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Mr. Piper and his Cubs Hardcover – 1973
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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The Cub was the inspiration of Bill Piper and Gilbert C. Taylor. It was simple to manufacture. Few skilled workers or precision tools were required moderating the cost of production. With its high wing, semi-cantilever, two place tandem cockpit, its appearance seemed ordinary for 1930, but looks were deceiving. It had a "sturdy steel framework, ...[and] tubular steel struts, not flexible cables like the Aeronca, to supplement the anchorages of the wings to the fuselage. Wing spars were made of Oregon spruce. To absorb landing impacts, rubber `shock cord' served as springs. It was cheap but it worked."(24)
The Continental Motors A-40, a four cylinder, horizontally opposed engine rated at 40 hp, powered the prototype for licensing and initial production. The later J 3 sported such improvements as more power, upholstered seats, basic instruments, brakes and a tail wheel, and, its now trademark, yellow color.
A fire set Piper back when his Bradford, Pennsylvania plant burned on St. Patrick's day in 1937. Insurance only covered five percent of the $200,000 loss. This was only one of the many setbacks in his long struggle to develop and market an affordable airplane.
When war clouds loomed on the horizon, Roosevelt commanded the Civil Aeronautics Authority to train pilots in what became known as the Civilian Pilot Training program. "Three of each four airplanes used were Cubs."(72) It was therefore not an unreasonable assumption for Piper to wholeheartedly embrace the prospects for the future of general aviation and he "led the optimists in forecasting a boom in the postwar years,"(120) But he debunked the hopes of "unredeemed dreamers. `Visions of an airplane in most garages,' he warned in February 1954, `are unfounded. But light planes will be big business.'"(121)
For the first eighteen months following the cessation of hostilities and with returning war veterans, Piper's optimism seemed justified. A record number of planes were being built and production seemed incapable of satisfying demand. That rosy outlook changed almost overnight, when with incomprehensible suddenness in early 1947, the aircraft market collapsed.
There were many causes, but "the stark single biggest reason, on which all else impinged, was that the product had not changed in sixteen years. The fabric-skinned light planes coming out the factory doors were, essentially, fair weather machines suited only for around-the-airport flying."(135) Piper's stock collapsed and the company joined the industry in a nose dive. Many manufacturers would never recover, but Piper survived by reorienting its business plan.
"It forced a soul searching, a reassessment. If the age of the wings-for-everyone that the manufacturers had been trumpeting did not exist, then where lay the markets for their products? Indeed, was there a market at all? If the lightplane was to fill a niche in the spectrum of transportation, it would have to undergo major change. It would have to be fast. It must have range. It would have to offer the buyer an alternative to [the] commercial airliner. It would have to take off with a reasonable assurance of getting where it was going, the weather almost notwithstanding. It could not carry Mickey Mouse instrumentation."(162)
The market demanded a light plane more versatile than the industry had previously provided but it was not to be for a mass market. It would be an aircraft more costly to produce, therefore restricting its usefulness to a small number of more affluent consumers. High costs and limited demand, the two pronged nemesis of the Winged Gospel, derailed Piper's dream of ubiquitous personal air transportation in the post war era as it had done in the 1930s.
Even as the dream of personal air transportation for everyone was elusive, perhaps no one articulated the idea of an affordable airplane better than William T. Piper.