One of the things I've noticed about aviation journalists is that we don't tend to run against the grain much, probably for fear of being perceived as wild-eyed lunatics. You know, the whole opinion leader thing. But I'm quite comfortable with my own wild-eyed lunacy and I like to think I pull off hysteria with class, a cynical critical eye and occasional tasteful restraint. Conformity makes a warm Petri dish for accepted truths to flourish. Some examples: Engine failure is most likely to occur at the first power change after takeoff; there are those who have and those who will land gear up; the only time you can have too much fuel is if you're on fire; taildragger pilots are the only real pilots. Being a contrarian, I've never believed any of these but I confess, I'm rethinking that last one, the taildragger thing.
Now that I've been doing some primary instruction in the Cub, I'm beginning to wonder if it's true. To be honest, I never liked doing primary that much. I always tilted toward instrument instruction because I like the challenges of flying real weather and the arcane esoterics of divining your position in space solely from five or six gauges. But then I'd never instructed in a Cub. So I now find myself astonished to be thinking it may be the best trainer ever built. And not just for primary students.
Given the Cub's faultsand they are manythis shouldn't be so, but it turns out that the faults really are attributes. Its pathetically low power loading forces a pilot to plan ahead and really think through takeoff capabilities on a short runway. And you'll embarrass yourself with a hands-of-stone coaxed rotation before it's ready to fly. Gobs of adverse yaw and a glacial roll rate requires use of a rudder whose response is, at times, temperamental. The brakes offer little but nodding acknowledgment to friction so you learn to fly without them, thus never acquiring the gratingly stupid habit of riding the brakes during taxi.
From the instructional perspective, this has resulted in something I didn't expect: I don't do much in the Cub. The other day, my 16-year-old student, Jordan, and I were pottering over the Intracoastal Waterway doing rectangular patterns. He lined up the Cub's wheel with the shoreward side of the waterway, cranked in some angle and we watched as a brisk easterly drifted us off the line. I don't think I said a thing; he watched the drift, carved into it a little and knew what to expect on the opposite leg.
Later, during some landing workups at Buchan, a lovely little grass patch south of Venice, I luxuriated in silence in the Cub's expansive front seat while Jordan applied the necessary angles in the pattern and on final. In any airplane, but especially a Cub, the metric of emerging success is a rail-straight roll down the centerline with aggressive rudder inputs before the nose begins to sway to either side, not after the excursion starts. Jordon was doing that, so I guess he and the Cub were talking because I sure wasn't.
This reinforces another lunatic notion I've always had: Just about anyone who wants to can, with sufficient motivation and time, teach themselves to fly. A CFI's job should be little more than keeping the airplane from cratering and knocking the sharp edges off whatever insurmountable learning barriers arise while this process progresses. Otherwise, shutting the #$@% up isn't such a bad thing. I recognize everyone learns differently and some students need more than others, including motivation. I've never been much good at that, having been blessed almost entirely with motivated students, many of whom I recruited because they were motivated.
There are some things we can't do easily in the Cub. When I Googled around for some samples of pre-solo quizzes, I was a little shocked to see how many instructors build these things around regulations, airspace and especially radio work at towered fields. (Admittedly, the FARs push this.) With our iffy radio, I think I'll pass on trying to operate into a towered field. We'll get to that later.
Several of the quizzes I found were structured as though the flying is assumed, as though radio operation is the real art and stick and rudder is just a means of putting the radio where you want it. I'll concede the point, for that is what we have become.
So if the J-3 isn't the universe's best trainer, what is? For my money, it just might be either a Legend Cub or a maybe a Sport Cub from Cub Crafters, with a simple glass panel. Yes, glass. These airplanes fly almost like the originala little betterhave just enough additional power to gin up the performancebut can be flown on the wing, just like a J-3. The glass panel provides a useful link to the modern world of flight without giving up the extraordinary benefits of the old. When you get tired of watching the phony horizon on the glass, switch it off and watch the real one.
If that's not the best of all worlds, I don't know what is. (Wonder if there's a used one out there I could afford )