It may not be funky but this almost completely original small aircraft is agile and offers a glimpse into the past | Words: Bob Davy – Photos: Keith Wilson

I had never even heard of this aircraft before I was invited to fly one in North Carolina in the spring. A quick Google of the name revealed an old flying machine that looks pretty much like any other American light aircraft of the period.

And since only 400 or so of these aeroplanes were built between 1939 and 1948 (a rough figure, depending on which internet site you believe) you would be excused for not knowing what a Funk is?and not even noticing were you to walk past one (as I didn’t, at Oshkosh last summer). An Aeronca this, a Taylorcraft that, or a Piper whatever would be most European pilots’ guess for this aeroplane. However, look a little closer and you start to realise there is something a little special about a Funk.

Like the difference between a Beech Bonanza and a Piper Arrow, the Funk is a very nicely put together aircraft; hand-built rather than production line; a quality machine.

Take, for example, the way the engine cowling side panels, secured by three Dzus fasteners, lift up on a central piano hinge like you’d find 1930s and ’40s car; or the way the wing support struts are arranged in parallel instead of converging so that, stepping between them, it’s easier to get into the cockpit; the little handholds on the tailplane, sitting in front of the leading edge where drag is minimal; the neat little manual tailwheel lock which either connects the tailwheel with the rudder for flight or lets it castor for ground handling; or the spring bias elevator trim?a single line to the top of the elevator control horn which is already biased aerodynamically so there is only one cable, not a control loop which needs constant adjustment/maintenance.

This is a quality aeroplane.

Hunter Reiley is the nineteen-year-old old owner of NC81152, and he is going to let me fly the Funk that he uses as his personal transport. He is currently at Liberty University in the USA studying aeronautics. Hunter taught himself to fly the Funk after first checking out in a Cessna 170 (he says the Funk flies rings around it). Hunter’s longest trip to date is from home in Texas to Virginia, a journey of 1,200nm, which took him two days.

He showed me around the aircraft, which he has now owned for eighteen months. It was the 282nd built, and is one of 77 still registered, and maybe fifty flying today.

How does it fly?

Rather than try and talk a lot of nonsense about what is really a very simple aeroplane, let’s take it flying. As we walk up to the Funk the first thing we notice is that it’s a very, very small aircraft. If it were modern we would be calling it a VLA (very light aircraft).

Personally, I don’t like many VLAs but I already like the Funk’s cute appearance and we haven’t flown it yet. This is, nevertheless, a traditional rag-and-tube aircraft with wooden wings, wood used where possible due to the materials shortage at the time (before and after WWII). This example hasn’t been restored since it was built in 1946 so the exterior and interior are almost as tired as each other (the fabric was last done in the 1980s to the original paint scheme) and yet the patina of age, wear and accumulated smells is intoxicating.

It is and feels like a piece of history in a land that is happy to cut away and replace originality with new metal in the pursuit of perfection.

The cockpit is tight in width but not as bad as a Cessna 150’s. However the legroom… There is no adjustment to seat or rudder, and with a 6ft 2in frame and long legs I am at the absolute height limit of a pilot able to sit in and fly this aeroplane.

My knees are scraping underneath the horizontal beam which extends from the top of the central column, and which looks, in miniature, exactly the same as in a PBY Catalina (I was lucky enough to fly one once). If you get the chance to fly one of these?Funk, not Catalina?and are as tall as I am, stop off at the nearest motorsport dealer on the way to the airport and buy a pair of racing boots like all the aerobatic people use these days. Or fly it in your socks.

The interior is almost completely original. You can tell that by the wear and the rip in the ceiling, and also because of the colour of the fabric?it’s a mixture of brown and grey that no cloth manufacturer would dare make today. My little boy (ahem, he’s now 6ft 3in) once asked me if ‘the old days’ were black and white. The answer is no, they were brown and grey!

We climb in and fasten the single seat belt across us?how quaint!?and wind our watches back 75 years. The view outside is, like that from inside, something even earlier, a model T Ford. The panel is about as basic as you can get, with the modern radio and transponder bolted upright to the front of the seats so they don’t spoil the ‘retro’ view. Fuel is simply on or off, the selector underneath the panel being left in the on position. It is supplied from a single twenty US gallon tank ahead of the panel.

Hunter switches on the master at the left of the panel and then operates the primer just above it: mixture on, set the throttle, and turn the key in the middle of the panel. The engine takes a little while longer to fire than I’m used to but once running I can tell it’s OK, with oil pressure coming up within five seconds.

A modern but subtle little avionics switch is brought online with the generator (not alternator) to complete the after-start checks.

Today it’s breezy with up to fifteen knots crosswind and so we have elected to fly with the tailwheel lock engaged. It means the tailwheel is limited by the travel of the rudder?say twenty degrees either way?and so we would have to think again if we were in a tight space and needed full travel to taxi away. But we’re not.

Hunter hands me control and I move forward with the slightest nudge on the Vernier throttle mounted atop the panel. I can see over the nose but I start to weave because it’s always best practice. (The Mustang men at Kissimmee taught me to park at 45 degrees to where I next meant to taxi in order to clear where I would be going to go next.)

We proceed out to the hold at Raleigh Executive Airport which has a nice long and wide tarmac runway but also a few grass areas alongside which could be an option if the wind picks up. We do the power and pre-takeoff checks in quick order and line up on the tarmac.

Hunter is very graciously going to let me fly the takeoff even though the blood is leaving my left leg, my toes upturned as hard as they can go so that my left knee doesn’t hit the underside of the beam as I pull the column back. I feed in full power counting three seconds and then almost immediately lower the nose with a push on the column and a little shove on that big and effective rudder to keep straight.

The crosswind is picking up to fifteen knots from the right and the propeller is driving us left so it virtually cancels out and I don’t have to work very hard to keep straight until we launch into the air at fifty knots.

The unstick isn’t particularly clean and I take a few seconds to come to terms with the controls in the light chop before I settle down. First impressions are good: the controls are light and very well harmonised for such an old design. And the rudder!

It’s incredibly powerful but it still has harmony with the other controls (I find out just how powerful a little later.) We climb out of the circuit at 80mph and level off at 1,000ft agl with the speed creeping up slowly. Cruise is 110-115mph?not fast but considerably better than a Cub with more horsepower.

The 0-290 Lycoming retrofitted to this aircraft puts out 135hp. The 180hp Super Cub I used to fly as a glider tug wasn’t anywhere near as fast. At cruise we are burning around eight US gph.

I have a few minutes before we meet up with the camera ship to try control harmony?which is excellent?and pitch stability which is also good and positive. Roll rate is slightly better than average for the vintage and produces a small amount of adverse yaw which can be counteracted with rudder. As in all taildraggers, the rudder pedals are not just foot rests (my first aviation cliché of the day?sorry).

Soon enough the Cirrus cameraship is with us. It drops full flap and slows to eighty knots so that we have a little extra smack when we are in the outside of the turns and can catch up when we break away and rejoin again. Formation flying is a good way to find out what the controllability is like, and despite the turbulence I find station-keeping manageable.

The big surprise though is when we do our first break to show the underside of the Funk. The rudder is so powerful that, when I push top rudder to give Keith the photographer an extra second or two to get a shot before we fall away, we don’t! We are holding knife-edge flight like you would expect in a Pitts Special!

I am amazed and quickly reposition to do it the other way i.e. crossing behind the camera ship. The same thing happens; we are suspended in the air on knife-edge for a few seconds before drag takes over and we fall away slowly. Impressive!

Away from the cameraship I try a stall. I close the throttle and hold the swing, keeping altitude as the speed ever so slowly washes off. 70, 60, 50, 40 and still nothing happens. When the stall finally occurs there is no discernible g break?the ASI now off the clock?and we are mushing down at… Oh, I don’t even bother to look at the VSI frankly, as it is such a non-event. The ailerons are still working fine. Hunter says he saw 30mph indicated but there’s nothing much to know about.

At the top end of the speed range we manage a max cruise of 118mph, a little higher than the spec sheet but this Funk has 135hp instead of 85hp. This is pretty close to the theoretical change which is derived by dividing the new hp by the old hp, then cube-rooting it and multiplying that by the original airspeed to give the new one: in the Funk’s case it’s 135/85=1.59, then cube root =1.17, multiply 100mph by that = 117mph?so not far off.

There’s not much else to do with the aircraft so we beat a retreat to Raleigh, trading height for speed and fitting in with the circuit traffic. The Funk remains nicely controllable at higher speeds, the controls stiffening up a little and the wind noise increasing but it’s all a non-event.

On final I slow to sixty mph and side-slip to lose height as there are no flaps with which to go down and slow down at the same time. At fifty feet I kick the Funk straight and try a wheeler so, as the main wheels touch, I check the stick forward to hold the attitude.

The blood is draining from my left leg again as I try and use the rudder to keep straight but I’m not quite nimble enough and we weave a little before a gust of wind has us airborne again. I keep the throttle closed and settle again in the three point attitude for a so-so conclusion.

I apply full power, check the swing and climb away before handing over to Hunter to show me how it should be done, while I slip my feet off the rudder pedals and stretch my legs.

Hunter’s efforts are considerably better than mine and he manages a neat wheeler, balancing the aircraft on the into-wind tyre before flying the other one down onto the runway and gently landing the tailwheel with no swing whatsoever. I do one more, this time much better prepared, and manage to do pretty much the same landing as him. The Funk is a great tailwheel trainer, that’s for sure.

Want One?

Why would you want to own a modern VLA with lower performance when?for less outlay?you can own a classic aircraft which outperforms them? (The reason I don’t like many VLAs – where is the progress?) This Funk has looks, performance, character and history.

A little research reveals all manner of Funk stories. For instance, the Funk twins who designed the aircraft are said to have checked the crash-worthiness of the design by tying one up by its tail, lifting it to the top of a barn and cutting the rope!

There was also a military Funk designated the UC92 which saw service in WWII?not so much a warbird as a ‘warbug’ maybe, but it’s nice to know. Somewhat maligned for many years after WWII, the Funk has come of age and is now widely regarded: there is a healthy owners’ club in America.

A check on the aircraft sales websites shows a strong market in the US for these rare aeroplanes, whereas there are none on the UK register at present. Prices start at around US$20,000, up to US$35,000 for concours examples. Not cheap but cheaper than a Cub or Super Cub for a better aircraft.

Running costs are low but you have to factor in the extra cost of hangarage in Europe because of that wooden wing.


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Image(s) provided by:

Keith Wilson