The ubiquitous yellow two-seater that spawned an industry lived to become a misnomer.
By Charles Spence
Someone once asked William T. Piper, Sr., if he wanted to be known as the Henry Ford of the airplane business. Piper reportedly replied, “No, I would prefer that Mr. Ford be known as the Bill Piper of the auto business.” Whether he actually said that has not been documented. It may be another of the many legends that have sprung up around the legendary man who pioneered the small airplane so well that many persons consider anything smaller than a jet transport to be a “Piper Cub.”
What Piper said–and did–is as engaging as the airplanes he produced. While the Piper Cub served as the nursery for hundreds of thousands of pilots, performed heroic deeds in World War II and spawned a line of aircraft that became a main part of personal, commercial and industrial flying, William Piper remained a quiet, confident, small-town man.
Piper mowed the lawn around his house next to the airport in Lock Haven, Pa. He refused to own more than one automobile. When his wife drove it to Florida to escape the northern winters, he would walk from the grocery–with a bag of food in either arm–using back lanes so he wouldn’t trouble others who might stop to offer him a lift.
Few except his family called him anything but “Mr. Piper.” He couldn’t understand why “nobody ever calls me Bill.” It was not his manner that prompted this respect. Perhaps it was esteem for his accomplishments or courtesy due his age. He backed into the aircraft business and shortly afterward learned to pilot an aircraft at the age of 60.
From a $400 investment, he built over the next 30-some years a family fortune estimated at more than $30 million and a generation of airplanes that made “Bill Piper” and “Cub” synonymous with “those little airplanes.”
Along the way there were exhilarating highs and agonizing lows. Early in Piper’s aviation career, fire gutted the plant at Bradford, Pa. “At the time, it looked like a disaster,” says Bill Piper, Jr., “but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.” When the manufacturers convinced military brass that the small airplane could perform special duties in war, the rebuilt Piper plant was the only one with enough capacity to produce the needed quantities.
By the time the Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903, Piper had dirtied his hands in his father’s oil business, fought a minor skirmish in the Spanish-American War and graduated from Harvard University. With a degree in mechanical engineering, he set out to build large manufacturing plants.
Not finding satisfaction in the construction business, he brought his family back to Bradford and settled into running his family’s oil business. At the same time, C. Gilbert Taylor was looking for a place to locate his Taylor Brothers aircraft factory. Taylor had, in 1926, built the side-by-side, two- passenger “Chummy” airplane.
The oil business in Bradford declined when more productive fields opened in western Pennsylvania, and the city began looking for new industry. It proposed a $50,000 stock investment in Taylor Brothers to lure the aircraft manufacturer to locate beside a short, cinder-covered runway.
One investor was William T. Piper, Sr. He purchased $400 worth of stock. To protect their investment, the Bradford business leaders pushed Piper onto the aircraft company’s board. Shortly, he became secretary- treasurer. He and Taylor quickly clashed.
Taylor had priced the Chummy at $4,000. “Too much,” insisted Piper. He wanted an airplane people would find easy to buy and easy to fly. Taylor balked at the idea, but Piper persisted.
On September 12, 1930, Taylor’s new design flew. That is, it almost flew. The tiny engine wouldn’t lift the aircraft more than five feet off the ground before the monoplane ran out of runway. The engine was a 20-hp Brownbach Tiger Kitten. Remarking on the engine’s name, the company accountant, Gilbert Hadrel, suggested, “Why not call the plane a Cub?”
The name stuck, the engine did not. Nine months later, with a new 37-hp Continental engine, the E-2 Cub earned its license for manufacture from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The price then and for years to come was $1,325. Piper had his low-cost, easy-to-fly airplane, and the world had a synonym for light airplanes.
Although the Continental engine had more power, it also had a penchant for twisting crankshafts. Continental hadn’t yet found the difference between the amount of torque developed in autos and that in aircraft. The engine also blew gaskets regularly.
Friction between Piper and Taylor continued. Taylor wanted to build bigger, more expensive aircraft, a route Piper believed would make them more competitive with manufacturers like Ryan, which was producing the Brougham for $9,700. Piper persisted in his quest for a cheap airplane.
As the two men struggled, so, too, did their company. By 1930, money from the sale of stock was gone, and Taylor was in debt to the bank for $15,000. Bankruptcy followed. Because of the deep economic depression and a faltering aircraft market, no one bid on the assets. Piper bought them for $761. He gave half interest to Taylor.
Short on cash, Piper was prudent in hiring. In 1932, a 19-year-old claiming to be an aeronautical engineering graduate of Rutgers University applied for a position. Rutgers did not have an aeronautical engineering course. Tinkering with the truth did not seem to bother the young man, who came from a well-to-do family. What did bother him was his inability to find work. He even offered to come to work at Taylor Brothers for no salary. The price was right, and Piper hired Walter Jamouneau.
Under Piper’s direction, Jamouneau began to make slight changes in the Cub. He rounded off the squared angles and made other modifications. When Taylor saw this modified cub roll out of the factory, he fired Jamouneau, an act that Piper later rescinded.
Coming to grips with the friction between Taylor and himself, Piper bought his partner’s interest. He paid $250 a month for three years and agreed to keep up the payments on Taylor’s life insurance policies.
The altered Cub became the J-2, the “J” standing for Jamouneau. In 1937, additional Jamouneau changes gave birth to the J-3 Cub, which was to become the primary trainer, military workhorse and light airplane that changed the course of private flying.
The nation still felt the pangs of the Great Depression. Airplane salesmen came to the Piper company for $15 a week salary and $25 for expenses. Among them were Jacob Willard “Jake” Miller and William Strohmeier, who later opened a New York advertising agency that produced Piper advertising.
Strohmeier was in Florida and Piper was showing his Cubs at the National Pacific Aircraft and Boat Show in Los Angeles on March 17, 1937, when a spark from an electric drill ignited dope-soaked debris in the paint room of the Taylor Aircraft Co. The fire destroyed the plant. Mr. Piper reacted with characteristic calm. “At least we’ll get some publicity out of it,” he philosophized.
With no insurance on the main plant, the company needed money and a location. Mr. Piper decided to “go public” with stock. After finding little support from the people of Bradford for rebuilding, he and his eldest son, William, Jr., talked about the problem. “Let’s move,” they agreed.
Jake Miller, a native of Lock Haven, Pa., a distributor there for Piper aircraft and also a road salesman, persuaded the Pipers and the town that the best site was an empty silk mill next to the Lock Haven airport. The silk mill had gone bankrupt five years before.
The old mill had far more space than the Pipers thought they would ever need. That added space, however, along with Piper’s insistence on a wing “that wouldn’t sass back” were important elements in the future of the light airplane.
Piper stayed with the basic, cheap, easy-to-fly airplane while others designed more sophisticated and costly products. In Wichita, Kan., Dwane Wallace had taken over the Cessna Co. from his uncle, Clyde Cessna. Walter Beech had broken away from Cessna over design differences and formed his own company. Beech’s goals, and those of others, centered at the time on larger, more expensive airplanes.
Always pushing for dealerships, Piper’s salesmanship turned many individual sales into additional deliveries. When a customer took delivery of one of his planes, Piper suggested that if the buyer became a distributor, the purchase price would be 20 percent less. If the savings convinced the buyer to become a distributor, Piper then reminded him that a distributor needed a second airplane to sell, and this, too, would be at a 20 percent savings.
Teaching people to fly meant aircraft sales. Dealers and distributors could send to Lock Haven any youth who wanted to learn to fly. The students paid their transportation, lodging and meals, and Piper taught them to fly for $1 an hour, the cost including the airplane and instructor.
This same low instruction cost applied to Piper employees. In 1934, for instance, plant workers received 20 cents an hour, and scores took advantage of the $1-an-hour flight training. The Piper company continued this policy. “The best part of this,” recalls Bill Piper, Jr., “is that so long as the kids wanted to fly they would be interested in building a good product.” At one time, one out of every 90 persons in the town of Lock Haven held a pilot’s license.
As war clouds churned over Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed building a cadre of civilian-trained pilots. Reports showed that Hitler’s Germany had 65,000 men training as pilots and mechanics, with three times that many taking glider training. In Italy, Benito Mussolini boasted a government-sponsored aeronautical society with 120,000 members The United States had only 23,236 licensed pilots, including those flying for the airlines.
The Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program began, with the Cub as the primary trainer. By January 1, 1941, the United States had more than 63,000 licensed pilots Four out of every five pilots who flew in World War II got their first training in Piper Cubs. Among those who trained under the CPT program were astronaut and now-senator John Glenn, aces Richard Bong and Joe Foss, and 19 of the 79 airmen who took part in General James Doolittle’s Tokyo raid in 1942.
To promote the CPT program, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt rode in a Cub and posed for publicity photos. Hers was not the only famous bottom to experience the seat of a Cub: Generals Mark Clark, George Patton and George Marshall were among many commanders who used Cubs as flying jeeps. There was another, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who first met the Cub when he learned to fly one; he soloed while stationed in the Philippines. Later, as a lieutenant colonel, he was instrumental in bringing light aircraft to a prominent military role.
Washington politicians and military brass wanted no truck with aircraft. That, they reasoned, was the jurisdiction of the Army Air Corps, and they saw no value in what they referred to as a “puddle-jumper.”
Field offices held the aircraft in less esteem than did their commanders in Washington. Often the civilian pilots from Piper, Taylorcraft (which had opened a competing business) and Aeronca were forgotten when it came to providing housing and rations. The pilots slept under the wings of their aircraft. Units to which they were assigned moved out without telling the pilots when or where they were going.
Gradually, the persistence of the pilots showed what the aircraft could do. In one instance, an umpire of war games discovered he could use the small airplanes to oversee the maneuvers. In another, the commander of a column of tanks went aloft to untangle a massive traffic jam that the drivers had created. Flying low over the tangled mass of steel vehicles, he bellowed instructions through a bullhorn to get the column straightened out.
During the Third Army’s war games in Louisiana, then Lt. Col. Eisenhower received an order to check the camouflage used by the troops and their equipment. Bill Strohmeier was assigned as his pilot. There to sell Cubs, Strohmeier merely went along for the ride, letting Eisenhower fly the plane. The man who would lead the Allied forces in the European theater and become the 34th president of the United States completed his mission and brought the Cub onto an 800-foot-long strip surrounded by trees, compensating for a brisk crosswind.
Although Taylorcraft and Aeronca participated in the demonstrations to prove the value of the light airplane, Piper’s plant capacity and “the wing that wouldn’t sass back” made the Cub the vehicle of choice.
While Tony Piper, Bill Strohmeier and others continued to demonstrate airplanes for military acceptance, the Lock Haven plant pushed ahead. Piper’s youngest son, Howard, known as “Pug,” worked with Jamouneau in designing upgraded versions. First came the J-4 Coupe, and then the Cruiser that had a bench seat for two passengers behind the pilot. In 1940, Piper sold 3,005 aircraft, the J-3, J-4 and J-5. In 1941, the year the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into the war, Piper sales totaled 2,881 aircraft.
Then the Cub joined the war. Fifteen days after the Pearl Harbor attack, the field artillery asked the Civil Aeronautics Authority for six flight instructor/mechanics. “All we had to do,” recalled Bill Jr., “was paint the Cub olive drab to produce a military airplane.”
Civilian-owned Cubs joined the service, organized into a U.S. Army Air Force auxiliary, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). One of their wartime chores was to patrol the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in search of German U-boats and survivors from their attacks. By the time the Navy assumed this responsibility in 1943, the small airplanes of the CAP had flown more than 86,000 missions, from the Canadian border to Tampico, Mexico.
Pilots of the L-4s, as the military version of the Cub was called, had been trained at Fort Sill, Okla., by a group of instructors headed by Tony Piper. They learned the techniques of avoiding fighter planes by flying low and slow, or by putting the L-4 into a tight spin while the attacking fighters raced past them.
By the time the Allies were ready for the Italian campaign, so were the L-4s. They had their own aircraft carriers. A flight deck 210 feet long and 12 feet wide was laid on top of LSTs (landing ship, tanks). The L-4s took off from these carriers and scouted the shorelines, far enough out to avoid small-arms fire.
The enemy quickly recognized the effectiveness of the “Grasshoppers,” as the Cubs were called. German fighter pilots received twice as many points toward an air medal for shooting down a Grasshopper rather than a fighter plane. Ground force personnel were promised a 15-day pass if they destroyed an observation plane. Despite the bounty, frequent flights in bad weather, and the hostile operating areas, the fatality rate among L-4 pilots was exceptionally low.
A unique method of launching the L-4 into action was “the Brodie,” perfected by Tony Piper and named for a lieutenant who pushed for it. This called for a strong cable to be strung between vertical posts set up on top of LSTs. A hook on top of the L-4 permitted it to be hoisted to a sling hanging from a trolley on the cable. Under full power, the L-4 raced along the cable and the pilot released his hook. Returning, the pilot maneuvered the plane to catch the hook on the sling.
By putting a turtle top on the fuselage to increase headroom, the L-4 became a stretcher carrier. Other units supplied ground troops by dropping food, water and ammunition. During the Battle of the Bulge, L-4s delivered blood plasma to the surrounded Allied troops. In the four years spanning 19421945, Piper delivered 6,028 aircraft to the military. “We could have done a lot more if we had just been turned loose,” said Bill, Jr. “We used only about one-fifth of our capacity.”
But that capacity became valuable in postwar years. During the conflict, a nucleus of design engineers worked in a corner of the second floor of the old silk mill. In and out of the aviation industry, an explosive growth in personal aviation was expected.
The public did demand. In Lock Haven, Piper and 2,200 employees enthusiastically turned out 8,000 Piper Cubs and Super Cruisers. More than three-dozen manufacturers had entered the market, producing a total of 31,000 new aircraft. Also, the government dumped 30,000 war-surplus airplanes on the market at sacrifice prices.
To meet the demand, Piper sent engineer Hanford Eckman to Ponca City, Okla., to set up another assembly plant. Some Lock Haven employees went with him. The cost of a Piper airplane assembled at Ponca City was $30 above the Lock Haven prices. The J-3 price went up to $2,195 postwar dollars. The Cruiser, sold for $2,150 before the war, now commanded $3,495.
Beech brought out the Bonanza, a low-wing, V-tail plane with a price tag of $6,995. Piper had prepared for this with a design of the Sky Sedan. His son Bill remembers this as “a good airplane” but one that never got into production. Another postwar product created by the Piper engineers was the two-place, side-by-side “Skycoupe.” This was a “good-looking airplane with all kinds of features,” Bill, Jr., recalled, “but it didn’t fly worth a damn.”
The sales boom for private aircraft deflated as quickly as it had expanded. By 1948 many of the companies had quit the field. Piper concentrated on the evolution of its popular Cruiser into the Vagabond, the Pacer and then the TriPacer, which had a landing gear wheel on the nose, a departure for Piper from the conventional tail-wheel configuration.
The public need now was more for aircraft with travel capabilities than for training and local sport flying. “It took a lot of persuasion,” the younger Piper said, but his father finally agreed to produce the Apache, Piper’s first twin-engine aircraft, which could carry four and cover a respectable distance, even in adverse weather.
Pug Piper, heading the engineering activities, and brother Bill selected Vero Beach, Fla., as the site for another Piper facility. This new facility, originally planned for research and development, soon became a production plant with the introduction of the Cherokee line.
Descendants of the Chummy that took its first flight in 1926 formed tribes of aircraft that bear the names Comanche, Aztec, Pawnee, Navajo, Cheyenne, Seneca, Seminole, Dakota and Saratoga. Another tribe, the Pocono, became a quick casualty when a hostile takeover of the Piper Co. began in January 1969.
Bill, Jr., said he remembers the Pocono “as a fine airplane that would have been important in the commuter airline market.” But, “they” gave the one prototype away to a European country, he added, “they” refering to the corporate conglomerates that battled for ownership of the Piper Aircraft Corporation. The company that launched the Cubs and tribes of aircraft with Indian names became a scalp on the belt of hostile takeover warriors.
Piper planes have set distance and speed records. Most records and publicity flights, however, came under the exclusive guidance of the Piper Co., which wanted to assure safety and to make certain the product received full recognition. Jake Miller cut the requests of other agencies short with the comment, “People remember Paul Revere but they don’t remember the name of his horse.”
But the public does remember the name Piper; remembers it so well that, to the chagrin of competitors, “Piper Cub” sticks as a designation for any small aircraft. It may be one of the best sold, or oversold, names of any product.
Of course, not every small airplane is a Cub, nor a Piper, for that matter. Yet, some future generations looking back may wonder who Henry Ford was, and perhaps someone will say, “Oh, he’s the Bill Piper of the automobile industry.”
Charles Spence, freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area, has more than 30 years experience in aviation communications He learned to fly in 1954 in a–what else!–Piper Cub. For further reading: Mr. Piper and His Cubs, by Devon Francis.