Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Light-Sport Chronicles: 50 Years To Solo

Rounding the circle of life with the immortal Piper Club

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.


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