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Decathlon and Citabria: benign handling makes them worthy of tailwheel transition and aerobatic training, while good supportability makes ownership easy.


If you want to learn how to fly advanced aerobatic maneuvers, we don't suggest you rush out and buy a Pitts or an Extra 300. Those machines require no small degree of skill to fly safely. Not convinced? Just ask your insurance broker and any aerobatics instructor.

Perhaps the better choice for a newbie might be a Citabria or the Decathlon. You might be surprised that these starter aerobatic airplanes have much more capability than you thought.

Indeed, these models have a lot going for them. They aren't expensive to buy or maintain, they don't have any serious gotchas and almost any pilot of average skill can learn to fly and land them safely. Moreover, they can double as respectable backcountry flyers, which is something you're not likely to do in a Pitts or an Extra. Even if aerobatics isn't on your immediate wish list, a Citabria or Decathlon could be the ticket to a tailwheel transition, while you slowly ease into aerobatics.

Even better, these airplanes are still in production at American Champion's factory in Rochester, Wisconsin, from whence comes full support for all the models.

As result, the Citabria is right up at the top of the list for those looking for a simple, fun flying machine capable of most inside positive-G aerobatics. (Citabria is "airbatic" spelled backward.) Available in several versions, with varying powerplants and equipment, the Citabria and its stablemate, the Decathlon, have a great deal to recommend them to the recreational flyer.


It's fair to say the Citabria goes back a ways--all the way to the beginning, in fact. It's based on the Champion 7-series airframe. The similar, although more rugged, 8 series is used for the Scout bushplane and the more fully aerobatic Decathlon.

There are a few things to watch for when looking for a Citabria, most notably the wooden wing spars found in pre-1990s models.

There's also the possibility of strut corrosion, similar to what Piper and Taylorcraft owners have been finding for some years. The good news is that American Champion can retrofit new, all-metal wings onto older airplanes for owners who prefer them. Plus, many Citabrias have undergone the upgrade. In addition, a gross weight boost for the metal-spar versions adds utility.


The Citabria traces its roots back to the Aeronca Champion (which everyone called the Champ), one of the crowd of postwar tailwheel trainers that included the Piper Cub, Cessna 120 and Luscombe. The postwar production boom resulted in tens of thousands of these airplanes, but by 1951 the market was saturated and production ended. The 7EC Champ was returned to production periodically and is now being manufactured for the light sport market by American Champion as the Champ, with a 100-HP Continental 0-200 engine. It's the only light sport entry that's also a fully certified airplane. In 1959, the first airplanes that would eventually become Citabrias appeared, dubbed 7GC.

In the years that followed, a fistful of airplanes debuted, each called Citabria.

Eventually there were six variants. In some cases, the differences between models are minor, in others more significant. The nomenclature can be confusing, so here's a rundown:

* 7GC--Produced only in the 1959 model year, it had flaps and a 140-HP Lycoming 0-290.

* 7GCB--Essentially the same as the 7GC, but with a 150-HP Lycoming 0-320; produced from 1960 to 1964.

* 7GCAA--Aerobatic, with the same Lycoming as the 7GCB. No flaps. Introduced in 1966 and in production today as the 7GCAA Citabria Adventure.

* 7GCBC--Aerobatic, same as the 7GCAA, but with slightly longer wings and flaps (introduced in 1967) and in production as the 7GCBC Citabria Explorer.

* 7KCAB--Introduced in 1966 as a more capable aerobatic ship, with a fuel-injected 150-HP Lycoming and inverted fuel and oil systems. It was produced through the 1977 model.

* 7ECA--Introduced in 1964 as an aerobatic follow-on to the Champ. Originally, it had a 100-HP Continental 0-200, soon replaced by the 115-HP Lycoming 0-235. It is in production as the 7ECA Citabria Aurora.

The 8KCAB-150 and -180 appeared in 1971 and 1977, respectively, and sported both more power and constant speed props, which are nice for combination aerobat/cruisers.

Most of these airplanes were built by Bellanca, which went under in 1980 at the beginning of the GA slump. A brief attempt was made to revive the line in 1984, but the timing wasn't right and production stopped again. American Champion acquired the type certificate in 1988 and started production in 1990.

In 1990, American Champion started delivering Decathlons, followed by the Scout in 1993. 1994 saw the reintroduction of the 7GCBC Citabria, followed by the 7ECA in 1996 and most recently the 7GCAA.

The 7GCBC model has proven the most popular, followed by the 7KCAB. (Total production numbers aside; currently the 8KCAB is the most popular, followed by the 8GCBC.) The latter, built as a low-end aerobatic airplane capable of inverted flight, did not last largely due to competition from the Decathlon. The Decathlon, with its shorter wings and semi-symmetrical airfoil, was a better buy for aerobatics, though the 7KCAB is still a fine airplane.

Today's Citabrias are essentially the same airplanes introduced decades ago (although American Champion offers engines with up to 210 HP), with one significant difference: the wing structure. The Bellanca airplanes had wooden wing spars, which sometimes suffered cracks and were the subject of ADs.

American Champion came up with an all-metal structure and incorporated it into all new aircraft. Owners of earlier models can also have the new wings retrofitted. The cost is steep at (depending on model) $20,900 to $27,000 per set, plus additional costs for installation and for fabric and paint finishing, but the new wings boost the gross weight, are free of repetitive inspection requirements and surely increase the resale value of the airplane.

The factory can also supply new, improved front struts and aileron spades. All of these are worthwhile improvements to older aircraft. When shopping for a Citabria, extra consideration should be given to upgraded models.

There are a variety of Citabria and Decathlon models in the current lineup (with several engine choices), including the flagship Xtreme Decathlon. This has a redesigned cowling to accommodate a 210-HP Lycoming AEIO-390-A1B6. The Xtreme Decathlon also has a 30 percent increase in roll rate, without altering its ground manners. It also has a longer landing gear and a wide-chord MT propeller. Aircraft Bluebook prices a 2014 Xtreme Decathlon at around $252,000. We covered it in the April 2014 issue of Aviation Consumer.


As tailwheel airplanes go, the Citabrias and Decathlons have benign ground handling characteristics, making them excellent transition training airplanes. Nevertheless, pilots with little or no tailwheel experience must remember the fundamental differences between conventional and trigear airplanes. On the ground, tailwheel machines are more prone to swapping ends due to the location of the center of gravity aft of the main landing gear.

This means the pilot absolutely must stay alert to side loading of the landing gear. Staying on the centerline and being unfailingly in command of the rudder are keys to success. It also means that the ailerons must be properly positioned for the wind when on the ground. If you fail to do that, you can wind up in a ditch during the landing rollout--a common accident scenario.


Once aloft, the Citabria and Decathlon are forgiving in virtually all flight modes, although these are definitely rudder airplanes, requiring work to keep the ball centered due to adverse yaw. The elevators and rudder are nicely harmonized, while the ailerons are comparatively heavy and less effective. Adding spades corrects this characteristic and are, in our opinion, worth the price.

Stalls are mild, giving aerodynamic warning whether flaps are up or down, and stall speeds are as low as about 40 knots for the flap-equipped 7GCBC. Citabrias and Decathlons will spin nicely if the ball is not near the center at the stall. Spin recovery is positive, but requires several hundred feet, even if initiated immediately. Although stressed and certificated for loops and rolls, the Citabria is not a serious competition-level machine. It's ideal for initial aero training and unadulterated fun, but only the 7KCAB (and Xtreme) have an inverted fuel and oil system. The other variants are generally limited to positive-G or G-neutral maneuvers such as inside loops, barrel rolls and the like.

One potential handling trouble spot is PIO (pilot-induced oscillation) during landings. Although not unique to Champions, the spring-steel main gear can bounce the airplane if the pilot dumps it too hard or fails to go around. More bounces, a groundloop and/or nose-over and/ or prop strike can result. To prevent these, touchdown for a wheel landing should be as close to zero-rate as possible and for three-pointers, as close to the stall as possible, with the stick back. Land too fast (like in most taildraggers), you'll bounce once or twice or more.


The cruising speed of the Citabria is sedate: 100 to 110 knots or so, depending on model, so a number of owners use them for travel. The extra power afforded by the larger Lycoming shows up mostly in greater climb rates. The longer wings of the 7GCBC help; according to Champion, the 7ECA climbs at 740 FPM, while the 7GCAA moves up at 1167 FPM and the 7GCBC climbs at 1130 FPM. Decathlons cruise faster.


Takeoff and landing performance are impressive, particularly for the wood-spar 7GCBC. According to our sources, takeoff ground roll is only 296 feet, and a 50-foot obstacle can be cleared in 457 feet, although in our opinion, those numbers are a tad optimistic. Landing distance over a 50-foot obstacle is also in the 900-foot range, with about a 500foot ground roll. (Older airplanes with lower gross weights will do somewhat better.)


An important thing to note about the new metal wing structure is that it gives the 7GCBC Citabria a gross weight of 1800 pounds, compared to 1650 for the older models. Gross for the 7GCAA and 7ECA was upped in early 2001 to 1750 pounds for metalspar versions. The Citabrias, especially early versions, are not known for their load-carrying capacity. While the lifting ability varies according to model and equipment, in general, it's not possible to fill the seats and tanks at the same time.

When two large people wearing parachutes consider aerobatics, they may be approaching gross weight even before fuel is added. Owners report that staying within the CG envelope is not a problem.

The cockpit is laid out so that everything falls easily to hand. Solo is from the front seat and visibility is fair in flight. In the three-point attitude, the nose doesn't block forward visibility. The front stick length gives just the right leverage for the control gearing, especially with aileron spades. The rear stick is short and instructors report that it often takes both hands to get full aileron deflection in a roll in a nonspade aircraft. Each throttle (one for each seat) is where one reaches almost unconsciously with the left hand; the carb heat knob is immediately below.

Most Citabrias have toe brakes, although some of the earliest have that bane of many a pilot's existence--heel brakes. Front seat travel is limited and short pilots may have difficulty getting full rudder throw without using an extra back cushion. Citabrias and Decathlons are some of the better airplanes for tall pilots, especially as the high roofline means not having to bend over to look out the side windows. The seats are surprisingly comfortable and the cushions snap out quickly when it's time for parachutes. The panel is low and slender, making installation of more than basic VFR instruments and radios challenging. Headsets or ear plugs are a must as the cockpit noise level is about on par with the proverbial boiler factory.

The fuel system is utter simplicity, with three sump drains, one direct-reading mechanical gauge in each wing root and a simple fuel selector. Fuel supply is by gravity feed, of course, but as with all Lycomings, there's also a boost pump.


Although maintenance is simple, it pays to seek out a mechanic who's familiar with tube-and-fabric airplanes and, if looking at an airplane with the older wing, who has experience with wood. The covering is Dacron, which is durable, although not good for a lifetime. Owners suggest keeping the airplane out of the sun and we agree. Owners and mechanics tell us that aside from making certain the ADs are complied with, especially AD 2000-25-02 R1 on wooden spar airplanes, a serious look at all of the fuselage tubes, especially those aft and low, for corrosion and proper inspection of the wooden spars, there are no particular trouble spots to watch for when shopping for a used Citabria. Early model wing struts had thinner, .035-inch wall thickness as compared to the more recent .049-inch wall thickness. AD 77-22-5 called for replacement of the old struts, and most if not all airframes should have the heavier struts installed; the presence of a placard limiting speed to 153 MPH is proof of the thinner struts.

Also watch for cracked seat backs. There have been accidents in which the pilot's seat back failed, planting his torso on the aft stick with disastrous results. The landing gear U-bolts can develop cracks, especially in airplanes subjected to rough fields or training.

It's difficult to find a Citabria that has not been groundlooped at some time in its life, simply because they are tailwheel airplanes. A groundloop by itself is not cause for alarm; the trouble arises when the loss of control results in a wingtip and/or prop blade hitting the ground or the landing gear being damaged. Wing damage repair is not always recorded in the logbooks, so inspect any Citabria for wing repairs, especially, as the experts tell us, because most wood spar compression cracks can be traced to an impact event, usually from a groundloop. A full set of service bulletins should be a part of any owner's library, since they can point out areas of weakness.

The new wing structure was developed as the result of cracks in Decathlon wing spars, not those of the Citabrias, so the presence of wood is not necessarily a deal-killer. Nevertheless, years of movement of aluminum ribs against a wood spar means we'd look carefully before buying a wood-spar Citabria.

Students can err and blast right through redline airspeed, so a buyer should assume that an airplane capable of aerobatics has been doing them and that pilots have made mistakes in the process, so inspect the wing and tail carefully.

Fortunately, the Citabria's systems are simple and inexpensive to maintain, so previous owners are more likely to have kept things up to snuff than owners of more complex, expensive and labor-intensive hangar queens.


Unlike many airplanes, there's a variety of sources for parts. First and foremost, of course, is American Champion. They're located in Rochester, Wisconsin (262-534-6315), or on the web at We like the fact that the factory puts a number of its service bulletins and technical information on its website as a free service.

Another source is in Santa Paula, California, home of CP Aviation (805-525-2138) and Screaming Eagle aircraft (805-525-7121), a pair of shops that specialize in the line. CP Aviation also offers aerobatic training in Citabrias and Decathlons.

For owner support, it appears the Citabria Owner's Group has disappeared, but there's a Bellanca-Champion Club based in Coxsackie, New York, with a website at www. The site has training, operating and parts manuals for sale, plus it has a member forum.


My present airplane is a 2014 Super Decathlon. It's difficult to find anything negative about this airplane.

This is my fourth one since 1977. The first two were from Bellanca and the last two were from American Champion. These airplanes are truly rugged and virtually trouble-free. The Lycoming engine is bulletproof and in general, maintenance consists of changing the oil. In my experience, an annual inspection in Florida is around $2000 and unexpected maintenance seldom happens.

The Decathlon is a great tailwheel airplane and lots of fun to fly. Aerobatics are straightforward and for sportsman category figures, it is really good. Insurance for me is about $2800 per year and I probably pay extra for being over 70 years old.

Fuel consumption at 75 percent power is 10 GPH. The Super Decathlon is not as noisy as the Extreme Decathlon model, plus the stick forces are lighter. The airplane cannot compete with an Extra for more exotic aerobatic maneuvers, but it is not intended to do that. Tailwheel instruction is a must, however.

Solo flying is done from the front seat, and with the high wing, visibility is unlimited. While there really are no major mods that 1 know about, my wish list is small. I would like a few closable pockets in the cabin for storing stuff, and would love an elevator trim in the rear. Trim is very sensitive and is a big part of flying the Decathlon. Cruise speed will be around 130 MPH.

The avionics in my panel consist of flat-screen Garmin equipment, including a GTN650 touchscreen navigator and an aera796 GPS in a panel dock, plus an all-in-one color engine display.

I like to refuel the plane myself to check the fuel caps. Also, when strapping in to the Flooker harness, one must be sure that it is not hung up on the rear seat rudder pedals. Once strapped in, fresh air ventilation is quite good. For cold days, the heater works very well. For me, it's easy to recommend the Super Decathlon and everyone on the ramp comes over to have a look at it. It's so much fun.

Alan R. Maurer

via email

Since February 2015 I've been the fortunate owner of a 1992 Super Decathlon 8KCAB, which I purchased in Minden, Nevada, and relocated to my home airport in Salt Lake City, Utah.

I first had an opportunity to fly a Super Decathlon during emergency maneuvering/introduction to aero training with Rich Stowell in 2012. Although most of my flight time was in tricycle gear C-172s and Rockwell Commanders, I earned my tailwheel endorsement in an Aviat Husky. Over time I found myself drawn more to the taildragger style of flying. When I found N9AC in Trade-A-Plane I decided to jump at the opportunity to switch over to the "dark side" (to me, that just sounded so much better than "Conventional Gear").

Since the purchase, I've added an AirWolf remote oil filter, replaced an oil cooler due to a cracked mounting bracket, installed a new battery and a battery tender, replaced brake disks and pads and installed a Tanis engine heater. The aircraft went through a thorough annual inspection last fall, so from an ongoing maintenance-cost perspective, I'm expecting few unpleasant surprises. Oil analysis is confirming that the Lycoming 10-360 is holding up well at approximately 500 hours since overhaul. Oil consumption hasn't been an issue at roughly one quart per ten hours of operations, and it doesn't leak a drop of oil on the hangar floor.

The aircraft has been hangared most of its life. Maintaining and cleaning the fabric has been a breeze, using wash and wax products specifically made for fabric and readily available from Aircraft Spruce or Pilot Mall.

I had considered a lower horsepower, fixed-pitch prop Decathlon to keep acquisition costs down, but opted to go with the more powerful Super Decathlon with a constant-speed prop. This was a good decision with the higher density altitudes in this part of the country.


A previous owner upgraded the landing gear attachment hardware, so the aircraft has an extra 150 pounds added to the gross weight, although I primarily fly the aircraft solo. I can carry full fuel and still remain well within the lower aerobatic weight limits.

The previous owner installed a Garmin GNS430W GPS navigator--a bit of overkill--but having that WAAS-based location source will help reduce the sting from meeting the 2020 ADS-B requirement. For me, I have no choice given my close proximity to a Class B airport.

Aileron spades were also added to my Super Decathlon, are quite effective and hurt like hell when I invariably bonk my head on them!

Fuel burn has varied depending on my flight activities--from 8.5 GPH to around 10 GPH. With just about 12 hours of tailwheel flight experience at purchase, my initial annual insurance was $1956, but the recent renewal dropped to $1672 now that I've accumulated about 70 hours of flight time in this airplane.

Operations are simple with the limited systems installed, although a Stratus portable ADS-B system and an iPad mini are on board for every flight, if for no reason other than traffic avoidance. Plus, it looks cool. Ground manners are quite benign and visibility over the cowling is excellent--no need for S-turns while taxing.

Flying the Super Decathlon is a delight. Things seem very well balanced, responsive and sports car-like compared to anything I've flown previously. Climb rates are a hoot, so the occasional botched wheel landing can be easily recovered from and converted to a three-point with plenty of runway to spare. Pattern work can be flown nice and tight, maximizing the number of touch and go landings when a lack of student pilots flying 747 patterns allows. Also, there is plenty of power to spare while flying through the higher-elevation Wasatch Mountains here in Utah. My aerobatic skills and--at 62 years old--my G-force tolerance remain works in process, but the Super Decathlon is quite forgiving of any sloppiness or errors on my part.

The best part on warm summer days is flying in short sleeves with an elbow out the window enjoying a great plane. I'm looking forward to making the flight back to AirVenture at Oshkosh this summer and making it an adventure flight in a tail-dragger. It won't set any speed records, but the Super Decathlon does make for a decent cross-country flyer.

Aviation Consumer magazine is the best! I read it cover-to-cover every month.

Roger Hamilton

Salt Lake City, Utah


Our review of the 100 most recent accidents involving the American Champion Citabria and Decathlon (not Scout) lines turned up some good news regarding design of the airplanes and some distressing news regarding the judgment of their pilots.

The good news first: Despite it being the single largest cause of bent metal and fabric, the runway loss of control (RLOC) rate of 30 percent is remarkably low for tailwheel airplanes--about half that of the Super Cub and Husky. In addition, we saw only four nose-over/ flip-over accidents--three of which were due to the surface of the off airport landing area selected. Only one flip-over was due to misusing the brakes, a tiny fraction of the rate for Super Cubs and Huskies. It's long been said in aviation circles that the Citabria is the standard by which tailwheel ground handling should be measured. We think the data supports the assertion.

When it comes to giving kudos to design features, we'll add the fuel system. Accident data reflects that the fewer options the pilot has when it comes to selecting fuel tanks, the less likely he or she is to have a fuel-related engine stoppage. Because of the simple on/ off fuel system of the Citabria and Decathlon, only one pilot managed to get the big silence up front--he used all of the fuel in the tanks before getting to his destination.

We did not expect to see four gear collapse accidents. All were due to lack of maintenance--failure to inspect, detect and fix cracked or corroded components.

Maintenance was an issue on half of the engine stoppages; the causes of the other half could not be determined. In one case, the mechanic improperly installed the carburetor air filter. It came adrift shortly after takeoff and blocked the flow of intake air. Unfortunately, the pilot tried to turn back to the runway, stalled, crashed and was seriously injured. The carb air filter accident was not included in the eight stall/spin accidents listed below because we had to choose between causes and took the one that started the accident chain.

Nevertheless, the number of stall/spin accidents did make up part of the distressing news side of the Citabria/Decathlon story--an almost shockingly high rate of crashes due to poor judgment of the pilots. Most of the stall/spin accidents were during maneuvering--often aerobatic--flight. In one case a pilot who had a reputation for doing low-altitude aerobatics over mountain lakes did it once too often and spun in.

A decision to fly low led to 18 crashes. We don't know what it is about getting into maneuverable two-place airplanes that causes pilots to shut off their good judgment brain circuits but, combined with stall/spin accidents, it caused a quarter of all Citabria/Decathlon crashes. Pilots flew into powerlines, trees and the ground. Five were doing aerobatics. One pilot stuck two 11-year-olds in the single back seat of a Citabria, decided to give them a thrill by flying low and hit powerlines, killing himself and the kids.

We were impressed by the pilot whose seat collapsed aft while performing, low level, at EAA Oshkosh. It forced the rear stick to the aft stop, causing an accelerated stall. He managed to rectify the situation and land safely.

RLOC                   (30%)
LOW FLYING             (18%)
ENGINE/MECH            (10%)
STALL/SPIN             (8%)
NOSE OVER              (4%)
BLOWN GO-AROUND        (4%)
GEAR COLLAPSE          (4%)
VFR INTO IMC           (3%)
CARB ICE               (2%)

Note: Table made from bar graph.


MODEL YEAR                      ENGINE             TBO    OVERHAUL

1967-1975 7KCAB         150-HP-LYC. 10-320-E2A     2000   $23,000
1976-1977 7KCAB        150-HP-LYC. AE10-320-E2B    2000   $23,000
1994-1998 7GCBC         160-HP-LYC. O-320-B2B      2000   $21,000
1999-2003 7GCBC         160-HP-LYC. 0-320-B2B      2000   $21,000
2004-2008 7GCBC         160-HP-LYC. O-320-B2B      2000   $21,000
1971-1975 8KCAB-150     150-HP-LYC. O-320 E1A      2000   $23,000
1976-1978 8KCAB-150   150-HP-LYC. AE10-320 E1,2B   1600   $25,000
1979-1980 8KCAB-150    150-HP-LYC. AE10-320 E2B    1600   $25,000
1981-1984 8KCAB-150    180-HP-LYC. AE10-320-H1A    1600   $27,000
1992-1994 8KCAB-150    150-HP-LYC. AE10-320 E2B    1600   $27,000
1981-1985 8KCAB-180    180-HP-LYC. AE10-360-H1A    1600   $27,000
1995-1998 8KCAB-180    180-HP-LYC. AE10-360-H1A    1600   $27,000


1967-1975 7KCAB        36      500 LBS     112 KTS   [+ or -] $27,000
1976-1977 7KCAB        36      500 LBS     112 KTS   [+ or -] $32,000
1994-1998 7GCBC        36      500 LBS     110 KTS   [+ or -] $53,000
1999-2003 7GCBC        36      500 LBS     110 KTS   [+ or -] $74,000
2004-2008 7GCBC        36      500 LBS     110 KTS   [+ or -] $83,000
1971-1975 8KCAB-150    40      530 LBS     121 KTS   [+ or -] $31,000
1976-1978 8KCAB-150    40      530 LBS     121 KTS   [+ or -] $38,000
1979-1980 8KCAB-150    40      530 LBS     121 KTS   [+ or -] $46,000
1981-1984 8KCAB-150    40      530 LBS     130 KTS   [+ or -] $53,000
1992-1994 8KCAB-150    40      530 LBS     131 KTS   [+ or -] $67,000
1981-1985 8KCAB-180    40      530 LBS     130 KTS   [+ or -] $71,000
1995-1998 8KCAB-180    40      530 LBS     130 KTS   [+ or -] $75,000


AD 00-25-02   WOODEN SPARS


CITABRIA (1977)    ($40,000)
DECATHLON (1977)   ($546,000)
CESSNA AEROBAT     ($24,000)
PITTS 52 (1990)    ($80,000)
BEECHCRAFT T-34    ($160,000)
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Publication:The Aviation Consumer
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2016
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