August 2014- It is most definitely not about speed: the 65 hp J-3 Cub is so slow it can barely get out of its own way. From the pilot's seat you can watch the landscape sliding by—or, if you are flying into wind, you can simply watch the landscape. I'm not kidding. There's a story of one intrepid pilot who wheeled a Cub out during a gale, took off, drifted backward across the field... and then landed downwind of his starting position.
Nor is it about going anywhere—the J-3 has neither the range nor the luggage capacity for touring—and, in the UK at least, it's not an aerobatic machine, either. (Legend has it that one UK aviation journalist essayed an aileron roll in his own Cub and found it just about went all the way back around to right way up, spewing fuel all over the windscreen from the open-vent fuel filler cap in the process. He found that experience worrying enough not do it again, and of course, none of you should try it: just think what might happen when you inadvertently apply negative g to an airplane that is not stressed for flying upside down.)
So... no speed, no range, no room for bags and no aerobatics. Where's the appeal? Why should anybody today have the slightest interest in an aircraft that went out of production in 1947?
Before attempting to answer that question, a disclaimer: I have to own up to the fact that the Whiteman family has owned and operated a J-3 (actually, the mighty military L-4 variant) for over 30 years, and there is a tiny risk that some measure of prejudice might manifest itself in this piece.
In an attempt to be slightly more objective in the approach, I thought I should try one or two other Cubs (tough work, I know, but as I'm told, someone has to do it).
In the six decades since the last one rolled off the production line, J-3s have been rebuilt over and again: they may have been crashed, and they will inevitably have been modified. Today, no two are alike and very few can claim to be "original" in terms of equipment or even the type of engine fitted.
For this feature, we gathered at Old Warden (EGTH, a lovely old grass airfield in Bedfordshire, England) three Cubs typical of variants on the J-3 theme. The green one is my own 1944 L-4H, G-BGPD Papa Delta, although the CAA in its wisdom has it down as a J3C-65 (the civilian model to which it is for most intents and purposes, identical).
Identified thanks to a contemporary Signal Corps photograph published in Ken Wakefield's book on U.S. Army aviation, "The Fighting Grasshoppers," it wears the markings it wore when it was attached to the U.S. 2nd Armored Division late in World War II and is still powered by Continental A-65 (albeit a replacement unit fitted in the late 1960s).
After the French flying clubs who had operated it ever since World War II decided in the late 1970s they would pension off Papa Delta, the aircraft was rebuilt and painted in suitably vintage blue and silver colors by Ian Callier.
Passing through the hands of past Popular Flying Association chairman and aviation journalist Peter Underhill, it came into Whiteman ownership in 1980 and has been based at the same Buckinghamshire farm strip since 1981.
Rebuilt and restored in U.S. Army colors in 1995 and with wings covered in fresh fabric three years ago, it is a good example of an un-messed-around and relatively original L-4—just so long as you ignore the French engine instrument and 10-gallon tank in the port wing.
Based at White Waltham, G-BTUM—or Bottom, as it is better known—is part owned by Andrew Smith. A nice example of a patinated but well-cared-for J-3, Bottom's history from manufacture in 1946 is unclear, although Smith does know she was operated on floats at some time with an 85 hp engine and was imported from the United States by Barbel Abela as the first aircraft in her vintage fleet. (Lady Barbel Abela is the holder of seven National Aeronautic Association speed over distance world records set in her Douglas A26 Invader. —Ed.)
"Barbel often flew with Len Perry and they used to practice forced landings by shutting down the engine in the overhead," says Smith, "at which point I'd say it ceases to be a practice!"
Abela sold the Cub in 1993, and a group of four was formed around it. An engine failure near Enstone forced the aircraft into a field and led to, as Smith puts it, "a slight crumpling of the leading edge by a hedgerow."
Fuselage corrosion was found about 10 years ago, and the fuselage was stripped and recovered. (A similar problem emerged when Papa Delta was rebuilt in 1994-95: as it does in many fabric covered steel-tube aircraft, water finding its way into the fuselage pools around the lower longerons and tailpost, rotting out the tubes if left unchecked.)
Recently the subject of a 20-month, 2,500-hour rebuild by owner Bob Willies with the help of Dave Nicholson, the third test aircraft, a 1943 Cub—G-NCUB—started out as an L-4, but has been converted to civvie configuration and is registered as a J3C-65.
Willies' is the freshest of the three and, sporting a C85 engine very carefully built by Brian Newby, certainly has the most get-up-and-go.
Willies did the immaculate fabric work himself—he is now doing a Maule for a British Airways captain customer—and great care was taken in getting the correct shade of Lock Haven yellow for the overall paint job, as well as ensuring the dimensions and shape of the Piper "lightning flash" were right. (There are many interpretations out there!)
In addition to its more powerful engine, other departures from standard include five-gallon tanks in each wing root and a McCauley 71-inch metal propeller. The aircraft is fitted with wheel spats that were an extra-cost option when the J-3 was new.
Willies is understandably coy about the cost of such an extensive renovation, but tells me he has turned down an offer of £50k. (At press time, the U.S. Dollar was $1.70 to a single British Pound Sterling, making this offer $84,893.50. —Ed.)
Being the only one of the group still running on the original-spec 65 hp engine, G-BGPD pretty much performs as per book figures (widely believed by Cub pilots to have been a work of Piper sales department fiction). She cruises at 60 knots, stalls at just over 30, and does everything else—all that climbing and approaching-to-land stuff—at just under 50. (You want precision? This is a Cub!)
With that low stalling speed and handling characteristics that actively encourage one to sideslip, she can be put down in the shortest of fields.
On the other hand, getting out of those short fields, especially on hot, still days, is not quite so easy.
However, before we add "not a STOL airplane, either" to the list of charges against the J-3, let's take a ride in Andrew and Bob's up-engined models. In fact I have cheated a bit here in that, at my invitation, Andrew based Bottom at my 450-meter strip in Buckinghamshire for a couple of months of what passed as summer one year.
Thus he was able to marvel at some of my hedge-skimming two-up departures, and watching his own rather more convincing getaways, I began to wonder about hunting down an A-85 for my own airplane.
However, when we tried something approaching a true back-to-back test— burdening Bottom with 16 stone of Whiteman—the difference in performance was not so great as I think we had both imagined. (A 16-stone Brit equals a 224-pound American. —Ed.)
Perhaps it was the Mary Poppins-bag content of Bottom's extra-deep luggage bay that did it (Andrew's syndicate seem to be hoarders and it is always full to the brim with tools, chocks, lengths of rope and tins of oil, etc.), but a few of those extra 20 horses seem to have slipped the harnesses.
And so to G-NCUB. Without revealing any detail, Willies had intimated that his 85 horses were perhaps bigger beasts, equivalent—pure guesswork—to a hundred or so normal ones. Well, that may be, but neither he nor this writer are the most svelte of people.
This was a nice warm summer's day at Old Warden with very little wind. How much fuel did Bob Willies have in the airplane? "Oh, plenty—I've just filled the tanks."
Catching my look, he added, "But we'll be fine."
The 1930s and '40s J-3 had no electrical system and had to be hand-swung: a shortfall Willies has made good with G-NCUB, which boasts an electric starter. However, he has retained the original Hayes drum brakes, the expanding bladders of which in old age share the characteristics of the human bladder. Spares are hard to find, but Willies has done an A1 job on them.
To make sure you don't run into anything, you must weave a J-3 from side to side while taxiing. This requires no brake input—linked to the rudder via coil springs, the steering is much more precise than you might imagine—but it is nice in this case to be able to hold the thing still while running up the engine.
The takeoff roll of a standard J-3 is never long; it's the climbout that can give you gray hair. If there's a crosswind, it pays to keep the tailwheel on the ground and benefit from the steering. You can raise the tail for optimum acceleration—it never seems to me to make that much difference—or keep the whole outfit from being bounced off the ground on a rough runway.
Old Warden's grass is none too smooth, but with no conscious stick movement, Willies' Cub just powered its way off the ground and climbed away with seeming contempt for the surface. Now this is real STOL performance.
Carried away with the sensation of excess power and with a camera ship to catch, I forget to note the climb rate, but we are definitely in PA-18 Super Cub territory here, happily without that otherwise marvelous airplane's heavy ailerons. The J has beautifully coordinated controls and a sprightly rate of roll that belies its wide span—it's a biddable little airplane that, as they say, begs to be wheeled around the sky.
Bob Willies' Cub is an especially good example of the breed: it feels snappy rolling into turns, and it stalls predictably without any trace of a wing drop. Thanks to that hopped-up C85, it's also quick when you need to get along in a hurry: closing the side window and opening up to full chat, we see a steady 105 mph in level flight, way above Piper's most optimistic claim for the J-3. As Willies says, this really is a hooligan's toy.
And here we have it: in stock form, the J-3 Cub may be hell's slow and make no sense as a tourer, but on a calm summer's day it is one of the most glorious playthings invented.
Up-engining improves the numbers and adds a welcome safety margin, but you get the same real airplane, stick-in-one-hand, throttle-in-the-other pleasure from any J-3. That's why this vintage airplane is still such a delight, and such a wonderful cure for the everyday blues. What more do you want from a light airplane?