The First Year of Merl

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by Stu Simpson

I’ve been ‘Merling” for a full year now, and I’m having the time of my life.

For those who might not know, early last year another airplane crashed into and destroyed my beloved Green Giant at Linden. It was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. Three months later, I took to the air in “Merl” as I named my new 1991 Macair Merlin. I’ve been happily flying Merl ever since.

It’s been very interesting comparing Merl to the Giant. They both fit into the same class of airplane, but each plane’s designer achieved their goals in different ways.

For instance, the Giant’s fuse’ was made of aluminum tubes riveted together and bonded to a fiberglass and foam ‘bathtub’ north of the cockpit. The wing had foam ribs, wooden spar caps and a composite shear web.

Merl, on the other hand, is made with an entirely welded steel tube fuselage. The wings have all aluminum spars and foam ribs. The ailerons are Junkers style and hang right out in the breeze. The design was originally equipped with a centre Y stick. Both designs are fabric covered.

Let’s do some straight comparisons. Both airplanes have nice large cockpits. The visibility forward and up was better in the Giant, due to a taller cabin. But Merl allows me to see much better what’s behind and to the sides of me.

Merl’s bench seats are more comfortable than the Giant’s buckets were, especially over a long flight. In Merl, I’m actually able to stretch my feet across the cockpit to the opposite pedals if need be on a long flight. No way I could’ve done that in the Giant.

The Giant had the edge in control feel. The controls there were really smooth with just the right amount of feedback. It’s one of those details that you’d expect from a designer like Dave Marsden, who holds a Ph.D. in Aeronautical Engineering. Merl’s controls and control feel are much more pedestrian; not at all unpleasant, just not as nice as the Giant’s.

Merl’s controls are blessedly simple, though. I adore simplicity in airplanes, especially ones I have to maintain. I switched from the Macair centre Y stick to a fiendishly light, simple, effective and cheap dual stick arrangement. The Giant’s controls were a complex series of tubes, rod ends and welded plates that wound their way through the cockpit area.

The Giant’s trim system was better with a simple over-head lever as opposed to Merl’s tractor PTO control beneath the left seat. I do like the fact that Merl has its 19 gallons of fuel in wing tanks. The Giant only had about 16 gallons, kept in two different fuselage tanks, one of them right behind the cockpit.

Getting in and out of the Giant was a bit easier than getting into Merl, but Merl’s doors can open in flight since they hinge upward. This certainly makes starting the plane a lot simpler and safer when compared to the Giant. Merl has much easier access to the cockpit controls when I’m throwing the prop around.

One area where Merl shines over the Giant is in cargo space. With a large cargo deck behind the seats, which could be made even larger, I have no problems packing for a week of Air Adventuring. Packing extra gear was a lot more difficult in the Giant.

Something my wingmen really like is Merl’s colour. I continually hear from them how much easier it is to spot Merl in our formations. You’ll get that reaction when you switch from camo green to cherry red.

How do they compare in performance? Merl uses the engine that I salvaged from the Giant, a Continental A-75-8. I’m lucky enough to get to hand-prop it each time I want to commit flight.

Merl’s climb rate isn’t quite as good as the Giant’s was. It may be because Merl has a smaller wing than the Giant did, by about ten square feet. But I’m also taking off, on average, more heavily loaded with fuel than I did with the Giant. I often wonder if the Sensenich prop on Merl is as efficient as the Giant’s McCauley. However, when Merl’s light it jumps into the air.

It’s really enjoyable to go exploring short strips with the confidence that I can get Merl in and out of them. I didn’t have many worries with the Giant, either, except when it came to rougher surfaces. The Giant had smaller tubing on the gear and smaller tires. Its gear wasn’t quite as rugged. These days I happily land in summer-fallowed fields with Merl, but I’d have been reluctant to try it with the Giant.

The Giant’s ground handling was quite a bit better than Merl’s, but that’s largely due to some incorrect geometry in Merl’s tail wheel assembly. That’s on the fix-it list for this spring.

In the air, Merl and the Giant differ measurably. Merl has a faster roll rate, but is less stable in roll. It’s also more difficult to keep coordinated in a turn because of the Junkers ailerons. Merl’s a bit more sensitive in pitch, and is tougher to land well, compared to the Giant. Merl’s more sensitive than the Giant was. I don’t mind that one bit. I got into this game to fly, not to just sit and watch the airplane have all the fun.

Merl flies faster than the Giant did. I cruise quite easily around 80 mph, but that’s only a 5 mph edge over the Giant. I don’t need to go any faster. Merl’s a good cross country airplane. It fits right in with Champs, Chiefs, Cubs and T-Crafts. I’d happily take it just about anywhere.

By way of overall comparison to the Giant, Merl is a harder airplane to fly well. But it’s also that much more rewarding when I get it right. It’s more capable than the Giant was, and safer, due to its all steel construction and wing-mounted fuel tanks. With the tundra tires, it also provides more landing options.

The last year with Merl has really given me a strong sense of history, too, because it’s such a throwback to a simpler era. The Continental, designed in the 1930’s and built in the 40’s, is right at home dragging Merl around the sky. And it reinforces that connection to the past.

I was surprised to look at my log book and realize I’ve clocked about 115 hours in the last twelve months, more than I’ve ever flown in a year. With Merl, I’ve been all over Alberta and deep into the mountains of B.C. Hopefully, this year I’ll make it to northern Saskatchewan. Lucky me, eh?

I’m ever so pleased knowing that there’s still a place in the sky, and on grass strips everywhere, for airplanes like mine. If Merl and I have anything to say about it, there always will be.

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