Simplicity and durability are defining characteristics of so many of the classic American products we love best: The Harley-Davidson Flathead. A well-worn pair of Levi’s jeans. A Rawlings baseball improved by the scuffs and scars and patina of use. For generations of pilots, the object of our nostalgic affection is the Piper Cub. Introduced 75 years ago, the J-3 established the idea of a simple, inexpensive and easy-to-fly trainer. In the 1940s and 1950s, more pilots learned to fly in J-3 Cubs than any other model. Even if you’ve never sat behind the controls of one, you understand the importance of the J-3 to general aviation history. If you have flown a Cub, well, you don’t need to be told it’s one of the best-flying light airplanes ever made.
I started out learning to fly in a 1946 J-3 when I was 15. That was in the late 1980s at a grass strip close to my home in northern New Jersey. I can remember some days soloing in the Cub it would be just me and another pilot in a Stearman and still another in an old T-6, the three of us circling the pattern as though we’d been transported through time to a summer afternoon when the only things that mattered were seeing which way the wind moved the corn and making certain to get the stick all the way back at the last instant in the flare. When you did it just right in the Cub, the effect was magical. And when you got it slightly wrong, the J-3 wouldn’t let you off the hook without a lesson that could stay with you for a long time. Maybe forever.
The story of the Piper Cub begins with two barnstorming brothers, C. Gilbert and Gordon Taylor, who together formed the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Co. in the late 1920s. Their goal was to produce and sell a small, two-seat, high-wing monoplane named the Chummy that cost $4,000 — about the price of a new house in 1928. They’d built a handful of airplanes, but tragically Gordon Taylor was killed in an airplane crash and the company went bankrupt.
William T. Piper, a Bradford, Pennsylvania, businessman who was running his family’s oil business, purchased a controlling share in the Taylor Aircraft Co. for $761 as it emerged from bankruptcy in 1930. Piper retained Gilbert Taylor as president and asked him to build an inexpensive, easy-to-fly trainer that the average person could afford to rent. Most of the trainers in those days were heavy biplanes with big radial engines and as a result were expensive to fly. Piper reasoned that a small, simple airplane might cut the costs in half, enabling more people to learn and creating demand for the company’s products.
In September 1930, Taylor introduced a two-seat tandem taildragger, the Taylor E-2. This model featured wings mounted high on the fuselage, an open cockpit, fabric-covered tubular steel fuselage and wooden wings. Power came from a 20-horsepower Brownbach Tiger Kitten engine. The trouble was the Tiger Kitten didn’t have the oomph to power the E-2. On Sept. 12, 1930, a test flight ended almost as soon as it started when the airplane ran out of runway, the underpowered engine unable to lift the E-2 out of ground effect.
The company soon introduced an improved E-2 powered by the newly developed Continental Motors A-40 putting out 37 horsepower. The new Taylor E-2, now affectionately known as the “Cub,” earned its type certificate on July 11, 1931. Despite some early reliability problems with the engine, the airplane was a hit.
Taylor chose the lightly loaded USA-35B airfoil for the E-2, a design that provided good low-speed flying qualities — it was reluctant to stall and provided plenty of warning before it did. All Cubs, including the J-3 and Super Cub, have used this same airfoil shape. For this reason, the Cub is a forgiving airplane in the hands of a novice and downright divine with a skilled pilot at the helm. Many of us have marveled at the flying antics of the drunk, Cub-stealing farmer — a role played at airshows by J-3 maestros like the late Bob Weymouth, who could make a Cub do things you wouldn’t believe if you didn’t see it with your own eyes.
Birth of the J-3
For the next few years after the E-2’s introduction, Taylor Aircraft struggled. The company sold a handful of airplanes and showed only small profits. It was during this time, under the direction of a young aircraft designer named Walter Jamouneau, that the E-2 Cub was redesigned with rounded angles and other alterations and reintroduced in 1936 as the Taylor J-2 Cub (the “J” standing for Jamouneau, according to Piper lore).