Clash of Cubs: Three Modern Takes on a Classic

CubCrafters Carbon Cub (Photo by Jonathan Bliss)

It's a rare airplane that appears on the scene and hangs on, long after production has ended, not as a nod to nostalgia but because the airplane keeps letting pilots (or their bosses) do things they want to do. Be it making money transporting people and packages deep into mountainous terrain, keeping an eye on the coastline or pipeline, or simply providing a rough and ready way to get to cool places for no good reason at all, these few timeless birds defy the passing of the seasons and the years.

The Piper Super Cub is the airplane that arguably best epitomizes this. Just a few degrees of separation from the tube-and-rag Piper Cub, the Super Cub was an outgrowth of the PA-11 Cub Special, an airplane that made clear what Piper customers had been asking for — more power and payload — and it was indeed a very good idea.

The Special had a 90 hp Continental four-banger, and its payload of almost 500 pounds gave it enough capacity to carry a good load, especially with just the pilot aboard (and flying from the front seat, unlike in the J-3 Cub). Like the Cub, the Special had no flaps. The Cub Special's run was only two years, 1947 to 1949, but that wasn't because it was unpopular; quite the opposite. Its success — more than 1,500 airplanes in two years — prompted Piper to go even bigger and badder.

The Cub Special's successor, the PA-18 Super Cub, came with more power, flaps, an electrical system and a skosh more room. Over time it became a star among light airplanes, with more than 7,500 examples produced over the span of more than 30 years. Early Super Cubs had 135 hp engines (some very early ones were even less powerful), but the bulk of PA-18s came with 150 hp Lycoming O-320s. By the end the Super Cub boasted a 180 hp engine, and no one ever complained about that being too much power.

Even though some of them are more than 60 years old, the Super Cub remains one of the most popular airplanes in the bush today precisely because it gets the job done. It can carry a lot of gear, and it takes the insults of unimproved strips without much complaint. Most Cubs have gotten a number of mods, from big tires and the rocky and rolling fun-flying they allow, to bigger engines and, well, you name it. Dan's Aircraft, the Super Cub king located in Anchorage, Alaska, lists more than a dozen available mods but cuts that list short, saying merely that there are "too many to list." What is perhaps the most popular upgrade in Alaska? Floats, with skis close behind. The Super Cub was made to fly off the water, in liquid or frozen form.

There are too many Cub and Super Cub look-alikes and flat-out clones to list. Back in the 1980s, when Piper had ceased production (it picked it up again in dribs and drabs), the Super Cub was a popular inspiration for aircraft both certified and kit-built. I've flown more than a dozen Cub-inspired designs, all of which were tons of fun (though, frankly, some flew better than others). Today, the airplane ­marketplace is populated with Cub-­inspired creations in the form of homebuilt kits by the dozens, popular certified airplanes (Aviat Husky) and a few LSA (Carbon Cub) as well.

While the Super Cub might be out of production for good, airplanes with similar silhouettes (and mission profiles) promise to dot the skies for decades to come, much to our delight. —Robert Goyer

Super Husky

A modern take on the PA-18 that's true to its roots.

If the Super Cub had continued to be produced all these years by a company that was committed to the product not only for nostalgia and a few sales but also for the value and quality of the airplane itself, it might have turned out like today's Husky.

The Husky was created by Frank Christensen of Christen Eagle fame in the mid-1980s to fill the void left by the abandoned Super Cub. While resembling the PA-18 in just about every respect, his airplane was all new, Christensen insisted. And it was, in the sense that it was designed with all new parts and slightly different design approaches. It was, however, still a tube-and-rag, tandem-seating taildragger with a 180 hp Lycoming engine. It even featured an airfoil, USA 35B, that's very similar to those on the original ­Cubbie clan.

Customers looking to escape the Teterboros of the world for the Sawtooth Range or northern Maine quickly figured out the Husky was picking up where the Super Cub left off. It flew well and was a rugged performer that could haul a prodigious load and, while not Mooney fast, could still get down the road a lot faster than a GMC truck navigating the steep grades and switchbacks of the mountain roads below.

With the company under new ownership as Aviat ­Aircraft for many years now, the mission has remained the same: to continuously improve the model to keep it a state-of-the-art personal plane despite its 75-plus-year-old spiritual legacy.

One of the things Husky pilots enjoy is the improved visibility over the original — a feature Christensen also put in his Pitts-inspired Christen ­Eagle aerobatic biplane. The Husky handles nicely too, with a better roll rate than the Super Cub has, more harmonized control forces with less adverse yaw, and an attention to detail that keeps Husky customers coming back.

The standard Husky comes with the 180 hp Lycoming O-360 four-cylinder engine; an optional 200 hp model is available. While the already light and powerful Husky might not need more get-up-and-go, the slightly larger engine, the IO-360, features smoother operation with angled valves and better fuel flow design; fuel injection means no carb heat.

Performance is nothing short of spectacular. The Husky needs just a few hundred feet to get up and down again, and with big tires installed — a popular option at the Aviat factory in Wyoming — the plane is seemingly immune to good size rocks and small size ditches. Gravel bars on low flowing rivers and streams are popular landing sites, though sometimes pilots cheat by touching down on the surface of the water before hitting the beach to tack on a few extra feet to the available landing distance. OK, they do it even when distance isn't really an issue.

Another popular Husky pursuit is float flying, something I've got more than a few hours doing myself. The Husky makes a great floatplane, thanks to a high power-to-weight ratio, the high wing and the visibility of the general design — unlike in planes configured with two-across seating, like Cessna 180s or de Havilland Beavers, the pilot in a Husky (or Super Cub) can see out one side of the plane as easily as the other. I did most of my seaplane training in a Husky, complete with 180 hp engine, amphibious floats and a modern electrical system. It was a dream.

One of the most loyal Husky customer types is a guy who already has a fast and sophisticated airplane or two (or more) and who wants to fly an airplane that adds to the experience of flight by taking so much of it away. Take away the control towers, the radio chatter, the flight plans, paved runways, taxiway signs and landing fees, and just fly. There's something about flying a gnarly taildragger off a hard-packed dirt strip, the dust rising up as the mains hit and the smell of creosote in the air wafting though the cockpit, through the open side windows, as you flop down, a three-pointer, bang. Heck, even if you bounce it a little the Husky won't really care. After all, it's what it was made for. —Robert Goyer

For 30 years the Husky has been a go-to super cub option. With great performance and modern equipment, the Husky just keeps getting better. (Photo by Ryan Nathanson)

AL-18 Super Legend HP

You can think of it as a PA-18 on steroids.

What better place to experience a modern-­day incarnation of the classic Piper Cub than on the grass runway at William T. Piper Memorial Airport in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania — the site of the original J-3 factory — during the annual Sentimental Journey Cub fly-in?

This wasn't just any contemporary Cub, mind you. It was American ­Legend Aircraft's new AL-18 Super Legend HP, a tube-and-rag rocket ship powered by a 180-horsepower Titan Stroker O-340 engine and weighing in at just a shade over 900 pounds empty for a superb power-to-weight ratio.

Introduced last year with the 115 hp Lycoming O-233 engine, the light-sport Super Legend is the latest in a family of Cub clones that American Legend has been building at its factory in Sulphur Springs, Texas, for the last decade. Now, with the Titan engine option unveiled this spring at Sun 'n Fun, the Super Legend boasts truly legendary performance.

Sitting pretty on 29-inch Alaskan Bushwheels, the Super Legend HP was the star of the Cub fly-in in its attractive silver and black paint scheme with classic Cub yellow accents. I hopped aboard with the airplane's owner, Dick Parsons, a retired Delta 777 captain who was on hand on behalf of American Legend to help answer questions from the abundance of tire kickers in attendance.

Parsons knows about as much as anybody about the Legend Cub family of airplanes. This is the fifth one he's owned, starting with an 80 hp Legend, a 100 hp model, another 100 hp model on floats, a 115 hp Super Legend and now the Super Legend HP — easily his favorite of the bunch, he says.

I soon learned why. We trundled out past the rows of J-3s and PA-18s to Lock Haven's Runway 9R, which was a hive of flight activity with about a half dozen taildraggers in the pattern, where Dick demonstrated the first takeoff. Swinging the Super Legend onto the grass when it was our turn, he gave it full power. I was sucked into my seat as the airplane surged forward, its 84-inch Catto climb prop providing ample thrust. In seconds flat the tail was up and Dick was easing back on the stick. We soared into the air and climbed steeply after a ground roll of maybe 75 feet.

Climbing out over the Ridge and Valley Appalachians west of Lock Haven, Dick handed over the controls, which I found were as balanced and satisfying as any Cub fan could hope for. It took me all of about 30 seconds to decide the Super Legend flies beautifully. Its cabin is 3 inches wider than a Super Cub's, giving it a comfortable, roomy feel. Nice additions are the doors and windows on both sides, which can be unlatched in flight for that open-cockpit feel.

After a while we headed back to Lock Haven for touch-and-goes. Dick demonstrated the first landing, easy as pie to a soft touchdown on the lush green grass. Then it was my turn. The Super Legend is typically soloed from the front seat, affording a good view ahead. I was in the rear, so the sight picture was more tried-and-true J-3. Placing my feet on the rudder pedals in the back required quite a wide stance with each pedal positioned on either side of the seat ahead. The sensation was similar to sliding my feet into a horse's stirrups. Lining up on the grass runway for takeoff, it occurred to me that this was one powerful steed indeed.

I pushed the throttle forward and got ready to perform the "taildragger shuffle" on the rudder pedals, a dance that J-3 pilots know well. But the tail came up so quickly — signaling that the Super Legend was ready to go flying — that I simply eased the stick back with gentle pressure, and we were climbing at almost 2,000 feet per minute. I barely touched the rudder.

The landing involved powering back to idle when abeam the runway end, adding a notch of flaps and slowing to 60 mph indicated on base and 55 mph on final. We floated in over the grass and I pulled the stick back in a smooth, gradual motion to put us down in a gentle three-pointer. Now I was totally blind to what was ahead, glancing left and right at the runway edge markers to keep us more or less straight. I would have preferred the front seat view.

The base Legend Cub, available with open or closed cowl, is powered by a 100 hp Continental O-200D. It's a fun airplane, but nothing compared with the adrenaline-fueled experience in the Super Legend HP. Swapping out the stock Sensenich 76-inch ground-adjustable propeller for the Catto carbon-­fiber prop enhances the performance even further. Once you've tasted that raw extra power for yourself, there's a good chance you'll want to own a Super Legend too. —Stephen Pope

The Super Legend HP is mild mannered at slow speeds, but its Titan engine provides ample power to get it off the ground in a hurry. (Photo by Stephen Pope)

CubCrafters Carbon Cub SS

This Cub loves rough backcountry terrain.

It was a blustery, partially overcast and slightly turbulent day when I had a chance to fly the Carbon Cub out of Santa Maria, California, with ­CubCrafters representative Ben ­Hodges. But that didn't mean we couldn't have a good time in the modern taildragger. With about a 10-knot crosswind, adding full flaps at rotation, it took less than 75 feet to get off the ground. I know that because the runway at KSMX is 150 feet wide and, taking off from a taxiway, we were off before the centerline mark.

Introduced in 2007, the Carbon Cub has a strong relationship with the Piper Cub. Jim Richmond started CubCrafters in 1980, rebuilding Super Cubs. In 1997, CubCrafters started building its own Cubs, and, with their superior performance, the company's experimental, LSA and certified taildragger airplanes have been very successful.

Aside from the cowl, which sports large air inlets to help with cooling, CubCrafters' Carbon Cub may look very similar to the Super Cub. But this Cub is from a completely different species. The Carbon Cub's fuselage is constructed of carbon fiber and is a full 4 inches wider than the Super Cub's. The wings, the shape of which is essentially identical to Piper's, are covered with Poly-Fiber. The airplane has been tested to and is available with a gross weight of 1,865 pounds as an experimental kit and in limited numbers as a factory assisted amateur-built airplane; however, most Carbon Cubs are in the LSA category.

The tight 1,320-pound weight restriction (1,430 pounds for the float version), challenged the engineers to make all parts as light as possible. CubCrafters managed to reduce the empty weight by around 300 pounds compared with the Super Cub's weight. The airplane is powered by a 180 hp Titan 340CC engine ­­— an LSA certified, four-cylinder horizontally opposed, carbureted engine with electronic ignition. The Titan spins a lightweight ­Catto composite propeller. Solutions such as electric trim, LED lights and perforated rudder pedals and brake rotors also help keep the weight down. With minimal equipment you can get the empty weight down below 900 pounds and the price tag to $184,990. However, loaded, like Hodges' airplane, the Carbon Cub SS weighs 950 pounds empty and costs around $240,000.

With 24 gallons of usable fuel there is not a whole lot to play with to stay within the legal limits. However, since the airplane burns about 6 gph, you can limit your fuel load and still get to where you want to go.

The airplane is easy to fly while maintaining all the fun characteristics of the Cub. The name of the game is low and slow, and speed is measured in miles per hour rather than knots. Maintaining control, I flew the airplane at 40 mph without flaps, and with power at idle we descended at a benign 500 fpm. With full flaps the airplane was still controllable at 30 mph, and we didn't stall until the airspeed indicator was showing 27 mph.

Most modern airplanes today offer glass panel avionics, a gigantic departure from the bare-bones round gauge offering of the Cubs rolling out of the Piper factory. The top of the line is Garmin's recently introduced G3X Touch, a highly capable system designed for the experimental market. The airplane also offers an optional Garmin autopilot, which I found to be just as smooth in operation as the certified GFC 700. There is a long list of other avionics options as well.

While the standard gear in the Carbon Cub SS is similar to that of the Super Cub, CubCrafters offers several extra options for gear. Hodges' demonstrator has 3-inch extended landing gear along with 29-inch tundra tires, providing terrific shock absorption on rough surfaces, as I found out.

There are half a dozen tire options from the standard 6-inch tires to massive 29-inch Airstreak tundra tires. Aside from the added weight, there is another consequence as the wheels get thicker and landing gear rises. I looked at the fuel gauges, located inside the wing attachments, and queried Hodges on whether we would have enough fuel. It appeared that we had less than a quarter-tank's worth on each side. It turned out that the tanks were more than half full. The fuel gauges are only accurate in level flight.

With a cruise speed around 115 mph and limited cargo space, the Carbon Cub SS is not built as a long-distance traveler, but it will take you places most airplanes can not. Hodges has taken off from a mountain strip at around 10,000 feet on a hot day. With a density altitude around 12,500 feet, the trusty airplane still climbed at around 1,000 fpm, he said. At sea level we saw climb rates beyond 2,000 fpm. Runway? Who needs it? As long as you have permission, you can take the Carbon Cub SS almost anywhere. We took the airplane into a landing strip on a farm that can't have been wider than 20 feet and then to a beautiful remote beach only accessible by aircraft, boat or foot — recreational flying at its best. —Pia Bergqvist

With tundra tires and extended landing gear, CubCrafters' Carbon Cub SS can take you to places inaccessible by most other means. (Photo by Pia Bergqvist)


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