By Mike Davenport, EAA 89102, Langley, British Columbia
Not your average antique aircraft, this one has been in regular use for 84 years — 57 of those with the current owner’s family.
It is late summer of 2022 and we just moved a 1938 Piper J-3 into a spot in a hangar that I share with seven other pilots. An 84-year-old aircraft that is still on active duty and the reason for the move? Well, it is time for an annual inspection, and besides that’s where the mechanic’s tools are kept.
Locally known tongue in cheek as a J-2 ½, it was built as a J3A40-4, serial number C1126, with J-2 wings and a single-ignition 38 hp Continental engine. CF-BIP (CF-RIP) is the oldest surviving J-3 in Canada, supplied to Cub Aircraft Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, as a kit on March 14, 1938. CF-BIP was one of 647 built in that year.
Shortly after assembly in Hamilton, Ontario, CF-BIP was flown to British Columbia and Sea Island in Richmond where it was an instructional aircraft for the Aero Club of BC. On the site of what is now Vancouver International Airport, the grass landing area would work well for the Cub. As supplied from Piper, the aircraft had neither brakes nor tail wheel, assuming that it would be flown off grass and the skid would provide the required stopping power. The little 37-hp single-ignition flat-head engine proved to be problematic, regularly blowing gaskets and breaking crankshafts; it was replaced by a similar 40-hp Continental but with dual ignition and much later that was replaced with a C65 for the increased power and durability required for float operation.
The Cub was used regularly for student instruction until 1942, requiring a left wing and a propeller change that looks suspiciously like a ground loop but that wasn’t stated in the logs. In 1942, it was taken out of service and grounded until 1946 as per government regulations due to wartime restrictions on private flying. At this point, it had accumulated some 752 hours.
In the spring of 1957, BIP made its second long-distance flight, this time from Langley British Columbia, to San Francisco and back. The first had been the 2,675-mile delivery flight from Hamilton, Ontario, to Vancouver in 1938. Still later it would be flown back east to southern Ontario by Cam and his wife Les, a flight of some 39 hours covering more ground than anyone would expect from a small trainer. According to the logs, it’s flown in all the provinces west of Quebec on floats and on wheels as well.
Modifications have been a staple in this Cub’s past and continue today as you will see shortly. In 1961, the Cub received a new registration as it was then being maintained as a homebuilt without a certificate of airworthiness. Under the regulations of the time, it had to have an R as the first letter after the CF-, hence CF-RIP. At this point it received yet another upgrade with the installation of a C85 engine complete with a starter and an alternator. The electrical system installation also provided the power for a comm radio and a transponder.
But back to the Cub today. While it looked good on the outside, we needed to look a little closer as it hadn’t flown for quite a while. Who better than Werner Griesbeck, EAA 108746, to do the inspection. He is a licensed AME who coincidentally had restored a half-dozen Cubs over the years, including this one.
The current caretaker is the second in his family to assume that role; both he and his father have cared for and cherished this pretty little yellow airplane since 1964.
J.P. (Pat) Leslie flew the aircraft in 1964 and gave his son Cam his first ride in it as well. It would be a few years later in 1971 before Cam flew it as PIC. Cam had to first learn to fly and then there was the matter of a career, one that ended in 2012 after 39-plus years with Air Canada.
The inspection went well with minor needs tended to until we reached the front of the aircraft. There we found the C85 was not as healthy as one would like with one cylinder weaker than the other three. It was decided to run it for a bit to see if that would clear up the problem (a leaking exhaust valve) or if it would have to be removed for repair.
Fortunately, that brief run was the magic necessary and whatever was holding the exhaust valve open cleared and now all four cylinders were equal.
Both fuel valves needed attention as each had developed annoying leaks over time. Replacement of the header tank valve required significant contortions under the instrument panel to complete while the wing tank valve was a minor task.
Brakes also needed some attention as they couldn’t hold the Cub during run-ups. However, doing any maintenance work on an 84-year-old aircraft is fraught with hazards. The likelihood that some irreplaceable part will break is high as the parts have been taken off so many times in the years. The inevitable happened, something broke that couldn’t be repaired but, in this case, there was an alternative. A California company makes a disc brake option for the J-3 and an executive decision was made to place the kit on order. Somehow, modern disc brakes on a 1938 J-3 seems heretical especially since this one was delivered with none — but it seems grass runways are scarce and tail-skids are things of the past so common sense says get brakes.
The kit came complete with everything needed to complete the installation, including an excellent set of instructions.
Finally, it was done. The seats were put back in and it was time to do the brake ‘run-in’ and then to fly the little beauty.
I got to ride front seat for some dual in the circuit. With two on board, we were pretty much at gross weight and yet the climb rate was still in the neighbourhood of 600 feet per minute. The need for right rudder on takeoff was a lot less that I’m used to — 85 hp versus 165 in my Stinson. Downwind was flown at 75 and final at 65 over the fence. Flight planning could be done with a calendar as top speed is only 5 mph higher. One thing became abundantly clear, the only thing that was clear was the view from the side — you can’t see much out to the front either during takeoff or landing. It is a rudder aircraft as those J-2 wings and sealed ailerons need all the help they can get, and did I mention that it is totally blind forward on short final? The whole runway disappears, but no worries — pull the power, be patient and you will find it. The owner and I each did two circuits and the airplane is still usable: a good day for all.
Incidentally one of the J-3’s students was Art Seller, a name that was to become very familiar to West Coast pilots. Seller soloed the Cub in March 1941 and by July of that same year had put almost 37 hours on this little bird. Art then went on to take those skills to war and fly Spitfires, only to be shot down during the D-Day raids on June 6, 1944. He was captured and became a POW until the war ended.
Post war, Art started Skyway Air Services, a flying school in Langley where I was to earn my private licence in the 1980s. After getting the school running, he won a contract to spray mosquitoes along the Fraser River using a Tiger Moth equipped with spray bars. This developed into another to spray spruce bud worms in eastern Canada, first with Tiger Moths and later with Boeing Stearmans. Later he formed what became the largest aerial fire suppression business on the West Coast, using surplus TBM Avengers, a far cry from J-3 cubs.
Thirty-one years later in 1972, Art renewed his acquaintance with CF-BIP with a local flight.