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A Cavalier AttitudeText by Stu Simpson Photography by Divan MullerThe TransCanada Highway crossed below me as I glanced at the Cav's airspeed read out. We eased up through 80 mph with the RPM good and the plane climbing strongly. I smiled to myself and thought for the tenth time that evening how much I love my airplane.My Cavalier is the sixth airplane I've owned in my flying career, and it's by far my favourite. Let me tell you a bit about it.
The Cavalier originates with Stan Mcleod. McLeod, a former RCAF pilot, was a stalwart fixture in the western Canadian homebuilt scene in the 1960's and 70's. From his home in Calgary, Alberta, Stan developed, built and flew the Cavalier design, and then started selling plans. His very close friend, the late Gene Peters, of Western Aircraft Supply, also based in Calgary, frequently supplied the wood kits for builders.
The Cavalier is an all-wood design that Mcleod developed from the Gardan Minicab, of French ancestry.
He liked the Minicab's low-wing platform, but felt it could benefit from a wider, spring steel landing gear. He did not like the fuel tank sitting in the pilot's lap, so the gas got moved to the wing tips into streamlined fibreglass tanks. Much safer for the crew should an accident occur.
There were some other mods, too, such as the tail feathers' shapes and the cabin and canopy design. Cavaliers have mostly sported Lycoming engines, while the Minicab seems happiest with the small Continentals. The split flaps stayed with the design. Stan also realized that not everyone wanted a taildragger, so he developed a nose wheel version. I've heard tales of nose gear failures so this is certainly something that, if the nose gear isn't beefed up enough, might limit a pilot from using rougher runways. Some claim that the nose wheel Cavalier is actually faster than the taildragger, but more on that later. Various Cavalier models eventually took to the air, with the model SA102.5 being the most popular. There is a retractable version, dubbed the Super Cavalier, but only a few of them have flown. Some builders modify their planes by eliminating the tip tanks; or by getting rid of any washout, which Stan quite understandably frowns on. I met Stan several years ago and immensely enjoyed his company as we poked about my plane. I couldn't help myself; I just had to say thank you for designing such a wonderful airplane. He rather grumpily waved me off and said, "Ya, I get that all the time." But I saw a ghost of a smile and could tell he appreciated my comments. Stan has a lot to be proud of. Cavaliers are flying all around the world. You can find them in Canada, the us, Europe, especially the UK, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. He reckons he sold about 5000 sets of plans and guesses maybe 10 percent of them got flying. Interestingly, there are three actively flying in the Calgary area. About the nose-wheel and speed. Brian Reimer, whose Cavalier appears with mine in this article, has a 160 hp Lycoming O-320 sitting atop his nose-wheel. We’ve done side-by-side speed runs for comparison. His plane will hit 125 mph at 2400 rpm. To be fair, Brian has a climb prop on his plane, which was useful in its previous environment in the mountains of British Columbia. However, 125 mph was my Cavalier’s normal cruise speed when I had an O-290D (125 hp) in it prior to switching to the O-320.
Reimer, an airline pilot by profession, has no plans of changing props because he loves the climb performance he currently gets. “If I want to go faster, I’ll just take the jet,” he quips. My Cavalier trues out at 145 to 150 mph at 2500 to 2550 rpm, so I think it’s fair to say that the taildragger version has the edge in cruise performance. So, what's it like to fly the Cavalier? In a word: SuperFunAndFantastic! Let me walk you through a short flight from my home strip, Chestermere-Kirkby Field, just outside of Calgary.
After a thorough and typical preflight inspection, I open the door, climb easily onto the wing and slip into the seat.
My only real annoyance with the Cav is the smaller size of the cabin. It's about 38" (97 cm) between the top cockpit rails, but it feels larger since the rails are quite a bit lower than shoulder height. That fact actually helps a lot. The cockpit can feel a bit crowded with two people at first, but inevitably the passenger simply slips their left shoulder quite naturally behind my right one, and things are fine. There's plenty of hip room, and a generous cargo area behind the seats. It can hold eighty pounds. By comparison, I've flown in a number of the Van's RVs and I've always felt much more crowded. This is simply because I have rather broad shoulders and the RV's cabin rails are right at shoulder height.
Alright, let’s go flying.
The Cav's start and run-up are typically Lycoming and I'm soon taxiing to the end of the runway. Visibility over the nose is superb. I line up, switch on the lights and transponder, and then feed in power. I use one notch, or 15 degrees, of flaps for takeoff. Lately I've been exploring takeoffs without any flaps. Honestly, it's hard to tell the difference.
Acceleration is excellent with 150 horses and a 74 x 60 mid-range prop. I usually lift off about 600 to 800 feet along Kirkby's excellent grass runway. The field sits at 3,340 ft ASL so warm summer takeoffs last a couple hundred feet longer if I'm heavy. Take-offs runs on pavement are noticeably shorter. Climb rate at 2,400 rpm and about 90 mph provides 1200 to 1300 ft/min if I'm alone, or about 900 - 1000 ft/min when I have company.
I once took off solo from an airport near Colorado Springs with a density altitude of 9200'. The acceleration was slower, and the takeoff run a few hundred feet longer, but the Cav still climbed at close to 900 ft per minute.
I make a gentle turn and roll out heading east to get away from Calgary's controlled airspace. Level at 4500' I get the Cav into cruise mode. I set the rpm and watch the speed build steadily.
I have one magneto and one Light Speed Engineering electronic ignition, and this gives me a fuel burn of about seven gallons per hour in cruise.
Now let's have some fun. The Cav is very manoeuvrable and light on the controls. I bank hard to the left and keep the ball centred. I pull on the stick for a tight turn and I feel the Gs load up, but not so much that I can't still smile.
After 180 degrees of turn I reverse to head back the other direction in an equally tight turn. It's easy to maintain altitude doing this stuff, and I've learned that coordinating the rudder makes a big difference to smooth manoeuvring. I play around some more just enjoying the Cav's performance before slowing down for some stalls.
Stalls are pretty standard, occurring at about 42 mph indicated. It takes quite a nose up attitude to actually get a solid break. When it does stall, my plane has a rather pronounced left wing drop. Reimer says he gets virtually no wing drop at all, so there’s likely a slight imperfection in my plane's rigging. It's an easy recovery in any case and can be accomplished in 150 to 200 feet at most.
Stan says he's spun Cavaliers numerous times, including inverted, and has had no problem recovering to controlled flight.
Returning to land requires me to do a bit more planning than was needed with the other, slower planes I've owned and flown. Speed control and steady cooling are my key concerns. I start winding back the revs about four miles out from the airport and use some tight turns to bleed off airspeed approaching the circuit. Once in the circuit I limit my bank angle to thirty degrees.
I drop the first notch of flaps when I get to about 120 mph, and then the second notch as I'm rounding the corner onto base leg, around 100 mph, maybe 105. From there I use power and pitch for speed control. I've never used all 45 degrees of flaps. I start my final approach at about 95 mph and steadily work the controls to cross the fence at 60 to 65 mph. It's easy to pull the power to idle well back from the threshold and then just coast in. I touch down in a full three-point attitude, sometimes bouncing a little, sometimes not. I don't do wheel landings, they're just not my style. Like any taildragger, the Cav wants me to use my feet to keep it straight, but it's an easy, enjoyable dance. I get the plane down to an easy walking speed in a comfortable 900 to 1000 feet. I've done it in as little as 700 feet when I'm right on my game.
I’ve landed the Cav in as much as 17 knots direct crosswind, which I think is a pretty impressive testament to the design.
The Cavalier carries 34 us gallons in its tip tanks, which gives me 4 hours range. I usually limit myself to about 3 hours at most, though, which gives me a nice safety margin and is a lot easier on my behind.
Flying the Cavalier in controlled airport environments works well. I've mixed with jet and turboprop traffic many times and the Cav's speed flexibility really seems to help the controllers. Ironically, it's mixing with slower traffic, such as Cessnas and Pipers that causes more difficulty. I've done S-turns on final approach behind C-172s and PA-28s more than once.
I credit Jack Wiebe of Stoney Creek, Ontario, for the magnificent job he did building my Cavalier. He first flew it in 1983 equipped with a Lycoming O-290 of 125 hp. The 290 was an ideal engine for the Cav, giving lots of power and performance with excellent fuel economy.
Sadly, some O-290 parts are tough to come by and I replaced that engine with an O-320 in 2015. I gained 20 to 25 mph in speed, and a bit more climb, too. O-320 parts almost grow on trees, so the switch was definitely a good move given my long-term plans for the plane. The Cav weighs 1060 pounds empty but can lift off with 700 pounds of people, petrol, and stuff.
I've been everywhere with my Cavalier in the nine years I've owned it. We've flown through Canada's western provinces, to Oshkosh thrice, to Washington, DC, to Tennessee, through the western deserts, to the border of Mexico, to California, and to the US west coast. I have plenty more distant trips planned, too.
Several times each summer I fly to Castlegar, BC, for lunch with my folks. I plan for 2:10 flight time, which is lots better than the normal eight-hour highway ride. I can fly the Cav to Castlegar, have lunch, and return all in less time than it takes to drive one way. The Cav's speed and climb performance make it an excellent mountain flyer. My Cavalier, my all-wood wonder, is my forever airplane, the last one I'll own. It does everything I need and most of what I want. Whether across the continent, or around the patch, it's just so much fun to fly, and it’s affordable to keep and maintain. I smile each time we chase the wind, and I usually don't want to land. No wonder I have such a Cavalier attitude. Editor's note: A big thank you to Cavalier pilots Stu Simpson and Brian Reimer, as well as Rick Appleton, who flew the Cessna 170 photo-ship, for making the air-to-air photoshoot possible.