Now Comes Theodora

What's a Piper Cub?

When I was growing up in the 1940s, "Cub" was a generic term for lightplane. I suspect that a lot of people still think so. So for openers, let me say that a Cub must have been built by the Piper Aircraft Company, or by its predecessor, the Taylor Aircraft Company--or by its successor, the New Piper Aircraft Company, or by somebody authorized to build what are essentially reproductions of the Piper Cub.

Beyond that, things get more complicated.

The Taylor Cubs

The Cub name was first used for the Taylor E-2. The company built a few hundred of these and improved designs before it came up with the J-2 "New Cub," which coincidentally was designed by Walter Jamouneau while Mr. Taylor was on sick leave. (When he came back to work, he was so incensed that somebody had presumed to improve his product that he quit the company, leaving William Piper to pick up the pieces.) Altogether, about 1,400 Cubs were built by the Taylor company and its licensees in California, Canada, and Denmark. (For details, see Cub Production on this website.)

Mr. Piper's Cubs

The Piper Aircraft company built a few J-2s before tweaking the design into the classic J-3, manufactured from 1938 to 1947, to a total of about 20,000 aircraft including military liaison planes. (Note that the "J" had become the more important part of the company designation. Under Taylor, the letters advanced through the alphabet while the "2" remained constant, signifying that it was a two-seater. Now the "J" had become constant, perhaps as a tribute to Walter Jamouneau, while the number advanced to denote each new Piper design.) The J-3 was introduced in two models, the Cub Trainer and the Cub Sport, while the military version was called the Grasshopper.

Here's where it gets sticky. Also in 1938, Piper introduced a side-by-side model, the J-4 Cub Coupe, and in 1940 it came out with the J-5 Cub Cruiser, both of them with upright doors instead of a window that hinged up and a half-door that hinged down. Were they also Cubs? I think so, and Mr. Piper must have thought so, too, since he included "Cub" in the names of both aircraft. With the world at war, the company sold fewer than 3,000 copies of these aircraft, including the military version of the J-5.

After 1945, the Piper company lost its way. The postwar light-aircraft boom lasted less than two years, and Piper aircraft seemed a bit oldfashioned with their fabric covering, taildragger configuration, and hand-prop starting. The company attempted to cope by building variations of the tandem J-3 (which became the PA-11 Cub Special) and the side-by-side J-4 (which morphed into the PA-12 Super Cruiser and PA-14 Family Cruiser). Altogether, they sold about 4,500 copies.

In retrospect, it might seem that Piper made a terrible mistake in abandoning the classic J-3. But hey--I said the same thing about the Volkswagen Beetle, and my father said it about the Model "A" Ford. When they were phased out, these designs seemed like relics of an earlier time, while today they strike us as collectibles.

Three years after it stopped building J-3s, Piper introduced the PA-18 Super Cub. Obviously Mr. Piper regarded this as the perfection of the J-3--a tandem taildragger with fabric covering, but (eventually) with flaps and an electric starter. To a certain extent, buyers must have agreed with him, because the design sold 10,000 copies over the years, and it's still manufactured as the PA-18 "Top Cub" from Cub Crafters in Yakima, Washington. But it's priced in a different category. In 1946, you could buy a J-3 for $2,500, which equates to about $25,000 today. (Which, as a matter of interest, is just about what you'll pay for a 1946 J-3 in fair condition.) Alas, that isn't even a respectable down payment on a Top Cub, which is basically hand-crafted, and which must sell in a society dominated by trial lawyers. Don't expect to fly away a Top Cub for much under $150,000.

The non-Cubs

Okay, the planes above qualify as Cubs, in my judgment. I had a more difficult time with another line of Piper aircraft, those descending from the PA-15 Vagabond. There was no mystery about the Vagabond's purpose in life: it was designed to use up Piper's inventory of spare parts and raw materials, which meant that it had to sell for less than the basic Cub. Six feet were cut from the wingspan, and the aircraft got side-by-side seating to give it a more modern look. (Actually, it looked like hell, in my opinion.) It had rigid landing gear, so as to save the cost of bungee cords, and the court-appointed manager even refused to pay the cost of a stripe down the side. For all that, it sold fairly well. Counting all its descendants--the four-seat PA-16 Clipper, dual-control PA-17 Vagabond, upgraded PA-20 Pacer, and above all the tricycle-gear PA-22 Tri-Pacer, Caribbean, and Colt--it eventually sold as many planes as the Super Cub line.

Were they Cubs? I don't think so. The line started out with some significant differences, and it ended in an entirely different airplane, the stubby, side-by-side, tricycle-gear Colt. I took my first flying lessons in a Colt. I loved the plane (it was only later that I realized it had all the gliding qualities of a brick) but it wasn't until I flew a J-3 Cub that I understood what I had been missing all along.

But I'm open to argument. If you have any thoughts along this line, please send me email or post your thoughts on the message board. Thanks -- Dan Ford

The wannabes

I've flown the Aviat Husky, and it strikes me as an entirely different aircraft--Husky indeed! It's heavy, it's broad-shouldered, and though it may look like a Super Cub it flies like something else entirely. (Empty, a Husky A-1C weights almost as much as a Piper J-3 fully loaded: 1275 pounds.)

Much more to the point is the Legend Cub. Especially in the open-cowl version, for all purposes this plane is a Cub, though it owes more to the PA-11 than the J-3. It's a bit wider than the original Cubs, it has a port-side door (of interest mostly to seaplane pilots), and its has all the modern electrics and mandatory and optional electronics. I think this plane is a beauty, though priced at a level commensurate with three J-3s in good condition.

I haven't yet had a chance to fly Cubcrafters' Sport Cub--indeed, I haven't even seen one except in photographers. But it looks good. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Taildragger Tales

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