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Super Cub: STOL Made Simple PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Cox   

1977 Piper Super CubLike most lightplane owners, I’ve had my share of conversations that began when someone asked, “Oh, do you own one of those Piper Cubs?” While an Aerostar owner might take exception to his half-million dollar investment being demeaned, most of us accept the reference to Piper’s enduring little airplane as an expression of ignorance without insult.

In fact, the Cub has little need for apologists. It’s a design that has stood firmly on its own three wheels for more than a half-century, and still remains in production today, if in modified form and no longer built by Piper. In fact, the Cub has been in production in one form or another for longer than any other airplane in the world.

Such longevity says something not only about the longevity of the original design but also about the Cub’s reputation for reliability over the years. Add to that the unquestioned charisma of general aviation’s first Model T, and you begin to understand why the Cub has been such an unqualified success.

No evaluation of a Super Cub would be complete without a look back at the original, so when a ’77 Cub became available, I went looking for a comparable-condition original J-3. As it turned out, it wasn’t necessary to look any further than the local chapter of the Antique Aircraft Association. Former AAA president Don Johnson is a dedicated antiquer who owns about a half-dozen airplanes, including a 1946 J-3.

Park the newer Cub next to the original, and you can see a strong physical resemblance despite the age difference. For one thing, the physical dimensions are practically identical. Both airplanes measure 35’ 3” wingtip to wingtip, 22’ 5” nose to tail and stand 6’ 8” tall. Except for a fatter but more aerodynamically faired cowl on the Super, you’d swear the two were semi-identical twins.

Not quite. The Super Cub’s mission bears little resemblance to that of the J-3. The first post-war Cubs were great little puddle-jumpers, ideal machines for basic flight training and inexpensive birds to buy and fly. The modern Cub is a far cry from the vintage version. It has evolved in both price and capability to a special mission airplane that regularly operates into airports and non-airports where other airplanes would fear to roll a tread.

Piper Super CubThough Johnson’s J-3 is probably far from typical of the early Cubs still flying, it’s fair to say most of the other survivors are probably aging gracefully. More J-3s are being restored to near-mint condition every year, a trend that’s elevated the price of old Cubs considerably. Beech may brag that a typical early model Bonanza has doubled or tripled in value, but a typical early, restored J-3 demands 10 times its original price.

In the air, the Super Cub and J-3 handle similarly but have dramatically different performance. I flew the later-model, 150 hp version first, and it was immediately obvious how it earned the name Super Cub. When it came to climb, the Super has practically everything going for it. Wing area is the same as the Cessna 310’s, but the Cub has only 1750 pounds to lift, so wing loading is under 10 pounds/sq ft. That’s among the lowest wing loading of any general aviation airplane.

Another common measure of climb is power loading, the number of pounds each horsepower must lift. Here again, the Super Cub’s 11.6 pounds/hp gives it a leg up on just about anything else in its class except the Maule.

Piper Super CubThese two clinical mathematical calculations in combination with a low 37-knot stall speed provide the Super Cub with stunning short field performance and excellent climb. Experience suggests the Super will leap into the air in less than 300 feet and ascend at almost 1000 fpm. I spent six hours launching the airplane from a variety of airports, and I can attest that the numbers are correct.

The technique used to make the airplane really jump off the runway and leap into the sky is great fun and simple, as well: firewall the throttle, lift the tail immediately, pull full flaps at 45 knots and lever the stick into your lap. I made 20 such demonstrations during my flights, and it was a kick to watch the expressions of disbelief from onlookers below as the Super Cub climbed out at what seemed an angle normally reserved for the Space Shuttle. When the load is light, it’s not uncommon to see an initial 1500 fpm on the VSI during a jump takeoff.

In view of the airplane’s startling liftoff, it’s not surprising that best angle speed is 40 knots, the number you’d use to clear obstacles. Best rate of climb speed is more like 65 knots, and the book recommends 78 knots for normal climb to reserve some semblance of over-the-nose visibility. At 40 knots, there is no view straight ahead, and even at 65 knots, there’s little forward look.

The older Cub isn’t nearly as spectacular when the throttle goes full forward, but its giant wing lifts it into the air sooner than you’d imagine. Despite the J-3’s diminutive 65 hp Continental, engine noise at the 2350 rpm redline is deafening. The airplane breaks ground casually in 400 feet and starts uphill at no more than 400 fpm when loaded to gross. Best rate speed is 48 knots, a speed so low that any climb looks good.

As a result of the leisurely climb, J-3 pilots rarely cruise much above 3000-4000 feet. Speed has never been any Cub’s forte, especially not the early J-3. Johnson’s jewel indicated a shaky 68 knots with the two-cylinder A65 engine turning a max permissible 2150 rpm. Fuel consumption at this setting was practically non-existent compared to that of most modern airplanes.

Burn runs about four gph according to Don Johnson, and he should know. He’s flown his airplane on several L.A.-Ottumna round-trips and is well aware of how long the J-3 can stay in the air on a full tank. To maintain a reasonable reserve, Don limits cross country flights to two hours at about 150 miles. That means 10 stops between Los Angeles and Ottumna.

Piper Super CubIf he’d been flying a Super Cub, he probably could have cut the stops to five. I ran the airplane both ways over a timed course and recorded 100 knots at optimum altitude with everything humming at max cruise. The airplane I flew sported 36 gallon tanks. Leaned barely to the smooth side of roughness, consumptions runs about 8.5 gph, enough to provide 3.5 hours endurance plus reserve.

Along with higher fuel consumption and more power to lift roughly the same wing goes a far better service ceiling. The Super Cub’s is listed as 19,000 feet, while the J-3’s spec is shown at 13,000 feet (the latter probably attained on a cold day in the Sierra wave with a JATO bottle.) Don says he’s coaxed his airplane to 10,000 feet while solo, but he questions whether it would even reach that height when loaded to gross.

Fortunately, the true joy flying either airplane comes at 500-1000 feet AGL, whichever is legal. The true utility nature of the airplane defies high altitude and long cross countries.

Neither airplane provided the most comfortable accommodations for extended flights. Because the Cubs use tandem seating, cabin space is adequate, but seat adjustment isn’t. The front seat in the J-3 is immovable while the forward chair in the Super Cub only provides fore and aft travel. The logic probably was that the airplanes weren’t designed luxury haulers, so why elevate the price with cushy, comfortable seats.

In flight handling of the two Cubs is similar but far from identical. Perhaps oddly, the Super Cub, at 1750 pounds, has a quicker, lighter feel than the 1946 version certified at 1220 pounds. Aileron response isn’t anything to write home about, and roll rate doesn’t really get going until the stick hits the side stop. Predictably, the most powerful control is the elevator, and in combination with the airplane’s huge, high lift wing, it assures a semblance of flare even at approach speeds that would be impossible or inadvisable in other bush planes.

Piper Super CubStall speeds for the J-3 and Super Cub are 34 and 37 knots respectively, but it’s important to remember that the newer airplane has flaps while the old bird doesn’t. Using the time-honored 1.3 Vs approach speed rule, a new cub floats across the fence at only 48 knots, while the vintage version approaches at 44 knots. Bush pilots typically adjust their speed to the situation, and that can mean flying final at 43 knots or less.

If you do plan to drag it in with power, stall characteristics are a major consideration. Both Cubs are gentle airplanes when the wing stops flying. There’s rarely any wing drop at the break. More typically, the nose pitches gently toward the ground, and even that reaction can be forestalled with a power application.

The Super Cub’s big flaps make short field approaches almost ridiculously easy. After flying the airplane and using full flaps on practically every landing, I’m con­vinced they’re probably the major reason for the airplane’s totally predictable slow flight characteristics. Max deflection is a whopping 50 degrees, and that really drops the nose toward the ground. There’s no way a pilot complain about over-the-nose visibility with all that spoiler hanging down.

The little Cub also makes a good showing in the pattern and over the fence. Its 65-knot cruise lets it mingle comfortably with everything up to Cherokee Archers and Cessna Skyhawks, yet its low stall speed allows ridiculously short rollouts, even without using brakes.

That’s as it should be, because most original Cubs don’t have much in the way of brakes. The expander-tube-style stoppers used on many early lightplanes have always been high maintenance and low efficiency. Most Cubs share those atrocious heel brakes that most pilots who know better have come to hate. While it’s admirable that Piper has tried to preserve the original design, a change to toe brakes would eliminate the unprintable comments made by pilots flying heel brakes for the first time.

The inconveniences of Cub flying, old or new, are far outweighed by the advantages of an airplane that can probably take you to places you never dreamed possible. The mini-Pipers first produced in the early ‘30s as the airplane for the little guy and still available today as the ultimate, two-seat, production, bush plane, will probably endure long after the more modern variants have passed into history.

1977 Piper Super CubLike most lightplane owners, I’ve had my share of conversations that began when someone asked, “Oh, do you own one of those Piper Cubs?” While an Aerostar owner might take exception to his half-million dollar investment being demeaned, most of us accept the reference to Piper’s enduring little airplane as an expression of ignorance without insult.