1946 Aeronca 11AC Chief c/n 11AC-634
By Ron Wheeldon
FROM ISSUE 12 OF THE BARAGWANATH BAROMETER
My father, at the time an instructor in the SAAF, flew an “Aeronca” ZS-AOZ from Pretoria to East London in March 1940. I found out from Ray on Avcom that it became 1478 in SAAF service and I believe it was based at East London for a few years. This was a pre-war Aeronca 50 Chief that did not survive the war, but Rob Belling coincidentally did a painting of it and this was posted on Avcom www.avcom.co.za
Flying this aircraft on 21st March, 1940, my father landed at Cradock and recalled meeting two pre-teen boys on bicycles, sons of the local doctor, one of whom became the father of my wife many years later. They recall seeing this little silver aircraft at about that time, and the two old boys speaking together agreed that they had indeed met that day! The 21st of March is my birthday (also many years later) so it is one of those strange coincidences.
The older Ron Wheeldon (Mk1) went on to amass in excess of 30 000 flying hours (mainly on Vikings, Dakotas and Viscounts) in his flying career which finally ended with 44 Squadron in 1984, when, having just received the Chief of the Defence Force’s, he was retired for turning 65. I thought it would be a good idea to get him flying again and bought an Aeronca Chief “project” in the USA in order to replicate ZS-AOZ. It turned out that, as a 11AC Chief, it is a different aircraft really to the pre-war Chiefs, although they do look quite similar, the lower cowling being the real giveaway.
Unfortunately Mk1 passed on at the end of 2004 and the planned restoration had not progressed. I then spent some time trying to sell it, but none of the “buyers” was actually prepared to pay for it. Then Chris van Hoof went and restored his Chief and it appeared that the estimable Theuns Van Vuuren, having done that aircraft, could equally repair mine.
So it is that N9004E, tossed on its back by a windstorm in Arizona in 1971, and having had no less than 4 potential restorers in the years since – none of whom went on with it – has finally been x-rayed, carefully repaired and now recovered by Theuns in silver. Theuns has begun final assembly in hangar 22 at Barra and she finally looks like an aircraft again. As usual, the budget is ancient history and the cost of the rebuild will probably exceed the market value by a large margin, this including the acquisition of a C-85 to replace the original A-65 motor, but I look forward to many years’ happy flying in this special aircraft – I understand that Chris LOVES his!
The Aeroncas have never had the iconic appeal of the Piper J-3 Cub, but it does seem that they are better performers for the same power and the Chief is an attractive machine.
FROM ISSUE 16 OF THE BARAGWANATH BAROMETER
A few issues ago the existence of my Chief at Barra was discussed in the Barometer and it is possibly time for an update for those who are interested. Theuns Van Vuuren has been working hard on getting her finished in the opening weeks of 2013 and the good news is that progress is now very swift and it looks like she might take to the air in the first half of the year. Apparently many in the USA call Aeroncas “airknockers” which sound suitably odd to appeal to me.
This has been a comprehensive rebuild, starting with the NDT inspection of the bare airframe, rebuild of the wing structure (one new spar, several new ribs), new lift struts, new windscreen, complete re-cover, upgrade to C-85 Continental, new floor boards, new trim tab, new tail wheel and a whole lot of refurbishing. It was great helping Theuns fit the new windscreen which really went a long way toward making it look like an aircraft again.
As the first flight slowly draws into view, it has been interesting finding out more about these relatively little known aircraft, apparently there are presently only 4 in South Africa (so half of them Are at Bara!). They are part of the crop of 65 hp affordable tail draggers which were made available immediately after World War 2 and mainly powered by the ubiquitous Continental A-65. The Chief in 1946 was a refinement of the pre-war Chief and aimed at giving car like comfort and seating in an aircraft. There were a number of pre-war Chiefs in South Africa which were used in the SAAF and one distinction the Chief can claim is that it was the first light aircraft to fly non-stop from Los Angeles to New York City. Nevertheless, the tandem Champ was always the more popular (like the Piper J-3 Cub was more popular than the side by side J-4) outselling the Chief by about 8 to 1 and has been developed into the Citabria and Bellanca Decathlon and Scout, while the Chief, structurally virtually identical, did not prosper, going out of production in 1949.
As a J-3 Cub owner, I have been fascinated as to why the Cub has become the icon of this genus of aircraft. Certainly, it is pleasant to fly and it is great to fly with the door open on a summer’s evening wafting along at 300’ agl, but flying the Cub any distance is trying to say the least. It is slow and the maximum baggage capacity is 20 lbs, if both crew are fairly light, if not…well, toothbrush and spare underwear is about capacity. The Chief has a 70 lb baggage allowance and comes standard with an 8 gallon auxiliary tank. It is comfortable with reasonable leg room and cruises at a respectable 83 knots, at least 10 knots faster than the J-3. On the other hand it is quite claustrophobic with its car doors and lack of upward vision. I suppose the Chief, the J-4, The Taylorcraft and the Luscombe are really victims of the success of the Cessna 150 with its nosewheel and all metal construction which made it a better practical aircraft than they could ever be. With “practical” sewn up, all that was left was “charm”, and somehow the Cub has always had that je ne sais quoi which has made it more charming.
The charm of the Chief, now, is that it is different.