Smoke On Go

The Piper J3 Cub − basically beautiful

I own an almost totally authentic Piper J3 Cub that was built in 1945, a year before I was born.  Now 75 years old, it continues to provide three generations of family members with trouble-free, enjoyable flying.

My plane has a white and red colour scheme instead of the traditional “Cub Yellow”. That’s because I never know when the next person will approach me to do a stunt or movie ad. 

Other than the fitting of disc brakes, a motorcycle battery powered radio and a 1960 vintage three-point altimeter, no changes have been made. The aircraft remains exactly as it was when it came off the production line.


It’s fitted with the same type of engine that it was built with − a four-cylinder, 65-horsepower Continental C65. The Cub does not have an electrical system as there isn’t a single component requiring electrical power.

There are very few instruments and the ones it has are very basic. They are an altimeter, ASI, RPM counter, slip indicator, oil pressure gauge and a compass. The aircraft has no navigation, landing or interior lights, so it may not be flown at night.  Since there’s no self-starter, the engine has to be “propeller swung” to get it running.

J3 Cub owners like them just the way they are 

You experience a tremendous feeling of sheer pleasure and excitement when you take off and head away from urban areas and out over the open countryside. Provided that it’s not a very cold day, the aircraft is flown with the right-hand door and window wide open.

The visibility out of the right-hand side of the cockpit is unsurpassed. It’s almost as if you’re flying an aerial motorbike.

The window fills the upper half of the cockpit’s opening and swings upward, clipping up against the bottom of the top wing. The lower half, which is the door, flops down against the aircraft’s fuselage, where it’s held in place by gravity and the slipstream from the propeller.

The visibility out of the right-hand side of the cockpit is unsurpassed. It’s almost as if you’re flying an aerial motorbike. In spite of this huge opening on the side, very little wind or slipstream from the propeller enters the cockpit.

Unless your eyes are sensitive to bright light, there’s no need to wear any form of protective eyeware when flying the Cub. With a headset on, the noise level is not high at all.

How practical is the Piper Cub?

In spite of only having a 65 horsepower engine, the Piper Cub performs extremely well. I weigh 75kg, which is somewhat below average for a South African male. When flying one up, loose baggage, food and survival equipment can be placed in a compartment behind the back seat. A duffle bag carrying clothing and other necessities can be strapped on the front seat.

With full fuel, the aircraft has an endurance of around two and a half hours. On average, the fuel consumption is about 16 litres per hour, and the true airspeed hovers somewhere between 55 and 60 knots.  

Loaded as described, with full fuel and baggage for a two or three day outdoor adventure, the aircraft still gets airborne with ease and achieves a safe enough rate of climb. Within the constraints of time and distance, I’ve flown the aircraft from Johannesburg to destinations such as Margate, Pietermaritzburg, Nelspruit, Bethlehem, Tzaneen,  Gaborone, Ermelo, Polokwane , the Waterberg area and Mafikeng. Fuel stops were necessary on certain sectors.

The front seat is small and starts becoming uncomfortable for a medium-sized male and bigger after a while. Thirty to forty five minutes of giving instruction is enough for me!  However, this seat is ideal for young children. A flight in a Cub − properly strapped in and with the door open − leaves an indelible impression on the mind of a young child.

The J3 Cub  is a very versatile airshow  aircraft

Airshow pilots around the world still choose Piper Cubs to perform novelty acts such as truck-top landings and crazy flying routines. The docile handling qualities, lightness, slow manoeuvring speeds, tight turning capability and excellent visibility from the cockpit make it a versatile airshow machine. 

The control harmony is excellent and there’s a very balanced feel to the aircraft. Some would say that the ailerons feel somewhat sluggish, but I would disagree. The elevators and rudder are certainly very powerful and the aircraft responds very well to pitch and yaw inputs. I’ve always been able to manoeuvre the aircraft very tightly without any problems.

Increasingly sought after

I’ve been flying Cubs on and off for some 50 years and have owned three in that time. I paid somewhere between R600 and R800 for the first one. These days, however, Cubs are being advertised at an average price of about $40 000. Admittedly, many may have been modified for enhanced “back-country flying”, but it’s the compelling allure of this machine that still makes it so desirable.   

The Cub is easy to fly and has no vices. There is no nicer aircraft in which to get airborne, fly for a 20-minute jaunt and, once again, experience the sheer miracle of flight.




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