Taking Wing: The World's Fastest Cub

Racing the J-3 in the AirVenture Cup.

Taking Wing Cub Cup

Taking Wing Cub Cup

"Gentlemen, start your engines!"

The crowd cheered as Mitchell Municipal Airport reverberated with the sound of 50 piston power plants rumbling to life. Dozens of slick homebuilt airplanes with flashy paint jobs and neatly applied race numbers taxied in a long line to the runway. "Race 38, cleared for takeoff," boomed the loudspeaker, and a sleek Lancair roared down the runway, leapt from the pavement and banked steeply toward the starting line. Glasairs, RVs and Long-EZs followed in quick succession. Enthralled spectators shouted and whistled, and statuesque bikini models waved checkered flags as plane after plane streaked low across the airport and disappeared over the eastern horizon.

That's how I imagined it, anyway; I wasn't actually present for the official start of the 2014 AirVenture Cup Cross-Country Air Race. At the moment of what I presumed was a glorious send-off, I was two hours into the race and 150 miles downrange, attempting to land "Race 103" in a gusty 20-knot crosswind. I normally avoid such stupid pilot tricks, but weather forced me down on the deck, I lost my tailwind, and this stock 1946 Piper Cub carries a mere 12 gallons of fuel. I feel like groundlooping is more stylish than running out of gas, so I diverted to the next airport, crosswind be damned. As the little taildragger bucked, bounced and yawed wildly and I struggled to plant the upwind main wheel, it occurred to me that I could have chosen a more capable airplane for my very first air race.

The plan to race the Cub, like so many of my harebrained adventures, was hatched on a cold, dark night in the midst of a long Minnesota winter. Some pilot friends and I were hanging out in Joe Coraggio's basement, staving off cabin fever with Joe's tasty home-brew and flying tales that grew more outrageous by the pint. Joe is a fellow airline pilot, the builder of a nearly finished Long-EZ and vice chairman of the AirVenture Cup race committee. He was in fine form that night, entertaining his guests with thoroughly embellished racing stories, when he stopped short and turned to me as though an idea had just come to him.

"You should really come race with us this year," Joe declared. "It's a total blast. If only you had an airplane ... "

"Well, I do have the Cub," I said while laughing. "That would be great: racing the world's slowest plane!"

Joe nodded thoughtfully, carefully baiting the hook. "That would be great," he agreed. "People would ­really enjoy having such a grass-roots airplane in the race. And," he continued with just the hint of a sly grin, "it would make a great subject for your column!"

Hook, line and sinker — Joe knew his audience well. I knew he was fishing for free publicity and didn't really care; these things don't write themselves, you know! And so the plot survived the next morning's headache, training at a major airline, bidding for time off as a new hire on reserve, and lining up the requisite waivers, insurance documents and permission from the flying club. Mind you, I had never taken the Cub more than 70 miles from its base in Lakeville, Minnesota. But racing 423 miles from Mitchell, South Dakota, to Wausau, Wisconsin, in a single day with a low and slow, very basic airplane sounded like a grand flying adventure — albeit just crazy enough to make for a good "there I was" story.

The first real seeds of doubt surfaced as I approached Mitchell on Friday, July 25. I was sore and tired from four hours of bumping through afternoon thermals. A breath of headwind had reduced average groundspeed to 55 knots, forcing two fuel stops. As I crossed over the field to enter the pattern, I saw three SX-300 homebuilts screaming down the length of Runway 30 in tight formation, going incredibly fast — like P-51 fast. I landed the plodding Cub as quickly as I could before any more madmen strafed the airfield. Then I taxied onto a ramp awash in achingly beautiful race planes that screamed speed, sex appeal and no-holds-barred competitiveness, and I began to feel very out of place. These are people who are serious about going fast, I realized. And here I was "racing" my Cub on a lark.

I needn't have worried. They were airplane people first and foremost, and nothing warms such folks' hearts like a little yellow J-3. At Friday night's meet-and-greet, I quickly became known as "The Guy Racing the Cub," and that was the only introduction needed to meet a pretty amazing bunch of people. The AirVenture Cup attracts fighter jocks, test pilots, airline guys, homebuilders, tinkerers and confirmed mad geniuses raving about their latest 2-knot modification. I met several accomplished EAA old-timers from the Rockford days and a heartening number of younger guys and gals with avgas coursing through their veins. There were husbands and wives, fathers and sons, friends and siblings racing with and against each other. The field ranged from first-timers like me to Sport Air Racing League regulars to Reno fixtures like Lee Behel, founder and president of the reborn Sport class. An inordinate number hailed from the Spruce Creek Fly-In Community in Daytona Beach, Florida. I suspected that a few of those accidently flew to Mitchell when they assumed that all the fast, pretty airplanes taking off were just another Gaggle flight to follow to breakfast!

The weekend festivities continued on Saturday with an airport open house for the local community. Hundreds of families strolled about the ramp, inspecting race planes and chatting with pilots. AOPA President Mark Baker flew in with his amphibious Caravan to address the crowd and field questions. Meanwhile, Young Eagles pilots took 126 kids flying in a fleet of 13 airplanes, including three J-3 Cubs. All my assigned Young Eagles were apprehensive about going up in such a small airplane, but they ended up electing to leave the door open in flight. Within minutes they were leaning out into the prop blast, pointing and laughing at cows splashing through the James River. If that doesn't hook 'em, I don't know what will.

That night at the pre-race banquet, AirVenture Cup Chairman Eric "Weasel" Whyte gave an entertaining race briefing and endured much light-hearted ribbing. Joe Coraggio finally arrived. He was flying a Bonanza chase plane for Dick Keyt's Polen Special when the Polen's oil cooler cracked and forced a dead-stick landing from 17,000 feet. The team spent the next 24 hours attempting repairs with help from generous locals, all to no avail. Finally they threw in the towel, stashed the Polen and flew the Bonanza to Mitchell, arriving to a standing ovation from racers who had followed the saga from afar. Throughout the evening, several pilots came up to me and told me they wished they were flying the Cub. I wasn't so sure; an occluded front across the racecourse was sure to make Sunday an active weather day. In the interest of making it to Oshkosh before nightfall, Whyte suggested that I start early the next morning.

When I took off just after daybreak, there were no cheering crowds and no bikini models. The skies were severe clear and a brisk wind scoured the Mitchell airport. On the first leg I took the Cub to 7,500 feet, where a strong quartering tailwind pushed the groundspeed to 85 knots (though it took a 35-degree crab to hold my course). An hour later, a thickening undercast forced me down early and triggered the diversion to windy ­Windom, Minnesota. I managed to land without breaking anything, though the sight of me scrambling out of the airplane to chock the wheels before it blew away must have been rather entertaining. The landing at the official turning point of Mankato was less dramatic, and the subsequent flight through familiar country south of Minneapolis was quite pleasant. A wind shift across the course prompted a rethinking of strategy and a change of fuel stop to Menomonie, Wisconsin. From there, I threaded my way eastward through a maze of towering cumulus and slanting rainsqualls. By 1:30 p.m. I banked around Rib Mountain, lined up over the Wisconsin River and dove toward the Wausau Downtown Airport with the engine redlined, nearly breaking 100 mph as I clattered across the finish line!

After a picnic lunch courtesy of EAA Chapter 640, an approaching thunderstorm chased us all out of Wausau and down the road to Oshkosh. The Fisk arrival was interesting as I was passed by airplanes incapable of flying as slow as the Cub's max airspeed, but I eventually made it to the show and was rewarded with front-and-center race plane parking. Race 103 looked oddly at home among all the sleek fiberglass speed machines. I was grateful that it had performed flawlessly for seven hours, five legs and 520 miles in one day. Over the next week, hundreds of flight-line spectators watched the daily airshow from the shadow of her wings. It was my favorite AirVenture yet, filled with old and new friends and even a fling with a shiny new Carbon Cub at a grass strip north of town. There was a palpable, infectious air of optimism at the show that has been missing in recent years. There's a real sense that for all its well-known challenges, general aviation is on the upswing. Flying is just too fun for folks to stay on the ground.

On Sunday night, racers and friends gathered at Wendt's Marina for fried perch, cold beer and outrageously embellished racing tales. My wife, Dawn, arrived, having ridden her motorcycle from Minneapolis in less time than it took me to fly the Cub, and I introduced her to the racers I now call friends. Eric Whyte and Joe Coraggio announced the race results and presented trophies. Paul and Pam Tackabury took top honors with their appropriately named Lancair IV, Screaming Yellow Zonker, averaging 346.24 mph. Lee Behel, dominant as usual in his 15th AirVenture Cup, won the Sport class in his Lancair Legacy. Tragically, Lee lost his life six weeks later when his GP-5 suffered a structural failure while qualifying at Reno. I met Lee briefly in Mitchell and had no idea of his extensive racing background; he was too humble to mention it and another racer clued me in. I'm not certain, but I believe it was Lee who buzzed me just west of Mankato. I figured the fastest race planes would be catching up soon and tuned into the race frequency just in time to hear "Passing on your right, yellow Cub, stay straight ahead!" A few seconds later, a white Lancair blew past a couple hundred yards off my wingtip, going like a bat out of hell. It was shocking and thrilling, an unforgettable highlight of the race.

As for me, I "won" the Vintage class (as the sole entrant) in five hours, 24 minutes, 43 seconds for an average of 78.19 mph — not too bad by Cub standards. Eric Whyte proclaimed Race 103 to be "The World's Fastest Cub," slyly adding "at least until someone challenges you for it next year!" Yes, Weasel, I'll be back for the 2015 AirVenture Cup Cross-Country Air Race. I'll probably even continue to race in the Vintage class. In true racer fashion, though, I wouldn't mind a little more speed and range. I think a Cessna 170 would fit the bill nicely. Or a Piper Pacer would do. Or perhaps a Stinson 108 ...

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