Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Golden Angel

Seventy-five years of the ultimate Flivver: celebrating the immortal J3

A true winged icon for its era, more than 19,000 J-3s were built between 1938 and 1947. Newsreels and newspapers of the day frequently showed public figures, celebrities, politicians and military leaders like Orville Wright and George Patton climbing out of that infamously barebones tandem cockpit with the right-side clamshell door.

In 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took a hop in a J-3 in support of the CPTP (Civilian Pilot Training Program), meant to prepare America for possible U.S. entry into the war in Europe that had just begun. You can't help wonder if she took the controls...she was one gutsy lady.

But even before its vaunted military service during America's four years at war, the Cub was already growing a fervid following all across the land. If you had around 1,300 bucks—not a prohibitive amount even back then—you could buy one outright from Mr. Piper. What's that, buster? You say you're a little short of ready cabbage, moolah, lettuce, bacon, folding green? Don't sweat it: $425 for a downpayment and a few bucks a month, and your very own yellow bird would soon be on its way from Lock Haven, Pa. That affordable price for a "real airplane," unheard of in those days, explains a big part of the Cub's huge and enduring popularity. Even today, you can find an airworthy Cub for $20,000 or more...but often, way more.

Today, there are still a few airports where a J-3 isn't tucked away somewhere, whether in moth-eaten or immaculate show-plane state. This year's EAA AirVenture event in Oshkosh invited any and all J-3s to brighten the skies. More than 100 answered the call to create a "field of yellow" showcase across from the Antique Aircraft headquarters, on the flight line at Wittman Field. Seeing that broad, unbroken expanse of sunshine was enough to bring a smile even to the most seasoned aviation veteran. There just isn't anything flying that's quite like a Cub.

So what, in fact, is so great about the J-3? Most any current LSA model, experimental or even ultralight, will likely have a better mix of overall handling and performance than a Cub. But to focus on numbers or fighter-like handling is to miss entirely the appeal of the airplane.

For new and experienced pilots alike, flying a J-3 is a bit like taking a spin on a fat-tired, big-seat cruiser bike with pedal brakes after getting off of a 21-speed, crotch-busting racer. You don't fly the Cub with gentle nudges of the stick: You push that tall, between-the-knees control lever firmly in the direction you want to go while never ever failing to feed in plenty of rudder pedal to match.


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