What do you get when you cross a Taylorcraft with a Howard DGA and
then toss in a little B-17 for flavor and looks? Well one thing is
sure; you don't get another Cub-clone of the type that populated
the years directly preceding the big last shoot-out. What you do
.get is a two-place light airplane that doesn't know that it's "light" and
goes about its business like a heavyweight. This, of course, is both
good news and bad news.
The good news first: The Commonwealth Skyranger 185 is cheap, both
to buy and to own. Also, it's a great little keep-you-working-machine
that'll teach you more about flying than any of its peer group. After
running around at 4.5 gallons per hour your hand's, feet and sensory
perception will know as much as they would have learned in the cockpit
of an airplane of much larger dimension. Also it'll keep you awake
every second you're on the ground and won't Iet you forget
it's a taildragger. At the same time it's not about to
be such a bugger that it'll amputate your feet at the knees every time
you go flying. Also if you do make a mistake, or the eighty-five horse
Continental decides to let you down into the trees, a Commonwealth
will carve an airplane-size hole through wha-ever it hits and let
you exit the other side, disgruntled but in one piece.
And now for the bad news: The bad news affected the old Rearwin Company
more than it does us today. It seems- when Rearwin first certificated
the airplane in 1940, they stepped out of character, not only for their
own company but also for the industry in general. They offered the
Skyranger to the civilian pilot training program (CPT) but
the government wanted little to do with it. Rearwin's theory of building
a heavy airplane feel into a light airplane didn't go over too well
on some government levels. The exact reason may never be known but
in all probability the government wanted to stick with airplanes that
all flew the same: the Cubs, T-Crafts, and Interstates that they were
using. They may have felt that the Skyranger would have been like tossing
a shark in with goldfish. Whatever the reason, the Commonwealth Skyranger
holds the dubious distinction of being just about the only airplane
design offered for the CPT program that didn't make it. The up-shot
is that, before the shooting began, Rearwin built only fifty Skyrangers
and then diverted their production to more pressing war-time needs.
After the war, Rearwin geared up to start building airplanes for the
aviation boom that didn't come. Reportedly, they were stretched
out and sold the company to Commonwealth who proceeded to
take those airplanes which were already on the line, as well as a few
others and ultimately produced 250 post-war Skyrangers. Although the
survival on Commonwealth Skyrangers is probably lower than something
like a Cub or Taylorcraft. It's still a safe bet that at least half
of the 300 produced are still floating around and represent excellent
buys for anyone looking for a classic/vintage flying machine that's
a little "different."
Although several hundred
were built,you see very few Skyrangers any more.
FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS, WHENEVER I WENT TO visit the Mosers at Aero-Sport
in St. Augustine, I'd see this blue and white "thing" flitting
back and forth with this guy at the controls who seemed to be at peace
both with himself and the world. The airplane seemed to represent a
lot of that peacefulness. Periodically, Ed Hogan would walk
up and ask me if I'd like to go fly his Commonwealth. I'd fumble some
sort of answer and then I'd sidle up to Jim Moser, proprieter of the
place. and ask out of the corner of my mouth, "What's a Commonwealth?" That
went on for an embarrassing number of years because I seemed
to have formed some sort of mental block against the Commonwealth.
I had the damnedest time trying to remember its name. I seemed to lose
it somewhere in Porterfield/ Interstate/Rearwin/Commonwealth territory.
It wasn't until I took a break in the harried proceedings of learning
the ins and outs of a 260 horse S-2B Pitts, that I finally was able
to avail myself of Hogan's generous offer and meet the aerodynamic
character that is Commonwealth Skyranger.
Walking around the Skyranger it's easy to be fooled. With its big tail,
fabric covered two-place side-by-side fuselage and conventional configuration
there is nothing about it that hints that this being a different breed
of airplane. To anyone used to the T-Craft/Cub/Luscombe
genre of flying machines, it'd be very easy to hop into a Commonwealth
and find a few surprises waiting for you.
The commonality the Commonwealth has with its peers is carried right
up to the boarding process which is just that—a process. There
were damned few airplanes designed in those days that gave any thought
to getting into the airplane. Stuffing yourself through
the door the first few times presents variations on your basic breech
Once inside the machine there is no doubt that you are "inside
a machine." Most of the controls are conventional but
somehow bear a vaguely machine-like quality to them that may be indicative
of the airplane's original intended role as a CPT trainer. The fuel
shut-off, for instance, is a healthy chunk of square tubing with a "T" handle
welded across the end of it that pulls in and out the right side of
a panel. It moves at least six inches. The panel itself has the vibration
isolated center instrument cluster such as that generally
found on L-5 Stinsons, Stearmans, etc. Even when starting you find
that this was not designed with your average ninety-pound lady in mind
. . . pulling out the T-handle starter requires a healthy tug which
might find some folks putting their feet against the panel and pulling
with both hands. Again, this may be part of the you're-in-the-Army-now
syndrome although a few other airplanes do have this same T-handle
(arm breaker) starting system.
Once the 85 Continental is running (they also came with a 75 Continental
and 80 Franklin), you find the taxiing is straight forward for the
type (tail down, nose up, blind to the side and do-the-best-you-can).
There is no doubt that you've got a giant tail behind you, as the cross-wind
starts puffing on that broad surface. Because of that, one of the modifications
Hogan made in re-building the airplane was converting the Goodyear
not-quite brakes to Cleveland almost-brakes. He says it wasn't worth
all that effort but, in a heavy cross-wind, a stab of brakes now and
then is necessary to keep it headed where you want to. Otherwise it
will weather-vane and put you crossways during taxi.
Takeoff could best be described as a bit of leisure excitement. With
eighty-five horses in the nose and a gross weight of 1,500 pounds acceleration
is modest. This is just as well because the excitement comes because
you have to work just a little bit harder than you expect to keep it
headed directly down the runway, especially if there is any cross-wind.
Here the plane is not a lunch eater but, like the Luscombe, its takeoff
is not a spectator sport; you have to get right in there and play the
game. Personally, I find it to be a much more satisfying type of feeling,
than say a Taylorcraft, which feels like a second cousin to a maple
seed in the same situation.
Leisurely is probably equally adequate in describing the climb of the
Commonwealth. Although I didn't time it, it would appear to be in the
neighborhood of 300 to 450 feet a minute. Which means during the summer
you find yourself looking for factory buildings and black fields to
provide you thermals to augment the climb performance. For all the
things the Skyranger 185 is, there is one thing it is definitely not—a
mountain flying airplane. Floats would just about cancel
out its climb with two people aboard.
The Skyranger is a fairly
heavy airplane for the 85 hp but does better than you'd expect .
CRUISING ALTITUDE IN AN AIRPLANE LIKE THE Commonwealth or Cub is
generally defined by common sense and how tall the trees are. You
don't go across country in an airplane like this at 4,000 feet; that
robs you of the pleasure, of inspecting the countryside that ambles
past at ninety-five miles an hour. In a Commonwealth, you sit there
at 1,500 feet, wrapped in a cocoon of chromemoly sewer pipe
and enjoy the trip. It's a fact that we too often think of a trip
as the destination only, forgetting that the process of going and
coming represents the act of traveling.
At ninety-five miles an hour, any weather delay or sightseeing diversion
will allow a competing Volkswagen to catch up and pass the
Commonwealth. But the Volkswagen sees only the white line and telephone
pole picket fence of the Great American Interstate. Even if Hogan
stays directly over the Volkswagen, down an interstate, he sees so
much more of the country from the vantage point of the Commonwealth.
From that point of view, a Commonwealth is a far superior cross-country
machine than a Bonanza or a 310 because Hogan has a chance to understand
and experience what it is he is crossing over and through. The
Bonanza driver sees the landscape as nothing more than a colorful
representation of his enroute charts that defines the margins between
VCRs and DMEs. Hogan is flying, the others are not!
Both times that I flew Hogan's toy I tried to do my professional
best at a stall series. The most important things I learned from
slowing the airplane down and converting it from an aerodynamic artifact
to a canvas covered brick was that, given the chance, the Commonwealth
could really fool you. Creep into the stall gently by holding the
nose slightly above the horizon and slowly bringing the stick back
to your gut, and you produce nothing more than a forward mush and
you find yourself in a vertical cross-country mode with the rate
of descent increasing rapidly while you have the stick at your gut.
However, force it into a stall with a little more firmness and you'll
find it treats you differently . . . she'll break off sharply but
gently in one direction or the other. Releasing the back pressure
and poking the Continental in the rear puts you back in flying condition.
Another thing the Commonwealth definitely is not is a floater. You'd
have to turn final at 1,000 feet to get yourself into a situation
where a slip would be needed to get down because, true to her other
high performance characteristics, the Skyranger likes to do its shot-put
imitation, especially when loaded to gross. A little high? You want
down? Just pull the throttle out, wait for the ground to come up
to where you want it then ease it back in as you begin to flare.
Hogan says he likes to see eighty miles an hour on final, which seems
about right and still allows enough speed to flare without much power.
Both times I flew the airplane we had a little crosswind and, heeding
Hogan's warning that it can "be a little squirrelly on pavement," I
put it on the main gear in a tail low wheel landing. Although I could
feel the little puffs of wind trying to push that big tail sideways,
plenty of aileron and rudder would keep her straight. As I planted
the mains firmly on the pavement I could feel the same gust
trying to weathervane me into the wind but a little judicious rudder
here and there was all that was required to keep her on the straight
and narrow. As the tail came down, I was pleased to see I still had
good forward visibility over the nose, because she sits so flat on
It's important to know that this particular Commonwealth stands
as a monument to what man can do if he truly wants to fly. When Hogan
bought the airplane in 1977, he planned on flying it for quite a
number of years but what he didn't anticipate was the damage done
to the wood and the wings by plugged drain holes or the tubing rust
which showed up at the rear of the fuselage. After flying it for
about six months, he decided it was time to put it into the hospital,
where he would be the complete staff when it came to nursing it back
to health. Single-handedly, under the watchful eye of an A&P,
he rebuilt the wings, eventually manufacturing quite a number of
built-up ribs with the semi-symmetrical airfoil. In the classic tale
of the antique/vintage restorer. he wound up tearing the airplane
down to the last nut and bolt, refinishing each as he went until
he brought it back up to its current pampered and pristine appearance.
Pristine she may be, pampered she is not. Ed has put over 900 hours
on the airplane running from place to place at ninety-five miles
an hour. He's taken it to Blakesburg a number of times and is the
only person we know who flies his airplane to Oshkosh but has never
managed to be there for the convention.
By-the-way, did we mention that Hogan didn't learn to fly until he
was fifty-one, the same age when he bought the airplane? It was one
of the things he always wanted to do and, under the obtuse encouragement
(they don't actually give you a hand, they show you how to grow by
using your own) of the troops at Aero-Sport, he was able to fulfill
his own dream as well as breathe life into a proud and distinctive
flying machine. Those adjectives apply to both plane and pilot.
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