Cub Pireps: The First and the Last, J-2 to Super Cub

Budd Davisson, 1994

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea

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 noticable 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 world war.

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 46.

Worse, yet, it was pretty obvious the J-2 Cub I was desperately trying to make climb by forceably 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 was all happening in super slow motion. That is, if you don't count my heart and respitory 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 trees.

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 optimism!

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 wieght 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 little irrelevant.

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 that was another matter.

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 excercise so I swam back," or "Hey, did you know your airplane won't float?"

Without boring 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 trees.

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 rate.

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 airspace.

I think it was at that point I finally replaced the breath I had taken right after takeoff with a fresh one. Or two.

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 speed!) up. 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 slower.

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 the tube.

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 build?"

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 creats 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 Pipr 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 wingroots.

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 marveled at the degree of finish in the airplane. It's beautiful! Even the floor boards are shiny, clear urethane.

On the ground, the airplane handled as good as it looked. I messed around doing a bunch of "S" turns (totally uneccessary for visibility) to get a feel of the tailwheel and found it to be perfectly 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 center 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 spare.

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 aren't.

Besides the fact that we were climbing at about 800 fpm and I was totally in control of the situation, the most noticable 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 rediculous 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 excercise. Super Cubs are like the rest of the 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 bump.

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 embarassing 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 that price.

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 likelyhood, 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.