Friday, August 25, 2000

On Grumman Tigers

Following is a letter that I sent to Aviation Consumer in response to their request for information on the Grumman AA5-B Tiger. They used a large portion of it in their December 2000 issue.

25 August 2000

Aviation Consumer
via email

Hello, Paul. I'm responding to your request in the September issue for owner information on the Grumman AA-5 series.

I'm the owner of a 1977 Grumman AA-5B Tiger (details at http://www.gatm.org/flying). I'll tell you right off the bat that I am not objective on the subject, that I find the Grumman line of light aircraft to be one of the best values out there.

I learned about the Grummans soon after I got my pilot's license. I was doing some local post-PPSEL check flight air work with the FBO's Cessna 172 and I landed at Bridgeport, CT. As I taxied back for departure I passed by Carney Aviation (http://www.carneyaviation.com), a club that flies Grummans and a couple of Mooney 201s. I saw the Grummans and thought they were attractive airplanes; I pulled over to learn more about them. Within an hour I was taking a familiarization flight in a Tiger; within the hour after that I had returned the FBO's C-172, rarely to ever fly one again. I joined Carney's flying club on the spot and have been flying Grummans almost exclusively since.

I bought my own Tiger less than a year later, and it's been a wonderful experience. I've flown about 850 hours in my Tiger over the last 5 years, it supported me through my IFR training, and it's taken me all across the continent. I fly it IFR and VFR for work and for pleasure.

My initial attraction to the Tiger was visual: I think the airplanes are darn good-looking. Sleek lines, smooth surfaces (no rivets), and the slide-back canopy makes you look like the P-51 Mustang pilot you want to be. Flying the Tiger seals the deal: the handling supports the performance flying expectations. The airplane responds to your touch with very little resistance, and is simply a joy to fly. The Tiger's handling is to a Cessna 172 as the Mazda Miata is to the Ford F-150 pickup truck.

The Tiger carries a full load of four adults and plenty of fuel. My Tiger's usable load is 950 pounds (1450 pounds empty weight on a 2400 pound gross weight). I can load myself and my wife, my brother and his wife, weekend bags, and still be able to drop in "fuel to the tabs" of 38 gallons. If it's just my wife and I flying, the full fuel load of 51 usable gallons will allow us to fold down the rear seats to reveal a six-foot-long cargo area, drop in two full-sized bikes and all our bags, and off we go for 4 hours or more of flying with reserves (which is more than she and I can stand anyway!)

The instrument panel of all Grummans (including the AA1-series two-seaters) uses the standard-six arrangement of gauges and is large enough to accept just about any and all instruments and avionics that you care to stuff in there. Despite that, the panel's position is much lower compared to other GA aircraft, giving the pilot a magnificent view through the large windshield and side windows. The view from inside Grummans has been compared to that of the full-bubble canopies of fighter aircraft (like the P-51...?)

To be frank, one of the biggest attractions of the Tiger is its speed; even though I can afford more airplane I remain in a Tiger because of its ability to fly relatively fast on a reasonable budget. I've done a number of STC-approved modifications to my Tiger, most obviously the new LoPresti GTO Tiger cowl. The "book" says that I should be able to fly 139 KTAS at 8000 feet at redline (2700 rpm maximum-continuous) using 10.8 gph, and I can match (and beat) those numbers easily. I consistently flight-plan for 135 KTAS and I'm never disappointed. Should I decide to push the throttle in a bit further, I'll see low-140s TAS at 12 gph. This is with a 180-horsepower Lycoming O-360-A4K, fixed-pitched prop, and fixed-gear! I just love getting called as 6 o'clock traffic to constant-speed-prop, retractable, 200-hp Piper Arrows!

Despite the fact that Grummans have been out of production for over 20 years (not including the 90's variant, the AG-5B) parts and support are plentiful. I have effectively done a complete restoration of my Tiger over the last 5 years and I've never wanted for parts. Fletchair (http://www.fletchair.com) has been absolutely fantastic in supporting our aircraft. They are the absolute best, even to the point of getting PMA approvals for parts as the old-stock supply diminishes and the demand increases. Owner-to-owner support is provided by the marque club, the American Yankee Association (http://www.aya.org/), and by the Internet-based support group, the Grumman Gang (http://www.grumman.net/). Without each of these avenues of support the owner experience would not have been anywhere near as enjoyable.

Not that the Tiger needs a lot of repair. The basic aluminum honeycomb tub is ox-strong and doesn't need maintenance. The rest of the airframe is aluminum glued together, and despite a brief period of "bad glue" in 1975 the airframe is one of the stoutest around. Rudders and elevators are cable-operated; flaps are torque-tube operated and the ailerons are a combination of torque tubes and cables. None of these need maintenance and repair over and above the standard annual inspection.

The Grummans are blessed with a non-oleo nose strut with a castering nosewheel (now becoming de rigueur in high-performance experimental aircraft) that is a joy to operate. Using differential braking allows the Tiger to spin upon itself and make a 180-degree turn inside its wingspan. The non-oleo main landing gear is fiberglass laminate and is quite effective at absorbing even the worst landings (thus its original "Face Saver" landing gear moniker.) All of the remaining systems (electrical, brakes, avionics, engine, prop) are standard-issue items with their associated plusses and minuses.

Like other aircraft, Grummans have their spat of specific minor issues, but because of the simplicity of the airframe the AD list is thankfully small. All one-time ADs on standard aircraft parts (mags, air filter, seat belts, oil cooler, carb, your various Lycoming ADs) should have been complied with by now. There is a recurring visual aileron inspection every 100 hours for the Tigers, and the wing attach bolts need to be inspected (effectively, replaced) every 500 hours. If the aircraft has not been STC-approved to a Sensenich prop from the original McCauley, then the McCauley must be dye-penetrant-checked every 200 hours. In addition, the McCauley prop carries a yellow-arc "do not fly with power back" range which coincides with most IFR approach flight. However, a large portions of the Tiger have been converted to Sensenich props.

Finally, the cost of ownership and operation of my Tiger is exceptional. Minimal annual inspection costs ($750 basic annual inspection cost if I just drop off the key) assuming a maintained airplane, 11 gph fuel costs, and insurance costs of about $1300 annually (I'm an IFR-rated pilot, 150 hours per year, about 950 TT and I participate in the Wings program every year.)

If you're looking for a little less entry fee and performance but just as much fun, you'd do well to find a Grumman AA-5A Cheetah. The Cheetah is very similar to the Tiger (it's almost the same airframe), except it has a 150hp Lycoming O-320 engine as compared to the Tiger's 180-hp. That 30 hp difference drops the top speed about 15 knots, the gross weight to 2200, and reduces the climb rate making it a close call for filling up all four seats. There are STCs available to raise the compression of the Cheetah to that of the 160hp O-320 engines, and owners report that it "simply transforms" the Cheetah. I know of several high-compression Cheetah owners that claim they can keep up with the slowest "dirty" Tigers...

The final jewel in the Grumman four-seater crown is the AA-5 Traveler. Built from the early-70s until the debut of the Cheetah in 1976, the Traveler is a fine 150-hp airplane. As capable as any Cheetah (but slightly slower due to less-sleek aerodynamics) the Traveler can be had for bargain prices and offers the Grumman-standard handling, good looks, and bargain speed. The hidden treasure in the Grumman line is the 1975 AA-5 Traveler. This airplane was the "crossover" airplane when Roy LoPresti (then employed by Grumman American) was transforming the Traveler into the Cheetah and the Tiger. The 1975 Traveler got all the wing, gear, and nose aerodynamic cleanups of the Cheetah while keeping the smaller Traveler tail -- and the less-expensive Traveler name. "A Cheetah by any other name" might be the killer compromise.

If you need to fill up all four seats with a lot of fuel and speed, then the Tiger's the way to go. However, if your typical mission is to only fill 2 seats with baggage and fuel for 4 hours at a sippage of 8 gph, while still flying faster than the others, then the Cheetah or the Traveler is the better choice.

There are no downsides to the Grummans: sporty handling, great looks, good economy, bargain speed, and good load-carrying capabilities. If you need to carry big game out of the Alaska tundra, you're out of luck with the Grummans. If you need to go faster than 145 knots or you gotta have those extra white and blue knobs, you're out of luck. If you want to fly in the flight-levels, you're out of luck. But, if you want a fast, sporty, attractive passenger light airplane, you'll be hard-pressed to beat the value of a Grumman!

Greg Amy