*My father apparently wrote this little eulogy for the Piper Cub after his own Cub was wrecked on the last day of 1962. I don’t know if he ever submitted it to a magzine for publication. My mother came across it as a hand-written manuscript among his things after he passed away in 2003.
A Lament for the Cub
There’s Nothing Like a J3
If you like to fly – fly a Cub! That’s my opinion, leastwise. There’s nothing which makes me feel better or more relaxed than a few hours of pooping around at 1,000 feet in a good old J3.
Now to all of you hot pilots this may sound like some 40-hour pilot’s way of bragging, or maybe some guy who just never got a ride in a Bonanza, Cessna or Commander – some guy who’s flown in a J3 only and thinks he’s a real pilot.
Well to you who think J3 is something for beginners to learn on, I feel sorry for you. I’ll take a J3 for pleasure flying over any of these electronic sardine cans any day. Oh, don’t misunderstand me – they are real good airplanes if you happen to need one for traveling and have the money to put into them. But for fun, I’ll take the Cub.
Way back in 1937 [at the age of 14 or 15] when I was learning to fly in a Kinner Fairchild biplane, some guy landed at the old Nelson Airport [in Franklin Lakes, NJ] in a little yellow Cub. Now, we didn’t know exactly what it was then, but we soon found out it was a J2 Piper Cub. I think it had 40 horsepower in a neat little four cylinder opposed engine. All us hot pilots of the day sort of looked down our noses at this little insignificant airplane sitting there by the big Fairchild and the OX [-engined] Travel Air. And that engine – well, there was nothing to it! My gosh, look at the size of the Kinner and that OX-5! Now there’s an airplane engine! But the engine they had in the Cub – well, I didn’t think it would pull it, let alone fly it.
But it did – and it was only a few months later that I was flying one. It sure was slow, and you couldn’t do a darn thing with it except loops, spins, lazy eights, chandelles, split-Ss, and if you were real careful, you could get one through a barrel roll. But no snaps or slow rolls. No negative stress could safely be put on those wings. So I went back to a real airplane – the Kinner Fairchild. Now here was a hot pilot’s airplane! Of course, I always wore a ‘chute in this thing because it was old, and people just weren’t as careful with repairs and inspections then, and there were a lot of flying wires and struts and fittings that could fail on a biplane.
And much to my horror, they did fail one fine day - going downhill a bit too fast after a choppy maneuver of some kind, I pulled up only to see the top wing tear away and disappear behind me! Now I’d find out if these parachutes really worked. (As you can tell, it did.) But the ‘chute had not been adjusted to fit me. Now, if you can just imagine the sensation of plunging toward earth and feeling the ‘chute harness sliding around your body, then the shock as the ‘chute opens and those big straps that have been hanging around your knees come up into your crotch and the chest buckle hits you in the mouth… man, I’ll tell you, that’s a sensation you don’t forget! When you’re hanging in a ‘chute and you can’t bend over and hold your belly, you just hang there and try to breath.
After that I was a bit timid about flying again. You know, maybe these airplanes aren’t safe after all. At any rate, I was convinced by someone that I should go up again so I wouldn’t lose my nerve. So I found myself in a J3 taxiing out to take off.
Now, everybody knows enough to turn on the gas before taking off. Everybody except me, that day in particular. I was still scared from that last ride and wasn’t thinking at all clearly as I shoved the throttle to its stop and went bouncing across the turf. The Cub came off and started to climb over the edge of the field when the engine died. Well! I almost died right along with it! I couldn’t have been more than 50 to 75 feet up and climbing. With any other airplane a straight-ahead crash landing would have been a certainty. But to my utter amazement, when I popped the stick to get the Cub’s nose down to maintain flying speed, that was what we were doing – flying! I had time to pick a spot, turn and slip a little to get in to land and stop with no sweat or damage.
My first lesson in why a J3 is fun to fly had just been completed.
As the next few years rolled around I got a commercial ticket and was flying for a charter service. This outfit had a Stinson SR-7A and a Waco “C” cabin job. I mean, I was a big wheel! These guys flying around in their Cubs were just playing at flying. I’d roll by, them with their girlfriends in the back seat of the Cub, and gun the big radial engine to make sure they knew there was a real airplane around, then wheel around and take my time checking mags, prop and making the whole procedure look as complicated as possible, then turn and take off in a swirl of dust and climb up and be well on my way before the guy and his girl in the Cub got airborne. Boy, I really showed them! But you know, I don’t think they ever even noticed – at least the girl didn’t.
It was just a short time after this happened that I fell in love – with a girl, this time – and after properly impressing her with my skill and daring as a pilot of big, fast airplanes, I decided to take her for a real airplane ride. So I asked my boss to loan me the Stinson for an hour or so to take my girl for a ride. “Sure,” he says, “You put the gas in it and have fun!”
“Well, now, wait a minute,” I thought. I fly that thing quite a bit. I know how much that big radial up front burns each hour. Heck, I could rent the Cub for two hours for what that engine would burn in just one hour. So rent the J3 I did.
Lesson 2 was learned about the J3’s advantages.
World War Two came along about now, and of course, I was going to enlist as a fighter pilot. After all, I’d flown just about everything that I could borrow or rent, from a Heath Parasol to a Spartan Executive. The Air Force had a different view, however, so I went into the Army Air Forces cadet training program. Well, soon I’d get in a real airplane, then the Air Force would know they had a pilot with them and not just another cadet.
After much marching and fooling around, I went to a College Training Det., and there we got our first taste of flying. Yep – ten hours in a J3! Well, there was always the weekends to rent a real airplane and do some flying. So one cold spring Saturday, I was out at the same airport where we were getting our ten hours dual, trying to rent something besides a J3. I finally managed to talk some nice guy into renting me his “Culver” for five dollars per hour, but he wanted to go around with me first, That was good sense on his part, so off we went. Everything seemed to suit him, so we landed and taxied up to the office where my buddy was waiting. The owner got out and my buddy got in, and away we went. We really had a ball for an hour or so. Then we came in to land. I tried to crank the gear down, but they wouldn’t move! I tried to get them unstuck with a few quick pullouts for added “Gs” while at the same time putting some pressure on the crank, but that didn’t work either.
I bellied it in to a very nice landing, considering. I cut the engine and the prop stopped horizontally for me, and I really didn’t do much damage to the airplane. But that didn’t make the nice guy who owned it feel any better. It seems that I had taxied through some mud - some nice, juicy mud – which froze the gear fast at high altitude.
From then on, I rented a J3 on my time off.
Time passed, and soon I was flying P-40s down [Corsicana] Texas way. Now I was really flying an airplane! But for some reason, it was getting to be work. Sure, I could scream through the sky, zoom to any altitude. I could roll all I wanted to. I could do darn near any maneuver you could think of – buzz close to the deck at close to 400 MPH (out of a dive), and zoom and roll to seven or eight thousand feet. But I couldn’t relax and enjoy it. There was plenty to do in that cockpit. That big inline engine had lots of torque, and for any changes in airspeed you had to crank in some trim. Stand the P-40 up on a wingtip, suck back on the stick and you went into a high speed stall which flipped you over real quick.
So again, on weekends, I’d be at the local airport flying a J3, and really having a good time seeing the countryside – which I couldn’t see from a P-40 nearly as well.
Then came P-39 transition and gunnery, and finally P-47 transition school and gunnery. Then I became a sub-depot test pilot. Yes, I was flying them all now, even a few twins and multi jobs – P-38s, P-40s, P-39s, P-47s, Douglas Dauntlesses, B-25s, A-20s, Beechcrafts, UC-78s [Cessna Bobcat] – they could all be found in my log book now. Even C-47s, C-46s and B-17s were in the book. But in between these entries of high horsepower you can find “Piper J3, 65HP, Local, Pleasure.”
Eventually, I went to the Pacific, into combat [with the 318th Fighter Group]. Here I had all the good, reliable fighters – P-47Ds, P-40Fs, P-38Js and P-51Ds. Yes, we had them all, but they were beat – and so were all us pilots. And not a J3 around!
Not until I got to Ie Shima did I spot a J3. They called it an L-4, but it was a J3 to me. It took some doing, but I got to fly the mail back and forth with that L-4 when I wasn’t on a combat flight or on alert.
Every time I took off in that Cub I felt good. It would jump into the air and be flying in a few minutes after I got in it. It was light and responsive. Nothing to do but hold the controls and enjoy the freshness of the air at 1,000 feet. What a wonderful difference between the L-4 and the P-47N that I was fighting with. Every takeoff with the “Jug” was a hairy panic. The time in the air was fully occupied with adjustments to the engine, controls, radio and gas tanks. We were usually up around 20,000 to 25,000 feet on oxygen, so the oxygen system required your continuous inspection (plus watching for bogies and staying in formation).
Most of the pilots in my squadron thought I was some kind of nut to risk my neck in that L-4. To them it just wasn’t safe!
The L-4 and I had our day, however.
One of the big wheels from the group was coming home from a mission when he got jumped by a bunch of enemy fighters. Unfortunately for him, he was caught off guard and got clobbered. He managed to crash land his P-47N on a small atol about 65 miles from Ie Shima. He got a radio message off, and we all knew where he was, but so did the Japs. It so happened that the Air Force, Navy and Air-Sea Rescue were all unable to get to him and pick him up before the enemy got to him. All the PBYs were too far away, neither the Navy nor Air-Sea Rescue had any ships in the area, and the Air Force had nothing that could land there on that little strip of coral sand. So all the Colonel could do was wait for the enemy to get there and hope that the few fighters that were circling around could stay long enough to keep the enemy away until the Navy could get a ship to him.
I took off in the L-4 and pointed its 65 horsepower nose out over the China Sea in the general direction of the atol that the Colonel was on. Never did I hear an engine sound so bad! I swear that it was coming apart any minute. But it kept right on putting out its 65 HP, and about 45 minutes later I saw the atol in front of me. The fighters had gone and one Jap ship was putting a small boat in the water to go in and get the Colonel. I looked the atol over quickly and decided to put the L-4 down on the only piece of near-level beach I could see – the same one the Colonel’s P-47 was piled up on. There wasn’t much room or much time, but then the L-4 didn’t need much of either. I dumped it down on the rough beach and the Colonel came running over and got in. I turned around and taxied as far back as possible, spun around, and amid small arms fire from the approaching boat, fed that mighty 65 horsepower all the throttle I had. We bounced along at an agonizingly slow pace, but there was a good wind coming off the sea, and with several inches to spare, the L-4 was off and flying.
Now the larger enemy ship out there started pumping some big stuff our way. But fortunately they were leading us far too much. I ducked around the atol at about ten feet altitude and picked up a course that would take us home. Now and then a shell would send up a spray of water that would rock the L-4 and soak the engine, but it kept going, and so did we.
We landed on Ie Shima about 50 minutes later, not on a runway but on a short taxi strip right by the revetment that the L-4 was kept in.
You know, everybody on that island was waiting for that L-4 to land. Yessir, they looked at it, touched it almost with reverence, as though all of a sudden, it had become something special, a thing apart from all the other airplanes on that island. The L-4 was always clean after that, and the crew chief walked around with his head held high. But you know, some Major decided to fly the mail with the L-4 every day after that. No, I wasn’t allowed to fly it any more. It was too valuable to trust to a fighter jockey.
After the war was over, I was a test pilot for while flying jet fighters and flying for an air freight line, renting a 120 or Stinson 165 for pleasure flying. But the thrill wasn’t there – the utter relaxation I used to feel just loafing around the sky with the side windows open; the sense of security of a simple engine and controls; the easy response of the really light airplane, and sense of security of knowing that no matter what happens - short of pulling a wing off - you can get it on the ground and walk away from it.
I was flying for an aerial photography outfit up to January 1963. This company specialized in low altitude portraits of swimming pools, homes, farms and commercial properties. We tried many airplanes, but bought a 1940 60 horsepower J3. We flew that airplane for four years every day the weather was right for pictures, carrying a max load always. That old Franklin 60 never let us down, nor did the J3 ever fail to climb out of some tight place that I had to put it for a picture.
We went under our share of wires and between our share of trees, but it was a 100MPH wind storm that got the J3. It’s really mangled, but being repaired as I can afford it.
It will fly again and with me at the controls. The big wheels in their hot tin cans will look at it and feel sorry for me. But it’s them that I’ll be feeling sorry for, flying their little to-and-from needle from one omni station to another, up at eight or nine thousand feet, worrying about that darn autopilot and the spot that some guy got on the upholstery. Or maybe that prop isn’t working just right today, the RPMs seem to be varying a bit. Maybe it’s the gyros – they seem to be drifting. Well, that all can be fixed for a few hundred bucks!
Yessir, I’ll be feeling sorry for them! I don’t need omni to go anywhere, or gyros, or any of that stuff. If the weather’s bad, I stay on the ground, and dead-reckoning will get me anywhere I want to go. I’ll be flying and enjoying every minute of it, from my $5 gas bill to dropping in at a friend’s farm for the afternoon.
Yessir, I’ll take the J3. Wish Mr. Piper would build me a brand new one some day.
Sadly, my father never did scrape enough money together to repair the Cub, and of course, could never afford another plane. He managed to get airborne a few more times in the 60s and 70s, and always held the hope that he might own another plane some day. But alas, it was not to be. He spent his golden years on the ground with Mom, shuttling back and forth between their log cabin in the mountains of New York and a their favorite RV park in Florida. The wanderlust never left him, but he substituted a motor home for the Cub.