Who would have guessed a nosewheel Cub would be more popular than a tailwheel version? CubCrafters did, with its latest NXCub…
Words Christof Brenner Photography CubCrafters
21 December 2021
A nosewheel on a Cub? Piper Cub specialists CubCrafters has dared to do something that some say breaks with tradition and is, well, ugly. I’ve always been a bit annoyed by that kind of talk. The comments come from ‘real’ pilots who would never fly an aircraft that has the third wheel on in the wrong place – the front. I never managed to become a real pilot. I have flown Cessna, Piper, Cirrus and even turboprops and jets – but this world of tailwheel aircraft has remained off-limits to me, for whatever reason.
Apparently I’m not the only one. “For every seven pilots who prefer an aircraft with a tricycle landing gear, there’s just one tailwheel pilot,” says Brad Damm, head of sales and marketing at CubCrafters. Nevertheless, the company from Yakima in Washington State, USA, has so far concentrated exclusively on the ‘real’, i.e. tailwheel, pilots as customers.
CubCrafters’ Carbon Cub is one of the most perfected variants of the Piper Cub concept, built for the kind of extreme bush flying that European pilots, who are accustomed to airfield constraints, often only know from YouTube movies. Launched in 2009 as the Super Sport Cub, it was renamed in 2010 as the Carbon Cub. More than 500 have been delivered, factory built to Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) standard, or available as an experimental factory-assisted, self-build kitplane.
The XCub presented in 2016 went one better. Not only did the XCub have significantly more power, but it was also fully type certified to FAA Part 23 standards. During that process it gained 150kg more weight and was only available as a tailwheel. Fair enough, that was what CubCrafters’ customers had seemed to want.
Fast forward to 2020 and CubCrafters revealed that surveys had shown a substantial number of potential buyers of the XCub wanted all that the XCub had to offer but without the issues of flying a tailwheel aircraft – and that included higher insurance premiums for low-time tailwheel pilots. But – and a big ‘but’ – they also wanted the full monty when it came to backcountry capability. In short, an aircraft that could handle rough dirt strips and not be compromised by the nosewheel.
Mounting a nosewheel on a tailwheel aircraft has been done before. Piper did it in 1951 with the Tri-Pacer and that aircraft went on to out-sell the tailwheel Pacer by six to one. And, in fact, the CubCrafters XCub can be equipped with all kinds of landing gear: nose and tail wheel, floats and skis. However, the nosewheel version, known as the NXCub, took more work than simply relocating the third wheel.
The nose gear is a substantial item. It consists of a solid cast aluminium swing arm, attached to a huge vertical suspension strut, which in turn is attached to its own frame of tubes bolted to the aircraft’s airframe, not the firewall. The swing arm is a trailing link because it helps absorb bumps when taxying and landing, coupled with a substantial front wheel and tyre. Brad Damm confirms that the NXCub was designed from the get-go to be a serious backcountry aircraft.
On the ground the nosewheel can be unlocked so it becomes free-castering. That means the NXCub can be easily manoeuvred – a shortcoming of some aircraft with a coupled nosewheel. However, the nosewheel is also responsible for around 20kg of additional weight in the nose of the aircraft but in view of the generous payload of almost 500kg, this is an extra that can be absorbed.
The list of additional equipment is long – so long that the CubCrafters provides its own website aircraft configurator (click here).
Those who cannot, or do not, want to decide between nose and tailwheel have the option of converting their NXCub to the tailwheel XCub at any time. To do this, the aluminium leaf spring struts of the main landing gear are moved forward by 43cm. Covers on the mounting points that are not required ensure a flawless appearance. At the rear the spur is exchanged for wheel and linkage. Two people should be able to do the whole job in about four hours. Good to know, but let it go… I’m not a real pilot.
Anyone who thinks the cockpit of a bushplane has to be spartan, then think again. The seat covers are made of leather, there are bottle holders, USB ports and even a storage compartment for a mobile phone. The standard avionics equipment includes a portable Garmin GPS aera 796 as the central navigation aid in the panel. Practically no customer orders it – all opt for the Garmin G3X glass cockpit even with a surcharge of nearly $24,000. And if you want, you can even get the NXCub with autopilot.
The 215hp IO-390 that powers the nosewheel Cub is officially called CC-393i (CC for CubCrafters) and is manufactured by Lycoming exclusively for the Washington-based aircraft manufacturer. Among other things, it has an accessory case, induction system and sump made of lightweight magnesium that ensures that the engine is only 5kg heavier than its standard 180hp O-360 brother. Both of the original magnetos are replaced by Sure-Fly electronic ignition modules. A back-up battery ensures that the engine will continue to run for up to 45 minutes in the event of an on-board power failure.
There really can’t be anything like Hickory Oaks Campground… It has a 70-odd parking spaces for RVs, a few spartan cabins for overnight stays – and a 670 metre long grass runway. CubCrafters sets up camp here every year during the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh and meets with customers and potential buyers. “We’re there every night. Why don’t you come by and fly the NXCub?” was Brad Damm’s casual invitation to me.
And so I’m standing in front of the bright red N2NX and I’m wondering how to get my 6ft 4in into the rear seat of the NXCub. After contortions worthy of Houdini, eventually I’m in. “That wasn’t really elegant,” I mumble meekly. Brad’s approvingly polite silence confirms my self-criticism, and he’s probably wondering why I didn’t admit that I have never crawled into a tandem seat aircraft before. By the way, with a few tips from Brad on how to do it, getting in was much better next time.
Starting the CC-393i is straightforward. The only difference in the checklist, compared to engines with magneto ignition, is the switch for the standby battery of the electronic ignition and its indicator light. For taxying the NXCub needs a bit of throttle until the mighty 26in mainwheel tyres start to turn in the deep grass. While the rudder still has little effect, the brakes are used to steer – after all, the nosewheel can pivot freely. One benefit of the nosewheel over tailwheel immediately becomes apparent too – the view forwards over the nose is so much better when manoeuvring on the ground.
For take-off, Brad recommended the technique for dummies… Just pull the stick back to your belly and push the throttle all the way forward. No sooner said than done. The NXCub gallops off like a startled wild horse, takes off with the nose pointing skywards, and for a while the tail drags through the grass (remember not to attach a GoPro camera to the now spare mount).
The take-off distance seemed shorter than 50 metres to me, then we were in the air. A little slackening of the stick and the aircraft picks up speed. Even before I get to read off the climb rate, we are at circuit height – in retrospect, I would describe the climb rate as ‘more than sufficient’ thanks to the simply huge power to weight of the NXCub.
The fat tyres on the main gear and the third leg of the chassis do take their toll when at cruise speed but let’s not forget that the XCub was designed with a host of drag reduction mods over the original Super Cub. The wing section is the same, to give the Super Cub’s renowned low speed handling, but the ailerons are more aerodynamic and the exterior control cables of the Super Cub have disappeared and morphed into rods contained inside the wings. The rudder on the NXCub retains cables. The main landing gear is completely different being an aluminium spring that alone adds 8-10kt because of reduced drag, as well as reputedly being better at smoothing out a landing bounce.
So, like the XCub, the NXCub is not slow. If you give it full throttle, it will reach 126kt – but at a cost of more than 50 litres of fuel per hour. A 65% power setting gives just under 105kt and a more moderate consumption of around 34 litres/hour makes sense. If you want a faster cruise speed on a regular basis, you need a different aircraft.
Stalls are just as simple as the greenhorn starting procedure. Throttle closed, stick back into your belly, and at an absurd 30kt of indicated airspeed, the aircraft starts to mush with absolutely no tendencies to drop a wing. These predictable and safe low speed characteristics are absolutely what a backcountry aircraft is all about. It’s the ability to take-off and land on short strips which may also be rough terrain. That’s why some pilots love the Super Cub – and they’ll adore the NXCub.
My brain can’t cope with these low speeds, however, and it shows when making the landing. On final approach I’m at 50kt, which seems dangerously low to me, and yet I’m much too fast. An approach speed of something like 37kt would be more appropriate for the NXCub on final. Over the runway I pull the throttle to idle and let the aircraft touchdown. The big wheels first absorb the shock, then they lock up, the nose gear touches down and we slide across the grass runway. It’s not elegant but it’s a perfectly normal procedure for ultra-short backcountry strips, Brad explains. And yes, the combination of the aluminium spring main gear and trailing link nose gear works astonishingly well to smooth out bumps.
Although I was going way too fast, I would still rate my landing as acceptably short. This aircraft makes you brave after only a few minutes of flight! Helgoland-Dune (a German airport with short runways) with the NXCub? A piece of cake! I would also like to land at Frankfurt – across the runway! In fact, because you can brake harder and earlier in the NXCub, it’s probably a better short-field performer than the tailwheel XCub.
A Cub with a nosewheel… that takes some getting used to. But CubCrafters’ nosewheel model is not only forgiving in hard use off the beaten track, but it might also prevent a slip-up that might make a taildragger stand on its head. That’s important. After all, I’m not a ‘real’ pilot.
The founder of CubCrafters, Jim Richmond, passed away in November 2021 at his home in Yakima, Washington at the age of 67.
Although Jim had retired from day-to-day management of CubCrafters he continued to be active in managing the strategic and creative direction of the company until his death – including the introduction of the nosewheel Cub.
In a statement from CubCrafters, Pat Horgan, current company President and CEO, said, “CubCrafters is truly a family. Our employees, customers, and affiliates all feel Jim’s loss.
“In everything we do moving forward, Jim will be with us. It was his stated intention that CubCrafters would continue as the market leader in the design and manufacture of the best backcountry aircraft in the world. Both Jim’s family and the CubCrafters leadership team are fully committed to continue growing the aviation legacy that Jim started.”
Jim started the company in 1980 with the vision of modernising the Piper Super Cub for better performance and safety.
Since then, CubCrafters has delivered around 1,500 new aircraft, and rebuilt or restored many others.
CubCrafters developed seven different models over the years, both certified and experimental, along with dozens of STCs and other advancements.
|Cruise speed||130kt @ 75% power|
|Stall speed||(clean) 43kt|
|Rate of climb||1,500ft/min|
|Airframe||Steel tube, fabric covering with carbon fibre areas|
|Propeller||Hartzell Trailblazer constant speed, two or three blade|
|Avionics||Options include Garmin G3X EFIS|
|CubCrafters 1918 South 16th Avenue Yakima, WA 98903 W: cubcrafters.com|
|CubCrafters Europe W: cubcrafterseurope.com E: [email protected]|
|From $372,040 ex-factory + taxes|