by Stu Simpson
I have an airplane that flies fast, and I really like it. I spent many years extolling the virtues of low and slow, and I was right. Or, at least, it was right for me then. But that’s all changed now. I’ll explain.
Geoff Pritchard and I flew our planes from Calgary to San Francisco and back on an epic two-week long flying adventure. That was in the summer of 2012 and I don’t expect I’ll ever top that experience.
We flew the trip in old, relatively slow airplanes; he in a ’47 Aeronca Champ, and me in my ’91 Macair Merlin. We cruised at about 85 – 90 mph. That’s not too bad when you compare it to a car. It’s about 40 – 50 percent faster and we get to cut the corners that ground transport just can’t ignore. For instance, we made Cranbrook in a little over two hours, which normally takes about four hours by car.
The problem for me came when we were flying north through Oregon and Washington states on our way home. No matter what we did, or at what altitude we flew, we could not escape an insidious 20 – 25 mph headwind. The socks and flags on the ground were all hanging limply, but the minute we busted 200 or 300 feet, there was the wind punching us incessantly on the nose. A steady stream of cars below relentlessly left us behind. The view wasn’t even good because a combination of forest fire smoke and the area’s natural summer haze limited visibility to a milky seven or eight miles.
I decided just south of Salem, Oregon, that I’d had enough of low and slow. I dearly loved my Merlin, but I’d had enough of watching traffic pass me. I decided then that I’d either get a faster airplane or give up flying altogether. It sounds pretty extreme, perhaps, but the simple fact is that low-speed flying was neither teaching me anything nor challenging me much anymore.
Fast forward a month and, as much to my surprise as anyone else’s, I suddenly owned a much faster airplane, my beloved Cavalier. Fast forward another few months and my equally beloved Merlin was gone, sold to the US.
So, why speed, then? What do I get from going faster? Of course, the most obvious answer is that I just get there sooner. I find I like that. A lot. The Cav cruises anywhere between 130 and 140 mph true airspeed. That’s at least 50% faster than Merl cruised.
Speed helps beat the wind, too. I really like that, especially in this part of the world where winds frequently exceed 20 knots. Simply put, for the Cavalier, the wind is rarely a limiting factor in my flying anymore. It usually only matters now in terms of crosswind landings at destination airports. Well, that and the fact it may rip my hangar doors off if it’s too strong.
Speed opens up more places where I can fly. The Cav’s speed allows me to fly a much larger radius in a given amount of time compared to Merl. Pretty easy math, that one. Since I’m an avid aerial explorer, that extra range really appeals to me. Thus, places like Drayton Valley, Edmonton, Lacombe, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge are all so much closer. I can go there and back in a day, easily.
And places hundred of miles away are much closer now, too. I made it to the Oshkosh area in about two days. That’s 1300 miles and would have taken me about four days in Merl. On the return trip, also two days long, I made it from Regina to Kirkby Field in 2.7 hours. There was maybe five miles per hour on the tail. That’s a trip that would normally take seven hours to drive. Such efficiency and time saving has become more important to me because I want to range further across North America as my flying advances.
I suppose I’m afflicted with a bit of vanity, too. Other guys in our club are speeding up, and I don’t want to be left behind. With Merl, I’ve sometimes envied my flying buddies as they’ve gotten to places ahead of me, and I’ve also felt a bit guilty that I may have delayed them.
There are a couple of down sides to the Cavalier, but they’re minor. The cockpit is smaller, which took some getting used to because of my size. While most folks fit comfortably, it can be cramped with two people in there, depending on the other person’s size. But at least I can carry another person with me, something I couldn’t do in Merl because it was registered as an ultralight. I’ve been able to use the Cav to upgrade to my Private Pilot License, too. Something I just could not have done in Merl.
The other thing I miss, compared to Merl, is the ability to land practically anywhere. I landed some pretty cool places with that airplane; farmer’s fields, extremely short runways, and dangerous backwoods airstrips. Its STOL abilities provided terrific landing freedom and I do miss that, plenty.
The Cav has pretty impressive STOL characteristics, too, but nothing that can touch Merl’s. I can slow down enough to fly alongside Bob Kirkby in his Piper PA-12, but I can almost keep up with his Cherokee 235, too.
The Cavalier doesn’t have the speed that a Van’s RV does, but it’s reasonably close. And for the pittance of money I have into the Cav, the low operating costs it demands, and the mileage and economy I get on its 125 hp, most other airplanes just can’t compete. It’s an unbelievable compromise.
I’ve flown several days in the first year of owning the Cav when I faced very strong head winds, yet my ground speed has never dropped below 100 mph in cruise. The Cav travels well. It’s efficient. It’s fast. And I smile every single time I look down and see me passing cars.