Super Cub Ferry Flight

© Thomas G. Rampton

So successful was William Piper's little airplane, introduced around 1935, that some people still call every light airplane a "Piper Cub." The vast majority of light airplanes are not Cubs, but I made a rare and wonderful flight in a genuine one.

Early on, Cubs had 40 horsepower engines, and needed to be flown solo from the rear seat for reasons of balance. That increased to 65 horsepower, but rear-seat solo was still necessary. These two-place airplanes were used by the army during World War II as observation craft and even had the ability to be launched from, and recovered on, a suspended cable above a jungle or alongside a ship.

Cubs have been used for pipeline patrol, crop spraying, bush and float flying, glider and banner towing, and lots of flight training.

Engine power increased steadily, so that the last Cubs were over three times as powerful as the first ones. Early Cubs had cylinders that protruded from the cowling, but that soon changed. It became unnecessary to fly solo from the back seat. The airplane became a little more hefty, but if an original J-3 were parked beside a modern Super Cub, anyone could see that the changes had been evolutionary.

This particular 90 horsepower Cub rose from the runway at Buena Vista, 8000 feet high in the Colorado Rockies, late one afternoon in October. The shadow of the continental divide would soon sweep across the airport. The airplane banked south toward the town of Salida, about 25 miles away. From there, it flew generally eastward along the Arkansas River. Late afternoon sun still shone on the ridges and peaks, but the river flowed darkly in it's shadowy groove.

River and airplane emerged from the Rocky Mountains as shadows from the peaks reached far onto the eastern plains. Unequipped for night flight, and with a pilot who wanted to see the land, the red and white airplane made an approach at last light to the Cañon City airport, near where the Arkansas River leaves the Royal Gorge to begin its long journey across the prairie to the Mississippi.

There is no subtlety about the mountain front in Colorado. A few feet often make the difference. Sedimentary strata that were upturned by the rising Rockies stand at a high angle, as they do most of the way between here and Wyoming. The rocks that are upturned along the edge of the Rockies dip far underneath much of Colorado's population. They run far eastward, rising slowly, and reach the surface again on the great plains.

Cañon City nestles against the western end of the Cañon City Embayment, a geological indentation in the mountain front. Pikes Peak is north of the airport. The Wet Mountains are to the south. Street numbers increase eastward. Near First Street is the dividing line between the Rockies and the Midwest. The old Colorado State Penitentiary straddles that line, with the main building in the Midwest. Time was, the condemned had to walk up into the Rocky Mountains for execution, up onto that first hill.

The sole occupant of the Cub, I got out and tied the airplane on the far edge of the ramp. I spread my sleeping gear on the ground behind the wing and sat on the fat little tire to eat some food I'd brought along.

Sleeping beside airplanes began for me when my Dad and I flew a light airplane from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic and back again, in 1960. I was a high school junior then, in the same year this Cub had been built.

I declined the airport manager's offer of shelter inside the terminal building. One of life's pleasures is sleeping beside an airplane. You can't do this at major airports, but I've never found a small field where you couldn't. I'm not the sort of traveler who enjoys plush resorts.

In the morning I flew toward Pueblo, which was about a half hour to the east. A friendly voice from the control tower cleared me to land straight-in on the big east-west runway. Pueblo had long been used by airlines for training flights, and the touchdown zone had been blackened by many tire-scorching arrivals. I landed and slowed to taxi speed even before reaching the dark zone.

Pueblo had the last airplane-accessible breakfast I knew about until Dodge City, Kansas. There probably are others. The airport restaurant was bustling with airline attendants whose craft were arriving and departing just outside. Later, the friendly voice cleared me for an eastbound departure along the Arkansas River.

I think control tower personnel, and airline pilots, tend to admire airplanes like Piper Cubs. One afternoon, I'd flown a Citabria, which is similar, into Denver's Stapleton Airport. Wake turbulence wasn't a factor right then, but getting down and clearing the runway for departing traffic was, so I ended my final approach with a vigorous forward slip, right past the nose of a heavy airline jet awaiting takeoff.

I could see the pilots inside, looking up at me. On the tower frequency, one of them said, "Ain't that pretty!" I imagine it was, and not just because the Citabria was bright red against a blue sky.

Unfortunately, I did not own this Cub. It belonged to a friend of mine who had moved from Colorado to Springfield, Missouri. There I was taking it, before winter settled upon us. Eastward I flew, at about 90 mph, with the Midwest stretching ahead.

Ammo bunkers, those earthen mounds, at the Pueblo Army Depot were arranged in a pattern like the ions of a huge crystal lattice. I was then employed teaching high school chemistry students about lattices. I found the river lined with yellow cottonwoods as it meandered in great curves. Farms lined the river in places, and elsewhere there were bluffs.

The airplane was quite stable, and I helped it along with my knees on the stick and my feet on the rudder pedals while I swept back and forth photographing Arkansas River meanders. I taught geology too, and I'd use these slides in class.

I'd never gone anywhere before in a Piper Cub! I'd spent many hours in them over the years, mostly flying great ascending rectangles around the airport of origin while towing gliders aloft. I'd given a few hours of flight instruction from the rear seat of this particular airplane, but I hadn't logged any cross country time in a Cub.

Slow and pleasant progress across America's heartland was the present reality. Flights of geese, their journey longer and more adventurous than mine, passed underneath headed south. I flew lazily into Kansas.

Navigation was simple. I'd follow the Arkansas River until I got to the section line I wanted to follow. The river flows southeastward, angling across section lines. Then it makes a big northeastern swing near Dodge city before turning southeast again at Garden City. I knew which line went to Hutchinson and which went to Wichita. I'd used them before.

After a feast at the Dodge City airport, I followed the river northeast thirty more miles to a little town named Kinsley. From there, I planned to fly the section line that would take me a little north of Wichita. Then a slight change of heading in eastern Kansas would take me where I needed to go.

These section lines mark the Midwest like a giant set of Cartesian coordinates, oriented true north and south, east and west. Not imaginary, they are often roads, about a mile apart, and they show plainly. It's like flying across graph paper.

Highway 50, a little to my north, had several small towns along it, like green lumps on the prairie. Other towns had large, white grain elevators. Towns are identifiable by their relationship to various features, and the aeronautical charts emphasize what's visible from above. They show drive-in theaters, athletic fields, railroads, rivers, lakes, and highways.

The best insurance against losing your way is keeping track of landmarks as you go. What side of town is that railroad on? There's that Y in the road. Radio navigation aids, including the global positioning system, are wonderfully sophisticated and satisfying to use. But for low and slow flying, the best navaid is still the window. Pilots do get lost out here even in good weather, but I'm not sure how they do it.

If your route isn't along a section line, then you factor in wind correction, assume your heading, maintain your angle across the lines, and keep tabs on your progress. I'd flown here on instruments. That's fascinating too, but different.

I was near the former route of the Santa Fe Trail. My view was broader than from a covered wagon but still, I was keeping tabs on the earth. That's how I wanted it. That is my reason for flying.

My altitude was sufficient to clear the tall TV towers that dot the Midwest, but low enough to examine each town, farm, and field. I wondered whether a farmer's temperament, and perhaps even zir politics, could be seen in how sie wields the plow. Most rows on fields were straight and precise, but others were drawn more freely upon the land. From my vantage, I saw romantic sweeps of the plow that looked as though someone had been having fun.

I've read since that much of this is simply contour plowing. But I'm unconvinced that it all is.

The western third of Kansas looks quite dry. Runoff from the Rockies now irrigates eastern Colorado, and very little Arkansas River water actually makes it to Kansas. There's a large, mostly empty, channel which has been the subject of bitter interstate court action.

By Wichita, there's enough precipitation to make it a real river again. Farther downstream, ships come up from the Mississippi at least to Little Rock. A regional transformation can be seen as you fly east.

Eastbound, I can't say just where the forest begins because it sneaks up on you. At first you notice a few trees here and there. Then groves. Eventually, forest cover replaces bare prairie except where the land has been cleared.

For economic reasons, the production of Piper Cubs stopped in 1983. The year I made this flight, production had resumed, which was evidence that something was right with the world. But it has since stopped again. Certain aircraft, such as the Douglas DC-3, have become timeless classics, symbols of national greatness, and the world is richer for it. The Piper Cub is one of these.

This Cub droned on. Careful aerial reconnaissance revealed that Lamar, Missouri, had a Pizza Hut within walking distance of the airport. I landed forthwith, walked to dinner at sunset, then spent another night beside the airplane in the company of an inquisitive and playful cat.

My sleeping bag was moist with dew in the morning, so I threw it loosely behind the back seat of the airplane to dry. Another thirty minutes of flight brought me into contact with yet another friendly voice. This one came from the Springfield, Missouri, control tower. Soon, I was cleared for a straight-in approach.

I unhappily yielded the Cub to its owner. He and I did a little local flying, but didn't have time for the longer trip we'd talked about. I took United Airlines back to Denver at ten times the Cub's altitude and six times the Cub's speed. What had taken me ten hours took 93 minutes in a Boeing. The airliner, quite by accident, followed my same section line so I could see in quick succession all my checkpoints from 35,000 feet.

What has Mr. Piper's Cub meant to aviation in this country and around the world? Cubs are very capable, though they are noisy, drafty, unplush, and slow. They are beloved as though sainted. A Cub delivers flight for the sake of flight, plus lots of utility. It's an airplane that jet pilots like to fly on days off. Perhaps it is the ideal concept of airplaneness, a best example of what it means for something to be an airplane.

The development of such a machine showed America's best. May that spirit be with us always, and I think it still is.

Back to Tom Rampton's pages