Piper Super Cub

Although Cub nostalgia keeps purchase prices high, the worlds premier utility aircraft is also a terrific fun flyer. Ham-fisted pilots give the model a tarnished accident record, so check the logs carefully for properly repaired damage.

In the process of completing its evolution from the 1935 Taylor E-2 Cub, the Piper PA-18 Super Cub developed a distinctly split personality. It became both one of the finest STOL working airplanes ever created-whether unmodified or equipped with an eye-watering multitude of STCs, wonderfully easy to maintain, worth enough money to be almost investment grade. But it also had a definite dark side, a Mr. Hyde persona lurking in an accident rate for runway loss of control and impact with obstructions on takeoff and landing that is painfully high.

There are only a few thousand Super Cubs in existence, yet, on average, every two-and-a-half weeks one of them comes to grief in the process of taking off or landing. Nevertheless, professional pilots swear by Super Cubs and owners lavish affection on them. In our affluent world PA-18s are both aeronautical pack mules and pampered glamour queens, the latter tarted up in manners unimagined in a bush pilots most drunken delirium.

Where many Super Cubs are earning their keep by routinely being overloaded and packed to the gunnels and launched from mere specks of somewhat level ground, water, ice or snow, a special few have been tricked out by their owners into gleaming showplanes, worth we’ll over $100,000. With their monster engines, these airplanes can easily win the local short field takeoff competition but would never be caught dead landing on a sandbar or spending a night outside of a hangar. How can one airplane be so many things to so many people?

A Super Cub is almost all things to all pilots because it does most everything well. In the hands of a pilot whos aware of its limits, it can do about anything, except go fast and be comfortable. Because its so versatile, delightfully fun to fly, not terribly expensive to operate and possessed of what can only be called the Cub cachet, a PA-18 holds its value better than almost any other airplane.

Because there are so many modifications to PA-18s, legal and otherwise and because a significant proportion have been worked hard and put away wet, so to speak, finding a good one requires the willingness to do homework and have a pre-purchase inspection performed by someone who knows the marque.

The Super Cubs family tree grew from the 1935 E-2 Cub, which, once the cockpit was enclosed and a slightly larger engine installed, became the J-2 and in 1937, the J-3 Cub. Mimicking the yellow-and-black paint scheme to compete with the very popular Aeronca C-3 and with more room and better performance, the Cub sold in droves, reaching its production peak in 1946.

In 1948 it was spruced up and renamed the PA-11. The PA-18 Super Cub model appeared in 1950, although the first, the PA-18-95, was little more than a PA-11 with a 90-HP Continental. Coincidentally, the PA-18-105 debuted with a 115-HP Lycoming, flaps, a counterbalanced elevator and other features that separated the Super Cub from its ancestors.

In 1951, the O-235 was replaced with a 125-HP O-290; in 1952, that engine got souped up to 135 HP. Finally, in 1955, the Super Cub got the engine that it really deserved: a 150-HP Lycoming O-320-A2A, which it kept until it ceased production in 1994. The Super Cub remained essentially unchanged throughout its production run.

All Super Cubs carry the PA-18 designation. Those originally fitted out as agplanes were called PA-18As; these should be looked on with caution, because of a likely history of hard use and exposure to corrosive chemicals.

Changes and options to the Super Cub were few over the years and came, as in the old VW Beetle, only as necessary improvements. Heres a list of some of the more important functional changes:

In 1961, an optional metal belly pan was made available on all Super Cubs. (Previously, it was supplied only on the cropdusting versions.) The mod also includes a beefed-up lower rear fuselage. The option is a good one, but watch out. Many of the airplanes ordered with it were used as chemical sprayers, and the structure may have suffered corrosion as a result.

About 1965 (even Piper couldnt tell us the exact date), zinc chromate anti-corrosion treatment was added to the wings. If youre considering a mid-60s model, remove an inspection cover and check the color of the metal.Yellowish green is good, anything else is not so good. At the same time, Piper beefed up the fuselages with more 4130 steel and heli-arc welding.

In 1971, Piper switched from the traditional Grade-A cotton fabric covering to long-lasting Ceconite. Although cotton shrinks less in cold weather, it has a shorter lifespan, from three to a maximum of 10 years. Ceconite, by contrast, will last 10 years under most conditions and can go much longer than that if pampered.

In 1976, the old visual float fuel gauges were replaced with panel-mounted electric gauges. Although they are neater looking, pilots tell us the old gauges are more accurate and reliable.

In 1977, Piper switched from the old-style DC generator to a 60-amp alternator. The alternator is retrofittable to older models, however, and is a desirable feature for Super Cubs equipped with multiple radios, strobes and other electrical gear.

In 1978, the ailerons were changed from fabric to aluminum. Although cheaper to fabricate, the metal surfaces are not so easily repaired, a problem for bush operations. Like the alternator, the metal ailerons are retrofittable to older airplanes. The year 1978 also saw a switch to more powerful and reliable Cleveland brakes, a partial solution to the Super Cubs long-standing awkward and ineffective heel brakes. These are also retrofittable to older aircraft.

Like many other airplane models, the Super Cub died in the Big Slump that hit general aviation in the early 1980s. In 1981, Piper sold off the marketing of the Super Cub to a Texas company called Wes-Tex, for which Piper manufactured airplanes to order in lots of 50 or so. That arrangement lasted only two years and production of the PA-18 line ceased altogether in 1983 after a total run of 33 years and 8442 aircraft.

In an attempt to revive the line in 1988, Piper announced that it would resume production of the PA-18, and even offered an innovative new purchase scheme designed to hook into the successful homebuilt industry: A buyer could purchase a Cub kit and build it under factory supervision.

The kit idea really never took off, at least in part because of Pipers financial troubles. The option was dropped after a couple of years and today owner-assembled airplanes are valued at some $12,000 less than their factory-assembled peers.

Production of new Cubs continued, sort of; three were built in 1988, 49 in 1989, seven in 1990, none in 1991 (bankruptcy) and only one in 1992. The line ramped up in 1993; and 108 were built before production was stopped entirely after the 1994 model year. The emergence of New Piper divorced the company entirely from anything to do with new Cubs.

Market Scan
Simply put, the Super Cub holds its value extremely well. Scanning values in a recent Bluebook, we note that even recent models are worth more than their new list price, although inflation isn’t figured into the numbers. If a bargain comes on the market, its wise to check carefully for serious corrosion or other hidden surprises. There are not any inexpensive Super Cubs.

A 1975 model, for example, sold new for $19,700, but dropped to only $16,500 the next year, a drop of 15 percent instead of the usual 20 to 25 percent for most aircraft. Instead of continuing to slide for another three or four years, as most used-plane resale values do, the value of that 1975 Super Cub rebounded to $17,250 the next year and has held steady or appreciated virtually every year since. Its current Bluebook value is $63,000.

For comparison, consider the Aviat Husky, an airplane designed to compete directly with the PA-18, but equipped with 30 more horsepower. A 1989 Huskys average price when new was $63,400 and is now worth $71,000. A similar-vintage Super Cub sold new for just over $56,000 and is now worth $78,000.

In 1980, we commented on the excellent resale value of the older models and went on to state: Its not likely that the current production Super Cubs will do as well; the current new price of $30,000 is highly inflated and its doubtful that a 1980 Super Cub purchased today will ever fetch $30,000 again (assuming reasonable inflation rates).

Well, guess what? The current value of a 1980 Super Cub is $68,000. Checking the inflation tables, $30,000 in 1980 dollars is about $76,200 in 2006 dollars.

Its not hard to imagine what happens when you put a big engine and a big wing on a light, two-place airplane: STOL performance to burn. Although bigger, more complex and more expensive aircraft like the Helio Courier have established excellent reputations for STOL performance, if you ask the people who really use them-the bush pilots, the cropdusters, the outback charter pilots-the Super Cub is usually considered the ideal STOL airplane.

One Alaskan bush pilot summed it up this way: Owning the Super Cub is like owning a vital share in the Alaska bush flying arena, if there is such a thing. Knowing that it is the Super Cub that pioneered true off-airport operations in terribly rough terrain and continues to hold its own as the king of STOL working bushplanes. Thats just my opinion, based mostly on working them and the simple fact that it is the most widely used airplane here when I look around the bush flying community. It comes from this: Book takeoff roll at gross weight is 200 feet. Heavily overloaded, a Super Cub may grind along for 300 feet before becoming airborne, pilots tell us. Now, with the addition of VGs and progressively larger engines, takeoff rolls in the double digits on calm days are being reported.

Book rate of climb is 960 FPM, although thats at 50 MPH, which generates a climb gradient of some 22 percent. That claim might be viewed with at least a raised eyebrow, given our examination of Super Cub accidents-about 15 percent involved hitting an obstruction after takeoff or stalling while trying to clear an obstacle. Either that or optimistic pilots are given to try and get more performance out of Super Cubs than was ever built in.

The tradeoff for an old airframe, even with lots of power, is that a Super Cub is not going to get anywhere quickly. Figure on cruise speeds in the 100 to 110 MPH range on 8 to 8.5 GPH.

Lets be upfront here. Discussing the legal loading of Super Cubs is enough to send working pilots into knee-walking howls of laughter. The PA-18 is probably overloaded more consistently, by bigger margins, than perhaps any other airplane than the Husky, which has the same space and a smaller legal payload.

Yes, we hear the ivory-towered safety set tut-tutting at us. However, they overlook the need for a pragmatic approach to professional aviation, particularly in the back country, and probably wouldnt know a Super Cub if it leaked oil on them.

They don’t take into account that the 150-HP Super Cub has the same engine as the Cessna Skyhawk had for many years as we’ll as a bigger wing, but a gross weight of 550 pounds less. Overload a Super Cub by 550 pounds and youve still probably got more climb performance than a grossed-out Skyhawk.In these days of marketing hype, the word Super can still mean something.

In the context of tailwheel airplanes, with their designed-in instability on the ground, unforgiving nature in crosswinds, poor visibility in three-point attitude and willingness to bounce unless the landing is just right, the Super Cub is far easier to handle than most. It has no built-in bad habits on the ground, although the heel brakes can be challenging and it has very good visibility over the nose from the front seat (from which it is soloed), although almost nowhere else.

Its massive adverse aileron yaw comes in handy on crosswind landings and when taxiing. So long as a pilot is willing to learn how to fly a tailwheel airplane and give it his or her undivided attention on landing and takeoff, the Super Cub is capable of handling very strong winds and challenging landing areas safely. That being said, the loss of control accident rate for the Super Cub is awful. The heel brakes come in for some share of the blame, but tailwheel airplanes are more demanding than nosewheel models.

Because almost half of the Super Cub landing and takeoff accidents we reviewed occurred at off-airport sites and because the PA-18 is so capable, it may be causing pilot egos to write checks their skills cant cash by attempting to operate on strips that are simply too short or too narrow for the pilot to handle.

In the air the Super Cub flies like a Cub. Thats good and bad. It does handle as nicely as a Cessna 150, for example, but its generally easy to fly for a 1930s design, nicely harmonized in pitch and yaw, but ponderous in roll. Its forgiving in all phases of flight except for an uncontrolled stall and there is virtually no stall warning.

Inflight handling does not change much when either floats or skis are swapped for wheels, something that makes it a very good airplane for transitioning pilots to floats or skis. Its lack of dihedral means it has no roll stability. Bags of adverse aileron yaw require that a pilot learn to use the rudder, something that is essential when maneuvering because it is vicious in an uncoordinated stall, rolling rapidly and losing 300 to 400 feet of altitude quickly.

This behavior has killed more than a few folks engaged in pursuing wildlife at low altitude and who didnt keep the ball centered when yanking and banking. In Alaska, the resulting low-altitude stall, roll and dive into the ground has gained the appellation, moose stall. We were told by a number of pilots that the installation of VGs makes an uncoordinated stall much less exciting, taming the roll and nose drop.

Admission should be charged to the comedy routine that is a first timer entering a Super Cub. Once inside, legroom is poor while shoulder and headroom is more than adequate. The seats become quite uncomfortable after a couple of hours of flight. There are after-market seats that improve the situation dramatically. Baggage room is limited to a shoulder-width compartment behind the rear seat. Visibility is lousy, except over the nose, and the noise level is very high in flight.

Generally, the Super Cub is a rugged and robust airplane thats easy to fix in the field. Annual inspections typically run in the $500 to $700 range, although some get by for next to nothing if the owner does a lot of the work himself. On the other hand, the fabric covering and steel tube fuselage means that the potential for catastrophic annuals is always just around the corner. Corrosion is becoming an increasingly serious concern as the airframes age.

Derek DeRuiter of Northwoods Aviation in Cadillac, Michigan, a company that has long operated Super Cubs on wheels, floats and skis, reported that their Super Cubs are easy to maintain and that switching from wheels to floats takes only three hours compared with more than ten for a Husky.Further, installing wheel skis takes only an hour. He also reported that parts have always been readily available, a definite consideration when purchasing a vintage aircraft.

According to Super Cub mechanical mavens, here are some specific potential trouble spots to look for when considering any used PA-18 for purchase:

Corrosion in the steel fuselage tubing and wing struts and forks. Particularly check the lower rear tubes, and be extra careful if the plane has done any spraying duty.

Fatigue cracks in the threaded clevis bolts on the wing struts.

Worn out landing gear hinge and shock strut bolts and bushings. The Super Cub gear is likely to have taken a frightful pounding over the years; inspect it closely.

Worn top rudder hinge bushing, especially on aircraft with rudder-mounted beacons.

Loose or worn-out elevator trim jackscrew, especially in aircraft used for glider or banner towing.

Another item to consider: Find out the airplanes service history and inspect accordingly. Try to avoid airplanes used for glider or banner towing or cropdusting. If it served as a bushplane, check the landing gear carefully and double-check the accident history and repair log.

Pipeline patrol is easy on engines but tough on wings because of the constant turbulence at low levels. And remember that tailwheel airplanes such as the Super Cub are likely to have a groundloop history, so check for hidden wingtip damage.

There’s a significant AD on the wing struts, AD 93-10-6 (this was once two ADs, 77-3-8 and 81-25-5). Part of the AD calls for annual inspections of the struts for corrosion, as we’ll as treatment with a rust inhibitor (linseed oil). The service bulletin the AD specified using a Maule punch tester on the strut; however, some mechanics doubt the effectiveness of this test.

The other part of the AD addresses the lift-strut forks. According to the AD, the original machined-thread forks were prone to fatigue cracking. The fatigue apparently originated at the bottom of the thread grooves, which were very sharp. The problem was exacerbated by people using the struts as steps when getting in and out of the airplane.

The AD calls for Magnaflux inspection of the forks to detect cracks, with the inspection repeated every 500 hours thereafter. If no cracks were found, then the forks could be returned to service if they had less than 2000 hours on them (1000 hours for floatplanes or any airplane that had been on floats at any time in its life).

Jimmy Durante said, Ive got a million of em. Thats also a good approach to the number of mods available for Super Cubs. We recently reported on VGs and owners swear by them on the PA-18 for stall speed reduction and improving stall behavior. Safety cables, attached to the landing gear to keep it from collapsing should a bungee or strut fail, are popular. Shoulder harnesses retrofits are a must, in our opinion. Tundra tires, baggage pods, wider cabins, even nitrous oxide injection is out there for sale. To get feedback from users, we recommend going to www.supercub.org, which has become the de facto place to be for those interested in the Super Cub. The site is a wealth of information for Super Cub owners. Steve Johnson runs www.supercub.org, the website for information and conversation on the PA-18.

Cub Crafters builds a Top Cub which is modeled on the Super Cub, but certificated under FAR 23. Few if any of the parts are interchangeable with a PA-18, however, Cub Crafters does specialize in Piper Super Cubs and will completely rebuild them or install many of the numerous available mods. Contact Cub Crafters at www.cubcrafters.com.

Owner Comments
The Super Cub performs great with any gear configuration, wheels, floats, amphibious floats, skis and wheel/skis, always having short takeoffs and landings and a good climb rate. We do a great deal of seaplane instruction and students learn to fly the airplane quickly, as it is easy to fly, but challenging to fly well.

It is very easy to maintain and can be completely rebuilt to be better than new easily. There are a huge number of STCs available, with the auto fuel STC being very important for float operations. On the downside, it has limited room for people and baggage and its hard to get in and out of the cockpit. Cruise is slow, especially with a seaplane prop and the cost of buying one is very high, because of the nostalgia of the Super Cub. It will fly into the stall with little warning and you must keep the rudder coordinated.

I enjoy flying both the Super Cub and Husky. They are very similar in design and function. Aviat did a great job with the Husky improving on the pattern of the Super Cub. In the end, however, I would choose a we’ll restored and equipped Super Cub over a Husky.

Derek DeRuiter
Cadillac, Michigan

Maintenance on a good Super Cub in dry Wyoming is relatively painless and annuals run in the neighborhood of $450 to $650. Being a fabric-covered aircraft leaves the door open for substantial repair in the future. Care and maintenance is reflected in the lifespan of the fabric.

The Lycoming O-320, 150 HP is nearly bulletproof provided it is run on a regular basis and receives scheduled oil changes. It will digest about any fuel you feed it. We see 106 MPH at 2475 RPM, burning 8 to 8.5 GPH.Admittedly not something that will light your hair on fire, but the Super Cubs beauty is in its slow flight characteristics and its ability to get in and out of short, unimproved strips that would drench the underwear of a pilot flying anything else.

Ray Dennis
Casper, Wyoming

I started www.SuperCub.org about five years ago when I purchased my first Super Cub. I discovered a void of information on the aircraft and wanted to know more and more myself. I would never have imagined what it has grown into.

SuperCub.org today has over 700 donating members (membership is a $25 or greater donation annually) and close to 3000 registered users (you are not required to be a member to access much of our site, and over 25,000 different computers per month visit the site). Presently, about 30 percent of our audience is international.

I have flown over 60 different Super Cubs equipped in many different ways and have found it to be one of the most honest and enjoyable airplanes to fly. The versatility of this airplane is unmatched by anything.(Yes, I have flown the Husky, Scout and Maule.)

Steve Johnson
Kansas City, Missouri

I am a born and raised Alaskan and I use my 1977 PA-18-150 Super Cub to make a living seasonally here in Alaska. I have been doing this for approximately 10 years, mostly using my airplane for off-airport operations in direct support of Big Game guiding here in Alaska.

My airplane has been modified with the Piper L-21 factory window specifications and fish spotting was the reason that I installed this mod. It is superb, to be able to see aircraft in close vicinity at my six oclock and in combination with a skylight and glass door I have better visibility in the Super Cub than in any other aircraft I have flown.

Now I use the airplane for exclusively off-airport operations, leasing it to a guide service by the hour and employed by the company as a guide/pilot to fly my airplane. With tundra tires, a borer propeller and a Firmin cargo pod, this airplane is, in my opinion, unbeatable as an all-around bush/off-airport aircraft. In thousands of hours of flying I am still amazed at the places that my airplane will go into and out of safely, in varying load conditions, usually heavy. I have landed my SuperCub in less than 5 feet ground roll in winds gusting over 50 knots, and although it was exciting, the airplane was right at home. Owning the Super Cub is to me like owning a Vital Share in the Alaska Bush flying arena if there is such a thing.

Andy Flack
via e-mail

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