Few will disagree that there has ever been an aeroplane produced more heart-warming than the Piper Cub.
As the proud owner of a Cub since 2012, I know exactly why this very special little airplane is heralded as a masterpiece of aviation. It’s one of the best airplanes to fly. And that’s the key: you really have to ‘fly’ it. It may sound silly; all airplanes – no matter how advanced – require a pilot to fly them. But none are like the Cub.
It’s not difficult to fly. In fact, it’s very easy. The Cub’s stick and rudder controls are directly linked to the flight surfaces by twisted steel cable. There’s no gearing or computers that help you move them, you do it entirely by hand and this is what gives you the ‘feel.’ And it’s the simplicity and response that makes it so rewarding to handle. Once you’ve mastered the stick and rudder, you can play with the airplane and make it do amazing things. You can wingover, slip turn slide, land short, land long, fly high, fly low. It’s an absolute thrill, and it flies so well. It’s a gentle airplane that always offers new challenges and adventures and always makes you smile. I love flying the Cub because it makes me feel like the best pilot in the world.
One of the Cub’s main attractions is the simplicity of its design. I’m no engineer, not by a long way. But I’m still able do the fifty-hour checks and the majority of work each year during her Annual inspection. That’s exactly how Mr. Piper meant it to be way back in 1930 when he first conceived the idea of a light, easy-to-fly airplane.
Born into a country in turmoil in the midst of the Great Depression, the Cub was the brain child of Clarence Taylor and William Piper. Clarence Gilbert Taylor was born to two British expatriates who emigrated to the United States in 1889. He trained as an engineer and worked for his father’s engineering firm until he saw the Wright brothers’ EX ‘Vin Fiz’ flying across the United States for the first time. After this life changing experience, Taylor turned his skills to airplane design and formed the Taylor Aircraft Company with his brother Gordon in 1926.
William T. Piper appeared on the Taylor Company’s radar in 1929 as their principle investor. Born in Olean, New York and having established his fortune from the family oil business, Piper decided to put his money and business acumen into the promising future of aviation. At a time when airplanes were large and expensive, Piper wanted to build a craft that was easy to fly and cheap to operate. He believed that if he could halve the cost of elementary flight training and attract more students, more flight schools would buy his aircraft.
In August 1930, the first real Cub was born. Called the Taylor E-2, it introduced many of the features we are familiar with today: a high wing, two seat tandem configuration with a steal tube, fabric covered fuselage construction.
Initially powered by the Brownbach ‘Tiger Kitten’ engine – which produced a laughable 20 horsepower that would have struggled to power a motorcycle – the new craft was only able to just lift off from the runway on its first flight from Bradford airport, Pennsylvania. But while the Tiger Kitten’s association with the airplane was short-lived, it gave the plane its name, the ‘Cub.’
The Brownbach engine soon made way for a newer, slightly more powerful Continental engine, the A40. This four cylinder, horizontally opposed engine produced double the power at 40 HP (in reality, more like 37). The engine’s design set the standard for light aeroplanes for decades to come and provided enough thrust for the E-2 to at least get off the ground.
Teething problems with the engine aside, one aspect of the Taylor E2 Cub’s design that was right from the beginning was the wing. Clarence Taylor chose the USA (US-Army) 35B because of its great handling characteristics at slow speeds. If a pilot got into a stall, the wing would pick up speed (provided the pilot had enough height), level off, and recover itself out without any input from the controls. This aerofoil has remained unchanged ever since.
Cockpit instruments were war surplus and minimal. Oil temperature, pressure a tachometer for power reference, and a very shrewd altimeter. There was no compass, no airspeed indicator, and the fuel gauge was a wire with a cork on the end which floated on the central fuel tank in front of the cockpit. The design of the E2 gave it a max speed of 75 mph, a cruise speed of just 65 mph. It used 3 gallons of fuel per hour, could take off within 300 feet, had no room for baggage and weighed slightly under 1000 lbs.
The cost of all this mind-blowing performance was a meager $1,325! When you consider that in 1930 a good family car cost $2,685 and prices for other light aircraft of the day began at $9,700, the E2 was in a class of its own. Overnight, it opened up the possibility of flying to the middle classes of America. But given the global financial situation into which the E2 was born, it would take time before the full potential of this aircraft could be realised.
Like all early flying machines, it wasn’t long before pilots started reporting problems, including engine issues. The Continental engines were designed to meet the demands of automobiles, not airplanes. A pilot would regularly expect to perform a forced landing due to engine failure after just 20 miles, according to William Piper’s son, Tony. These faults slowly improved with the introduction of the Continental A40-4.
In January 1933, a young aeronautical engineer named Walter Jamouneau joined Taylorcraft and began helping with sales and minor modifications to the airplane. In 1935, Taylor commissioned a new design for the Cub from Jamouneau, one that would refresh the plane’s look and give it more sales appeal. While Taylor severely restricted the modifications that Jamouneau was allowed to make to the airplane’s general characteristics, Piper (who by this time had fallen out with Taylor) encouraged Jamouneau to be more daring than Taylor’s brief allowed.
Jamouneau rounded off the airplane’s square features, her wingtips, tail plane, and fins and started forming the beautiful shape of the now-legendary Cub. He did not alter any of the airplane’s aerodynamic features. The changes were not received well by Taylor, who fired Jamouneau as soon as he wheeled out the new design.
Jamouneau’s design changes to the Cub brought Piper and Taylor’s fragile relationship to breaking point. Piper bought Clarence Taylor out of the company he formed in 1935 and became sole head of the corporation. He renamed the company Piper Aircraft and rehired Jamouneau as chief designer. The new shape E-2 was now the J-2, named for the man who shaped it.
By 1937 around 1,200 Cubs had been produced, short of what Piper predicted when he first proposed an ‘airplane for everyone.’ That same year, fire destroyed Piper Aircraft’s small factory in Bradford, Pennsylvania and Piper was forced to find new premises. He found a large, abandoned silk mill in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, where the company was headquartered until 1984.
Jamouneau redesigned the Cub once again, further smoothing the design, refining the fuselage as well as the tail sections and upgrading the instrument panel to include a compass, airspeed indicator, and reliable engine instruments. The choice and reliability of engines also improved. Rather than just a single Continental option, the new plane could now be fitted with Lycoming or Franklin engines producing from 40 to 50 HP (it’s almost impossible to believe today that at the time, many flying schools believed that a 50 HP would be too fast for students to learn on).
One of the most noticeable alterations was the bright yellow paint scheme – implemented to aid ‘see and avoid’ around busy airports – and the characteristic Piper flash that runs the length of the fuselage. The new model was called the J-3 ‘Sports Cub’ and it was a hit.
But it was the outbreak of hostilities in Europe that would make the Cub a legend. In 1938 as the war in Europe approached, the United States formed the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) and the J-3 was the primary trainer. Seventy-five percent of all new pilots trained by the CPTP were trained on Cubs, which amounted to a staggering 435,165 pilots trained over roughly a 6-year period between 1938-1944. By the end of War War II, 80 percent of America’s military pilots received initial flight training on Cubs.
The U.S. military saw other uses for Cubs beyond initial pilot training. By 1941, Cubs were being used for spotting for the artillery and soon thereafter they would be flying for the cavalry, engineers, infantry, armored, and tank destroying divisions as well as headquarters units. But the Piper Cub’s first contribution to the war in Europe was not in a combat role but a fundraising one. Forty-eight Piper J-3’s, renamed the ‘Flitfire’ were donated to the Royal Airforce Benevolence Fund flown throughout Britain and used to raise money for the war effort.
When the United States entered the war in late 1941, the Americans soon gave the Cub a nickname of their own: ‘The Grasshopper,’ because of the Cub’s ability to literally hop from field to field without the need of pre-prepared landing surfaces or airfield-style infrastructure. After the war, many Germans said that ‘The Grasshopper’ was the most terrifying sight in the sky because they knew once they had spotted one, a hail storm of accurate artillery generally followed.
All military Piper J-3s were given the ‘L’ designation for Liaison and were know as L-4s. The aircraft needed certain alterations to accommodate its new tasks. Most notably was an added Perspex section extending alongside the fuselage and above the wings’ trailing edges. The seating configuration also changed with the pilot moving from the rear seat to the front seat. The observer/radio operator now sat facing backwards to plot enemy positions or operate the bulky radio equipment. I often wonder at how brave these pilots were to fly over enemy lines at 75 mph with zero armoured protection.
By the war’s end, the US military had taken delivery of 6,028 Piper L-4 Cubs, the vast majority of which were left behind in Europe at the cessation of hostilities – including mine. As a result, the Piper Cub formed the backbone of all flying schools in Belgium and France up until the 1970s, helping train another generation of civilian fliers until it was gradually replaced by newer, higher performance training airplanes like the Piper PA28 and Cessna 150.
By the time the Cub ceased production in 1947, a total of 19,880 had been produced making it one of the most produced aircraft of all time. With clear vision, luck, and talent, William Piper turned an initial investment of $400 into a family fortune of over $30 million dollars.
The Cub has won a place in people’s hearts and transitioned from a workhorse to a vintage tail-dragger. It’s heralded as the king of basic tail-draggers and doted on by all who have experienced the thrill of flying one. It’s loved for its simplicity, cheap operating costs, and forgiveness when pushed hard by student pilots. It will be a familiar sight at airfields across the world for many decades to come.