Flying the Spartan Executive

The December 2016 edition of Rag & Tube, The Magazine for Antique and Classic Aeroplanes of Australia, contained an article about what is like to actually fly a Spartan Executive.  Following is the actual content of that article.

Flying the Spartan Executive – An Owner’s Perspective, by Jim Savage

Spartan Executive – – utter those words amongst a group of vintage aviation enthusiasts and everyone will quickly begin sharing stories of the first time they saw one, or for the lucky ones, the first time they had the chance to fly in one. Until eight years ago, I was one of those admirers who had seen Spartan Executives at major air shows and through a bit of good luck, I had actually sat in the right seat of one while it was taxiing from one hangar to another at an airport I was visiting. My real goal, however, was to own and fly one of these beautiful art deco masterpieces. The goal was achieved in 2008 when I purchased NC17634, a 1939 Spartan Executive.

For those of you not familiar with the Spartan Executive, here is a brief history of this aircraft. In the mid 1930’s, fabric covered biplanes were commonplace and many of those had open cockpits. Spartan Aircraft Company from Tulsa, Oklahoma had built a variety of aircraft made of fabric, including a few models with closed cockpits that were marketed as executive transports. Although they were decent airplanes for that time period, none were particularly successful in the marketplace. That all changed in 1935 when they took a giant step forward and decided to build an all metal, low wing monoplane and power it with a large engine (Pratt & Whitney R-985 with 450 HP) for exceptional performance. Other features uncommon for the time included: retractable landing gear, wing and belly flaps, constant speed propeller, toe brakes, throw-over control wheel, a luxuriously appointed interior and appropriate equipment for instrument flying.

It was a complex airplane to build, requiring approximately 10,000 man-hours to construct and it was expensive with a price tag of $25,000. Typical buyers were oil companies located in the Oklahoma/Texas region of the United States, the oil capital of the world at the time. A handful were exported to Mexico and Spain and one was even built for King Ghazi of Iraq. These airplanes were typically flown by professional pilots, with corporate executives in the spacious rear seats as passengers. During the years 1936 through 1940, only 34 were built and as a remarkable testament to the design and the all metal construction, 20 have survived.

Eighty years have passed since the first Spartan Executive exited the factory in 1936. My airplane, serial number 17, first flew February 22, 1939 and began life as a corporate aircraft for Claude Drilling Company. Since that time, many of the features of the airplane that were leading edge at the time are now commonplace. So what is it like to fly? Let’s go for a ride.

As with all airplanes, it is necessary to conduct a thorough preflight inspection and in addition to all of the normal checks pilots are accustomed to performing. there are four items worthy of mention. First and foremost, assure the magneto switch is in the OFF position, a step that could have been overlooked at the conclusion of the last flight.

Second is sampling the fuel. When built, the Spartan had five fuel tanks; a header tank, two main tanks and two auxiliary tanks. Many Spartans, including S/N 17, have had the header tank removed to make way for modern avionics. With the current configuration, fuel has to be sampled from five drains; two main tanks, two auxiliary tanks and a forward drain. The issue for the modern aviator is all of these drains are under the belly of the airplane and you need to crawl under the airplane to get to them. It’s not an issue when the airplane is in the hangar and you can use a creeper to get to the drains, but it can be a bit dirty when at a fly-in and you need to crawl on wet grass to get to the sumps.

The third item is the necessity to pull the prop through to assure you don’t have any oil accumulation in the bottom cylinders. I pull the prop through nine blades before the first engine start of the day. I have never had a situation where I had hydraulic lock, but if you do, you need to remove the bottom spark plugs to clear the cylinders of oil before the engine can be started.

Finally, the fourth item is checking the oil since radial engines are notorious for both using and leaking oil. If you have ever wondered why a Spartan has a wing walk on the left and right sides of the cabin when the airplane only has one door on the left, it is to enable you to get to oil filler door and dipstick on the upper right side of the engine cowling. And remember, the markings on the dipstick represent gallons and not quarts. Full oil on S/N 17 is eight gallons.

Starting the engine is a bit different than on a modern airplane and starting the engine on this particular Spartan also has some unusual features you may not see on other Spartans. The first difference from modern airplanes with constant speed propellers is the position of the prop control during startup and shutdown. For both startup and shutdown, the propeller is the high pitch/low RPM position for the Spartan. On modern airplanes, it is exactly the opposite. For startup, you want all of the oil flowing through the engine and not being diverted to the propeller. Once the engine is running and you have an indication of full oil pressure, the prop lever is then advanced to the fine pitch/high RPM position. This Spartan also has an electric auxiliary fuel pump and an electric cylinder primer delivering fuel to five cylinders. The priming procedure is to turn on the master, then turn on the electric pump. Once you have fuel pressure, prime the engine for three to five seconds, turn the magnetos on “both” and push the starter button. Because of the five cylinder primer, the engine typically comes to life after only one or two blades. Once running, then engine needs to warm to 50 C. before taxiing the aircraft. That gives the pilot several minutes of time to turn on radios and lights and check various other systems.

Taxiing is typical for a tailwheel airplane. – – go slowly and do a lot of S turns to see what is ahead of you. Forward visibility while on the ground in the Spartan is horrible. S/N 17 has been modified to have a steerable (but not lockable) tailwheel, but differential braking is still needed, particularly at slow speeds or for sharp turns. At unfamiliar airports or at airshows with people and airplanes everywhere, it is nice to have a competent observer occupying the right seat. Once you arrive at the run-up area, complete all of the items on the pre-takeoff checklist. Assure the flaps are in the up position since they are not used for takeoff. This Spartan has an accurate fuel flow gauge, so the final item I check is the amount of fuel that has been burned during engine warm-up and taxiing. This is typically several gallons of fuel.

I also fly a Cessna 140. I mention that because the takeoff in the Spartan is far different than the little Cessna. I use full power for takeoff, which is about 36 inches of manifold pressure and 2350 RPM’s. At about 30 knots, I slowly raise the tail while adding right rudder. If you bring up the tail quickly, the airplane will want to make an immediate turn because of the torque from the huge engine and large diameter propeller. At about 65 to 70 MPH, the airplane is ready to fly. Once a positive rate of climb is achieved, tap the brakes to stop the wheels from turning and retract the gear. At full power you are burning about 50 gallons per hour, so as soon as the wheels are retracted and obstacles have been cleared, lower the power to about 30 inches and 2000 RPM’s.

Once you get to your desired cruising altitude, level off, trim the airplane, lean the engine, complete the cruise section of the checklist and get ready to experience flying at its best. The Spartan is supercharged, so the airplane has a service ceiling of 24,000 feet. Optimum altitude and speed is 9600 feet. To go fast, you need to go high and you need to burn a lot of gas. For an airplane that is older than me (and I’m a senior citizen) my approach is a bit more conservative. If I am flying locally and just out for a fun flight, I throttle back to 1700 RPM’s and 25 inches. With the engine leaned to 50 to 100 degrees rich of peak, that gets me about 155 MPH while burning a little under 17 gph. If I am actually going on a trip and flying at altitudes of 5000 feet or less, I can cruise at about 170 MPH while burning about 21 gph. The Spartan will go faster if I want to use more fuel and fly at higher altitudes, but I never seem to have a reason to do so.

It is in level cruise flight where the wonder of this airplane is most evident. It is rock solid in flight and quiet enough that headsets are not really needed. With the smooth and throaty sound of the engine, a frequent flying companion describes the flight as like riding in a diesel locomotive. While flying from my home base to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for EAA’s annual AirVenture, I was observing the slowly moving cars below. It occurred to me that I was going to complete the trip in about 3.5 hours, but when I made the same trip in prior years in a car, it had taken me 12 hours. Then I thought about 1939. Back then it would still have taken the Spartan 3.5 hours, but with the roads and the automobiles of that era, it would have been a several day trip. With such remarkable performance back in 1930’s, I wonder what the pilots and passengers were thinking as the gleaming silver wings of the Spartan quickly passed over the landscape below.

Even the best of flights must end, so it is back to the airport. Landings in the Spartan are not difficult, but you do need to remain focused. The airplane has wing flaps controlled with one switch and a belly flap controlled with another. The flaps deploy 45 degrees, so they are quite effective. Landings can be made using no flaps, full flaps and anything in between. The difference in stall speed between no flaps and full flaps is about 10 MPH, so I normally use the full flap option to enable me to touch down at the slowest possible speed. With a gross weight of 4400 pounds, it is a somewhat heavy airplane. As such, you need to stay ahead of the airplane with small and smooth pitch and power adjustments during the final approach and landing phases. I always do wheel landings because the Spartan is so blind when all three wheels are on the ground. Like all taildraggers, you don’t stop flying until the airplane is tied down.

There is one other aspect of flying the Spartan that I didn’t expect when I bought the airplane. It is something that can be both good and bad, depending on the circumstances. Specifically, it is the sound of that big R-985. When in the traffic pattern, it seems to attract everyone with a camera that is nearby. It’s great when you make a beautiful landing and someone captures that accomplishment with a photo. However, we all make occasional landings that we would rather not have show up as a Facebook or Instagram picture.

After taxiing back to the hangar, it is time to shut down the engine. The normal procedure is to move the prop control to course pitch, then idle at 1000 RPM’s for about a minute before pulling the mixture to the idle cutoff position. Assure everything is turned off and double check to be certain the magnetos are in the off position.

The final activity after each flight is to step away from the airplane and take another photo for my ever-growing collection of Spartan pictures. While I won’t always be the owner/custodian of this piece of flying art, at least I will have the pictures and the memories for the rest of my life.