load, a top speed around 150 mph, stellar climb performance and a slew of creature comforts prior Cub owners could only dream of, the XCub is a terrific and versatile airplane, and a modern tribute to Piper’s successful Cub series. Comparing the XCub to a J-3 would be like comparing a ferocious brown bear to a koala. The grizzly would be the turbine version, though we’re not likely to meet that species any time soon.
See more photos of the XCub. Photo Gallery