Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Golden Angel

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

Birth Of A Cub

Harvard-educated William T. Piper, in his day often called the "Henry Ford of Aviation," once quipped he'd rather people think of Mr. Ford as the "William Piper of Automobiles." Before growing the world-beating aviation company that bore his name, mechanical engineer Piper, unhappy in the construction business, took over his father's oil business instead.

Meanwhile, C. Gilbert and Gorden Taylor, the barnstorming founder-owners of Taylor Brothers Aircraft Company, foreshadowed the light-sport aircraft concept by producing a little side-by-side, two-seat high-winger called the "Chummy" in 1927. Although Gordon Taylor died tragically in a plane crash the next year, Gilbert kept the doors open and introduced the Taylor E-2. Alas, woefully underpowered by an anemic Brownbach "Tiger Kitten" 20 hp mill, the E-2 couldn't even climb out of ground effect.

The company went bankrupt. Enter a consortium of investors, including William Piper, who rescued Taylor Aircraft in 1931. The money men also insisted Bill Piper run the company. Piper's vision was simply this: Even in the Great Depression, an easy-to-fly, low-cost private airplane ought to still sell like hotcakes. And he was right.

Soon after, the company came out with an improved Taylor E-2. It sported a new power plant—the Continental A-40, 37HP engine—and a new name: the Cub. Certified in July of 1931, 22 E-2s were sold by the end of the year for $1,325 each. Four years later, a few hundred joined them at airports across the country.

Gilbert Taylor went on sick leave. While he was gone, Will Piper asked 19-year-old volunteer engineer Walter Jamouneau to rework the E-2. The young whiz kid enhanced the aesthetics by rounding the squarish tail feathers and adding other improvements. In 1936, Piper reintroduced it as the Taylor J-2. Returning to work, Gilbert Taylor, far from amused, fired Jamoneau for having the temerity to mess with his design.

Piper intervened, reinstating Jamouneau. Taylor remained unhappy, so Piper bought him out and Taylor left to form Taylorcraft. The next year, fire destroyed much of the plant. Bill Piper moved the entire operation to Lock Haven, Pa., and Piper Aircraft Corporation was born.

In 1938, the Piper J-3 Cub debuted with a 40 hp engine (Continental, Lycoming and Franklin all made them for Piper). The price was $1,300. Soon after, you could get the J-3 in any long as it was bright yellow trimmed in black. Before long, engine offerings expanded to include 50, then 65 hp variants.

The Cub's performance was modest even by the standards of the day. Fighter planes routinely pushed the 400 mph barrier. The Cub maxed out at 85 mph and carried just enough fuel, 12 gallons, in its nose tank to deliver a puny range of 190 miles.

Yet everybody loved the Cub. Piper convinced the military, as the shadows of world war grew ominous, that he could produce the airplane as a trainer in large quantities. The CPT (Civilian Pilot Training) program was built around the utility of the Cub. By Pearl Harbor day, a third of all the airplanes in the U.S. and nearly two-thirds of all the private planes were Cubs. That's how far-reaching Bill Piper's vision became.

By war's end, 80% of all military pilots had made their first flights in a Cub, and a new J-3 rolled off the assembly lines at Lock Haven every 20 minutes.

Its ability to land and take off from small and unimproved areas made it invaluable in the war effort. Variants, such as the L-4, O-59 and NE-1 "Grasshoppers," provided reconnaissance, transportation and light duty supply to the front lines, medical evacuation and a way for military leaders like Dwight Eisenhower to hop straight to hot spots.

Production ended in 1947. The final tally: 19,888 Piper Cub J-3s and military versions. Bill Piper went on to successfully introduce additional legendary lines of aircraft: not only a fleet of Cub variants such as the Super Cub, Piper Cruiser, Vagabond, Pacer and TriPacer, but new generations of low-wing, all-metal airplanes that would blazon the Piper name across the world of general aviation we know today.

But it all started with a bright and cheery, easy-to-fly, affordable, fabric-covered flivver called the Cub.


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