Champ Ornament of Aviation Appreciation

By Scott Spangler on December 25th, 2023

Each year for as long as I can remember, Sporty’s Pilot Shop has sent its annual crystal airplane ornament with the Christmas card it sends to members of the aviation media. We hung our growing collection of them each year until our boys moved on and out to start their own families, and our downsized tree wasn’t robust enough to sustain them. Instead of creating a Charlie Brown Christmas tree of airplane ornaments, we passed along the ornaments to friends and family who look up when they hear an airplane above them.

But we still hang with honored appreciation the annual ornament, in 2023 an Aeronca Champ. “Produced in large volumes in the late 1940s, the simple high wing design with fabric-covered wings was used primarily for training,” reads the card that describes each year’s airplane. “The Champ was one of the few taildragger airplanes that could be flown solo from the front seat, which greatly improved the visibility for the pilot in command. With Aeronca’s Cincinnati roots, the Champ is a favorite for many of the Sporty’s flight crew.”

Beholding the Champ’s etched outlines recalled some of my most cherished flight time and the teachers, Paul King and John Coplantz, who really taught me how to fly in December 1996, two decades after passing my private pilot practical test at Eagle Aviation in Long Beach, California. Seeking an endorsement, I was enrolled in the 15-hour tailwheel transition course at Stick and Rudder Aviation’s “Academy of Flight and Taildragmanship” in Watsonville, California.

Their three-ship training fleet consisted of a Champ, its military sibling, the L-16, and a clip-wing L-4, a Piper J-3 Cub drafted for liaison service during World War II. Battery-powered intercoms and handheld transceivers were the only things electric in all three airplanes, so how to safely hand-prop their 85-horse Continental engines was an early lesson. If you are a 1940-sized human, yes, you can solo the Champ from the front seat, but as an oversize mid-century monster, I barely fit in the cushionless back seat. My futile attempts at gracefully folding myself into the Champ always drew a flightline audience.

My first six flights were in the Champ, and its lessons served me well on every flight since in which I’ve been the sole manipulator of an airplane’s controls because it calibrated the seat of my pants. In flight, the Champ handled quite like the Cessna 172 in which I learned to fly at Eagle Aviation. And then Paul asked me to make a no-rudder turn to the left. Easing the stick over, the right wing fell back a good three feet and my hip moved smartly to the left as the Champ made a slipping left turn. So, this was adverse yaw.

Paul encouraged me to experiment, so I played with the rudder and concentrated on the seat of my pants. My butt became the turn-and-bank’s ball. With deft rudder inputs I could put it where I wanted — centered, half a cheek out, or full displacement. Cool. This is but one of the many lasting lessons I learned at Stick and Rudder, all of them clear, concise, and often unique, like the bicycle wheel with a screwdriver axel that taught gyroscopic precession. Before spinning the wheel, Paul asked me to hold my “fuselage” (arm) in a nose-high, three-point attitude. When I raised the tail, the prop twisted my wrist to the left. After another spin, the prop forced my fuselage to the right when I lowered the tail to a three-point attitude.

Sadly, Stick and Rudder in Watsonville is no more, but it lives on in those who continue to appreciate the lessons it taught. And at this time of year, it seems only right that we make time to appreciate all the gifts of life and learning, and the people who gave them. Thank you. Scott Spangler—Editor

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