skyranger opener
Commonwealth Skyranger 185

We Fly a Little known Classic
Text and Photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, 1983

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 delivery.

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 the ground.
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.

For lots more pilot reports like this one go to PILOT REPORTS