Flying the Cub
By the time we reached the departure end of the runway, I was used to the Cub’s rudder pedals, which require a good amount of travel at slow speed and a lighter touch on takeoff. After the run-up, our first trip down the runway was a fast taxi to give my feet a chance to come alive. Damian handled the throttle as I focused on keeping us pointed straight down the runway.
After I’d passed this test, we taxied back for a proper takeoff. This time, I was in control. Lined up on the turf runway, I smoothly applied power, keeping us pointed straight with the rudder and waiting for the tail to come up. When it did, I knew the Cub was ready to fly. Easing back on the stick, we lifted off the ground and departed at the Cub’s tried-and-true 55-mile-per-hour best climb airspeed. As we gained altitude, a panoply of green hills, black lakes and winding rivers appeared before us. The cool rush of air hit me full in the face through the Cub’s open window and door, and for a moment I could almost believe I was 15 years old again.
Even with the extra horsepower, this Cub wasn’t much of a performer. I estimated the climb rate at about 500 feet per minute. Once out of the pattern, I performed some steep turns and climbs and descents to get a feel for the controls, which were as nicely balanced as I remembered.
Flying the J-3 requires you to lead your turns with the rudder just a bit. There are airplanes of its vintage with more adverse yaw to overcome, and the Cub turns beautifully. Damian’s advice is to imagine that the rudder is mechanically linked to the stick in such a way that stepping on it will pull the stick in that direction. In other words, step on the rudder first to get the nose moving and then move the stick in the direction of the turn.
Next I slowed us to 40 miles per hour, where control authority is still solidly felt, and cut some lazy turns followed by power-on and -off stalls. It reminded me of what a docile creature the Cub is. Even if a pilot unintentionally spins a Cub, all he usually has to do to recover is pull back the throttle and take his hands and feet off the controls — assuming he’s high enough when it happens. The Cub will right itself given the chance to do so.
Before my first landing attempt, Damian reminded me about shifting my attention from the forward view to the edges of the runway, roughly at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock out the side windows. His tip for judging the height of the round-out was to imagine a man standing in the middle of the runway, with the idea being you want to try to knock his hat off with the Cub’s spinner. Not only was it good advice, but it was devilishly fun too.
My first landing was OK but I over-controlled in the flare. That’s when Damian suggested we try a little game. On the next try, I would be allowed to move the stick backward or stop it from going rearward, but I could never allow it to move forward. If I felt us sinking in the flare, I could pull back, but if we ballooned I was not allowed to relax the pressure, only to stop the stick right where it was. Of course, I understood what he was getting at. The second landing was a good one, and my control movements were more fluid and quiet — the Zen of landing a Cub.
We did several more landings at Trinca, each of them feeling better than the last. Then we headed back to Aeroflex for the last one of the day. I was eager to make it the best of the bunch and end on a good note. Turning final, I allowed myself to get slightly high on the approach and Damian suggested I put in a “baby slip” to lose the extra altitude. The advice was spot on. I rounded out nicely over the approach end of the turf runway, right where I wanted to be. The imagined farmer’s hat popped off his head and was flung wildly into the air.
“Hold it off,” Damian said as we floated in ground effect, the stick in my hand edging closer and closer to my belly, the speed decaying until touchdown — delightfully slow and smooth as honey. “Yes!” Damian said. “Great job.”
Right there, that’s what I remember best about the Cub. It can be a challenging airplane to land well, but when you do it just right, few things in aviation are more satisfying.
After the flight, Damian put it this way: “Really, the J-3 has no redeeming qualities,” he said. “It rides like an ox cart. It doesn’t hide a pilot’s mistakes. It takes finesse to land well. It’s miserable in the cold weather. You have to hand-prop it. You can’t see out of it while landing.” And yet, “whether by design or luck, somehow it all comes together. It has excellent harmonization in flight. It flies wonderfully. If you do something wrong and it flies ugly, it’s your fault and you’ll know about it immediately. That’s what makes the Cub such a great trainer — and a great airplane.”
I couldn’t agree more with that assessment. Happy birthday, old friend. Here’s to many, many more.