What you are
about to read sounded like a good idea at
the time: We figured we'd do a comparison of
the first and the last of the Piper Cub
line. What we didn't bargain for was that
there would be so much difference there
really wasn't any thing to compare.
Possibly what is most
noticeable and worth nothing is that the
time span between the two airplane designs
is only slightly over one decade and at
least half of that time was spent fighting a
There were gigantic
progressions in powerplant design and
airframe refinements that resulted in
tremendous performance increases. Have we
seen anything similar from the major
aircraft manufacturers in the past decade?
In the past several decades.
It makes you wonder.
First of the
Line: the Piper J-2 Cub
"Oh, man", I
heard myself say out loud, "Who's silly G--
d------d idea was it to compare a J-2 Cub to
a Super Cub!!"
I was just clearing the
end of the runway and had about 47 feet of
altitude. The trees were 45 feet tall. Maybe
Worse, yet, it was pretty
obvious the J-2 Cub I was desperately trying
to make climb by forcibly pulling up on the
stick, wasn't going to give me too much more
altitude. At least not soon enough to get me
over the 150 foot ridge that blocked my view
in all forward directions.
My mind was racing a mile
a minute, which is another way of saying I
was moving much faster than the J-2 was.
That was the only saving grace of my
situation...it was all happening in super
slow motion. That is, if you don't count my
heart and respiratory rates.
"The river! The river, is
it on this side of the ridge or the other?"
the logical part of my mind was screaming at
the illogical part, the part that put me in
this silly airplane in the first place.
I knew there was a river
out there somewhere, but since I was so
close to the trees that even small arms fire
wouldn't have been able to find me, I
couldn't see it. I knew if the river was on
this side of the ridge I could count on the
water being lower than the ridge. Actually,
I would be happy just to have it lower than
The Cub was flying okay
and showed no indications of sinking, but I
also knew if a herd of pigeons flew in front
of me, their downwash would put me right
into the trees. I glanced out at the
"airspeed indicator" the windvane gizmo on
the left strut. It had barely moved off the
stop and was hovering on the number 50. What
I kept the throttle
nailed to the stop and started pulling
forward on the rope that was the trim
system. I knew, intellectually, that the
rope went back and wrapped around a screw
jack that moved the horizontal stabilizer
like any other Cub. I was glad I didn't have
the crank type trim system of the later J-3
Cub. I don't think the J-2 would have been
able to carry the weight of the crank.
"Who's silly idea was
this, anyway?" Yeah, I know. It was mine,
but at that point, I was wondering whether
the river was going to show up and save my
butt or not, so placing blame seemed a
Suddenly, there it
was...the river. Yeah! I was saved! The
altitude gain of leaving the trees for the
water put me at a solid 75-100 feet and I
felt great! I was entering the river on a
fairly sharp bend, but at what I figured to
be 45-50 mph airspeed, making the turn
didn't present any problem.
The bridge that blocked
my path, after making turn...now that was
I suppose I should have
felt a little fear. But I didn't. For some
reason, although I expected that puny little
40 horse, flathead Continental A-40 to quit
clattering any second, I wasn't really
concerned. At that speed, I could put it
nose into the river bank and only have to
worry about my first line to Matt Burril,
the airplane's owner, after walking back to
the airport wringing wet.
How about, "Matt, I
decided I needed the exercise so I swam
back," or "Hey, did you know your airplane
you with the details, obviously I survived,
but not without flying for at least 6 miles
right in the middle of a very twisty river
to avoid the banks. Then, I realized I
didn't know where the airport was, because I
couldn't get high enough to see over the
Okay, so maybe I will
bore you with the details.
I had the navigational
problem back to the airport whipped. All I
had to do was turn around, no big deal,
since the river was widening into a lake and
at that speed I could turn on a dime. Then,
I'd just waddle back down to the bridge,
which was off the end of the runway and I
was home free.
As I was trundling along
in the middle of the river, being careful to
watch for wires and trees, I had time to
experiment with getting the airplane to
climb. It became obvious immediately after
takeoff that this was not an airplane that
took kindly to angle of attack changes. Not
any that could be measured, anyway. I'd try
squeaking the nose up and the rpm, all 2,400
of them (I never did bend my left elbow)
would start disappearing at an alarming
Eventually I found, if I
held what looked like a level attitude plus
a gnat's whisker (a very small gnat) the
airplane would levitate upwards at something
like, well, like...I don't know. I wasn't
concerned about measuring rate of climb,
since anything positive was a God send, as
far as I was concerned.
I was gauging my altitude
strictly by where the river banks
intersected my peripheral vision. For a
long, long time, there was no daylight
between the tops of the trees on the banks
and the bottom of the wings, so I really
didn't care what the non-sensitive altimeter
said. The smallest mark was 100 feet, and I
knew I didn't have that much because the
spruce altimeters under me said so.
Since I had lots of time
to evaluate my situation, I busied myself
picking out which boat I was going to ditch
next to. I even wondered if it made sense to
land on the tow rope of a skier. Nah! The
skier was moving so much faster than I would
be at touch down they'd run off and leave
me. I decided to point it right at the
closest boat and put the nose in the water
just ahead of its bow.
Just my luck, I'd
misjudge and sink the boat.
By the time I made it
back to the bridge (several lifetimes and an
eternity or two later) I had coaxed enough
altitude out of it that I was able to see
over the trees on the banks. Actually, I
sensed that I hadn't coaxed anything out of
it. I noticed that the closer I got to the
banks, there was some sort of weak thermal
that would lift the airplane slightly.
Okay, now that I was high
enough to actually see the runway, I aimed
for a dark field next to it. As soon as I
hit the field, the airplane actually began
to thermal upwards until, by the time I was
abeam the runway, I had probably 400 feet,
which at that point felt like I was high
enough to be in positive controlled
I think it was at that
point I finally replaced the breath I had
taken right after takeoff with a fresh one.
The landing was
anticlimatic. More or less. I knew the
airplane was going to slow down the second I
brought the nose up, so I just motored
around base and on to final with probably
3/4 throttle, keeping the nose down and the
speed (speed? Who's kidding whom? What
Over the end of the grass
runway I killed the power and flaired the
airplane, looking for the steepish three
point attitude I'd seen on takeoff. At that
point it was like any other Cub, only
The airplane rolled onto
the grass, taking only a slight, very
lethargic hop off the top of a hump in the
runway before slowing quickly. Then I heard
the sound of something rumpling and the
airplane slowly turned off heading, as it
came to a halt without me having to touch
anything. I didn't even have to turn my head
to know the left tire was flat.
It seemed like an apropos
ending for the flight.
Matt says flat tires are
a chronic problem with the airplane because
the low pressure tires and tube will slide
on the rim, which snips the valve stem off
What did I learn about
the J-2 and it's place as the progenitor of
a long line of enclosed Cubs (the E-2 was
actually first and was semi-open cockpit
since it had no windows)? For one thing, I
decided a comparison between it and the
Super Cub is ludicrous! What a dumb idea I
had. I flew the Super Cub the same afternoon
as the J-2 and it was like comparing a
Shelby Cobra to a '49 Buick Dyna-flow.
The second thing I
decided was that the most important thing to
happen to the Cub line, and probably light
aviation in general, was the invention of
the Continental A-65. The J-2 is a fine
flying airplane, if a little heavy on the
controls, but the average hair dryer puts
out more power than the A-40. No wonder Matt
says most of the J-2s built have been
wrecked at least once.
What a great airplane for
someplace like Nebraska. What a lousy
airplane to be flying where we were, on the
edge of the North Carolina mountains. Matt
has more faith in that airplane than I do.
When Piper went to the
J-3 model Cub, there were only minor
changes, like a different vertical
stabilizer, a real airspeed indicator and a
crank trim system. However, the most
important change was the engine. With 65
real horses, the airplane became a legend.
If the A-65 hadn't come
along, we'd all be wondering what ever
happened to that new fangled invention, the
airplane. And trivia cards would have the
question "Who was Bill Piper and what did he
Last of the Line: PA-18 Super Cub
Super Cub! What
a perfectly named machine. The ever popular,
always expensive Super Cub is just that...A
Cub on steroids.
Although there is the
misconception that the Super Cub is nothing
but a J-3 with an 0-320 in the nose, that is
a long ways from being the truth. But maybe
not that far.
The structure is
basically the same, as is the airfoil. And
they are both taildraggers. However, between
the J-2/3 and the PA-18, about a thousand
changes, ranging from nit picking details to
total concept changes, were made.
The steel tube fuselage,
for instance is much, much bigger than the
J-3, making both seats quite comfortable.
Also, the wing fittings on the earlier Cubs
join in a central truss right in the middle
of the cabin roof. This creates a blind spot
and cuts down head room for the front pilot.
The Super Cub wings hang on a set of
fittings which are welded to the outside of
the fuselage truss.
The big wing
has plenty of lift to begin with, but then
they hung a set of simple, hinged flaps on
it which cover about half their length. The
flaps are actuated by a lever on the pilot's
left. The pilot, by the way, sits up front
in the Super Cub, rather than in the rear as
in earlier Cubs.
Shortly after climbing
out of Matt Burril's J-2 Cub, Tom Hampton
from Charlotte offered me his newly restored
PA-18 as a comparison, which we knew didn't
really exist. Talk about being on opposite
ends of every extreme you can think of!
Tom had just gotten his
airplane totally restored by Dale Lunsford
at Shiftlet Field in Marion, North Carolina,
where we were doing our flying. Dale's shop
took the airplane down to its underwear and
brought it back up, replacing and
refinishing, as he went. The result is a ten
point airplane that's far nicer than it was
when it left the factory and nothing at all
like the blue collar Super Cubs we see up
north. This was sort of a gentleman's bush
plane: Capable of STOL operations, but
please don't take it anywhere dirty.
On saddling up in Tom's
airplane, I tossed the Arizona Redhead in
the back and headed for the front. Getting
in the back is a matter of standing on the
step and leaning most of the way into the
front seat before stepping inside to settle
into the back seat. The front seat requires
a few gymnastics, including standing on the
tire, sitting on the door sill and swinging
both feet inside.
Once inside, I had to glance around to
figure out where everything was, since I
hadn't flown one of those critters for 15
years or so. I had forgotten how much more
sophisticated they are than other Piper
products. The airplane actually has a master
switch and individual switches for the mags
along with circuit breakers and such. All
the electrical stuff is mounted in the
Looking around, I
hollered "clear", pushed the mixture in and
mashed the starter button. Instantly the 150
horses in the nose started waking up.
As I taxied out, I
glanced around and marvelled at the degree
of finish in the airplane. It's beautiful!
Even the floor boards are shiny, clear
On the ground, the
airplane handled as good as it looked. I
messed around doing a bunch of "S" turns
(totally unnecessary for visibility) to get
a feel of the tailwheel and found it to be
perfectly ratioed...it is neither too
sensitive nor too slow. It just does what
you ask it too.
I wanted to spend a
little time playing with different flap
settings and speeds in the airplane, so I
left the flaps up, checked the mags and
rolled out into the centre of Shiflet's
4,000 by 150 foot grass runway. What a
luxury, to have that much grass at your
finger tips! I'm seriously jealous.
Bringing the power up,
the airplane quickly gathered its wits about
itself and started getting with the program.
I immediately brought the tail up, but not
before noting where the nose was going to
have to be, when I came back to three-point
it. Even before bringing the tail up, I
could stretch and see clear over the nose.
Tom has installed a super fat, super soft
front seat cushion, so there is nothing that
can hide from him on the runway.
Once I had the tail up, I
had a C-172 type view of the runway and a
gentle nudge on the rudder kept things
square with the world. The runway had some
gentle bumps in it and, although the
oversized tires rolled right over them, I
could feel the tires trying to rebound and
pick the airplane up. They didn't, but they
felt that way.
I loaded the stick aft,
just a bit to keep a positive angle of
attack and, when it started skipping off the
tires I picked it up. Again, I could feel
the tires. Normally, the airplane would have
flown off smoothly by itself, but the tires
made me feel as if I should get it off the
ground a little sooner.
Once off the ground, I
let it accelerate to 65 mph as I was
bringing the nose up. What a change! We went
over the bridge that had loomed large in the
J-2's windshield with probably 500 feet to
Super Cubs feel like
tight J-3s. They aren't particularly heavy
on the controls, but the response is so much
better than a J-3's that it's easy to think
the controls are lighter, when they probably
Besides the fact that we
were climbing at about 800 fpm and I was
totally in control of the situation, the
most noticeable thing the PA-18 brought to
the Cub line is creature comfort. The
cockpit in any Super Cub is reasonably well
finished and the pilot is sitting up there
in a real seat where he can really see what
is going on. Considering that its primary
mission is getting in and out short, the
airplane is actually quite comfortable.
There is an optional high back fish spotters
seat a lot of guys install to make long
range running even more comfortable. There
are all sorts of tank options for the
airplane that can give it a ridiculous
range. By the way, there is no "both"
position on the fuel valve.
Since my passenger had never been through a
stall series, I didn't go up high enough to
try what I knew was a futile exercise. Super
Cubs are like the rest of the series...you
have to crowd it really hard to get the
stall to break. Otherwise it just mushes and
any relaxation of the stick gets it flying
immediately. With 150 hp, the Super Cub can
be flown at speeds that look to be under
stall, although that's probably not actually
the case because of airspeed error. However,
when the power is brought up, the airplane
will really hang in there. That's something
that makes it so useful to the bush guys who
want to drag it into a short strip.
I made the first landing
clean with about 65 mph on the clock. At
that speed, it felt as if I had a little too
much left in the flair, as it didn't want to
come down. When it did settle on, I had to
work to keep from kissing the big main tires
since they were so much bigger than stock
600 x 6s. They also have a lot more bounce.
On roll-out, it wanted to rebound off every
The roll-out was totally
uneventful with my feet being redundant to
the operation. What wind there was was
directly on the nose, so the airplane showed
no urge to do anything stupid.
This time, I dropped a
notch of flaps and went for a soft field
type of takeoff. Power up, I horsed the tail
off the ground as soon as possible and tried
to hold the tailwheel just off the grass for
a max angle of attack. The airplane waddled
into the air at something like 40 mph, and
actually got launched by the tires bounding
off a hump.
The airplane feel so
solid at almost any speed, I had to remember
to get the nose down and go for more speed
so we could climb.
On this landing I went
for half flaps and found that even the first
notch of flaps made an entirely different
airplane out of it. When clean, I had to
slip to get it to come down, with one notch,
the nose was low enough that we were coming
right on down. This time I used 60 as an
approach speed and it came down relatively
quickly, with no where near as much float.
On the last
landing, I used full flaps and 55 mph and
found I was close to running out of enough
elevator to flair it with. I bled too much
speed off too early and kissed off the
mains, giving myself a rather embarrassing
dribble down the runway.
I had forgotten how
enjoyable Super Cubs are to fly, but it only
takes a minute or two nosing through
Trade-a-Plane to know why I have no over
whelming urge to own one. Like the Cessna
180, this is a utility airplane that
absolutely never loses value. A small engine
PA-18, like 90 or 105 hp, will run in the
mid-$20,000 range. Skip over the 135 hp to
the 150 hp jobs and you immediately jump to
a minimum of $35,000 with many of the cream
puffs hitting $60,000 plus. And then there
are the modified 180 hp super Super Cubs!
Just name your price and there's a Cub at
It's pretty amazing to
think that a 40 year old, two-place, rag and
tube airplane can easily fetch $45,000!
That's because this is an airplane that can
and, in all likelihood, will work for a
living. So, its an investment. More
important, it's an investment that's a hell
of a lot of fun to fly.