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The Luscombe Model 8

by Budd Davisson, courtesy of www.airbum.com

Not too long ago Luscombes shared a dubious honour with the Taylorcraft. They were voted "The Airplane Most Likely to be Abandoned on the Back Tiedown Line." A ratty Luscombe was the rule, not the exception. Although you'd occasionally see fantastically polished, beautifully detailed Luscombes, you were far more likely to see airplanes with dull, spotted skin, scaling paint and small weird animals in residence in nooks and crannies.

From the beginning, however, those who loved Luscombes, LOVED Luscombes. They had gotten past the old-wives' tales about it's supposedly "squirrely" ground handling, found out the truth and gloried in the fact that they were flying a sporty little airplane at bargain basement prices. Even today, when we are supposedly much more enlightened, the Luscombe stands somewhere near the back end of the classic aircraft pack, when it comes to prices. They are still a bargain. Much more important, they aren't as hard to fly as the grape vine would have them. More on that later.

Several things make the Luscombe an ideal restoration project. For one thing, they are tiny. Without the wings, they'd fit into a garage (or upstairs bedroom, if you don't tell mom) without even being tight. Secondly, there are approximately 2,500 flying with another 1,000 estimated to be in barns, attics and workshops, and an unknown number disassembled for parts. This is another way of saying that finding assistance and parts isn't difficult.

What makes the parts and assistance aspect of supporting or rebuilding a Luscombe much easier than other airplanes is that technically the parts are still in production. Although they didn't mean to get into the parts business, the Don Luscombe Aviation History Foundation, in Chandler, Arizona, has all the drawings, the Type Certificate and some of the original tooling. See the separate side bar for what services they provide, but suffice it to say, they make owning a Luscombe easy.

Mechanical Description

The Luscombe Model 8, like the Phantom before it, was well ahead of its time. Don Luscombe got the first Model 8 going as part of a class project in one of his aviation trade schools and it went into production in 1938/39. It is worth noting that the airplane was the very first commercially successful all-aluminium light aircraft, although aircraft like the Buhl Pup had used the same material much earlier. By the time the war shut Luscombe down, the airplanes were selling extremely well, a fact not lost on Cessna, when they began post war production of the 120/140.

The postwar airframes differed in a myriad of tiny details from the pre-war airplanes. Some of the changes are significant, but most are merely interesting. When the company was taken over by the War Department (it was owned by a Swiss foreign national at the time and you KNOW how dangerous they can be in wartime) to produce sub-components, it's engineering staff never forgot the Model 8. In their off hours, they continued up-dating the airframe and, when they went back into production in late 1946, the result was an airplane that took advantage of what they'd learned during the war.

Post war wing ribs, for instance, are stampings in the rag-wings and almost non-existent in the metal wings. The metal wings use curved, hat-section (actually derby shaped) stampings to hold their shape with no webs. Pre-war ribs are traditional aluminium truss units. The spars, beginning to end, never changed.

Most of the airplane's components were refined for easier production. After the war they continued this process and in 1947 introduced the "square" tail. It took some months to use up existing inventory plus, since the two styles of tails are interchangeable it's not unusual to see late tails on early airplanes and vice versa.

There are two basic wing designs, the double strut rag wing and the single strut, stressed skin aluminium post war wing. The rag wing was offered as an option after the metal wing was introduced until available stock ran out sometime in late '46 or '47.

The original wings used .016 aluminium leading edges which was easily damaged, especially in the pre-war wings which used a softer aluminium. The metal wing was certificated with .016" but immediately went to .020" because of availability problems with the thinner material. They later listed the heavier skins as an option with the .016" being standard. With the .020" skin an option, it's possible to see metal wings with either skin on it. The weight difference was about 7 pounds an airplane.

Just for the record: It's often assumed the older rag wing airplanes were lighter, but no one seemed to know exactly how much. Doug Combs of the Luscombe Foundation says the rag-wings save 56 pounds an airplane. For such little birds, that's a sizable amount.

The metal wings originally had only a few inspection panels , but corrosion concerns prompted a Service Bulletin from the Foundation followed by an AD to install two more inspection panels mid-wing. Since you're looking at a ten foot long closed aluminium box that's at least 50 years old, that seems like a sensible thing to do.

Corrosion is, as with any aluminium airplane, an area of constant concern with the Luscombe. Luscombes suffered more than most of its peer group because there was at least a 25 year period during which Luscombes were worth very little and a hangared Luscombe was rare. The vast majority of the population sat outside for most of their life.

Doug Combs says 10-20% of the airplanes have some corrosion somewhere and it is often a function of where they spent most of their time. He says corrosion spawns an oxide powder which, in a dry climate, helps stop the corrosion. In a damp climate, however, he says it collects moisture and promotes even more corrosion. For that reason, Luscombes in the damper parts of the country are more suspect than those from the drier western states.

The wings have the standard corrosion problems and the spar carry-throughs in the top of the fuselage require close inspection.

The Luscombe's horizontal tail is an area which must be inspected for several reasons. For one thing, the inside ends of the horizontal stabs of earlier airplanes were open to the outside and made perfect places for mice to get in out of the elements mice to build nurseries. The urinary habits of breeding mice are not conducive to long-lived airplane components.


The horizontals also need inspecting because they were often mishandled by owners. The leading edge of later stabilizers contain ribs that aren't actually riveted to the spars, so lifting on the leading edge to move the airplane flexes it. Also, the spars themselves are three piece with a joint just outboard of the fuselage which introduces a stress concentration. A tail that would last an eternity in flight can easily sustain damage through mishandling. That's why the Foundation has an STC'd kit for a retractable handle which slides out of the fuselage to spare stabilizer abuse.

Doug Combs says the first place he looks for corrosion is at the steel fittings. Dissimilar metal corrosion is also an indication to look elsewhere for that tell tale white powder.

The landing gears of earlier, stock Luscombe's is unique in that the gear legs themselves are cantilevered weld-ments connected to the centre shock absorption spring and hydraulic damper by streamlined tie-rods. Since it's hard to push on a rope (a basic engineering principle), the tie-rods provide no side load protection and the legs often get bent, cracked or broken. At the very end of the original production run, 1948/49, the Siflex (or Silflex, Luscombe spelled it both ways) gear was introduced. This was a massive piece of swage-tapered tubing with an equally massive welded upper-leg that connected directly to the spring in the middle of the fuselage. This eliminated the tie-rods between the gear legs. The Foundation is making replacement tubing gears but has yet to find a vendor which can do the Siflex gear.

A good alternative to the Siflex gear is using steel push-pull tubes in place of the flexible tie-rods. This what the factory did for float-equipped Luscombes and the tubes are available from the Foundation. They are a factory-approved installation.

The airplanes were, at one time or the other, equipped with every form of brake available including Shinns and Goodyears. They are adequate for flying the airplane, but a real pain to maintain and keep adjusted. The foundation has been doing Cleveland disk conversions on a one-time STC basis and hopes to get an multiple STC soon.

The Luscombe was produced in a wide variety of models, the biggest difference being the engine and wing design. The fuel system was also changed depending on the engine. The 65 hp airplanes usually (not always) had a fuselage tank. However, it was found there wasn't enough head pressure to feed engines 75 hp and larger because of the increased climb angles. For that reason, they went to either one or two wing tanks. The post-war rag wings were originally set up for wing tanks, but they weren't always installed.

Here's a quick breakdown of the models:

8, A-50 engine, a few built "...they'd just as soon forget it..." says Combs.
8A, A-65 Continental, about 4,500 built, rag or metal wings
8B, Lycoming 0-145, only a handful still flying
8C, 1940/41, 75 hp Continental
8D, 75 Continental w/wing tank
8E, Post war, 1946/47, C-85 metal wings, about 5500 built
8F, 1948-1950, C-90, flaps, later updated panel.
8F, 1959-60, Silvaires


Flight Characteristics

Not wanting to rely on either memory or hearsay, I contacted the Foundation to see about getting several flights in Luscombes of different models. I wanted not only to do some comparisons, but to actually develop a feel for the airplane.

First we went out in the 8A they had just finish restoring for Fred Voltz of Copple, Texas. It was so fresh, it even smelled new. The airplane was sans electrical but incorporated most of the Foundation mods including their fine- tuning of the control system.

"All we actually do is replace the older pulleys with modern ball bearing ones and make sure fairleads are lined up," Combs says. In other words, they take it back to new configuration.

To anyone who remembers Luscombes in their "dog days", the difference in control feel approaches astounding. The high-friction feeling of sawing wood with the aileron cables is replaced by a slick, syrupy feel that is delightful before even firing up.

Although a Luscombe's fuselage is narrow, for some reason the cockpit isn't noticeably tight for "normal" sized people. I'm FAA-normal. The floor is flat, so your feet stick ahead of you to the little rubber rudder pedals, that look like old MG brake pedals. They are located just a little off-centre and close together and I had to keep my feet down to keep from touching something above them with my toes. But, then, I was wearing cowboy boots, so that's hardly a criticism. The heel brakes are back and more centred and, at first, you have to think to keep your feet clear of them. A few minutes in the cockpit, however, and you don't notice anything unusual.

Although you're sitting well back in the wing, you're sitting fairly high in the fuselage, so your line of sight is clear of the nose. Just a little stretching drops the nose completely out of your vision.

The ergonomic relationship between the stick, throttle and seat is much better than many airplanes of the period which makes transitioning into the airplane much easier because you're comfortable and aren't reaching for anything.

As we taxied out I messed around with the rudders and I could immediately see why the airplane has a reputation for it's ground handling: The airplane goes exactly where your feet ask it to and some pilots aren't used to that. As I was to later confirm on a bunch of takeoffs and landings, the Luscombe isn't even close to being directionally unstable. But a lot of pilots are.

If you move your right foot a little bit, the airplane turns right a little. Move your foot a lot and it turns a lot. Jab at it and the airplane jumps in that direction.

Any complaint about the airplane's directional control on the ground would be the same as someone transitioning from a Buick station wagon into a Miata or similar sports car: There's nothing wrong with the way the little cars handle, but the driver has to get used to a car that isn't lethargic.

The Luscombe responds proportional to rudder inputs while airplanes like Cubs and Champs don't. They have a measurable lag and the Luscombe doesn't. Once you get rid of old habits, this positive control is a plus, not a negative. Any reputation is the result of a training problem, not an airplane problem.

On my first takeoff in the 65 hp 8A I was pleased to see how easy it was to hold both an attitude and direction while running on the mains. The gear is really stiff, so you can tell exactly what the airplane is doing and correct accordingly. The secret to corrections, since it does exactly what's ask of it, is "measured response." Don't over do it and start chasing your feet. Apparently that happens a lot with Luscombes.

With those long wings, the airplane is eager to fly and there's no doubt that it's flying on the wing, not the engine. That's even more evident on climb-out. We were two average people on an 80 degree day at 1500 ft MSL and 400-500 fpm rate of climb was the best we were going to get. The Luscombe's climb rate was about par with it's similarly powered contemporaries.

I was not prepared to like the airplane's handling as much as I did. The slicked up controls really help, especially in roll. In yaw, the rudders feel light but that's because they have very little centreing pressure. You have to rely on your butt or the skid ball to see how you're doing at first. The airplane has a lot of adverse yaw, when measured by modern standards, but it's about the same as a Champ and easily handled with a little rudder.

I don't know what prop was on this airplane, but it settled down to about 100 mph indicated at 2450 rpm, and I knew we were burning about 4-4.5 gallons per hour. How's that for fuel economy?

Stalls with that much wing happen around 40 mph and are anticlimactic, but I could see where it wouldn't take much rudder to kick it into a nice spin. Incidentally, a lot of people think the Luscombe would be a great aerobatic trainer, and, in fact many people do use the airplane for aerobatics. It may be time, however, for us to re-evaluate that kind of thinking. Yes, it will do loop, roll and spin type of manoeuvres, but we're talking about airplanes that are 50-60 years old. Most have never been completely gone through and the airplane has a lot of boxed-in areas that can't be easily inspected for corrosion. Personally, I'd never aerobat a Luscombe that hasn't had both the wings and the tail completely opened up and inspected.

One thing I was concerned about on the landing was getting it to come down. I expect it to be a real glider. The Luscombe surprised me, however, because although it glided like crazy, it was still coming down faster than something like the Cessna 140. This is a welcomed characteristic.

What I liked much more was the way the airplane slipped. At first I just nibbled at the slip, but soon was perfectly happy to bottom the rudder and lay the aileron over to watch the numbers coming up at us. The nose has only a slight tendency to come up in the slip and the entire thing was not only easily controlled, but a real hoot to do. Eventually, I got to where I was comfortable slipping hard and then bleeding out the slip a little at a time until flaring. For a long winged airplane, the Luscombe knows how to come down, when you want it to.

Understandably, the airplane likes to float, but not much worse than a Cub and no where nearly as bad as a Taylorcraft. In the same situation, it floats only slightly more than a flaps-up C-150. This gives you all day to work at finding the runway and getting the attitude right.

Feeling for the runway in ground effect is another place where "measured response" is called for. The airplane moves when you asked it to, so it helps to visually fixate on the edges of the runway and use small, quick inputs to keep it straight, not drifting and in the three-point attitude. On at least several of those first landings we had a little crosswind and the airplane handled it easily as long as I did my part.

I could see where heavy turbulence and gusts would keep you working because of the light wing loading, but the airplane has the control authority to handle it, if the pilot has the same authority and confidence.

Wheel landings with that rigid gear were a simple matter of flying it down and pinning it on, although I did get at least one ugly one. The trick is not to anticipate the touch down. Work at decreasing the wheel-to-runway distance gradually and let the touch down surprise you. Once pinned, even on one wheel, it was easy to control.

Visibility throughout the approach is excellent. At no time, including during flare, does the runway hide behind the nose. In fact, the nose is just noticeable enough to act as a reference in setting up the three-point attitude.

Later I flew with Doug in the 85 hp, 8E the Foundation was raffling off. This would be their fourth raffle airplane. This airplane had complete electrical, paint and about half tanks. On my first takeoff it was only seconds before I could feel the difference 85 hp makes. Where the 65 hp was happy to get off and slow to climb, the 85 was anxious to get off and showed us a solid 800 fpm at 75-80 mph. It had much better performance than the 8A, although it was less than 5 mph faster. Again, I don't know what the prop pitch was but the bigger engine really made an airplane out of it.

Doug showed me how he usually has transitioning students raise the tail to at least level or higher attitude on take off, which makes the airplane extremely stable on the mains. He says many accidents involve over-controlling on takeoff and getting the tail that high helps stabilize the airplane.

On approach we were using a de-accelerating approach starting at 80 mph and working down to 70 over the numbers. I'm certain that given a little more time, I would have used 65 mph or so at the end to kill some of the float. On final I was surprised to see how quickly the airplane picked up speed if I let the nose slide down even a little.

One thing I did not fall in love with in the pattern is the trim system. It's a horizontal crank facing forwards at the front edge of the seat between the two occupants' hips. First, I could never remember which way to trim it and I could never actually trim out the pressures on final. Most of the time, I just ignored the trim, set it neutral and over powered the pressures.

Is the Luscombe a difficult airplane to fly? Absolutely not. In reality, because it reacts so positively and has so much control authority, it is probably safer and eventually easier than many of its peer group. That however demands the pilot learn to control himself first and then the airplane.

Based on my experiences years ago with less-than-wonderful Luscombes, I was prepared to be unimpressed. Just the opposite was true. I loved it. A great combination would be a rag wing Luscombe with both wing tanks, a C-90 and no electrical. Low weight, lots of power, good controls...what could be better?