American Aircraft / American General / Grumman

The “American Aircraft” line started with Jim Bede — a designer of high-performance light planes, especially homebuillt aircraft designs and kits. Bede's first popular design, the BD-1, was a small, fast, low-wing, 2-place (side-by-side) plane.  

The BD-1 was designed for quick-and-easy mass production with clean, simple lines, and compact size. It had a shorter wing which made it suitable for acrobatic flying. However, there were shortcomings to the wing. It didn't offer a lot of lift, therefore, stall speeds were 80+ mph. And any turbulence posed a greater risk of upsetting the short-coupled little airplane, than it did to competing airplanes whose wingspans were greater and whose tails were longer.

By adding a more traditional airfoil shape to the wing (curved a lot on top, and fairly flat on the bottom), Bede tamed the BD-1's wilder flying characteristics, to produce the first production model, the AA-1 Yankee, which was manufactured by Bede's new company, American Aircraft. The plane was still a bit “hot” to handle, but safer and more practical — especially for the inexperienced (low-time) pilots, whom Bede saw as his most likely customer. A compact, sleek, sporty little metal airplane, with side-by-side seating for two, it was distinguished by a sliding bubble canopy covering the “climb-down-in” cockpit. Bede also enlarged the rear side windows (the earliest BD-1 didn't even have any), and tinted the canopy to shield occupants from the sun.

Settling on the 108-horsepower Lycoming O-235 engine, the Yankee became a respectable airplane, with good cruising performance. Using the promotional hype for which he was to become famous (and infamous), Bede offered the plane for sale at only $2,500, and promised speeds up to 144 miles per hour. By comparison, the most popular 2-seat airplane of the day was the sedate Cessna 150, selling for about double that amount, and topping out at only 122 miles per hour — using the same engine. Though the small Cessna had vastly superior low-speed (take-off and landing) performance, gentle manners, and a great view of the ground beneath its high wings, it was hard-pressed to match the sexy pizzaz and efficient hustle of the cheap, little Yankee. (Small wonder, then, that Cessna aircraft soon hired away American Aviation's president, Russ Meyer, to become the president of Cessna — a post he would then hold for over a decade.)

Next came the AA-1B called the “Trainer” (with “climb” propellor, to boost the Yankee's take-off and climb, but at a cost of slightly slower cruise speeds; this was a good idea for AA-1B's which were to be used for training, since most training flights involve a lot of take-offs and landings and altitude changes, but little long-distance crusing.), The “Tr-2” (as in “traveling”, with “cruise” propellor, optimized for maximum crusing performance, at the cost of take-off and climb performance).

The AA-1C became the pinnacle performer of the 2-seat American line. Better engine cowling shapes, and streamlined landing gear improve its flight speed by a couple of miles per hour after being streamlined by Roy LoPresti. It was called the “T-Cat” (with climb prop),
or the “Lynx” (with cruise prop).

The American line came of age with the addition of a couple of enlarged, 4-place versions of the Yankee — the Traveler and the Tiger, and their offspring:

AA-5A Traveler

From Grumman-Gang (www.grumman.net) : AA-5 Traveler, original model.
150 hp, underpowered, but efficient. Owing to the limited power, normally only 3 of its four seats were safely useable, unless the fuel tanks were nearly empty. The Traveler — typically competing with the smaller Piper Cherokees and the Cessna 172/Skyhawk — introduced 4-seat interiors and longer wings to the American line. The much larger wing of the Traveler dissipated many of the AA-1's vices, and gave the American Aircraft line a pleasant, well-behaved, truly safe airplane. This was the beginning of a truly good reputation for American's planes.

AA-5B Tiger

This is an improved AA-5A, boosted with a bigger engine and with a larger horizontal tail. It mixed plenty of power with 4 full seats and full fuel, along with Yankee efficiency and speed, to quickly became a very hot item in the light plane market.

When Grumman got out of the light plane business, and discontinued the manufacturing of the Tiger, it became one of the most-sought-after light planes on the used market, where it now commands a premium price for airplanes in its class.

AA-5C Cheetah

The AA-5A with the same streamlining as on the AA-1C Lynx & T-Cat. A modest tweak, that gained the AA-5A Traveler a few extra miles per hour.

When American Aviation foundered, in the mid-1970's, the line was picked up by Grumman Aircraft, and marketed as the “Grumman-American” line. Perhaps Grumman was thinking that the highly-regarded American “Tiger” would enhance the reputation of Grumman's other cats — the AgCat cropduster, the F-14 TomCat fighter, and future fighter aircraft (which Grumman habitually named “-cat”, such as the World War II Wildcat and Hellcat, and the F9F Panther and F11F Tiger jet).

This is the time of peak production, and the period in which the American lineup finally reached its potential. One of the best things to come from this was an aerodynamic “touch-up” of the line, by aeronautical engineer Roy LoPresti. Lopresti improved the engine air intakes, and streamlined the landing gear, gaining an extra few miles per hour for all of the American line, resulting in the 2-seat AA-1C Lynx and T-Cat, and the 4-seat AA-5C Cheetah.

However, light plane manufacturing was not all that profitable in the 1980's, as the proliferation of professional lawyers and amateur pilots in the 1970's led to an explosive growth in post-crash lawsuits against light plane manufacturers in the 1980's. Grumman, one of the leading U.S. makers of military aircraft, was preoccupied with the much-more-profitable, big-ticket sales of military aircraft — and really didn't need the hassles (and potential bad publicity) afforded by little planes, flown by ill-trained civilian private pilots, and struggling in the depressed general-aviation market of the early 1980's.

When Grumman decided to dump the American line, in the 1980's, the Bede/American/Grumman “cats” disappeared altogether for a while — except for the hundreds of used models which maintained a high level of popularity in the market.

Between the late 1980s and 1993 the AA line was bought by a Southern U.S. venture, called AGAC (American General Aircraft Corp.) based in Greenville, Mississippi. The company was established in about 1988 to place the Gulfstream American AA-5B Tiger back in production. The Tiger remained a popular aircraft amongst pilots and owners and American General sought to capitalize on that popularity with the production of new aircraft, therefore, the AA-5C Tiger was revived as the AG-5B Tiger. 

American General actually carried out a redesign of the Tiger, introducing many improvements over the older AA-5B, including a new split nose bowl that could be removed without removing the propeller, a new instrument panel, improved exterior lighting, a new fuel indication system, a 28 volt electrical system replacing the previous 12 volt system, a new style throttle quadrant and improvements to the heat and ventilation systems. These were enough changes that the FAA required an amended type certificate. This added to the time required to get the aircraft into production and the cost of doing so. The redesigned aircraft was known as the American General AG-5B Tiger.

The newly redesigned aircraft was well received by the civil aviation community. Many aircraft reviewers at that time wrote that the AG-5B was an evolutionary improvement over the previous production AA-5B Tigers and a worthy successor.

The company commenced production with the 1990 model year, building 13 production aircraft that year. 87 aircraft were produced in 1991 and 54 in 1992. The final year of production was 1992 when 24 were produced before the company closed its doors. Total AG-5B production at American General was 181, including prototypes.

Production of the AG-5B design was taken up again in 2001 by a new company, Tiger Aircraft.

 

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