December 13, 2022
Today in Microsoft Flight Simulator, I’m going to be flying – and telling the story of – one of the most important airplanes in the history of aviation: the Piper J-3 Cub.
The Piper Cub was designed in 1930 by Clarence G. Taylor. He and his brother Gordon formed Taylor Brothers Aircraft Corp. with the financial backing of a local Pennsylvania industrialism named William T. Piper.
Taylor’s idea was to build a simple, affordable airplane that would encourage more people to learn to fly.
The Cub had a 35-foot wingspan and was 22 feet long. The fuselage was made of tubular steel covered in fabric, and the wings were fabric-covered wood. It weighed a total of about 800 lbs. empty, 1,200 lbs. fully loaded.
Originally the Cub was powered by a 20-horsepower engine, but this proved underpowered, and it was upgraded to 40hp. This particular version, the J3C-65, has a four-cylinder 85hp engine.
The name of the first engine was the Brownback “Tiger Kitten”, from which the plane’s name, the Cub, playfully derives.
The Cub’s landing gear are fixed, and cushioned by bungee cords covered in leather.
The two pilots sit in tandem, one behind the other, which made the Cub ideal for training (student in front, instructor behind).
When flying solo, the pilot sits in the rear seat of the Cub, like this. You have to look over the seat in front of you to see the instruments, though you do have your own stick, throttle, and rudder pedals.
Here’s a closer look at the instrument panel. Just a tachometer (RPM), airspeed indicator, compass, altimeter, and oil pressure/temperature gauges. No artificial horizon or turn coordinator, so this is strictly for VFR.
The throttle is the black knob on the left. Not only is it a fixed pitch propeller, you don’t have a fuel/air mixture control, because presumably you won’t be flying high enough to need one! You control the throttle with your left hand and the stick with your right.
Sadly, the Taylor Brothers went bankrupt during the Great Depression. Piper, a businessman who no previous experience in aviation, bought a controlling stake in the company for $761, to keep it going.
That’s why I’m here at the William T. Piper Memorial Airport (KLHV) in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, where Piper relocated the factory.
Piper supported Taylor’s vision of popular aviation. He built a flight school next to the factory, and included lessons in the price of the airplane. Piper himself learned to fly at the age of 50.
The Cub’s standard factory paint job was chrome yellow, which came to known as Cub Yellow or Lock Haven Yellow.
Piper and Taylor eventually quarreled and parted ways. Taylor formed his own company, and Piper renamed the existing company after himself. Hence the Piper Cub.
Piper steadily made incremental improvements to the design. With a maximum cruise speed of 78 knots, it had a range of 191 nautical miles, and a ceiling of 11,500 feet. In 1938, a Piper Cub sold for $1,000.
What really changed things, however, was the approach of World War II. In 1938, the US government established the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), to train pilots for potential wartime needs.
The CPTP operated through flight schools and universities. Students received 72 hours of Ground School followed by 35-50 hours of flying hours. This curriculum became the foundation for private flight training to this day.
The program required these school to have one airplane for every 10 students, which meant buying a lot of new planes – most of them Piper Cubs.
By the time CPTP was phased out in 1944, the program had trained 435,000 new pilots. 75% of them – and 80% of all military pilots in World War II – did their initial flight training in a Piper Cub.
CPTP-trained pilots included African-Americans who went on to fight as part of the Tuskegee Airmen, and women who, as WASPs, served as ferry pilots to deliver and reposition aircraft.
Meanwhile, as the war approached, privately-owned Piper Cubs were being conscripted by the Civil Air Patrol to search offshore for German U-boats, like this one I’m flying off Cape May, New Jersey.
By the end of WW2, Civil Air Patrol pilots had flown over 500,000 mission hours. 90 aircraft were lost, and between as many as 64 CAP pilots were killed, including 26 lost while on coastal patrol.
The Piper Cub truly came into its own, however, as an artillery spotter and staff airplane near the front lines in Europe, where it was designated the L-4 Grasshopper.
Here’s an L-4 dubbed the “Elizabeth” preparing to take off from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, during Operation Torch, the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa.
The Elizabeth operated along the coast of Morocco during the invasion, near Casablanca and Rabat.
Here I am flying over the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. It wasn’t there at the time, since it was built in 1993, but so what?
The Elizabeth was flown by Lt. William Butler with observer Capt. Brenton Devol during Operation Torch.
General Eisenhower inspected the battlefield, here in Italy in 1943, in an L-4 Grasshopper.
But the most famous L-4 of all was flown by Lt. Col. Charles Carpenter, who was a 29-year old high school history teacher when he signed up to go to war.
In autumn of 1944, after the D-Day invasion, General Patton’s 3rd Army was driving hard into eastern France, crossing the Moselle River here at Nancy, in Lorraine.
In Normandy, Carpenter had outfitted his L-4 with six bazookas, three on each wing strut, so he could fire on German vehicles below. He dubbed his airplane “Rosie the Rocketer” (a play on Rosie the Riveter).
His single-handed attacks on German units, with his Piper Cub, earned his the nickname “The Mad Major” from troops, and “Bazooka Charlie” from the press.
On September 18, German heavy panzers, led by large masses of Panther tanks, counterattacked against Patton’s troops in the countryside east of Nancy.
On the morning of September 20, the German panzers moved in on the 4th Armored Division’s HQ unit at the town of Arracourt (below). The fog initially protected them from Allied air attack.
As soon as the fog began to clear, however, Carpenter got into his L-4 and joined the battle.
His favorite strategy was to climb above the Germans then corkscrew down on them, firing his bazookas at the tops of the tank, where their armor was lightest.
Carpenter was credited with destroying four German tanks and an armored car during the Battle of Arracourt, which was one of the largest tank battles on the Western Front.
Another famous figure to come out of the Battle of Arracourt, on the ground, was Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams, who helped rally the defenders and went on to become the US Army’s top tank ace of World War II.
Of course, the M1 Abrams tank is named after him.
In 1945, “Bazooka Charlie” Carpenter was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease and received an honorable discharge. He was given two years to live, but ended up living (and teaching high school history) until 1966, when he died at the age of 53.
As the L-4 Grasshopper, the Piper Cub was an ideal artillery spotter because it could take off and land close to the front lines. Even without bazookas strapped to it, a single pilot flying one could direct more explosives at a target, in the form of artillery fire, than a B-29.
At its peak, during WW2, the Piper Aircraft Company produced one Piper Cub every 20 minutes. Overall, it produced over 20,000 J-3 Cubs before halting production in 1947.
After the war, the government sold thousands of Piper Cubs to private owners, many of whom had been trained to fly in them. Until the mid-1950s, when all-metal planes like the Cessna 172 and Beechcraft Bonanza came out, they were the mainstay of private aviation in the US.
Piper Aircraft eventually moved to Oklahoma, and then to Florida, where they continue to produce small single- and twin-engine planes today.
William T. Piper died in 1970, at the age of 89. He has been called “The Henry Ford of Aviation”.
Clarence G. Taylor, the designer of the Cub, lived until 1988. He founded Taylorcraft, whose DCO-65 looked a heck of a lot like a Cub, and served beside it as the L-2 in World War II.
Coming in for a landing a William T. Piper Memorial Airport in Lock Haven, PA.
When you take off and land the Piper Cub, on the ground, because it’s a tailwheeler you can’t see directly ahead. You have to judge the center line from the edges of the runway in your peripheral vision.
But I didn’t do too bad. In fact, I’ve been trying to sign up for some real-world training in a Piper Cub as soon as the weather gets nice.
Today, many kit planes take their basic design from the Piper Cub, even if they aren’t manufactured by Piper anymore.
If you want to learn a whole lot more about the Piper Cub, consider reading “Flight of Passage” by Rinker Buck, about when he and his brother flew a Cub across America as teenagers in 1966. It’s a wonderful book.
The Piper Cub has been called “the airplane that taught America to fly”. And now you know why.