Proficient Pilot: J–3 heresy

He's picking the Champ over the Cub!

November 1, 2012

Barry Schiff

After pedaling my way onto Clover Field in 1952 at the age of 14 and forking over a fistful of hard-earned cash, I was assigned my first instructor and the airplane in which I would receive my aerial baptism—a 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champion (N81881). Ever since getting my ratings in the Champ, however, I have found myself defending the fabric-covered airplane against those claiming that the Piper J–3 Cub was the better trainer.

My first experience with a Cub came 12 years later. I was hired by TWA, trained to fly the right seat of a Lockheed Constellation, and placed on a reserve assignment in New York. I spent my days off instructing in a Cub at Hadley Field in South Plainfield, New Jersey.

I discovered that the Cub and the Champ have similar flight and performance characteristics, although the Cub climbs better (450 instead of 370 fpm), and the Champ is faster (85 instead of 75 mph). Obviously slow, they both offer a leisurely way to get from A to B as long as B is not too far from A. An impatient Cub or Champ pilot flying into a headwind has the option of turning around and heading the other way. Where one flies in these aircraft is not nearly as important as the fun one has in getting there. These trainers enable us to become topographical experts, too. The terrain passing beneath our wings moves so slowly that there is time to study what others see only as a blur.

Both taildraggers have a maximum gross weight of 1,220 pounds and the same 38-mph stall speed. Each willingly spins when its pilot is careless with the rudder during stall entry. The Cub and the Champ were great trainers because students had to concentrate on the basics. That’s because that was all these airplanes had to offer—basics. They were docile, forgiving, and easy to fly, but not so easy to fly well. Neither the Cub nor the Champ’s appearance is glamorous or distinctive. Each resembles the typical rubber-band-powered model airplane found in hobby shops. Climbing aboard either one requires the agility of a contortionist, but once inside the accommodations are comfortable.

The mechanical brakes in both airplanes likely were designed by a sadist who disregarded the limited dexterity of the human ankle. Operating the heel brakes requires cocking your feet at uncomfortable angles and jabbing at the plywood floor with your heels until finding the tiny brake pedals, which are barely larger than postage stamps. Nor are the brakes very effective. Depend on them only when running out of other ideas.

My favorite Cub feature is the split entrance door on the right side of the airplane. The upper half folds up against the bottom of the wing, and the lower half folds down against the fuselage. Flying with them flung open on a warm summer evening is almost as satisfying as being in an open-cockpit airplane.

Neither the Cub nor the Champ has flaps, but slipping allows steeper descents than possible in many airplanes that do have flaps.

My only serious objection to the Cub is a feature I believe enables me to win the Champ versus Cub debate—solo pilots must sit in the rear. The instructor sits up front and blocks the student’s forward view. Thankfully, though, there are few instruments on the Spartan instrument panel for him not to see. I much preferred instructing in the Champ because a student up front had an unobstructed view of the panel and the outside world. I could lean forward to shout instructions or bop the errant student on the back of the head with a rolled-up chart. (Airplanes without electrical systems did not have intercoms.) Sitting in back also allowed me to doze on cross-country flights. After all, how far off course could a student get in 15 minutes at little more than a mile a minute?

I never understood why the Cub became so much more popular and developed so much more of a mystique than the Champ. One reason might be that Piper’s J–3 was first (1938) whereas the Champ is a postwar design. Also, there were twice as many Cubs (20,000) than Champs (10,000). Another reason might be that “Piper Cub” rolls off the tongue more easily than “Aeronca,” which many find easier to refer to as an “Airknocker.”

These trainers taught a generation of pilots to fly, and one’s loyalty toward the Cub or the Champ understandably depends on the airplane in which he or she was introduced to the sky. I apologize in advance, therefore, to those who might be offended by what they might perceive as a heretic observation—and that is that as far as I’m concerned, the Champ is champ.

Barry Schiff has flown more than 328 aircraft types in his 60 years of flying and is in his fiftieth year of writing for AOPA Pilot. Visit his website.