Planes ‘like riding a triky backward downhill’
The Chattanooga group’s planes are made by American Champion Aircraft in Rochester, Wis. They feature conventional, or tailwheel designs, meaning there are two wheels in front and a skid, or single wheel in the back to support the tail. While the planes are great for flying, the design makes them more difficult to maneuver on the ground, according to Huff. They are also called taildraggers because the rear wheel wants to come around to the front, a move known as a ground loop.
“It’s like trying to ride a tricycle backward down a hill,” Huff says.
While refueling in Indiana, the group actually saw a plane that had recently ground looped.
“The left wing and assembly were all bent up,” Chamberlain says. “I’d never seen one that had freshly ground looped.”
The planes have a single wing on top. The Lycoming AEIO-360 engines with constant speed props generate 180 horse power at 2,700 rpm.
“These are not your mother’s Cessna,” Chamberlain says. “They are very powerful.”
The Chamberlain plane was made in 1998, while the Huff plane was made a year later. The Hunt plane is the newest, made in 2004, and it is only slightly different than the other two. To shave off some weight, its landing gear is made of aluminum instead of steel and the propeller is made of a composite material.
“Otherwise, they are pretty much identical,” Huff says.
On their blog, the group included their trip to tour American Champion Aircraft in Rochester, located about 70 miles south of Oshkosh.
“We could not go all that way and not stop by to see where our Super Decathlons were born. We had pre-arranged our arrival and we were given a personal tour by Char Mehlhaff, vice president and chief financial officer. … We followed the process from raw steel, aluminum and fabric, that under the gentle hands of real artists becomes the stuff of legends.
—By Barry Courter
As the three Super Decathlon planes taxied wing-to-wing along the Lovell Field tarmac just outside the lobby of TAC Air, the crews of two massive Black Hawk helicopters were 100 yards away, prepping their aircrafts for refueling.
A short while later, the eight Army crew members made their way toward the lobby and stopped to admire the single-wing, tail-wheel planes known for their acrobatic maneuvers.
“Those are cool,” one of the Black Hawk crew says.
The scene is somewhat repeated almost a week later in Oshkosh, Wis., where the Super Decathlon planes and “crew” had traveled for the EAA AirVenture, an annual event that draws 10,000 airplanes and 500,000 flying enthusiasts.
The event is one of the largest airshows in the world, and it draws aircraft of every type, era and usage from private to military craft. It’s a place where heads stay on a swivel and people are there to check out airplanes, but the Decathlons got more than their share of attention.
“When it came time to leave, we fired the engines together and started taxiing to take off, and we looked around and all the campers and flyers were out of their tents and campers taking pictures of our little planes,” says Dr. Don Chamberlain. “It was pretty neat.”
Chamberlain was part of an airfleet from Chattanooga featuring a combination of the only three Super Decathlons in the immediate area and three father-and-son teams who flew to the show. Joining him in his airplane (N721AC) was his father, Frank. In N400AB was Jim Huff, who was flying with his 15-year-old son Caleb, and in N30SB was Ken Hunt and his 11-year-old son Max.
While the Super Decathlons are designed for performing stunts, the Chattanooga contingent was in Oshkosh just to be spectators and to create an adventurous memory.
“The trip itself was more fun and more just hitting the ball out of the park than any of us planned,” Chamberlain says. “I think these young boys are poisoned with the airplane bug.”
Caleb and Max agree. Both said prior to the trip that they were looking forward to camping, but upon their return they said the camping was OK (it was a little colder than anticipated), but seeing the airshow and, in particular, a Harrier vertical-takeoff jet and a P-51 Mustang prop fighter from World War II were favorites. Both also liked spending time with their fathers.
“That was really cool,” Caleb says. “It was nice to have the week to ourselves.”
A blog was created prior to the trip and, though technical challenges prevented the crew from posting as many live updates as they’d hoped, chatt2oshkosh.com still is filled with video, photos and text detailing the trip.
Included in the comments is an entry about how “Caleb and Max have perfected their ‘magic act’ of disappearing and reappearing at will. They are having a great time looking at planes and aviation technologies; especially the computer flight simulators. … With all the time they’re spending on simulators they’ll find the real thing a snap.”
One of the newer focuses of the airshow, according to Huff, is introducing a younger generation to airplanes and flying, and that mission was accomplished with Max and Caleb.
“It was an awesome trip. The camaraderie, the friendship, having a common thread with the airplanes and being able to attend the airshow, which was also a trade show, was a dream come true.”
Held this year from July 22-29, the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture draws people and planes from 60 countries, attracting enthusiasts and novices who are into warbirds, homebuilts, ultralights, vintage and just about anything else that flies.
“It is hard to imagine the number and variety of different airplanes at AirVenture,” they wrote on the blog. “It is the major annual trade convention for general aviation. Businesses are looking at executive jets and turbo-props; ultralight enthusiasts have to have the latest new toy for these flying machines; family minded pilots are looking for aircraft that will get the whole bunch to Grandmother’s house; aerobatic professionals have to see what their competition will be flying next season.”
In fact, one of the attractions this year was Yves “Jetman” Rossy, who flew his carbon-Kevlar jetwing. His flight, which began following a helicopter jump from a mile and half up, was covered on national television.
“It was hugely disappointing if you were there,” Chamberlain says. “He was nothing more than a speck. If we didn’t have these giant TV screens, we wouldn’t have seen anything.”
The first AirVenture was held in 1953, and was started by a group of people who were interested in building their own planes.
The Chattanooga flyers have known each other for years; Huff actually taught the other two to fly. Chamberlain flies out of Colledgedale, while Hunt keeps his plane at Lovell and Huff flies out of Dallas Bay Skypark and is a flight instructor with Hixson Aviation.
Huff is a corporate pilot; Hunt owns Hunt Nissan; Chamberlain is a gynecologic oncologist. The elder Chamberlain is a retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Command Pilot.
Despite all their combined hours of flying, none had made a trip like this before. In the weeks leading up, they scheduled several practice sessions to discuss such details as communication methods, flight patterns, the route and camping equipment since they would be sleeping in tents near their airplanes on the grounds of the air show.
The Super Decathlons are two-seaters with just enough storage behind the rear passenger for a travel bag. Weight limitations also come into play, however, so Chamberlain shipped some of the camping equipment ahead to the airport in Fond du Lac, Wis. They camped there each night and took a shuttle to Oshkosh for the shows.
Workers at AirVenture “put [the camping gear] on a golf cart and brought it right to us,” he says. “After 60 years, they really have everything figured out.”
The three fathers and sons left Lovell Field on July 22 at 8:45 a.m. in a right echelon formation and switched to a “V” formation in the air.
“Flying in formation is something different and it requires extra attention and training,” says Huff, who had flown in formation previously. “It takes a lot of briefing and attention to detail and talking about the entire flight and how we will conduct everything. A thorough briefing is important and you have to be able to trust the guys in the formation. It’s a big deal.”
From Lovell Field, the team flew at 2,500 feet directly to Putnam County Airport in Indiana, where they refueled and had lunch. They then flew over Chicago and Lake Michigan on the way to the Fond du Lac airport. Total flight time was six hours and the trip took about 7 1/2 hours.
Hunt says the group is already talking about returning to Oshkosh next year.
“For me, it was my first first time to Oshkosh and I was unprepared to see the thousands of airplanes,” he says. “My expectation was have a good trip with my son and spend some time camping and in that respect it was a complete success.”
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...