If you can drive a car...
First Impressions: The first time a pilot flies an airplane without rudder pedals can be an awkward experience, but I came away impressed with the simple, yet effective way the Ercoupe flies! This little two-seater is engineered to be extremely easy to fly and, at one time, could be ordered from department store catalogues! If you can drive a car, you can fly an Ercoupe - at least that’s how it was marketed!
Background: The Ercoupe was designed from the ground up not only to be simple to fly, but also extremely safe. Stalls and spins have always been a danger to inexperienced pilots, so Fred Weick, ERCO’s (Engineering and Research Corporation) chief engineer, designed a plane that will neither stall or spin, yet remain affordable for the average middle class family. Indeed, in the late 40s, you could actually buy an Ercoupe from many department stores across the U.S. and have it delivered to your local airport. One such store had an assembled Ercoupe in a showroom on the 6th floor! The prototype, the ERCO 310, first flew in 1937 and the last production model based on the Ercoupe design, the Mooney M-10, rolled off the assembly line in 1970. Over thirty years of production testifies to the venerability of the design itself, although the manufacturer of the design, however, changed hands many over those years. ERCO, Aeronca, Sanders, Univair, Forney, Air Products, Alon, and Mooney have all owned the type certificate. Interestingly, in 1941, the Ercoupe was the first American aircraft to perform a Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO). Then, with the propellor removed, U.S. Army Captain Homer Boushey became the first American to fly a completely rocket-powered aircraft.
Design Characteristics: The Ercoupe 415-D is a low-wing, two-seat (side-by-side) monoplane. It is an out-of-the-box design easily recognizable by its twin “guitar pick” shaped tails, tricycle landing gear, and bubble canopy. So, the biggest question is how does it work? Simply put, the ailerons, rudders, and nosewheel are synchronized in a genius manner. When the pilot turns the yoke, all three move together with the result being a coordinated turn. Part of the design “magic” can be attributed to the small, twin rudders located outside of the propeller slipstream which minimizes P-factor. The ailerons span nearly the entire length of the wing and they travel more up than down, reducing the effects of adverse yaw. In a turn, only the inside rudder turns. The next important question is, “how does it land in crosswinds?” More on that later!
Naturally, many design alterations were made throughout the years as the type certificate changed hands. There has also been many STCs, but a lot Ercoupe “purists” consider the ERCO “rudder pedal-less” 415 models to be the quintessential design. This all-aluminum, two-place monoplane has some very distinctive design features and each feature has a unique purpose. The twin tails keep the rudders out of the slip stream and minimize the yaw effects of the prop wash. The large wing dihedral angle assists in keeping roll stability, while the long ailerons give directional control at low indicated airspeeds. A main contributor to the “stall-proof” feature of the Ercoupe 415-D, is the small elevator and its limited travel (9 degrees up), which results in a loss of elevator authority before the wings reach the critical angle of attack.
Powerplant: The 415-D came standard with a 75 horsepower Continental C-75 and an increased max gross weight of 1,400 lbs. Landing at max gross weight with very limited elevator “up-travel” results in limited flare and makes the round-out airspeed and timing critical for a good landing, which we all want. Some 415-D models had the 9 degree up travel mechanical limitation removed and the gross weight lowered to the previous 415-C weight of 1,260 lbs. The designation of this model was the 415-CD and was only produced in the latter months of 1947. Of note, only the 415-C and 415-CD models qualify as Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) due to their lower max gross weights.
Ergonomics: The cockpit, with its downward-sliding side windows, resembles that of a P-38. The airplane can be flown with the windows in any position which, in my opinion, is one of its best features. Stepping from the wing into the cockpit is easy. Just slide on in and adjust the rudder pedals. Oh wait…there aren’t any! The baggage compartment is a canvas drop-down bag behind the seat and has a vinyl button-down cover. This, combined with the hat rack, provides ample space for overnight luggage. One advantage of not having rudder pedals is the additional legroom! The only foot pedal is the brake pedal on the pilot’s side. The control yokes feel a bit close and give you the feeling of driving a go-cart, but it quickly becomes comfortable and even feels right.
Start/Taxi/Takeoff: After strapping in, turn the battery on, put your foot on the brake pedal and crank the C-75 to life. When ready for taxi, just release the brake, add a little throttle and turn the yoke. If it sounds like driving your car, that’s because it is! I guarantee you’ll find yourself pushing your feet into the floorboard while trying to make a turn, just as I did. After runup, check for landing traffic, steer onto the runway, and add full-throttle. Even with crosswinds, just steer down the runway centerline with the yoke.
Flight Characteristics: The Ercoupe really does behave like a flying car, both on the ground and in the air! With the sliding windows down, you can cruise around quite comfortably with your elbow hanging out the window, just like a Sunday afternoon drive. At 2400 rpm, the 415-D indicates approximately 103 miles per hour with the windows open, while only burning about 3.5 gallons per hour. With the windows closed, expect another 5 mph for cruise.
One of the most impressive flight characteristics of the Ercoupe is its ability to maintain coordinated flight without rudder pedals. Dutch rolls prove the ball will stay in the middle of the turn and slip indicator. In the words of Ercoupe owner, Arnie Schweer, “if you want to go out and do stalls, this isn’t the plane for you.” I decided to try some anyway. Attempting a power-on stall, I applied full power and gradually eased back until achieving approximately 26 degrees nose up. The airspeed settled out at 47 mph indicated and the plane actually indicated a slight positive rate of climb with only one occupant onboard…but alas, no stall. The power-off stall results in no stall whatsoever and the Ercoupe simply “mushes” down, while remaining fully controllable. Arnie was right.
Landing Characteristics: So, how does an Ercoupe land in crosswinds without rudder pedals? Simply put, it lands with the crab angle still in! Heavy duty, trailing-link landing gear can handle some pretty harsh punishment (just ask an F/A-18 pilot). The small vertical tail surfaces and fuselage cross-section minimize the weather-vaning effects of crosswinds and the resulting side-load from landing with a crab angle in is not the big of a deal as most might imagine – at least in this plane! Yes, you’ll feel a little bit of a side-load on touchdown, but the airplane will immediately self-correct and track straight down the runway.
While landing is certainly not difficult, there are some significant differences of which pilots must be made aware. Approach speed should be around 80 miles per hour. The pilot needs to understand that the same characteristics that make it nearly impossible to stall, give it limited flare capability. You do not want to be slow, with a high sink rate over the runway! Although touching down while crabbing feels awkward, the trailing-link landing gear will make you look good almost every time. Once the nose wheel is on the runway, the Ercoupe is done flying and turns back into a car for all intents and purposes.
Wrap-up: The more you understand how the Ercoupe’s flight controls work, the more impressed you’ll be impressed with the design. In 2008, Arizona native Jessica Cox became the first armless person in the world to become a licensed pilot. You guessed it – she did it in an Ercoupe! Both Jessica and Ercoupe’s design are to be admired for this accomplishment. If you get the opportunity, “fly” one on for size! And yes, when taking the controls, it’s ok to imagine that you’re flying a fork-tailed P-38!