What is the Piper Cub is like to fly?

Piper 3.jpg

By Richard Haynes


William T Piper built the J-3 variant, all 10,000 of them, as a plane for the everyday person. Seventy years on, the same qualities hold true.  In 1937 the cost of a new Piper J3 was $1300.  It was less than a new car.  That is $22,600 in today's dollars.  A quick scan at the aviation classifieds shows that the average for a J3 Cub today sits at around $35,000.  You will probably pay a least 30% more for the L-4 military variant.

The Piper Cub salesman of the 1930's would fly a Cub to a local field and get the flying school owner to pick out any person standing at the fence.  To demonstrate how easy the Cub was to fly, he would have them solo by the end of the day.  That was their sale pitch.  They even had a “build it yourself Cub Pilot Trainer” to practice on between lessons.  More a marketing tool than simulator.  Though it does look kind of neat.

As you walk out to the Cub the first thing that comes to mind is it is a relatively small aircraft, remember you can pick it up with a handle near the tail and maneuver it around.  And it’s big thick USA35-B airfoil STOL (short takeoff Landing) wing.

The second thing that comes to mind is how the hell am I going to get in it!  You fly from the rear seat when solo. The military L-4 version was flown from the front seat, the radio on the rear deck substituting for a passenger.

But with two on board you can fly from either seat.  Designed before the term 'Ergonomic' existed, it does take some practice to enter and exit gracefully.  My wife never wears that pretty summer dress we bought her last Christmas.

The first thing you will notice when you slide in and rest your back against the rear seat slings is the steep tail down angle and lack of any forward visibility.  Though the L-4 “birdcage” does gives you unprecedented visibility in all other directions, even straight up.  Throttle set, heels on brakes, a prime or two, Mags on, and contact!  You must use the “Armstrong Starter”.  That is your buddy standing out front to swing that prop, remember, no electric system. At 65hp she is not too hard to swing.

Stick back and away you taxi.  The Cub we must remember was designed in the days of the all over field.  The design of the brakes reflects this.  They are heel brakes, tucked to one side of the rudder pedals.  Tricky at first, but you soon get used to them.  You soon find out the only time you need brakes on a Cub is for the engine run up.  The lack of forward visibility is negated by 'S' turns whilst taxing.

Applying power for takeoff the Cub accelerates away nicely.  True to the Continental engine companies catch phrase of the day " As Powerful as The Nation".  As soon as you have full power, center the stick, the tail comes up, visibility and control are good.  You're now at 40mph (35kts) and 300ft down the strip, she wants to fly.  You peg 55mph (48kts) for the climb.  With the 65hp engine you can expect 300fpm climb.  It is possible to upgraded to 75hp, 85hp, and 90hp engines.  I upgraded some years back, and you notice the difference!

The only downside I am told, is that I no longer supply entertainment to those on the aero club verandah as they gather to watch me try and clear the trees.  No matter what engine you have, and there are many options, you’re not going too high, as the Cub is designed to be flown low.  I rarely go above 1500'.  Leveling off the speed will settle at 70-80mph (60-70kts).

The controls are standard for the 1930’s, a series of pulleys and cables.  She responds in proportion to the amount of stick you use.  Lead with rudder in the turns to counteract any adverse yaw.  Simple.

With 12 gallons (45 liters) in the nose tank and using 4 gallons per hour, with a cruising speed of between 75-80mph (65-70kts), you sure do not go too far.  That was OK back in the day when you could land pretty much anywhere.  These days an optional 12 gallons in each of the wing is available, so your rear-end will go numb long before you run out of fuel.

It is noisy. Back in the day there was no intercom or Gosport style communication system. With the instructor sitting in front, it was a series of hand signal and some shouting. Most Cub pilots will fly with both upper and lower doors open. In summer there is no better sensation. My kids love flying with me, especially in the warmer months. The sun glints off the wooden prop, looking straight down at farmers cutting their crop, the smell of freshly cut grass wafts up.


If you put your hand outside, just below the door line, you can feel the hot exhaust from the engine. The kids love it when we slow down and watch cars on the freeway pass us.  Ah, Life in the slow lane.

The Cub can descend faster, at a slower forward speed than anything else I have flown.  So, a close circuits are normal. Crank the trim handle (that looks suspiciously like a 1930’s window winder off a Ford), to set up 55mph for approach.  It will now fly the approach itself. If you do get high on approach, the Cub has no flaps, so a forward slip gets you back in the slot.

Landing the Cub happens at a slow pace.  At 35mph (30kts) the touchdown feels like your just on your pushbike.  A wheeler or three-point landing is your choice, both works well.  The landing gear absorbs most of any bounce through the bungee cords.  Like any tailwheel you must be tracking straight.  If you touchdown running straight, then very little rudder is needed.  By the 500-foot mark you are taxiing off the runway

If you are looking for a fast-paced plane fitted with all the modern equipment, then the Cub is not for you. But if you’re the type of person who wants to experience aviation as it once was, fly an honest aircraft for not much more than the price of a new car, and enjoy life in the slow lane...do I know a plane for you!