Quad City Challenger
"A PRO FOR LOW AND SLOW"
Written By Dan Johnson
For 27 years Dan Johnson has been writing for a veritable Who's Who of aviation magazines. He has produced two books and a video on flight testing. He has been honored as the recipient of the Moody Award from the United States Ultralight Association, the Spirit Of Flight Award from the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and the Outstanding Leadership Award from ASTM International. Dan now leads the EAA Sport Pilot / Light Sport Aircraft initiative.
(PHOTOS BY RICHARD VANDER MEULEN AND DAN JOHNSON)
For 21 Years, Quad City's Challenger has proved a good choice,
by Dan Johnson
It's enough to create a serious case of envy among producers vying for the market the Challenger seems to own year after year. Even in 2003, a slow year for all aircraft manufacturers, Quad City Ultralight Aircraft pumped out another 120 kits. Most light-sport aviation companies would consider that an excellent performance. For Quad City, it was a down year!
The venerable company from the Quad Cities area of Illinois, near the Iowa border, has put more than 3,000 aircraft in the air. (Ed: over 3,500 in 2008). The Challenger is clearly one of the industry's leaders! The company has enjoyed the same management since it was founded more than two decades ago.
Last year the company celebrated 20 years of operation and this year Quad City reached another milestone with the 20th anniversary of the two-seaters that have made up the majority of its production. (Ed: 25 years in 2008!)
The Demo Plane Duo
For this review I had a chance to fly two different two-seat Challengers. One was built by Al Mader, a middle school art teacher in Medford, Wisconsin. Though Mader instructs seventh and eighth grade students (a task most pilots wouldn't dare attempt), he had never before built an aircraft. Indeed, Quad City's fastbuild kit is one of the Challenger's strongest sales arguments.
Mader received his first taste of ultralights with Don Zank of Zanklites in Wisconsin, who also sold him the kit. A 4,000-hour pilot in Challengers alone, Zank is one of the most experienced U.S. dealers. Headquartered at the Gateway airport he owns, Zank works with area pilots to whom he sells aircraft.
And for years, Zank has been the face of Quad City at Oshkosh AirVenture. Challengers are the backbone of his enterprise and he now runs the company's display at the big summer event. When I flew with him, I saw a pilot in good harmony with his flying machine and one who remains excited about them after all those flight hours - maybe it's because of all those flight hours.
Successful Company, Successful Design
The truth of Quad City's success may be revealed by this grudgingly complimentary statement by a competing manufacturer: "They [Quad City] build a low-cost ultralight and deliver it swiftly." For more than two decades, the company has been satisfying pilots and challenging competitors.
Quad City supplies an airworthy flying machine that brings flying enjoyment combined with an unusual ease of building - the company does a substantial part of the assembly, saving the builder considerable hours. Quality and flight characteristics notwithstanding, consistently low prices and quick shipments are a big party of Quad City's success.
To me, one of the most endearing qualities of the Challenger is its light weight when compared to many ultralights. A two-seat Challenger with basic but sufficient equipment tips the scales at barely more than 300 pounds empty.
As Mader came to learn from his building and flying experience, light weight benefits handling and low-speed performance. The slower speed realm of ultralights is an endearing capability and keeping weight low is one of the best ways to ensure these capabilities.
But while Challengers can be light, they are also surprisingly roomy - partly a benefit of tandem seating. If you want a plane that won't squeeze you, here it is. Especially with doors that curve outward to add dimension, Mader's plane was roomy. In a tandem aircraft, no one rubs elbows with you or blocks your vision to either side.
Challengers are quite maneuverable on the ground. The turn radius was so tight as to nearly allow a 360° turn within a wingspan. The inside maingear wheel appeared to scribe a circle only a few feet in diameter. Most pilots appreciate crisp taxiing, and it is certainly handy on a crowded ramp.
Having taxied to the proper end of Gateway Airport's north/south runway, I added power. Following a brief ground roll we rotated at barely more than 30 mph indicated and we were flying.
After a couple takeoffs and landings, I was reminded how easily the Challenger goes into the air and just as simply returns to the runway. Controls are cooperative and have no touchiness to them. The plane retains energy quite well in ground effect so at excessive approach speeds you float before getting it on terra firma.
When I later flew with Zank, he demonstrated one of the deepest, slowest slips I have ever seen in any aircraft. It felt like we were descending vertically, yet on releasing the controls the Challenger simply started flying as though no changes had ever been made.
Despite their easy handling during takeoff and landing, Challengers exhibit an odd adverse yaw quality. When sampling reaction to aileron-only input with no rudder application, Zank's Challenger will go around an entire circle the wrong way assuming you do not release the control input. Naturally, you wouldn't hold the controls this way as I did, and when controlled in a conventional manner, the Challenger shows conventional handling characteristics.
The good aspects of the Challenger's handling are many. Coordinated control authority is strong, allowing operations even in strong crosswind conditions. Control pressures are light, keeping pilot fatigue to a minimum. The Challenger exhibited good response in all axes, and harmony was quite reasonable. But you must use the controls together, just as your instructor taught you.
It's easy to design crisp handling at higher cruise speeds, but the Challenger particularly shines at slow-speed handling, superior to many other designs. This low and slow flying remains the domain of ultralight aviation and charms many pilots. The Challenger does particularly well in this régime.
However, the low-speed capability doesn't prevent the aircraft from offering speeds with more zip. When you push the nose over, the design moves out smartly. In level flight at full throttle Challengers can hit 100 mph (their Vne).
The light weight of the design also helps in performance areas like takeoff ground roll and reduced-power descendents. The idle-thrust sink rate of a Challenger can be as low as 400 fpm, better than many ultralight designs. Should your engine take a vacation, you'll appreciate the extra time aloft to determine your approach.
Long in the Saddle
After 20 years of market success with many aircraft flying at airfields across the country, Challengers boast an enviably good safety record. You simply don't hear of many problems with the aircraft and it rarely shows up in serious accident reports.
A good preliminary design with long evolution, careful quality control, understandable builder instructions and corrections to known deficiencies are all desirable goals of any aircraft manufacturer. However, even well-designed aircraft can still have problems. The Challenger's low level of incidents may say more than all the testing or any number of product evaluations. If pilots don't often crash in a plane when measured over a long time, most experts would agree that the engineering must be up to the task.
Lower speeds and low kinetic energy are strong attributes of ultralight aircraft. The Challenger line, especially the longer-winged models, makes good use of this. Since this ultralight is docile at slow speeds, I was able to deliberately miscontrol it at speeds in the low 30s and it just wanted to keep flying.
In more conventional verifications, I performed a longitudinal stability series of pushing or pulling the stick and releasing. The design proved positive in all such checks as the Challenger returns all by itself to level flight.
I also tried stalls in all the usual configurations (power off, power on, and accelerated). All were mild. When the wing does quit flying, the Challenger seems to pivot at the top, lower its nose a bit and then resume flying as if the stall never happened.
In an earlier flight test, I tried to spin the Challenger after Zank told me I wouldn't be able to do it. For the most part he was right, though I was able to get a modest partial spin to the right. Virtually confirming his confidence, the Challenger flew itself out of the spin even though I tried to hold it in.
A Fair Challenge
In an age when light-sport airplane costs are zooming into the stratosphere the Challenger remains a bargain. Even with all the factory options and even with aftermarket extras you could afford a small fleet of Challengers for the price of one fiberglass two-seater from Europe! Plus you can get a Challenger relatively quickly, although deliveries do vary somewhat depending on the time of year.
Challengers are available in four configurations: two-seater or single-seater; long wing or clip wing. The clip wing models are also known as Challenger Specials because they include as standard some features which are optional on the Standard model. Note however that the Special and Standard models when comparably equipped are comparably priced.
Zank likes to add his own selling points: "All challengers are effectively quick-build kids. The factory handles all the more demanding structural work, including installing the controls." Most companies charge a considerable extra fee for their quick-build option.
"First-timers usually take less than 300 hours to complete the assembly including covering and painting," Zank says. Once your Challenger has been completed, it only takes a half hour or so to remove or reinstall the wings for storage or trailing.
The price of quick-build kids for the Challenger, which include the engine and all covering materials except paint, haven't gone up significantly in the last decade. The reason for this may be that the design is evolving rather than radically changing. You'll want to compare costs carefully, as most other kit manufacturers publish price lists that exclude the engine just as they charge a premium for quick-build versions.
For pilots on a budget, the Challenger offers a good value, no question. The quartet of models has also satisfied a large number of customers by providing a handling and performance package with a strong safety record. Quad City's Challenger line represents a firmly established brand, so building and maintaining your Challenger should be a straightforward task. It seems as if Quad City Ultralight Aircraft has covered all the bases important to recreational pilots.
Note that this article has been edited
for length and some U.S. terminology has
been translated into Canajun. Pictures are already enlarged so no need to click!
Also, a table of specs and performance
data for the Challenger II long wing was
printed in the Kitplanes article. This and more is found in our Airplane section.
In an earlier issue Kitplanes published an excellent article by Ian Coristine:
Four Seasons of Adventure
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