EAA’s 2012 AirVenture celebrates 75 years of the Piper J-3 Cub

If you’re involved in aviation to any extent, chances are you’ve heard the name of one of the most popular and successful general aviation aircraft in the world – the “Piper Cub”.

Let’s put some things into perspective though… the name “Piper Cub” has been used generically (and many times incorrectly) to identify a small, high winged two place general aviation aircraft.  The specific aircraft that ultimately became the legend… the (usually) yellow, high wing J-3 Cub built by Piper Aircraft Corporation of Lock Haven Pennsylvania, has a bit of interesting history behind it.

The 2012 EAA AirVenture’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of the J-3, called “Cubs 2 Oshkosh”, is a great place in time to look back at its lineage, and see some of the impact that the venerable aircraft has made over three quarters of a century. The J-3’s roots begin with a late 1920’s aircraft, the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Company ‘s Taylor A-2 Chummy.

Designed by brother Clarence Gilbert Taylor, the two-place high wing aircraft was built in limited numbers in Rochester NY.  Production lasted two years, but after the death of his brother Gordon , C.G Taylor moved his aircraft company to Bradford PA. Within two years, a bankruptcy occurred, a new design known as the E-2 Taylor Cub  was completed, and William Piper, then a local oilman, became a sponsor and treasurer of the new Taylor Aircraft Company. The E-2 entered production and enjoyed only modest success in the early 1930’s, as America’s recession (following the 1929 stock market crash) was still restricting general aviation’s growth.

In 1936, while Taylor was away from work due to health reasons, company designer Walter Jamouneau reworked the Taylor Cub design into the new J-2 version.  When Taylor returned, he fired Jamouneau, presumably  for changing his Cub design.  But William Piper, who evidently had backed this redesign, purchased Taylor’s share of the company, became its President and Chairman of the Board, and then rehired Jamouneau. C.G. Taylor left and started another aircraft manufacturing concern, which led to the Taylorcraft Aviation Company (sound familiar?).  Meanwhile, Piper and Jamouneau went to work refining the J-2 even further; soon this version would be called the new J-3.

The year 1937 was historic for the now-familiar J-3 Cub and the Piper Aircraft Company .  On March 16, 1937, the old Taylor Aircraft factory in Bradford burned to the ground, and William Piper found a new, larger plant in Lock Haven PA in which to re-establish aircraft production.  The Taylor Aircraft Company was renamed the Piper Aircraft Corporation later in the year.  And on October 31, 1937, the newly designed J-3 Cub received it’s Approved Type Certificate #660 from the U.S. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The next year, 1938, the J-3 Piper Cub story really “took off”.  A quartet of reliable, lightweight and more powerful aircraft engines became available to allow growth of the new J-3 Cub.  Engine designs from Franklin (in the Cub model known as the J-3F), Lycoming (J-3L), Continental (J-3C) increased output from 40HP to 50HP in compact 4-cylinder designs.  Another version was the shorter-lived J-3P series powered by a three cylinder Lenape “Papoose” engine. The basic bright “Cub Yellow” paint with a black stripe was standardized, and with the increased horsepower of the new engines, the option of installing floats on the Cub was offered.  The old Taylor J-2 was phased out of production so Piper could focus on producing the new J-3 design.  And what became the most important sales opportunity for Piper’s Cub was announced, America’s Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP).

The CPTP was a Government  response to the growing concern about an impending war in Europe.  If it become a reality, America would need many more military pilots than she had in 1938.  Many colleges, institutes, and civilian flight schools that participated in this program chose the simple J-3, with its tandem seating, as their trainer of choice. Hundreds of Cubs were ordered to fill the program’s training needs. Of course, war did break out, and almost 2,600 colleges, universities and civilian flight schools were enlisted to providing basic flight instruction under the CPTP.

Thousands of J-3 trainers were used for initial pilot training.   The CPTP graduated over 435,000 pilots both prior to and during World War II, and it is said that three quarters of these received instruction in J-3s as their primary training aircraft.    Other Cubs were “drafted” into service during World War II, performing additional duties besides pilot training.  Known as the O-59 and L-4 in Army service and the NE in Naval guise, the aircraft performed liaison, reconnaissance, medical evacuation and artillery spotting duties.  Some Army L-4s were fitted with Bazookas and pilots actually knocked out enemy tanks while working with ground troops. Other aircraft were used by the Civil Air Patrol for anti-U-boat patrols and searching for survivors of sunk shipping. In all, 5,413 L-4s and NE versions were built during the war; these were nearly identical to the J-3 except for olive drab paint and different window material and configurations.  After World War II ended, hundreds of Cubs became surplus and were snatched up at bargain prices.  Production slowed as many former military and CPTP aircraft became surplus and flooded the now crowded general aviation market.

The last of the J-3s were built in 1947, just ten years after the first rolled off the assembly line.  More than 19,000 Cubs were produced, both as civilian J-3s and military L-4s.  Further Cub variants, such as the Piper PA-11 Cub Special and PA-18 Super Cub were produced after 1947, but not in the great numbers as the J-3 enjoyed.  Amazingly, more than one account estimates one third of all Cubs built during the 1930s and ’40s are still around today.

Tuesday July 24th was officially  “Piper Cub Day “, celebrating  the 75th anniversary of the Piper J-3 Cub at the EAA’s 2012 AirVenture aviation meet.  The EAA sponsored a program called “Cubs 2 Oshkosh” to facilitate large groups of Cubs arriving at the Wittman Regional Airport from all over North America.   Their goal was to “Cover AirVenture 2012 in a Field of Yellow”, and the pilots who flew their Cubs to the event did that in an area set aside for them just abeam of the EAA  Vintage Aircraft Association’s headquarters building.  There were a few rare aircraft on display, including a pair of J-3Ps, with three-cylinder Lenape engines, and a Taylor J-2 Cub too.  There were a number of L-4s present, both in the Vintage area and in the Warbird area further to the north.

During the flying portion of the show, a group of Cubs were flown briefly, just scratching the surface of the J-3’s history.  The first Cub into the air didn’t look like a yellow J-3, but began life as one.  Harold Krier, a famous aerobatic pilot of the 1960s and ’70s modified a pair of J-3s into Clipped Wing Cubs, with shortened wings that were strengthened for aerobatics.  He painted it red and white.  His nephew has built and now flies another modified aircraft as a tribute to his uncle.

Next came an L-4 military version in olive drab paint, complete with a long whip antenna flying in the breeze.  Following this were a trio of Cubs; a J-3C, a PA-18 Super Cub, and a J-3P equipped with the different sounding Lenape Papoose engine.  Later on, a pair of Piper Cub flying acts by Greg Koontz and the Alabama Boys and Kyle Franklin entertained the crowd.

One of the fun things to do was to listen to owners and restorers discuss their experiences amongst each other.  Many wore yellow hats with the Piper Cub emblem, or a t-shirt with something Cub-ish emblazoned on it.  There was a photographer’s platform that offered a superb view of the sea of yellow wings and wooden props within the Cubs 2 Oshkosh assembly, which was usually filled with curious people trying to capture the entire scene in one photo.

I’m not sure it could have been done…

The EAA’s 75th birthday celebration of the Piper J-3 Cub offered a great chance to get up close and personal with a few of the aircraft that are still active.  It was an educational experience too, as different versions were present and available to compare.

It was a great birthday celebration for one of the world’s most successful and popular civilian aircraft.

Ken Kula July, 2012

Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 32 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site, and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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