Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The Piper Cub is a very small airplane, especially by today’s standards. When parked on an airport tarmac, a person of average height standing beside it can easily see over its wing, which forms the roof of the cockpit. It accommodates a pilot and one passenger. No space is wasted. The forward, or pilot’s seat, is narrow and cramped. The passenger seat directly behind the pilot’s is even smaller. A young onlooker – unfamiliar with the Cub but well ac­quainted with jumbo jets and mammoth missiles – might regard it as nothing more than a flyer’s plaything. But this airplane was in no way a toy.

The Piper Cub is, possibly, the most famous light plane ever built. From the initial test flight of the “E-2” at the Bradford, McKean County, airport in September 1930, to the phase-out of the “Super Cub” Model PA-18 in the late 1960s, more than thirty-two thousand of this versatile airplane were built in the original model and in im­proved versions. The Cub, originally built with inexpen­sive flying lessons in mind, became the most widely used training plane in aviation history. Nearly seventy-five percent of American pilots in World War II trained in the Piper Cub. Thousands of the U.S. Army’s version of the Cub, the L-4 Liaison model, were used in various ways in every theater of the war. Dozens of Allied commanders took advantage of the L-4’s short take-off and landing runs to fly in and out of dangerous combat zones. So Universal was the versatile little airplane that Americans were applying the term “Cub” to any of the various models of light planes then flying overhead.

The Piper Cub was totally a product of Pennsylvania industry. Most were built in the factory of the Piper Aircraft Corporation at Lock Haven, Clinton County. A VCO-Lycoming of Williamsport – the Lycoming County division of the Aviation Corporation (AVCO), an early builder of automobile engines-supplied most of the Cubs’ engines. The Sensenich Brothers Company of Lan­caster manufactured the engines’ double-bladed, wooden propellors.

William Thomas Piper (1881-1970), father of the Piper Cub and destined to earn the title of “the Henry Ford of Aviation,” was born in Knapps Creek, New York, and raised in Bradford, an oil town which boomed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After graduating from Harvard College with a degree in mechanical engineer­ing in 1903, he worked as a construction engineer in the steel industry, assigned mostly to midwestern locations. He married Marie van de Water of Buffalo, New York, in 1910, and by 1914 had returned to Bradford – a town once surrounded by the world’s most productive oil fields – ­where he and a friend, Ralph Lloyd, established an oil leasing and drilling company, the Dallas Oil Company. For partners Piper and Lloyd, business boomed.

By 1929, William T. Piper was comfortably ensconced in Bradford’s business and social circles. He was earning enough money to meet the needs of his large family of five children and, at the age of forty-eight, he could contemplate his future with a confidence endowed by affluence.

Historians contend that at this point Pennsylvania history was just about to turn away from Piper to pursue more interesting personalities, but a series of events were to occur, thus changing the course of the Keystone State’s commerce and the nation’s industry. The Bradford Chamber of Com­merce was busily searching for new industries to strengthen the precarious economy of a small community that had relied too long and much too heavily on a declining market for local oil. The Chamber had raised fifty thousand dollars, no mean feat and a handsome sum which attracted C. Gilbert Taylor of Rochester, New York. An inventor and airplane designer, Taylor needed money to refinance his struggling Taylor Brothers Aircraft Company. He had designed and produced a lightweight, two-seat airplane which he christened the “Chummy.” Taylor’s Chummy, priced at a stagger­ing four thousand dollars, appealed to few serious buyers. However, the Bradford Chamber of Commerce invited Taylor to town and eventually loaned him the fifty thousand dollars, enough to construct a small factory in which to manufacture his airplane, adjacent to the single cinder­-paved runway of the borough’s diminutive airport.

Enter William Thomas Piper.

Piper was out of town the day his partner, Ralph Lloyd, subscribed him for four hundred dollars of stock in C. Gilbert Taylor’s company. Dubious at first, Piper re­garded the venture strictly as an investment, and joined the company’s board of directors to safeguard his-and oth­ers’-money. Not long after the 1929 stock market crash, the Chummy became unsal­able, and the future of the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Company looked grim. However, Piper sensed the future potential of the airplane industry and foresaw its emergence from an early (and dismal) history checkered with technical and commercial uncertainty. He persuaded Taylor to build a new version of a light plane, much cheaper and easier to fly than the Chummy. The result, the Taylor Model E-2, performed successfully. It could carry two passengers, each weighing up to one hundred and seventy­-five pounds, at seventy miles an hour. It could land safely at thirty-five miles an hour. And it could be manufactured and sold for an affordable thirteen hundred and twenty-five dollars.

The E-2’s first engine, a Brownback “Tiger Kitten,” was manufactured in Pottstown, Montgomery County. Taylor’s accountant, Gilbert Hadrel, recommended to the owners that because the engine was known as the Kitten, the airplane should be called the “Cub.”The appellation stuck and so the Taylor Cub was born. By 1936, however, Taylor Aircraft, with William T. Piper and C. Gilbert Taylor at the helm, had sold only one hundred and twenty-five E-2 Cubs, but with production of an improved model, the J-2, sales soared to more than five hundred that year and to nearly seven hundred in 1937. Flush with cash, Piper purchased his first new automobile. Fully committed to his future with aviation, he bought out the temperamental Taylor and at once became president, treasurer, and chairman of the company!

Unhappily for the new president, a fire destroyed the entire Taylor factory on March 17, 1937. While valiant employees salvaged usable parts, William T. Piper began looking for more financing and a new location. His credit remained good, and he found a new and convenient location in Lock Haven. In Lock Haven he found an abandoned silk mill – near the West Branch of the Susquehanna River (where seaplanes could be tested), the municipal airport, and a railroad siding – that was available at the right price. Two hundred employees started up the new plant in July 1937, which Piper named Piper Aircraft. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Piper’s three sons, William T., Jr., Thomas F. (“Tony”), and Howard (“Pug”), all practiced and enthusiastic flyers, assumed management and sales positions and pursued their careers in the new company. Piper Aircraft made a success of its versatile little airplane by designing and manufactur­ing a safe, reliable, and economical aircraft, and by employing aggressive sales strategies and flamboyant marketing tactics to sell it. In 1937, the company had converted its workhorse into the J-3 Cub and added to its production line a leaner model designed for training. At nine hundred and ninety-five dollars, it was the first airplane to sell for less than a thousand dollars! In 1938 the company sold more than seven hundred Cubs and the following year eighteen hundred-more than half of the non-military aircraft produced in the United States that year and sixty percent of all light aircraft. The Piper Cub was roaring and the clamor was beginning to resonate throughout the world of aviation.

Widely used for training, reconnaissance, and transportation, the Piper Cub was assured of success by the beginning of World War II. Following V-J Day, Piper Aircraft slowly returned to non-military production. William T. Piper, Jr., had remained with the company, a manufacturer vital to the war effort, during the second World War. Thomas F. Piper returned home a pilot from the Army Air Corps. Howard Piper won his wings as a Navy aviator. The Pipers of Lock Haven were reunited.

In 1946, more than thirty small manufacturers, includ­ing Piper Aircraft, were building light planes as quickly as they could to meet the huge demand anticipated for private airplanes as the nation – and the nation’s business – returned to normal. The demand did not, however, reach the expectations of the optimistic forecasters. The federal government had released thousands of World War II training planes at bargain prices, softening the market for new models. The fabric-sheathed, low-powered, two-seat Piper Cub was a craft best suited in civilian life to weekend or recreational flying. The market now dictated a need for a four- or six-seat business airplane, preferably outfitted with two engines for safety, and suitable instrumen­tation and passenger comfort for long, cross-country flights.

By early 1947, the light plane market had grown saturated and stale, and orders for airplanes at the Piper factory plummeted from thirty a day to four. The Piper brothers, especially Howard, the youngest, believed their company had to change its image as the manufacturer known best for the traditional Cub. Their response to the sagging market was to design a new, twin-engined business aircraft, which Howard dubbed the “Apache.” It was a dramatic departure from the time-honored Cub series, and more than several questioned the Indian connection.

During a recent interview, Tony Piper’s wife, Margo, explained that Howard had long been interested in Native American culture and was fascinated by Indian names, which to him signified bravery, tradition, adventure, and loyalty, all admirable qualities which would be good to associate with the company’s airplanes. The popular Apache, which made its debut in 1952, inaugurated a series of eight new Piper model-families, concluding with the eight-seat Navajo, designed in the late 1960s. Piper Aircraft had, indeed, traveled a long way from the simple and reliable Cub, for which it was well known, an association that would officially end with the phasing out of the Super Cub PA-18.

Piper Aircraft fell an early victim to the frenzied wave of corporate raiding – hallmarked by seemingly endless and complicated buyouts, mergers, and take-overs – which peaked in the 1980s. Bowing to the inevitable, William T. Piper, Jr., president and chairman of the board, reluctantly relin­quished control of the company to the Bangor-Punta Corporation in 1969. It was the beginning of the end of the Piper empire. Four years later the founder’s sons had resigned their positions and severed the family’s connec­tion with the company’s operations. At the time, Piper Aircraft employed forty-eight hundred workers in plants at Lock Haven, Quehanna, and Renovo, Pennsylvania, and in Vero Beach and Lakeland, Florida. The company had more than six hundred distributors throughout the world, and up to the time of the Pipers’ resignations, had produced more than eighty-six thousand aircraft.

With control having fallen from the hands of the Pipers, and with such new problems as air traffic congestion and a glutting of the aircraft market in the eighties, thousands of Pennsylvanians feared they might lose their jobs that the family dynasty had created. The march of time, sadly, proved them right. The Lear­-Siegler Corporation eventually acquired Piper Aircraft from its conglomerate owners and closed its Pennsylvania plants. The corporation also closed the operations at Lakeland. Only the factory at Vero Beach
remained.

William T. Piper died on January 15, 1970, at the age of eighty-nine. Devon Francis, his biographer and author of Mr. Piper and His Cubs, character­ized the patriarch as an obscure oil man living in an obscure Pennsylvania town who, “by dint of persistence, imagination, and persuasion, and a reasonable percentage of good guesses,” had made a name for himself and for his airplanes throughout the world. But the story of the Piper Cub lives on.

The Clinton County Historical Society welcomes visitors to its exhibits at the Lock Haven Airport. The society also sponsors the Piper Museum Road Show, a traveling exhibit that tours the country. For the past six years, the Clinton County Historical Society has been a co-sponsor of the annual Cub Fly-In at Lock Haven, an event which draws thousands of pilots and aviation aficionados to the local airport for two days each August. William T. Piper, Jr., retired and still residing in Lock Haven, usually attends the opening ceremonies as his family’s famous Cubs soar majestically once again high above Bald Eagle Mountain. Yet the saga of the Piper Cub does not end with the Lock Haven festivities.

Millionaire Stuart Millar purchased Piper Aircraft in May 1987 from the Lear­-Siegler Corporation, at which time the Vero Beach plant employed seven hundred and eighty people, including John Piper, the founder’s grandson. Millar’s attempt to bring back the Piper Cub was nothing less than valiant. “I felt there had to be a low-priced aircraft out there,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s a superb little aircraft you can buy for just over forty thousand dollars …. If you can’t afford that, you can buy one to assemble at home for considerably less!”

William T. Piper may have been shocked at the asking price, recalling – with much pride, perhaps – the consider­ably lower prices in the early years, but he would most certainly have approved heartily of the self-assembly kit. Unfortunately, the vagaries of the light plane market defeated even the idealistic Stuart Millar. Piper Aircraft recently declared bankruptcy.

Nevertheless, a visitor to Lock Haven’s municipal airport can see at least one vintage Super Cub parked i11 the hangar. And if the visitor is lucky and the timing is right, he or she might – just might – ­see it tear down the runway, climb effortlessly into the sky, and gleam in the sunlight as it steals away, ever humming, far out over the river and high above the mountains to far­away places. As this little aircraft takes flight, the dream of Mr. Piper and his four sons lives on and on….

 

For Further Reading

Francis, Devon. Mr. Piper and His Cubs. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1973.

Piper, William T., Jr. From Cub to Navajo. Princeton, N. J.: The Newcomen Society in North America, 1970.

Rae, John M. Climb to Great­ness: The American Aircraft Industry, 1920-1960. Cam­bridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968.

Smith, F. K., and J. P. Hanington. Aviation and Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute Press, 1981.

Triggs, James M. The Piper Cub Story. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1978.

Trimble, William F. High Frontier: A History of Aero­nautics in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

 

The author wishes to thank the following individuals and organizations for their help and assistance during the preparation of this article: Charles Ryan, editor and publisher, Lock Haven Express; Edward Watson, former public affairs director of Piper Aircraft Company; Calvin Arter, former Piper Aircraft Company test pilot; Mrs. Thomas F. Piper; Clinton County Historical Society; Piper Aviation Museum, Lock Haven Municipal Airport; and the Piper Museum Road Show, based in Lock Haven.

 

Theodore K. Thomas of Willow Grove is a freelance writer. He served as a Marine pilot during World War II and the Korean War. He made his solo flight in a Piper Cub in 1943 at the Navy Flight Preparatory School in Amherst, Massachusetts. He has written articles on helicopter tactics and history for the Marine Corps Gazette.