“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a pilot not in possession of a good fortune will be in want of a VW-powered aircraft.” Well, I’m not entirely sure Jane Austen would’ve put it quite like that but one thing is irrefutable: If you want to fly an affordable aeroplane then it may well have a Beetle engine! And, here’s a very interesting factoid: the most produced aero-engine ever is probably Lycoming’s O-360, with around 250,000 made. However, Volkswagen made more than 21 million Beetle engines!
An interesting facet about lightweight taildraggers such as the D9 is that they have to be ‘flown’ all the time, even on the ground. Consequently even while taxiing I’m very aware of the wind, because even with differential braking turning out of wind can be a bit tricky. Of course, such simple machines have very simple checks, and while running through my generic SEP checks (which take the form of an unwritten ‘flow check’ around the cockpit), I often get the feeling (and particularly if I’ve flown something a bit more complex the day before) that I’ve forgotten something. What about the flaps and fuel pump, or the prop lever and mixture control? I search for the relevant buttons, switches and levers in vain — none of these things exist. Apart from stick, rudder and trim, flight instruments and engine gauges, there’s not much else to check and if plenty of wire is visible from the filler cap then you’ve got gas. As for engine health, as well as checking the mags and carb heat at high rpm, I always ensure that the engine will idle satisfactorily. Remember that the prop is both small and light, and the engine doesn’t have a flywheel. If the tick-over is set too low and the engine starts to ‘run down’ the prop will not have enough momentum to keep it turning.
As the strip where Buzz is based is adequately long but not excessively so, I tend to start bringing the power in as I line up, rather than lining up and then adding power. With only around 50 German-Brazilian horses pulling, the acceleration is far from startling. It is important to pick up the tail quickly, particularly if the grass is long as the tailwheel is small. Dragging it through long grass definitely impedes acceleration, while the design of the undercarriage means that all the time the tail is down there is a braking action. This is because the aircraft was originally designed without brakes, the designers instead relying on a combination of tailskid and the camber of the wheels for retardation. With the tail up the wheels track in parallel and offer little rolling resistance, but with the tail down the camber angle provides braking.
Fortunately the elevator becomes effective quickly, as does the rudder. With the tail up acceleration is quite brisk and a little bit of rudder helps keep it straight because it will swing if you let it. Anyway, with even a bit of a breeze on the nose it soon reaches flying speed. Lift-off occurs at around 35 knots, and if I can see even the faintest indication of lift (usually thermals, but there’s always the slight chance of weak wave, while the ‘sea breeze’ sometimes moves this far inland) then that’s where I’ll head. Bebé is an aircraft that flies upon the air not through it, consequently any sort of lift can be easily exploited. Indeed, a good thermal can boost the climb rate to as much as 1,500 fpm, while the tight turning radius makes it easy to say centered in the lift. Alternatively, with the power pulled back to give zero sink in still air that little engine drinks fuel like a spinster sipping Sherry!
D9 is a lot of fun to fly and the handling is really sweet with controls that are nicely coordinated and crisp. Control harmony is also very good with light ailerons and a slightly heavier elevator, with the rudder being the heaviest, as it should be. The roll rate is reasonably quick and the turning circle impressively small. The ailerons do firm up considerably at higher speeds, but overall I find them most agreeable. The elevator is nicely weighted, while the all-flying rudder is powerful but not over sensitive. I’ve read that the rudder can be made to stall, but I’ve never managed to do it. It can only be trimmed in pitch, and if anything, it feels as if the tailplane could be fractionally bigger or the trim tab have a little more authority. This may be because the original D9 had a small 26-horsepower Poinsard engine, or it may be because I’m a bit of a ‘chunky monkey’ and really should lose some weight! An examination of the cruise speed reveals it is happiest at about 3,000 rpm, which gives 75 knot IAS. Fuel burn is around 2.5 gallons per hour, so the still-air range is approximately 225 nautical miles, with 30-minutes reserve. Slow flight is very benign, although I always ensure that I’ve selected carb heat before reducing power, as VWs are notorious ice-makers. As the speed decays the ASI becomes increasingly vague, before it reluctantly drops the nose at about 33 knots. There is just a subtle suggestion of pre-stall buffet, but on the plus side adding power and reducing pitch produces an immediate recovery.
Crosswinds are best avoided if practical, and should certainly be considered with a degree of circumspection. As with most lightweight taildraggers the D9 has really been designed to be operated into wind and consequently its crosswind limits are quite low. In my experience, you would have to apply yourself to overrun the runway in a Bebé, although a strong crosswind could make it cheerfully run off the side, particularly on a hard-surface runway. Lightweight taildraggers don’t really go well with concrete and crosswinds, but as long as this is borne in mind Bebé is a delight to land. The rudder has enough authority to make directional control during the roll-out easy. Since buying the D9 I have become increasingly enchanted with this delightful little flying machine, as it is an aircraft in which the sensation of powered flight is distilled into just about its purest form. With a pair of stout wings to sustain you, the wind in your hair and a full 360° of visibility above the wings, it’s a truly fun machine in which to sail the sea of the sky.
Whether chugging along above England’s incomparable landscape on a warm summer’s evening at 501 feet, twisting and turning in a tight thermal, slaloming sinuously between billowing banks of spotless white cumulus or merely the simple pleasure of kissing the sun-warmed grass of a farm strip with a perfect three-pointer, my Bebé has reminded me why I learned to fly in the first place. One thing’s for sure. If you cost your air-time by the hour, power flying really doesn’t get much cheaper than a D9!