The Beat Goes On

A Memorable Flight in a 1940 J-3 Cub

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There is a particularly unique aspect about flying from the rear seat of a 1940 Piper J-3 Cub; If the passenger in the front seat is rather tall, their shoulders block the view of the panel.
However, on this Saturday afternoon the view of the old airspeed indicator was being obstructed by the errant ponytails of a fourteen year old girl. Melanie is barely Five-Foot- One, and the pilot had never noticed how the headset cups of a short passenger keep him from seeing the airspeed needle as it wavers between the seventy and eighty mile-per-hour numerals on the indicator.

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It was one of those rare March evenings in North Alabama when the visibility is great and the winds light. The pilot had flown the old Cub that morning under overcast skies to a fly-in breakfast, but as the afternoon cleared to reveal splendid blue skies graced with only the occasional wispy cirrus, Melanie began to make hints about how nice it would be to take a ride in the Cub.
Melanie had never shown a great interest in flying, but several weeks ago the pilot took her and the Cub for a sightseeing trip over the hills of southern Tennessee, and had shown her how to use the view over the cowl along with the ball in the slip indicator to make a coordinated turn. He had gotten quite a kick out of seeing how readily she picked up on the proper ratio of stick and rudder, much more quickly than some of his pilot friends who possess feet numbed by countless hours in modern craft. That trip apparently sparked Melanie’s interest in further explorations of the Cub's charms, especially when she realized that her small hands and feet could control the thirty-six feet of fabric covered ribs just as readily as a heavily muscled male pilot.
The afternoon sun warmed them as they climbed out over the Tennessee River, so he decided it had been way too long since the Cub had flown with the window and door open. A twist of the latch and suddenly they were no longer just enjoying the view of the earth as it slid below outside the windows, but as the warm air and exhaust rumble of the ancient Continental A75 rushed through the open space, they were now a part of the atmospheric ocean in which the old Cub seemed so at home.
Melanie's diminutive frame located her eyes on a level where about the only view she had out the front of the Cub in level flight was of the fuel float wire as it bobbed in the light thermals. The only thing in the cabin that could be pressed into service as a booster chair was a cloth bag in the baggage compartment that contained a couple of chocks. It was decided that if the chocks were slid under the seat cushion, the view out the front of the Cub might be significantly improved. After they climbed a few hundred feet, he slid the bag under the cushion as she "stood" over the front seat; fortunately, the arrangement turned out to be acceptably comfortable and her viewpoint from the front seat was greatly improved.
Now the pilot turned her loose to play with 360 degree turns of various angles of bank. He was almost certain he could hear a chuckle in the old Cub's exhaust bark. It was almost as if the fifty-seven year old plane was enjoying being once again the host to a ride of discovery for a young eaglet as she sprouted wings in the warm, clear air. How many times before had the old plane been responsible for introducing a formerly grounded earthling to the joys of flight? Even as aviation has ushered in technological advances unthinkable to the designers of the Cub, the stick in Melanie's hand still responded to the same aerodynamic truths that keep the highest-tech stealth projectiles airborne.
The slip ball traced Melanie’s efforts as they arced through the evening air. Most of the time it stayed near the center of its tube, only occasionally wandering off to one side as the old Cub introduced Melanie to the fine points of adverse yaw. After a few minutes, it was obvious to the pilot that he could relax his efforts to peek through the wafting pigtails to steal a glimpse of the airspeed indicator. He began to relax in the rear seat as the teenager picked up the meanderings of the Elk River and began to follow the snaking course of the river upstream toward its source in the Tennessee foothills. Melanie was now seeing how closely she could follow the river while keeping the nose of the Cub level as the horizon tilted back and forth with the turns in the river.

He took time to notice how the cows in the pastures below seemed to be enjoying the tender new spring grass in its bright green splendor. He also noticed how numerous Limestone county citizens were using the warm afternoon as occasion to burn yard debris that had accumulated over the winter. The light gray smoke contrails weathervaned only slightly due to the southwest breeze, and eventually terminated in a minature man-made cumulus five hundred feet above the earth.

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As the sun continued its inevitable journey to the earth to end this day's warmth, Melanie instinctively turned back toward the Decatur airport.. The pilot, noting that she headed in the proper direction without his intervention, wondered what landmarks she was using to establish her homeward heading. Could it be the great Tennessee River on the southern horizon? Maybe it was the huge orange ball that was resting on the intersection of the earth and sky beyond the Cub's right wingtip. He even mused that maybe it was just that "female intuition thing" that sometimes baffles the male ego.
It was now obvious to the pilot that the Cub was definitely enjoying the ride. The old Continental had never sounded more content as it sipped its 100 octane tea. Its wingtips were now being held a constant and equal measure above each horizon. The Cub's nose was indicating a direct path back to the hanger as the race with the sun was eagerly engaged. No lights on the wingtips of this old bird, it had to be home as evening light descended.
Had a new pilot taken wing? Would this glorious afternoon be enough to stoke the aviation fire in the pig-tailed fourteen year old? Would she now eagerly anticipate the next journey into the air in the Cub?
I suppose only time will tell. I must tell you, however, that if I never fly another hour, that Saturday afternoon's flight has made all the expense and time expended to get that scrap of paper with the DOT symbol emblazed upon it worthwhile. Seeing my daughter lose herself in the charms of the old Cub as it effortlessly waltzed through the skies in the dance that only aviators know was one of the highlights of my aviation experience.
The beat goes on. The old airplane has served its intended purpose once again. A father has once again given the gift of flight to his offspring. A daughter has once again served notice of the incredible gift that only progeny can deliver.

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And His creation has once again struck awe in the heart of an aviator as he sampled a moment of eternity surrounded by the incredible gift of life, life beneath the Cub's wings on the mother ship earth, and life in the cabin of an old aircraft in the form of a daughter that hopefully has the aviator's love of flight.

Sam Buchanan

Epilogue (June, 2008):

Eleven years after that flight occurred, the song lyrics below landed in my inbox as a very special Father's Day gift. Melanie used an Alan Jackson song called  "Daddy LetMe Drive" as the inspiration for her "Daddy Let Me Fly". Those of you who have shared flights with your children and have read the story of the J-3 flight will identify with the feelings expressed in these lyrics. We never know the impact our time shared with our children in aviation will have on their lives in the years to come.


Daddy Let Me Fly
by Melanie Buchanan

It was Piper yellow, a black stripe down the side Countless folks had taken
a ride Already nearly 60 years old But still as true as the day it was born

It was just an old J-3 Cub
Built for war, but flown with love
A young girl, with two hands I would steer Soaking in the view from a sky so
clear And he'd say, "Turn it sharp," and we would bank to the right "Keep
the nose up now, you're doing just fine"
Cruising a valley across the Tennessee line I was Amelia Earhart When Daddy
let me fly

We'd strap in for a sunset flight
Headsets on and belts pulled tight
Seeing the world from a different point of view Everywhere you look there's
something new Gliding along with the windows wide open Air flowing through,
ponytail a-blowing Counting the cows and the deer in the field Can't replace
the way it made me feel And he'd say, "Check the horizon, step on the ball,
Just follow that river, it'll lead us home"
Taking it low and slow was our style
But my head was in the clouds
When Daddy let me fly

I'm grown up now and out on my own
But I still feel that thrill running through my bones Turn my eyes to the
sky when I can Remembering those first tastes of flight again

It was just an old J-3 Cub
Built for war, but flown with love
A young girl, with two hands I would steer Soaking in the view from a sky so
clear And he'd say, "Turn it sharp," and we would bank to the right "Keep
the nose up now, you're doing just fine"
Cruising a valley across the Tennessee line I was Amelia Earhart When Daddy
let me fly

Just an old J-3 Cub
Built for war, but flown with love

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The Hanger 

Getting Ready to Build 
     Odd 'n Ends 

Building the Tail 
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     Vert. Stab Log 
     Rudder Log 
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Building the Wings
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  Fuel Tanks

Building the Fuselage

The Finish Kit


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