October 1, 2022
A Commercial Pilot’s Day off on the Piper J-3 Cub

A Commercial Pilot’s Day off on the Piper J-3 Cub

DALLAS – I’ve always known that someday I’d own a Cub. From the day that I soloed in Montpelier, VT in 1970, through years of flying large jets around the country, wherever I’d see one, I’d make an effort to look her over and speak with her owner.

While advancing through the flying ranks, all my friends could talk about was multi-engine, constant speed, turbine-powered twins, while I gravitated towards Cubs and DC-3s.

The Piper J-3 Cub is an American light aircraft built between 1938 and 1947 by Piper Aircraft. The type has a simple, lightweight design, which gives it good low-speed handling properties and short-field performance. The Cub is Piper’s most-produced model, with nearly 20,000 built in the US.

I’m fascinated by the history of aviation, those who made it, and the clean lines of antique airplanes. My friends thought I was nuts to seek out a Cub. If I wanted that type of aircraft, they argued, “at least get a Champ. You can actually go somewhere in it.”

The Champ, or Airknocker, specifically developed to compete with the popular Piper Cub, is a great airplane, and I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in one, but the object of my desire was a little yellow Cub. I simply yearned to “putt-putt” around on a summer evening with the doors open and enjoy the fragrance of freshly mowed hay fields. Also, landing on frozen lakes in the winter would be fun too.

When I finally discovered and purchased my Cub, which incidentally, I hadn’t flown the type in 20 years, I really hadn’t anticipated a 1,600 nautical mile journey home. My quest led me to Denton, Texas and a young Lear Jet pilot/entrepreneur resigned to selling his Cub to fund a business venture. Smart kid. If you’re determined to become a professional pilot in today’s environment, you’d better have a backup plan… or two.

To make my flight home even more adventuresome and in line with the age of the airplane, I decided to navigate by dead reckoning. I purchased the appropriate sectional charts, drew my lines, noted obstructions, planned fuel stops, noted magnetic variances, and mileage, and studied my route from Texas to New Hampshire to avoid metropolitan areas.

Not entirely in keeping, though, I did purchase a handheld comm radio, to attach to the existing, externally mounted antenna. I also carried a GPS, just in case I got in over my head, but it never came out of my duffel bag. So, with my wet compass, watch, pencil, and chart, I was determined to find my way home to Brookline, New Hampshire.

To not waste the seller’s or my time, we negotiated over the phone and used the Internet to exchange detailed pictures. When I arrived in Denton to inspect the Cub, the airplane and its logbooks were exactly as advertised; there were no surprises. I flew her a bit, inspected her closely with a mechanic, studied the logs, shook hands, and finalized a deal.

With my insurance pre-arranged, I mailed the FAA the appropriately signed Registration and Bill of Sale, (forms 8050-1 and 8050-2) as the owner completed the annual inspection. While there, I met many of his friends who flew a variety of colorful taildraggers and offered welcome advice concerning flying in the south. Early the next morning, I was airborne, headed towards Arkansas.

I hadn’t flown too awfully far, though, as moderate rain and low clouds forced my retreat to Denton, delaying my departure until later in the afternoon. Eastbound, past Lakes Lewisville and Lavon and huge communication towers, something I’m not accustomed to in New England, I followed Interstate 30 as I raced against an early November sun to land at Mt. Pleasant in Northeast Texas.

A B-52 Stratofortress assigned to the 307th Bomb Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, La., approaches the refueling boom of a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base. Photo: By Airman 1st Class Victor J. Caputo – US Air Force, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68131933

A Treasure Chest of History

Just prior to the airport, though, a little east of Sulpher Springs, I encountered a B-52. I was flying at about 1,500 feet AGL when, from the corner of my eye, I noticed this large green mass moving in my direction, that blended in pretty well with the ground below.

Camouflage does work! As the massive B-52 flew beneath me, the crew slowly rocked their wings in passing. With the vortices that that airplane must produce, I was thankful that I wasn’t below him. It was the first time I’d ever seen the top of such a large airplane from so close!

The landing and spending time in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, was even nicer than the name implied. The airfield was brand new and home to several large corporate jets. The pavement, the grass, the buildings, the fuel farm and hangars, and even the yellow and white pavement stripes were new and unfaded.

The airport manager greeted me as if I’d arrived in a Falcon Jet, showed me all around, and made room in a hangar to protect the Cub. The next morning, with visibility of less than a hundred yards in fog, he proudly gave me a personal tour of all the antique airplanes in the area.

I experienced a treasure chest of history, including DC-3s, Stearmans, Cessna 190s, and Wacos, all in pristine condition. We enjoyed lunch downtown, where I met a large contingent of the local Chamber of Commerce. As my host was, they were all friendly and very interested in my flight and certainly for my welfare while in their town.

By late afternoon, the visibility improved and sufficient sun remained for me to leave my new friends and attempt a flight to Hope, Arkansas. But not before the airport manager called ahead to assure that the local FBO could accommodate the Cub overnight.

The flight to Hope was short, only 88 miles, and uneventful, but once again, landing as the sun slipped below the horizon. The scenery was all new to me; spanning wide-open, underpopulated terrain, past Wright Patman Lake, into Arkansas by Texarkana and Texas A&M, and on to Hope. Once again, Interstate 30 worked well.

A 1946-built J3C-65 in 2011. Photo: By D. Miller from MI. USA – IMG_4731, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57402068

Sizzling Sirloin

It was a beautiful flight, somewhat hazy though, with warm humid air and a low sun. I’d enjoyed the flight even more, as it was my first opportunity to fly the Cub with the doors open. At the end of day two, I’d only covered 223 statute miles, but what I didn’t know was that by the end of day three, with high humidity, rain, and thunderstorms lurking, I’d still only be 223 miles out.

The hospitality that I’d enjoyed in Mt. Pleasant was matched in Hope. The people at the FBO jockeyed aircraft in a large, brick WWII hangar and squeezed the Cub into place. I spent the next two nights in a Best Western, listening to large trucks earning a living and eating too much at a “Sizzilin Sirloin.”

But the people I met here were wonderful company and interested in my flight, as I watched the sky and patiently waited for improving conditions. I’m sure I drove the fellows in Flight Service nuts, imploring them for better weather, but they did a great job, advising me of windows of opportunity, allowing me to inch my way towards New England.

On the morning of the fourth day, I was airborne at 0600 into a hazy, sultry sky, intent on a full day’s effort and many miles, before sheltering the Cub for another night. The density altitude was high and the cockpit moist with condensation, as the Cub struggled to lift my heavy duffle bag, filled with cold-weather clothing and me, into the air.

My mistake was drinking too much coffee at breakfast, resulting in a landing that otherwise wasn’t needed and took time. But not much. From Hope, we flew northeastward, past Lowe, Arkadelphia, south of Little Rock, to Brinkley, and west of Memphis, where I could see large, ominous thunderstorms massing for an afternoon assault.

We were heading northeast and they were blowing directly east, so I figured the Cub and I were safe. I was familiar with Memphis and its weather, but from the comfort of a color-radar-equipped B-757 with the help of a copilot and a battery of dispatchers, meteorologists, and local controllers. Today, though, it was just the Cub and me, as we skirted this weather and slowly flew on.

I’d forgotten exactly where in Arkansas, but a planned fueling stop didn’t pan out, as the airport was pretty much deserted. Low on fuel, a local pilot told me of a private crop-dusting field only 15 miles away that might be able to help. Upon landing, I was greeted by two large, snarling, German Shepards, just as the engine rumbled to a stop.

They successfully kept me strapped into the Cub, doors, and windows closed as I contemplated just how I’d get my engine started and escape. I was rescued though, and inquired about fuel as my savior directed me to a makeshift tank and said, “Take what you need, pay no attention to those dogs.”  Gulp, OK. Then, he and his friends invited me to sit down to lunch and supplied me with sandwiches and coffee before sending me on my way.

“How much do I owe you fellas?”

“Nothing. We enjoyed talking with a new face, and up there in New Hampshire, you’d probably do the same for us as we passed through.” I had to think about that for a while. Well, I certainly would now, as I departed, rocking my wings with a new sense of camaraderie.

I’d stayed on the ground longer than I anticipated, burning up valuable daylight, but the acquaintances that I’d made had been worth every minute of it. Finally, after hours of flying, I arrived in a new state, Missouri, and landed at Kennett Memorial for fuel and a kidney break, before pressing on to Sikeston Memorial just south of Cape Girardeau.

Again, the sun was setting; I was somewhat tired but had enjoyed nearly 500 miles of flying today.

Sikeston had been a primary training field during WWII, utilizing Stearmans at the Park School of Aeronautics. Many of the same hangars still existed that were in the old framed pictures in the lobby, showing young men standing by new Stearmans. The next morning, it dawned windy and cool as a newly hired line boy and I dragged the Cub from her hangar.

Now I knew why I had packed warm weather gear for this November flight. He stood amazed as he watched me prop the Cub while standing near the tail of the airplane to help hold it in place. “I’ve never seen this,” he said, “Why didn’t you use the starter?” I explained the intricacies of the “Armstrong” starting system just before I taxied out into a blustery wind.

A Piper J3C-65 front view showing “eyebrow” air scoops on its engine cylinders. Photo: By Rama – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2194029

Over the Mississippi, Ohio Rivers

The early morning takeoff was uneventful, climbing out of town with the much-improved performance from the previous days’ hot temperatures. The airplane felt light and the stick was responsive. We leveled at 2,000 feet, about 1,000 feet below the overcast, and enjoyed nearly 10 miles of visibility in light turbulence.

Within 15 minutes, with my camera ready, we approached the mighty Mississippi River, her wide flood plains, and the state of Illinois. The topography here is fascinating, presenting natural features that I’m unaccustomed to.

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From Texas to New Hampshire Slowly Via a 1940 J-3 Cub. Written by: Rand K. Peck. Featured image: Piper J-3 Cub painted Cub Yellow. Photo: By Omoo at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6603728

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