Trusty Trainer

Plane & Pilot 33:10 (1997): 34-39.

Bill Cox

Why not, reasoned Grumman-American back in 1971, call its newly acquired trainer the Trainer? What a novel idea, calling an airplane what it is. Some instructors might argue that point. Just as the Cherokee 140 sometimes was chastised for being too easy to fly, the Grumman-American Trainer earned exactly the opposite reputation. G-A's sporty Trainer was either one of the most talented airplanes of its kind, or it was a little too hot to be a basic aviation teaching machine.

The AA1A was an indirect product of the imagination of Jim Bede. Depending on who you talk to (and whether they got stuck later for the $450 deposit on a production BD-5), Bede was either a visionary design genius or a maverick from somewhere out around the Ford Galaxy. Fact is, despite some not-so-successful projects, Bede has had a number of good ideas over the years. The original folding wing, store-it-in-your-garage BD-1 was one of the best; a simple machine - fast, efficient and fun. Bede, ever the optimist, was absolutely positive he'd sell a million of 'em.

It didn't quite work out that way. Bede never even got into production with the original BD-1, a syndrome that was to follow him throughout his career. American Aviation of Ohio acquired Bede's design and managed to crank out 459 of the revised, non-folding-wing AA-1 Yankee Clippers between 1969 and 1971 before it, too, fell on its sword.

Aerospace giant Grumman in turn absorbed the Cleveland company and moved operations to its hugh plant in Savannah, Ga. The subsequent Grumman-American AA1A abandoned Bede's high speed "hot wing" in favor of tamer stall characteristics and, as a result, its an exercise in understatement to say the AA1 and AA1A fly somewhat differently.

The AA1A Trainer was to become the foundation for a whole family of general aviation airplanes to include the four-place, 150 hp Cheetah, 180 hp Tiger and even a twin-engine trainer, the Cougar. Grumman continued production until 1979 before shutting down all piston products.

The perky Trainer you see on these pages, N12VG, is a 1971 model, though you could hardly tell the airplane is more than a quarter-century old. It's owned by Dick Glynn and Bruce Arboit of Torrance, Calif. Both pilots are handling junkies (Arboit also owns a Pitts and Glynn has a Decathlon), and the Trainer certainly reflects their enthusiasm for sports machines.

Examine the AA1A closely, and you begin to understand why it's such a different airplane from its competition. First, there's the sliding canopy, an extremely simple, cost-effective method of boarding people, provided they're all wearing pants and willing to climb over the cabin walls. Visibility through the plexiglass hatch is excellent - some pilots argue it's almost too good in hot weather when the sun tends to bake the occupants - and, if you need more ventilation, you simply open the hatch a few inches.

Fuel gauges are simple tubes mounted vertically on the side walls, looking for all the world like king-size thermometers, and they indicate quantity on board by head pressure. The airplane's skins are bonded rather than riveted together, and that makes for smoother, aerodynamically cleaner surfaces. Inside the wing and tail are tough, honeycomb structures and tubular spars, so strong there's never been an inflight structural failure of a Grumman-American piston product. The wings' thick tube-steel spars serve double duty as fuel tanks, a novel application. The nosegear is non-steerable and full-castering, allowing uncommon maneuverability on the ramp.

There's a down side to everything, and one negative feature of the sliding canopy is that it exposes the cabin to the elements. Unless you have at least three hands and a very large umbrella, I dare you to climb aboard a Trainer in even moderate rain without soaking the interior. Those tubular fuel gauges, though simple, are inherently inaccurate, hard to read and a special challenge to see at night. Bonded rather than riveted skins certainly are aerodynamically preferable, but they're also difficult and expensive to repair. Many A&Ps don't have the foggiest notion how to fix a bonded honeycomb structure.

The non-steerable nosegear is fun and maneuverable, but because ground control is relegated to differential braking, the airplane's brakes wear prematurely, plus the curved tube structure is a weak link. Nosegear collapses on Trainers Cheetahs and Tigers are a common result of hard landings.

Despite such niggles, the Trainer remains one of the most fun mini-singles you can buy, much more than simply a trainer of pilots, as evidenced by Glynn and Arboit's recreational airplane. Many buyers purchase two seats more than they need anyway. Cruise performance is comparable to most older Cherokee 140s and 1 72s.

To fly a Trainer or any of its follow-ons, the TR2, T-Cat or Lynx, is to experience a different philosophy of flight training. The Trainer is a divergent design from the more conventional Piper Tomahawk, Beech Skipper and Cessna 152. All the latter airplanes emphasized stability and docile handling above all else and were intended to keep a student pilot as far from trouble as possible. In contrast, the Trainer had almost neutral stability, especially in pitch and roll, a desirable characteristic for fun airplanes, but not so desirable for a trainer. Trim everything hands off, and the airplane would only maintain straight and level flight for a few minutes. Lean forward or back, left or right even a little, and the Trainer would respond with a pitch or roll in that direction.

Perhaps for that reason, the Trainer is something of a sleeper bargain on the used plane market. According to Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest, you should be able to acquire an original '71 through '74 Trainer for less than $18,000. In contrast, a Beech Skipper or 152 generally demands $20,000 or more. Only the Piper Tomahawk is consistently less expensive than a Trainer.

The Trainer offers more aggressive aerodynamics at the cost of a higher stall speed and quicker control response (if the latter is truly a cost). The numbers pretty much speak for themselves. Grumman-Amen-can's Trainer continues to offer the highest cruise speed on the least horsepower in the class. The real margin may have been several knots more than the numbers at left suggest, especially if the airplane in question is equipped with wheel pants. With only 24 gallons in the tubular tanks and an admittedly frugal bum of 5.5 gph at high cruise, endurance was limited to about 3.5 hours plus reserve. For that reason, range wasn't much more than 400 nm on a good day, but at least you could plan on reaching your destination quite a bit quicker than the competition.

Conversely, the Trainer has the lowest payload of the three, 349 pounds in stock trim, slightly less if you opted for a heavy radio package. The diminutive Grumman-American also has the highest stall speed in the class, as much as eight knots faster than that of Cessna's ubiquitous 152.

Climb performance was a subject of some controversy on the Trainer and its two-seat brothers. The comparison numbers that suggest the Trainer was actually the best climber of the lot may be more than a little misleading. High wing loading and minimal horsepower aren't often a good combination if you're looking for strong climb, and the G-A Trainer has the highest power loading and least horsepower in its class.

Accident statistics suggest the airplane is very much at risk at high density altitudes, and not many flight schools even attempt to use them in places such as Denver or Albuquerque in summer. Later versions of the Trainer, the AA1B and AA1C, pumped horsepower up to 115 and improved climb performance significantly.

Fling the airplane around the sky for a few minutes, and you can't help but speculate that it might have made an interesting aerobatic mount. Grumman-American thought so, too and, back in the late '70s, the company began tests along exactly those lines. Aileron and elevator response were already by far the best in the class. Then-company public relations man Laurel Smith pointed out the prototype to me on one of my editorial visits to Savannah in 1977, but he wouldn't let me fly the airplane. There was little doubt the Trainer was tough enough to withstand the stresses of acro.

I once saw a Cheetah with the wings and tail demated (all G-A designs shared essentially the same structure), and the thick, tube-steel spars looked strong enough to handle virtually any maneuver.

Though the Trainer initially was approved for spins, the airplane's spin characteristics were inconsistent and far from ideal. Spins could go flat in a few turns, and that specific scenario is blamed for a number of Trainer accidents over the years. (Even the prototype AA1A was lost during a spin test.) In fairness, the later models with the tame wing were less critical, but those pilots who know the type well suggest spins are about as smart as playing leapfrog with a unicorn. The FAA issued an AD in 1974 prohibiting spins in all the AA series airplanes.

Landing characteristics were straight forward, though everything happened a little quicker than in a 152. With a stall speed a full eight mph faster, the Trainer demanded 70 around the patch in contrast to 60 in the 152. The airplane was no more difficult to return to Earth, though it was important to keep the nose up to assure a two-point touchdown.

Maintenance problems common to most AA1As include delamination of the bonded skins. Purple sealant used on some models was simply defective and caused some severe problems with skins pulling away from the wings. Overheating was a common squawk, as well. The four-cylinder 0-235 Lycoming that powered the Trainer, TR2, T-Cat and Lynx tended to run hot because of tight cowlings and poorly designed baffling. Nose-wheel shimmy was almost as much of a problem on AA1s as on 172s. Premature brake wear, though predictable because the brakes were the only way to steer the airplane on the ground, was common-stainless-steel discs helped.

If you can't leave well enough alone, there are a number of conversions designed to boost the AA1A's performance considerably. You can choose between power upgrades to 125 or 150 hp, fuselage aux fuel tanks to add 10 or 20 gallons, a dorsal fin to improve rudder effectiveness and gear fairings to realize additional speed.

The Trainer and its progeny weren't difficult airplanes to fly and hardly deserved the reputation earned by the earlier Yankee. Though the AA1A certainly had its share of quirks and may not have been as well suited to the training role as the 152 or Skipper, Grumman-American's happy little two-seater offered a fun quotient that none of the other trainers could match. p&p

Cox, Bill. "Trusty Trainer." Plane & Pilot 33:10 (1997): 34-39.