‘Tailwind vs. Cougar’

Throughout the homebuilt movement many designs have a strong resemblance to others. The all-time toppers in this area are the Wittman “Tailwind” and the Nesmith “Cougar.”

The “Tailwind” came on the scene first, back at the very beginning of the present homebuilt era. Steve Wittman of Oshkosh, Wis., was a schoolteacher who had a hobby of building and racing airplanes — and quite successfully. Modern-day pilots may not be aware that those maintenance-free spring steel landing gear legs of Cessna and some other models are his invention. Wittman designed other planes besides racers for his personal use and reworked his small pre-World War II racer for postwar “Goodyear” class racing, now Formula I.

In 1952-53, just before EAA was founded, he continued his personal plane design with a new low-powered two-seater, the W-8 “Tailwind.” By the standards of the day, this was like the bumblebee: according to the normal rules of aerodynamics, it couldn’t fly. Since the bumblebee never read the book, he just went ahead and flew. The “Tailwind,” with a seemly impossibly short wing — only 82 square feet of wing area — a very short and fat fuselage, and only 85 horsepower, looked like it couldn’t get off the ground either, but it did, and very well.

Construction was simple and conventional, with a welded steel tube fuselage and tail with fabric cover. The two-piece wing had a single main spar, a single lift strut on each side, and was covered with plywood for torsional stiffness. The tiny ailerons were actuated by a torque tube running through another tube which served as the spar for the wing flaps. Seating was side-by-side to simplify the old balance problem of variable crew weight. Another Wittman innovation was the “buggy whip” landing gear legs, which were turned from steel instead of being flat.

Wittman soon put the plans on the market and the “Tailwind” — along with the Corben “Baby Ace,” a 1932 design that Paul Poberezny redesigned for Modern Mechanics Magazine, and the Stits “Playboy” — became the leading homebuilts of the middle 1950s and the 1960s. Price of the plans in 1960 was $125.

In 1957 Robert Nesmith, of Houston, Texas, thought the “Tailwind” could stand a little improvement. He built a near duplicate he named the “Cougar.” The main differences were a 108-115 hp Lycoming 0-235 engine, no flaps, and a few inches difference in dimensions. The wing, however, has the same 82 square feet and the same NACA 4309 airfoil. According to Nesmith’s published figures, his plane was 76 pounds lighter with a heavier engine and landed at the same or a lower speed without benefit of flaps.

Nesmith, too, sold plans, but at a price considerably lower than Wittman’s.

A big cost saving was the fact that the few big sheets were turned out in quantity on a printing press, but they were also greatly lacking in detail. This wasn’t bad for experienced builders who only needed general guidelines, but was rough on beginners. Many who started their planes as “Cougars” ended up buying plans from Wittman and finishing them as “Tailwinds.”

This identity problem is compounded by the many individual modifications that builders make. Some added flaps to “Cougars” and eliminated that point of distinction while others put bigger engines in “Tailwinds.” The many changes in vertical tail shape, landing gear, and cowling detail are too many to try to cover here. Also, several firms supplied ready-made fiberglass cowlings that were notably different.

So, the identity problem remains. Statistically, you are pretty safe in calling the plane you see a “Tailwind” since there are so many more of them, but to be absolutely sure, you had better ask the guy who flew it in.

A brief comparison of the “Tailwind” and the “Cougar” can be seen in the table below.


“TAILWIND:” This is a relatively stock “Tailwind,” with an 85 hp Continental engine under a cowling built up from flat sheet aluminum. Note the Wittman-developed “buggy whip” landing gear legs.

CLEANED-UP: A “Tailwind” with compound-curve fiberglass cowling and fairings on the landing gear legs. Engine is a Continental C-90. Note the small area of the rudder relative to the total vertical tail area.

IN THE DETAILS: This Nesmith “Cougar” has modified cabin windows and a notable shortened landing gear. Note the slot in the fuselage for the stabilizer trim adjustment, a “Cougar” detail.

SOMETHING DIFFERENT: This “Cougar” has an enlarged fin and a very square cowling built up of sheet aluminum. Engine is a Lycoming 0-235.

SLICKED-UP: This “Cougar” has a controllable propeller, compound-curve cowling, faired landing gear, and a swept vertical tail. Some latter-day “Tailwinds” also have swept tails.

HIS OWN PLANE: Steve Wittman built this W-9L for himself and powered it with a 160 hp Lycoming 0-320. The tricycle gear was later changed to taildragger type like the W-8, but in the meantime other builders had worked up three-wheel arrangements of their own, mostly with the main wheel legs attached farther aft on the fuselage.


    • Anonymous says

      This was posted to our old website (two version ago) and sadly, the images didn’t make the migration. We’d love to have them included, but alas…

  1. Lucky Lewis says

    The Aircraft Spruce catalog indicates that the Cougar was modified for an FAA design contest in 1963 to include folding wings. The current version of the Cougar can be towed to the airport on the main gear with wings folded. Both airplanes are still being built by homebuilders with updated and improved plans available from Aircraft Spruce for the Tailwind and Acro Sport for the Cougar.

    • Rick Funkhouser says


      Built and flew 1970, Nesmith Cougar with my father…Sport Aviation 1971. Great plane original built Empty Wt. 620 with a 65 h.p. built up to an 80 h.p. 5 ring piston, then replaced with a C-90 built up to 100 h.p. balanced crank and rods – ended up around 700 Empty Wt., 2450 cruise 150 mph, ran like a sewing machine. Only negative, you have to watch the aileron static balance, decided to put a fresh paint job on the plane – appx 3 yrs later, and did not check each aileron/static balance! Experienced severe left wing flutter…turning from downwind to base… – up and down like a jack hammer…tip actually flapping and it appeared like it was breaking lose at the main spar. I immediately reduced power, pitched-up and starting slipping into a field…trying to get on the ground before the wing came off. Slowing below 100 mph, cross controlled…the flutter stopped and I was able to make a hard left turn and I make it back to the RWY. No damage, very slight elongation in the two vertical bolt holes that attach the aileron to the rear spar.

      I discussed this with Steve Wittman, Tailwind and also called Lenard Eves, OK…we built our Cougar with the folding wing design, which is well worth the extra building time. Very sorry that we now lost both of these pilots, most recent, Lenard Eves, OK, in I believe his Skeeter…i.e., low wing ver. of a Cougar. Great memories of Oshkosh..

      Both designers told me they felt is was the added (just enough) paint and not being static balanced correctly…Post flight – completed the static balance, Wt. added, no further issues.

      I posted this story to a Tailwind site a few years back…I hope my experience and knowledge helps the next generation of builders fly safely. Rick Funkhouser, CFI-A, N2rf@yahoo.com.

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