The Piper Cub, one of the most popular and influential light aircraft ever manufactured, remains a term synonymous with general aviation in the United States—more than 80 years after its introduction. The name “Cub” is commonly used to describe a number of aircraft models—most notably the Piper J-2 and J-3.
The Cub story begins in 1927 when two barnstorming brothers, C. Gilbert and Gordon Taylor, formed the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Company to produce and market a small, high-wing, two-seat monoplane named the “Chummy,” designed a year earlier by Gilbert. Tragically, Gordon Taylor would soon be killed in an airplane crash, although the Taylor company name would endure.
In September 1930, Taylor embarked on the production of a two-seat tandem low-powered aircraft, designated the Taylor E-2. The E-2 featured a design with wings mounted high on the fuselage, an open cockpit, fabric-covered tubular steel fuselage and wooden wings. It was powered by a 20-horsepower (15-kilowatt) Brownbach "Tiger Kitten" engine.
The “Tiger Kitten” roared but the little engine was not strong enough to power the E-2. On September 12, 1930, a test flight of the Taylor E-2 ended abruptly when the aircraft ran out of runway—the underpowered engine was unable to lift the monoplane higher than five feet (1.5 meters) above the ground. Later that year, Taylor Brothers Aircraft Company went bankrupt.
The so-called “Lindbergh Boom” in general aviation following the landmark 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris inspired oilman William T. Piper to purchase the assets of the Taylor Aircraft Corporation for $761 as it emerged from bankruptcy protection in 1931. Piper effectively took control of the firm when he assumed the position of corporate secretary-treasurer, although he retained Gilbert Taylor in the role of president. Piper, often called the “Henry Ford of Aviation,” believed that a simple-to-operate low-cost private airplane would flourish, even in the darkest depths of the Great Depression.
Shortly after Piper assumed control of the company, Taylor Aircraft introduced an improved E-2 airframe, powered by the newly developed Continental Motors Corporation 37-horsepower (28-kilowatt) A-4O engine. The new Taylor E-2, now known as the “Cub,” was awarded its type certificate on July 11, 1931 and licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce for manufacture. Twenty-two Taylor E-2 Cubs were sold during 1931, retailing for $1,325; by 1935, sales had increased to more than 200 E-2 Cubs.
Under the direction of 19-year-old aircraft designer Walter Jamouneau, the E-2 Cub was revamped, with rounded angles and other notable changes, and reintroduced in 1936 as the Taylor J-2 Cub – the ‘J' standing for Jamouneau. But the changes to the fundamental Cub design were unacceptable to company founder Gilbert Taylor, who soon parted ways with William Piper —though only after Piper bought out his remaining interest in the company. Taylor went on to establish the new Taylorcraft Aviation Company of Alliance, Ohio.
In 1937, the company was hit with a devastating fire. William Piper relocated his manufacturing operation and several hundred employees to Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, and the Piper Aircraft Corporation was born. By year's end, it had built 687 Piper airplanes.
The following year, the upgraded Piper J-3 Cub was unveiled, powered by a 40-horsepower (30-kilowatt) engine built by Continental, Lycoming, or Franklin and selling for $1,300. Piper soon introduced a uniform colour scheme for the Cubs—bright yellow trimmed in black. Engine horsepower continued to increase, first to 50 horsepower (37 kilowatts), then to 65 horsepower (48 kilowatts) by 1940.
Lilliputian by today's standards, the two-seat J-3 Cub was only 22 feet 2 inches (6.5 meters) long, stood 80 inches (2 meters) high, and had a wingspan of 35 feet 2 inches (10.7 meters). When powered by the Lycoming 65-horsepower (48-kilowatt) engine, the J-3 Cub attained a maximum speed of 85 miles per hour (137 kilometres per hour) with a ceiling of 9,300 feet (283 meters). Even more remarkable, the fuel tank held only 12 gallons (45.4 liters), sufficient to fly about 190 miles (351 kilometers)—compare this to your modern automobile!
The outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1939, coupled with the growing realization that the United States might soon be drawn into World War II, resulted in the formation of the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. The Piper J-3 Cub would play an integral role in the success of the CPT, achieving legendary status in the process.
The Piper J-3 Cub became the primary trainer aircraft of the CPT—75 percent of all new pilots in the CPT were trained in Cubs. By war's end, 80 percent of all United States military pilots received their initial flight training in Piper Cubs.
The need for new pilots created an insatiable appetite for Piper Cubs. In 1940, the year before the United States' entry into the war, 3,016 Cubs were built; soon, wartime demands would increase that production rate to one Piper J-3 Cub being built every 20 minutes!
The Piper Cub was quickly becoming a familiar sight to the average citizen. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took a flight in a J-3 Cub, posing for a series of publicity photos to help promote the CPT program. Newsreels and newspapers of the era often featured images of wartime leaders, such as Generals Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and George Marshall, flying around the battlefields of Europe in Piper Cubs. Civilian-owned Cubs quickly joined the war effort, patrolling the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coasts in a constant search for German U-boats and survivors of U-boat attacks, as part of the newly formed Civil Air Patrol (CAP).
Piper Cubs, variously designated as the L-4, O-59 and NE-1 and generically nicknamed “Grasshoppers,” were used extensively in World War II for reconnaissance, transporting supplies and medical evacuation. A total of 14,125 Piper Cubs were built between 1939 and 1947—a testament to its wartime versatility.
The manufacturing capacity that churned out record numbers of Cubs during the war was quickly exploited to satisfy the consumer demand for light aircraft in the subsequent years. The affordable cost of the J-3 Cub in post-war dollars, $2,195, was carefully priced to be within the reach of a returning war veteran pilot.
The post-war sales boom in private aircraft dissipated as quickly as it took off. Piper Aircraft ceased production of the venerable Cub to concentrate on the development of its popular and more advanced Vagabond, Pacer and, eventually, TriPacer models. The era of the Piper Cub was over but its influence on aviation will not be forgotten.