Icons of Aviation History: J-3 Piper Cub

The Piper Cub was one of the first successful general aviation aircraft, and became one of the most widely-produced airplanes in history.

Piper Cub on display at the Cavanaugh Air Museum in Dallas

In 1914, the American aircraft manufacturer Glenn Curtiss produced a new design, the Curtiss Model JN, which quickly became dubbed the “Jenny”. With the First World War raging in Europe, the British were interested in the Jenny as a trainer and spotter, and after the United States entered World War One in 1917, nearly all of the American combat pilots learned to fly in a Curtiss Jenny.

When the war ended in 1918, the US Army still had around 3000 Jennies in service, which it declared “surplus” and put up for sale. Reliable and easy to fly, the Jenny became a staple of “barnstormers”, many of them former wartime fliers who traveled around the country doing airshows. It also became the preferred trainer for flight schools.

But in 1927 the US Government introduced new tighter safety regulations for any airplane that carried passengers, and the outdated Jenny could not meet them. The way was open for something new.

The Taylor Brothers, Gilbert and Gordon, thought they had a winner. Their Taylor Aircraft Company in Rochester NY produced a design they called the Chummy, a small, light, high-wing plane which was priced not much more than a war-surplus Jenny. But Gordon was killed in an air crash, the company entered bankruptcy, and when it emerged, a Pennsylvania oil man named William Piper bought a controlling share. After several failed designs, Gilbert sold his share to Piper and left to form his own company. 

Piper then turned to a designer named Walter Jamouneau, who laid out a small, light, high-wing that seated two and could be sold for just $1300—about twice the price for a mid-range automobile. The new plane was dubbed the Piper J-3 Cub.

No sooner had the prototype been finished and production started when the factory caught on fire and burned to the ground. Undaunted, Piper moved to nearby Lock Haven PA and rebuilt. By 1937 he had sold almost 700 Piper Cubs. In 1938, Piper got a big break when the Roosevelt Administration, realizing that war clouds were gathering in Europe and the US would soon need a supply of trained pilots, formed the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which selected the J-3 as its primary trainer. The Cub had excellent and forgiving handling characteristics at low speed, which made it difficult to stall. 

By 1940 the US Army Air Corps had also adopted a modified Piper Cub (under the designation “L-4 Grasshopper”), and used it for a variety of tasks including training, artillery spotting, and VIP travel. The Piper Company found itself turning out a new J-3 Cub every 20 minutes. By the end of the war the Civilian Pilot Training Program had graduated over 435,000 students, and three-fourths of them had been flying Piper Cubs. Private owners volunteered to fly their J-3s for the Civilian Air Patrol, searching along the coasts for enemy submarines. The Piper factory manufactured almost 20,000 of the little airplanes.

When the war ended, most of these were sold as surplus, and at a price tag of less than $2,000 they were affordable by many ex-military pilots who had already flown them in the service. In 1949, Piper stopped making the Cub in order to concentrate on newer and bigger models, but since that time the design has been licensed and copied by other companies, with a host of different engines. L-4 Grasshoppers would fly in Korea, and then again in Vietnam.

In 1984, the Piper Company was purchased by a series of companies and ended up in Florida.

Today the Piper Cub remains one of the most popular of all light general aviation aircraft. Thousands of original J-3s are still flying.

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