PIREP: Bellanca 14-13 Cruisair

Budd Davisson, Air Progress Vintage Buyers Guide, 1989

We fly the Cardboard Constellation

What is it about wood that scares the living hell out of a large part of the US pilot population? Whatever gives those pilots the termite heebie geebies, it is also responsible for most of the controversy surrounding wooden-winged airplanes and especially the fabled line of Bellanca low-wingers.

Bellanca low-wing flying machines cleave a very defined line between pilots that clearly puts the aircraft into either a "love it" or "leave it" category. Most would just as soon forget Bellancas because they've heard all the tales about wood wings failing - spars made into sponge-like masses by alien organisms - and plywood punched into screen wire consistency by little boring things with green eyes and pointy teeth.

Let's set the record straight right up front: The most accurate information available indicates only four known in- flight failures of Bellanca wings. At least one of those had to do with aerobatics in extreme turbulence. All failures were in the later Viking series which were heavier and much faster than the early airplanes. Despite these statistics, pilots still are much more willing to climb into a V-tailed doctor/lawyer killer than a Bellanca. This makes little sense since the Bonanza has staggering wing failure statistics. The real shame is that by avoiding Bellanca low-wingers, a pilot is depriving himself of one of aeronautica's greatest pleasures.

To put it simply: Regardless of the age, model or lineage, Bellanca airplanes are among the best flying, best feeling cross- country airplanes ever built. That's only one man's opinion so I don't want a deluge of mail from Navion/Mooney/Bonanza/Comanche/Wilga/Storch owners. I also prefer redheads over blondes and Brownings over Berettas.

While we're at it, let's get another fact out of the way: Yes, wood deteriorates and that bit of space-age wisdom is about two notches below common sense. A lot of Bellanca wood has deteriorated because common sense in storing aircraft is not always exercised during that middle part of an airplane's life span when the craft is so obsolete it doesn't qualify for "used" category and hasn't yet made "classic" status. Put wood out in the elements and it will, eventually, be much the worse for the wear. Is aluminum that much different?

Bellanca, as a name, is nearly as old as aviation. Guiseppe was building some of the most useable airplanes in the world long before North American was born, before Bill Piper decided to get into the airplane business and before Clyde Cessna, Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech were anything other than Travel Air employees, Bellanca's Pacemaker and Skyrocket designs were working machines that may not have been as famous as many, but they were respected by those who used and flew them. We were well into the 1980s before the last Bellanca was retired in the Canadian/Alaskan bush. And none of them were much less than 60 years old!

Bellanca aircraft were always remarkably efficient when measured against the mission for which they were designed. The Pacemaker and Skyrocket could carry huge loads and were fairly fast for their size. So, it was only natural that when Guiseppe decided to get into the small, personal airplane market, his designs should be just as efficient. In 1937 he introduced models 14-07 and 14-09, referred to as the "Junior:' These were lithe little three-place low-wing machines that used a variety of engines, including the tiny LeBlond radial. With only 100-125 hp on tap the design was incredibly fast, giving over 1 mph per horsepower. The mile/per horsepower became a Bellanca trademark. Only approximately 50 Juniors were built before the war diverted Bellanca's attention to more pressing matters.

After the war a new design, the 14-13, was introduced and used either 150 or 165 hp Franklin six cylinder engines and was named the "Cruisair". Structurally, the plane was essentially the older Junior with numerous modifications, but the concept remained the same. The wing was a relatively high-aspect ratio, all-wood unit that utilized a special Bellanca airfoil. The landing gear retracted Seversky-style, meaning the gear folded straight back - leaving about half of the wheel exposed. The fuselage was traditional rag and tube which enveloped the passengers in a crash cage that looks as if it was designed specifically for running through trees. The foregoing is an accurate description of any and all Bellanca low-wing 14 series designs. The concept hasn't changed from the Junior to the 1988 Viking (yes, there are 1988 Vikings). It worked then and it works now.

With over 50 years of Bellancas to choose from, the choice was difficult but we decided to concentrate on the early - and still plentiful - 14-13 series. In researching this series, we learned lots about Bellancas in general and the accompanying sidebar is an attempt to furnish some chronological information about the development of the descendants of the 14-13.

The 14-13 Cruisair was Bellanca's big hammer for the aviation boom that was supposed to follow the war. The boom never happened but Bellanca (along with everybody else in aviation) didn't know that until they had run a bunch of airplanes out the door. In total something over 580 Cruisairs were built 1946-1949, Like today's Viking. they were essentially hand-crafted airplanes, Unlike the Cessnas and Beeches of the era (G17S not withstanding), the structure of the Cruisair didn't lend to mass production since tubing goes together with a pair of hands and a welding torch. The wings require hand fitting thousands of small parts. Fabric covering, of course, demands an enormous amount of elbow grease. These factors are the primary reason Cruisairs didn't totally flood the market. as did Cessnas and other airplanes that demanded less man-hours to build. In 1946 an amazing 35.000 plus airplanes were produced (compare that to 1987's 1000 odd machines) and only a small number were Bellancas.

With a 150 or 165 hp six cylinder Franklin, the Bellanca's were fast. The book cruise figures were 150 mph plus which was comparable to the higher-powered Cessna 195 or Beech Bonanza. Even more amazing was the airplane's maximum dive speed (they didn't call it Vne in those days) of 216 mph. That figure bespoke of strength far in excess of that required.

At 2150 pounds (an early Viking is 500-600 pounds heav-ier) the airplane had approximately 950 pounds useful load with two 20 gallon wing tanks. An optional 12 gallon aux tank could be fitted under the rear seat. but very few were so outfitted. Propeller options included the Sensenich fixed club or a controllable Sensenich that reportedly had such a bad reputation even the factory has tried to disown the design. The propeller of choice was usually the well-known Aeromatic automatic adjustable or, occasionally. a two-position variation of the Aeromatic.

The old Cruisair is one of those airplanes that has al-ways been there." There is something about its lines that don't really fit any era. Even when new, the Cruisair was " different" for lack of a better term. Today, the design obviously harkens back to an older era but it's hard to decide which era. The Bellanca is sleek, but the rectangular fuselage cross section gives corners that modern eyes don't normally associate with streamlining. But to those with a certain kind of eye. the Bellanca has always appeared just right.

I have one of those eyes. Probably the only reason I have never owned a triple-tail Bellanca (we used to call them "Cardboard Constellations," but now we have to explain the Constellation part to the younger generation), is I seldom use airplanes to go anywhere and I'm the only one in my family who flies. If I had any need at all for a cross-country airplane, the triple-tailed Bellanca would be on the top of the list.

Finding 14-13's isn't as easy as it used to be because they currently change hands much less frequently and owners have wised up to the secret of Bellanca longevity which is good hangar space. We no longer see Bellancas languishing around on back tie-down lines. Fortunately. there are two Bellancas hangared with Aero Sport in St. Augustine. Florida, and one of the owners, Bob Meadows, was more than accommodating. It seems Bel-lanca owners like nothing better than to show other pilots what they are missing! The Meadows Bellanca is essential-ly a dead-stock Cruisair. It hasn't received one of the many engine transplants so common (bigger Franklins with cons-tant speeds. Lycomings. etc.) and, with the exception of what appear to be later fiberglass wing fairings. it has none of the many speed kits available.

In walking around a taildragger Bellanca, the first thing that pilots say is "The gear looks bent" The axles are mount-ed on the gear legs in such a way that the tires tilt outward and look really awkward. The official explanation is the pro-totype had much less dihedral and proved too unstable so Bellanca increased the dihedral. This change put the tires at an angle to the ground but to have changed that angle would have required entirely new retracting geometry for the gear legs and the factory decided it wasn't worth the ef-fort and/or money. Forty years later, they still look bent.

The gear is a welded up affair that uses a really ingenious retraction and lock down system. A hand operated (an electric conversion is often done) screw jack pulls back on the top of a long over-center strut which pulls the gear back and up. The system is simplicity personified and easy to rig and inspect.

Another item often mentioned are the eyebrow cuffs on the cowling air inlets. They look like afterthoughts. which they were. While climbing, the Franklin apparently doesn't get enough cool-ing air with the stock cowling, so a set of air-catchers was designed and approved. They work, but they sure do look like somebody goofed somewhere along the line.

Boarding the airplane requires stepping over the spring loaded flap and leaning well forward to grab the edge of the door to stabilize yourself, since there is no hand hold. Many Bellancas have a small handhold cut-out in the top edge of the fuselage to help folks get in but Meadow's airplane didn't have this feature.

The door opening extends toward the middle of the fuselage. so contorting is cut to a minimum when stepping into the cabin. This is when folks generally make their sec-ond comment about Cruisairs. "Boy. it sure is cozy!" or some-thing like that is uttered and they are right. Speed on low horsepower means minimum drag and that means minimum frontal area and that's what the Cruisair has, at the expense of the front seat passengers. After you've been in the airplane a bit, you learn what to do with the arm that always seems to be entangled with the body in the other seat so the situation doesn't seem nearly so tight.

A common complaint about Cruisairs was there wasn't room in the instrument panel for radios. The panel really is narrow, but modern electronics have come to the rescue, replacing the old Narco Superhomers and later KX-150s with boxes that take up half the space. Outfitted with modern slimline radios and LORAN, about all that can be said about the panel is it looks "tidy:' The top of the original panel is quite low and gives excellent visibility and the new radios eliminate the need to build the often-seen "hump" that sticks up into the field of vision.

Meadows literally turned his airplane over to Carl Pas-carell and myself to go see what the airplane does and doesn't do and Carl and I went out to see what we could see.

The first thing I found on taxiing was the tailwheel would eventually point the airplane where it was supposed to be pointed, but on the ramp a touch of brake now and then was needed. Fortunately. visibility over the nose is 7 on a 1 to 10 scale. By stretching hard, it's even possible to see completely over the nose.

The seat is definitely not of the adjustable variety, the bottom frame being part of the fuselage tubing structure. It was, however situated just right for my very average five-ten frame. The brake pedal adjustment was a little out of whack, since it was hard to get full rudder without getting a little of the expander tube brakes into the act. This information was forwarded from Carl who was sitting in the left, so I could fly with my right hand. I had no brakes on my side, which meant requests for".. . give me a touch of right.' At the end of the runway a quick run-up indicated several things. The most important was that the 150 Franklin was running fine and carb heat was good for a nearly 200 rpm drop.. The mag check also showed the smoothness of a 6 cylinder and how little sound deadening there was in the cabin structure.

Having flown the airplane previously. Carl was rather insistent on two points prior to takeoff: The airplane would pull fairly hard to the left because of a gear geometry problem and most of the steering was going to come from the tail-wheel. That was another way of saying, as soon as the tail was up, expect the plane to turn left.

Pushing the throttle knob to the panel, the Franklin be-gan dragging us down the concrete while I concentrated on the edge of the runway. St. Augustine has these enormous wide, runways. I elected to use the right half only to have better visual references. As we leisurely accelerated, I pur-posely kept the tail nailed down until the slightest hint the airplane was getting light. Visibility to that point had been just fine and got positively wonderful when I gently hoist-ed the tail. A right crosswind was working to keep the air-plane headed dead straight and I made no effort to lift off. The Bellanca trundled ahead while I tried to keep the tail just a little low and it flew off somewhere around 60 mph.

Keeping the nose down until we had 85 mph on the clock, I waited until we had 300 feet before cranking the land-ing gear up. The handle is mounted on a covered bracket between the two pilots at the front edge of the seat. The polished wooden grip showed it had been used plenty and, as I grabbed it, I was mindful of holding the landing gear han-dle with one hand and the yoke with the other and I imag-ined doing a push-me pull-you routine that would result in a sawtoothed climb profile. I was counting as I cranked but there was no tendency to porpoise the nose.

As I counted into the teens, my shoulder reminded me how torn-up cartilage hated this kind of activity. By the twen-ties I told Carl I was going to name the article "Fly a Cruisair... if You're Man Enough!" By that time the gear was going over center and moving easier. It wasn't until the late thir-ties that the handle stopped moving. Finally! It took 37 turns to get the gear retracted. The screw jack mechanism is its own up-lock and the over-center arm locks it down. There is no internal gear position indicator. The pilot knows if the gear is up or down by looking at a half inch piece of painted metal sticking through the surface of the left wing root. The top is painted white, and that's all that's supposed to be showing if the gear is down and locked.

By this time, the airplane was moving away from the ground at about 700 fpm and not straining a bit. With some airplanes, it feels as if climbing is work but with that long wing, the Cruisair didn't even break a sweat.

Carl and I talked about this and we agreed that with some flying machines, it takes a long time in them to feel comfortable while others seem to fit together immediately. The Cruisair fit before it was even off the ground! For one thing, the smallish cockpit seemed to get larger as soon as we left the ground. More importantly, the input of the controls and the response of the airplane was perfectly matched. The Bellanca seemed to know how I wanted an airplane to feel. In a Cessna or a Piper there is no doubt you are manipulating a machine that flies. The mechanics of the machine are always there to remind the pilot that his thoughts and actions are translated by a bunch of levers and gears that eventually becomes flight. Not so the Bellanca.

We're talking real intangibles and possibly more than just a little personal taste.
Whatever it is, the Bellanca has something found in relatively few light airplanes. That "just right" feel-ing doesn't happen often - and almost never in four-place transportation machines. The ailerons are not only light, but response is immediate without being twitchy. The breakout forces exactly match the control forces so the lateral control is a syrupy continuum, that is the trademark of all Bellancas. When no rudder is used, there is an amazing lack of adverse yaw which would be expected with wings that long. And the rudder and elevator? They mix in so naturally with the ailerons that little thought is given to how they actually feel.

The Cruisair is a 40-year-old airplane and things like the gear retraction system and elevator trim reconfirm that age. The trim is mounted in the middle of the top of the wind-shield and faces the wrong way. . . the crank is pointed forward. This is even worse than the old Piper system. For-tunately the trim is reasonably powerful, so the second it is moved there is no doubt whether it is being moved cor-rectly. Exactly 50 percent of the time I was wrong.

At altitude, I pulled the carb heat and then the power, holding the nose just above the horizon. Slowly the speed bled off until I was sitting there with the yoke against my chest, the airspeed at 50-52 mph and the nose barely bob-bing up and down. The VSI read 700 fpm down. With flaps the speed was well under 50 mph. We didn't try stalls with the gear down because I didn't know how much shoulder was left.

Most of the time we were cruising around at 2400 rpm which gave an indicated of about 132 mph. We wanted to do some speed runs, but the St. Augustine area isn't exactly flush with cornfields and section lines so we had to content ourselves with some two-way runs down St. Augustine's 8000 ft runway The results were a little disappointing... 125 mph. In such a short distance, any changes in altitude or heading really affect the outcome.

At this point, a discussion of speed is important. The Bellanca Cruisair is an example of an airplane that gets most of its speed out of aerodynamics, not horsepower. The fuselage is carefully designed to be an airfoil that carries its own weight. The wings are long and made to be slippery.

In fact, the entire airframe is made to be slippery. Now, show me one 42-year-old beauty that doesn't have to work just a little to be slippery. Years take their toll. Wing skins are wavy. Fairings not tight. Maybe the wings aren't rigged just right. In this particular Cruisair, a little right aileron was need-ed to keep it headed straight. On most airplanes that would be no big deal, but on a low powered. made-to-be-clean air-frame like a Bellanca. the results are disastrous.

The boys who spend all their time tinkering with Bel-lancas say it takes only attention to detail and rigging to get book speed numbers. And then, there are a number of mods available that take even more advantage of the airframe design.

Done with our speed runs. I steeled myself for lower-ing the landing gear. Bringing the speed down to 100 mph, I started cranking and found putting the gear down was much, much easier than bringing it up. Something having to do with gravity, I suspect.

On a tight downwind, I reached way forward under the instrument panel and found the flap handle, pulling it back one notch for half flaps. The speed stabilized at 85 mph with practically no trim change. The same was true when full flaps was selected on final and the speed allowed to settle on 80 mph.

Approach was a simple matter of pointing the nose at the numbers and watching as the ground came up. Power off, we settled into a groove that shallowed out as I broke the glide and started feeling for the ground. In earlier land-ings Carl had found that with only two people on board the airplane ran out of elevator in a three point which put the Cruisair on the mains with the tail several inches up. I knew no way to prevent that, so I just concentrated on the edge of the runway. keeping the airplane straight and toying with the yoke to keep just dear of the runway. By this time the speed must have been (I was too busy to look) in the low 50s and everything was happening in slow motion. Then, I felt the yoke hit the stop and at the same time the gear squished on to the pavement. If the tailwheel wasn't touch-ing, I couldn't tell because the touchdown was so slow and soft, the plane just melted onto the runway.

We had reversed direction on the runway and were land-ing opposite to the direction we had taken off, so the wind was from the left. And I knew it was there. The wind and gear geometry called for nailing the right rudder against the floor, while the airplane ever so gently and slowly moved to the left. This was happening in slow, slow motion and I kept pleading for a little right brake from Carl, but he sat there heckling me for not being able to keep it straight. Even-tually, we coasted to a stop and that was that. The airplane is very low demand, as taildraggers go. Sort of like a fat Citabria, only easier.

Normally, I would have wanted to make a bunch more landings to get comfortable in the airplane, but something told me this wasn't necessary. Every single part of the flight had been under total control because the airplane had done everything I asked. If the pilot asks the Cruisair to do the right things, the flight will always be a good one. And the critical areas - such as takeoff and landing - happen at such slow speeds. the pilot doesn't need to be a Pitts type tail-dragger driver to stay ahead of the Cruisair.

When we were sitting around on Aero Sports' famed front porch (it might as well have score cards to hold up since everyone grades the landings so vehemently) Carl and I both had the same thoughts: The Cruisair airframe is a hell of a good place to begin building a totally useful. classic cross-country airplane. If completely restored, the Cruisair would give the pilot a classic machine that is every bit as useful as anything available. And with subtle, mostly invisible modifications, the Bellanca could be a real hummer. It does have some drawbacks, the condition of the wood wings be-ing one and the smallish cabin another. But those things are all livable. Sitting in the back seat. I found my head brushing the headliner but the unusual win-dows gave the best view I've ever seen in the back seat of an airplane.

This is not an every person's airplane. To a lot of pilots, it would be too classic and they wouldn't want to worry about the fabric and the wood. They might not like the tight cabin or the skill requirement - small though it may be -the tailwheel demands. These might overshadow the air-plane's delightful handling and its vintage charisma. For those pilots, there are plenty of the more traditional choices and that's understandable. Every pilot should fly a Bellan-ca, any Bellanca. at least once so they know what kind of choice they are making. They should know what they are missing. If they don't buy a Bellanca, however, that's okay because it leaves that many more of them for the rest of us! BD

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