A friend recently finished restoring a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub that was once a
“basket case” that lingered for years within figurative inches of the scrap heap. Now the plane, painted in the proper signature Cub yellow, looks like it could move straight to a museum. But that would be a shame.
This old bird deserves — and is getting — something better: frequent exercise. Just as old cars run more reliably with regular use, antique aircraft fare best when you fly them.
In terms of automotive parallels, the Cub is much like the Ford Model T. First built in 1937, it made flying available to a wider range of people in the same way the Ford helped popularize driving.
Unlike the Model T, the Cub still looks pretty sharp in contemporary company. Its clean, elegant shape holds up well parked next to, say, the latest Cirrus SR22. Never mind that the Cub’s fabric-covered metal-tube and wood frame is primitive and fragile compared with the Cirrus’ composite structure.
The Cub cannot match modern small aircraft in performance, either. But it isn’t trying. I took a ride in the rebuilt Cub and got a few minutes at the controls. From the pilot’s seat the old plane’s cruising speed — about 80 or 90 miles per hour, seemed fast enough even though many other small planes travel at twice that pace.
Moving to the Cub from the Cessna 172 I usually fly was a little like slipping into a Mazda Miata after years of driving a Toyota Camry. The Cub is snug, intimate and responsive, and made me feel like a natural part of its inner workings.
My friend’s plane has a 100-horsepower engine, which is seriously hot stuff compared with the 65-horse mill that Cubs came with from the factory. But all that means is that the little yellow machine climbs fairly quickly after a short takeoff run. In level flight it is still super slow in aviation terms.
The view from the big side windows includes a pair of wing struts and braces on each side, and even the cables, hinges and related hardware used to move the ailerons. This is the same kind of gear used to control sleeker, more modern airplanes, but it is usually tucked inside. There’s too much drag here for the Cub to go fast. But when you are watching the bare trees and rolling hills of northern New Jersey slip by less than 1,000 feet below, slower is better.