What a yawning gap in front of me, left in the lurch somehow as I sit cowering and strapped into the rear seat of this Piper J3 Cub, sitting there as I have for the past days as a pupil pilot. The seat in front of me is empty, I can now see all of the sparsely equipped instrument panel. But really one does not need anything more complicated in the small and simple Cub. This Cub, among many, was built at the beginning of the forties for the American military, hence the wide expanse of perspex behind me in this Grasshopper. For some years now D-EDYS with Cub yellow and the black lightning stripe on both sides doing service with the Motorflug G.m.b.H (Ltd,) in Karthaus, a small place on the fringe of Koblenz. Today, sadly a high rise estate, but in January 1958 a well used grass airfield with many airplane wheel tracks clearly evident.
The wooden propeller turns rather lazily, the clinking chatter of the tappets can just be made out above the burbling exhaust from the Continental with its 65 horses. Right, make a good job of it, and do nothing to embarrass me, Trapp’s words, as he stands by the open door flap, the last few words before my solo. I must not bend the reliable Piper, keep my eyes skinned. Shall I, now absolutely alone, fly her, me, for the past days the rather daft and helpless novice. All right, he must know as a pre war and wartime pilot, and now an instructor, he is one of the old school. Spending most of day in the cockpit only climbing out to tank and swing the prop. No, the Piper does not have a starter, or battery and cable harness. The sole electric’s are in the shape of the two magnetos firmly bolted to the motor. We novices are not allowed to attempt the dangerous business of swinging the prop. This today is a thing of the past all “real” aircraft today have starters.
Midday, Trapp always has his lunch brought over to the plane. He is sitting in front of me spooning away while I am at the back doing my best to keep the Piper straight and level over the Mosel river valley, past Koblenz on up to the Neuwieder Becken. Flying turns with 20 degrees bank then 40 degrees bank. Practicing climbing, gently diving. Not at all easy for the novice to correct the Piper with its very light wing loading; The terrain under us is very hilly, causes turbulence. I must keep correcting. The Piper can fly itself quite well should I leave it alone to sort things out, but then I must continually correct the plane to develop my feeling for flying. Using the cowl and wings against the horizon to keep her level. Misty weather has a rather negative effect on the rapport between the instructor and pupil pilot!
To fly towards a turning point, the bicycle spoke that sticks up out of the fuel tank is used as sight. The other end of this spoke going down into the tank ending in a cork, this is the fuel gauge. When the spoke is down, taxi over to the pumps. The pupil must crank the manual pump to replace the missing 40 to 50 litres in the fuselage tank right in front of the cockpit. The pupil must look after the aircraft, evenings washing off the spattered earth. The Piper has no mudguards and the wings undersides above the wheels are invariably muddy. It is really fun washing this muck off above your head, the ice cold water runs down your bare arm, right to the arm pits, the thick winter clothing does not help at all.
Oh well, I must go up alone. A couple of days ago a soloist, in D-ECIN shortly after take off and over the brow of the steep sided Mosel river valley the motor began to die, shortly before the emergency landing it picked up again. Recently the motor of our EDYS faded away during take off, in front of us was a telephone cable and a market gardeners Glasshouse. Trapp worked the throttle lever frantically, this was naturally accompanied by a great deal of bad language, suddenly the C65 got over its little crisis, or the air bubble in the fuel line.
Put these thoughts out of my mind, pull the door flaps together, a little more throttle and the Piper is bumping over the rough ground, now she’s my Piper, who will deny me that? I roll up to the start using S turns as I cannot see over the cowl yet. The Piper is easy to steer while taxiing. The tailwheel is coupled to the rudder with coil springs, reacts directly with rudder movement. The tailwheel has a slipping clutch to cope with overloading when turning sharply on the spot and by parking. One can turn the Piper on one wheel when you tread on the appropriate brake and give a short burst on the throttle. Very simple but all the same the Piper has hydraulic brakes, these are operated from heel pedals under the rudder bar.
I carefully go through the pre take off checks, a mistake here can have very unpleasant consequences. Full throttle and the small plane is vibrating and jerking. Right mag off and on, left mag off and on no drop in RPM by switching out the mags. Good! Elevator trimmer (car door window crank handle) set to take off position. Carburettor heating knob pulled out. Oil pressure OK. Seat belt tightened,runway free, I roll out to the marked off airstrip, set the planes nose into wind. A deep breath, stick back a little, push the throttle fully against the stop. Correct that left swing with a dab of right rudder. The motor appears to be even louder with the half empty cockpit. A short stretch of bouncing over the grass and she is now very light then she’s off and we are flying, me alone in the Piper.
Then everything is routine, all been practiced a hundred times in the last weeks over the now very familiar landscape. 150 meters on the altimeter, downwind leg by the airfield, reduce the power a little, pull back a little on the trim lever. The motor with a comfortable 2100 rpm, rumbling away, with 60 miles per hour on the ASI (97 km/ h) the Piper gently rocks, I have time to collect my thoughts. It is all now solely up to me, I must pull off this first solo landing. The covering material over the cabin drums in synchronization with the propeller, the stick in front of the empty seat moves around as if controlled by an unseen hand. Never again have I had such a feeling after a first flight in a new aircraft as now. Later I have always sat at the front, and even with a flight instructor wringing his hand in despair I have since had a feeling of indifference.
Back to business, time to turn into the cross wind leg and then the finals, now gliding. Must not forget the carburettor heat, or the motor will not pick up in the event of having to give full throttle to go round again. The engine noise dies down as I pull back the throttle lever. Trim lever three turns back. Gently curving down to the landing, keep the speed up, line her up with the runway, there a light cross wind, a slight bank and rudder to correct. The roofs of the houses, the boundary slip by underneath. The folks in the houses down there, have they an idea what is going on just above their homes? The ground comes nearer, slowly flair her out. Don’t let the wheels touch too soon as the half empty Piper will start to behave like a mountain Goat and I begin to imagine the critical watchers saying Monday after the first bounce, Tuesday…
The Bungee cord shockers take up the landing loads quite well but do nothing much to dampen things out. I will experience Hydraulic shock absorbers later with my next type. But I must keep the Piper flying about a foot off the ground, slowly back with the stick and then full back against the stomach. “You must not want to land but fly as far as possible until she cannot go any more, then set her down!” One of the most valuable pieces of advice from my instructor, the unforgettable Trapp. Years later, after becoming an instructor myself, I was to pass this on to numerous pupils. Now I carry this out for the first time alone, all three wheels at the same time rumble on the ground. I taxi around for the next take off. Trapp is there waving his fist and laughing, “Du Hund, du kannst es ja!” (You dog, you really can do it).
Rather breathless and elated, I taxi back to the hanger, switch off, fuel cock off, trim neutral, carburettor heating pushed fully home, that’s it. In line are waiting the instructors and student pilots, not without some hierarchy in offering their congratulations, which consists of two friendly helpers holding the freshly baked novice bent over. First the Flying club manager Schieferstein, the instructors next and then the pupil pilots. The latter, whose enthusiasm gave me cause to be thankful it was winter and not July, as the running shorts and overalls are a bit to thin to offer much protection. The logic behind all this is to make permanent my freshly won feeling for flying.
I can never forget this experience with the Piper, the smell of dope, petrol and oil, the rumbling engine, the rattle of the sliding window on the left, the fuel gauge before the windscreen, the plopp the fold down door makes as it contacts the fuselage. Many others have the same memories. The Piper was a sort of Volksplane of the pre war years of general poverty. The simple and cheap Piper J3 Cub was a standard trainer and sport aircraft for over thirty years. Today almost sixty years after its introduction there are many examples still flying. Some as carefully kept oldtimers and some as daily hacks. Others with more powerful engines and some with wingspan reduced by two meters, being the so called Clipped Wing Cub used for aerobatics. With the covering material removed, the Piper gives a frightening frail impression, especially so when the PIPER PA-18 Super Cub being fitted with a 150 hp engine and flaps. As trainer aircraft came later the Cessna 150, as tug aircraft the Morane or the Jodel Remorqueur.
The Piper J3 Cub is an original light aircraft for two people and small amount of luggage, 10 litres petrol per hour and a range of 100 kilometres. The Cubs (Bear cub) reliability and ease of flying comes from the low wing loading, this is the simplest and without doubt the cheapest aerodynamic solution. There is a clear trend today for designers to return to similar layout and construction methods of pioneer aircraft from the dawn of aviation to produce modern Ultralight airframes. The demand is growing for lightweight aircraft with weights between that of the Ultralights and the usual horrendously expensive all metal or GRP aircraft. I wonder, is there a new era of the Piper in coming.
I have had the wish for a very long time, to build a model of the Piper. There have been very many kits of the Piper, but a very few designs approached the concept of the full-size. Something always came up that stopped me building a Piper. But now after hearing a lot of praise for the plan and kit of the J3 Cub from Practical Scale with its completeness and quality, everything came back to me as if it were yesterday.
No wonder this kit has been in production for so long. It is clear to see that real aircraft enthusiasts and scale practitioners were at work, not with all the small details such as adjustable seats or door catches but a model that looks and flies like the original. The model, same with the full-size, can take a wide range of engines and can take some pretty wild aerobatics and is able to tow large gliders. Clear is that the scale friends will fit a petrol engine when they do not posses one of the five to seven times more expensive multi cylinder four strokes. These latter engines have the advantage they look better, but one should not overlook the fact that these motors sound a lot smoother than the raw sound of the full-size Cubs engine.
At last I can fulfill my dream of some years by building and flying a model of the aircraft that I soloed in.