From the archives: Bob Buck on William T. Piper
This trip to the Air Facts archives takes us to the March 1965 issue, where legendary pilot and author Bob Buck profiles the man known as “Mr. Piper,” the father of the Cub. Buck recounts his first flight in the beloved taildragger and explains what makes Piper unique.
The Man Who Makes Me Think Young
I know a wonderful man who believes that one of life’s greatest gifts is the opportunity to work. He believes also that age doesn’t keep you from doing what you want to do. He proved this by starting an airplane factory at 50. He learned to fly that same year—1931. Today his firm has made more airplanes than any other in the world.
The man is William Thomas Piper, the father of the world-famous Piper Cub. His factory is still going strong and, at age 84, so is Mr. Piper.
Until he was almost 50 Mr. Piper (that’s what everyone calls him—never ”Bill”) hadn’t paid much attention to airplanes. He’d never been close to one, let alone flown one. He was a business man, living in Bradford, Pa., and the Chamber of Commerce asked him to sit on the board of directors of a small airplane company they had encouraged to come to Bradford. Mr. Piper had hardly settled in his chair before the company nosedived into bankruptcy. But he’d had a quick look, and the vision of aviation’s future had clearly shown itself to his receptive mind. Until then he had been in the oil business and had done well. But from the time of his quick look at aviation his old interest slid into the background and aviation became his life. Using his own money, he teamed up with C. G. Taylor, a 28-year-old engineer, and started a new airplane manufacturing company.
His first thought was for an inexpensive airplane within the reach of everyone. He has not quite made that come true. But he did make the best, cheapest airplane ever made in quantity—the Cub. And you cannot talk about Mr. Piper without talking about the Cub because Mr. Piper and the Cub go together like Henry Ford and the Model T.
The early Cub was a little monoplane built to carry two people. Almost all Cubs were painted yellow. The early model boasted 37 horsepower, and with all 37 horses galloping, everything straining, it claimed it could do 85 miles an hour. It landed at a fluffy 28 miles an hour. Cubs since have had all sorts of engines, and if you buy one today—and you can—it will have 150 horsepower, do 130 miles an hour and climb like a homesick angel.
There were other airplanes built in the 1930’s to about the same specifications—Aeronca, Eaglet, Rearwin, Taylorcraft and a half a dozen others. Most failed and none continued with the success of Piper. Only Piper, of the early companies, exists today as it started.
I remember the first Cub I flew. It came to our local field on a demonstration tour. It was sort of a joke because it was small and looked almost homemade next to the much bigger biplanes we were flying. I climbed in—and the cockpit was bare. Exposed tubes showed the framework; three simple instruments looked lonesome on the panel. The seats were small and the fuselage so narrow my shoulders almost touched the sides. Someone called “contact” and spun the prop. The little engine started with a subdued lawnmower-like sound instead of the hefty roar I was accustomed to in my mighty 1930 225-horsepower Pitcairn.
I eased forward on the throttle and the little engine whirred faster, the propeller spun into a shiny disk and we jounced along over the ground. I opened her up, raised the tail, ran a little and pulled her into the air. It wasn’t zoomy and I had to nurse it into a climb that the 37 horsepower could handle. But it flew nicely, the controls felt good—and it landed slowly. As l walked away from it l wasn’t joking any more. I had a strange feeling that this little airplane was important to aviation’s future.
It was, too. The Cub became the nursery in which aviation grew up. At the beginning of World War II four out of every five pilots had learned to fly in a Cub. Some of the greats like Joe Walker, NASA test pilot who now flies the world’s fastest airplane, the experimental rocket plane designated X-15, learned to fly in a Cub. Dozens of my airline pilot friends who now fly sleek jets across the world’s skyways first spread their wings in this tiny yellow machine.
The Cub won an honored place for itself in the war. It was quickly dubbed the Grasshopper and did all sorts of jobs such as artillery spotting, ambulance work, liaison, transport, reconnaissance, aerial photography. You could even launch a Cub from a Landing Ship Tank, a craft used to place men and equipment on beaches. Some of these LSTs had a platform built forward of the aft deckhouse. It was 10 feet wide and 125 feet long and when the ship was swung into the wind, a Cub could use it as a runway and rake off in that short distance.
In peace time Cubs operate in all parts of the world doing many different jobs. They are used for flight instruction, ranching, transporting missionaries and even spreading insecticides. One of the Cub’s most important jobs has been dusting and spraying crops to prevent plant disease. There have been over 31,000 Cubs built—more than any other single model airplane in the world. Now Piper builds only a few each year for people who fly in out-of-the-way areas, for special uses where ruggedness and utility are needed. Mostly the Piper Company builds sleek one- and two engine airplanes for fast private and business transportation. All told, it has built 29,000 of these. But when pilots gather anywhere there’s many a misty eye and sweet memories when the Cub name comes up.
Why was this airplane so successful? There’s no doubt about it—Mr. Piper. The Cub and Mr. Piper have been an unbeatable team, and if you look at a Cub, how it’s made, how it flies, you see the character of the man. It’s a strong declaration that man reflects himself in his creations.
Mr. Piper makes you think of the men who made our country, the tough, true, unfancy men who believed in certain principles and stuck to them. I have a feeling, when I’m with Mr. Piper, that I am being given the chance to know an American pioneer. That’s what he is, too, a pioneer of aviation.
Actually he is a simple man with a simple formula: frugality, no frills, and hard work. He is rugged like his airplane. He stands straight. He walks rather than rides when he’s on the ground. It’s about a quarter of a mile from the factory to the hangar where new owners pick up airplanes, and a shuttle bus carries folks back and forth. Not Mr. Piper. He looks with disdain on people using the bus, and a factory workman told me that Mr. Piper always walks, good weather or bad. It takes a blizzard to stop him.
There’s no fanciness in his living. He lives in a small brick cottage near the airport and he walks to work from there, too. He rakes his own leaves and takes care of the place. At business he dresses simply; a suit and a white shirt, good solid walking shoes and a plain tie. His sons get after him now and then for wearing the same tie for a week at a time. “Why not?” he says, “It’s clean. Why change?”
He is young in heart and his simple honesty and enthusiasm youth understands. One day I was on the flying line at the factory, talking to Mr. Piper. My son Rob, then 11 years old, stood listening. I had to inspect an airplane, and left Rob and Mr. Piper alone. They talked for the best part of an hour, man and boy. He talked about new things that were coming, and listened attentively when Rob talked about his model airplanes. They talked enthusiastically about new airplanes and what they would do. After that Mr. Piper became Rob’s major aviation hero—ahead of astronauts, test pilots or any of the famous flyers.
The Piper sons, Bill Jr., Tony and Howard, were in the Piper Company from the start. Tony, at 16, made some of the parts for the first Cub. The boys all learned to fly in their teens. Bill made the first transcontinental Cub flight. The boys barnstormed, carrying passengers and stunting with early Cubs to get them seen around the country. Like any pioneer, Mr. Piper made life a family affair where all pitched in and worked. The family has stuck together and today the boys are the active leaders of the company.
The start was slow and Mr. Piper had to use rock-hard methods to keep the company going. Early Cubs were delivered by automobile and towed on trailers. Some of the tow automobiles were converted to burn cheap kerosene instead of gasoline. Since Oregon spruce was used in the long spars inside the wing, trailers that delivered airplanes to Oregon returned… loaded with spruce. It was a crimping, tight operation, with financial disaster close on Mr. Piper’s heels all the way. But the business got off the ground. In 1931 the company built 70 airplanes and by 1936 it was in the blue, making 500 a year.
That year Mr. Piper bought out Mr. Taylor and went it alone. Then in March, 1937, catastrophe struck; the factory burned to the ground. There was little insurance. It was too expensive to have. Mr. Piper, when informed of the fire, thought it over for a moment and then said, “Well, we ought to get a lot of publicity out of this.”
It was typical. He always tries to see the good side of everything. So 1937 found him with a pile of ashes and little money. He started up again in an abandoned silk mill in Lock Haven, Pa., although he thought it was too big—three times as big as the one that burned. But he took it and it’s been enlarged many times.
Mr. Piper decided that if he was going to be in the airplane business he ought to learn to fly. So in 1931 at age 50 he had one of the factory pilots, Bud Havens, teach him. Within two weeks he as flying alone.
His flying now is legend, mostly because he carries into the cockpit his philosophy of keeping things simple. Why be fancy about it? He has always believed that anyone could fly. “I’m a terrible pilot,” he says. He used to demonstrate it, too, by taking people up and showing them that sensitive control coordination was a lot of hogwash. He would work the stick and rudder against each other, making the poor Cub wriggle and wallow drunkenly around the sky. To the credit of the Cub’s forgiving flight characteristics, the demonstrations always turned out safely.
Covering most all the United States delivering Cubs, Mr. Piper learned every nook and cranny of the country, and made friends with a big portion of the aviation community. He has a marvelous memory and never forgets a person or his name.
Mr. Piper refuses to have any truck with the notion that people get too old to do things. When he was 73, the Piper company added a twin-engine airplane to its list. The Federal Aviation Agency requires that pilots take an extra test, called a rating, before they’re allowed to fly an airplane with more than one engine. The pilot must demonstrate to an inspector his ability to handle emergencies, especially flying with only one engine in case the other should fail. Mr. Piper wasn’t going to be left behind. He wanted to be able to talk twin-engine airplanes with authority. He took the difficult test, passed it and became an approved multi-engine pilot.
A great quality you soon sense when you’re around Mr. Piper is his constant awareness of the future. He is tuned to think of the opportunities ahead, and he sees assets where others see liabilities. For instance, just when things were looking up for his business a new magazine appeared in aviation—Air Facts. The magazine began to analyze accidents with a view toward increasing safety. Many of the early accidents occurred in Cubs simply because there were more Cubs than any other airplane. A Piper advertising man saw an early issue of Air Facts and rushed to Mr. Piper, exclaiming that this was going to ruin them. Mr. Piper would have to do something about it right away, preferably get it stopped.
Well, the man who wanted to get everybody flying read the magazine carefully and then decided to give a free subscription with each Cub purchased. He thought the accident reports would help the new Cub owner benefit from the others’ mistakes.
Mr. Piper still dreams of a cheap airplane for everyone. The Piper company today builds airplanes that meet competition but, like other airplanes, they cost a lot of money. Mr. Piper insists that they build low-priced ones, too. In a never-ending quest for the mass airplane. He actually loses money on his lowest-cost airplane in an effort to get more people flying. If production were big all costs would come down, so Mr. Piper now spends most of his time trying to make it possible. “The problem,” he says, “is lack of airports. The automobile wasn’t much until we got enough good roads.”
Mr. Piper wants lots of small airports around the country. Still sticking to his ideals of simplicity and frugality, he explains, “Not a fancy airport, just seven acres, a windsock and a phone booth down in one corner. Any community can afford that, and the upkeep is small. All they have to do is mow it now and then. Why, 70 percent of our airports today aren’t paved.”
He’s excited about the prospect and points out, “The more airports, the safer and easier flying becomes. With lots of little fields there will always be a place to land if the weather gets bad or trouble develops.”
At 84 he’s still busy and enthusiastic about his projects. His main interest now is getting people in the sky—and it isn’t just an interest to promote Piper Aircraft. He believes that all people should have the pleasure and usefulness of an airplane, that it will make out lives more interesting and our country a better place. In an age of supersonic airplanes, electronics, radar and scientific sophistication Mr. Piper is still down to earth and sees the airplane as a vehicle for everyone. It’s a pleasant vision.
There are still some yellow Piper Cubs left, and whenever I see one put-putting across the sky I think of that strong, white-haired gentleman who started from a pile of ashes and built over 63,000 airplanes. There are times too, as I get older and think my joints are beginning to creak and it’s time to settle down, that I think of Mr. Piper just starting out at age 50 to create so much. It makes me straighten up and look at life with new excitement.