The Ryan SC died young,
after barely a year's production, and is all but forgotten today. Only
eleven were produced before the priorities of a growing air force led Ryan
to shut down the SC assembly line to make room for the PT-16 and PT-20/22.
Several other SCs were completed later from components, which brought the
total up to 14 of what could have been a truly important airplane.
To put the SC in proper
historical perspective, it has to be viewed against the backdrop of
aviation, circa 1937. The Erco 310 (Ercoupe) had just flown and the Dart
was about to become a Culver Cadet. Piper was knee deep in Cubs and old
man Taylor was about to do his number with the BC-12D. Personal
transportation was a two-tiered system of 450-horse super birds (Staggerwings,
Reliants) and 65-hp puddle jumpers. There was very little in between. Only
the Bellanca junior offered what was then called "high performance;" a
cruise speed of 120 mph on 100 hp.
Introduced into this
traditional system of tubing and fabric, spruce and butyrate, the Ryan SC
had about the same emotional impact as Sputnik did 20 years later. From
its cantilever, high-aspect ratio wings to the racer-like panted oleo
landing gear, it was a step ahead of everything else in its class. Of
course, across the Atlantic pond Miles, Percival and Messerschmitt were
producing similarly configured aircraft and enjoying great success, as
defined by European terms. But, here in the U.S. of A. the Ryan SC was a
quantum jump in light aircraft design. It brought the most advanced
technologies of the era to bear on an airplane for the monied masses. Of
course, in 1937, the monied mass was pretty small and a bit worried about
joining the rest of the nation at the neighborhood bread line. Still, Ryan
gambled that progress and personal aviation would make the SC a winner.
There is today a large
number of Ryanphiles that mightily mourn its passing. The number of
surviving SCs is variously estimated at seven to ten, which represents a
survival rate of an astounding 75°0. If, for instance, Cubs had the same
survival rate, you could line them up wingtip-to-wingtip and they'd reach
from the Shakey's Pizza at Seward, Nebraska, to Wahoo and back again.
Several of the surviving
SCWs have been bastardized with flat engines (after the prototype, all
production models had radials) or modified this or that, but Brad Larson,
of Minneapolis, liked the airplane the way it was. And that's just the way
his SCW looks today, like it was back then, and walking around it is a
real education in the supposed progress of light aircraft design.
A casual glance at the
leading edges of the wings on Larson's SCW shows that the Ryan engineers
weren't taking any chances. Since the leading edge is a stressed-skin
torque box and had to carry most of the wing loads, they made even the
lightest pieces heavy. The skin, for instance is a solid .040 inch thick,
which may not mean much to most pilots, but the same area in even the
high-powered bombs these days seldom goes above .032. Almost all of the
rivets are gigantic 3/16 jobs and even the smaller 3/32 are much larger
than the rivets you'll find in modern aircraft. You almost never see
anything bigger than 1 /8 inch rivets on modern airplanes and C-150s are
skinned with bushels of tiny little 3/32s. And all that's on exterior
skin! The inside must look like the detail work on the Golden Gate Bridge.
A similarity to a Wells Fargo cash box is not necessary by modern
standards. With decades of light plane stressed-skin construction behind
them, today's airplanes are nearly as strong as the SCW, but much lighter,
so they don't need all that beef.
But, still, looking at the
gentle, graceful way in which the workers at Ryan constructed-no,
created-their airplane, you can't help but see the benefits of a little
thought. Larson's airplane is a brightly polished collection of sensuous
curves that shows none of the waves, the "oil canning" of thin-gauge metal
slopped together. Most of the heavier curved surfaces of the SCW were
actually formed on dies, and then all holes were drilled using nested
steel drilling templates. Almost everything was predrilled before
assembly, seldom done today because of the expensive tooling.
The aft portion of the
wing is fabric covered and sales literature of the day said, "This makes
possible a wing which has its natural center of gravity coinciding with
the center of pressure. The latest findings of extensive research have
shown that such a statically balanced wing is the only type completely
free from any possibility of wing flutter under all conditions." Ignoring
the fact or fiction of that statement, can you imagine seeing that
statement in your latest super-slick, four-color brochure on your 172 or
Cherokee? No public relations firm in its right mind would admit to the
existence of something like wing flutter. But the flying public of 1937
had just watched Beech go through a shredding wing problem with the
Staggerwing and was a little wary of airplanes that promised high
performance without lots of brace wires.
All of the production SCWs used the 145 Warner Super Scarab radial rather
than the inline Menasco of the prototype. What prompted the change is
hidden in the minds of those who made the decision, but the outcome was
that the incredibly sexy Menasco cowl gave away to an equally perky little
round one for the Warner.
Every airplane has some
physical quirk that sticks in your mind long after you've flown it. The
door latches on 172s, for instance, have always reminded me of cheap
fishing tackle boxes. Beech control wheels leave a good feel in the palm
of my hand. With the SCW, the thing that immediately impressed me was the
canopy. It opened with a feather touch, the ball bearings gliding back on
the canopy rails with a slick, purposeful sound. Quality; that's what this
tiny detail said. And attention to one detail usually means all the others
are equally well done. The airplane didn't disappoint me.
Brad Larson didn't really
restore his SCW. He bought it 20 years ago, when it was just an unusual
airplane, not a classic antique. Since then all he's done is keep it
immaculate and fly it like he would any other airplane. Hardly a major
fly-in anywhere in the country would be complete without Brad's friendly
smile and shiny Ryan. An airline captain by trade, he'd rather drone along
listening to the rumble of the Warner than the whine of a gaggle of
The true personality of an airplane almost never reveals itself on the
first visit to the cockpit. It's only after many hours hunched glint eyed
at the controls that a pilot can say he really knows and understands the
airplane. After twenty years with the same bird, Larson just grins and
says, "She's a lady. An honest, straightforward machine."
Sliding down into the
cockpit is easy with the canopy back; it's a wonder the Yankee and
Traveler are the only domestic airplanes to use this method of entry. The
airplane is dated by the scattergun placing of the instruments about the
panel as well as the trusty old control stick. It's interesting to note
that the flaps and trim controls are on the left side of the pilot, rather
than the right, which forces him to change hands on the stick. But it
keeps the controls out of the passengers' way.
The Ryan is a three-place
bird; the back seat is meant to handle an occasional passenger who has
masochistic tendencies or short legs, but the front deck is deep and
fairly wide. Naturally, you see nothing but cowling when looking straight
ahead, but the Warner is so small and the flight deck so wide, that large
gobs of runway are easily visible around the nose. When taxiing out, the
SCW didn't feel a bit like a pioneer in the industry. But, even though she
was a little old, she still had a thing or two that we could use today.
One is the throttle control. It's a combination push-pull type and vernier.
If you screw it in or out, it acts like a straight vernier, but all you
have to do is push or pull to overcome it. There's no thumb button or
vernier release in sight. Now, that's the way a vernier should be
The brakes definitely were of pre-war vintage. Working off a so-called
"Johnson Bar", you pull on a large centrally mounted lever sticking out of
the floor. Then, when you push a rudder pedal down, you get brake in the
direction of that pedal.
Okay, line up on the
centre line, throttle in. Rumble, rumble. The little Warner told me it was
doing its best to run us down the runway. Rumble, rumble. Then, with no
warning, or coaxing from the controls, the rumble of tires and tin
disappeared and was replaced by the warm murmur of the engine and the wind
past the canopy. I had been concentrating on the edge of the runway and
was so surprised to find it falling away that I quickly glanced at the
airspeed and found we had gotten off at 50 mph. Takeoff roll was short,
directional control great, and the feeling of airborne contentment
overwhelming. It was going to be a good flight.
Without a doubt, the best feature of the SCW is its visibility. Produced
in an era when built-in blind was taken for granted, the Ryan's
aquarium-style cockpit must have really been impressive. It still has
better visibility than almost any airplane in production today.
The long-span ailerons
give a quick response, but the same large ailerons that gives quick roll
rates also make stick forces on the heavy side. But the airplane is
nimble. There is, in fact, a rumor floating around about an SCW that put
on an aerobatic demo at Ottumwa a year or so ago and shook up a few of the
With wings tapered like
pool cues, you'd expect a sharpish stall with the tips and ailerons going
first. Not so. The wing has nearly six degrees of twist as it runs out to
the tips, so the stall is much like any other machine that flies. Pull
hard enough and it quits flying. Relax and it flies again. No big deal.
The SCW's wings are over
37 feet long and it's not a flyweight at 2150 pounds gross. Still, with
145 radial horses, it purred along at an effortless 130 indicated, which I
later confirmed with two-way ground speed checks. That's not half bad for
an airplane with the frontal area of a beer keg with overshoes.
As I turned final, I
glanced over at Brad. He was smiling, digging on me digging his airplane.
He was watching me discover something he's always known; that Ryan built
gorgeous air-planes and beautiful experiences with a missionary zeal that
belongs to those who truly love flying machines.
Coming down final at 75
mph, I was again impressed by the visibility and then mildly surprised by
the high sink rate. Then Brad grinned a little more, and said, "Here, let
me give you half flap," and he pulled on the flap lever with mischief in
his eye. The SCW doesn't really have flaps, not in the normal sense,
anyway. What it has is a large perforated center section flap that is more
a dive brake, a fugitive from an SBD. Anyway, the second he yanked on the
handle, I found myself shoving the throttle in. Then I shoved it in more
and more. My God! What is this? Were we dragging a parachute? Soon I had
nearly cruise power on just to maintain 75 mph. I've never seen anything
like it! With the flaps out, it flies as if you're trying to drag it
through molasses. After touchdown, Brad turned and said "You should see it
with full flaps." No thanks.
As is usually the case, I
managed to end a nearly spiritual aviation experience with a totally
clumsy, humiliating flop back to earth. I hadn't bargained for the
six-inch extension of the oleos and managed to kiss off the main gear,
getting a little skip and a hop for my trouble. The gear is soft and
squishy and waddles just a tad when the tail moves back and forth.
The usual tail-dragger tap-dance on the rudders was more of a ballet, as
everything was happening in slow motion, like a stop-action karate scene.
Then, Brad grabbed the brake lever, we turned off the runway and my flight
of fancy and nostalgia was done.
Country of Origin:
United States of America
Light Utility / Sport Monoplane
Ryan Aeronautical Co.
San Diego, California
37 feet 6 inches
26 feet 7 inches
Super Scarab 7-cylinder radial engine