Visit to American Champion Aircraft: The new Xtreme Decathlon!
During my recent trip to Airventure in Oshkosh, WI, I found some extra time to visit the nearby American Champion factory.
The purpose of my visit was to test fly the new Xtreme Decathlon. I'm looking for a two seat certified aerobatic/cross-country airplane and the XD might fit the bill.
The new plane is an improvement on the venerable Super Decathlon (itself an upgrade from the Decathlon, born out of the Citabria, based on the Champ...whew!).
The Xtreme is very similar to the Super Decathlon in appearance, but has a number of improvements that make it a bit more suitable for competitive aerobatic flying. Namely:
Meanwhile the aircraft retains the features that make it such a nice all-around airplane, including real baggage space and a comfortable passenger seat.
The Xtreme Decathlon is not as powerful as the other planes I've owned but I've always been fond of the Super Decathlon and I think I'd really enjoy owning one. My thought right now is to pick up an Xtreme Decathlon and then fly it while building a Pitts S1 with some hop-up parts from Wolf Aircraft.
I arrived at the factory after a two hour drive down from Oshkosh and met with Jody Bradt, the engineer in charge of the Xtreme. Jody and the owner, Char, gave me a complete tour of the factory. I've visited a few airplane factories so I knew what to expect, but I was very impressed to see a well-organized and clean facility. A number of aircraft were in process. The workers were welcoming and professional. I really enjoyed meeting everyone.
Of course I took a few pictures and will present them here.
I was a bit worried there wouldn't be a chance for a test flight since all the company aircraft were at Airventure! However, the factory had just completed a brand new XD, and the new owner was of the traditionally kind Texan variety, so we were able to borrow the plane for a half hour test flight.
I made some small talk with the owner while Jody pushed out the airplane. Getting inside a Decathlon is something I've done often enough that I should be better at it. Put your right foot on the step then slide your body onto the seat while bringing your left foot around past the stick. It sounds easy but I always find myself halfway in and not sure what to do next.
The XD has the same cockpit layout as the rest of the planes in the Decathlon series. The panel is pretty simple. The glare shield on the top of the panel never seems to fit as well as it should. I mentioned this to Jody and he said that new molds have been made now. Maybe that will get better.
Starting the aircraft is a cinch but the circuit breakers and magneto switches are awkwardly placed high and behind the pilot's left shoulder. This is so they can be reached from the rear seat. I let Jody operate those switches and walk me through the checklist while I familiarized myself with the front seat.
I taxied down the narrow strip of concrete between the factory buildings to the short concrete private strip. Jody asked that I avoid the many puddles along the way to keep the airplane clean, which I did as diligently as possible.
After the run-up I pointed the nose down the runway and pushed in the throttle. The extra 30hp was definitely noticed here. While not as overpowered as my Sbach 342 was, the Xtreme gets up and goes just fine. Very soon it was time to lift the nose. As I did so Jody crititqued my takeoff run, noting I had applied a touch of brake along with the rudder corrections. I didn't argue.
At about 1,000 feet AGL Jody gave me my instructions to set the prop and throttle. I paused momentarily as I looked at the panel and refamiliarized myself with things my Yak-54 never had, such as a mixture control and digital gauges. Everything is well laid out in the Decathlon, except I didn't like how the prop control's mounting plate was rubbing against my knee.
We headed south from the airfield and did a few full-deflection rolls. I had read that the stick forces were a little higher in the Xtreme than in the Super. I didn't notice that to be the case. Maybe the person who started that rumor wasn't considering how much faster the Xtreme is than the Super. At a higher airspeed there probably is a bit more stick pressure needed to get to full deflection.
It's hard to estimate roll rate. I've read that the Xtreme has somewhere between a 90 and 120 dps roll rate, and I'm sure somewhere in that range is about right. What I can say for sure is that the rate is fast enough for competition and plenty fast for fun.
Time for a loop. Jody said go for 4Gs but with no way to know how much stick movement would get me there I got a little bit timid. I yanked a bit and started at about 2Gs and then inched my way up to 4. At the top I decided to float a bit, which Jody told me was way too much, then as we came back down I got about a 3G pull before we reached level. Not my best loop by any means. I'm not used to having to use so much stick travel.
Jody offered to do a four-point roll for me. I gave up the controls and he went at it. Jody has a lot of time in the Decathlon series, having flown his for years before joining American Champion and even using it as a test bed for his engineering coursework on post-stall lift. On the first point I got a jolt as my left knee was pressed into that prop control mounting plate I mentioned earlier. It seems like I'm just a bit too big for every airplane I try on. Jody didn't seem to notice the obstruction. His point roll was very good. I wonder how long it would take me to learn to fly the airplane as well as him. I took a moment to reflect on how easy I've had it, flying planes that do not need any nuance from the pilot.
After a bit of noodling about we turned back toward the airport and immediately noticed a rain shower just a few miles away from the field and moving our way.
As we made our uneventful approach it became clear that we hadn't given ourselves enough time to taxi back to the hangar before the rain hit. So much for keeping the airplane dry!
After the flight Jody and I chatted for a bit about model airplanes. Like many (perhaps most) people in the "full scale" aviation world, Jody has spent a good chunk of his time flying R/C.
On the drive back to Oshkosh I reflected on the capabilities of the airplane. It's great for basic acro and competition at the Sportsman level. Super Decathlons have flown successfully in Intermediate as well, so certainly we can expect the Xtreme to do even better there. The Advanced category seems well out of reach for any two seat airplane with less than 300 horsepower, but maybe someone will try to prove me wrong in the next couple of years. When acro gets old the Xtreme will make a comfortable cross-country airplane. It isn't blisteringly fast but it's fast enough and it has enough baggage space that short trips are perfectly reasonable.
How does it stack up to other two seat certified aerobatic aircraft?
We could compare it to the Extra 330 LT, which isn't very fair because it is nearly twice the price. The Extra 330 LT is much faster (210 kts or so!) and can easily fly in Advanced (thought it probably won't do well in outside maneuvers because of the flat bottom wing).
We could also compare it to the Extra 300L, which would give us a higher speed at a higher price and a realistic chance of winning at Unlimited at any local contest. These planes are also comfortable, but I think they are intimidating for non-pilots. They are also seriously lacking in baggage room.
Extras have always held their value well, which is a strong plus. Some lucky owners have even sold their Extras at a profit over the last few years. A 2005 Decathlon with a list price of $147,500 at the time of sale is now on the used market in 2013 listed at $129,000. That's pretty good when you compare it to a Cirrus (some of which recently suffered six figures of depreciation in a single year) but not as good as the Extra.
Another possible comparison could be made with the Pitts S2C. Here we get a lot more performance for not too much more money (if $100k can ever be thought of that way) but, again, we are missing the cross country aspects. Another possible concern is that Aviat doesn't seem as interested in the Pitts aircraft as they do their Husky series. We can surmise it is simply because they are selling so many Huskys. While the Super Decathlon hasn't had an update in a long time, we do have one now, and who knows how long it will be before we see a Pitts S2D?
I know of a popular air show performer who traded in his Super Decathlon for a Pitts and really misses the cross country capabilities of the Super D.
While I haven't reviewed it, I wonder if the depreciation rate of the Pitts S2C could be on the high side. I say that because there are so many experimental Pitts aircraft on the market. It's probably hard for Aviat to sell the certified S2C for $350k when people feel like they can get a Pitts for $30k off of barnstormers.com. Of course there is no comparing a homebuilt Pitts S1S to a certified S2C, but when it comes time to sell your S2C you might find yourself talking to buyers who don't see it that way.
I think for where I am right now as a pilot and for what I'm looking for over the next few years the Xtreme Decathlon is the right choice. I had a lot of trouble getting people to go places with me in the Yak because it was just so darn intimidating. I'm worried the Extra will feel the same way to them. I do like the looks of the Extra 330LT but it is just too much of an investment right now.
If I were open to a used plane then a mid to late 2000s Extra 300L would be great. There are a few on the market right now. However, I'd really like a new airplane this time around. I want to pick out all the colors and the panel and I want to know I have a warranty.
I am going to pass on the Pitts S2C simply because I've been dreaming about building a Pitts S1 for awhile now and I know I never would if I had an S2C sitting in my hangar. That might seem a bit weird, but oh well: airplanes don't have to make sense!
I'll share some more info about the next steps for me in a little bit. For now enjoy the pictures!
Thanks again to Char and Jody and everyone else at American Champion!
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Nice write-up, Jim! I read every word of it. I can't wait to hear more about your XD when you get it. I read the article in the AOPA magazine recently about the XD. Looks really cool. I'm sure you met Greg Koontz at Oshkosh. His place is just a hop, skip, and a jump from me here in Alabama.
Oh, and what about that prop on the XD? Man, it looks HUGE!
My wife's family 'estate' shares a property line with Greg Koontz. He's been flying the Decathlon line for years and has always been a big proponent of their aircraft. He's been flying his new Extreme for the past few months and it sure is one heck of an airplane.
If I remember correctly he recently acquired a Pitts as well, although I'm not sure which one. I saw it over in his hanger back in October and I know he had it in the air over the summer, I just didn't get a good enough look at it to remember what it was.
Enjoy the new plane!