The Aeronautical Corporation of America (Aeronca) was
incorporated by the Lunken family of Cincinnati, Ohio on November 11,
1928. Backed by the financial and political support of the prominent Taft
family—future Ohio senator and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert A.
Taft was one of the firm's directors—Aeronca became the first company to
build a commercially successful light aircraft.
Powered by a tiny two-cylinder engine, the Aeronca C-2
debuted in 1929. It was flying at its most basic—the pilot sat on a bare
plywood board. Originally known as the Roche Original after its
designer Jean A. Roche (who sold the design rights to Aeronca), the C-2
featured an unusual, almost frivolous design with an open-pod fuselage
that inspired its nickname, “The Flying Bathtub.”
Equipped with only five instruments, a stick, and
rudder pedals (brakes and a heater cost extra), the C-2 was priced at a
low $1,495, bringing the cost of flying down to a level that a private
citizen could aspire to and perhaps reach. Aeronca sold 164 of the
economical C-2s at the height of the Great Depression in 1930-1931,
helping to spark the growth of private aviation in the United States.
The Aeronca C-2 also holds the distinction of being the
first aircraft to be refuelled from a moving automobile. A can of gasoline
was handed up from a speeding Austin automobile to a C-2 pilot (who hooked
it with a wooden cane) during a 1930 air show in California. A seaplane
version of the C-2 was also offered, designated the PC-2 and PC-3 (“P” for
pontoon) with floats replacing the wheeled landing gear.
The more powerful Aeronca C-3 was introduced in 1931,
featuring room for a passenger seated next to the pilot. Powered by a new
36-horsepower (27-kilowatt) Aeronca E-113 engine, the seating
configuration made flight training much easier and many Aeronca owners
often took to the skies with only five hours of instruction—largely
because of the C-3's predictable flying characteristics. Both the C-2 and
C-3 are often described as “powered gliders” because of their gliding
ability and gentle landing speeds—it was almost impossible to make a hard
landing with an Aeronca because the pilot could easily see his wheels
approach the runway.
The C-3's distinctive razorback design was drastically
altered in 1935 with the appearance of the “roundback” C-3 Master.
Retaining the tubular fuselage frame construction, the C-3 Master featured
a smaller vertical stabilizer and rudder with a “filled out” fuselage
shape that created the new “roundback” appearance and improved the airflow
over the tail. With an enclosed cabin (brakes and wing light still cost
extra), the 1935 C-3 Master was priced at only $1,890—just a few hundred
dollars more than the primitive C-2 of 1929. The low price generated
significant sales; 128 C-3 Masters were built in 1935 alone and the 500th
Aeronca aircraft also rolled off the assembly line that same year.
A version of the C-3 with fabric-covered ailerons
(instead of metal), designated the Aeronca 100, was built in England under
license by Light Aircraft Ltd. (operating as Aeronautical Corporation of
Great Britain Ltd.) but the expected sales never materialized—only 24
Aeronca 100s were manufactured before production was halted.
Production of the C-3 was halted in 1937 when the
aircraft no longer met new U.S. government standards for airworthiness.
Many of the C-3's peculiarities—external wire braces, extensive fabric
construction, single-ignition engine, and lack of an airspeed
indicator—were no longer permitted. Fortunately for the legion of Aeronca
owners, a “grandfather” clause in the federal regulations allowed their
airplanes to continue flying, although they could no longer be
Aeronca developed a low-wing aircraft in 1935, the
Model L (produced with two different engines) with side-by-side seating
and a completely enclosed cabin, but the true successor to the popular
C-2/C-3 line was the Aeronca Model K Scout, first introduced in 1937.
Powered by a dual-ignition Aeronca E-113C engine, the Model K Scout
brought the Aeronca design up to modern aviation standards. Eliminating
the Aeronca's traditional “bathtub” appearance, the Scout featured a
strut-braced wing with a fully enclosed cockpit seating two side-by-side.
A total of 357 Aeronca Model K Scouts were built.
Consumer demand for more comfort, longer range and
better instrumentation resulted in the development of the Aeronca Model 40
Chief in 1938, powered by a 50-horsepower (37-kilowatt) Continental,
Franklin or Lycoming engine. A 65-horsepower (48-kilowatt) Continental
engine powered the Model 65 Super Chief, which was also built in a flight
trainer version, the Model TC-65 Defender, with its rear seat positioned
nine inches (23 centimetres) higher than the front for better visibility.
Aeronautical Corporation of America formally changed
its name to Aeronca Aircraft Corporation in 1941, and the onset of World
War II ushered in a new era for Aeronca aircraft. Production of the TC-65
Defender was increased for use by the U.S. government's new Civilian Pilot
Training (CPT) program, created to train new pilots for possible wartime
The high-wing TC-65 Defender was soon pressed into
wartime duty as Aeronca's version of the U.S. Army's “liaison” aircraft,
designed to operate from small, primitive airfields. Sporting a wider
fuselage, larger windows, and military instrumentation, the aircraft was
designated by the Army as the O-58 and is often referred to by the liaison
aircraft's generic nickname of “Grasshopper.”
In 1942, Aeronca developed a three-seat training
glider, the TG-5, based upon the O-58 design. This aircraft retained the
O-58's rear fuselage, wings, and tail while adding a front fuselage in
place of the engine. In all, Aeronca built 250 TG-5 gliders for the Army.
The O-58 was later redesigned for the Army and
designated as the L-3. More than 1,400 Aeronca O-58 and L-3 Grasshoppers
saw service in all theatres of the war. Aeronca also built the PT-19 and
PT-23 trainer aircraft under license for the aircraft firm Fairchild
during the war.
After war's end, Aeronca resumed production of its
three most popular models, the Chief, Super Chief and the Defender, and
introduced a new model in 1945, the Model 7AC Champion. Certified on
October 18, 1945, the “Champ” became Aeronca's most popular aircraft.
The Champion was a tandem two-seater trainer that
incorporated components (wings, landing gear, tail, and 65-horsepower
(48-kilowatt) Continental engine) from the existing Chief line, reducing
manufacturing costs. Selling for $2,095, the Champ outsold the Chief by an
8 to 1 margin. Engine upgrades in 1948 and 1949 resulted in the Models 7DC
and 7EC. Between 1945 and 1950, Aeronca was producing 50 light aircraft
per day and by the time production ended in 1951, the company had sold
more than 10,000 Champions.
The Arrow, an experimental low-wing cabin monoplane
with retractable landing gear, was unveiled in 1947 but never went into
full production. Another U.S. Army liaison aircraft, the L-16, was
developed and saw extensive service during the Korean War.
The four-seat Model 15 Sedan, also introduced in 1947,
proved to be a popular addition to the Aeronca product line. The Sedan
featured all-metal wings but retained the traditional tube and fabric
construction techniques of all Aeronca aircraft. It also became quite
successful as a floatplane. Ultimately, 561 Model 15 Sedans were built. It
was the last aircraft manufactured by Aeronca.
Aeronca ceased producing light aircraft in March 1951,
selling the rights for the Champion design to the Champion Aircraft
Company of Osceola, Wisconsin. In its 23-year history, Aeronca
manufactured 17,408 aircraft spanning 55 different models but the company
will be forever best known as the creator of “The Flying Bathtub.”