Ever since William T. Piper created the J-3 Cub in 1938, the low-and-slow two-seat fabric taildragger has won the hearts of pilots everywhere.
There’s only one Cub, just as there’s only one Wright Flyer, Joe DiMaggio or Golden Gate Bridge. Just to walk up to that wonderful, cheery, ever-ready assemblage of steel tubes, wooden or metal ribs, control cable turnbuckles and—perhaps most agreeably of all—to drink in the stolen-sunshine hue of Cub Yellow fabric that adorns the handsomely sculpted, tandem, two-seat taildragger, is to open your own personal page of aviation history.
There must be no more than one or two degrees of separation between any person on earth and the Piper Cub. William T. Piper’s immortal J-3 is simply the lightplane everybody knows, whether they’ve ever parked their posteriors in one or not. Even for those who have never ridden in a light aircraft, the term “Cub” evokes anything small with wings that a private citizen can fly, as in this conversation once overhead at an automobile show:
“I flew for two hours today in a C-172.”
“Oh, is that one of those little Cub things?”
The Piper Cub isn’t the easiest airplane to fly, nor the fastest, nor the best-behaved in crosswinds…any crosswinds. Yet, arguably, no airplane teaches you more about three-axis flight than a Cub.
Even today, 75 years after its birth, many pilots who cut their flying teeth in “Wichita Tin” trainers regard Cub flying as a badge-of-honor challenge that must be answered…lest they consider themselves not quite “real” pilots.
And when you ask the question, “What’s the one airplane that opened the sky to the American civilian pilot?,” there are few, pilot and non-pilot alike, who would hesitate before answering, “Oh, that’s gotta be the Piper Cub.”
The year 2012 marks the 75th year since Mr. Piper created the one-and-only J-3 in 1938. (See sidebar for a highlight history.) A few still-active senior pilots were just kids when the Cub debuted to turn the skies yellow over farmland and skyscraper alike. Most of them took their first airplane ride in a Cub.
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.
The reward comes when you roll into a turn to see that inside wing drop straight down: not yawing forward, not yawing backward. There’s a quiet surge of pleasure every time you do it right, just as there’s a distinctly frown-worthy sense of being out of whack, like stepping on your waltz partner’s foot, when you don’t.
So many stories, anecdotes, books, movies, videos and photos honor and celebrate the J-3 in as much depth as any diehard fan could possibly desire. Strip all that mystique away, and what remains is the simple ease and pleasure of flying the airplane. If you haven’t had the pleasure, it’s no more complicated than this:
• Climb into that rear seat and strap on the lap belt
• Reach up left and overhead to switch on the magnetos
• Push hard on the heel brakes while someone hand-props the engine for you
• Rev-‘er-up, check oil pressure and temp, then fishtail down the taxiway to the active
• Do the runup, check that the wire “fuel gauge” sticking out of the gas cap on the cowl shows plenty of fuel
• Push the left side-mounted, ball-knobbed throttle to the stops and hear the throaty rumble of the 65 horse Continental A-65
• Keep that twitchy tail from misbehavin’ with a quick, lively tapdance on the rudder pedals. Ground loops? We don’t need no steenking ground loops.
• Ease the big, rubber-grip stick forward to lift the tail. Keep the nose straight!
• Watch the airspeed needle smoothly arc toward 50 or so…that’s mph, by the way
• Ease the stick back and take the skies at a ripping 400 feet per minute…or 300…or 250 maybe, depending on a whole lot of things, like density altitude, wind, your weight, your passenger’s weight and how peppy that little motor is feeling today
• Depart the pattern at a rip-snortin’ 70 mph or so
• And now for the most important part: lean forward to trim for cruise by cranking the big pitch wheel on the left side, then ease open the right-side clamshell window, hook it up to the underside of the wing, hang your elbow over the side of the bottom half door, and…well, just try not to smile
Easing along, seduced to that middle realm between the patchwork land below and infinite roiling blue above, you share the air in the exact same aircraft and feel the exact same seat-of-pants feedback as all those tens of thousands of aces, astronauts, fighter jocks, bomber pilots, air show aerobats, 30,000-hour airline and commercial pilots and backyard sport flyers who have gone before you.
You’re a Cub pilot. You belong to the American sky.
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 color…as 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.
|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.”