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Ready for take-off



Bear with me if I start at a bit of a tangent – it is going somewhere.

Many years ago Geoff Towill blundered into my little flying school in George. He was in his mid 30s and had tatty clothes and locks of unkempt hair hanging over his face. He had that slightly wild look of a dotty professor. “Can you teach me to fly a green aeroplane?” He asked.

“I expect so. What sort of aircraft is it?”

“It’s a green one.” Geoff explained

Here we go, I thought. The aircraft turned out to be a Luscombe Silvaire – a delightful little side-by-side, all metal two seater with a 65HP Continental. And Geoff turned out to be a sharp and entertaining pupil. He later got his Com and built up his own crop-spraying company.

And what has this to do with J-3 Cubs? Well, had he said he wanted to train on his yellow two-seater with a 65HP Continental I would have known exactly what he was talking about.

As Ford sold Model Ts in any colour, as long as they were black, so William T Piper’s Cubs came in all colours called Yellow. And ideally they are photographed in green fields peppered with yellow daisies, but I don’t have a Cub or a daisy field nearby to photograph – so you will have to imagine it.

As you walk through the daisies towards the little aeroplane you realize it is about as basic as it could be. The four tiny cylinders poke out of the nose with little black ears to scoop the air round them. The spark plugs and their wires are there for the world to see.

The cowlings seem to be made out of fruit juice box material – only thinner. They are held on with nappy pins. The tailplane has no shape – it is just a flat thing. The ailerons are worked by exposed wires that run up behind the struts, go round pullies and are attached to the horns by pins and split-pins. In fact much of the aeroplane depends on bits of bent wire. Hell even the door handle is a bit of bent wire.

Such delightful simplicity contrasts with the Tiger Moth, the Pom equivalent basic trainer. Where Mr Piper uses a two-dollar cable to work the throttle, Mr de Havelland has a system of beautifully engineered, bell-cranks, rods with ball joints, which weighs as much as a young fridge, needs constant attention and maintenance, and eventually wears out.

Much as I like the Tiger, it is a mechanical nightmare compared to the cub. The undercarriage which has pivots and oleos and braces and struts, works magnificently, but it makes a Steinway feel light. The Cub uses … wait for it… rubber bands – which also work magnificently.

Which would I rather fly? Undoubtedly the Tiger – it’s a hell of a lot of fun flying an open-cockpit, aerobatic biplane. Which would I rather use as a flying school trainer? No question about it – the Cub is light years ahead for economy, easy maintenance and low running costs. Hell, the Tiger uses exactly twice the horsepower to do the same job.

Ok I guess, partly because it is aerobatic, and partly because it is heavier, the Tiger will turn out better pilots, but I would take the Cub any day if I was a military commander wanting to churn out huge numbers of pilots at minimum cost. You can always use something aerobatic to fill that gap later.

Anyhow I sidetracked myself – you were walking through the daisies to go for your first flight in a Cub. The preflight is so simple it needs no discussion as long as you check the huge array of split pins and nappy pins. Oh, and another thing, my instructor, Dirty Bossie, would make me grasp the wingtip and shake it up and down to listen for clonks – indicating that the attachment brackets and bolts were worn. That was ZS-BNR, and it always clonked because they were. You could actually hear it in flight as you booted in rudder to enter a spin.

As pilot in command, or student, you clamber into the back seat and are immediately immersed in a smell of dope, hot oil and avgas. The instructor, or passenger, has to go through some spine-wrenching contortions to get into the front. As soon as he is comfortable you realize you can’t see a damn thing except his back. You have no forward visibility at all, and all the instruments are hidden.

When I say ‘all’, there is a rev-counter which works the wrong way, a one-handed altimeter that only shows thousands of feet, an ASI, compass, a ball, and temp and pressure gauges. Oh and there is a bit of bent wire on a cork to tell you the level of the fuel in the little 12 usg (45 l) tank behind the panel.

When you strap yourself in make sure that your seat belt does not go round the rudder cables which run either side of your seat near the floor.

Let’s just take stock of what you, as pilot in command, have under your control. No, not the fuel cock that’s under the panel, and way beyond your reach. Altimeter setting knob? Also out of reach. Master switch? There isn’t one – no battery to switch on. Lights, radios, starter? Nope – we don’t have any of those things. But you can operate the door handle, the rudder pedals and heel brakes, the stick – obviously; the carb-heat, trim and throttle on the left side-wall, and mag switch at the wing root above your left shoulder – that’s it.

So when you train in a Cub at a quiet country strip the stick and rudder teach you about aerodynamics, the throttle, mags and carb-heat teach you about engine handling, and the trim teaches you to fly with a delicate touch. The door handle is your ventilation control – you can fly with the door open or closed, depending on temperature. This means there are no distractions to take your mind away from pure flying, which in turn means you can go solo in six hours, and learn all you need to be a safe pilot in just 40 hours.

Anyhow here we are strapped in and ready to go. Some guy goes round the front and tells you to stand on the heel brakes, which are minute and awkward as hell. He then calls for you to set the throttle and hold the stick fully back. Finally he yells “Contact” so you switch on the mags and reply “Contact”. He swings the prop, and with any luck the whole thing springs into life.

The predominant sound is a sort of clatter – the type of noise you would get from a worn-out industrial sewing machine. If you have any mechanical feel you will be quite certain that the camshaft is broken or that the bearings are shot, or the thing is about to fling a con-rod.

Have no fear – they all do it and you will get used to it.

If you are on your own, starting is still pretty simple. You stand on the right hand side, facing forward, with your right foot in front of the wheel – to act as a chock. You work the throttle and mags with your left hand and you swing the prop from behind with your right hand. It is all surprisingly easy.

Taxiing is demanding – you really can see nothing ahead. It is best done with the door open so you can stick your head well out to the right to make sure there is nothing immediately ahead. Once you get going serious zig-zags are needed all the time.

The heel brakes are not fun – they are feeble as well as being difficult to get at. They are not designed to take much taxiing in a crosswind, and will soon cook and then fade to the extent that you have to stop and let them cool down. Cubs are made for grass patches – not miles of tarmac.

When you get to the holding point you can try doing a runup at 2100 rpm, but the brakes won’t hold – you realise you should have done it against the chocks outside the hangar.

Otherwise there is not much to do in the way of pre-takeoff vital actions. You set the trim and check for other traffic before lining up.

When you unleash the 65 horses the revs should go up to 2300 and the clattering will get a bit louder, but not much else seems to happen for a while then you may notice an edging forward, which gradually turns into a reluctant trot. Get the tail up and you will at least see where you are going.

The book says that at gross weight she will fly at 39 mph. Call it 40. When this happens you must level off immediately and wait until you see 55 on the clock for climbing. That is assuming the guy or girl in the front has grasped one of the airframe tubes that form a V across the windscreen, and pulled themselves to one side enough for you to be able to see some of the clocks.

Climb, particularly on the reef on a hot day, can best be described as leisurely. I used to hang around the Pretoria flying club waiting for someone to pitch, who was coughing and clutching a doctor’s prescription. Doctors went through a phase of thinking that if their whooping cough patients were taken up in an aeroplane and then descended quickly it would cure their ailment. Of course it was rubbish but I was looking for hours and nobody seemed to care that I didn’t have a com.

I would take the afflicted person up over the ridge to the South of Wonderboom and fly up and down looking for lift that might assist our ascent from 4100 ft to 7000. This could easily take as much as half an hour, which was great for my logbook, but I doubt it had any beneficial effect on the invalid.

Sorry, I got sidetracked again. We had jus