Piper Cub, the Classic American Private Plane

About our Featured Image: This great photo of the Piper J-3 Cub is from the Port Townsend Aero Museum, just outside Seattle, Washington.

Lake Cub


When I was young and my grandparents still were not old, people commonly knew one kind of airplane: the Piper J3 Cub.

“He had a little ole Piper Cub,” folks would say, but it could have been anything. There were lots of small planes in those days, but, to most people, if it had wings, it was a Piper Cub.

Piper built a lot of great airplanes and they only built the Cub from 1937 to 1947. By the time I knew about it, the Piper Cub was old hat and I wasn’t even sure what one looked like for a long time. On the high end, we were going into space. Airplanes like the F-104 Starfighter, a jet engine with a seat and tiny wings, were the ultimate in my thinking. On the low end, planes like the Cessna 150 were much more modern and faster than the Cub. But the writings of Richard Bach made me realize what the Piper Cub was all about. The Cub had a clamshell door. The top half swung up and latched to the bottom of the wing while the bottom half swung down and latched to the fuselage. So you could fly with this huge open door above the sweet American countrysides of the 1930s and 40s. The pilot sat in the back seat and the passenger sat up front. You could close the door to fly in cold weather, but when it was warm, nothing could beat flying along at five or six hundred feet above rolling fields with that door wide open to the wind. The big, fat black tire was right there on the right, maybe turning a little as you swung through the air. I remember once a guy named Buddy Smith at the Bessemer Airport took me up in his Piper Cub. He was a quiet guy and a really good pilot. We flew around for awhile and when we came down to land, it seemed like we floated a long, long time. I wondered when we were going to touch down. I finally looked out the door and saw that we were rolling on the runway. He put that plane down so softly, I didn’t even feel it land.

In all the original Piper Cubs, the pilot sits in the rear, even flying solo. That’s how the airplane is balanced. And note the distinctive mark of the real Piper Cub: that beautiful little black engine sticking out the sides of the nose cowling. That’s a Cub. Imagine how nice it is to fly above the green fields in such a neat little airplane. The Cub is so friendly, you could land it anywhere if you had to.

Now, here is a nifty little video. It shows something I forgot and which a lot of people have probably never seen: hand-starting an airplane by yanking the propellor. That’s how you started the Piper Cub. Note that the guy in blue is the instructor. The student pilot sits in back and the instructor at this level, rides in front, where he also has controls.

In this video, the early front-on view shows the friendly “face” of the Cub and you can sense how narrow and “flimsy” the cabin is. It’s very much like riding through the sky in a canoe with an engine in front. And listen to the sound of that engine! Go ride in this Cub. Have fun.

Another thing this video shows is the wide, fat, rounded wing that gave the Cub such floaty, friendly lift. I knew pilots who could do amazing things with Cubs. One guy used to “dogfight” a Cub against a helicopter at the old Bessemer Airport. He could outmaneuver the helicopter. I also doubt many people remember Norman McCoy, now, but he could fly any kind of airplane. He ferried P-51 Mustangs and B-17 “flying fortresses” across the Atlantic during WWII. He was the most amazingly precise pilot I ever actually flew with. He may have been close to Bob Hoover in skill. I saw him loop a Piper Cub on take-off once — running down the runway with the tail off the ground, pulling up suddenly and going straight up, over and under, to pass back over the spot where he’d just been, his wheels inches off the ground. While most people would taxi a “taildragger” plane like the Cub, with its tail on the ground, Norman would give it some throttle and brake and lift the tail up level while he taxied around at five or six miles an hour. He’d get to where he wanted, turn around with the tail up, and set it down exactly where he wanted. If I could just sit and listen to him talk now, I’d probably understand the world much better than I do. I wish I’d been able to understand him when I was young. I only flew with him once. I wish I’d ridden with him more.

In this video, a Cub lands on a private grass airstrip, like in the old days. Here, you can see the control cables passing through the cockpit and also going out the wings to the flight surfaces. The Cub was a lot like a bicycle or an early motorcycle. Or a motorized canoe.

As I mentioned, the Piper Cub is easily capable of performing most aerobatic maneuvers any other airplane can complete. It just does them slower, with that huge wing cranking around like a big surfboard twisting sideways through the sky.

Here is the simplest “aerobatic” maneuver in flying: the venerable “spin” that was always used in early airplane movies to show total loss of control. In fact, it’s a simple maneuver that’s completely safe and most airplanes will naturally recover if they have enough room above the ground. The Cub tended to recover nicely from a spin on its own but spin recovery was a basic part of flight training until the 1960s. It wasn’t part of my training. I only got into a tailspin once, in a Cessna 172, when I kicked the rudder in a power stall. Never did that again.

And here is the Piper Cub in the classic airshow comedy routine, Drunk Farmer Takes Off Alone While Pilot Handcranks the Engine. Or something like that.

I’ll go ahead and tell you: he lands this J-3 Cub on top of a truck. And later, he takes off from it. This is Greg Koontz, who used to fly at Bessemer Airport when Norman McCoy was around. I wouldn’t say this kind of thing went on every day at the that old strip, but there was always something interesting happening.

So you want a Piper Cub?

You do. Don’t you?

I do.

Well, here’s one for sale (or it was when the video was posted on YouTube):

I didn’t see a price. I would imagine it’s quite high. On the other hand, here’s a company that builds what looks like an accurate full-scale replica Cub. Does he really say $10,000.00? Not experimental. Brand new, factory built and certified by the FAA.

Next, we’ll see a comparison of this modern redesign and the Carbon Cub, from CubCrafters.

But if you’re really interested in buying an original Cub, here’s a webinar on the subject. This is an Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) webinar from 2011. At that time, the presenter estimated a price of $25,000-$28,000.00 for a sound original Cub restored within the past 15 years. So round that up for 2015. Still, most of the information in this video is extremely useful. Anytime the subject is airplanes, especially old and restored or new and homebuilt, the EAA is a great resource.

Get involved with Piper Cubs and you get involved with a central core of common mid 20th Century American life.

The shiny thing under the instrument panel is the gas tank. How can something so clunky be so beautiful?







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