Six Classic Utility Aircraft
PIPER PA-18 SUPER CUB
Piper’s PA-18 Super Cub was born as a working airplane — a small and rugged performer that could drop into impossibly short landing areas, whether it be a river sandbar strewn with rocks, a snowy field or even the side of a mountain. Thanks to its sturdy airframe and exceptional performance, the Super Cub continues to earn its keep in the backcountry today.
The first PA-18 rolled out of the factory in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in 1949, a few years after Piper ceased building the J-3 Cub, on which the Super Cub is based. It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that the Super Cub really came into its own thanks to the combination of additional power, notched flaps, wing-mounted fuel tanks and an electrical system, all of which made the airplane a perfect choice for all sorts of operations, from bush flying on tundra tires or skis to banner and glider towing to floatplane duty and even crop dusting.
A Continental C-90 producing 95 horsepower powered the original Super Cub. This engine was soon replaced with the more powerful Lycoming O-235 and eventually the 150 hp O-320. These days, it’s common to find Super Cubs fitted with 160, 180 or 235 hp engines or, in a few extreme cases, even turbine engines.
Renowned for its ability to operate just about anywhere, a stock Super Cub can take off in about 400 feet and land in 300. Pointed into a brisk wind, that distance can be reduced to almost nothing at all, as Super Cub owners love to demonstrate at the annual Valdez short-field takeoff and landing contest in Alaska. For years, pilots have described the Super Cub as the poor man’s helicopter.
The Super Cub became one of Piper’s most successful models ever, with a production run spanning more than four decades from 1949 until 1982 and again from 1988 until 1994. All told, Piper built 10,326 Super Cubs, including nearly 1,500 for the military. Just 44 of these were built in Vero Beach, Florida, with the remainder rolling off the line in Lock Haven.
These days, it’s rare to find a purely stock Super Cub. Owners have made all sorts of modifications, including adding more spacious baggage areas, larger fuel tanks, and strengthened and extended landing gear. Many bush pilots have added bigger tires, installed vortex generators, mounted larger climb props and done just about anything else to squeeze extra utility from an airplane prized by those who earn a living flying over inhospitable terrain from Kenya to Ketchikan, Alaska.
With the 150 hp Lycoming, a Super Cub can carry more than 800 pounds, making it tough to overload even if you pack its two tandem seats to the gills with people and gear. The airplane will cruise at about 110 knots and climb to a max altitude of 19,000 feet. The Super Cub has a no-wind range of 400 nautical miles.
Construction of the Super Cub is traditional welded steel tubing for the fuselage and aluminum spars and ribs for the wings, all covered in fabric. Such construction makes the Super Cub easy to repair in the bush with basic tools. Many “Alaska” Super Cubs have been fitted with heaters, and quite a few carry modern glass avionics.
Not surprisingly, the Super Cub legacy lives on in a number of current designs that pay homage to the original. The Aviat Husky is a direct descendant of the Super Cub, and along with the Cub Crafters Top Cub and American Legend Super Legend, the basic PA-18 design lives on in modern versions that in many ways are superior to the predecessor. Of course, if you want to get your hands on the real thing and buy a used Super Cub, they’re still relatively easy to find — though prices for a fully restored airplane in mint condition can approach $200,000. — S.P.