Have you heard of the dreaded ground loop? If you’ve ever contemplated flying a taildragger, a fellow pilot probably warned you about it.
If you’ve shied away from taildraggers as they sound difficult or fearsome, I recommend you learn more about Kolb Aircraft as it has some very affordable taildraggers that you can fly with little fear.
Even if you feel sure taildraggers are not for you, Kolb has an unusually versatile option that might change your mind about “standard” gear aircraft.
In the world of kit aircraft a few companies stand out for having delivered many kits that have subsequently launched into the air.
Leading the success stories is Van’s Aircraft at nearly 10,000 flying, with around double that number of kits shipped. Van’s is trailed by other light kit aircraft developers such as Rans Aircraft and Kitfox Aircraft. Then, we have Kolb Aircraft.
Kolb owner Bryan Melborn estimates about 8,000 of the company’s various models are flying today, a strong enough figure to make the Tennessee company one of the shining lights in the field of light kit aircraft.
Homer Kolb’s first design emerged in 1970 and was marketed a few years later to enough success that a whole range of models followed.
Yet Kolb has always had a problem. It builds taildraggers…mostly.
Now that generations of pilots have been trained in tricycle gear airplanes, many aren’t sure about their ability to handle a taildragger.
When landed other than straight and true, a tricycle gear airplane tends to “auto-correct,” swinging toward the nosewheel.
A taildragger can, if handled poorly, result in the dreaded ground loop, meaning that the tail can swing to the side. Once this movement is allowed to start, it can gain momentum and continue to swing sideways, eventually tilting the aircraft and potentially causing a wingtip to touch the ground. Hence, ground loop.
The effect can be somewhat gentle with minor results. If wild enough, the movement can substantially damage the airplane. Hence, the “dreaded” ground loop.
Taildragger pilots know the solution is “happy feet,” meaning that you make a steady series of small corrections via the rudder pedals to keep the aircraft straight throughout the landing, touchdown, and rollout process. Acquiring that finesse takes a bit of time, while “nosedraggers” are more forgiving of newer pilot error.
However, before you nod your head in agreement that taildraggers are not for you, let me try to alter your thinking.
The ground loop effect is more pronounced the higher the aircraft’s weight and the steeper its “deck angle.” Other factors can also influence a taildragger, but these two bear mention.
Kolb models are all light aircraft. Low weight and a slower landing speed contribute significantly to why Kolb pilots rarely experience ground loops.
Kolb taildraggers have a very shallow deck angle, meaning the nose does not sit high above the tail.
These two differences — light weight and shallow deck angle — make the taildragger “problem” almost invisible, but that doesn’t change the fear many pilots have for the once-standard gear arrangement.
What should Kolb do? It already did it.
Going Both Ways At Once
Offered after years of a tandem setup, Kolb’s FireStar II SS is a side-by-side version of the FireStar II.
More recently, the company offered a tricycle gear version, one that retains the tailwheel even if you don’t use it. This gives a landing gear versatility almost unmatched in aviation.
“You can land on three front wheels or use the tailwheel if you wish to explore this difference,” said Melborn.
This dual ability lets you try taildragger landings with greater assurance. The nosewheel remains in its stabilizing position during a landing. Another benefit is greater maneuverability in ground handling.
Bryan expounded that FireStar II delivers “great climb performance with the Hirth 3202 engine but can be fitted with the Rotax 582 engine.”
Hirth is the standard engine for the FireStar II SS mated to a 2.58:1 gear reduction drive swinging a 66″ diameter fixed pitch propeller. A potent climb performance is capped with a top speed of 80 mph.
Rotax’s 582 is a well-regarded two-stroke powerplant that the Austrian company has made for many years. It has a proven track record and 65 horsepower delivers robust performance.
Stall speed is a low 35 mph.
“It takes very little power to maintain minimum flying speed in a FireStar II SS, and slower flying is more enjoyable because engine noise and fuel consumption are at a minimum,” Melborn added.
To Melborn’s performance notes, I will add that handling Kolb aircraft is a wonderful experience.
All Kolb models use traditional cable and push-pull tube controls to yield a solid feel. Controls are light and responsive almost no matter the speed. Half-span ailerons offer good roll authority at higher speeds while still being powerful enough at lower speeds to retain roll control right through stall.
“Optional hydraulic brakes provide for sure stops so the FireStar II SS can be landed and stopped in very tight areas,” noted Melborn.
Differential braking using heel pedals allows for a tighter turning radius, which further improves excellent ground handling.
Maybe you are already one of those 8,000 Kolb owners. What about you?
Previous customers who built the older tandem configuration of FireStar are not left out.
“We use stock FireStar wings and tail feathers, so if you own a FireStar II tandem seat, you can purchase a new cage and a boom tube from Kolb Aircraft and fit your wings, tail feathers, engine, and instruments to it and convert to side by side,” Melborn explained.
Like all Kolb aircraft, the FireStar has folding wings and tail, which allow for easy storage or trailering.
“The tail folds up and the wings fold back along the fuselage in about 15 minutes,” Melborn said, noting this can be accomplished by one person. “Everything stores right on the airframe.”
With gross weight of 850 pounds and slow stall speed, a two-place FireStar II is sold as an Experimental Amateur Built aircraft. It qualifies to be flown using a Sport Pilot certificate or your higher certificate exercising the privileges of Sport Pilot.
Putting It All Together
A Kolb FireStar II SS kit with covering fabric will run about $11,000. If you add the Hirth or Rotax engine for $7,000-10,000, plus basic analog instruments, paint and some interior finishing, you could get airborne for around $25,000.
It will take you approximately 350 hours to build the kit, but you can cut that in half by ordering the Factory Quick Build kit offered by Custom Air for about $5,000 more.
If you need extra guidance, Kolb offers — as do most kit makers — a builder assist program. Approved by the FAA, this allows expert help as you build, plus the use of someone else’s facility and tools.
At $25,000-$30,000 for a completed kit and not too much of your time, Kolb’s FireStar II SS (side-by-side) model qualifies as highly affordable.
That FireStar allows you to go both ways — taildragger or tri-gear — makes it an interesting choice in a recreational flying machine.