Cub love: is simpler really better?

grass runway airport

Grass strips are where Cub memories are made.

Hang around pilots long, and you’re sure to see someone get all teary-eyed about the J-3 Cub, Piper’s venerable taildragger that turns 75 this year. That yellow color, the open door, the grass in the tailwheel–it’s all part of the mystique, supposedly remnants of the Golden Age of aviation.

But for a while, I just didn’t get it. The Cub seemed old fashioned, small, slow, drafty and hard to fly. What’s to love?

That embarrassingly naive opinion changed one sunny Saturday about 15 years ago, when I was a student pilot. I had soloed but I had yet to take my checkride, and my father (who is also a pilot) took me up to a local grass strip. This was to be my introduction to “real flying,” he said. Typical old-timer BS, I thought. How much fun can you have at 70mph?

As it turned out, quite a lot.

To start with, I hadn’t just landed at some random “grass strip.” I quickly learned that Red Stewart Field (40I) in Waynesville, Ohio is practically the living legacy of Piper’s Lock Haven factory. It was founded in 1946 by a legendary barnstormer (the airport’s namesake), whose favorite trick was to throw the control stick out the window of his Cub in flight and land the airplane with only power and trim. The airport is still family owned today, and has operated Cubs continuously for over 60 years.

With this impressive history starting to sink in, I walked out to one of the flight school Cubs with an instructor. Right away, I noticed something was different from my Cessna 172 lessons–my hands were empty. I had no flight bag, no charts and no headset, and that was uncomfortable for me. But the truth is, I didn’t need any of those things for the type of flying we were about to do. I only got more nervous when I saw the instrument panel, with about 4 gauges total. I would soon learn to love this simplicity.

The next 45 minutes are among the best in my logbook. I learned how to hand-prop an airplane (do it slowly and carefully), how to communicate in an airplane without a headset (shoulder taps and hand signals work) and how to taxi when you can’t see anything (stick your head out the window). Most enjoyably, we visited runways I had flown over numerous times during my regular lessons, but I didn’t know existed. Many of them barely qualified as runways, nestled between rows of corn in farmers’ fields, but they were comfortable for the Cub. More than once, I thought we were making an emergency landing, only to watch the instructor turn at the last minute and put down on a hidden, 1000 ft. runway.

It was an eye-opening event for me. Low and slow really could be fun, I learned, and the Cub had a lot going for it. I decided I needed to fly a Cub more often.

Legend Cub

The Legend Cub is one of the bestselling LSAs, proving how timeless the Cub design is.

But for a variety of reasons, it didn’t happen and I went years without sitting in a Cub again. I began to fly a Citabria a lot, and I told myself that was the same as a Cub–after all, it was a fabric-covered taildragger. In reality, it’s not the same at all, and recent events have proven how wrong I am.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to get reintroduced to the Cub, in the form of the Legend Cub (Sporty’s sweepstakes airplane next year). This modern version of the Cub packs all the fun of the original, but fixes some shortcomings (and yes, the Cub has some). The fuel is in the wings now, allowing you to fly from the front seat, the doors open on both sides and a 100hp Continental engine offers a lot more power than the original.

In spite of these modern conveniences, the Legend Cub is still very much a Cub. On my first flight in the new airplane, I was instantly transported back to that summer day at Waynesville. The cruise speed was still slow, the takeoff roll was short and the views still incredible. I’ve since spent many memorable mornings at a local grass strip with this Cub. And while I love that Citabria, there’s something unique about the Cub.

Cub fever really hit when I began to re-read Flight of Passage, Rinker Buck’s classic book about he and his brother (both teenagers) flying their rebuilt Cub from New Jersey to California in 1966. It’s surely one of the classic books about flying: emotional but not sappy, technical but accessible to non-pilots. As I’ve re-read the book with more Cub time in my logbook, it’s obvious that this could only happen with a Cub. While the relationship between the two brothers is the key theme, the story wouldn’t be worth telling if the airplane hadn’t been a Cub. Can you imagine two teens rebuilding a Cirrus?

Whether it’s an old school grass strip, a new LSA or a great book, the Cub is a constant in the turbulent world of general aviation. It’s still what most non-pilots think of when they see a small plane. And it’s not just nostalgia–75 years after it was born, the Cub is still a bestseller, leading the pack of Light Sport Aircraft in sales. It’s truly timeless.

Piper Cub panel

It’s not much, but the Cub panel has all you need.

So what is it about the Cub that makes it universally appealing? Simplicity is certainly part of it. Like an old car, almost anyone can work on one, and when it comes to flying it checklists are almost a luxury. It’s as close to an everyman airplane as we’ll ever have. But it’s also honest. The Cub isn’t the fastest or the best-looking airplane, but it’s not trying to be. It does one thing (fun) and it does it well, never trying to fulfill multiple missions. It’s an airplane you can get to know, but one that keeps you on your toes.

There’s a lesson here for most of us: when it comes to pure fun, less really is more. Don’t get me wrong: if I’m headed to New York IFR, I want as many bells and whistles as I can get. But for recreational flying, which is what many private pilots do, the Cub proves that you can have more fun with less equipment–even in 2012.

So next time you’re flying for fun, whether it’s a Cub or a Cherokee, turn off the GPS, open the window and pull the throttle back–there’s no reason to hurry when you’re not going anywhere.

17 Comments

  1. William Joss says:

    Great article – only thing mising was acknowledgement that the Aeronca 7AC Champ is just a little bit nicer than the Cub.

  2. Steve Phoenix says:

    As a society we have a tendency to consider that anything more than about 7 years old (probably comes from electronic gizmo lifetimes) is technologically out of date and therefore unworthy of consideration. But a violin is a pretty old device and still considered useful, so why not a Cub for the next 1000 years? It has the right qualities of usefulness and durability.

  3. Darren Lutz says:

    Cubs are great i own one and let me tell you if these aircraft could train WW2 pilots and will teach you how to fly but you cant beat the feel of a aircraft that will teach the true meanning of flight go out and try one you will get hooked!!!

  4. Steve says:

    Awesome article. As someone who learned to fly at Stewart four yeas ago and still frequently logs time in their J-3s, I know I’m a bit biased… but it’s a wonderful place. There isn’t much better than a Cub flying low and slow with the door open – the view, a little toilet paper cutting, you name it. We’re lucky to have it here in SW Ohio!

  5. Hugh says:

    I fly with Tim Preston and his J-3; of Preston Aviation in Winter Haven FL whenever I make my yearly visit to see Mom in Dunedin. I missed last year because I flew down & missed the drive by. The airplane is everything you say it is and it’s on the top of my ownership list. If you liked Bucks book (which I believe started in Salisbury Airport in Connecticut; you’ll love “Coast to Coast in a Cub by Ed Byars” ; I couldn’t put it down. If you can’t find one online write to Ed at his private airport; Ed Byars, Eagle Ridge SC24, Rudder Ridge, Seneca, SC 29678. One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met and I’m sure he’d be glad to sell you one.

    • Bill says:

      Actually, the Buck brothers re-built their Cub at Basking Ridge NJ, and started their flight from there…

  6. Jim says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. I got to fly the wonderful J-3 about 6 years ago as a newly minted private pilot. Went over to Raleigh East (which was basically closed at the time) and found a bunch of little taildraggers, and a great pilot who knew how to have fun. Low and slow, window open, taking pictures of chalk drawings the owners daughter had made in a parking lot, watching a softball game, doing hammerheads… Long story short, 1000 hours and many airplanes later, still easily the very best flight EVER! Love to own one.

  7. Terry Airplanebarn says:

    Pick a Sunny Day , get a Cub Ride or Dual . Tail is up quick , roll up to speed , pull back . Slow climb with lots of wind noise . You HAVE TO have the Door open . Smell the smells , REALLY feel the plane.You will smile and laugh . THIS is Fun Flying !! See the Country from a new perspective . Slip it in on the approach , come to a stop with out brakes . You GOTTA do it again !!
    I got my Tail Wheel endorsement at Red Stewart Airfield . My BEST EVER times in an airplane . Green Grass and Yellow airplanes . It doesn’t get any better !

  8. LEAH COADY says:

    After first introduction to a J-3 in 1939–yes I’m now 85–I still shake with pleasure remembering feel of stick and rudder pedals, working on assembly line at Piper and subsequent cross-country deliveries. It is going to happen again!

    • Terry Airplanebarn says:

      Leah .. soooo Great to hear about Your Work ! I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to hear MORE about YOUR experiences !!

  9. Jim Carter says:

    My introduction to low and slow didn’t happen with a cub but a Taylor Craft. Very similar to JOhn. No Gas guage but a wire that told you how much fuel was left by how high in the air the wire was. No radios if you got lost you could alway fly around a water tower and read the name of the town. Hand prop and have a chock in front of the wheel with a rope attached that allowed you to pull it loose after you got in the plane. Lots of good memories. All happened in Larchwood, Iowa with Russ Zanger helping me get it on the ground.

  10. Bob Brewer says:

    Like thousands of others, my first solo was in a J-3….Got re-acquainted with the little beauty when stationed at NAS Sanford, Florida
    in the mid 60′s…the base flying club had two.

  11. Eric Schlanser says:

    There is another Piper Cub that is every bit as much fun. Piper called it a PiperCub Vagabond. It was built in 1948 out of leftover J-3 parts and saved the company from bankruptcy. It is designated PA-15 or PA-17 depending on what engine it came out of the factory with. Most have been upgraded to at least the PA-17 configuration. It is a side by side Cub with a six foot shorter wing and was the first “shortwing” Piper. The short wing helps it achieve a 100mph cruise speed if you absolutely, positively have to travel somewhere. I flew mine today and could not get a full stall at full power although I had the nose hgher than 30 degrees (don’t tell the FAA). I have an 85 hp version with 1100lb gross weight/750lb empty wt. Oh, it has control sticks, of course, silly. My wife hates tandem seating and I prefer the front seat so this is better for us. $25 per hour direct operating costs help keep me flying (auto gas).

  12. Bud Coward says:

    What a great article! Lane Wallace Paine mentioned it in her article, “Should Jet Pilots Fly Cubs” in the latest EAA Sport Aviation magazine. She is “right on!”
    The Cub has been a part of my flying career for 50 years. My father and I bought one in 1970 and has been part of my family ever since. It is a thrill every time I fly it, and I learn something new each time!

  13. Nosmo King says:

    There is nothing like a Cub. It made aviation available to the general public, and if there is to be a rebirth of general aviation in the US, then it will be the Cub or planes much like it that will make it happen.

  14. Richard Warner says:

    Don’t forget the PA-11. 17 gallons of gas in the left wing, cowled engine, and fly it from the front seat and those braces that run down from each corner of the instrument panel to between the rudder pedals are gone. Same airplane as a J-3. In fact its so much the same, it has the same type certificate number. I’ve owned 5 Cubs including one on floats.

  15. Alexei Tsekoun says:

    I learned tailwheel in a Cub, and since then I’ve flown Cubs on wheels, skis, and floats – the only type in which I managed to do that. It’s still one of my two favorite airplanes to fly (the other one being the Stearman), and I’m sure it always will be.

    John raises a very interesting question about the Citabria. I also have a fair number of hours in Citabrias and Decathlons, really enjoy flying them, and… It’s not the same. So, what is it that makes Citabrias, and most other airplanes, … Well, not a Cub?