The humble and understated Piper Cub is a versatile airshow aircraft. It is the ideal machine to do a number of great acts in. These include, but are not limited to crazy flying routines, “dead stick” landings and truck top landings.
Some forty years ago I happened to read about an airshow pilot in the USA that was landing a Piper J3 Cub on top of a moving truck. Since I owned a Cub at that time, I thought that it would be a great idea to try and see if the same could be done locally.
The legendary Bobby Olthoff was my partner in the venture . Besides being an exceptional driver, he was also an experienced pilot and understood perfectly what would be required from the driver’s side of things. A sponsorship from Mitsubishi was obtained and they provided a small L300 pick-up vehicle for the project.
Building the Platform
Bob designed and built the platform. Two wheel wells were welded into the structure on each side of the platform up very close to the front. These would trap the aircraft in a position where it would remain static once the landing had been accomplished.
Holes were drilled holes into these wheel wells through which the aircraft tires would be visible and could be seen by the driver in his cab when the aircraft had touched down and was firmly in position. Once the main wheels were in place, the truck could commence with its deceleration and the tail could be brought down. If the main wheels were properly in position, then there would be no way that the tailwheel would come down off the platform.
Developing the modus operandi for the stunt
Permission to do the stunt was then obtained from the Commissioner of Civil Aviation. The initial tests and development of the procedures we would follow were done at Bob’s airstrip, right alongside to where Tedderfield stands today. We got the stunt right on the first attempt!
Bob would line up on the runway threshold and I would approach at an indicated airspeed of about 55 MPH. When I thought that I was at the right distance out, I would call “GO!” and Bob would pull off, accelerating as rapidly as he could to achieve the same speed as the aircraft (About 90 kilometres per hour).
The Cub is the ideal aircraft for a stunt like this. It has a low stalling speed, so an approach can be flown at a speed of about 50 to 55 MPH. The aircraft is flown with the side doors on the right side wide open, so that the right-hand main wheel is in the pilot’s sight, only a meter or so to his front and to the side. All he has to do is fly this wheel into its wheel-well and the rest of the aircraft will be in the perfect position.
The atmospheric conditions on the day determine whether the approach speed of the aircraft has to be faster or slower than 55 MPH, and also whether the corresponding speed of the truck has to faster or slower than 90 kilometers per hour.
The technique one has to employ is to catch up to the truck as soon as possible. The earlier one arrives close to the truck and then matches its speed, the more residual time and distance there is available to actually perform the landing and then for the assembly to be brought to a halt. A steep approach to the platform is far better than a flat “creepy crawly” approach, as with the latter, the aircraft sits in air that has become very disturbed by the passage of the truck and its platform. The aircraft is thus tossed left, right, upwards and downwards and it becomes a nightmare to stabilise.
However, during a steep approach to the truck the aircraft will tend to accelerate. The build-up in speed is curbed by putting the aircraft into a gentle side-slip to the right, which generates an instantaneous increase in drag and slows it down. As one arrives overhead the platform, the aircraft is straightened out and then flown down onto it.
Once the wheels are in the wheel wells, the driver is given the signal to start slowing down. The pilot holds the aircraft firmly in position by continuing to push the stick forward until at low speed, with no more aerodynamic effect available from the elevators, the tail settles down onto the platform.
Taking off from the truck
The take-off from the truck is the easiest aspect of the stunt. The driver lines up on the runway and starts the take-off roll. The pilot pushes his stick forward and starts adding progressively more and more power so as not to roll out of the back of the wheel wells. Eventually, when the elevators take effect, the tail comes up and the aircraft, now in the flying attitude, runs along with the truck. As soon as the aircraft has reached a safe flying speed, the pilot eases back on the stick and the two vehicles part company!