The Piper Cub
By Stephen Pope / Published: Jul 25, 2012
(editor: Check out this video to get the essence of how pure flying can be in a Cub!)
Simplicity and durability are defining characteristics of so many of the classic American products we love best: The Harley-Davidson Flathead. A well-worn pair of Levi’s jeans. A Rawlings baseball improved by the scuffs and scars and patina of use. For generations of pilots, the object of our nostalgic affection is the Piper Cub. Introduced 75 years ago, the J-3 established the idea of a simple, inexpensive and easy-to-fly trainer. In the 1940s and 1950s, more pilots learned to fly in J-3 Cubs than any other model. Even if you’ve never sat behind the controls of one, you understand the importance of the J-3 to general aviation history. If you have flown a Cub, well, you don’t need to be told it’s one of the best-flying light airplanes ever made.
I started out learning to fly in a 1946 J-3 when I was 15. That was in the late 1980s at a grass strip close to my home in northern New Jersey. I can remember some days soloing in the Cub it would be just me and another pilot in a Stearman and still another in an old T-6, the three of us circling the pattern as though we’d been transported through time to a summer afternoon when the only things that mattered were seeing which way the wind moved the corn and making certain to get the stick all the way back at the last instant in the flare. When you did it just right in the Cub, the effect was magical. And when you got it slightly wrong, the J-3 wouldn’t let you off the hook without a lesson that could stay with you for a long time. Maybe forever.
The story of the Piper Cub begins with two barnstorming brothers, C. Gilbert and Gordon Taylor, who together formed the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Co. in the late 1920s. Their goal was to produce and sell a small, two-seat, high-wing monoplane named the Chummy that cost $4,000 — about the price of a new house in 1928. They’d built a handful of airplanes, but tragically Gordon Taylor was killed in an airplane crash and the company went bankrupt.
William T. Piper, a Bradford, Pennsylvania, businessman who was running his family’s oil business, purchased a controlling share in the Taylor Aircraft Co. for $761 as it emerged from bankruptcy in 1930. Piper retained Gilbert Taylor as president and asked him to build an inexpensive, easy-to-fly trainer that the average person could afford to rent. Most of the trainers in those days were heavy biplanes with big radial engines and as a result were expensive to fly. Piper reasoned that a small, simple airplane might cut the costs in half, enabling more people to learn and creating demand for the company’s products.
In September 1930, Taylor introduced a two-seat tandem taildragger, the Taylor E-2. This model featured wings mounted high on the fuselage, an open cockpit, fabric-covered tubular steel fuselage and wooden wings. Power came from a 20-horsepower Brownbach Tiger Kitten engine. The trouble was the Tiger Kitten didn’t have the oomph to power the E-2. On Sept. 12, 1930, a test flight ended almost as soon as it started when the airplane ran out of runway, the underpowered engine unable to lift the E-2 out of ground effect.
The company soon introduced an improved E-2 powered by the newly developed Continental Motors A-40 putting out 37 horsepower. The new Taylor E-2, now affectionately known as the “Cub,” earned its type certificate on July 11, 1931. Despite some early reliability problems with the engine, the airplane was a hit.
Taylor chose the lightly loaded USA-35B airfoil for the E-2, a design that provided good low-speed flying qualities — it was reluctant to stall and provided plenty of warning before it did. All Cubs, including the J-3 and Super Cub, have used this same airfoil shape. For this reason, the Cub is a forgiving airplane in the hands of a novice and downright divine with a skilled pilot at the helm. Many of us have marveled at the flying antics of the drunk, Cub-stealing farmer — a role played at airshows by J-3 maestros like the late Bob Weymouth, who could make a Cub do things you wouldn’t believe if you didn’t see it with your own eyes.
Birth of the J-3
For the next few years after the E-2’s introduction, Taylor Aircraft struggled. The company sold a handful of airplanes and showed only small profits. It was during this time, under the direction of a young aircraft designer named Walter Jamouneau, that the E-2 Cub was redesigned with rounded angles and other alterations and reintroduced in 1936 as the Taylor J-2 Cub (the “J” standing for Jamouneau, according to Piper lore).
The changes to the original Cub design angered Taylor, who disagreed with Piper’s philosophy that airplanes should be mass-produced and sold cheaply. Piper loved what he saw in the J-2, so much so that he green-lighted further changes for a new model to be known as the J-3 Cub. The modifications from the J-2 to J-3 included integrating the tail’s vertical fin into the rear fuselage, changing the rearmost side window’s shape to a smoothly curved half-oval, and replacing the J-2’s leaf-spring tailskid with a steerable tailwheel.
The price for a brand-new Piper J-3 Cub was set at $1,300 — less than twice what the average new car cost in 1937. It was all too much for Taylor to take. He quit, selling his share to Piper and moving to Ohio (where he would go on to achieve success with the establishment of Taylorcraft Aviation Co.).
With Taylor out, Piper assumed the role of president and chairman of the board and eagerly prepared for the J-3’s public introduction. Then disaster struck — or, as Piper would later say, perhaps it was serendipity.
On the morning of March 17, 1937, a spark from an electric drill ignited dope-soaked rags and other debris in the original Taylor Brothers Aircraft factory paint room in Bradford. The blaze quickly grew out of control, destroying the factory and everything inside it. The company held no insurance on the main plant, and the town wasn’t willing to pitch in for rebuilding. Piper decided to move all manufacturing equipment and the company’s 200 employees to an available factory in an empty silk mill in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, more than 100 miles away. At the same time, he renamed the company Piper Aircraft Co.
Despite the damage from the fire, Piper production in 1937 grew to 687 airplanes and the work force doubled. The new J-3 Cub made its debut late in 1937, and Piper soon introduced a uniform color scheme for the model — Piper Cub Yellow trimmed with a black lightning bolt. Engine horsepower rose from 40 horsepower to 50 horsepower and then to 65 horsepower by 1940. A number of air-cooled engines, most of them flat-fours, were used to power J-3 Cubs, resulting in differing model designations for each type: The J3C models used the Continental A series engine, the J3F the Franklin 4AC, and the J3L the Lycoming O-145. A very few examples, designated J3P, were equipped with Lenape Papoose three-cylinder radial engines.
In 1938, the J-3’s first full year of production, Piper built 736 airplanes. The outbreak of war in Europe and the growing realization that the United States might soon be drawn into the conflict led to the formation of the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program, for which the J-3 Cub would play an integral role, becoming the primary training aircraft for the program. More than 75 percent of all new pilots in the CPT were trained in Cubs. By war’s end 80 percent of all U.S. military pilots received their introduction to flying in Piper Cubs.
The Legend Grows
In 1940, the year before the United States’ entry into the war, Piper built 3,016 J-3s. Soon, wartime demands would push the production rate so high that one Piper J-3 Cub was being built every 20 minutes. In military versions Cubs were variously designated as the L-4, O-59 and NE-1, and generically nicknamed Grasshoppers. They were used extensively in World War II for reconnaissance, transporting supplies and medical evacuation.
During the J-3’s relatively brief production run from 1937 until 1947, Piper built 19,073 J-3 Cubs, the majority of them L-4s and other military variants. Postwar, thousands of Grasshoppers were civilian-registered under the designation J-3. Hundreds of Cubs were assembled from parts in Canada (by Cub Aircraft as the Cub Prospector), in Denmark and Argentina, and under license in Oklahoma.
The manufacturing capacity that churned out record numbers of Cubs during the war was quickly exploited to satisfy demand for light aircraft afterward, and the affordable cost of the J-3 Cub in postwar dollars, $2,195, was carefully priced to be within the reach of returning war veterans. But despite its success, Piper Aircraft soon ceased production of the venerable Cub to concentrate on the development of its more advanced Vagabond, Pacer and, eventually, Tri-Pacer models. The era of the J-3 Cub at Piper was over, but the airplane had cemented the reputation of the company and laid the path for Cub variants to follow. In the late 1940s, Piper replaced the J-3 with the PA-11 Cub Special, 1,500 of which were produced. The Piper PA-18 Super Cub soon followed, which Piper built from 1949 until 1983 and again from 1988 to 1994.
Piper’s Lock Haven plant closed in 1984. Every summer since then Cub lovers have returned to Lock Haven for the Sentimental Journey Cub fly-in. This year’s event, featuring a special commemoration of the Cub’s 75th anniversary, was one of the biggest ever.
Because the J-3 meets light sport aircraft guidelines, there has been a resurgence of interest in the airplane, both the original and remakes of the design, including the models built by CubCrafters, Legend Aircraft and others (see story on page 57). Of the incredible number of original J-3 Cubs built, more than 5,500 remain on the FAA’s aircraft registry today, a testament to the design’s longevity. Prices for used Cubs start at under $20,000 and can rise well above $50,000. Thanks to simple construction and low fuel consumption (under five gallons an hour), the care and feeding of a J-3 Cub requires less cash on hand than almost any other production airplane.
The J-3’s 75th birthday was a perfect excuse for me to get reacquainted with the Cub, which I hadn’t flown in a few years. For my reintroduction to Cub flying, there was no question about whom I would call. Damian DelGaizo runs Andover Flight Academy, a bush-flying school in northwest New Jersey that relies on J-3 Cubs and other tailwheel airplanes including a Stearman and a modern CubCrafters Top Cub on tundra tires. DelGaizo has more than 20,000 hours under his belt, most of it in taildraggers teaching people how to fly — or how to fly better. (When Harrison Ford trained for his role in the film Six Days, Seven Nights, he flew with Damian in New Jersey.)
My impressions of the Cub were nearly the same as when I was taking lessons as a teenager. The airplane is a joy to fly, with excellent control harmony at low speed that makes you want to keep on flying — unfortunately, the Cub’s 12-gallon gas tank limits endurance to about two hours. At its max cruise speed of around 85 miles per hour, you can’t go very far either.
Our plan was to depart Andover-Aeroflex Airport (12N), which has a 1,981-foot paved runway flanked by an equal-length turf runway, and head a few miles west to Trinca Airport (N13), a 1,900-foot grass strip. I was thrilled about the chance to try some takeoffs and landings at Trinca because that’s where I learned to fly, under the tutelage of my instructor, Ernest “Pete” Billow, in N91949. When he was still alive, Pete was one of the foremost Cub experts in the country. Born in 1922, he started instructing in Cubs at Trinca in 1950. When he died in 2005, scores of friends and former students turned out at the airport for a moving tribute and fly-over.
“You want to fly with the door open?” Damian asked as I was climbing aboard.
“Of course!” I said.
It was June, after all. This was a J-3 Cub. Was there really any other way?
It didn’t take long to refamiliarize myself with the basics of Cub flying — probably because it’s about as basic as it gets. As Damian pulled the prop through, I dug my heels into the brakes and kept one hand on the mag switch. The engine fired and I was hit with a blast of air thick with the wonderful smells of gasoline and motor oil and freshly cut grass.
This particular Cub, NC6114H, has been upgraded with an 85 hp Continental, so it would have a little more get-up-and-go on takeoff, but otherwise it handled pretty much exactly how I remembered. I started by S-taxiing to the runway, made necessary because of the Cub’s tailwheel configuration and steeply pointed nose, which blocks out the view ahead.
Besides the mag switch, the Cub has a stick and throttle for each pilot, rudder pedals, heel brakes, carb heat knob, fuel shutoff and trim. In the panel, the only instruments are a wet compass, airspeed indicator, altimeter, rpm, and oil temperature and pressure gauges. The fuel gauge is a metal wire connected to a cork float (or, more likely these days, a synthetic float) that protrudes from the top of the cowl. In a Cub, you really don’t need anything else — and much of the time, even this sparse array of instrumentation is overkill.
Flying the Cub
By the time we reached the departure end of the runway, I was used to the Cub’s rudder pedals, which require a good amount of travel at slow speed and a lighter touch on takeoff. After the run-up, our first trip down the runway was a fast taxi to give my feet a chance to come alive. Damian handled the throttle as I focused on keeping us pointed straight down the runway.
After I’d passed this test, we taxied back for a proper takeoff. This time, I was in control. Lined up on the turf runway, I smoothly applied power, keeping us pointed straight with the rudder and waiting for the tail to come up. When it did, I knew the Cub was ready to fly. Easing back on the stick, we lifted off the ground and departed at the Cub’s tried-and-true 55-mile-per-hour best climb airspeed. As we gained altitude, a panoply of green hills, black lakes and winding rivers appeared before us. The cool rush of air hit me full in the face through the Cub’s open window and door, and for a moment I could almost believe I was 15 years old again.
Even with the extra horsepower, this Cub wasn’t much of a performer. I estimated the climb rate at about 500 feet per minute. Once out of the pattern, I performed some steep turns and climbs and descents to get a feel for the controls, which were as nicely balanced as I remembered.
Flying the J-3 requires you to lead your turns with the rudder just a bit. There are airplanes of its vintage with more adverse yaw to overcome, and the Cub turns beautifully. Damian’s advice is to imagine that the rudder is mechanically linked to the stick in such a way that stepping on it will pull the stick in that direction. In other words, step on the rudder first to get the nose moving and then move the stick in the direction of the turn.
Next I slowed us to 40 miles per hour, where control authority is still solidly felt, and cut some lazy turns followed by power-on and -off stalls. It reminded me of what a docile creature the Cub is. Even if a pilot unintentionally spins a Cub, all he usually has to do to recover is pull back the throttle and take his hands and feet off the controls — assuming he’s high enough when it happens. The Cub will right itself given the chance to do so.
Before my first landing attempt, Damian reminded me about shifting my attention from the forward view to the edges of the runway, roughly at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock out the side windows. His tip for judging the height of the round-out was to imagine a man standing in the middle of the runway, with the idea being you want to try to knock his hat off with the Cub’s spinner. Not only was it good advice, but it was devilishly fun too.
My first landing was OK but I over-controlled in the flare. That’s when Damian suggested we try a little game. On the next try, I would be allowed to move the stick backward or stop it from going rearward, but I could never allow it to move forward. If I felt us sinking in the flare, I could pull back, but if we ballooned I was not allowed to relax the pressure, only to stop the stick right where it was. Of course, I understood what he was getting at. The second landing was a good one, and my control movements were more fluid and quiet — the Zen of landing a Cub.
We did several more landings at Trinca, each of them feeling better than the last. Then we headed back to Aeroflex for the last one of the day. I was eager to make it the best of the bunch and end on a good note. Turning final, I allowed myself to get slightly high on the approach and Damian suggested I put in a “baby slip” to lose the extra altitude. The advice was spot on. I rounded out nicely over the approach end of the turf runway, right where I wanted to be. The imagined farmer’s hat popped off his head and was flung wildly into the air.
“Hold it off,” Damian said as we floated in ground effect, the stick in my hand edging closer and closer to my belly, the speed decaying until touchdown — delightfully slow and smooth as honey. “Yes!” Damian said. “Great job.”
Right there, that’s what I remember best about the Cub. It can be a challenging airplane to land well, but when you do it just right, few things in aviation are more satisfying.
After the flight, Damian put it this way: “Really, the J-3 has no redeeming qualities,” he said. “It rides like an ox cart. It doesn’t hide a pilot’s mistakes. It takes finesse to land well. It’s miserable in the cold weather. You have to hand-prop it. You can’t see out of it while landing.” And yet, “whether by design or luck, somehow it all comes together. It has excellent harmonization in flight. It flies wonderfully. If you do something wrong and it flies ugly, it’s your fault and you’ll know about it immediately. That’s what makes the Cub such a great trainer — and a great airplane.”
I couldn’t agree more with that assessment. Happy birthday, old friend. Here’s to many, many more.
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