Although long since outclassed by generations of faster, sleeker airplanes, nothing quite symbolizes general aviation like a yellow Piper Cub.
To this day, the general public often thinks of all small airplanes as Piper Cubs, despite the fact that these airplanes are, in reality, a relative rarity at many big city airports. And if they are there, theyre likely hangared and kept pristine by owners who consider their J-3 a flying pride and joy.
The venerable Cub was the first airplane to bring general aviation to the masses and it continues to enjoy somewhat of a revival, as new pilots brought up on the mundane handling of nosewheel trainers discover the pure fun of stick-and-rudder flying in a ragwing airplane.
And lets face it, as older Yuppies mature into upper middle age, their bank accounts can easily finance a Saturday afternoon fun flyer in addition to the workaday traveling airplane. (And Cubs arent exactly cheap these days.)
The first airplane to carry the Cub name wasnt a Piper at all but a Taylor E-2 model, powered by a Salmson radial engine. It was first rolled out in the early 1930s with moderate success in the market.Pipers version, the J-3, didnt appear until 1937 and was an offshoot of the Taylor design. By modern standards, the first J-3 wasnt much more than an ultralight, although it had the same tube and rag construction carried through to every Cub ever made.
The 1937 J-3 was powered by a tiny 40 HP Continental A-40 and had a fuel capacity of nine gallons. The following year, Piper offered a 50 HP Continental as an option and a year later, in 1939, a steerable tailwheel and a 12-gallon fuel tank became standard. At that point, the 50 HP Franklin engine appeared as an option, in addition to an engine of similar horsepower made by Lycoming, whose plant was eventually just down the road a few miles in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Incredibly, more than 1300 J-3s were sold in 1939, despite the fact the Great Depression still hadnt been sent packing by the outbreak of World War II. (Interestingly, thats about the same number of GA airplanes as were sold in 1998.)
With war on the horizon, 1940 saw the evolution of the J-3 into the classic form in which most models survive today, with a Continental 65 HP up front and, in fewer cases, the Lycoming or Franklin variants. Most had wood props, although those converted to Continental 85s-and many have been converted to metal props.
Piper continued to pour Cubs out of its factory through 1941, until the Pearl Harbor attack sent the J-3 into uniform. Piper met the challenge for military aircraft, building some 5000 L-4 versions of the J-3, slightly modified with olive drab paint jobs (no more yellow), electrical systems and heaters, the barest of creature comforts for an airplane known for its Spartan appointments.
A Piper publication from the early days of World War II trumpeted the L-4s patriotic versatility thusly: There is no reason why Piper L-4s couldnt set down American Commandos behind enemy lines. And, when the boys completed their missions of destruction, these planes could get them back with speed and comparative safety.
Piper even claimed the L-4 could carry light bombs. Whether that ever happened, were not sure, but the L-4 did earn its stripes carrying artillery observers, couriers and, from time to time, a general or two.
Thanks to its wartime production level, Piper was ready when the war ended in 1945 and transitioned quickly into building airplanes for thousands of returning military pilots. The year after the war ended, an astounding 6320 Cubs were built, with production reaching 50 a day at one point, or one every 10 minutes.
But as a harbinger of things to come, that couldnt last. The market collapsed in 1947 and production plummeted to 720 Cubs; respectable by modern standards but considered a bust in the heady days of late 1940s. In 1948, the J-3 was supplanted by PA-11, which had a larger engine, a bigger cockpit and a full cowling. But by the end of its production run, 14,125 J-3s had been built and many fly yet today.
Looking at what J-3s sold for when new, some of those old military jocks probably slap their foreheads in regret for not picking up a couple of dozen. In its heyday, the Cub sold new for $1595; the price of a high-end portable GPS now.
Even through the 1970s, Cubs were quite a bargain, averaging about $2500 or so. Since then, however, theyve gone nowhere but up. The price of a good Cub began inching upward in the late 1970s and today, a pristine will command as much as $24,000. Price increases have been steep during the past five years, probably due to strong demand.
A newly restored showpiece with a zero-time engine and original equipment and instruments can bring $35,000 or more. Even a barely flyable hangar queen will bring a nice piece of change. A recent issue of Trade-A-Plane showed J-3 without engine or prop for $18,000 and one basket-case restoration project for nearly $10,000.
Value wise, for what a Cub can do, these arent especially good deals. Consider that a Taylorcraft of a much newer vintage-say mid-1970s-sells for $10,000 less and an Aeronca Champion (circa late 40s) for $4000 to $5000 less. Ah, but we arent buying a Cub for what it can do but what it is. A classic with undeniable ramp appeal that the others lack.
Only the Cub can attract the really top dollar, one rebuilder told us. It has that cachet. Clearly, the Cub has an appeal that transcends its objective characteristics.
Does that mean that its a good investment airplane? Yes and no. No because in the context of 1990s investment returns, airplanes remain dark cash sinks.
However, the J-3 is a little brighter than most. In a recent Aviation Consumer study of appreciation rates, ragwing classics-specifically the Aeronca and Cub-lead the league in overall appreciation.
That means if you play your cards right, you can buy a good one and sell it for a bit more than you paid or at least break even. This doesnt apply to restoration jobs, however.
Although the Continental 65 was the standard Cub engine, many have been refurbished with 75-, 85- and 90 HP Continentals. Theres little difference between the 65 and 75-HP models, but the 85s and 90s provide extra climb rate, especially for high-attitude or float operations, where the Cub may otherwise be a marginal performer.
The larger engines may raise a Cubs value by $500 to $1,000. But the 65 HP engine is perfectly adequate for most Cub flying and is preferred for ultra-original restorations in which any variation from original configuration is considered a drawback. But dont expect exceptional performance from the 65s.
The Lycoming and Franklin 65s are somewhat rare these days and carry a price penalty of $2000. The Lycoming actually puts out something like 50 to 55 HP (with less fuel consumption), while the Franklin suffers from a parts scarcity. Franklin engines are supposedly coming back into current manufacture but we dont know how or if the 65s will be impacted.
Speed is relative, of course, and the Cub isnt relatively slow. Its very slow. Typical cruise speed is about 70 MPH with the 65 HP and 75 HP engines while those sporting the 85 horse motors can streak along at 80 MPH. Then again, Cubs arent cross -country airplanes.
With only 12 gallons aboard, they arent continent spanners, either. Or even state spanners, for that matter. Practical unrefuled range is about 150 miles, after which youll want to get out a stretch anyway. An Aviation Consumer editor once flew a Cub coast-to-coast in nine days, with 42 stops for gas.
One leg was 32 miles, because the next airport was 110 miles away and headwinds kept groundspeed below 50 MPH. Thats the way it works with old ragwings.
The Cub comes into its own not in long-distance cruising but in operations off country airports with grass runways. At light weights, the Cub is an excellent short-field performer, particularly with the 85- and 90-HP engines. The fat wing delivers stall speeds somewhere around 40 MPH range.
Into a nice breeze, a lightly loaded Cub can leap into the air within a few airplane lengths. But watch it if the airplane is heavy and theres no wind on a hot day.
The airplane will still lift off in a short distance, but climbs over nearby obstacles can be sporty, given the airplanes high drag and lack of surplus thrust.
Stick and Rudder
The Cub has a reputation as a docile, easy-to-handle airplane that just anyone can fly. Its considered a big teddy bear, ever forgiving of ham-fisted pilots.
The reality is somewhat harsher. On the runway, the Cub can be a ditch lover and like any other taildragger, it will groundloop if given the chance, although its considered one of the better handling taildraggers. For pilots used to toe brakes, the Cubs heel brakes are weak and awkward and many a pilot has gotten to them a split second too late to stop a groundloop. Some models have been fitted with more aggressive Cleveland brakes but stomp on these with abandon and you dump the little Cubbie on its nose.
In everyday flying, the Cub has very sluggish ailerons that, like most older aircraft, require a good deal of rudder coordination to counteract adverse yaw. Even a mild turn will require a goodly stab at the rudder, something most pilots trained on nosegear airplanes have to learn.
With the drag of a tapered anvil, the Cub will stall and spin easily compared to later training aircraft such as the Cherokee 140. But conventional anti-spin control inputs will recover it easily, making the Cub a first-rate spin trainer. That said, however, the Cub has a very high stall/spin fatality rate, probably because it invites pilots to horse around at low altitude, where recovery is unlikely.
The soft bungee cord suspension absorbs bounces well and the big rudder gives excellent directional control. From the coddled nosewheel pilots perspective, however, the Cub can be humbling to land, requiring deft footwork to maintain directional stability, especially in all but the lightest crosswinds.
The placement of the main wheels ahead of the center of gravity also means that a less-than-gentle touchdown can result in a huge ballooning bounce. To a nosewheel pilot, the phrase flies like a Cub must seem puzzling; the Cherokee 140 is a cinch to land by comparison.
Another Cub handling foible is its light wing loading, which makes it a kite in gusty conditions. Throw in the low landing speed, and a 15-knot crosswind can present a major challenge. New Cub owners are well advised to seek competent instruction before soloing. (The insurance company will probably insist on it.)
Creature Comforts? None
The word ergonomics evidently hadnt been invented when the Cub was designed. Or maybe people were just tougher and a lot smaller in the 1930s. The cockpit is absurdly small for anyone taller than 5-feet 10 inches or so.
Getting in the back seat-from whence you solo-is not so bad but ingressing the front requires some contortions, not to mention contusions. Once in the back, leg room is acceptable if not generous, with the legs extended forward to the rudder pedals and brakes. The front seater is balled up in a painfully cramped seating position thats not comfortable at all, let alone for an hour or more. (On the other hand, kids love it.)
Baggage room is essentially zip; theres room for perhaps a loaf of bread in the canvas luggage compartment behind the rear seat. For a solo cross country, a Cub pilot can lash a few things in the front seat, but a J-3 is no traveling machine for two.
These days, most J-3 pilots mount a portable GPS somewhere in the cockpit, along with a handheld VHF radio for self-announcing on CTAFs. Beyond that, the instrument panel itself has the bare necessities and not many of them. Theres a tach, an airspeed indicator, oil pressure gauge and altimeter. Cubs equipped with Venturis often have a vacuum driven turn-and-bank as well. The fuel gauge is nothing but a wire attached to cork, visible through the windshield.
For such a small, simple airplane, a Cub has the potential to eat up lots of cash. Heres a list of things to check out carefully on any airplane considered for purchase:
Fabric condition: Cubs were originally covered with Grade A cotton, but this material should be avoided unless you are a fanatic for authenticity and willing to pay the price of regular recovering.
Restorers tell us the typical lifetime of cotton is five to eight years if the airplane is hangared, less if kept outside. Few mechanics will work with cotton these days, and the cost can be astronomical.
Most Cubs are now covered with so-called lifetime Dacron fabrics such as Ceconite. Properly applied and protected from ultraviolet radiation, these fabrics will last as long as youre likely to own the airplane. Some Cub experts say too long, in fact, since the interior structure can rust away underneath while going years between full inspections.
In a worst case scenario-say an airplane stored outside in Florida and-Ceconite will last six to eight years. In any case, carefully inspect the fabric of any Cub considered for purchase. A complete re-cover-not all that unusual-can cost a bundle and render what was a good deal a real skunking. Engine condition. TBO of the little Continentals is listed as 1800 hours but the number is almost irrelevant, since many Cub airframes have been through a handful of engines and the total airframe time may not exceed a couple of thousand hours.
Fact is, most J-3s arent flown much and succumb to time and lack of use rather than hours. An engine may have only 600 hours since overhaul, but if the overhaul was in 1969, the engine may or may not be long for this world. Check compression and oil pressure (the latter in warm weather, if possible).
Fortunately, overhauling a Cub engine is reasonable (about $10,000 or less) and parts are readily available.) If hangared and well cared for, an overhaul is likely to last the typical owner through his ownership of the airplane.
Lower rear longerons: A standard Cub trouble spot. Airplanes that sit outside collect water in the tail, the drain holes get plugged and the old 4130 steel tubes rust. Dont buy an airplane without carefully checking this area.
Wing struts and strut forks: Made of the same rust-prone steel as the fuselage tubes, these critical parts have a long history of corrosion problems. A series of ADs applies to this critical area; make sure that all have been complied with. Replacement parts that dont carry the repetitive ADs are available.
Fuel tank and drain: Original Cub fuel tanks were made of lead-coated steel, and they rust out regularly where water collects in the bottom. (Be especially wary of the 1940-45 J-3 and L-5 models, when the factory was skimping on the lead coating.) An AD also requires a new fuel drain. Many, if not most, of these tanks have been replaced by aluminum tanks but check the logs and inspect to be sure.
Accident Damage: Cubs are subject to all sorts of minor landing and takeoff accidents, and their huge wings and light weight make them very prone to wind damage while tied down. (We imagine that more Cubs are destroyed by wind while parked on the ground than by flying accidents.)
Check the aircraft logs for damage history, and assure that it has been properly repaired. We wouldnt be put off by an airplane that has been groundlooped-most probably have-but make sure damage has been repaired correctly.
Although slow and built like a truck, the Cubs safety record is surprisingly poor by any standards. In the late 1970s, the NTSB undertook an extensive study of light aircraft accidents and safety during the period between 1972 and 1976. An earlier study between 1965 and 1973 reached similar conclusions.
The research revealed that the Cubs stall/spin fatality rate was 3.46 per 100,000 flight hours, fourth worst out of 31 aircraft studied. That compares to 0.55 for the Cessna 150 and 0.25 for the Cherokee during the same period.
But the Cub was a star in other safety aspects. As far as in-flight break-ups go, a 1979 Aviation Consumer study covering the period 1964 to 1977 ranked the Cub as seventh best among 20 fixed-gear aircraft, with only one fatal in-flight breakup during the 14-year period. A more recent review of J-3 accident stats-1995 to the present-reveals no in-flight break-ups, but eight of 22 accidents Cubs were involved in were fatal. (Stall/spin, buzzing and loss of control near the runway continue to be leading causes.)
In one recent tragic accident, aviation artist Sam Lyons-an experienced Cub pilot who specializes in dramatic paintings of airplanes from the ragwing era-was involved in an accident in which two Cubs went down at Cumberland, Maryland. Lyons wife, Vickie, was killed in the crash.
The NTSB ranked the Cub about in the middle of the pack in terms of groundloop accidents, a surprisingly good showing for a taildragger. Presumably because of its low approach speed and short landing capabilities, the Cub ranked third best of the 33 airplanes in terms of overshoot accidents.
In the fatal crashes in general, stalls continue to be the dominant factor. Mostly, these occur at low altitude, either while buzzing/circling or shortly after takeoff or on go-arounds. In once accident study, four fatals were caused by engine failures.
One came after the fuel drain valve, badly corroded, fell out in flight and allowed all the fuel to drain out.
The lesson here shouldnt be lost on any potential Cub buyer or pilot. With its clamshell doors and slow speed, the Cub practically invites pilots to putt along low and slow on a summer afternoon, taking in the scenery. Not a thing wrong with that. But horsing the airplane into tight, low-altitude turns is asking for trouble, since the draggy airframe loses speed in a flash and can stall and snap into a spin before the unwary pilot can apply recovery controls.
And the high incidence of engine-failure accidents should drive home the conservative pilots rule about always having a landing spot picked out in case the power dies. Because of its slow speed, an off-field landing in a Cub should be easily survivable, if not a non-event. But only if the pilot is constantly alert for good landing sites.
In terms of crashworthiness, the Cub is a nightmare, in our view, particularly for the front-seat passenger. He or she sits directly behind the engine and fuel tank, a potentially lethal combination. (Piper won a lawsuit based on the poor crashworthiness of the Super Cubs small nose-mounted header tank, which essentially sits in the front seat occupants lap. But the J-3 is much worse: Its the main fuel tank that sits in his lap.)
Theres virtually no crush zone ahead of the front-seater to absorb crash impact. The seat belts are badly designed and their anchor points are entirely inadequate, in our estimation. There is no shoulder harness. The rear-seater, with more crush zone ahead, is better off in terms of frontal impact. But in a vertical impact, he may well be disemboweled; a large sharp piece of metal in the elevator control linkage lurks directly underneath the seat, which is in fact just a flimsy canvas sling.
One last quirk in the Cub safety equation: Hand propping. Done properly, its still a hazardous and somewhat nerve-wracking business that should be approached with extreme caution. Unfortunately, at many airports, youll have a hard time even finding anyone who can do it.
Done incorrectly, hand propping can kill the unwary or, at the least, turn an airplane loose for a wild melee across the airport that inevitably ends with the Cub badly damaged and/or a hangar, car or another airplane just as badly off. Make sure the plane is tied down, and treat the propeller as a deadly blade just waiting to lop your head off-which, in fact, is quite an accurate description.
Service Difficulty Reports
Scanning five years of FAA SDRs, we noticed a nearly universal theme among the airframe reports: Corrosion. Virtually every one was about rust or corrosion of some sort. The leading culprits were the wing lift struts, landing gear shock struts, fuel tanks and lower longerons.
Among the engine SDRS, the leading causes of in-flight failures were broken crankshafts and stuck valves. Two reports mentioned swollen carburetor floats and needle tips, which were blamed on the use of auto fuel.
Although Piper had long since stopped making the Cub, finding parts and support to keep one flying is a snap, thanks to a couple of sport aircraft parts houses. In many cases, the replacement parts are vastly superior to the originals; aluminum fuel tanks, for example, are lighter and far less prone to corrosion than the originals-not to mention cheaper.
The two biggies in Cub parts are Univair and Wag-Aero, both of which stock a complete selection of PMAd Cub parts. Its no exaggeration to say you could build a new Cub from parts bought from either source. Wag-Aero Group at P.O. Box 181, 1216 North Rd., Lyons, WI 53148, 800 558-6868 and www.wagaero.com or Univair Aircraft Corp., 2500 Himalaya Road, Aurora, CO 80011, 888-433-5433 and www.univair.com.
An excellent owner group-with a technically detailed bi-monthly newsletter-is the Cub Club, at 6438 W. Millbrook Road, Remus, MI 49340, 517-561-2393.
Imagine my surprise when I turned the corner around our hangar and saw the most beautiful Piper Cub in the world. My husband and my friends started singing Happy Birthday, and all I could stammer was that it was not my birthday. But there it was, a 1946 Cub in Lock Haven yellow with a black lightning bolt along the sides and black sunburst pattern on the top of the wings and horizontal stabilizer, a 50th birthday present from my husband. But this was no ordinary Cub. It was a Reed Conversion clipped-wing Cub with a Continental O-200A engine equipped with an Excello fuel injector. I was speechless!
Id had mostly tailwheel time in the 11 years Id had my license, but no Cub time. After the required one hour dual (and then some for my own peace of mind), I was ready to solo. My husband, an aerobatic pilot and competitor for many years, started doing mild aerobatic maneuvers right away.
I had not been fond of unusual attitudes and had no intention of performing spins, loops or rolls. As a promise to a friend, I went up with my favorite instructor and completed some spin training. Then we did more spins and a few loops. The moment arrived when I had to face aerobatics solo. Yikes!
And an aerobatic pilot was born. So far, I have flown in three aerobatic contests at the Basic level. In the first contest, I brought home a third place trophy. The second contest, May, 1999, I brought home a first place trophy and earned another first place at my most recent contest in October, 1999.
My Cub, N127JP, is perfect for me. I am so comfortable and at ease sitting in that backseat, my Cub is my therapy. A friend of ours owned this airplane for about 20 years. At the time it was painted red and white, as the previous owner had flown it in air shows. Then, our friend sold it as a re-build project to another friend of ours, Jeff Puckett.
N127JP is one of the best gifts my husband has ever given me. If I ever care to move up in categories and get a more powerful aerobatic airplane, this Cub will always have a place in my hangar and in my heart.
Ft. Collins, Colo.
I learned to fly in J-3s back in the mid-50s, but I drifted away from flying for many years. However, I now have a grandson who loves flying, so I began searching for a fun bird we could both enjoy with a minimum of fuss, maintenance and cost.
I bought a J-3 that had been restored by an excellent mechanic. Ive put almost 300 hours on it and I love it. The airplane is basically box stock, except for two 18-gallon Super Cub wing tanks, a Super Cub front seat and a hot-rodded C-65. I have also added a battery-powered intercom, KX-99 navcom and loran. Its the best rigged J-3 that ever flew. It consistently indicates 80 MPH at 2100 RPM and carries my 250 pounds and a full load of fuel with ease.
The largest part of my maintenance costs is hangar rental. An oil change every 20 hours, $200 annuals and a squirt of lube is about all the airplane requires. Parts availability is excellent with Wag-Aero and Univair on the line. The few parts Ive ordered have been shipped within 24 hours.
San Antonio, Texas
I first flew a 40-HP J-2 in 1938 and got my private license in a J-3 in 1946. Since then, Ive flown all sorts of aircraft about 20,000 hours and currently own a PA-32R-300 T-tail Lance. But I still teach in J-3s whenever possible and greatly enjoy its clean, positive no-nonsense flight. As a trainer, it exhibits priestly behavior. Fly it properly and it tells you, Son, thou didst well. Fly it poorly and it says, Son, thou didst not fly well, but I forgive thee.
Somehow the cockpit was bigger 40 years ago. I dont remember great difficulty getting in or out in those days. Maybe 40 extra pounds has something to do with it. The best trainer/priest of all time, in my book.
I bought my Cub 20 years ago and completely rebuilt it. Ive flown a lot of airplanes, but theres nothing more satisfying than flying a Cub on a warm day with the door open and then greasing a landing. Sometimes you can get there faster on a 10-speed bike. Usually, you cant carry more than a weeks accumulation of laundry. You freeze in winter. A light chop to most planes is a kidney-wrencher in a Cub. But they are fun to fly. I am 6 feet 2 inches and no spring chicken, so spectators are quite amused to see me grapple and contort to enter the front seat, especially in winter clothes. Rear seat entry is only about seven-eighths as difficult. After several hours of flight, you are molded to the Cub position, so getting out is even more of a spectacle than entry.
The A65 engine is one of the best Continental ever made, and parts are still readily available. I have 100-octane valves and burn 100LL, at about 4.8 GPH. Oil consumption is negligible. Cruise about 85-88 MPH. I dont have a mixture control, so I pull the lower plugs every 20 to 25 hours for a quick cleaning.
Annual inspection cost should be minimal if you keep the airplane up to snuff and do the routine work yourself. Keep it clean and waxed, lubricate the control system, grease main and tailwheel, change oil and clean screen and keep ahead of rust.
I replace most of the exposed nuts and bolts every couple of years as they begin to show rust. I have found the best quality and price of parts from Piper and Univair.
Costs are reasonable. Liability coverage is $340 per year, fuel burn at 75 percent cruise is 4.4 GPH on the A-75 engine and gives a 75-MPH cruise. We use both 80-octane avgas and auto fuel. Ive found that in cold weather, the avgas seems to start and warm up better.
Parts support by Univair and Wag-Aero is excellent when you consider our airplane is 49 years old. Engine parts are available from Fresno Airparts. Two important AD notes require recurring inspection of the muffler and wing struts. I do my own annual inspections, so labor is free, but parts expenditures seem to average $600 to $700 per annual.
-Dick and Sally Roberts
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Also With This Article
Click here to view chart for Piper J-3 Accidents.