Image: Anton Nel

Written by: Jim Davis

Bear with me if I start at a bit of a tangent – it is going somewhere.

Many years ago Geoff Towill blundered into my little flying school in George. He was in his mid 30s and had tatty clothes and locks of unkempt hair hanging over his face. He had that slightly wild look of a dotty professor. “Can you teach me to fly a green aeroplane?” He asked.

“I expect so. What sort of aircraft is it?”

“It’s a green one.” Geoff explained

Here we go, I thought. The aircraft turned out to be a Luscombe Silvaire – a delightful little side-by-side, all metal two seater with a 65HP Continental. And Geoff turned out to be a sharp and entertaining pupil. He later got his Com and built up his own crop-spraying company.

And what has this to do with J-3 Cubs? Well, had he said he wanted to train on his yellow two-seater with a 65HP Continental I would have known exactly what he was talking about.

As Ford sold Model Ts in any colour, as long as they were black, so William T Piper’s Cubs came in all colours called Yellow. And ideally they are photographed in green fields peppered with yellow daisies, but I don’t have a Cub or a daisy field nearby to photograph – so you will have to imagine it.

As you walk through the daisies towards the little aeroplane you realize it is about as basic as it could be. The four tiny cylinders poke out of the nose with little black ears to scoop the air round them. The spark plugs and their wires are there for the world to see.

The cowlings seem to be made out of fruit juice box material – only thinner. They are held on with nappy pins. The tailplane has no shape – it is just a flat thing. The ailerons are worked by exposed cables that run up behind the struts, go round pullies and are attached to the horns by pins and split-pins. In fact much of the aeroplane depends on bits of bent wire. Hell even the door handle is a bit of bent wire – it really is, I’m not kidding.

Such delightful simplicity contrasts with the Pom equivalent basic trainer the – Tiger Moth. Where Mr Piper uses a two-dollar cable to work the throttle, Mr de Havelland has a system of beautifully engineered, bell-cranks, rods with ball joints, which weighs as much as a young fridge, needs constant attention and maintenance, and eventually wears out.

Much as I like the Tiger, it is a mechanical nightmare compared to the cub. The undercarriage which has pivots and oleos and braces and struts, works magnificently, but it makes a Steinway feel light. The Cub uses … wait for it… rubber bands – which also work magnificently.

Which would I rather fly? Undoubtedly the Tiger – it’s a hell of a lot of fun flying an open-cockpit, aerobatic biplane. Which would I rather use as a flying school trainer? No question about it – the Cub is light-years ahead for economy, easy maintenance and low running costs. Hell, the Tiger uses exactly twice the horsepower to do the same job.

Ok I guess, partly because it is aerobatic, and partly because it is heavier, the Tiger will turn out better pilots, but I would take the Cub any day if I was a military commander wanting to churn out huge numbers of pilots at minimum cost. You can always use something aerobatic to fill that gap later.

Anyhow I sidetracked myself – you were walking through the daisies to go for your first flight in a Cub. The preflight is so simple it needs no discussion as long as you check the huge array of split pins and nappy pins. Oh, and another thing, my instructor, Dirty Bossie, would make me grasp the wingtip and shake it up and down to listen for clonks – indicating that the attachment brackets and bolts were worn. That was ZS-BNR, and it always clonked because they were. You could actually hear it in flight as you booted in rudder to enter a spin.

As pilot in command, or student, you clamber into the back seat and are immediately immersed in a smell of dope, hot oil and avgas. The instructor, or passenger, has to go through some spine-wrenching contortions to get into the front. As soon as he is comfortable you realize you can’t see a damn thing except his back. You have no forward visibility at all, and all the instruments are hidden.

When I say ‘all’, there is a rev-counter which works the wrong way, a one-handed altimeter that only shows thousands of feet, an ASI, compass, a ball, and temp and pressure gauges. Oh and more wire – there is a bit of bent wire on a cork to tell you the level of the fuel in the little 12 usg (45 l) tank behind the panel.

When you strap yourself in make sure that your seat belt does not go round the rudder cables which run either side of your seat near the floor.

Let’s just take stock of what you, as pilot in command, have under your control. No, not the fuel cock that’s under the panel, and way beyond your reach. Altimeter setting knob? Also out of reach. Master switch? There isn’t one – no battery to switch on. Lights, radios, starter? Nope – we don’t have any of those things. But you can operate the door handle, the rudder pedals and heel brakes, the stick – obviously; the carb-heat, trim and throttle on the left side-wall, and mag switch at the wing root above your left shoulder – that’s it.

So when you train in a Cub at a quiet country strip the stick and rudder teach you about aerodynamics, the throttle, mags and carb-heat teach you about engine handling, and the trim teaches you to fly with a delicate touch. The wire door handle is your ventilation control – you can fly with the door open or closed, depending on temperature. This means there are no distractions to take your mind away from pure flying, which in turn means you can go solo in six hours, and learn all you need to be a safe pilot in just 40 hours.

Anyhow here we are strapped in and ready to go. Some guy goes round the front and tells you to stand on the heel brakes, which are minute and awkward as hell. He then calls for you to set the throttle and hold the stick fully back. Finally he yells “Contact” so you switch on the mags and reply “Contact”. He swings the prop, and with any luck the whole thing springs into life.

The predominant sound is a sort of clatter – the type of noise you would get from a worn-out industrial sewing machine. If you have any mechanical feel you will be quite certain that the camshaft is broken or that the bearings are shot, or the thing is about to fling a con-rod.

Have no fear – they all do it and you will get used to it.

If you are on your own, starting is still pretty simple. You stand on the right hand side, facing forward, with your right foot in front of the wheel – to act as a chock. You work the throttle and mags with your left hand and you swing the prop from behind with your right hand. It is all surprisingly easy.

Taxiing is demanding – you really can see nothing ahead. It is best done with the door open so you can stick your head well out to the right to make sure there is nothing immediately ahead. Once you get going serious zig-zags are needed all the time.

The heel brakes are not fun – they are feeble as well as being difficult to get at. They are not designed to take much taxiing in a crosswind, and will soon cook and then fade to the extent that you have to stop and let them cool down. Cubs are made for grass patches – not miles of tarmac.

When you get to the holding point you can try doing a runup at 2100 rpm, but the brakes won’t hold – you realise you should have done it against the chocks outside the hangar.

Otherwise there is not much to do in the way of pre-takeoff vital actions. You set the trim and check for other traffic before lining up.

When you unleash the 65 horses the revs should go up to 2300 and the clattering will get a bit more intense, but not much else seems to happen for a while then you may notice an edging forward, which gradually turns into a reluctant trot. Get the tail up and you will at least see where you are going.

The book says that at gross weight she will fly at 39 mph. Call it 40. When this happens you must level off immediately and wait until you see 55 on the clock for climbing. That is assuming the guy or girl in the front has grasped one of the airframe tubes that form a V across the windscreen, and pulled themselves to one side enough for you to be able to see some of the clocks.

Climb, particularly on the reef on a warm day, can hardly even be described as leisurely. I used to hang around the Pretoria flying club waiting for someone to pitch, who was coughing and clutching a doctor’s prescription. Doctors went through a phase of thinking that if their whooping cough patients were taken up in an aeroplane and then descended quickly it would cure their ailment. Of course it was rubbish but I was looking for hours and nobody seemed to care that I didn’t have a com.

I would take the afflicted person up over the ridge to the South of Wonderboom and fly up and down looking for lift that might assist our ascent from 4100 ft to 7000. This could easily take as much as half an hour, which was great for my logbook, but I doubt it had any beneficial effect on the invalid.

Sorry, I got sidetracked again. We had just got airborne and started climbing. If you are doing circuits and bumps on the reef and it is a warmish day, do not – I repeat, do not, wait for 500 ft before turning crosswind because you will lose sight of the airfield before you turn. You have to juggle the circuit to make a compromise between doing a cross-country and conforming to a normal pattern. On a good day, one up, you might reach circuit height (that’s 800ft for a Cub) by the end of downwind.

Don’t worry that you forgot to do your landing checks in the climb – there is nothing to check, except perhaps the pressure in the little brakes.

The handbook makes no mention of what you and I would call a normal powered approach. Here’s what it says:

1. Push carburetor heat ON prior to throttling back for glide, or for any other flight maneuver.
2. Glide between 50-60 M.P.H. depending upon loading of airplane and gust conditions.

NOTE “Clear” engine by opening throttle gently, every 200-250 feet of descent during a
long glide so that engine temperature will be maintained. Throttle action on the part of the pilot should be smooth and gentle at all times.

So from say 800 ft we are meant to do two or three engine warm-ups. Actually no one ever does this and it doesn’t seem to matter.

The POH is remarkably silent on the subject of the landing – it says nothing at all. Bossie was equally unforthcoming. All he told me was that if the stick wasn’t “right back in your guts” the landing would be a disaster. In this he was correct.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the Cub’s simple honesty make up for Bossie’s lack of instructional finesse.

I remember being trapped in that miserable stage when life consists of endless cessions of circuits and bumps – each seemingly worse than the one before. Rather than tell me what I was doing wrong, and make suggestions as to how I might improve my performance, Bossie would, from the front seat, bellow his opinion of my most recent contact with the planet: “That’s the worst fecking landing I have ever seen.”

Being wedged in the front seat, Bossie was obliged to grab one of the diagonal struts behind the windscreen and twist his frame to one side so I could strain my neck the other way and glimpse the airspeed indicator and the never-centred ball.

During one appalling session, we were approaching the apex of a spectacularly high bounce when Bossie rotated even further in his seat to bring his face directly in front of mine. Although I could see every crud-filled pore, I focussed with fascination on a stalactite of saliva that hung from his top lip and blew outwards, like a miniature windsock, with every syllable he pronounced. “Da-vis-you-are-go-ing-to-crash-this-feck-ing-air-craft.”

“I know, Bossie, I know” was all I could stammer before we smashed into the dirt once more. In fact, that was the only thing I did know – I was on the brink of reducing a serviceable aircraft to its component parts. It seemed unnecessary for Bossie to point this out to me.

Through trial and error, my technique slowly improved to the extent that Bossie finally permitted me to fly the tiny aircraft alone. There was a vacuous space in the area so recently occupied by my malodorous mentor. The Cub and I popped into the air in less than the length of a football field and the ground moved away more easily than before. I broke into lusty song – a sound capable of frightening old ladies and little children.

I maintained this vocal onslaught throughout the downwind leg, to the exclusion of any checks that were expected of me. My idiot singing continued throughout the approach and surprising graceful return to earth. It only stopped when I taxied within earshot of the grinning Bossie.

If you are not doing circuits then the only reason for going more than 500 ft AGL would be to practice stalls, steep turns and spins. So let’s spare you the long climb and assume we have now put 3000 ft between ourselves and the ground.

Steep turns are strictly limited by power. At 3000 ft above the beach you may have enough power to sustain a 45 banked turn. 3000 ft above Johannesburg – no ways.

Stalls, as you would expect with that beautiful Clark Y wing are absolutely straightforward and gentle. There is no stall hooter or light and there is no warning shudder. The controls get very sloppy and she just gently stops flying.

Spins are a delight, although I seem to remember having to leave on a bit of power in order to get enough rudder authority to make it all start. She settles immediately into a gentle and entirely predictable spin that you can leave as long as you like. Then she recovers the moment you ask her.

As you go in, remember to listen out for the clonk that tells you the wings are not properly attached.

But training in a Cub wasn’t all roses in the olden days. One evening I was climbing aboard my aged Matchless to go home when Bossie hailed me and casually mentioned that on Wednesday I would be doing my solo spin.

At first I didn’t believe what I had heard. What did the words mean? Solo spin? Bossie enlightened me. It was a legal requirement, he said. I had to climb to 3,000 feet over the airfield and do a three-turn spin, while he watched from the safety of the ground.

I spent the next forty-eight hours in dry-mouthed terror, and came close to abandoning aviation for ever. I won’t bore you with my miserable mental state other than to mention that I struggled with ideas for avoiding my appointment with death. I could invent a mag-drop, or perhaps disappear behind the hills to the north, and return 20 minutes later declaring that I had done the deed.

When the time came, and the altimeter had crept it’s way up to 7,100 feet (3,000 agl) I resigned myself to the hereafter. I cleared the area, applied carb-heat, throttled back and raised the nose. At 40 mph I hauled the stick fully back, tramped on the left rudder and closed my eyes. After a while I remembered that I should do three turns. I opened my eyes and tried to concentrate on counting while the “T” shaped runways rotated in the windscreen. To my amazement when I used right rudder followed by stick forward, the airfield steadied itself and I eased out of the dive – still alive.

First solo is nothing compared with the first solo spin – it is the greatest confidence-builder in the world. I was a Lindbergh, a Wiley Post and a Howard Hughes. I could do anything with an aeroplane.

Such bravado is frightening, and had I been flying a less gentle aeroplane I would soon have killed myself with that sort of attitude.

Fortunately, before I had time to provoke fate with my Cub-induced overconfidence I found myself employed by Placo and flying as a dogsbody to Piet van der Woude and Zingi Harrison. They quickly put me in my place and I was able to learn, from the right hand seat of a Comanche, how survivors fly.

From Cub to Comanche – how lucky can you get? The two finest aeroplanes Piper ever built.

As a final comment on the Cub, here is what Max Stanley, Northrop’s test pilot, said, “The Piper Cub is the safest aeroplane in the world – it can just barely kill you”.

Engine 65 HP Continental A-65-8
Max speed 100 mph (at sea level)
Cruise @ 75% power 87 mph
Stall speed 38 mph
Initial rate of climb 514 ft/min
Service ceiling 14,500 ft
Range 300 miles
Gross weight 1220 lbs
Empty weight 730 lbs
Useful load 490 lbs
Wing span 35’ 2.5”
Length 22’ 4.5”
Height 6’ 8”

Jim Davis

Jim Davis

Jim is a South African aviation legend.

He believes you learn best if you are having fun, so his books are as un-textbookish as you can get, while still covering the subject thoroughly and clearly. His PPL book is essential for anyone learning to fly

Jim has a passion for flying training.

He has over 15,000 hours including about 10,000 of flying instruction for both civilian and military pilots. He is the founder of South Africa’s biggest and most respected flying school – 43 Air School.

Jim has written several books on  flying training and countless articles for flying magazines on two continents.