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May 31, 2002

Jim Richmond Brings Back
Piper Cubs, Irks Old Maker

By J. LYNN LUNSFORD

YAKIMA, Wash. -- In 1994, the future looked bleak for the Piper Super Cub, a fabric-skinned two-seat puddle jumper with a cult-like following among pilots.

Amid a wave of liability lawsuits that sent the entire light-plane industry into a crisis, the Cub's maker went out of business. The company that re-emerged, New Piper Aircraft Inc., said it couldn't get insurance if it resumed building the airplane that had made Piper's name synonymous with grassroots aviation since the 1930s.

The news devastated thousands of loyal Cub pilots, many of whom still consider the rugged little airplane -- with no fancy electronic gear and the ability to reach tight backwoods spots -- the closest thing to pure flying. "It was like the end of an era in aviation had come, only nobody thought to ask the thousands of Cub pilots out there what they thought about it," says Jim Richmond, a longtime Cub zealot.

Today, the Cubs are back, thanks to a new Super Cub clone that is delighting pilots and setting off a protest at New Piper. The single-engine planes have a new name -- Top Cub -- and a new maker, Mr. Richmond's Cub Crafters Inc. Over the last three years, the company has sold about 50 of the planes to law-enforcement agencies, weekend adventurers and other aviators. Cub Crafters is planning to introduce a version of the original, smaller J-3 Cub next year in hopes of capitalizing on the recent creation of a new federal sport-pilot license.

[Image of Top Cub aircraft]

But New Piper is lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration to force Mr. Richmond to stop making the new planes and stick to restoring old ones. New Piper says it has no plans to ever make the planes again, but it is concerned that it will be seen as having "deep pockets" and get drawn into potential lawsuits involving Cub Crafters planes. "We think there are huge safety and liability issues here," says Mark Miller, a New Piper spokesman.

The FAA has so far sided with Mr. Richmond, approving the Top Cubs under a regulation that allows anybody to build any civilian aircraft, as long as it meets the original design. "They are really great airplanes to fly," says Tom Archer, an FAA pilot whose flight-test group in Seattle flies and signs off on each Cub Crafters plane before it can be delivered.

One recent afternoon, Mr. Richmond eased back on the throttle of a Top Cub and slowly descended toward a tree-lined clearing beside a rushing mountain stream about 20 miles outside Yakima.

The field seemed alarmingly small, and there wasn't a hint of pavement for miles. But the 48-year-old pilot gently nudged the control stick to fend off a gusty spring wind, and the plane touched down with a hiss as its balloon-like tires cut a path through the grass. It came to a smooth stop in about two-thirds the length of a football field. There was even room for him to take off again without turning around. "You can't do this in your average airplane," he says.

Cub Fans

Generations of pilots have learned to fly in Cubs, and a legion of fans keep thousands of them in the air. One of the earliest models hangs from the ceiling in the foyer of the FAA's headquarters in Washington.

The original J-3 Cub, which had a wooden propeller and cruised at only 75 mph, sold for about $1,250. Between 1937 and 1947, Piper turned out 20,000 of the distinctive yellow airplanes with black stripes. They've been used as trainers, crop dusters and even military reconnaissance during World War II. The Super Cub, a beefed-up version of the J-3, entered production in 1949 and was finally discontinued for good in 1995 after a run of 7,750 airplanes.

Today, as many as a third of the original airplanes are kept flying by dedicated owners, many of whom still have the airplanes their parents and grandparents learned to fly in. They are most often flown during warm weather with the distinctive clamshell door on the right side latched open for an unobstructed view of the passing countryside.

"I have given hundreds of first-time airplane rides in my Cub over the years," says Steve Krog, an advertising executive from Hartford, Wis., who publishes a newsletter called Cub Clues that circulates to about 3,000 owners of older Cubs. Mr. Krog, 54, and his wife, Sharon, 48, each have their own Cub, which they plan to fly together later this month to an annual gathering at Piper Field in Lock Haven, Pa., the birthplace of the Cub.

Executives at New Piper say they are "heartened" by the dedication of pilots such as the Krogs and others who keep the old planes flying, but they compared the Cub to the Ford Model T. "Ford traces its heritage to the Model T, but the company eventually made other cars. Piper moved on to newer and safer airplanes," says Mr. Miller, the company's spokesman.

In his continuing battle with New Piper, Mr. Richmond says he has offered to pay royalties, or even to buy the airplane's design certificate from the Vero Beach, Fla., airplane manufacturer, but his overtures have been largely ignored. New Piper, which makes higher-performance single-engine planes, contends that the Super Cub no longer meets modern crashworthiness standards. The planes can also be tricky to fly, especially for inexperienced pilots.

Like other small makers of single-engine aircraft, Cub Crafters doesn't carry liability insurance. Mr. Richmond says the premiums would have equaled about 40% of his gross sales last year of $6.5 million. "There's not that much profit in this business, so we live with the risk," he says.

Customers can still buy their own insurance, but if something goes wrong, they won't be able to get much from Cub Crafters in a lawsuit. The company, which has never been sued, has very little in the way of assets. "It's just part of being in aviation," Mr. Richmond says.

FAA officials in Washington say they are looking into Piper's complaint, but they reaffirmed that what Mr. Richmond is doing is clearly permitted under FAA rules.

New and Improved

Mr. Richmond says Cub Crafters' airplanes are safer than the original Pipers. The airplanes retain their steel-tube fuselages, covered by tightly stretched fabric. But they now have better seat belts, stronger landing gear, a more-powerful engine and a baggage compartment large enough to double as a sleeping berth on camping trips in the wild.

The company's two-seat planes sell for between $145,000 and $200,000, slightly less than entry-level four-seaters made by other manufacturers. They can leap off the ground in 150 feet and land in even shorter distances than that, compared with up to 600 feet for other airplanes their size. "They climb like homesick angels," says Dick Hamlin, 66, of Ketchikan, Alaska. His new Cub is equipped for landing on water to help him keep an aerial estimate of the salmon population in Alaska's streams for the state government.

Tom Gimple, 40, chairman of Tickets.com of Costa Mesa, Calif., left for his summer home in Alaska last month in a shiny red and white Top Cub. Though he also has a Cessna 185 and a Bell Jet-Ranger helicopter, the Cub is his primary transportation to remote fishing streams and hunting camps. "Unlike the other aircraft I own, I bought this one to be a part of the family," he says. He plans to let his 13- and 15-year-old daughters learn to fly in it when they turn 16.

A key reason Piper stopped producing Cubs is that they are notoriously difficult to land. Unlike most newer planes, which have three wheels near their nose, Cubs are so-called tail draggers -- with a swiveling third wheel located beneath the tail. Almost every tail-dragger pilot has faced a phenomenon known as a ground loop, in which the airplane veers out of control after being caught by winds blowing across the runway. "You can get yourself into trouble if you don't pay attention, but that's also one reason why pilots with tail-wheel experience tend to be better aviators," said Sid Fisher, a veteran flight instructor from Arlington, Texas.

Retired pilot Manton Fain, 77, of Dallas first soloed in a Cub in 1942 and retired 50 years later from the cockpit of the supersonic Concorde. His favorite plane of all was his Cub. "If you can fly a Cub, you can fly the Concorde, but the reverse is not necessarily true," he said.

© 1997-2002 by J. Lynn Lunsford and The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.