The Piper J3 Cub was Piper’s most produced aircraft, with 20,000 built between 1938 and 1947. Unusually for Piper, which generally produced low wing airplanes, it was a high wing aircraft.
It was a two-seater and designed primarily as a trainer and general aviation aircraft. And like most aircraft of that period, it was a ‘taildragger’, ie it had a tailwheel rather than a nosewheel. It was extremely popular right from its inception. Its popularity continued, and it gradually attained almost cult status. Many Cubs are still flying today.
- Crew: one pilot
- Capacity: one passenger
- Useful load: 455 lb (205 kg)
- Length: 22 ft 5 in (6.83 m)
- Wingspan: 35 ft 3 in (10.74 )
- Height: 6 ft 8 in (2.03 m)
- Wing area: 178.5 sq ft (16.58 m2)
- Empty weight: 765 lb (345 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 1,220 lb (550 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × Continental A-65-8 air-cooled horizontally opposed four cylinder, 65 hp (48 kW) at 2,350 rpm
- Maximum speed: 76 kn (87 mph, 140 km/h)
- Cruise speed: 65 kn (75 mph, 121 km/h)
- Range: 191 nmi (220 mi, 354 km)
- Service ceiling: 11,500 ft (3,500 m)
- Rate of climb: 450 ft/min (2.3 m/s)
- Wing loading: 6.84 lb/sq ft (33.4 kg/m2)
- Power/mass: 18.75 lb/hp (11.35 kg/kW)
Despite being such an old aircraft, second-hand Piper J3 Cubs are not as cheap as you might expect. In the 1940s, a new Cub sold for $1595, which is equivalent to about $20,000 in today’s money.
By the 1970s, Cubs were something of a bargain, selling for around $2500. But prices shot up in the 1980s and 1990s, and today a well-restored Cub is likely to set you back around $440,000 or more; indeed, I have seen them advertised for $65,000 or thereabouts. Cheaper ones are available if you look around carefully, but they may well need a lot of work doing to them. According to one source, prices for used Cubs start at under $20,000 and can rise well above $50,000. So there is quite a lot of variation when it comes to prices.
Looked at realistically, a Cub is rarely a bargain and is probably not even a good deal when looked at purely in financial terms. Cubs sell because they have a certain romance, ie they sell for what they are and have been, not what they can do.
Performance and Handling
The J3 Cub was designed primarily as a trainer, so it was intended to be easy to fly. It is certainly not difficult, but it is of course a taildragger, and the majority of today’s pilots tend not to have much tailwheel time, if any. So if you decide to buy a Cub, do make sure you get some training in tailwheel aircraft. The actual flying is not all that different, but the takeoff and landing most definitely are.
Let’s start with the actual flying. The Cub is by no means a fast aircraft. It cruises at around 70 miles per hour with the 65 hp and 75 hp engines, while those planes sporting the 85 hp engine can manage 80 miles per hour. But of course, people don’t buy Cubs for their fast performance, but more often to fly low on a summer evening and look at the view, or something similar.
Stalls in the Cub are said to be benign, and spins are said to happen fairly slowly. This is an aircraft from the era when flight training regularly included spinning, and it was designed so that it did not terrify new students! That said, however, the Cub has a rather high stall/spin fatality rate, probably because fairly experienced Cub pilots tend to play around at low altitudes, where recovery from stalls and spins is unlikely.
However, one difference when it comes to cruising is that the Cub has very poor ailerons that, like most older aircraft, require a good deal of rudder coordination to counteract adverse yaw. This is something that most modern pilots trained on nosewheel aircraft are not used to and will have to learn when they come to Cub flying
Now let’s move on to the takeoff and landing. As already stated, these are where the real challenges lie, particularly for those pilots who have trained on nosewheel aircraft, which includes almost all modern-day pilots. The taxi and takeoff require more use of the feet on the rudder pedals than most pilots are used to these days. I remember trying to taxi a tailwheel aircraft for the first time and being surprised at just how difficult it was.
When it comes to the landing, you need to nail the correct speed and fly carefully in order to avoid the notorious ‘groundloop’. It can take time to learn to do this. But once you have learned to handle it, the Cub is excellent on short fields and grass runways, for this is what it was designed for. Indeed, an experienced Cub pilot will find the aircraft to be versatile, flexible, and a lot of fun to fly.
Maintenance for the Piper J3 Cub is fairly straightforward since it is a simple, basic airplane. Because it has been so popular for so long, you should not have too much difficulty in finding a mechanic who can work on it. And owners’ manuals are easily available on the internet if you do a search.
As is the case for many old aircraft, quite a large proportion of aircraft owners elect to do at least some of their own maintenance. Should you decide to do this, the Piper Flyer Association has a lot of useful information for DIYers on their website, at https://www.piperflyer.org/maintenance-technical/item/1038-airplane-maintenance-for-the-diyer-first-steps.html.
Modifications and Upgrades
A large number of J3 Cub variants were produced, some of which are still available today. First came the military version, the J4, nicknamed the Grasshopper. This came along in 1940 and was used in the Second World War for reconnaissance, transporting supplies, and medical evacuation.
In the late 1940s, with the J3 firmly established and with a large number having been sold, Piper replaced the J3 with the PA-11 Cub Special, 1,500 of which were produced. This was soon followed by the Piper PA-18 Super Cub, which was built from 1949 until 1983 and then again from 1988 to 1994.
However, partly because the J3 now meets US light-sport aircraft guidelines, there was a resurgence of interest in the original J3, as well as the later developments of the design. These included models manufactured by CubCrafters, Legend Aircraft, and a number of others. And thanks to simple construction and low fuel consumption (under five gallons an hour), the care and feeding of a J3 Cub requires less cash on hand than almost any other production airplane.
Where to Find Replacement Parts
Getting parts for your Cub is likely to be necessary at some time or another. Luckily, although Piper stopped making the Cub so long ago, finding parts for one is not likely to be a problem.
There are a couple of companies specializing in used aircraft parts, and they will certainly have those parts likely to be needed for a Cub. These are Univair and Wag-Aero, both of which stock a complete selection of Cub parts. Wag-Aero Group is in Lyons, Wisconsin, at 800-558-6868 and at www.wagaero.com. You can contact Univair Aircraft Corp. at 888-433-5433 and at www.univair.com.
Often you will find that the replacement parts are actually superior to the originals. For instance, aluminum fuel tanks are lighter and less prone to corrosion than the originals and are also significantly cheaper.
Although the Cub is easy to fly, it has a surprisingly poor safety record. As already stated, stall/spin accidents tend to predominate, and there are also a relatively large number of engine failure accidents. And like most taildraggers, Cubs tend to have accidents on takeoff and landing, with ground loops being particularly common.
Other problems revolve around the fact that being such an old aircraft, the Cub has the potential to be expensive to keep flying. The original cotton covering only lasted a few years, and most cost-conscious owners have replaced these days with more modern synthetic fabrics such as ‘Ceconite’. And many of the original struts and other metal parts are prone to rust and need replacing periodically, Indeed, an analysis of service records showed that most Cubs had an ongoing problem with corrosion. So despite the fact that a Cub ought to be inexpensive to maintain, surprise bills are fairly common.
The situation is similar with Cub engines. Although they may not seem to have done many hours, some will need replacing due to the amount of time they have actually been on the aircraft. Like with old cars, parts like engines can need replacing due to age rather than use, and this is often the case with Cubs. So you need to be careful when buying one and look beyond the actual hours flown.
Ensuring the Piper J3 Cub is unlikely to cost you a fortune unless you are planning to instruct in it. The hull value is relatively low, and most accidents are at fairly low speed and tend to only damage the airplane rather than anything else. Insurance companies should be fairly happy with it, so long as you have a reasonable amount of training and some tailwheel time. They are unlikely to ask for anything special or complicated before agreeing to insure your Cub.
One thing you can say about Cubs is that they hold their value. They may be relatively expensive, but when it comes to resale, they have always fetched better prices than their contemporaries. So although you may end up paying over the odds when you buy a Cub, you are unlikely to lose money if you come to resell it.
Cubs are old, and as already mentioned, have a certain romance about them, almost a cult status. As with most old aircraft, quite a lot of work is involved in keeping them in good condition. But owners and pilots tend to be extremely fond of them. Here are some examples of what they say:
“I really love flying my Cub! I fly my Cub about 15 hours a month as part of my business. The Cub is an absolute joy to fly. It is slow – really slow – and noisy, but nothing matches flying along in the back seat (you solo from the back) with the breeze blowing in through the door, and drifting along like a stately pelican over the trees and countryside.”
“One of the greatest moments in my life was when Peter got out of the J3 on the side of the runway at Kahului, Maui, Hawaii, and said to me, ‘Take her up yourself.’ For a 16-year-old, flying up there alone — solely in control, over the cane fields in the Maui skies and tropical winds — was true freedom. Needless to say, Cub yellow is still my favorite airplane color.”
Because the J3 Cub has been so popular for so long, there have been a number of developments from it. The Piper PA-11 cub special was very similar to fly but had what Cub owners and pilots had been asking for – more power and payload. The successor to this was the Piper Super Cub, which had more power, flaps, an electrical system, and a bit more space inside. The Super Cub is very popular today, particularly for bush flying.
Then came a number of Cub and Super Cub look-alikes. There is the Aviat Husky, AL-18 Super Legend HP, and CubCrafters Carbon Cub SS, to name but a few. These are all modern taildraggers, and perhaps incorporate all that was best about a Cub with some modern innovations too, which can’t be bad!
Clubs You Can Join
As you might expect for such an old but popular aircraft, there are a large number of clubs and associations connected with it. There is a club specifically for Piper Cub pilots, the ‘Cub Club’. See https://www.cubclub.org/ There is also a Piper Cub club on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/groups/392831770924390/ And there is a Piper Flyer Association on the Piper Flyer website, https://www.piperflyer.org. There is also the Vintage Piper Aircraft Club http://www.vintagepiper.co.uk/ You may well also find a number of local and regional Piper Cub associations. Indeed, when it comes to clubs you will be quite spoiled for choice!
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Is The Piper J3 Cub Easy To Fly?
Answer: It is certainly not difficult. It was designed as a trainer, and as such, it is fairly straightforward to fly, and benign when it comes to stalls and spins. But like all tailwheel aircraft, takeoff and landing are difficult unless you have been trained on taildraggers. So do make sure you get some tailwheel training before flying one.
Question: How Many People Can A Piper J3 Cub Carry In Comfort?
Answer: The words ‘Cub’ and ‘Comfort’ do not really go together! The Cub is designed for two people only. And it does not actually carry even two people in comfort, to be honest. The cockpit is uncomfortably small for anyone taller than about 5 foot 10 inches. Having said that, everything is within easy reach for a short pilot, unlike in many other aircraft. And kids just love the Cub!
Question: The Piper J3 Cub Is A Very Old Airplane. Is It Safe?
Answer: So long as it is properly maintained, there is no reason why the Cub should not be safe. It does have a fairly poor accident record, but this is probably due to the fact that many pilots do not get enough tailwheel time before flying one, and tend to play around at a low level when flying.
Question: Why Do So Few People Learn To Fly On A Piper J3 Cub These Days?
Answer: These days most people learn to fly on more modern nosewheel aircraft, which are easier to fly. But if you want to learn on a Cub, you should be able to find someone who can teach you.
The Cub is really an aircraft like no other. For many pilots, it has a romance which is more important than the fact that it is old, slow, and uncomfortable. It enables you to fly low and slow on a pleasant summer day, with the doors off if you feel like it, and to simply enjoy the sensation of being in the air in a way that is not possible in many other aircraft.
For many owners, it is the only airplane they would want to fly. Others simply do not understand this of course. So if you want to find out which of these types of pilots you are, get yourself a flight in a Cub and see what you think. You are guaranteed to either love it or hate it!
Aviation Consumer, https://www.aviationconsumer.com
Flying magazine, https://www.flyingmag.com
- Piper Colt Guide and Specs : Is the PA-22-108 Best For You?
- Gulfstream G550 Guide and Specs : What Are Its Best Features?
- Gulfstream G700 Guide and Specs : Pricing and Similar Aircraft
- Cessna 210 Guide and Specs : Pricing and Features
- Phenom 100 Guide and Specs : Is It Easy To Operate?
- 15 Most Important Events in Air History Of Time
- 30 Most Common Airplane Types Guide: All You Need To Know
- Aircraft Maintenance 101: All You Need To Know