Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Golden Angel

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

Cubaholics Anonymous

In just nine years, nearly 20,000 J3s rolled out of the Piper Aircraft factory doors. Thousands are still flying all over the world, providing each new generation their own chance to utterly lose themselves in Cub Love.

As any homebuilder knows, constructing or restoring an aircraft becomes a time vortex in which skipped lunches and cricket-chirping, slump-shouldered late nights are the norm. Just ask 16-year Fedex aircraft mechanic Ken Eckel of Hernando, Miss.

"My J-3 was about the ugliest, most beat-up, closest-to-unairworthy airplane it could possibly be. I decided to rebuild and modify it with an L-4-style 'greenhouse effect.' I got hold of the original Piper drawings and built that cage from scratch," Eckel recalls.

Over five years, Eckel had several long periods "where I spent two weekend days, 10 hours a day or better, on that airplane. We did lots of welding; the tube airframe was all splice-splice-splice, repair-repair-repair from years of rust and damage. I bet I took 50 pounds off in replaced tubing along!"

The work paid off: Eckel's bright-yellow, immaculate Cub won the prestigious Bronze Age (1937-1941) Outstanding Closed-Cockpit Monoplane Award.

Cub flying is often a family affair...especially when you're born into a flying family. Karen Allina's dad flew B-17s, P-51s and DC-3s in World War II and Korea. "I had my first ride at two weeks old," Karen says happily. "Soloed on my 16th birthday and have been flying ever since."

Two of her three daughters are pilots. The third will be, too. Karen and Fred Allina tied the knot 39 years ago. That seems way too many years for such a youthful couple—maybe their fountain of youth is flying! They've owned their 1946 J-3 for four years. "It was built in 1942 as a TG-8 training glider," says Karen. Later, it was converted to power.

So, why the Cub? "It's iconic," says Allina with a laugh. "Absolutely the purest form of flying we could think of to do."

"Flying a Cub is like sailing," husband Fred chimes in. "The closer to the elements you are, the purer the experience it is."

They also restore old cars for a hobby. "With both," Allina adds, "You can tinker. You don't need expensive technological equipment; just have at it."

John Setlack of Manitoba, Canada, bought his 1946 J-3 for $23,000 on a mid-November Day five years ago. The snows hit later that day. It took two more weeks and 27 hours of short, flurry-dodging flights to get it home.

It's the first airplane the 29-year-old, soft-spoken Canadian Air Force pilot has owned. "I always liked the Cub," he says. "My first flight was in one."

A military flight instructor whose cap is set for flying an F-18 Hornet—he starts training in the twin-engine fighter soon—Setlack joined up at 17, went to the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Air Force Academy and has already served 12 years.

"I like the military. I plan on staying in." Meanwhile, he has logged 250 off-duty hours flying the Cub. A favorite winter trip is ski landing on Lake Superior for ice fishing. Flight-ops costs set Setlack back $25 to 30 per hour. Will he ever sell the stock, 65hp J-3? "No. Going to keep it."

A couple rows away, Bob Epting's 1946 J-3 stands out from the sea of sunflower wings, and no wonder: It was finished after a nearly three-year, complete restore, just three weeks before AirVenture.

"I took it down to the frame," he says. "Even if it's previously been recovered, you have to do that today to find all those places needing replacing or repair. But, this fuselage was very sound. We put in a new interior and found a woodworker who built a beautiful birch floorboard for it."

"It cost me more to restore than to buy it. And there's a lot more money in it than I could reasonably sell it for. But," he adds with a smile, "it's never going to be for sale. This one is a work of love."

Like Eckel, Epting's restoration also put his Cub on a diet. "We removed almost 100 lbs. We found four pocket knives in the tail! Now it flies like a kite." Epting and crew's work was suitably rewarded as AirVenture's Outstanding Piper J-3.

"These are wonderful airplanes. Anybody who flies this and anything else will always say they'd rather be flying this. I have another 1946 Cub because I always want to have one available during an annual. I wouldn't be able to get along without flying one almost every day. I'd be miserable!

"The idea was to take an airplane we knew we could give to the next generation," Epting says, his voice softening even as the airshow AT-6s rip up the soundscape overhead. "That's the investment we tried to make. I don't mean a portfolio investment. It was just something that needed to be done for the future."


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