The Little Bush Plane That Could

Twenty-five years after the Kitfox took over homebuilders hearts, it remains a favorite.

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There is no question that the Kitfox is among the seminal homebuilts of our era. Every journalist working a quarter century ago saw the avalanche of popularity kicked off by the retro two-seater, but for some the association is far more personal. In 1986 I was a fledgling flight instructor, and my first published works were turning up in some California-based publications dedicated to general aviation aircraft. It was fun. Id write in the morning, turn up to fly at around 11 a.m., and then lock up the flight school for its owner after Id landed and debriefed my last student, at about 9 p.m.

In the course of my assignments I had the opportunity to meet Kitfox designer Dan Denney. He and Dean Wilson originally came up with the idea for a very light, two-place, side-by-side bush plane in the early 1980s. The Kitfox 1 was all that, weighing between 400 and 500 pounds empty. Key to the airplanes success was the ability to fold its wings without detaching them. Remove one pin (per side) and a cotter pin or two, and the wings swing back to hug the fuselage. With a custom tail-hitch, the airplane can be stored in a one-car garage and towed on its mainwheels to and from the airport. It was not quite a flying car, but its storage and portability, combined with its STOL capabilities and a dose of pure cute, made it an instant success. The first kit was delivered in 1984.

The Kitfox design has always evoked dreams of simple flying, following the land in your elemental machine.

Split Ends

Not long after the first kits came out of the Kitfox factory Wilson split off to create his own line, Avid Aircraft. His machines included a bush plane that looks and flies like the early Kitfoxes, as well as an amphibious aircraft that could hold three (small folk). Denney kept his factory in Nampa, Idaho, near Boise, and for years there was a healthy rivalry between the two companies, and even between homebuilders of their products.

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The most recognizable difference between the classic Kitfox and the Avid was in the cowl. The Avids was standard for a horizontally opposed flat engine, where the Kitfox had been designed with a classic 1930s-look round cowl, ostensibly for a round engine. The small radial was to have come from Australia, but it was fraught with technical issues and never ran well. Denney settled on Rotax engines for the Kitfox line, though many Kitfox owners have experimented successfully with other engines, some air- and some water-cooled, and at least one with a radial, the Rotec 2800.

I sampled a Kitfox I and Kitfox II the first time I was at the Nampa factory and quickly discovered that the airplanes shared a quirk that made them different from the production taildraggers Id flown. They were neutral in yaw stability. That meant that when you applied rudder for a turn, or any maneuver, frankly, you had to remove it in order to re-center the aircraft in normal flight. It was reminiscent of taxiing a steerable tailwheel aircraft, only this was in the air. The little airplanes long wings and drooped wingtips meant turns started with rudder, too. I also got to fly a Kitfox II with Full Lotus inflatable floats and discovered that the plane was definitely short on rudder authority when the floats were hanging underneath. It badly needed a ventral fin.

Just a year later, I had the opportunity to return to Nampa, and this time Denney showed me the Kitfox III. With the gross weight pumped to 1050 pounds (from the 850 pounds of the Kitfox II), the airplane had acquired the ability to sink, finally, in the landing configuration. (This was not a bad trait.) A Rotax 912 was bolted to the front of the airframe for the first time, and Denney loved to demonstrate how steep it could climb out. The most significant fix to the airplane, however, was the addition of nearly 30% more surface area to the entire tail structure. The vertical and horizontal stabilizers were bigger, as was the rudder, and it made a difference. I flew the new model on floats off the Snake River and marveled at its stability compared to its siblings. There was no more need for a ventral fin modification, and when you made a turn with rudder and aileron the airplane now brought itself back to center at the end without having to apply opposite rudder.

The Kitfox III was easy enough to learn to fly, wide enough for two people to truly sit in comfort (Denney, at 6-foot-5, routinely bragged about headroom and legroom), and it performed well enough to be considered a real back-country machine in an area where back-country aircraft were put to work on a daily basis. Costing just $18,000 for the complete kit (less engine), it was affordable. The company had a hard time keeping up with orders.

Continuing Development

Denney was a perfectionist, and he knew that he wasn’t done with the Kitfox. A year and a half later he came out with the Model IV, and shortly thereafter introduced the Model IV-1200, which could lift its empty weight in payload if constructed and equipped properly. Heavier lift struts, gear legs and beefed up carry-through tubes in the fuselage were just a few of the tweaks. Denney wasn’t done with the tail, either, and made it 10 inches higher, with an even bigger rudder to improve handling. Finally, he acquiesced to those fliers who loved the little airplane with the long wings and droopy tips but wanted a machine that handled more like an airplane (and less like a glider). He created a Speedster version, with strut fairings, wheelpants and a totally different wing, some 18 inches shorter and sporting false ribs.

Jimmy Franklin was hired on to demo the clipped-wing Speedster by doing aerobatics in it at airshows around the country, and business perked up again. Although I cant prove it with numbers, I suspect that there are more Kitfox Classic Model IVs and its variants out there than any other Kitfox model.

Franklin sold me, anyhow. We took delivery of our Kitfox Model IV kit shortly after I delivered daughter number two. Nine months and 900 hours worth of sanding, drilling, bolting and gluing later, I watched as my husband took Seven Alpha Alpha for its first flight. Our Model IV was a hybrid suggested to me by Denney, with a Speedsters short wings and clean wingtips, and a two-stroke Rotax 582 because it was lighter and less expensive. With a three-blade GSC ground-adjustable propeller it climbed out, loaded, at 1200 fpm and cruised at about 80 mph. In the end we spent roughly $27,000 and less than a year to get an airplane that we could build and store in our garage.

Denney felt hed finished the Kitfox with the Model IV, and he wanted to work on a new project, the Thunder Mustang. He sold the company to Phil Reed and moved on. Quickbuild kits became popular in the mid-1990s, and I remember hosting Flying magazines Nigel Moll for a couple of days so that he could take a close look at the work wed done on our Kitfox. He opted for quickbuild wings to shorten his build time, but it didn’t help much. A builder with average construction skills and a full-time job outside the workshop still took a couple of years to finish a Kitfox project, and Moll was no different.

At the heart, the Kitfox has always had a steel-tube frame, which makes placement of the major components much easier than in some other designs. The rugged nature of the bare kit had a lot to do with bolstering sales.

By the mid-1990s tort reform had passed in Congress, but production aircraft were still not being manufactured in large numbers. Pilots clamored for a kit that could handle a Lycoming or a Continental, and those becoming interested in flying wanted a nosewheel aircraft because it was easier to learn to fly. Skystar obliged, introducing the Kitfox Series 5, including the tailwheel Safari and the nosewheel-equipped Vixen. These aircraft lost the bump cowl (Kitfoxs signature look) and weighed up to 1550 pounds gross. Speeds picked up, and to help out novice fliers, the kits grew spring-steel maingear.

The Vixens and Safaris performed well for their class, but that was not enough to save the company, which was first sold to the employees, and then, after the successive introduction of Series 6 and Series 7 aircraft, went bankrupt.

Bad News Made Good

But pilots still loved the little plane, and plenty had kits (more than 4000 were sold) under construction. It wasn’t long before a couple of Kitfox enthusiasts, John and Debra McBean, both of whom had worked for Skystar, got together with Phil Laker, a longtime pilot, and purchased the assets of the company. Now Kitfox Aircraft, LLC can be found in Homedale, Idaho, supporting legacy Kitfoxes and producing Classic Kitfox and Super Sport kits. The Super Sport can be flown as an LSA at 1320 pounds gross, or beefed up to fly with a 1550-pound gross weight, and also holds its own on speed with a cruise of 100 mph burning just under 5 gph.

My own Kitfox Model IV-1200 underwent an engine/prop change in 2000, swapping out the venerable and reliable Rotax 582 for a Jabiru 2200, four-stroke, air-cooled engine. It took a bit of finagling to make the engine fit in that signature cowling, but nothing that a bit of fiberglassing, sanding, priming and painting couldn’t fix. I wouldn’t part with it for anything, and it holds its own in our hangar, now crowded with an RV-10 and a Cessna. On most days, it is still all I can afford to fly!

Kitfox Classics, EuroFoxes, Highlanders and, yes, even Avids all owe Dan Denney (and Dean Wilson) for their roots, and for providing a compelling airplane that made scores of customers believe they could get it built. Frugal fliers know that any airplane from this lineage is likely to provide them with terrific flying value for years to come. What worked 25 years ago works just as well today.

For more information, visit www.kitfoxaircraft.com.

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