Smoke On Go

The Piper J3 ‘Cub’

Definition of the term icon – A thing regarded as a representative, a symbol worthy of veneration.

An early dawn or dusk flight in a Piper ‘Cub’ will really make you remember why you enjoy flying.

An early article in this series described the De Havilland Tiger Moth as a quaint, quirky but ultimately delightful machine.  In following articles, the British Tiger Moth was contrasted against an American equivalent Second World War trainer, the Boeing Stearman, a big, bulbous radial engine monster. 

After considering both these aircraft, one would be excused for concluding that much like their respective national characters, Americans make heavy “big country, big sky” almost brash airplanes, and the British make smaller, streamlined, more efficient and elegant aeroplanes. 

But you would be wrong to think this. 

Because if this were true, how does one then explain the American Piper J3 Cub?   An airplane that like the Tiger and Stearman also came from a civilian lineage, later evolved to serve as a WW2 trainer.   And although American, the J3 is not a “big, bulbous monster”.   Rather, it is a small light aircraft, that originally came out with a modest little 65hp engine.  A little cutey pie if ever there was one.  

Perhaps even more of an anathema, is the fact that unlike the two trainer biplanes the J3 Cub also served in a front-line combat role as an effective artillery spotter aircraft.

So how does one even begin to describe this little airplane? Simple – it is a 2-seat tandem configuration, tube and fabric, high wing, tail-dragger light aircraft, with a 4-cylinder engine, a fixed pitch wooden propellor and an empty weight of just 580lbs (274kgs).   No flaps, no electrics, just the most basic of controls.  

A Cub stalls at 38mph and does everything else, climb, cruise and approach at between 65 – 75mph.  Its VNE is 122mph.  And that, a nutshell, is the Piper Cub pretty much summed up.

Ok, I suppose that one could go into a little more detail – the Cub has nice light predicable handling, which for its era is reasonably responsive, it is undemanding to land, and simple to operate and maintain.   There, Piper J3 Cub done…   we can move onto the next airplane in the series….

….not a chance.  Whilst all true, all this does not even begin to explain how this humble 1930s era airplane came to be one of the most iconic aircraft of all time?

How do you describe the mood when you open the hangar doors at dawn and pull out a light easy to manhandle J3 Cub.  As it emerges onto the apron, the slightest hint of pink light from the eastern sky reflects off the yellow satin finish wings, accenting the rib stitching detail.

The iconic ‘CUB’ is best with bright yellow paint trimmed with the Cub’s signature black lightning bolt on the fabric, plus not forgetting the bear cub logo on the tail.

How does one explain the kaleidoscope of feelings as you inspect the airplane before flight, checking bolts, drumming fabric, and plucking tailplane bracing wires, producing twanging sounds that you remember from more than 45yrs ago when as a little kid you watched your Dad prepare a Cub for flight in exactly the same way. A heady mix of nostalgia and excitement.

I cannot articulate the anticipation one feels as you hand swing the propeller to prime the engine until you hear the familiar sucking sound from the carburettor signalling that it will fire as soon as the magnetos are switched on.  And when is does start, shattering the early morning silence and drenching your senses with that intoxicating smell of burnt oil and a slightly over primed engine, taking you back to a place and an era that barely exists today. 

Or the feeling of solitude and utter bliss as you take off and climb up alone into a clear still sky to watch the sun rise, with no need to go higher than 300ft on this flight.  The air so calm you can steer the airplane with one finger pressing gently on the top of the joystick.

Wealthy people will spend silly amounts of money on many lavish aviation experiences in an attempt to stimulate their senses and find a modicum of joy; yet few will know the simple and deep happiness of swooping low over a wide open field with the side doors open; you can feel the cool moisture of the dew on your cheeks and smell the grass.  All while burning a mere 18litres an hour.

And then end it all with a landing so mesmerizingly smooth that the only reason you know you are back on the ground is the gentle rumbling of the wheels (one does have these landing occasionally, very occasionally)

The editor of this publication asked me to describe what its like to fly a Piper J3 Cub.  I have only one word in reply to that request – “Indescribable!”

Getting in and out of a Cub takes skill and dexterity.




Subscribe to our newsletter for new blog posts, tips and news