American Legend Cub

We flew up to northeast Texas to fly this little Cub clone. What we discovered was a little J-3 knockoff that knocks the socks off old yeller.

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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 robert.goyer@bonniercorp.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.

As I wrote in the April issue, LSAs are approved under a self-certification system whereby the manufacturer affirms that it has met best industry standards. Those ASTM standards have been adopted by the industry, and they're rigorous and they cover the same ground as the FAA's Part 23 standards. The goal of the whole scheme is to make it easier, faster and a lot cheaper to "certify" LSAs than it is to get Part 23 airplanes approved all while maintaining "an equivalent level of safety." While it's still too early to tell how it's all going to work out, the early signs-a handful of good quality LSAs that apparently fly well-are promising.

Now, Sulphur Springs might seem an unlikely place to build airplanes, but it seems just perfect for this project. The sleepy East Texas town is home to a surprisingly nice airport, with a carefully manicured grass strip just south of the lake shore and a cozy seaplane harbor going in just around the corner. But it's in places like this around the country that the new light sport category is coming to life.

Though the company recently hired a production expert to create a lean manufacturing approach, the Legend factory is filled with good old-fashioned multi-taskers, workers, many of them highly skilled, who jump from one job to the next depending on what needs to be done.

The company makes the vast majority of the parts that go into the airplane, or subcontracts them out. The Cub-shaped wing itself is made from square tubing, milled spars and built-up sheet metal ribs. It's not cutting edge stuff by any stretch, though it seems it when compared with how J-3s are put together. Buyers get their choice of fabric finishes, a doped Stits Poly-Fiber finish that looks semi-dull Cub yellowy, or a super-shiny urethane Super Flite finish. Another traditional-versus-modern choice is between a vintage-looking cowling that leaves the cylinder heads exposed and a fully enclosed version. Also, a beautiful wood Sensenich prop is standard, though a metal Sensenich prop is an option, too.

The first Legend Cubs will ship with certified Continental O-200 engines. Continental is developing the data to support the LSA certification effort, so an ASTM LSA version of the engine will be available at some point, though there will be few if any differences. The O-200 is a great choice of engines, in part because of its great vintage sound. While offering a good deal more get-up-and-go than the original engines of the Cub clan, the new O-200 supports an electrical system. So you hand prop this Cub simply by using your hand to turn the key. American Legend is looking at offering a second engine, the 120-hp Jabiru six-cylinder opposed air-cooled engine, though it's still in the testing phase. So back to the question: "Why would anyone in their right mind spend $70,000, $80,000 or even $90,000 for a two-seat airplane that doesn't go very fast when they could buy a used airplane with four seats, or a vintage LSA-compliant airplane for much less?" It's a surprisingly complicated question. There are financial advantages to LSAs, sure. With training, you can maintain the airplane yourself, which could save you some money over time. Most LSAs are sold with a warranty, so if something goes wrong you're theoretically covered.

But the biggest reason is that some people just like flying new airplanes. In addition to that factory-new smell, even though it's a simple airplane, the American Legend Cub has a number of safety or quality-of-life improvements over the vintage hardware to which it pays homage. There are high quality seat belts, an electrical system and improved ignition, a wider, comfier cabin and better glass and fabric. But it all costs more, too. The whole conversation reminds me of the answer an Australian camel driver made when asked if camels were affordable. "Yes," he said, "if you've got the money, they are." Same for LSAs.

After lunch I went flying in the Cub with Tim Elliott. Getting into and out of the Legend Cub is just about as hard as it is in a regular Cub. Every Cub pilot has his own method but none of them make it easy. Even though it's just three inches wider, the cockpit did seem a lot roomier than a J-3's, but some of that effect might have had to do with the extra door. And the leather seats and redesigned structure make for a very pleasing environment.

After a short taxi, we lined up and took off from SLR's long paved strip, and headed off to the north to play a bit. Unfortunately, by the time we got flying the air was full of energy, and we got a wild ride in the turbulence. It's not what Cub flying is supposed to be about. I flew from the front seat, which is where I suspect a majority of owners will sit, as that is where the flight instruments are located. The Cub I flew was outfitted with the Dynon Avionics EFIS D-10A primary flight display. It's a very cool instrument, but I have to admit I had a hard time remembering to look at it. In Cubs and their ilk my scan is a bit different: A turning prop is primary for engine power, and a football field's worth of open space or so is primary for getting your butt safely back on the ground if the lack of prop movement indicates a problem in column "A." But if you accidentally found yourself with your head in the clouds, the little PFD would sure come in handy.

Like an actual Cub-actually better than an actual Cub-the American Legend Cub flies smoothly and with light and harmonious stick and rudder forces. It's not an airplane you need to boss around like a strong-willed dog; instead, you guide it around, directly but with finesse, like you handle a cat. That said, you'll never mistake this airplane for a Cessna 150 or Piper Cherokee.

Aerodynamically, there hasn't been much done to the Cub design-it retains the basic Clark Y airfoil of the original and lacks the aerodynamic niceties of more recent airplanes. So you still need to use your feet when you fly it, and you need to stay ahead of it. And just like a Cub, it flies well slowly but it won't fly fast at all. In my review of the Flight Designs CT, I wrote that it was about as fast as it could be without busting the upper limits of the LSA category's restrictions of 120 knots. The same is not true for the Legend Cub. With a cruise prop and a 100-hp engine, this airplane still has to dive to hit 100 mph. So if you're buying an airplane to travel in, pick a different one (which, by the way, is what Legends sales reps tell callers, too).

For trying some landings we came to our senses and used the grass strip just east of the main runway. On my first approach, since there are no flaps and I was a bit high, I slipped the airplane, though it didn't seem to help much. So I chopped the power, settled it in through the cut out in the trees at the threshold, held it off and let it land. (Is there any sweeter feeling in the world than letting a taildragger settle down in the grass on a warm summer afternoon?) As far as taildraggers go, this Cub is an easy landing airplane. After the fact it occurred to me why the slip wasn't very effective. With both doors wide open, the sideways airflow air that slows down a regular Cub flows right on through the Legend Cub. Elliott says it works much better if you close the door leading into the slip. Good idea.

In addition to the subject of cost, a question I get asked all the time about LSAs is, "Are they going to sell?" To be honest, I don't know, but, again, there are promising signs. Elliott says that American Legend has 25 orders for their Cub, and those orders are backed up by 10 percent non-refundable cash deposits. So those are serious buyers. The company expects that level of business to last, and it's ready to gear up to build as many as 100 airplanes in 2006.

A level of 100 airplanes a year would be quite a success, and the American Legend Cub is not an inexpensive airplane. At its base price configuration of $74,000, the airplane costs a lot more than even a nicely restored J-3, but with it the customer is getting things you simply can't retrofit into a vintage airplane.

As some have predicted, many of American Legend's buyers are more experienced pilots who are looking not for their first airplane but for one with a touch of nostalgia they can grow old with. Some of these customers have let their medical lapse and plan to fly their Cub as sport pilots, and some of them have sold conventional certified transportation airplanes, Bonanzas and the like, to make a place in the hangar for their new light sport aircraft.

Sounds like a great plan to me, and the Legend Cub seems to fit the bill perfectly.

The company's website is www.legend.aero.