Things You Can Only Learn in a Cub PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Leighton   
Back in 1989 when I bought my first Cub I had no idea how important that aircraft type would become to me in my flying life. Aircraft designs typically reflect the ideals and qualities that are near and dear to their designers. All airplanes are a series of tradeoffs; that is, you need to give up something to get something else. It became obvious to me almost immediately that Mr. Piper was willing to give up speed for docile handling, speed for ease of assembly, and speed for cost of production. The Cub has been called many things, fast is not one of them.

I did not know what to expect when I picked up my first Cub N3255M, a 1947 PA-12 Super Cruiser. By the time I bought my second Cub, a PA- 18 Super Cub, I knew a lot more. When I purchased my third Cub, N3221N, a 1947 J-3C-85, I was deep into the world of Cub flying. Selling that airplane was probably the single most regrettable thing I have done in aviation.

My current, and most likely my last, Cub is a 1947 PA-11-85. The PA-11 is basically a J-3 with a cowl like a Super Cub. Mine has an 18 gallon wing tank and a two gallon header tank, plus an electrical system. The wing tank makes it possible to solo from the front seat, and the lack of the 12 gallon header tank means there is actually room for a pilot in the front seat. The electric system was a concession to reality. It still has a 1,220 pound gross weight.

Other minor refinements include a bob spring on the elevator reducing elevator pressure at slow speeds and a front seat that folds forward to allow easier access to the rear seat. It is also 15 or so mph faster than my old J-3 with the same engine. I would chalk that up to improved aerodynamics from the cowled engine as opposed to having the cylinders hanging out in the breeze.

When we talk faster, we mean relatively. A stock 65 hp Cub goes 65 mph plus or minus five, period. The 85 hp engine improves climb significantly but cruise speeds only go up to 70 to 75 mph. So the first thing you learn in a Cub is, well, patience.

Going cross country from Morristown, NJ, where I bought my PA-12, down to West Palm Beach, Fla., was the first time I had been in a Cub. My instructor was a capable former banner tower from the Jersey Shore who had several thousand hours of tail wheel time. As we weaved our way southeast between Philadelphia and Atlantic City toward Cape May at 1,000 feet, I couldn’t help but notice that this thing was SLOW.

When I asked him if that was it, if that was as fast as it goes, he rotated in his seat to face me and with a big grin said “It’s a Cub!” as if that was some universally understood pilot thing that I should already know.

Piper CubThe second thing I noticed was that, once clear of the complex urban airspace, my instructor kept us at 1,000 feet. So again I asked. “You don’t fly a Cub above one or two thousand feet?”

OK, I thought, this is a game show. I said, “I’ll bite. The category is Things Only You Can Know for $100 and the question is: Why?” If they wanted you to go higher, they would have installed a mixture-control knob,” he replied. Sure enough, I peered around his shoulder toward the throttle only to see no mixture control. I’d just file that one under Things To Resolve Later.

Our first landing, my first ever in a Cub, came at Easton, Md., a small, one-runway strip out on the Eastern Shore. I watched in amazement as the rudder pedals never stopped moving from the time we flared until we pulled up in front of the fuel pumps.

Learning tail wheel was going to be challenging. “How long is it gonna take me to be able to do that?” I asked my instructor, who at only 5 feet 5 inches tall was looking much larger than his actual size to me right about now. “Most people get it in 10 or 15 hours. It’s really dependent on your basic flight skills.”

How right he was. At this point in my flying carrier I was a 200 hour instrument pilot who had only flown 172s, 172 RGs and a Grumman AA1C. I did not realize that I was simply incapable of accessing my own basic flying skills. So it went for the next three days, as we stopped every 90 minutes or so for fuel, avoiding congested airspace and following I-95. From my double-wide seat in the back (PA12s were certified three people, one in front two in back) I could spread out with my chart and follow the landmarks on the ground with finite accuracy. In fact, since I had routinely flown higher as opposed to lower I had become good at picking out the shape of say a lake or a peninsula, but long ago gave up looking for railroad tracks, antennas smaller than 1,000 feet, major roadway intersections, all of which were quite visible from 1,000 feet.

Although the PA-12 had an electric system and a nav-com, (a big deal in a Cub) I don’t remember ever using it except to announce our position over the unicom. I learned to fly in New Jersey at a tower controlled airport and was accustom to always talking on the radio. So cruising along in silence with the window open at 1,000 feet gave me the opportunity to notice things I never noticed in flight before.

As we worked our way through the Carolinas, we could smell the lilac, the pine and the occasional forest fire. As we approached the coast, we could smell the tidal flats and the paper mills. Over the din of the engine and the wind, through the headset and all, I could hear the fire engine on the highway 1,000 feet below us. I was even able to read the names off a couple of water towers.

If I wasn’t so overwhelmed by the machine I might have learned right there and then the most important lesson I would ever learn in a Cub. With only 200 hours total time though, I just didn’t know what I didn’t know, and so it would be many years later before that all-important lesson was finally delivered.

Eventually, I became comfortable with flying the airplane. In level flight the controls were clumsy. A Cub simply won’t turn without the use of coordinated rudder. Certainly not the little fighter plane my Grumman was. If you just try to stick it over, it sort of mush/yaws in the direction you want to go but keeps going the way it was going.

Obviously, Mr. Piper designed in a tremendous amount or adverse yaw. This came as a surprise to me, as my one and only experience with a Piper product prior to this was in a Cherokee. If you have ever flown a Cherokee, you will agree that it is without a doubt the easiest aircraft in the world to fly. Mostly because the rudder and ailerons are interconnected and there is virtually no adverse yaw. You can land one in most conditions with your feet on the floor. Not so in a Cub. In fact, with time I discovered that the plane flies better if you lead the turn with rudder and coordinate with aileron as opposed to the other way around.

So why all the adverse yaw in a Cub? Well, apparently Mr. Piper felt that if his plane was to be a successful training airplane, then it would need to teach pilots to fly coordinated flight. So while a Cub is an easy airplane to fly, it is a difficult airplane to fly well. Additionally, if you were trained in a Cherokee, or as in my case a Grumman AA1, it is a good bet that your in-flight use of rudder skills are virtually nonexistent.

I was convinced after just my short time with the machine that I would never be able to “feel” the ball out of center. In fact, the inclinometer, the “ball” may be the most important instrument on the panel.

However, from the front seat of that PA-12, I just couldn’t “feel” anything. In fact, it would take teaching tail wheel in that plane from the back seat, to train my senses to the subtleties of a slip or a skid. It happened without warning, and now I feel it in everything I fly, tandem or side by side, without looking at the ball.

Learning Tail Wheel Landings in a Cub

Once I returned to my home base in Florida, it was time to start learning to master the take off and landings of a Cub. In the PA-12, you fly from the front seat, which affords a much better view of the runway environment then the J-3, which you need to solo from the back seat.

Still, my personal learning curve was rather flat. It took me along time simply to trust the aircraft not to stall when trimmed to 55 mph. I know now that it will fly much slower than that. But remember, being Grumman trained, from which a spin is reported to be unrecoverable, airspeed is a boy’s best friend.

And so, the first half dozen hours were wasted trying to land the thing way too fast. Again, a Grumman has a short, fat wing and a relatively high wing loading compared to the Cub. A Grumman would quit and sit down, where a Cub, flown into ground effect at 55 mph, will float the entire length of a 3,000 foot runway.

Also, being of its vintage, a Cub doesn’t have a stall horn, nor by the way does it need one; but again, my previous training just didn’t allow me to accept that. I would become impatient and force the plane onto the runway, only to catapult back into the air like a cat that stepped on a stove. The bungee cord landing gear on a Cub can store a great deal of energy. When I finally allowed my instructor to slow the thing down to a reasonable speed (45-50 mph in the Super Cruiser worked great) and trimmed to hands off, very important, with the throttle closed, the plane was easier to land.

The reason I say trim is important is due to the design of the stabilizer. A Cub tail is attached at the front to a jack-screw, which is operated by the trim handle in the cockpit. When you trim a Cub, you are trimming the entire tail up or down. If you don’t trim properly, if you try to just muscle the nose up, which you can easily do, you never reach maximum critical angle of attack. You essentially “run out” of elevator. On the other hand, trimming basically full nose up makes it easy to get the nose up to just above the three-point attitude, allowing the stall to occur at the maximum critical attitude instead of some lesser angle.

Again, I needed to learn patience. The Cub lands best in a full stall. That means that you need to hold it up, hold it up some more, and don’t let the thing land until it drops out from under you. It took a while to get used to the high pitch angle as well.

The little Grumman and Cherokee land fairly flat, especially with the use of flaps. On the Cub with the nose held high, the directly forward visibility is blocked for the first couple of hundred feet down the runway, so learning to use my peripheral vision to stay aligned on the way was a new skill I needed to master.

Done right, it is a thing of beauty, the tail wheel kissing the ground a fraction of a second ahead of the mains. This is all well and good on a calm day into the wind. Then we started working on crosswinds.

Crosswind Landings, Side Slips and Stalls

Piper Cub sillouetteThere are all sorts of stories about landing in crosswinds and the ongoing debate as to the best method, the crab kick or forward slip. Which is better?

The bottom line is you need to be straight with the runway before you touch down. Furthermore, you need to be tracking straight down the runway or you will ground loop. Ground looping was never a consideration in any of the trainers I had flown.

Even the full castering nose wheel on my little Grumman only wanted to track straight ahead, no matter the wind. The Cub is very willing to tell you it is not happy with your interpretation of “aligned with the runway.” Later on, as an instructor, I learned to evaluate private pilot BRF candidates with crosswind landing technique. If a BFR candidate could handle a modest crosswind with finite control, usually the rest of the ride would be easy. Again, being trained in a modern design was a disadvantage in the Cub.

The Cub lands slowly and is forgiving as any tail wheel aircraft ever built. It is simply not tolerant of poor crosswind technique. I found difficulty in many aspects of the crosswind landing. First, the Cub has no flaps, and typically, you are side slipping the airplane down to a position approximately a quarter mile from the touchdown zone and two to three hundred feet.

Therefore proficiency in side-slips in both directions must be achieved. Because you sit in the middle of the Cub and can see equally well out of either side, you will always achieve maximum rate of decent from your side-slip if you turn the side of the plane in the direction the wind is coming from. That is, if you are lined up to land on runway nine and the wind is from 150 degrees, you would step on the left rudder, swinging the nose to the left and compensating with right aileron.

When I first started slipping the Cub, my instructor asked why I had always slipped to the left. That is, right rudder, left aileron. I can only assume that being trained in a modern side by side trainer, we always slipped that way simply so that the pilot could see the runway out the left window while performing the maneuver.

It never occurred to me to even try it the other way until he pointed it out to me. Being the skeptic that I am, I made him take me up and fly slips in both directions to the same runway starting at the same altitude at the same airspeed from over the same spot. A stop watch and the VSI were the only tools I had, or needed, to prove or disprove this concept.

Sure enough, after eight or 10 passes, it was clear that turning the side of the airplane toward the prevailing wind got us down lower in the same time or faster over the same distance.

The only exception to that, I was to learn, is in a Cub with the clamshell door open. When you turn that big hole into the wind, it’s like throwing out an anchor. My 85 hp J-3 had a VSI in it, and although there has got to be some instrument error present when slipping an aircraft with an open door, we could pin the needle.

There is most definitely airspeed indication error when slipping. In my J-3 and PA-11, the airspeed indicates high when slipping. For that reason, and also to preclude the possibility of tail blanking, I slip the Cub at 60 mph indicated. That is way above stall, on purpose.

Not that the Cub is mean in a stall. No. In fact in a forward cg configuration, which in a J-3 is anytime there are two people in it, you can’t, repeat can’t, make it break. The stick will come full aft, the plane will mush along, ailerons working the entire time, descending about 600 feet per minute. There simply isn’t enough elevator authority to make a clean break.

The PA-12 is a little different machine. It is slightly heavier, 1,750 pounds gross vs. 1,220 pounds for a J-3. It does however share the same wing and tail area dimensions, thus yielding a higher wing loading. It also had a larger engine. Mine had the Lycoming 0-235, rated at 115 hp.

While 30 horsepower hardly sounds like a big deal, it represented a 35 percent increase over my C-85 powered Cub and basically double the power of the original C-65 powered airplanes.

It is interesting to note that they were all built under the same type certificate. From that I can only assume the FAA found little wrong with that. The PA-12 does behave much differently in a power on stall, especially a cross-controlled stall with power on, then any of its lighter cousins.

When cross control stalling, it would not bite to kill, but it would break hard, tuck the left wing under and sort of quarter snap until the nose was well down and the airspeed increased. Fine, if you are at 2,000 feet during practice; but scary to the low-time pilot, 200 feet and a quarter mile from the end of the runway. I even had the plane re-rigged by the local master rigger, who found little wrong with it. It still did it.

Years later I flew another PA-12 which landed at our field on the way either to or from the show at SunNFun in Lakeland, Fla. When I asked the owner about it, he confirmed the same experience and absolutely refused to let me try it in his airplane. I could surmise from his reaction that he had been there and done that, and once was enough, thank you.

I decided to keep the speed up at 60 mph when slipping the PA-12. The rest of the stall characteristics on that Cub and all the others I had were best described as virtually nonexistent. A few years later, I was teaching an FAA inspector the finer points of Cub flying.

Being an ex-instructor, ex-airline type he was curious to see how the Cub stalled. He had never even flown in one before that day. I had him reduce the power to idle and hold the nose up until the stick hit the stop. No break, full aileron control, 600 feet per minute down.

With a dead serious voice he said, “So go ahead and make it stall.” “It is stalled,” I replied. The expression on his face was like a kid who was just handed tickets to the World Series. Pleasant surprise.

“You’re kidding” he added, the grin now breaking into an infectious laugh. “Nope. Now, want to amuse yourself further?” I asked. “Sure,” he said, still laughing. “Keep the stick full aft, keep the ball in the middle with rudder and slowly bring up the power. Watch the VSI.”

At about 2,100 rpm, the VSI read zero. At 2,400 rpm, the most the engine would turn at that airspeed, we were climbing almost 500 feet per minute, indicating just under 35 mph, the stick still full aft. Needless to say that he had never seen that trick preformed in any of the regional carrier-type heavy iron he had spent all of his flying time in.

I learned that lesson on my own one day while taking off alone in a J-3. I started the takeoff roll with the stick full aft. But the wind was rather stiff that day, and I was slow getting the tail up. I was waiting for outside visual clues to my airspeed. I had not yet learned how to let the plane tell me when it is ready to fly.

With the stick full aft, the plane just lifted, no, levitated off the runway and began to fly, totally scaring me. I eased the stick forward ever so slowly, fearing I don’t know what. I took it up to altitude (2000 feet is considered altitude) and played with that for a while. I needed to know if a gust of wind picked me up or what.

A few days later when the wind subsided, I went out to the place where I took the Cub to be alone and work things out. A 5,000 foot long, 300 foot wide, privately owned, public use grass strip near Lake Okechobee. Except for the occasional errant cow or horse on the runway, I barely ever saw another person or aircraft.

That airport also featured self-service fuel, both Avgas and Mogas. My Cubs were all certified for both, so if I was enjoying myself and wanted to stay longer and play, or if there was significant wind (more that 12 to15 knots is significant in a Cub from a fuel planning point of view) getting home would not be an issue (more on this in another chapter).

I repeated that levitation trick a dozen times from a standing start, and a dozen times it did exactly the same thing. Later I would own a Maule, whose ancestry draws heavily on the Cub, and it performed in much the same way.

Michael Leighton is a 2,000+ CFIIMEI as well as an A&P mechanic and former FAA Accident Prevention Counselor. You can reach him via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Back in 1989 when I bought my first Cub I had no idea how important that aircraft type would become to me in my flying life. Aircraft designs typically reflect the ideals and qualities that are near and dear to their designers. All airplanes are a series of tradeoffs; that is, you need to give up something to get something else. It became obvious to me almost immediately that Mr. Piper was willing to give up speed for docile handling, speed for ease of assembly, and speed for cost of production. The Cub has been called many things, fast is not one of them.