TAILDRAGGER SOLO. James Lawrence fulfilled a 50-year-old dream to solo a classic Piper J3 Cub.
It’s the Babe Ruth of airplanes, the home-run standard against which we measure and judge all other airplanes whose company we’ll ever have the pleasure to keep. I don’t mean the standards of McGuire or Bonds or even Roger Maris. There’s only one Babe. There will ever be only one Piper Cub J3. That it fits within the LSA category only extends its legendary appeal as an unparalleled trainer and classic flivver.
The Cub is one airplane that won’t let you get away with much. There’s a value in that, which I didn’t fully comprehend until I got my taildragger sign-off in a J3 last summer. At times I was frustrated, discouraged, confused and even convinced I had no business at the controls. The J3 kept throwing me curve ball after curve ball that I couldn’t lay good wood on.
No wonder so many pilots approach taildraggers with the same trepidation of a rookie batter facing Roy Halladay. Flying that adorable yellow classic on a crosswind day isn’t for the lazy, overconfident or underskilled. In that venerable cockpit that has birthed so many globe-girdling careers, sitting on the cracked, vinyl rear seat that’s bound to make your tailbone sore, you fly—and taxi—with all senses energized. Everything you’ve got is called into play: eyes, ears, brain, hands, feet and, yep, even the seat of your pants.
If you’ve diligently paid attention to your instructor and the airplane, the multitask challenge of flying a Cub well approaches, in time, the clockwork perfection of a symphony. Rush things, get too casual taxiing, or fail to watch all the wind indicators through downwind, base and final (and always, always during taxi), and the experience can feel more like a blast of heavy metal music—and you with a three-day hangover.
Treat the Cub like a mechanical thing rather than a living thing, and it will make you look bad and feel bad, because it is indeed alive, in that it flows with and reflects your aliveness. As in the classic symbiosis of horse and rider, mastering it requires sensitivity and skill in all the nuances of flight: yaw, roll and pitch, but also torque, P-factor, gyroscopic precession, flying the tail up—and down—slowly, high-speed rolling on two wheels...and then one wheel, in gusty crosswinds.
There’s always another hurdle to jump, another race to run better with the J3. That’s one of its greatest virtues as a trainer: It’s always teaching you. Yank it around, whip the throttle harshly, rein it in too fast—or slow—on flare, or spur it too hard with the pedals, and it will bolt or buck you right off the runway.
I don’t remember how I met Jim, a local pilot when I lived in Long Beach, Calif. He was in his 30s and knew I hoped to enter the Air Force Academy after high school. It was 1960. I was 15. John F. Kennedy was running for president. My world was filled with TV westerns, The Twilight Zone, balsa model planes and dreams of flying jet fighters and some day walking on the moon.
One day, Jim offered me instruction in his Piper Cub J3 for $5/hour...wet...including instruction! For a high-school kid with wings on the brain, and working in fast-food restaurants for spending money, well now: How do you pass up a chance like that?
Our first flight was out of a small grass strip flanked by huge, frightening power-line towers. Sitting in the front seat of the Cub, I remember vividly how strange everything felt. It was noisy (no headsets) and drafty, and I couldn’t see ahead (I was five feet, six inches and still growing)—hardly the romantic notion I had formed of laughter-silvered wings. What did he mean, “coordinated turn?” Why use rudder on takeoff, but not at other times...except in turns? Crosswind? What’s a crosswind—something that’s mad at you? I took another lesson two days later. Things started to come together. Then my mother, fearful of my impending doom, made me quit. I never flew with Jim or that wonderful, rickety old Cub again.
Over the years, I earned wings in a variety of ways that suited my independent nature. I took some sailplane lessons during college, couldn’t afford more, then bought a hang glider and taught myself, on dunes, then hills, then mountains, how to soar like a bird. When hang gliders evolved into ultralights in the ’80s, I built several, then wrote about and photographed anything with wings for the next 30 years. In 2008, I got my sport pilot license as Plane & Pilot’s LSA Editor.
I read recently that in our later years, we don’t so much seek out new worlds to conquer as much as we revisit those events, challenges and joys that sang the siren songs of our youth. And like a classic aged wine, perhaps there’s no sweeter taste than to fulfill an old, almost-forgotten dream. I bet I’ve seen a thousand Piper Cubs at Oshkosh, Sun ’n Fun and all the airports I’ve had the good fortune to visit. But until that day last spring at Great Barrington Airport (GBR) in western Mass., I had never completed that journey that began in a Cub so long ago.
After interviewing Rick Solan, an owner of GBR and Berkshire Flying Services, for a recent column, I spied a J3 across the field, framed poignantly by its ’30s-style Quonset hangar. Something old but still hungry stirred within me. I felt a surge of excitement, like a kid rushing home to build a new model.
I asked Rick who owned it.
“I do,” he said. I smiled. “I teach in it,” he added. My smile grew.
“You can rent it, too.” My eyes widened, then he set the hook with: “I’ll be teaching ski flying in the Cub this winter.”
I signed up on the spot to get my taildragger endorsement. No more being grounded by cold Northeast winters for me.
During our first lesson a week later, I discovered, gingerly holding the reins of Mr. Piper’s immortal creation, how incomplete my flight skills were. I’d love to say that this particular J3 turned out to wear the very same serial number as the airplane I flew in 1960. That would be a real Twilight Zone ending. Truer to the heart of this story is that the mystique of that very first Cub never left me. Coming full circle back to solo in the first airplane I ever flew, I’m reliving, during every flight, that 15-year-old’s thrill and fear and wonder at the wide world.
Pilots are fond of saying that you’re always learning to fly. True enough. Learning in the Cub can take you deeper—to a fuller sense of who you were, and are, and who you might yet become in the world.