Take A Seat In Fantasy’s Front Row


Someone accused me of disliking Piper Cubs simply because I’m an Aeronca snob. Not true … mostly. I’ve adored Cubs since I first saw a J-3 levitate off Ramapo, New York Airport on an unstable spring morning when I was an unstable kid. Making little forward progress, it dangled as though suspended by a stray thought from indifferent clouds. I was too young to fly, let alone own a real Cub, so I built a balsa and tissue model slathered in dope with plans to hang it from my bedroom ceiling. Then, because I was 11, unblessed with artistic skills and had not assembled it in a well-ventilated room, the result was a knock-kneed dragonfly instead of the iconic trainer that taught my parents’ generation to fly. No recourse but to tape an M-80 to its belly and blow that dream away.

Years later in California, I watched a swarm of J-3s descend over the Santa Cruz Mountains and land in formation like rebellious mayflies on the grass runway that technically didn’t exist at Watsonville Muni According to FAR 91.007, though, Cubs are a protected species and permitted to land wherever. The allure was back.

In 1982 I found a 1946 J-3 that promised to be everything my imagination conjured: slow, breezy, and possessing the distilled essence of pure flight. Unfortunately, the seller wanted an impure $10,000, twice what I would later pay for a 7AC Champ. Same age with a mid-time 65-HP Continental engine, both had tandem seating and passable fabric, but the Champ was mine for $5000 borrowed from a guy in a Salinas bowling alley for only two points over the vig. Since then, I’ve noticed that J-3s maintain that two-Champs-for-the-price-of-one-Cub ratio. Although, two Champs don’t make a Cub, any more than two Studebaker Larks make an Avanti. Both fine, but image commands a premium.

Besides J-3s, I’ve flown PA-18 Super Cubs, a PA-11 Cub Special and my favorite, although not labeled a Cub, the PA-12 Super Cruiser—all tandem-seat, tailwheel Pipers. Usually, the J-3 is the only one placarded with Rear Seat For Solo Flying. Champs you solo from the front, as nature intended. I’d never instructed in a J-3, so it was with a hint of overreach that I recently agreed to give dual to the new owner of a 1940 Piper Cub. He was an experienced pilot with a previous tailwheel endorsement but little time in make and model, so insurance demanded training from someone resembling a Cub instructor.

Near sunset. The hangar’s one-piece door swung open like curtain-up at the Met. Instead of an opera diva caterwauling from center stage, the jaundiced Cub silently beckoned from the shadows, and inside my head—where this fantasy was getting way out of control—a pipe organ struck a slightly ominous minor chord from Bach’s Ode To Effusion (Johann Christian, not Richard). Passion inflamed, I jumped into the front seat.

Except, I didn’t.

Picture forcing a rusted Slinky up a spiral staircase. I dragged my tail along the clamshell lower doorframe and heading to the front row, hooked my left leg over the forward seatback, leaving my right foot inextricably wedged into the exterior, U-shaped step. I resembled a city kid going for his first pony ride at Math and Grammar Camp in the Catskills. Having never flown a J-3 from the front, I now doubted if it was possible, let alone wise, for adults to occupy that seat. Children, sure; let them sit with knees inches from the gas tank. Dogs even, but modern-sized adults? I had my doubts.

Someone unhooked my right foot from the step and pretzeled my leg into the cabin with the gentleness of a sadistic chiropractor. The airplane rocked as my client slid into the rear seat, while I groped for the lap belt tangled around the backseater’s rudder pedals, extending laterally from my hips. Once in motion, his footwork felt as though he’d worked his size-11 sneakers into my pockets. To that Rear Seat For Solo Flying placard, I’d suggest adding: Front Seat Occupants Must Be No Wider Than a Box of Grape Nuts.

Subsequent flights—and a review of AC 90-109A, Transition to Unfamiliar Aircraft—have shown that CFIs can more gracefully enter the cabin by stepping onto the right main, do a half-pike butt slide, then by swinging ape-like from the overhead tubing, enter the front seat with a trace of dignity intact. Mind the joystick. Reverse the process to nail the dismount. Judges penalize for stepping on wing struts.

Whining aside, I was finally learning how to instruct in a J-3 Cub. And, yes, for all the pain getting to that front row, it proved just as uncomfortable as other 1940s airplane seats: Taylorcraft, Funk, Luscombe.  That’s OK, because it’s a privilege to fly the classics, and pain distracts from the Cub’s limited forward visibility. If you want an unobstructed view, consider a Bell 47 helicopter, but forward visibility is overrated. If the rear-seat pilot can’t see over the nose, why should the instructor? S-turns while taxiing allow glimpses of what’s approaching, and pedestrians should know to stay clear. Hint to ramp rats: If you can’t see the pilots’ eyes, they can’t see you. Quit waving those silly wands.

The Piper Cub isn’t the perfect airplane but deserves being the name non-pilots associate with general aviation. I don’t dislike J-3 Cubs, far from it. I’m flattered when my Champ is mistaken for one. Like calling a Mets player a Yankee. Back in the day, anyhow. I just don’t care for Cub front seats, and pilots shouldn’t be up there. To prove it, fly one alone from the back while fulfilling a kidhood fantasy, and if it doesn’t make you giggle, then there’s a Studebaker Lark waiting to take you to a recliner in the pilots’ lounge. There, you can argue with fellow loungers about the quality of today’s airplane dope or the nuances of FAR 91.007, which admittedly doesn’t exist. But who wants reality when fantasy offers better options?

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  1. At the risk of being excommunicated from the pilot fraternity I fearlessly claim that the cub is a POS airplane. The Champ is better on every way. It had better harmonized control, performs better, is more comfortable to sit in and looks better.

    The design compromises that resulted in the J3 are evident everywhere in the airplane. However in that quintessentially American paradigm, astute marketing will beat product excellence every-time, and Piper marketed the hell out of that airplane.

    • Actually, I think it was timing more than marketing. Piper hit the production peak at just the right time and Champion was nowhere to be found. Anyone who has flown both and is honest would agree the J-3 is aerodynamically terrible. Ergos are worse. I wouldn’t call it a POS, quite. But it has a certain odor.

      I have no trouble getting into either seat. But it’s impossible to look graceful doing it.

      • The J3 was an older design, but it WORKED. That’s why it was built by the thousands to fill the wartime need.

        The Champ is akin to the Bristol Beaufighter, a fine plane but puggy looks, low production, and no press.

  2. Mornin’ Paul. Love your writing. Not to pretend to be an expert, but to get in the front seat of a Cub, get in the back (which is “easier”,) stand up and walk over the front seat and sit down. No big deal. Now, getting into the front cockpit of my biplane is a different story….

  3. I haven’t been in a Cub for awhile after having owned three of the things. My big problem was staying within weight limits. Cubs weren’t made for the Big Mac generation. Ditto my CallAir (née Interstate) Cadet despite having a higher max gross weight limitation. The issue for me is the same as for you, Paul: Getting in and out. Despite YouTube videos of lithe, younger pilots vaulting into the front seat of the Cadet, it can’t be done by me. I have to start with carefully placed feet and knees, taking care to avoid The Stick, then executing a graceful slow roll into position without bumping the throttle. Once in, the airplane is a delight to fly, even land. But then comes The Exit. Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, and while you’re at it, throw a little WD-40 on those joints that don’t bend the way they used to.

    • Reminds me of the last time I took an initial flight with a new student (50 years my junior) in my Champ. As “Grampa 69,” I made a big speech and demonstration of the proper method of ingress: “Grab the steel tubing in any convenient place, put your right foot on the step, stick your left foot ‘in the hole’ [that empty space between the stick and the left interior wall of the fuselage], swing your butt in and rest it on the top of the seat, pull your right foot in and stick it in the ‘other hole,’ then slide your butt down the seat-back and into place. Simple, right?” I got out, doing the routine in reverse order. “Now, you try,” quoth me. So “Miss Teen 19” fairly leaps into the cockpit and into place like a macaque going after a banana on the top branch. Although she surely must have, to this day I don’t remember seeing her grab onto anything. The advantages of youth may be overrated. But what wouldn’t I give to be able to bounce like that again!?

  4. Nineteen years old, and I bought a Cub, yellow and dusty, abandoned in a small-town hangar three hours north of where I lived. It was a teenager’s dream; I had no car, so I took it everywhere, to church, to town, to college, landing on roads, empty farm fields and pastures. It was also a machine of adventure, 24-turn spins, tiny little loops, engine-off accuracy landings from 11,000 feet, a dead-stick landing through the trees and beneath the powerlines, 100-miles cross countries that took all day, and flying up next to a cloud as the sun set so I could wave at my shadow. It burned tractor gas and oil with not a single complaint.

    I saw a J-3 recently and stared at the front seat, wondering how in the world I had ever squeezed myself into such a tiny and uncomfortable space. I think over time we tend to forget the difficult memories, especially when it comes to the disadvantages of flying a Cub. I know that I have.

  5. Great article. Enjoyed it immensely…as both a pilot who was introduced to GA via a CAP L-16 and an owner of a 63 Studebaker Lark.

    As I went nostalgic, I began to think about entry and egress of any airplane, GA or commercial…and have come to a startling conclusion…not one flying machine is easy to get into nor exit! An epiphany of sorts.

    Look at a King Air cockpit. It’s a fooler. Easy to enter the airplane. But getting into the pilot or FO seat without damaging the center console can make the entry to the Cub look quite lame…depending on height, weight, and girth of intended pilots.

    Early Bonanzas require considerable scootching from right to left adding some odd sounds and hilarious gymnastics to get into the left seat although more subtle in nature than the Cub. Those who have later versions with individual adjustable seats must have more pronounced skootching motions to finally get comfortable.

    Airplanes like a later built Mouse that might have two doors, still require a climb on a tall wing that makes for viral video potential.

    I think there are no airplanes built that are easy, comfortable to get into…even LSA’s that are designed for fast food consuming pilots. Some might be easier than others. However, there is no graceful, artful, smooth way of getting into anything that flies.

    Now I feel better realizing no matter how much I spend on an airplane, they are all designed to fly. Comfortable and easy entry or exit is not possible no matter who many degrees from MIT. Flying machines have no provision for graceful entry, certainly not any smooth way for getting comfortable within a particular seat in any airplane without gyrations that might be misconstrued as suggestive to out right hilarious. It’s the price one pays to be a pilot or passenger in a flying machine. It’s like owning a Studebaker Lark. Very misunderstood with subtleties that make it endearing in spite of initial misinformed yet innocent perceptions combined with the realties that come from ownership. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.

    Long live Cubs, Champs, and Studebaker Larks…and easy chairs.

    • Wile it does not exactly fit in a conversation about Cubs & Champs, there is one airplane that is actually easy to get into and out of – the Cessna 177 Cardinal. With its huge doors that swing 90 degrees and a strutless wing, getting into both the front and back seats is like climbing into a two-door car. And, since there are two doors, there is no sliding or schooching across the cabin. Unfortunately. if you are over 5′ 6″ tall, you are always bumping your head on the low-slung wing – a small price to pay for the ease of entry. Now you just have to make sure you always park facing into the wind or an unsuspecting passenger will get that big door ripped off when they open it and let go. As you say, no plane is perfect. 🙂

    • But it’s the only thing I used to be able to rent for $9.00 / hour wet. I was also the only guy the owner would rent it too on the grounds of proficiency in taildraggers.Loved going to the airfield at the crack of dawn, propping it by myself, and flying around south Georgia in the early morning calm.

    • No airplane easy to enter?Let’s see. To enter a C-130 You walk up the stairs into the cargo compartment, turn left and up the stairs into the cockpit. Then walk around to the front and sit down. And I had no problem getting in and out of the O-1 either.

  6. Most of today’s GA-for-fun pilots are a far cry from the average pilot back in the heyday of small plane design, when ease of human access was definitely not a front-burner factor. Simply being unable to get in and out of the darn thing any longer has probably terminated almost as many flying careers as loss of medicals.

  7. Climbing into a Cub has always reminded me of high-jumpers doing the “Fosbery Flop” to throw themselves over a bar that is above their heads. Both look about as graceful, and unless done properly, produce similar results. And, neither one is a move that old, overweight and arthritic pilots should try.

  8. But what about the HEEL BRAKES?

    I’m 6’2″. I could fit into a J-3, but my knees were bent at such an angle that there was no way in hell to depress those damn brakes.

    When I tore my Achilles’ Tendon, the post-op stretching exercises were exactly what it would have taken to make the Cub stop. Too little, too late.