VISIT any of the big aero shows these days and the emphasis among new aircraft is on Light Sport Aircraft or LSAs. This is a category of light aircraft created in the US in the early 2000s, along with a US Sport Pilot licence, in an attempt to attract new people into recreational flying.
Europe has embraced the same concept with very similar aircraft (with some differences) and the Light Aircraft Pilot’s Licence (LAPL). Many other countries around the world have adopted the American LSA rules as well.
But is the LSA concept really new? Take a look at the Luscombe Silvaire 8E here. It was designed in the late 1930s, built in 1946, and has a simple 85hp engine up front that’s perfectly capable to operating on mogas. It has a max takeoff weight of 635kg – just 35kg more than the LSA class – a cruise speed of 100mph and a stall speed of 48mph. We could be talking about a modern LSA here instead of one created nearly 70 years ago!
The Luscombe Silvaire – the name comes from the natural factory finish of polished aluminium alloy although many have now been painted as corrosion protection – was ahead of its time as a concept and also as a design.
The unusual Silflex main gear is designed to protect the aircraft in case of a botched landing or ground loop. The fuselage and wings are simple but tough – there’s a famous factory publicity shot with 28 staff weighing a total of 3600lb sitting along the wing to show off its strength. And it’s said that Cessna was inspired by the Silvaire to build a copy-cat aircraft, the C120 which eventually turned into the C150.
Unfortunately, Luscombe as a company never got the chance to put the aircraft into mass production like the Cessna 150, or to further develop it. The founder, Don Luscombe, was ousted in a boardroom takeover before WW2. An array of aircraft from fabric winged 8As to the stressed metal skin winged 8Es were produced from 1946 to 1949 when the company went bust. Various attempts to restart production have so far come to nothing other than good intentions.
However, hundreds of Luscombes were produced and, being mostly metal, many survived. An active spares and support organisation, the Don Luscombe Foundation, not only secured what spares were available but also started to manufacture more, with US FAA approval.
For a short period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Luscombes were being snapped up and restored by European enthusiasts, particularly the British. These pilots spotted a well-made, well-designed aircraft that flew well and was relatively inexpensive to buy and maintain. They were able to put the aircraft on to the Permit system rather than go through the lengthy and expensive certification route until the UK CAA closed this particular loophole.
The aircraft here is G-BRUG, a well-known aircraft in UK circles because its owner since 1991 has been Nigel Barratt. As well as being a commercial pilot, Nigel also displays his Silvaire having earned an exemption from the UK CAA. It’s a rather special display routine which includes rolling along the runway on one wheel and extreme use of crossed controls at which Nigel, and the Luscombe, excel. I know, I’ve sat beside him in the cockpit during a practice session.
This is where I have to declare an interest. Just over ten years ago I owned a very similar aircraft, a 1947 Luscombe Silvaire 8E, also fitted with the 85hp Continental, metal wings and wing fuel tanks (the fabric wing models have a central fuel tank behind the cockpit and often have a 65hp motor).
I met Nigel to fine-tune my flying skills in the aircraft. Luscombes developed an early reputation as being difficult to control during the landing roll-out, resulting in the occasional ground loop, but really that was down to pilots being more used to nosewheel aircraft.
With a tailwheel aircraft, if there’s any crosswind, the aircraft will try to turn into wind. It’s caused by the wind pushing the fin sideways and not having a nosewheel at the other end resisting. To control this ‘weather-cocking’ effect, the pilot has to be active on the rudder pedals to keep the aircraft straight. It’s more sensitive than just putting in a bootful of opposite rudder. It’s more like anticipating when the aircraft is about to swing and easing in a bit of opposite rudder before it gets going.
As the aircraft slows, of course, the rudder loses authority and you have to continue to keep the aircraft straight with a touch of the heel brakes. When Nigel is teaching you this, he suggests wearing no shoes, just socks, so you have more ‘feel’. Hence his nickname, “No Shoes Nigel“.
Anyway, Nigel’s Luscombe must be one of the best in Europe. It’s immaculate, despite having had an incident a few years ago when it ended up upside-down in a river. Nigel has spared no expense in maintaining the aircraft, adding useful items into the panel but otherwise retaining the aircraft’s gorgeous art deco styling.
Just look around the aircraft. Out under the wing is the pitot tube with a sealing flap which closes when the aircraft is stationary, preventing insects or debris from getting in, but opens with wind pressure when moving. The door handles are neatly streamlined with a flowing tail matched by the streamlined wheel spats. Those enclosed Silflex undercarriage legs are designed to fail halfway in case of a bad ground loop, thus protecting the fuselage from a twisting moment, and the wingtips are easily replaced thus saving the main part of the wing from impact.
The fuselage and wing surfaces are smooth, with nearly flush round top rivets. The fin, elevators and ailerons are fluted for added strength, a system still used by Cessna on its piston singles. The wing struts are streamlined. The cowling fits tightly around the engine for minimal air resistance while forcing air in for cooling and consumption. I know I’m biased, but the Luscombe Silvaire just looks so right, perfectly proportioned with a cheeky grin.
Getting in is easy. There are doors both sides and it’s akin to jumping into a classic sports car of the period… think MG TD. G-BRUG’s instrument panel is fully equipped, unlike the one on my aircraft which just had the basic flight gauges. Two sticks protrude from the floor and are perfectly positioned for the pilots. Rudder pedals are large and also perfectly positioned but the heel brakes are only fitted to the left side pilot. They take a bit of getting used to if you’ve come off a typical Cessna or Piper with toe brakes, but in fact are easier to operate sensitively when you’re in practice.
A large knob sticks out of the centre of the panel – that’s the throttle – with the all-important carb heat adjacent. The Continental C85 is nicknamed the “Ice-maker” in some circles for its ability to conjure up carb ice. Again, I know. The engine on mine cut-out on landing once at Turweston after I’d flown through a sudden shower on final approach. Fortunately, it was just after touchdown and I just had the embarrassment of sitting like a lemon on the runway while the ice melted and the engine was able to restart.
It’s not big inside the cockpit but two six-footers like me and Nigel managed it ok. On the 8E models with the fuel tanks in the wing, there’s a parcel shelf behind the pilots which can take up to 50lb in weight. Otherwise, there’s not much room to put anything.
Above the panel are two angled metal tubes which provide cockpit protection in case of rollover. They’re not the prettiest of items but you soon forget about them.
Start up is simple. Nigel prefers to hand-prop his, despite having an electric start fitted. I always used the electric start on mine, never having liked the idea of hand-swinging a lethal blade. Give the engine a few minutes to warm up while continuing pre-flight checks including plenty of carb heat. I always liked to wait to see the engine oil pressure is definitely in the green once the engine temperature has come up.
Taxying the Luscombe is a bit of an art in itself if there’s any kind of wind. The urge to weather-cock can be felt and you have to work at the heel brakes. I once landed long at Gloucester Airport and had to taxi right around the peripheral taxyway, enduring wind from all directions. By the time I parked near the Tower, I was a mental wreck.
Line up, full power, release brakes, keep it straight with rudder and into-wind aileron, stick forward to get the tail up, wait a few seconds to accelerate, 55mph on the Air Speed Indicator, gently back with the stick and rotate. Climb out at 70mph.
Once in the air, the Luscombe is a beauty to fly. The controls are very responsive and it’s easy to fly the aircraft accurately. I used to love planting a wingtip at a point on the ground and turning around it. The elevator controls are quite light and easy to over-control at first, while the big ailerons are a bit heavier. The rudder is big too, giving plenty of control. There are no flaps so the speed range of 48mph stall speed to 100mph cruise is impressive. Vne is 145mph so a useful margin above cruise.
The view forwards and sideways is OK but the leading edge of the wing does obscure the view up. It’s essential to lift a wing before turning, especially a climbing turn, just to check there’s nothing there. There is a Perspex window in the roof which helps make the cockpit feel bigger than it is, and it does help in steep turns but really, you just have to be vigilant about the blind spot.
The aircraft trims out nicely to fly hands-off in calm conditions, but that big wing reacts quickly to gusts. At the cruise speed, the aircraft is burning around 20 litres an hour which is not far off what modern Light Sport Aircraft are getting. With that kind of fuel burn, and a max fuel capacity of 94 litres, you can fly for about four hours or 400 miles. That’s quite far enough in one hop in the Luscombe. While she’s not noisy in the cockpit, nor suffering overly from vibration, the seats are fairly small and straight-backed.
Stalls are non-events, just a bit of mushing down while losing altitude. Some say the stall should not be so benign, just to make sure the pilot realises what’s happening but I disagree. I’ve been in one aircraft that had a vicious stall and it scared the hell out of me.
Coming into land, the approach is at 70mph again. No flaps or prop to set so it’s just a case of keeping the speed accurate, with full carb heat all the way down to just above touchdown. The aircraft can be side-slipped easily and Nigel demonstrates this to maximum effect. I’m not so talented so prefer to get the aircraft established on a straight approach earlier.
As I said before, that big wing reacts to gusts so you have to work all the way down when it’s windy. Landing is either the tried-and-tested three-pointer where main wheels and tailwheel touch down together, or on the mains with the tailwheel touching as the speed drops, the so-called ‘wheeler’ landing.
For me, the three-pointer was easier but if you watch at any fly-in where Luscombes arrive, such as the occasional European Luscombes event at Oaksey Park near Cirencester, or the annual LAA Rally at Sywell, then you’ll see a mixture of both. You’ll also notice the Silfex gear working away soaking up the bumps, flattering the landing. Don’t relax yet though – you’ve got to bring this baby down to taxy speed while keeping her straight!
There’s much ownership pride with a genuine classic aircraft like the Luscombe Silvaire, much like its contemporary, the Piper Cub which employs more traditional construction. The pair of them might be termed the ‘Original Light Sport Aircraft’ and if today’s LSAs are still as revered in 70 years’ time, then they’ll be doing well.
Luscombe Silvaire 8E
Stall speed 48mph
Take-off distance 350m
Landing distance 250m
Rate of climb 500ft/min at 70mph
Fuel burn 20 litres/hr
Range 400 miles
WEIGHTS & LOADS
Useful load 286kg
Fuel capacity 2 wing tanks each 47 litres
Continental C-85, producing 85hp. Fixed-pitch two-blade metal prop
Luscombe Airplane Corporation