Thursday, March 24, 2005

The J-3 Cub (Part One)

The whole thing started with a gift from a friend, a gift certificate for an hour instruction in a Piper J‑3 Cub. Now I know what you are probably thinking but you would be wrong. You see I was already a seasoned pilot of some 12 years with time in Cessnas, Arrows, Mooneys, and the like. I had been bitten by the flying bug early in life and the aviation gods had long since claimed my soul.
I once started down the path to become a fighter pilot and somewhere along the line became an airport supervisor at a big air carrier airport. My first love would always be flying however, and I had vowed never to stop. The idea was to work in the field of aviation and make enough money to do the kind of flying I loved to do. After seven years in the same job at the same airport, this became harder and harder to do.

Then I met a friend, a man named Charlie Smith. A retired airline captain whom I had met one day as I drooled over his airplane after he flew into my airport. We talked a while of old airplanes and Grumman flying boats. We talked at length; though I mostly listened, for it was obvious that he had seen much and had wisdom to impart.

Now this new friend must have seen inside me someone who lay dormant for a long, long time. Someone he may have recognized, someone whom I had long since forgot. A reader of Ernest Gann and Richard Bach; a lover of classic airplanes, and sport flying; of silk scarves and faded leather; of wings of rag, and tails that drag; and oily old engines that start with the bare handed swing of a propeller.

So there I was, off to Hampton Airfield, with a certificate in hand that said simply “1hr duel instruction ‑ Piper Cub‑‑” What grand scheme spurred such a gift I do not know, I was simply thankful for Charlie’s generosity and looked forward to an enjoyable fun flight. For that is all a Cub is for, isn’t it? Just a simple old airplane that is all about fun. A Cub is not a practical airplane, not serious transportation. The J‑3 Cub is not an airplane anyone takes seriously, just a novelty in a world of high tech, high performance aircraft. I thought that while I was at it, I might as well get a tail wheel sign off in my logbook. I didn’t have any tail-wheel time but reasoned it shouldn’t take much to get signed off. What else would I have to learn from an old 65 hp trainer that didn’t even have a radio in it?

“I’ll just get the sign off in the cub today then its P‑51s tomorrow.” I thought to myself

I’ve already flown high performance airplanes with over 200 horsepower, retractable landing gear, and constant speed propellers, with RNAV, G.P.S., VOR, NDB, and DME. Pick your acronym and I’ve flown it. No, I wasn’t taking it too seriously. I just planed to enjoy what might be a once in a lifetime flight in a neat old airplane.

Then I reached Hampton Airfield, and was thrown back to another day; on a grass runway, with old-time barnstormers trading windswept rides for money, and views of our past seen through a frame of wings and wires.

My instructor Jeff Brown greeted me with a handshake and a smile. He seemed more excited about the flight than I was. He had an enthusiasm I had never seen in the stoic instructors I had come to known. Unconcerned with padding his logbook for some future airline job, he seemed a man at peace, doing what he was put on this planet to do and loving every minute of it. Instantly, I liked the man. I would later find that Jeff had been a CEO of some big company, but gave up his high powered, high paying job so that he could instruct full time in the Cubs.

Jeff took me aside and we talked for a while of the characteristics of the J‑3 and the differences in flying tail wheel airplanes.

“The transition shouldn’t be a difficult one,” he said, “for someone with lots of time in Cessnas like yourself.”

“You’ll just need to get a feel for the flair, and once you get it, you’ll have it.”

Jeff then walked me through a thorough preflight check of the J‑3 showing me how to look for creases or wrinkles in the fabric wings (the tell-tail sign of a broken spar), the simple sight gage for the fuel tank, and the Mag switch. We then climbed aboard the cramped little ship and a passer-by offered to prop us.

Yes that’s right; this brave man was going to start a brush-hog by swinging its blade…by hand! I was glad at that moment that it was him and not me.

The man called out to us “Off, Cracked, Breaks, Stick!”

“Mags Off, Throttle cracked, Breaks Set, Stick Back!” Jeff barked out in reply.

With this the brave man grabbed hold of the deadly blade gave it a push, a tug, and swung it through. Once, Twice, Three times it swung through. The man then stepped back and called out to us once more.

“Breaks, cracked, Stick, Hot!”

“Breaks, Cracked, Stick, and you’re Hot!” Jeff replied as he switched the Magnetos to the on position.

This brave stranger stepped forward once more, grabbed hold of the blade and with one fluid movement pulled the prop through one time. The engine started instantly. I slowly opened my eyes relieved to find that there were no bloody body parts flying back from the now turning propeller. The fearless Gent was in one peace; waving to us, smiling, and wishing us a good flight. Brought back to the task at hand by the voice of my instructor, I began the fairly familiar procedures, and run-up checks that prepare a man and craft to fly. Other than taxing, it was pretty much the same as any of the other airplanes I had flown.

After lining up on the grass runway I advanced the throttle forward and the little ship accelerated quickly forward. Within the first few feet the tail came up and the little ship lifted of the grass and climbed lightly and steeply into the wind.

“Climb at 50,” Jeff said. And so I pulled back on the stick and the cub rose sharply like a kite that had caught its wind. I couldn’t help but look out the side window and search the grass below for the little boy who surely must hold the other end of our string. Disappointed not to see his smiling face waving to us from below I turned my attention back to the task at hand.

Once in the air the little cub felt no different then any other light two seat airplane I had flown. She climbed out steadily and Jeff asked me to steer her out over the coast. We climbed up to 3,000 feet and practiced slow flight, stalls and steep turns. Here again the little ship would surprise me, for in a J-3 cub slow flight could best be described as hover flight, and stalls cannot be done until the little ship is stood in a near vertical tail stand. From that tail stand one has the option of stalling the little ship; which amounts to nothing more that a slight mushing decent, or pulling back further on the stick to complete a very gratifying if not pretty loop. We elected for the former, for as Jeff puts it the owner frowns on the latter.

We returned to the traffic pattern and Jeff walked me through a couple of landings He showed me the differences between the wheel landing and the three point landing and explaining when you would use each. And just like that our hour was up. I was disappointed because it all went by so quickly and I was having so much fun. It was getting dark however and I had an hours drive home.

Jeff and I shook hands and I promised to see him again soon.

On the drive home form Hampton I got to thinking about how I had been living my life and how little real flying I had been doing. I had seen it time and time again among my coworkers; pilots all, they had lost there wings. Chained to the ground by the shackles of everyday life, they flew less and less often. As days and soon months passed between flights, skills fading with each passing day making it less and less likely they would ever touch the sky again.

I had once vowed never to let that happen to me, even if I could afford only one hour a month to stay current I would do it.

‘Well if I miss this month that wouldn’t be too bad, I mean I’m trying to buy a house and I really need the money for...’ Wait! could it be happening to me? Charlie had known, he read it in me as sure as he could read a book.

It was then, on that drive home that I got reacquainted with the me I had forgotten and the man that Charlie had recognized. He had been there all along; hidden in a world of the FAA and EPA, of 2 mile long runways of concrete, Air Traffic Control, and Automated Terminal Weather Systems. Imprisoned behind x‑ray screening checkpoints and eight-foot fences of chain link, he had almost died only to be saved in his last moments by a new friend and some bright yellow wings. I made a promise to him right then and there; that man who would be me, that I would bring him back and finish a checkout in the J‑3 Cub.

Then I made a phone call to thank a good friend for the mystery gift that may have just saved my soul.

Two weeks later I returned to finish what I had started. I arrived on a Sunday and there was a lot more going on at the little aerodrome. I met up with Jeff as he was finishing up with another student and was sent out to pre‑flight the Cub on my own. I walked past a group of college age kids sitting on the grass watching the planes take off and land. I smiled and waved, but got only odd glances in return. I shrugged it off and began an awkward first time solo pre-flight of the Cub.

In the middle of my pre-flight another aircraft came taxing through, it was clear that he wished to squeeze between my cub’s parking spot and the hangar to get to his tie down spot. The kids saw this and walked over, grabbed hold of the Cub and began to pull it out of the way. None of them said a word to me until I grabbed hold and tried to help move the cub. “Don’t pull on that strut There!” one of them barked at me, “You’ll bend it!”

“What? Listen kid, I’ve been flying and moving airplanes around since you were riding tricycles…and you think you can tell me where I can and can not pull on a strut? She’s a battle ship not a show boat son…bend a strut...Ha! Who invited you to come over here and move the airplane in the middle of my preflight anyway? It wasn’t me buster, I can tell you that!’ – And I almost told him that too, but I didn’t say a word.

I took a step back and a moment to look at myself and realized I must look a fool. Just off from work, I stood in a shirt, tie, and shinny leather dress shoes at the side of a grass strip trying hard not to get any oil on my cloths as I pre-flight a Piper J‑3 Cub. If someone had seen me at my home airport dressed as I was, carefully pre-flighting a Mooney or Bonanza they would have thought nothing of it. A business man with his business airplane; I looked the part, it made perfect sense. But here at Hampton Airfield next to this airplane my pleated pants and white starched shirt screamed “First timer, Novice, Nugget, Pud-Knocker, Amateur!” “Better keep an eye on this one,” they must have thought, “before he hurts himself.”

I quickly removed my tie, though it made little difference. Already branded a fool, I would have to prove myself in the air.

Incredulous, I continued my pre-flight and awaited the arrival of my instructor.
Smiling as always Jeff approached and told me that I was to hold the airplane as he pulled the prop through. I climbed inside the back seat of the cub as Jeff walked around to the front of the airplane calling out “Stick back, Throttle Cracked, Breaks, Mags OFF!”

I pulled hard back on the stick until it pinched places that should never be pinched, stood on the toe-breaks until I felt sure they would bend, cracked open the throttle, checked the mags, leaned out to my right and replied.

“Ah…Stick, Cracked, Breaks and OFF!”

Jeff pulled the prop through three blades and then called out, “Stick back, breaks on, Throttle Cracked, Mags HOT!

Legs and feet now going numb from the ridiculous amount of pressure I was putting on the breaks and stick, I checked the throttle, switched on the mags, closed my eyes and called out. “Stick, Breaks, Cracked and you’re HOT!”

With that Jeff pulled the prop through one last time and the engine fired instantly. I opened my eyes to see Jeff’s ever smiling face as he climbed effortlessly into the front seat of the little ship. He looked back over his shoulder and said, “Ok, Lets get into the wind!”


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