Help me narrow down my choices for an Alaska Bush plane.

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akschu

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Apr 12, 2007
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Big Lake, Alaska
Group,

I am looking to build a kit plane and I know pretty much what I want it to do, but there are a few options so I need help narrowing it down.

Design goals:
Inexpensive to fly. I would like ~5gph.
Light weight. Fabric.
2 Seat side by side. (Much better for my wife)
Good useful load. (It may see a 1/4 of a moose or gear)
Good STOL performance.
Good documentation and support.
Decent cruse (yes I know it's a trade-off, but would like 100+ mph)
Option for floats.
Tail dragger.
Foldable wing so that I can store it in my garage if we have a wind storm.
Try to keep it in the $40k range complete.

From what I can tell this narrows the list down to aircraft using the 912s rotax, or jabiru. There is the kitfox, justaircraft, airdale, and rans (if I can convert to tail dragger).

Now I've talked to a lot of locals and am finding that airplanes are worse than cars when it comes to opinions. It's basically the ford/chevy argument but worse. In a single day I had someone tell me that the kitfox is junk and the justaircraft was a nice airplane, and someone else tell me the exact opposite.

The problem I'm running into is how to discern what to buy. Talking to people seems useless because everyone has an opinion formed by one airplane they saw 10 years ago.

To try and sort this out my wife surprised me with tickets to Oshkosh this year so I'll be able to look at everything, but even then I'm not sure what I'm looking at because this is my first airplane.

So the question is, which airplanes do you guys (being much more up to date on the market offerings) think about the airplanes mentioned, and do you have any suggestions on how to narrow it down and what to look for when I get to Oshkosh? Any thoughts on how to not go into overload with I get to Oshkosh?

Thanks for any help you can send.

schu
 

orion

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Interesting requirements you have but for the mission you're looking to fly, my personal recommendation would be to increase the capability of some of those options. First and foremost, flying in the bush, even moderately so, requires an airframe that encompasses good performance and a substantial amount of durability. The former is strictly a function of horsepower while the latter requires a well designed structure specifically configured for the mission at hand. Speaking as a designer and structural engineer, my own opinion is that none of the airplanes you list comes even close to meeting the variables of back-country flying.

And that especially applies to flying in Alaska. Given the variability of the Alaskan weather and unpredictability of your destination landing facilities, you will need to take a serious look at the airplanes' capabilities beyond just the pretty published numbers, most of which are generally somewhat optimistic anyway. Granted I am not the all-out authority on bush flying but I did spend a bit of time in Alaska doing engineering/design work for several customers who make their living flying the back-country. I have also designed several bush planes, a couple of which are now nearing their first flight. As such, I might say that I am at least well acquainted with the variables that you need to investigate before making your choice. I'll just list a few to think about:

Payload - this means yourself, your wife, the Alaskan mandatory survival gear, your fuel and what you plan to haul. A 1/4 moose can be more than 300 pounds and takes up quite a bit of floor space. Based on your basic statement you probably need an all up load capacity well in excess of 1,000 pounds (300 pounds pilot/passenger, ~50 pounds gear, 300 pounds or more of fuel and your moose). And keep in mind you generally don't want to be trading off payload, passenger or fuel - you really want to carry all at the same time.

Power - Assuming a 1,000 payload and an airframe with a durable structure, your gross weight might be in the range of 2,000 to 2,500 pounds. For back-country operations ideally you'd have a minimum capability of 1,000 fpm climb at gross. This will require much more displacement that what a Rotax or Jabiru can give you. My guess would be that you'd need at the very least least about 160 hp - more would be better (and thus the fuel number in the previous paragraph).

Materials - The airplane can consist of any number of material choices provided they were designed for the mission and service. As such, tube and fabric is fine but don't let that keep you from looking at aluminum or composite, although I don't think there are too many bush planes (if any) built of the latter.

Price - In aviation things always cost more than we'd like them to. Having a price goal is good but do keep flexible. You may regret not spending a bit more for increased capability.

So, based on that quick evaluation, I'd probably try to steer you in the direction of airplanes like the Murphy series, the Glasair Sportsman or the Bearhawk. No, none of them use the small engines (which I would recommend against) but all are very capable haulers with performance that will increase your chance of survival when out in the sticks.

Also, don't discount used certificated airframes. You can consider planes like the Stinson 108, the Maule or at a higher price, the Cessna 180. The first two you can often find right in your price range and of course you don't have to build them. And owning a certificated airplane is not that much more expensive than owning a kit. Yes, there is a bit of savings with the latter but not as much as many seem to think. The only drawback may be the folding wing thing - for that you just might need a bigger garage.
 

Rhino

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I don't know of any plane that will do all that on 5gph.

...don't let that keep you from looking at aluminum or composite, although I don't think there are too many bush planes (if any) built of the latter....

....I'd probably try to steer you in the direction of airplanes like the Murphy series, the Glasair Sportsman....
Isn't the Sportsman a composite? Of course, arguments vary widely on what constitutes a "bush plane", but you appear to be recommending something you just said may not exist. :gig:
 

orion

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It depends on how you define "composite". In our industry the term usually refers to an all glass or graphite structure.

Classically though, the term is better defined as a mix of structural methodologies, which the Sportsman is. So yes, technically you're right. The Sportsman has a glass fuselage surrounding a steel tube truss, with aluminum wings and tail surfaces.

In my statement though I was referring to an all laminate structure.

And you're right, back-country operations of any significance will not be conducted at 5 gph, unless of course you're idling on final for landing.
 

akschu

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Apr 12, 2007
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Location
Big Lake, Alaska
Wow,

What great replies. Lots of useful information. Since it is not looking like I'll get a plane to do everything I want let me narrow it down further and prioritize some of it. First of all I don't hunt and fish. I figure I might if I had a way to get beyond the crowds, and once I have a plane I'll have 100 friends that will want to hunt and fish out of it but it really isn't my highest priority.

For right now I need something affordable to build and fly that isn't a pile of junk. The reason why I was sticking with light airplanes with 100hp is because of the cost. I know that no airplane is cheap, but in Alaska they are even more expensive because of the insurance. It is so expensive that almost nobody insures their plane so I figured having 40k wrapped up into something that is easily repaired would be smarter than a larger airplane that can be more expensive to repair of fly. Buying a 180 in Alaska is $125k then if you borrow the money you need to spend another $1k a month to insure it. Because of the insurance problem the only real choices are to build out of pocket or swallow the price of the airplane whole. Now I don't have $100k floating around, and if I did, I'm not sure I would want to spend it all at once on something I don't intend to insure. This is why the smaller planes look good, you can build one out of pocket over a couple of years then if something happens to it, your not out as much money.

That said, a bearhawk may not be that much more money. I can build the fuse myself (I have a tig, mig, and gas welder) and pickup a set of quick build wings to cut down on the time. There are plenty of deals around on the 540 if I buy used or have someone local rebuild it, not to mention there are several bearhawk builders around.

I suppose the real question here is whether a small, inexpensive to operate airplane is better for me than a large, expensive airplane that will really open the doors to Alaska. One thing is for sure, I won't be able to fly the bearhawk as much with twice the fuel costs, though some people report 7gph with the 540 cut back to 50% power and claim it still performs decent.

Do you guys think it's possible to keep a bearhawk in the $40k-$50k range if I only buy the quick build wings?

schu
 

PTAirco

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How about the Zenith 801?

It's STOL abilities are great, payload around 1000 lbs. But it's main attraction to me is its structure - cheap, simple , rugged and easily repaired, and no fabric covering, so it can sit outside. Looking at the drawings I am fairly impressed; there is a huge difference between simple engineering and crude engineering and this one is almost elegant in its simplicity. I doubt you can build an airframe faster, easier and cheaper with the same capabilities. The Bearhawk seems very capable, but its structure is way more complex with a far higher parts count.
 
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orion

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Regarding the 801 - the feedback I got from several of my customers who were after a good bush plane has been mostly negative. While the short field capabilities are certainly there, virtually all felt that the airplane was way too small - there's a big difference between saying that you can carry a thousand pounds and actually having the room to do so. They felt that the rear seats were way too cramped and that there was really no appreciable baggage space. Most seemed to feel that the 801 would be a reasonable 2-place but calling it a four place was a bit of a stretch.

Furthermore, the fixed lift enhancing equipment that gives the airplane its great short field performance unfortunately causes a significant amount of drag in cruise. As such, having a top speed barely over 100mph on 180 hp seemed highly inefficient for anything except maybe very short hops.

Yes, the structural configuration of the 801 is simple but keep in mind that this type of aluminum assembly is not repairable in the field. One of the biggest concerns that most folks up in Alaska have is the moose or bear that decides to get better acquainted with your airframe. Experience shows that a fabric covered steel tube structure may get beat up but can usually be repaired in the field for a quick flight to a facility where better service can be utilized. In an aluminum airplane, once the aluminum skin and underlying members get bent out of shape, that's it - you're grounded and not going anywhere.

My general advice to folks who are after a good utility/bush plane is simply this: Don't skimp or compromise any more than you have to on the airplane's capabilities - you'll regret it the first time you'll need them. Furthermore, don't put so much emphasis on fuel costs. Yes, it does sound like a lot of fuel bucks burning a hole in your wallet but keep in mind that regardless of the type of airplane you get (kit or production), the fuel costs are the cheapest part of your airplane ownership experience.

Given your requirements, I'd give serious consideration to the Bearhawk on the kit side. I would also not rule out the production aircraft either. I know several organizations up there who swear by the Stinson 108 (they prefer them by a large margin over the SuperCubs or similar) and if you look around a bit, I'm sure you can find a flying airframe for less than your budget. I've also seen several older Maules selling for about the $40k mark.

In short, keep your options open and be honest with yourself as to your real needs. There's no quicker way to buyer's remorse in airplanes than getting less than what you really want.
 

akschu

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Location
Big Lake, Alaska
I've not seen a maule for anywhere near $40k, more like $50 and up, where are you seeing such good deals? Also, I've looked into the stinson, but most people I know shy away from them because they need a bit of runway and because the franklin engines can be expensive to work on.

I'm not dead set on hunting out of it, I don't even like hunting, but it seems to be a waist to build a plane that doesn't have some capacity in this area. Personally I would rather have something sporty like an RV7, but it's just not practical up here.

As far as the payload goes, yea, it would be nice to have a pickup-truck-in-the-air but the fact of the matter is that it's just too expensive for most people. For every rich guy with a 180 I know 3 guys with a cub that live with making a few trips to get the moose and hunters. If the insurance was reasonable then it would be different, people would take out a loan for the 180 and pay it off, but the $1k a month in insurance during the term of the loan keeps most people flying cub sized airplanes.

The 801 looks real interesting, given that my plane will only see true bush flying a small percent of the time, perhaps it's a good trade-off. It's slow and ugly, but looks like it would be economical to build and easy to fly. Should I want to hunt out of it, it will have more options than a cub, in the mean time I can put my family in it (I have two small children).

Orion, your comments are very useful, so please don't think I'm ignoring them, I just don't have $50k cash to fling at a plane, and I'm willing to live with something less than ideal because of it. I can get together $25k and start on the airframe and a year or two later fork out another $25 for the engine/avionics. So the small airplanes and the 801 will fit in my budget easily, but I don't know if I can make a bearhawk fit unless I stretch it to 3-4 years and build from plans. The wing alone is $18k shipped up here. Add $12k for a used mid time engine, and $20k for the materials, and another $5k for gages/radios and I'm looking at $55k and a LOT of work.

What about a pa-20 or a pa-22? I've never been in one but they can be bought for $25k around here. I've heard lots of bad things about them, but haven't formed my own opinions. Thoughts?
 

orion

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I actually forgot all about the Pipers - I know quite a few folks who started their flying in Pacers and Tri-Pacers. They especially like the stretched version. Although these early Pipers are a bit narrow on the inside (about 40") the individuals that I know that had or have these really like them and considering the bang-for-the-buck experience, these too could be a good consideration for you, especially if you could find one with a 320 or 360 in it.

Regarding the Cessna 180 - $1k per month in insurance? Wow!!!! I actually wanted one of these some time back and almost did buy one but my insurance company was going to ding me an extra $1k per year for the tail wheel, even though I already have experience in SuperCubs and in a Helio. So I can really understand not wanting to pay $1k per month. Ouch.

The two Maules for under $50k I saw were listed in GA News - one was a repo (high time O-540 - 235hp) in Eastern Washington (~$40k) and one was an older model with a high time 360 for about the same.

Regarding the Stinson, the individual I worked with (I did the engineering work on a fuselage modification for a large cargo door) some time back converted his Stinsons to Lycs. He indicated that his airplanes' performance was supposedly as good as the SuperCubs he operated while being able to carry quite a bit more cargo.
 

Rhino

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That said, a bearhawk may not be that much more money. I can build the fuse myself (I have a tig, mig, and gas welder) and pickup a set of quick build wings to cut down on the time. There are plenty of deals around on the 540 if I buy used or have someone local rebuild it, not to mention there are several bearhawk builders around.

I suppose the real question here is whether a small, inexpensive to operate airplane is better for me than a large, expensive airplane that will really open the doors to Alaska. One thing is for sure, I won't be able to fly the bearhawk as much with twice the fuel costs, though some people report 7gph with the 540 cut back to 50% power and claim it still performs decent.

Do you guys think it's possible to keep a bearhawk in the $40k-$50k range if I only buy the quick build wings?
Probably yes, as long as you don't go hog wild with avionics, instruments and the corinthian leather interior. Bearhawks also have component kits that you can build from, further lowering the costs, or you can build it strictly from plans. There is, for example, a basic wing kit that comes with the ribs and spars preformed and/or assembled, which is a nice compromise between scratch and quickbuild. There is also a basic fuselage kit that is prejigged, but still allows you to save cost by welding on the additional attachments.

You don't need a 540 for the Bearhawk. You can use a 360, and the useful load is actually about 200 lbs higher with it. The 540 will give you better short field capability (about 200 ft vs. about 500 ft), but the BH is still no slouch with a 360.
 
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akschu

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Big Lake, Alaska
I have my doubts about getting a stinson to perform like a cub, especially the very well setup 180hp cubs around here. But that doesn't really matter since I don't really need cub performance and I'm not willing to buy a stinson unless it already had a lycombing.

Anyway, I'll take a closer look at the Ch801 and the bearhawk.

As far as the pipers, I don't know what to think about them. They have great bang for the buck and there are plenty of them around, but people up here just hate on them for whatever reason. I've heard everything from "it glides like a well rounded brick", to "those are family killers."

I'm not sure how much of it is true, and if it was only 1 or 2 people I would ignore it, but EVERYONE says that about them so it's caused me to steer clear of them even though they are plainly the best bang for the buck for what I want to do.

schu
 

akschu

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Big Lake, Alaska
I just showed a picture of the CH801 to my wife and she was royally put off with how ugly it is. I told her function over form, to which she replied that must be some serious amounts of function to build an airplane that ugly.

The more I look at this the more the bearhawk makes sense, but it's going to cost a lot more time or money (or both).

schu
 
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PTAirco

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Regarding the uglyness of the 801 - I think the old fashioned Series 1,2 and 3 Land Rovers are beautiful, but I am not surprised some people don't see the aesthetic appeal in them. Their sheer funcionality and ruggedness has its own charm in my eye.

Re; field repairs : I don't see that a sheet metal structure like the 801 (mostly flat panels) should be any less repairable than a tube and fabric structure. Especially since it is built with pulled rivets. I feel by carrying some rivet pliers, rivets, tin snips, hand drill and few sq. feet of sheet metal (easily stored in the rear fuselage, taking up virtually zero room) you could extricate yourself quite easily out of a typical mishap. Leading edge dent? Bend a patch over it and pop rivet it until you get home. Hit a fallen log and bent a lower longeron? Same thing, form an angle in the sheet and rivet it over the bent section, perhaps a couple of layers even. Most field repairs can be carried out from the outside, which is a huge boon. Bending a lower longeron on a welded tube fuselage? I guess you could clamp and bind some kind of splint to it and cover up the resulting hole with duct tape, but I don't think that is any easier, nor half as efficient an emergency repair. I assume we're talking about flying it off some sandbank in the wilderness here, just to get home.) And carrying welding gear around in your plane is not practical.

Yes, the 801 is far from perfect but there are few 4 seat airplanes that I would look at as anything other than two seaters with a decent baggage compartment. If I had one, I'd leave out the rear seat completely.

I would agree with Orion that fuel costs should not be on top of your list, if you make gph your prime consideration, you limit everything and there is simply no airplane that could meet your requirements.


One of my pet design projects is a plane just like you're looking for, but it will be about 4 years before I will cut any metal for it. Picture a Helio Courier (cantilever wing)/Beaver/PilatusPorter/801/Bird Dog/Moose hybrid with four SUV-sized, removable doors, a totally unobstructed cabin with removable seats, long stroke landing gear, a roll-cage type of front fuselage (ok, I know, safety doesn't sell, but its strength enables me to have those giant doors openings), all metal covered and a modular type of structure where bent and broken bits can be unbolted and replaced entirely. The exact same design philosophy that inspired the above-mentioned early Land Rovers (and I am not talking about the current SUV-type junk they make now.) I have been picking the brains of bushpilots for years, here and abroad, especially in Africa and have come to the conclusion that sheer ruggedness is hard to find in airplanes. That ruggedness can only be achieved by extra weight and the trade off is my case is speed since it needs a big wing. And it needs power; 250 and up, preferably 300. Currently the engine of choice is a geared 350 Chevrolet of 300 HP, with the Rotator airboat PSRU. Even in Alaska Chevrolet parts should be easy to come by. A decent heating and A/C (if you fly a lot in hot climates) sytem comes as a useful by product of the automotive heritage. Not to bring up the endless debate about auto engines, but I am convinced the 350 geared Chevy is perfectly suited to this.
Stay tuned.

Kitfox-type of airplanes?
Cute and lovely to fly, ( I flew the Australian certifed version for a while) but their delicacy makes them useless for any serious purpose. Almost zero baggage capacity and no room. A child of four with a 4-ounce hammer can reduce it to scrap in fifteen minutes.
 
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orion

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I think the main problem with the 801 structure is that the skin and underlying light framework could easily be turned into crumpled tissue paper by your average moose or back-country mishap. The damage would be well beyond the scope of tin-snips and a few extra sheets of aluminum.

The benefit of the steel tube truss structure here is that the tubes are much more resistant to deformation or bending and based on input from one of my customers, when the moose did finally get done with his fuselage, he was able to beat the tubes straight, reinforce the weld cracks with a mix of wood (relatively straight branches or small tree trunks he was able to find and use)and stainless steel wire he carried, and fly back about an hour to a friends place that had a bit more equipment. On that mishap he also used the same materials to straighten and reinforce one of his wing struts. His wing skin was repaired with duct tape, as was the damaged tip. Surprisingly his horizontal and vertical received little or no damage at that instance.
 

windair

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Have you looked at the Pegazair 80 or 100? http://www.tapanee.com/index.html
It is based on a scaled down Helio Courier. The short field performance is outright remarkable. 175 foot takeoff roll with a 80hp rotax:ban: . The stall speed is 23mph. I seen a video of this plane and it is as close to helicopter performance as you can get with fixed wings. This is one serious bush plane that meets most of you original specs.
 

orion

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No significant payload, poor cruise and very, very light for the specified back-country operation. Let's face it, as was stated above, you're not going to fly in the bush of Alaska with an aircraft of the Kitfox category or any other type powered by a Rotax. Out of all the aircraft discussed, his biggest bang for the buck is going to be the Bearhawk.

Regarding the PA-20/22 negative comments, yes, they do have a reputation that is not the cleanest of the aviation community. However if you actually go back and look at the accidents, much can be attributed to the fact that people tried to fly these as Cubs or SuperCubs - with their shorter wings though, these airplanes required a bit more respect and pilot skill. I've met quite a few who have actually owned these and really loved them, especially considering their low cost and quite decent performance. I would probably equate the performance as a comparison between a Cherokee and a two place Grumman. If you try to fly the Grumman like a Cherokee you too will get into trouble but if you learn the quirks of the Grumman, there is a high probability that you'll become an ardent fan.

On the aluminum side, I would also have no problem recommending the Murphy - they are durable airplanes and even the two place aircraft, which can fly quite well on the smaller Lycs, has sufficient room and capability for hauling and camping.

The bottom line though is to pick something that will come close to your budget but more importantly, that will meet or exceed your back-country expectations. As I mentioned earlier, I know a lot of kit builders and/or aircraft owners who soon after their purchase had significant buyer's remorse because they bought less than they really wanted, even though the extra capability would not have been that much more dough.
 

orion

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Yep, I doubt any would be actually moose-proof. I think the trick is finding one that is at least a bit resistant and more importantly, repairable after the skirmish. It is one of the more interesting aspects of designing an airplane for the bush and one subject that isn't covered in the standard design curriculum. But you do get a bit of a feel for the requirements once you see the aftermath or a movie of the actual event. Personally I haven't see a movie of a moose doing its thing (just pictures and parts of the results) but I did see one of a bear wanting a ride - ouch.
 

Dana

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Another possibility is a Taylorcraft. Serviceable 65hp models can be had for under $20K and can get in and out of pretty small fields (350' ground roll, no wind), though they don't have much cargo capacity. The later F-series are 100hp; I don't know the going prices; the brand new ones are, I believe, in the $60K range. All great planes (I used to own a 1941 BC-12-65 and loved it). Many of the old taildraggers are being made again; the Legend Cub is getting popular and I believe somebody is making Aeroncas again as well.

-Dana

Drink wet cement, and get completely stoned!
 
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