Far be it for me to be the cause of controversy, but when a matter requires setting straight, I can’t be silent. My good friend and fellow contributor to this online magazine implied in his recent article that the classic Piper J3 Cub may well be the most desirable grassroots vintage flyer in existence…. I beg to differ
No one can ever deny that the J3 Cub is a magnificent light airplane. It’s great fun to fly, is revered for its simplicity and appreciated for its role in history. It’s practical and invokes a great sense of nostalgia, reminding us of cruising low and slow without a radio in simpler, kinder times. It is true that the J3 Cub has attained iconic status, but to say that it’s the best in its genre, well I don’t know so much.
And the rival is…
I’d like to introduce a very worthy contender for that title – the extraordinary Cessna 140. I have over 500 hours in both planes, and so perhaps my views hold a modicum of credibility.
A bit of history
Prior to World War II, Cessna were wood people. They made an eclectic range of wooden light aircraft: the Cessna 165 − a high-wing strutless tourer, the Cessna Bullet − a mid-wing, single-seat racer, and the Cessna T50 Bobcat − a four-seat, twin-engine, low-wing trainer.
During the war, aluminum was a strategic resource, reserved mainly for the production of front-line fighters and bombers. Because Cessna could produce a credible twin-engine trainer using wood, the T50 Bobcat soon attracted massive orders from the US Army Air Corps and the Canadians. The Cessna Bobcat soon became an important trainer for multi-engine bomber crews. As a result, within a few short years Cessna grew into a huge enterprise producing thousands of aircraft.
Predictably as the war was drawing to a close, the need for multi-engine wooden trainers waned dramatically, and Cessna would soon find themselves in a bind, with a massive production capacity and no demand for their key product.
Thankfully, two pieces of news presented a silver lining for the now-threatened Cessna.
Firstly, the US Government announced that a war grant would be given to all sailors, soldiers and airmen returning from Europe and the Far East. This meant that millions of young people would be coming home with money to spend on an education, a home, a business, or perhaps on an airplane.
The second bit of promising news for Cessna was that the US Government had hoarded vast supplies of aircraft-grade aluminum that it no longer needed. This would was to be made available to manufacturers at a very low cost.
Cessna had no time to waste. Within a few months they had to design and build an affordable, simple to operate, practical, aluminum airplane that would appeal to the millions of returning soldiers. The aircraft was to be designed around the readily available, proven and highly reliable Continental C-85 engine.
Cessna’s main competition was, of course, the already ubiquitous Piper J3 Cub. The J3 Cub was a popular light aircraft well before the US military ordered thousands of them for training, liaison and other utilitarian roles. Piper’s mass production placed them way down on the cost curve. In those days a brand new J3 cost less than $2 700.
Cessna’s challenge was to compete in that price bracket while producing a superior product made of aluminum − a material they didn’t have much experience with.
They succeeded. The Cub was 1920s’ tube and fabric technology and to compete, Cessna went high-tech – 1946 high tech, that is. Instead of a tandem cockpit, they had a modern side-by-side cabin, instead of joysticks they put in control columns and, instead of tube and fabric, they went with a monocoque fuselage, even adding an electric starter, lights, and flaps.
The 140 was like a mini airliner. To keep the cost down they didn’t even paint them with anything more than a thin trim of colour on the fuselage. Red, green or blue were the only options.
Have you read: The Piper J3 Cub – basically beautiful
A winner from the start
That basic high-wing, strutted, corrugated control surface configuration birthed the most successful line of light aircraft ever produced. From the 140 came the 120, a lower-cost, more basic version without flaps, electrics or a back window aimed at the trainer market. A little later they enlarged the 140, put in a flat six 145hp engine and the four-seat Cessna 170 was born.
A few years later they put a nose wheel on the 140 and created the Cessna 150, one of the most successful primary trainers in history. Around that time, a nose wheel was put on the Cessna 170 resulting in the Cessna 172. More 172s have been built than any other plane, and it’s still in production today. All this started with the humble Cessna 140.
140 vs J3
I hope to write a more detailed comparison between the J3 and the 140 in the future. But for now, suffice to say that all the simplicity and relatively carefree flying offered by the J3 is also available from the Cessna 140. Sure you can’t open the door in flight, but if you want to, you can fly about low and slow with the window open.
And here’s the clincher: the Cessna 140 will cruise at between 100 and 110mph, and fly for four hours, making it a practical tourer. You can get to Cape Town in one day with a 140, and that’s just not going to happen with a J3.
You can also fly a 140 at night. It’s as low cost to operate as the J3, and is about 25% to 40% cheaper to purchase. This despite the fact that engineers will confirm that there’s just so much more substance and engineering to a 140.
The original Cessna 140 used the same C-85 engine as the J3. Despite being heavier, with a larger drag-producing frontal area than a J3, the 140 will still cruise 25% faster for the same fuel consumption.
As to which is better on paper, there’s no question – it’s the 140. But people don’t buy airplanes like that on paper, it’s a matter of heart. It’s like trying to answer the question: which is better, Scotch or Bourbon? That is never going to be an objective debate!