Touching the Sky

Flying low and slow, a Piper J–3 Cub revives the roots of aviation
- by Lane Wallace

There's a lot to be said for the technical wizardry and advances that modern airplanes now employ. There are now small, single engine aircraft capable of flying almost 300 miles an hour. Most pilots now use global positioning system (GPS) receivers and electronic moving-map displays—developments that have transformed navigation from a complex mental challenge of interpreting various needle deflections and positions to a simple task of following a miniature airplane's progress across a color map. Pilots can even get real-time, graphic depictions of weather transmitted from ground stations directly into our cockpits. We have engine analyzers, terrain displays, onboard computers, and reliable autopilots that will even fly our airplanes for us on cross-country trips.

But we pay a price for all of this automated technology, a price that's exacted so slowly and insidiously that we may not even realize its impact until we wake up one day and realize we've lost something we once used to value.

"I don't fly for fun anymore," a pilot once confessed to me. "It's gotten boring."

Flying? Boring? What a thought!

"Maybe you're going about it the wrong way," I suggested. He looked perplexed. I asked how and what he usually flew. He answered that he had a high-performance twin-engine plane, and usually flew high to take advantage of the winds.

"So you're usually on an instrument flight plan?"

"Yes," he answered slowly.

"Do you use an autopilot?"

"Of course."

"Ah. Well, that's the problem," I said. "You're not flying. You're traveling—droning along, monitoring systems while the airplane flies and you wait to get wherever you're going. No wonder you're bored. What you need is..." I paused, trying to think about the best cure I could suggest for someone whose enjoyment of flight had gotten lost somewhere in the efficiency of technology, speed and automation.

"...what you need," I finally concluded, "is a Piper Cub."

The Piper J–3 Cub is, perhaps, the best-known and classic of all light airplanes. Designed as a low-cost primary trainer, it was such a success that more than 14,000 of them were produced and sold between 1937 and 1947. In contrast to the big, radial-engine powered biplanes that dominated the training market in the 1930s, the Cub was a masterpiece of clean, compact simplicity. It was small, weighing just more than 1,000 pounds fully loaded and fueled. It was inexpensive, selling for about a quarter of what other trainers cost. And it was, above all else, simple.

Compact simplicity: A Piper Cub flies over
Orcas Island, Washington.

Instead of heavily braced upper and lower wings, the Cub employed a single wing built of a light wood-and-metal structure covered in cotton fabric. For a fuel gauge, the Cub relied on a floating cork attached to a thick piece of wire that protruded up through the fuel cap on top of the engine cowling. As the fuel emptied, the cork simply rode lower in the fuel tank, showing less and less wire above the cowling. Instead of complex oleo struts, the Cub's landing gear used bungee cords to provide shock absorption. The system was simple, but the combination of the Cub's big tires, relatively wide gear and bungee cord shock absorbers made the Cub one of the easiest and softest-landing tailwheel airplanes ever built.

The Cub carried two people, one behind the other, and was so light that in order to keep the airplane's weight balanced, a pilot flying the plane solo had to sit in the back seat to keep his weight closer to the center of the airplane. While flying from the back made it a little more difficult to see the instruments, Cubs didn't have very many instruments to look at anyway.

The airplane also didn't have an electrical system, so Cub pilots had to hand-prop their planes in order to start the engine—a process rather like hand-cranking the engine of an old Model T Ford. Someone had to stand out front and spin the propeller while the pilot turned on the magnetos, held the brakes, and opened the throttle in the cockpit. If nobody else was around, Cub pilots would have to chock the wheels or tie down the tail of the airplane, crack the throttle just a little, and swing the prop themselves, scrambling to hop in the cockpit after unchocking or untying the airplane before it started to move forward.

"...a good portion of an entire generation of pilots experienced
their first solo flight in this gentle, yellow teacher-with-wings."

Although the system simplified the design of the airplane, there are myriad tales of pilots whose Cubs got away from them before they got inside, leading to a comical Keystone Cops-like chase of the runaway airplane. Sometimes, the Cubs would end up running into hangars or, on occasion, even take flight, sans pilot, before crash-landing in some near or distant field.

Part of the Cub's success was due to the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program, which was initiated by the United States government in 1939 as a way of preparing a group of pilots to be ready to join the military if the United States went to war. The program provided a new source of funding for flight training, but it required that the training be carried out in an aircraft with a tandem configuration. Both the Aeronca and Taylorcraft aircraft companies were building small, trainer aircraft at the time, but their models featured side-by-side seating; the Cub had front-and-back seating. Even though Aeronca and Taylorcraft developed tandem models, the Cub got the lion's share of the orders.

The Cub's slow speed, docile handling characteristics, and simple systems made it an extremely practical and popular trainer, and a good portion of an entire generation of pilots experienced their first solo flight in this gentle, yellow teacher-with-wings. As time went on, however, technology progressed and training aircraft improved. More gauges and instruments became available, toe brakes and electrical systems became standard aircraft features, and easier-landing tricycle-gear designs replaced tailwheel configurations. By the mid-1950s, the Cessna 150 began to dominate the training market, and the Cub should have retreated into the obscurity of Model T Fords and horse-drawn carriages.

But that's not what happened. The Cub was edged out of its role as a practical trainer. But like a woman released from the practical responsibility of motherhood to dance and play as she pleases, the airplane soon became a symbol for flying as pure and simple fun. For to fly a Cub is to leave all sense of practicality behind; to let go of thoughts of timeframes and speed, the impatience to "get there" or any notion of sensible transport. There are other more modern, well-equipped and efficient aircraft to fulfill those roles and carry those burdens now. To fly a Cub is to remember instead the simple joy of sensation and discard the trappings and noise of the fast-paced, productive world to run barefoot on a tropical beach, aware only of the feel of the soft sand between your toes, the spray of the water, the warmth of the sun, and the caress of the gentle ocean breeze against your face.

I first made this discovery at a small airport in southern Ohio, not long after I learned to fly. The airport itself was a delightful little haven of things old, worn, and cherished, still run by the same brothers who'd been building and flying airplanes there since the early 1930s. Tucked away inside the old wood and metal hangars was an astounding treasure-trove of beautiful biplanes and taildraggers that ranged from tiny little trainers to sleek cabin and military classics. And among those treasures was a beautifully-restored, golden yellow J–3 Cub.

Before World War II, many civilian pilots
learned to fly in the Piper J–3 Cub.

The first time I saw the Cub, it was sitting in the grass in front of the main hangar, its yellow fabric fuselage and wings gleaming brightly in the summer afternoon sun. I walked around it, admiring its clean, simple lines, the tiny black cylinders poking out of its form-fitting cowling, the beautifully laminated wooden propeller and the cartoon-like shape of its big, soft tires. This, I decided, was a friendly plane—small, simple, and somehow docile-looking enough that it seemed approachable and easy to fly even without knowing anything about it.

As I peered inside the cockpit, the pilot walked up behind me.

"Pretty simple, isn't it?" he said.

"It's beautiful!" I answered.

"We stayed low, skimming over treetops and fields that were vivid, alive,
and seemed almost close enough to touch outside the wide open door."

The pilot smiled. A pilot's love for an old airplane is a difficult thing to explain. The plane may be an award-winning showpiece or a tattered old friend. But there is something about the simple lines and grace of a machine crafted in a far-away time that speaks to something deep in the hearts of those who fly them. And to those pilots, anyone else who sees and understands that same inexplicable beauty is automatically a friend, even if they've just said hello.

"Have you ever flown in one?" the pilot asked.

I shook my head.

"Would you like to?"

He didn't have to ask twice. He showed me how to put my foot in the stirrup-step below the door, grab hold of the tube structure at the front of the cockpit, and swing myself through the door and into the front seat. I held the brakes while he hand-propped the plane and hopped into the back seat.

"It's pretty hot out, so if you don't mind, we'll just leave the door open," he said.

The Cub's door is, in my opinion, one of the aircraft's very best features. Instead of a standard door and window, the Cub has an unusual, hexagonal-shaped door that's split in half horizontally. The top half is a window, which can be flipped up flush against the underside of the wing and held there with a clip, even in flight. The bottom half of the door can also be flipped down, flush with the lower part of the fuselage, leaving a wide opening on the side of the airplane. Used primarily for entering and exiting the plane, this door and window combination can also provide a wonderful open-air experience in flight without all the riotous wind-in-your-face commotion and noise of an open-cockpit biplane.

In recent years, the Cub has become a symbol
for flying as pure and simple fun.

We rolled and bumped our way down the airport's grass runway as we gathered speed, lifting off gently as we edged up to 40 miles an hour. I slid open the window on my left, allowing even more air to flow past me as we banked to the right and headed away from the airport. We stayed low, skimming over treetops and fields that were vivid, alive, and seemed almost close enough to touch outside the wide open door. We crossed over some woodlands, then dropped down to follow the winding curves of a river, wagging our wings at a couple of kids waving to us from a river bluff as we passed. Kids waving at us! It's a heartwarming experience every pilot should have, and one impossible to find at faster speeds and higher altitudes. My grin dissolved into happy, silly laughter as we continued to cut and bank our way downstream. I leaned back and put my hand out into the slipstream, reveling in the sensation of the wind against my arm, the faint scent of the earth drifting up from below, and the graceful movement of this simple, lightweight dancer in the summer afternoon sky.

As we left the river for the farmland to the west, the pilot let me try flying the plane myself. I quickly discovered, to my delight, that without all the insulation, shock absorption, technology, and automatic systems of more modern or complex planes, a Cub lets a pilot really feel the sky—through both the wide open doorway and the flight controls themselves. The sky speaks in bumps, dips, waves, and nudges, the airplane reacts, and the pilot must answer in constant corrections of varying volume on controls that are as light as the plane. Left hand on the throttle, right hand on the stick, feet constantly moving on the rudder pedals, I found myself intimately connected with the plane and the sky in a living, moving, freeform choreography. And I soon became blissfully lost in the joy and sheer fun of it all.

"The plane's wonderful impracticality is what
makes it such a continuing favorite of pilots today."

There are all sorts of things that a Cub doesn't do well. It doesn't get anywhere fast, it's tough to fly in turbulence or land in a crosswind, and it won't carry much in the way of people or baggage. It can get up to eight or nine thousand feet, but it doesn't really belong there. Its magic is wrought closer to the ground, where its simplicity and slow speed allow a pilot to sit back, enjoy the flight, and actually see and appreciate the scenery as it passes by below.

The Piper J–3 Cub may have had very practical origins. But the plane's wonderful impracticality is what makes it such a continuing favorite of pilots today. In a world far too focused on goals, productivity, and fast-paced schedules, a Cub is a reminder of the beauty we miss by flying through our lives too fast. And for a pilot who's forgotten how much fun flying can really be, it can be a salve and remedy for the soul. For without the clutter of systems and technology, a Cub allows pilots to touch and remember the basic sensations and emotions that once drew them to the sky. If the Piper Cub is still beloved, it's because it reminds pilots again of the fun that can be found in going nowhere, the laughter that can be found in the feel of the wind flowing over an outstretched arm, the magic that can be found in a child's wave from a river bluff below, and the simple, breathtaking joy of being able to reach out through an open doorway and actually touch the sky.