While instructing an apprehensive student pilot, a Master CFI rediscovers the magic of the J-3.


It's been nearly 20 years since I sold my last Piper Cub. 

I loved that old plane. I would take her up just before sunset and fly low over the Everglades, marveling at the pristine landscape and watching the sunset before returning to the little grass strip I called home. 

Most of the time, I was alone. It was my personal time to fly simply for the sake of flying; not to go anywhere or for any other purpose except to fly. 

The Cub is noisy, drafty, and you need to be a contortionist just to get in and out. It has no electric system, which means no radio, transponder or starter. While easy to fly, she is difficult to fly well. Full of adverse yaw, she makes you work for every landing. 


With only 12 gallons of fuel and a cruise speed of 65 mph, every flight is a cross-country and fuel planning is a must.

Like it happens to most of us, life took over. Kids and work and commitments made my Cub a lower priority, and I sold her. 

Fast-forward to now. I got a phone call from an instructor buddy who had a client. The client was a retiring Army vet who got a job towing banners down at the beach for the summer and needed 35 hours of tailwheel time. The client preferred to fly in a Cub, because that is what the banner operator uses.

“No problem,” I said as I hung up the phone. Now all I needed was a Cub. 

I walked upstairs to yet another buddy’s office. I knew he had a J-3 he would lease to me for training. 

When I walked up to the airplane, I realized it was one tail number away from my old Cub. I took that as a good sign. 

My student showed up on time, all eager to fly, with a total of 260 hours in his logbook. After a ground briefing, I strapped him in the front seat, pulled the prop through four blades, switched on the ignition and cracked the throttle open. 

She started on the first blade. 

Hopping in the back seat, I closed the doors. As a concession to reality, I had incorporated a two-place battery-powered intercom and a handheld radio.

Off we went. My instruction would begin at Triple Tree, (SC00) a privately-owned 6,000-foot grass strip just a few miles south of the Spartanburg, South Carolina airport I now call home. 

All kinds of wonderful memories came flooding back to me as I demonstrated full-stall landings, wheel landings and crosswind landings.

By the fourth day, the wind had relaxed enough so that I could teach my student wheel landings on an asphalt runway. He went from apprehension-approaching-fear on Day One to loving every minute of it by the time we were done. 

On the last day, we headed back to Triple Tree for some more full-stall grass landings. 

On the way back I caught myself staring out the open door, marveling at the landscape and watching the sunset—just as I had a long time ago at an airport far, far away. 

I still love the Cub. I still love that kind of flying. It was a wonderful date with an old flame.


Michael Leighton is a 12,000-hour, three-time Master Flight Instructor and an A&P mechanic. He operates a flight school in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Fort Pierce, Florida. You can find him on the web at flymkleighton.net. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.