Dave Goulet poses with
one of the original Challengers first introduced in 1983. The bright
orange and yellow ultralight was the standard bearer for Quad City Ultralight
Aircraft Corporation in its early years. (Photo by Hal Adkins, courtesy
Quad City Ultralight Aircraft Corp.)
Dave Goulet, president of Quad City Ultralight Aircraft Corp, says
it’s probably the oldest ultralight company still under the same management.
After reviewing all the ultralight companies I can think of, I’m inclined to agree.
Thinking of other long-term operations,
Goulet mentions The New Kolb Aircraft Company, whose roots are also planted
deep, but even that storied company has now changed ownership…twice in
the last decade, and most recently just a couple years ago.
Quicksilver Mfg. has been around longer,
but the revolving door of managers and several changes of ownership have
long since taken that familiar brand out of contention for continuous leadership.
About the only challenge to Challenger’s
continuity reign that I can think of would be Chuck Slusarczyk, designer
of the Hawk series, and his company, CGS Aviation. However, even Chuck
dabbled with outside ownership and management back a decade or so ago.
That leaves Goulet standing tall as the person holding the reins for the
longest continuous operation of an ultralight aircraft company.
One thing is certain: The Challenger
design has been an unqualified success any way you look at it. They’ve
sold well for years, and they still sell well.
Old and Successful
The ultralight industry isn’t known for the longevity of its companies.
When I wrote a piece about the industry in 2000, I researched back to 1975,
tracing the lineage of ultralights back to the earliest names like John
Moody, Larry Newman, Lyle Byrum, Homer Kolb, Jack McCornack, and other
ancient luminaries of this tiny industry.
Certainly a few names got to the party
ahead of Goulet’s Quad City Ultralight Aircraft Corporation, yet the greater
measure may be sustained success. In 2001 the Challenger is beyond 2,500 units
delivered. They say, and I concur, that their brand is one of a very few
to achieve such market stature.
Some folks tease the company about
its distinctive ad, which has not changed for better than a decade. "How
can they never change their ad and never change their plane and still sell
so many?" is a lament I’ve heard from several prominent manufacturers
in the ultralight/light plane industry. The truth is, change has
been a part of Quad City Ultralights, even though a casual glance might
seem to suggest otherwise.
Constant and Never Ending Improvement
Years ago, I learned from then-owner Phil Reed of SkyStar Aircraft
of a product development method called CANI, or constant and never-ending
improvement. Especially in this age of high-speed Internet life cycles,
companies can’t produce the same aircraft year after year.
But hasn’t the Challenger design stayed
almost the same since it began, people counter. Well, if you don’t look
closely, the question sounds valid. A child grows so gradually that a parent
may not notice the change, but an infrequent visitor can be struck with
what seem to be dramatic differences. Likewise, the Challenger design has
actually undergone dozens and dozens of changes, some big, some minor;
perhaps we just haven’t noticed. This is actually a story of persistence
and the refinement of a design.
From virtually day one of Challenger
production, the company has made several changes per year to improve the
overall quality and durability of their airframe. Quad City Ultralights
also made periodic changes to the control linkage, with the goal of bettering
the aircraft’s handling.
For example, in 1985 the aileron control
horns were changed so pilots could adjust for more aggressive response.
A year later a similar change was made for the same reason on the rudder.
In 1987, the elevator shape was transformed
to incorporate a curved trailing edge that designers felt improved the
aesthetics, but it made very little change in the design’s flying characteristics.
Later, the factory added a choice in wing coverings, from sewn Dacron sails
to certificated aircraft fabric, to increase durability (some owners also
feel painted surfaces improve performance and handling).
By 1988 optional streamlined struts
and gear fairings became available. These two changes alone were said to
measurably improve the sink-rate performance of Challengers. 1988 was also
the year a clipped-wing single-seater was offered, resulting in further
improvements in performance and handling by using higher wing loadings.
Shortly after, a clipped-wing two-seater broadened the product line.
Jerry McGinnis and Greg Edmunds
two-seat Challenger II on a training flight.
Powering the Challengers
Since Quad City Ultralights put their first KFM-powered single-seater
into production in 1983, the company has changed recommended powerplants
several times. The KFM engine was dropped in 1984 when the Rotax 447-powered
Challenger II entered production.
In those early days Quad City Ultralights
used Rotax engines but employed a Hegar V-belt reduction drive unit rather
than the cog belt drives so common today. Sport flying enthusiasts with
enough history to remember those V-belt drives may also recall that mufflers
on those mid-1980s ultralight engines were a constant source of problems.
Indeed, in 1985, Quad City introduced their own stainless steel, wraparound
exhaust mount for the Rotax. In that same year the company also added optional
long-range fuel tanks totaling 10 gallons, a function of larger, more powerful
engines that demanded more fuel.
By 1986 Quad City Ultralights developed
a mount to permit the higher horsepower Rotax 503 to be used as an option.
With bigger engines came more difficult starting, hence the addition of
an electric starter in 1988. However, the Challengers of those days could
not use the Rotax-brand electric starter, so the company developed their
own built around the ADS system.
Many ultralight pilots who entered
the sport in the early 1990s remember that Hirth engines were a common
sight on Challenger aircraft, too, as the company included the Hirth 2703
model as an alternative to the Rotax 503.
Despite the interest in Hirth, Quad
City Ultralights focused on the Rotax 503 when the long-awaited aircraft
version was introduced in 1990 with many refinements over the earlier snowmobile-derived
engine. Given Rotax’s then-new thrust into the aviation marketplace, it’s
no surprise that Quad City Ultralights ended up with the Rotax brand powering
most of their aircraft. Nonetheless, the company supported Hirth engines
for several more years. In fact, in 1991 Hirth also came out with a dual
electronic ignition system that helped the brand compete with Rotax.
By then, Quad City Ultralights was
able to drop the ADS starter and replace it with the GPL brand that customers
favored. In the later 1990s, Quad City Ultralights solidified Rotax engines
as the powerplant(s) of choice and made significant changes in reduction
drive gear ratios and prop size to gain a 10-mph increase in speed and
a commensurate increase in climb rate.
While engines are very important to pilots, so are creature comforts.
Only one year after the first Challenger single-seat aircraft went into
production, the Moline, Illinois, company added fabric and Lexan doors
to increase comfort.
With a very strong Canadian distributor,
National Ultralight Inc., selling lots of aircraft in Canada’s cold climate,
protection from wintertime flying became a frequent buyer request. In 1986
Quad City introduced an optional winter enclosure comprising a wraparound
windshield and a pair of removable doors. A couple of years later the simpler
system for the single-seat models was improved to a wraparound enclosure.
That same year the fuselage shape was changed, partly to facilitate spark
plug access but also to provide room for a cabin-adjustable heater system.
In 1989 optional smoked glass and tinted
windshield and winter enclosures were offered to customers to decrease
summertime cabin temperatures. Canada may be cold in winter, but the temperatures
warm up generously in the summer months. Plus, many Challenger ultralights
were being sold in the sunny Southern United States.
That same year fiberglass droop wingtips
were added as a cosmetic option, and Challenger ultralights so equipped
won awards at air shows that year. By 1992 an optional three-piece fiberglass
gap cover created a smoother, more attractive fairing over the junction
of the windshield and the wing and helped reduce drag at the prop hub.
The year before, a more pointed fiberglass nose fairing became an option
for the two-seater, and in 1993 the same option was offered for the single-seater.
It wasn’t until 1997 that a different
pair of fiberglass wingtips were introduced. Ironically these were shorter,
just 6 inches beyond the end of the spar versus 18 inches for the older
tips. This cut the design’s wingspan by 2 feet, which bumped up cruise
and top speed, better meeting the cross-country desires of some Challenger
buyers. The resulting stiffer wing was also said to improve the roll rate.
In 1998 Quad City Ultralights replaced
their two-piece seat cushions with a one-piece design, as a few rear seat-back
cushions had been blown out of the plane, sometimes going through the prop.
Over the years, new seat designs have created a more spacious cabin for
both pilot and passenger. As the new millennium started, the Challenger
windshield and enclosure were upgraded from a 0.04- to 0.06-inch thickness
in both clear and tinted versions.
Other user-friendly additions over
the 18 years of Challenger development include main wheel brakes first
added in 1985. Four years later, the company supplied brakes pre-welded
to the axles to simplify assembly, one of a long chain of efforts to make
the homebuilder’s job easier.
In 1985 Quad City Ultralights followed
general aviation tradition by bringing out their first airspeed indicators
with color-coding to show the green, yellow, and red arcs that are appropriate
to Challenger operation. The next year they introduced flaperons to the
design, which were said to reduce stall speed by 5 mph. They also doubled
as an in-flight trim adjustment. In those days, both features were quite
Optional Mylar-coated wing sails —
built using pre-sewn Dacron construction — gave greater service life, added
slightly to speed, and yielded an attractive, shiny appearance.
Since ultralights work so well on floats,
the 1995 addition of Puddlejumper floats in amphibious form gave the Challengers
a slick way for pilots to fly from water or land.
A uptodate evolution time line appears here:
Why Buy a Challenger?
The king of Challenger sales is National Ultralight Inc., owned by
Ian Coristine and Bryan Quickmire. As of 2001 their company accounts for an
amazing 400 units sold in Canada alone. That’s about one out of every six
Challengers ever built! The two partners have a keen idea of why their
sales are so strong. "By remaining focused on a single design, rather
than constantly introducing new models for marketing hype, the Challenger
has been refined to a much greater degree of performance and reliability,"
writes National Ultralight Inc., on their info-heavy website:
In the area of performance, they state,
"…the Challenger has one of the widest speed envelopes of any recreational
airplane." It manages to meet the designer’s holy grail of a 4-to-1
speed range differential, operating from 24 mph to 96 mph (for the single-place,
Skis and floats are popular
on Challenger aircraft; offering year round flying northern areas, especially
Canada, and adding
versatility to fair weather flying as well.
The buy-and-fly crowd — who see
building as a way to get airborne, rather than as a lifestyle in its own right
— love the Challenger’s built-by-the-factory
airframe. It isn’t fully built, of course, needing to meet the 51-percent
rule for those not flying under Part 103. But the major
components of the airframe — fuselage, wings, and tail — are manufactured
at the factory prior to shipment.
National Ultralight’s Coristine explains,
"Jigs are used extensively to insure accurate alignment during the
construction process. This kind of precision would be very difficult to
accomplish by homebuilders."
Quickmire and Coristine tick off a
number of their favorite purchase points: "All Challengers are effectively
quick-build kits. The factory does all the important and demanding structural
work, including installing the controls." Most companies charge an
extra fee (up to several thousand dollars) for their quick-build option.
"First timers usually take less
than 300 hours to complete the assembly, covering, and painting. The fastest
time on record is 172 hours, with the average being 225 to 275 hours,"
say the two partners.
Quick-build packages for the Challenger
include the engine and all covering materials except paint.
Most other manufacturers publish price lists
that exclude the engine as well as the 40 percent to 70 percent premium
charged for quick-build versions, if available!
In Canada you can have your Challenger
assembled, covered, and painted by a professional builder. This is legal under Canadian
rules and permissible in the United States for an aircraft that qualifies under Part 103.
Those on a budget may purchase a series of subkits — tail,
wings, fuselage, and engine — paying for them as possible.
National Ultralight boasts that the
most popular floats and skis used on Challengers are made in Canada
- Puddlejumper amphibious floats and Turbulence skis are both manufactured near Montreal.
Right Then, Right Now? Almost no ultralight
enthusiast would deny the Challenger is one of the standard bearers in
the industry. Given the difficulty faced by many suppliers, Dave Goulet
and Quad City Ultralight Aircraft have every right to be proud of their
achievements over the years.
Financial officer Bill Ehlers
expressed pride in having been Goulet’s associate since 1983 - the satisfaction
in his voice is obvious. Goulet, Ehlers, other principals over the years,
and the entire staff can rightly sport a smile and the dignity of a job
well done. The numbers speak for themselves.
In November of 1996 Quad City Ultralights
shipped their 2,000th Challenger. They believe that only two other companies
have ever reached this level of volume, and then only by offering several
models that combine to reach this number of units.
(Ed: In 2008 the number exceeds 3,500!)
As a longtime veteran of this industry,
I’m glad Quad City remains successful. Companies like this create many
happy pilots who have a bounce in their step as they make their way to
the airpark for a little joy in the air aboard their Challenger.