"In the beginning, there was the Aeronca C-3"
by Budd Davisson, courtesy of
Flight, in its
most elemental form, was Icarus, flinging his fluffy
little body off a cliff only to find that Copper Tone
didn't work on feathers. Flight in its second-most
elemental form was me, floating around over St.
Augustine, Florida in a contrivance that would have made
Da Vinci giggle . . . the C-3 Aeronca, an
almost-airplane whose chromosomes are heavily tainted by
an ancestor's illicit love affair with a box kite.
As the first successful "light" airplane, the C-3 is the
seed from which the maple tree of general aviation
sprouted. That makes it a maple seed. And, until you've
floated, wafted and flopped around in a C-3 in a decent
wind, you don't know how accurate the maple seed
comparison is (to you Californians, Texans and Okies, a
maple seed is one of those winged seed things that
floats in the wind).
In the late twenties and very early thirties, "light"
aircraft were Travel Airs and Bird biplanes that dwarfed
their pilots and threw shadows the size of small towns.
The most common engine, the 90 horse OX-5 was the size
and weight of a Volkswagen and a normal propeller nearly
out-spanned a Pitts. They were, in a word, big. Since
the engines had the power-to-weight ratios of granite
slabs, the engineers (mostly converted bridge builders)
had to go for big wings, which meant more wires and
struts, which meant more weight, which needed more wing,
etc., etc. The Europeans had been playing with some
puddle jumper designs, but nobody here had made any
serious attempts at designing a really practical light
aircraft for the masses.
By 1931, the Aeronautical Corporation of America (later
Aeronca) decided to take a crack at the problem and
found the first obstacle was that there weren't a heck
of a lot of small, inexpensive engines to chose from.
Solution: Build your own engine! Right from the
beginning, the goal was to build an airplane that would
cost a fraction of the fabric pterodactyls, then in
vogue. They figured by cutting everything to the
minimum, including the engine, they would come out with
a cheaper airplane.
but legendary, Ernie Moser putt-putting around over St.
The two-cylinder engine's 36 horsepower were pretty puny
It didn't take
a genius to figure out that hanging a 400 pound V-8 or
radial boat anchor in the nose meant you needed a house
boat to float it. So one of their designer types decided
to reduce the number of cylinders. Four was probably the
original number but some smart Alec in the shop made a
wise crack about "Gee, if four is good, two would be
fantastic and none would be even better."
the guy's funny cigarettes away from him, somebody began
to think seriously about the minimal number of parts in
a two-cylinder engine. And so it came to pass that unto
Aeronca was born a two-cylinder engine that would have
looked right at home under an old Maytag washing machine
(am I the only one who remembers those?). On a good day
and burning high octane kerosene, car gas, cheap bourbon
or whatever was handy, the E-113 Aeronca twin could
crank out 36 rather spindly horses. Not exactly a
Merlin, but then it was so light a single man could
Of course, when you've only got 36 anaemic ponies to
drag you around, it's no secret that you'd better have a
hell of a lot of wing span, if you expect to climb. So
the designers tacked on what looked like a fair amount
of wing. Only it wasn't a fair amount, it was a huge
amount! With a span of 36 feet and a gross weight (not
including rocket pods or ordnance) of 925 pounds, the
C-3 was much more lightly loaded than some buzzards and
hoot-owls I happen to know.
36 ponies also means you aren't going to use the latest
Bendix TSO'd radar units, and you're going to be pretty
picky about what kind of stereo system you install.
Weight is the enemy of tiny motors. So, since
cantilevered wings require a lot of heavy internal
structure, the designers went for totally wire-braced
units. On the ground the entire mess hangs from a bunch
of wires attached to a pylon on top the "cabin." In
those days, “drag.” apparently, was something they
thought was a unique form of male dress code and had no
Exactly how they arrived at the concept of putting the
engine at eye level and tucking your feet under it is
not known. However, there are consistent rumours
floating around the C-3 community that one of the
original designers on the project (later promoted to the
old CAA, then FAA as chief of design evaluation) had
lied about the exact nature of his credentials and was
actually an un-employed cartoonist. This would explain
many things . . . C-3 and otherwise.
Anyway, that is the rather nebulous, and mostly untrue,
history of the development of the C-3. How-ever, a few
facts about how the C-3 was designed do stand out as
being both true and amazing. Also, a little frightening.
EDO equipped at least a couple of them with floats,
which must have almost doubled the weight of the
airplane. Imagine, 36 horse-power and floats!!! A
licensed built version was cranked out in England, but
the bathtub cockpit arrangement was altered with a set
of doors (pre-cursor of the Aeronca "K"?) and the squat
little landing gear was clean-ed up to use a single leg.
Many schools used them for flight training, including
one operated by Ernie Moser, owner of the one in which I
did my St. Augustine sight seeing. Imagine seeing a
bunch of C-3s operating out of the same training strip.
It must have looked like a training ground for baby
If one is truly objective and looks past first
appearances, the C-3 is one of the cutest and most
innovative pieces of design work to come from that era.
Reportedly, it is even the first to use all metal
ailerons. Even today, you'd be hard pressed to find an
engineer who would even consider designing a two-place
airplane with only 36 horses and a minimum of moving
parts. Actually, the C-3 has all the normal components
for an airplane, it's just that they are arranged a
little strangely. You have to fly one before you
discover that the C-3 is not just another ugly face.
These days, one does not find C-3s (or the earlier
single place C-2) tied down at every little airport. As
a matter of fact, if they're found at all, they are
stuck back in the corner of a hangar playing the role of
neighbourhood hangar queen. Not so with N13094. She's
the around-the-patch- plaything of Ernie Moser founder
of AeroSport in St. Augustine and one of the very early
pushers of sport aviation. His EAA number is only 204,
and he was looping WACOs and landing Cubs on top of
trucks before the War. Ernie makes certain his C-3 gets
its share of exercise by inviting dozens of pilots to
squiggle between the wires and take her up. Ernie loves
showing folks where aviation got its start.
Ernie and his son, Jim (current president of AeroSport),
have an extraordinary love affair going with aviation,
and it shows in the effort and direction they've put
into AeroSport. It is an operation that has to be
experienced to be believed.
Six or seven years ago, St. Augustine Airport was
another of those just-about-to-crumble ex-military
fields that litter the Florida landscape. Fairchild had
an IRAN operation there for a while, but when it closed,
it looked like there were going to be a lot of weeds
growing up through the cracks. Then along came the
Mosers. There were three airplanes on the field at that
time. Now there are over 130 and only two of those are
twins. Their operation is strictly sport oriented, and
because of that, has attracted a sizeable number of the
sporty type pilots who are tired of being picked on at
other airports. The outcome is that they've been able to
survive at the FBO game, something that many others have
found is damned hard to do. In addition, they've
breathed so much life into the airport, that it is an
absolutely gorgeous layout, with lots of T-hangars,
large maintenance and restoration shops, avionics, the
whole nine yards. A lot of towns would love to have
somebody perform the same type of transformation to
their airport. But, then, not many are as capable as the
It doesn't get any more
basic than this, although the ever-present threat of an
engine failure keeps you close to airports.
Also, a number have been spun in because of heavy handed
One of the
Mosers' secrets of operation is to make it fun. And the
C-3 is an important part of that fun. Eventually the C-3
will be part of the museum complex the Mosers plan to
build across the field. It will actually be an operating
part of the airport made to look like a 1920s flying
field and will house the dozens of flying antiques on
the airport. With St. Augustine's tourist trade being
what it is, the C-3 is about to be-come a star. The
"museum'" actually will be an operating old-timey
airport, with the "exhibits" being flown on a daily
As with most antiques, the C-3 came to the Mosers as a
basket case . . . in a very tiny basket. The airframe
was a simple,
The engine was not. There weren't a whole lot of the
E-113 engines built in the first place and most of those
have long since been turned into beer cans. Many of the
parts in the Mosers' little coffee grinder had to be
custom made, including the pistons.
The day it came time for me to be drafted (or wafted)
into the C-3 club, the weather was doing its best to
blow everything in the area flat as a fritter. So, we
got out real early one morning, feeling as if we had
outfoxed the weatherman. Well, you can't always be
right. It was eight o'clock in the morning and palm
trees already looked like their hair was being parted in
the middle. We went up and played cat and mouse for a
while, trying to get some pictures of the C-3 out of a
Citabria but decided to call it quits as a nearly-lost
Back on the ground, I fell out of the Citabria in my
usual graceful manner and saw Ernie standing by the C-3,
motioning towards the empty cockpit. "What?" I thought,
"He wouldn't send a young kid like me up in a creepy
crate like that!" But he did.
I ambled over to the C-3, feeling a little foolish in my
genuine Navy, fire retardant, Nomex flight suit with the
pockets stuffed with all the appropriate equipment
(including a ham and Swiss on rye). My wardrobe appeared
to be carefully calculated to lead up to the answer,
"Why, yes, I do fly. How did you know?" On the other
hand, how does one dress to fly a C-3? In a pair of
baggy pants with suspenders and floppy shoes? Actually,
Mork would look right at home in a C-3.
Incidentally, one quite literally must lower oneself to
fly the C-3. The wing is only waist high and to get in
requires ducking under the wing, finding a man-sized
opening in the wire bracing and threading your way
through it to the cavernous non-door to the cockpit.
Once hunched over in front of the door, it's anybody's
guess as to the proper boarding procedure. I started by
trying to stick first one leg in then the other. That,
however, left most of me lying on the grass outside. I
finally worked out a variation on the basic womb-exit
technique where I crawled in head-first, crouched in the
seat in a semi-embryonic position and worked my feet
down to the rudders and my head into the upright
position. I think.
The cockpit (and I use the term loosely) is "different"
(and I under-exaggerate). The stick is to the left of
centre about six inches, presumably so the pilot can sit
on the left. The throttle, however, is in the upper
centre of the "panel" (and again I describe in very
loose generalities). Since it's both unnatural and
obscene to fly with a stick in the left hand and the
throttle in the right, I found myself flying slightly
cross handed. After all, if God had wanted man to fly
with the stick in his left hand He wouldn't have put the
throttle on the left side of the Pitts.
There is a line of tiny little pedals spread across the
floorboards with equal distances between them all. First
I tried the left two and nothing happened, and I
realized there was some sort of combination that I was
missing. So, I punched the last one on the left and
watched to see which one moved the other way and it
turned out to be the third one from the left (I think).
The instrument panel isn't. There is a giant padded area
that covers the entire top half of the bulkhead in front
of you and extends, in an inverted "V" shape well above
your head when on the ground. Under that is a flat space
with three dials the size of steamboat gauges: airspeed,
tach. and altitude. None of these are any damned good,
however, because the padded portion of the panel
protrudes enough that you have to squinch down in the
seat to see under it and read the gauges.
I don't generally take this long scoping out such a
rudimentary cockpit, but I had plenty of time to think
about it while I tried to clean out the plugs. The
engine had been idling while I hopped onboard and all
the plugs were fouled (both of them). So a couple guys
held the airplane back while I worked the throttle up
and burned off the plugs. At no time did the guys at the
end of the wings appear to be straining even the
slightest to hold the airplane back and my confidence in
this fugitive from a Maytag factory was waning rapidly.
Eventually, the engine stopped skipping a beat and my
heart started skipping them. I pushed the throttle the
rest of the way forward and the guys politely ducked
under the wings as I started moving forward. Slowly. The
clatter from up in front was just that . . . a clatter.
A high quality lawnmower sounds much, much smoother, if
only because its power pulses are muffled rather than
being accentuated by tiny little stub exhausts. Then we
were moving faster. But, not much. The clatter began to
increase in rhythm and I could actually feel the
controls begin to work. I pushed the stick forward and
the tail sagged into the air and stayed there. By this
time, I was certain we were moving faster than I could
run. But not much. Then, the maple seed came alive and
floated back into its own element. And I watched.
I didn't have the slightest inclination to bring the
power back, once airborne. As a matter of fact, I'm not
certain that I knew what to do. Nobody had told me what
speeds to use, and the only comment I had to go on was
that 50 mph hour is . . . "awfully fast" . . . so I
tried to hold something around 45 mph as the airplane
meandered vaguely upward and vaguely to the right. Ernie
had told me to drift to the right so I'd have a better
chance of making it back, if the engine quit. An unusual
piece of advice I thought, until I found he has had it
quit on him six different times!
Six times!! I had already made up my mind to keep the
airplane directly over the airport.
The fairly brisk wind combined with the not-so-brisk
speeds of the C-3 to give me three or four minutes to
get used to the airplane before I came to the end of the
runway. Oddly enough, the C-3 doesn't seem nearly as
blind as it should. Even in a climb the nose is over
your head, but the way the cockpit is shaped you can
easily look around it. The seat forms the bottom of a
triangle with the nose and engine at the top. But, your
head is near the narrow top of the triangle so its easy
to look out to the sides and guestimate your direction
of flight. Also, since you aren't exactly streaking
through the heavens, you have plenty of time to correct
any directional wanderings you didn't plan.
By the time it came time to make my first turn, I was no
longer fighting the strange feel of the machine. Only
the vague, lackadaisical controls bothered me. There was
plenty of control to make the airplane do what I wanted,
but that wasn't always enough to overcome what the wind
wanted me to do. Like a leaf in a fast moving stream,
the C-3 is totally at the whims of any gust, breath or
belch mother nature decides to aim at it. I didn't even
try to correct for most of the turbulence because it
wouldn't have done any good. The C-3 rides over them
like the bit of thistle down it is.
In terms of performance, I never really figured all the
numbers out. I never saw anything higher than 60 mph on
the clock and I couldn't come close to reading the
altimeter ... the needle was bouncing so much it blurred
across a band 1000 feet wide. The one bit of
performance, which is hard to ignore is that it glides
like there's no tomorrow. I must have been up around
1500 feet when I started considering making a landing.
It took me almost a complete lap of the field to get it
down to 800 feet to make even a semblance of an
Throughout the entire flight the airplane kept
whispering, and then yelling, ". . . RUDDER. Use RUDDER,
Dummy!" It wasn't a matter of using enough rudder to
balance the ailerons, it was just the other way around.
Everything was done with lots and lots of footwork,
something I had to remember as I turned final.
I only brought the power all the way back once. When I
did, the engine sounded like it was going to stop dead.
With only two cylinders and a featherweight prop, it
doesn't have a heck of a lot of inertia going for it.
So, I kept just a tad of power on as I fluttered down
final towards the grass alongside one of the main
The wind was more playful than dangerous; jabbing me
here and there with a precocious gust or a quick downer.
In any other airplane, it wouldn't have been noticeable.
In a C-3 it was really fun. As I passed low over a cross
runway, I needed a quick jab with the throttle to stop a
downer. then I throttled down and prepared to flare. All
this time I was trying to hold around 45 mph, which gave
me the ground speed of an armadillo.
Okay, there it comes. Gently, gently. flare. Ooops! I
suddenly found myself another 20 feet in the air,
looking down off the top of a gust. Poking the nose
somewhere in the down-ward direction. I woke up the
two-cylinder rubber band for just a second to stop the
rate of descent and flopped back to earth like a pooped
Roll-out must have been less than 100 feet because the
touch down was at about 35 mph and the tail skid was
digging in to slow me even faster. Since a C-3 has no
brakes of any kind, I was glad for the tailskid . . .
right at that moment anyway. As I tried to taxi back, I
learned to hate it because I never could get it to turn
worth a damn, not even by gunning the throttle and
partially lifting the ail. They finally had to send
somebody out to grab a wing tip and swing me.
I would have to say, now that I've flown it, that the
C-3 is an interesting little machine. It gets more
"interesting" the stronger the wind. It is as docile and
forgiving as a heavier-(but not much)-than-air-machine
can be, although it doesn't exactly knife through the
air like a rapier. At first its marginal controls are
distracting. At the end, they become endearing, as
remembrances of the way things used to be.