Ode to a ‘Coupe

If you’re at all like me, you spend a fair bit of time dream-scrolling on sites like Barnstormers or Trade-a-Plane, imagining all the adventures you could have if only you had the wherewithal or technical know-how to properly feed and care for your own plane.  And if you’re really like me, it’s maybe more time than is strictly “healthy,” but that’s another topic entirely.

The point is, that’s how I recently found a posting for one of those airplane raffles.  You know the kind: they’re only selling 4,000 tickets, each ticket is $50 (or buy 3 for only $125!), the raffle happens on a set date or when all tickets have been sold, your odds of winning are literally a million times better than hitting the lottery, yada, yada, yada.  Well, this particular raffle got the nostalgia juices flowing, because the grand prize was a 1946 Erco Ercoupe 415-C.

The reason this caught my eye is that years ago, while I was working in Delaware, I had the pleasure of renting an Ercoupe a few times.  A coworker of mine – let’s call him Paul (because that’s his name) – was toying with the idea of getting his sport pilot license.  He’d found that there happened to be an airport right across the Maryland border – 58M, then known as Cecil County Airport, but now called Claremont – which had a flight school that offered sport pilot training, so we went to check it out.

A view of Cecil County Airport's FBO from the Ercoupe's cockpit.
Cecil Co. FBO from the ramp

Aside from a Quickie hanging from the ceiling of the FBO lobby, everything seemed on the up-and-up.  But Paul ended up shying away from training there.  N415WE – the 1946 Ercoupe that qualified for light sport duty – may have been what scared him off.  But not me.  That little thing was cute as a button and I got curious right away.  I scheduled an intro flight right then and there, and when that intro came, I found that the plane was exactly what I’d expected and hoped for: forgiving, safe, and quirky.

To address why those are the characteristics that come to mind, you have to start with the fact that Ercoupes were designed to be the safest airplanes available at the time.  For starters, they’re somehow engineered so that stalls are a complete non-event.  In fact, my instructor – the owner of the plane himself – recommended intentionally stalling if you’re high on final and need to lose altitude quickly.  The stall characteristics are that benign and recovery really is that easy.  I never resorted to that technique, but talk about forgiving!

The tail of N415WE, the Ercoupe in the story.
One of the most distinctive pieces of an Ercoupe.

In addition, at the time ‘Coupes were being designed, a lot of pilots were buying the proverbial farm because they’d gotten themselves into spins and couldn’t recover.  So “safest airplane around” also meant “un-spinnable.”  Since the easiest way to avoid spins is to never be uncoordinated, these little planes had their rudders – yep, both of them – and ailerons interconnected.  Turn the yoke and you apply roll and yaw at the same time, so spin entry is nigh-impossible.  In fact, Ercoupes are placarded with “This aircraft is characteristically incapable of spinning.”  Those aforementioned benign stalls don’t hurt, either.

So those are the “forgiving” and “safe” aspects of the plane’s design.  Now we come to the quirky: the upshot of interconnecting the roll and yaw controls means these planes had no need for rudder pedals when they rolled off the assembly lines.  You read that right: no rudder pedals.  They did have a brake pedal in some models, but that was all you got down there on the floorboards.  And without pedals to steer the thing on the ground, the nosewheel steering also had to be linked into the control wheel.  So steering while taxiing is just like steering an actual taxi.

With all that being said, this particular plane – N415WE – had had aftermarket rudder pedals installed, which meant that (a) I didn’t have to land crabbed in a crosswind the way a “real” Ercoupe does, and (b) now I could kill myself with a good spin if I were so inclined (hooray?).  But the nosewheel steering was still connected to the yoke, not the pedals, and those aftermarket pedals didn’t include brakes.  Instead, 5WE had a handbrake down on the floor between the two seats, where a flap lever would be on a Cherokee (Ercoupes don’t have flaps, either.  Did I mention that quirk yet?).  That handbrake meant engine run-ups were a bit of a juggling act, figuring out which hand was holding the brakes while the other was manipulating switches and knobs.

Another quirk was the fuel system.  Ercoupes have three fuel tanks – one tank in each wing and one 5-gallon header tank – but no fuel selector (other than on/off).  Those wing tanks constantly pump fuel into the header tank.  The header tank gravity-feeds fuel into the engine, and any overflow drains back to the wing tanks.  The upshot of all this complexity is that you only need one fuel gauge – if your header tank is starting to run out of gas, it can only be because (a) both wing tanks are already empty or (b) your fuel pump died.  Either way, a gauge on the wing tanks isn’t doing you any good, so there aren’t any. The only gauge is on the header tank, which is 5 gallons, and the plane conveniently burns about 5 gallons per hour.  So, when you see that header tank’s fuel gauge start to drop, you’ve got a little less than an hour of gas left.  Time enough to get it back on the ground safely.

Oh, and the Ercoupe’s fuel gauge is just a wire stabbed into a cork that floats on the fuel in the header tank.  The wire sticks out of the fuel filler cap.  When that wire starts to sink, it’s time to land.  Cub drivers will be familiar with this kind of superior technology.

Pilot (the author) standing on the Ercoupe's wing, opening the canopy.
Ercoupe canopy (pilot for scale)

The most endearing quirk of this plane by far was the canopy.  It’s a bubble, so it provides great visibility all the way around.  But it doesn’t open like a typical canopy – don’t think Diamond, hinging upward, or Grumman, sliding backward.  Instead, the center portion of the canopy is split right down the middle, along the centerline of the airplane.  These two halves of the canopy then slide down on rails into pockets in the side walls of the fuselage, giving you an opening to climb in and out of.  In addition to giving you ingress and egress, this is the sole source of cabin ventilation: if you’re so inclined and the weather is nice, just leave the windows down and fly with the canopy open (again, Cub drivers will be familiar with the concept)!

By now, you’re probably thinking this plane was designed by a complete nut, but you’d be mistaken: the chief designer was Fred Weick, who went on to work for Piper, designing both the Pawnee and the venerable Cherokee.

This Ercoupe I was renting may have been an odd little bird, but I really enjoyed flying it.  After checking out in it, I took it around the area a few times for practice and sightseeing, sometimes solo, sometimes with my friend Paul.  I (or we) would do touch-and-goes at New Castle (KILG – dodging C-130s from the Air National Guard base there), quick hops to Summit airport (KEVY), trips up and down the Chesapeake-and-Delaware canal just to count the bridges and boats, circles around Fort Delaware, leisurely trips up to New Garden (N57) to check out another flight school with Paul, and just generally gaining experience and appreciation for this fun little septuagenarian flier.  But there was one specific incident that pushed me beyond simple fondness.

Another coworker – a proud owner of a Cessna 310 – recommended a trip to Chandelle Estates (0N4).  He described it as a nice, quiet airpark that’s open to the public, and well worth a visit.  I was looking for more places to go anyway, so I thought I’d give it a try.  During my planning, I noticed that the runway at Chandelle is a little on the small side: 2,500 feet by 28 feet.  I didn’t have any official performance charts handy (the Ercoupe is old enough that its owner’s manual predated standardized POHs), but I knew from experience that I could get off the ground or land in 2,500 feet and I could put it on the centerline of Cecil County’s 75-foot-wide runway, so the size didn’t worry me much.  Plus, it wasn’t far, so I’d have plenty of gas if it looked too challenging and I needed to go around a few times.

So off I went on a lovely, calm evening, moseying down in the general direction of Dover.  The Ercoupe is not a fast plane, but that gave me time to enjoy a very pleasant flight: canopy open, enjoying the breeze and the view.  Funny thing about that view, though: it tends to make clear some things about an airport that the A/FD doesn’t.  Things like obstacles.  Like the forest of tall trees off the departure end of runway 4.  Or the powerlines and trees around the farmhouse just across the street from the approach end.  Or the trees crowding both sides of the already-narrow runway.

A Google Maps screenshot showing the view of Chandelle Estates's runway on final approach.
(Credit: Google Maps)

Hoo boy.  This would be challenging.

I set myself up on a left downwind for runway 4 (which has a fantastic view of Dover Downs raceway, by the way), ran my pre-landing checks, and got myself into the mindset for a short-field landing.  As I was taught, once on final, I pulled the throttle to idle, kept the nose on the horizon, and let the airspeed bleed off until I felt the plane start to sink, and added power to control the sink while maintaining that airspeed with pitch.  I don’t recall the exact airspeed – maybe 50 or so? – but I do recall it handling smoothly and gracefully the whole way down, dropping in right over the top of that farmhouse’s big ol’ tree and settling into ground effect as gently as can be right over the runway as if it was a walk in the park.  I did have to brake pretty aggressively, and used a good portion of that little runway to stop, but we made it safely!

But now I was faced with the dilemma of departure.  There was practically no wind (or at least it was blocked by all those trees), so I could easily have departed 22.  But as I turned, that tree I’d flown over to land – and, more importantly, the power lines – loomed large.  If anything went wrong, I’d be in those lines.  Better to depart runway 4 and take my chances with the woods out that way.  But once I was lined up for departure, those trees off the far end looked awfully tall, dark, and intimidating.

I started to get seriously worried at this point.  Here I was, in a rented plane, at this tiny little airport, and I was no longer quite so convinced I could get back out of it.  What if I couldn’t climb fast enough and put it into those trees?  Would I survive?  Would I get sued?  Would I die and then get sued (lawyers would find a way, surely)?

Reasoning to myself that if the plane could get into this airport, then it could get back out, I did my level best to position the plane as close to the end of the pavement as I could.  I wanted every possible inch of runway.  I ran my before-takeoff checks, then ran them again.  I double-checked that the mixture was set correctly, the carb heat was off, the canopy was closed (for streamlining, such as it is), and that I would get every last ounce of horsepower out of that engine.  Okay, here we go: hold the handbrake, hard as you can.  Throttle up.  Let the engine come up to full power.  Let go of the brake.  Aim for 55 on the airspeed.  Hold centerline.  There’s 55 – tug the yoke so the nose points at that spot in the sky…

…and whoop as I watch those trees sail by below me.  The Ercoupe had fairly leaped right off the runway at the slightest tug and soared skyward as if it was no effort at all – as if to say, “Eric, you idiot, I’ve been doing this kind of stuff since before your daddy was crawlin.’  Don’t you worry.  I got you.”

And with that, I was in love.

So that’s my story.  I love ‘Coupes.  So yes, I went ahead and bought my raffle tickets.  And no, sadly, I did not win.  Did I throw my money away?  Maybe.  But it’s given me this chance to reminisce, and I’d say that’s well worth it.

4 thoughts on “Ode to a ‘Coupe”

  1. Thanks Eric,

    It’s always wonderful reminiscing about flying days. Any day you manage to NOT get killed or sued is a good day.

    Enjoyed it!

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