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Origins of the Piper Cub

Every once in a while aviation enthusiasts around the airport are treated to visitors arriving in more vintage looking aircraft. One of my personal favorites is the Piper J-3 Cub. This aircraft has carved out a rich history for itself throughout its lineage of various features and model designations. I would like to share a few of these variations with you here since many of these rag and tube designs often seem to look alike upon first glance from rookie observers.

The Piper Cub series of light aircraft evolved out of the great depression and grew up through the decades to become one of the most popular and versatile models in the General Aviation lexicon. The E2 Taylor Cub was originally crafted as a joint venture between W.T. Piper and C.G. Taylor in an effort to present an attractive design while keeping the cost of recreational flying affordable to the general public. The E2 was powered by a Continental A-40 engine rated at just about 37 hp. In 1937, Mr. Piper bought out Mr. Taylor to start what would become the family run Piper Aircraft Company.

The Piper family’s newly appointed Chief Engineer, Walter Jamouneau smoothed out some of the features of the E2 design and it was subsequently designated as the Piper J2 Cub. Yes that was “J” for Jamouneau! The name “Cub” was apparently derived from the days where the Aeronautical team had experimented with several powerplant ideas including a Kitty cat engine. The Piper archives include a small selection of rare engine prototypes somehow inspiring the trademark Cub name.



By the end of 1937, Piper then introduced the slightly refined J3 Cub which would set the standard for the style of its many cousins to be born in the years ahead. The J3 featured a balanced rudder design, Goodrich wheel brakes, a proper tailwheel instead of a skid, and upholstered seats! Main landing gear shock absorbency was achieved through tightly wound bungees. The eventual engine of choice was to be the 65 hp Continental A-65. These Cubs became known as the J3C-65 and were steadily produced from the Lock Haven, Pennsylvania facility until 1947. This classic design became the main blueprint for all subsequent variations of the Cub that would be produced over the next decade or so. The large wing on the Cub with its characteristic lift potential was an intentional aeronautical design to compensate for the relatively small engine. Later variations knowingly sacrificed some of that lift for speed as the wing span was sometimes chopped back in favor of the aptly titled Clipped wing Cub.

The Cub’s traditional yellow color started out as Lock Haven yellow but later became affectionately known as simply Cub yellow. The yellow base color was enhanced with its characteristic black lightning bolt stripe down the length of the fuselage. Carefully restored Cubs with particular attention paid to historical details, including the original paint scheme, can draw the admiration of purists and enthusiasts alike. Even that black stripe isn’t just placed anywhere without reference to the original blueprint. Even the popular Randolph brand colored dope finishes included the exact shade of Cub yellow for your J3 restoration project. In 1942, the Piper Cub was sought after for service as a liason aircraft in WWII and was even re-designated as the L4 Grasshopper for military purposes complete with an olive drab make-over. Authentic restorations complete with D-Day stripes are often seen at airshows and museums.

The Cub assembly line was born in Pennsylvania but also had a short run of production in Hamilton, Ontario in the 1940’s. These Cub products continue to be simply known as Canadian built Cubs. They refer to the same type certification as their American built siblings but came up against some scrutiny where serial numbers were concerned. In an effort to export Canadian built (and registered) Cubs to the United States, the regulatory authorities were tasked with having to associate the Canadian serial number on the aircraft data plate to those originally referenced on the type certificate. It turned out that the Canadian serial numbers weren’t even listed. It all worked out in the end after some intensive research and a little rework of the system in order to explain and accommodate the oversight.

Variations of the early Cub design included the J4 Cub Coupe with side-by-side bench seating. There are a few J4A’s around the country today with the same A-65 engine nestled inside a closed cowling. The J3 version on the other hand has become more recognizable by its open cowl design with the engine cylinders exposed on either side. Additional cooling for the cylinders is achieved through its trademark eyebrow style attachments. This defining feature continues to distinguish the original J3’s from later higher powered designs. The J5 Cub Cruiser came out in 1941 just in time to also be adopted by the military for their low level scouting missions. The J5 had a larger backseat than the J3 and was equipped with the 75 hp Continental C-75 engine. Civilian models of the J5 included the J5A, B and C. Propeller options for many of the Cubs up to this point in time included wood and/or metal as approved for specific models. Many of these early aircraft were not equipped with electrics which required the pilot to hand-prop the engine for starting.



In 1947, Piper improved the J3 template yet again with the introduction of the PA11 Cub Special. This era saw Piper starting to promote newer custom features appealing to the flying public. This was also the start of Piper introducing their PA (Piper Aircraft) designator over the previously used “J” prefix. The PA11 was essentially a J3 with a new look. The earliest models still had the A-65 engine which soon gave way to the more powerful Continental C-90, which provided added spunk to the familiar airframe. The pressure cowl design completely enclosed the powerplant section giving this model a brand new identity. The interior featured leather covered seats and side panels and the fuel tank was moved from aft of the firewall up to the left wing with a small header tank installed downstream of the main tank under the boot cowl. Heavy duty landing gear shocks completed this improved package which permitted the pilot to now solo from the front seat unlike the J3 which required solo flight from the rear seat only. There are a number of PA11’s and similar conversions still operating around the country even now. They look smart and perform well on floats or skis if preferred.

This same period of interest in recreational aviation saw the J5C Cub develop into the new PA12 Super Cruiser. Close to 4000 of these models were built between 1946 and 1948. The first post-war models had the 100 hp Lycoming O-235C engine. The new metal spar (wood spars were the norm up until this era of production) and it’s rugged reputation made the PA12 a natural favorite on wheels, floats or skis and often saw duty as a remote bush workhorse. Engine options crept up to 115 hp and later 150 hp to make this a really sought after classic! Many of the late 1940’s models rolled out of the factory with attractive primary red or blue designs moving away from the signature yellow.



Piper also manufactured a limited number of the PA14 Family Cruiser in order to compete in the increasingly popular family aircraft market. This was the final stretch for the original two-place Cub design being made into a four-place option as the next stage of aircraft development was already on the horizon. The PA14 was equipped with engine configurations ranging from 115 to 150 hp. This latest effort to retain the Cub design as the basis for larger aircraft didn’t catch on as expected until the idea for a more versatile aircraft was revived as the PA16 Clipper and welcomed the era of the piper short-wing family of aircraft. A two-place version was also re-introduced as the PA15/17 Vagabond series. By the end of the 1940’s, Piper had been in the midst of taking over the Stinson 108 series of aircraft and worked that asset into further aircraft development.

The PA18 Super Cub was introduced in 1949 and would become one of the longest running production singles in the light aircraft industry. It seemed that the widely accepted Cub design had always been in style with aviators yet they were just too under powered in an era where pilots really wanted to go places. The first Super Cubs were produced with the 90 hp engine (like the PA11) but were soon fitted with 108, 125 and 135 hp versions. The trend towards more power continued until the 150 hp version by 1955. This seemingly ideal airframe/engine combination was instantly more desirable for both private use and with business operators. The airframe structure has been tweaked over time and typical Super Cub features include a more complete instrument panel, fuel tanks in both wings, electrics, and flaps. Production of the Super Cub would last until the mid-nineties with the latest models reverting back to the classic Cub yellow with black trim that seemed to revive the old days albeit with a more modern price tag. This time-tested and true design has also been subject to various bush modifications and after-market performance enhancements over the years. Many Super Cubs work for a living either as tow-planes, aerial survey, agricultural work and a host of other unconventional missions in the bush and beyond.



Over the years, the Piper Cub design has been replicated through other similar kits and experimental aircraft. You will see copies of the popular J3 in the form of Wag-Aero’s CUBy sport trainer and the PA14 tribute as the Sportsman 2+2. For those considering purchasing from the CUB family of aircraft, be sure to have a maintainer with experience on these types to check things over. The nostalgic appeal and true versatility of all these examples still draws interest from those looking for something special in a long lineage of recreational aircraft. So the next time you see something that you think looks like a Piper Cub, there’s a good chance that it probably is one!


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