From the Cockpit Part 36: Super Decathlon

Ryan Flies


Editor’s Note: This is part 36 of an ongoing series documenting the flights of active-duty US Navy Pilot Ryan Rankin on his journey to fly 52 planes in 52 weeks through the year 2017.

Celebrating a reunion of sorts, Rankin takes to the skies in a Super Decathlon—the first plane he flew while working towards his tailwheel endorsement. An evolution of sorts from the Aeronca Champ and Citabria that he flew earlier this year, the Super Decathlon maintains a special place on Rankin’s personal list of favorite aircraft, not only due to nostalgia, but the aircraft’s amazing versatility—and at an affordable price. “Some airplanes are good at doing one or two things,” he says. “[The Super Decathlon] is just good all-around.”

Entering production in 1970, but still being produced today, the Super Decathlon presents a satisfying blend of the old and the new. With a vintage feel in the fabric-covered wings and tailwheel configuration, the cockpit still comes equipped with all the gizmos, doodads and readouts that modern pilots want at their fingertips. At this point, the craft feels much like a Citabria, says Rankin, “but when you start flying, you recognize it’s a very different airplane.”

A multi-faceted machine, the Super Decathlon would be as at home landing in a grassy strip for a weekend camping as it would runway-hopping from coast to coast or spinning and wheeling through the sky. Equipped with inverted fuel and oil tanks, the Super Decathlon also boasts inverted flying capability. Because most aircraft engines are gravity-fed, with fuel in the wings and the engine a bit lower, flying upside down chokes off fuel and oil and becomes impossible. As additional tanks attached lower than the engine, inverted tanks allow for inverted flight, though usually for a rather limited time.

Though aerobatics were out of the question this time (no parachutes), Rankin has had the chance to test out the Super Decathlon’s wild side before, executing loops, spins, barrel rolls, aileron rolls and even half Cuban eights with ease. Built to with stand both positive and negative Gs, the Super Decathlon is also capable of something called an outside aerobatic maneuver, where the pilot loops the plane not by pulling back on the stick, ascending and inverting, but by pushing the stick, diving and inverting underneath the previous position. A bit trickier and stressful, the blood rushes to the pilot’s head instead of their feet. Rankin calls this “uncomfortable.”

And to make the flight even more of a nostalgia trip, Rankin flew up with none other than Jimbo Wilson, the man who first taught Rankin to fly a tailwheel. A former Marine who’s flown everything from Mustangs to Harriers (and ejected twice), “he’s got more stories than you have days in your life.” Great at a barbecue, but merciless in the cockpit, Wilson doesn’t shy away from letting his pilots know when they’re messing up, but that’s what Rankin appreciates. “I think I did OK,” he says with a bit of a laugh. “At least, he didn’t yell at me.”

For more about the flight in Rankin's own words and a video of the flight, follow the link below.

Pictured: Ryan Rankin and Jimbo Wilson fly the Super Decathlon. Photo courtesy of Ryan Rankin.

Ryan Flies

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