Piper aircraft are small airplanes intended for the general aviation market. Many are owned by amateur pilots who fly as a hobby.
Beginning in the early 1930’s, the Piper Aircraft Corporation aggressively promoted low-cost amateur aviation as a way to increase aircraft sales. As a result, thousands of people obtained pilots’ licenses. Many of those people eventually bought airplanes. Between 1935 and 1984, Piper Aircraft built and sold over 77,000 airplanes.
In addition, Piper aircraft have proven to be well designed and highly useful in a variety of settings. Pipers were used extensively as trainers during World War II, with approximately 80 percent of all U.S. military pilots beginning their flight training in Piper L-4’s. Pipers were also used in both the European and Pacific combat theaters as reconnaissance aircraft, where their small size and agility made them almost impossible to shoot down. The Pipers were able to fly so low and slow that fighter aircraft could not pursue them safely.
The Piper Aircraft company took its name from a most unlikely founder. William T. Piper has gone down in history as “the Henry Ford of aviation,” but acquired the title almost by accident. Piper, born January 18, 1881, in Knapps Creek, New York, apparently had little interest in aviation prior to purchasing $400 worth of stock in the Taylor Brothers aircraft company in the 1920’s. Piper, a Harvard graduate, had worked in the construction industry in Texas and as an oil company executive in Pennsylvania prior to becoming active in Taylor Brothers. Historians of the Piper company describe Piper as being pushed by civic leaders in Bradford, Pennsylvania, in 1929 to serve on the board of Taylor Brothers to help protect the city’s investment. Bradford city officials had invested $50,000 in Taylor Brothers as an inducement to the firm to set up its aircraft manufacturing facility in their town. The local oil industry was in decline, and city officials were trying to attract new businesses to town to provide jobs for area workers.
At the time, Taylor manufactured a two-seater airplane known as the Chummy. The Chummy sold for $4,000, a price that William Piper considered too high. Taylor was aiming for the luxury market; Piper believed the path to financial success lay in designing and building a plane that anyone could buy. Taylor wanted to develop planes that would sell for $10,000 or more, while Piper wanted to go in the other direction. Piper was quoted as saying he wanted the airplane to become as accessible to the average person as the automobile.
Piper was convinced that an economical personal aircraft could be built using the assembly line techniques pioneered in the auto industry. He used salvaged materials from Ferris wheels and other scrap to create the jigs and fixtures necessary for mass production and pushed to develop a plane that could sell for under $1,000. A myth persists that the original Piper Cubs sold for $999. This is not quite true, but it is close: in 1931, the company began marketing the E-2 Cub, an inexpensive, small, easy-to-fly aircraft that sold for many years for only $1,350.
Piper’s salesmen promoted flying by inviting would-be pilots first to Bradford and later to Lock Haven to take flying lessons for only $1 an hour. Every potential licensed pilot was seen as a potential customer. Piper employees were also encouraged to take advantage of the inexpensive lessons, with the result that at one time one out of every ninety people in town was a licensed pilot. A novice to aviation himself prior to becoming involved with Taylor Brothers, William Piper earned his private pilot’s license several years after taking control of the company. Although some accounts describe him as learning to fly at the age of 60, he was actually slightly younger, in his early fifties.
In 1932, Piper hired a young aeronautical engineer, Walter Jamouneau. Jamouneau produced a fictitious resume claiming a degree from Rutgers University, but Piper hired him anyway. Jamouneau’s credentials may have been dubious, but his engineering talents were not. He eliminated the E-2’s boxy silhouette, giving it a more rounded profile and streamlined appearance. These design changes became a source of friction between Piper and Gilbert Taylor. In the end, Piper modified the E-2 Cub to the point where it became known as the J-2, after Jamouneau. In 1937, the J-3 Cub appeared. This was the plane that changed the face of general aviation.
At the same time that Piper and Taylor clashed over aircraft designs and the company’s direction, the effects of the economic depression beginning in 1929 were being felt. The initial capital raised through the sale of stock was exhausted, Taylor was in debt to the bank for $15,000, and no new investors could be found. Taylor Brothers was forced into bankruptcy. No one bid on the company’s assets. Piper acquired them for $761 and gave a half interest to Taylor.
As the company struggled to survive the Great Depression of the 1930’s and to market the Cub, the friction between Piper and Taylor increased. Piper eventually bought out Taylor’s interest in exchange for payments of $250 per month for three years and the promise to maintain the payments on Taylor’s life insurance.
In 1937, the company suffered a disastrous fire at the Bradford plant. Debris soaked with highly flammable aircraft dope in the paint room ignited. The source of the fire was later traced to sparks from an electric drill. The plant was a total loss. The building had been uninsured. Money was tight, so Piper decided to do a public stock offering to raise the money necessary to rebuild. At the same time, due to a lackluster response from the city of Bradford toward helping with rebuilding, Piper decided to move the assembly plant. A company salesman told Piper about a former textile mill located next to an airstrip that was available in Lock Haven, so that was where Piper moved. It would remain the main Piper manufacturing facility for almost fifty years. The company name was changed to Piper Aircraft at the time of the move.
As the political situation in Europe worsened in the late 1930’s, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed for the creation of the Civilian Pilot Training program. He and his advisors feared that in the event of war, the United States would not have enough trained pilots ready. Piper Cubs became the most common airplane used for flying lessons, with four out of five new pilots being trained in them. Thousands of American military pilots first learned to fly in a Piper, including future astronaut and senator John Glenn.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, many military men were at first skeptical of the value of small aircraft outside of pilot training facilities. As the war progressed, however, doubters were won over. The Piper L-4, the military version of the J-4 Coupe, was used for reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. In addition to serving as scouts, Pipers were used to drop supplies such as food, ammunition, and blood plasma to ground troops. William Piper, Jr., later noted that turning Piper Cubs into military aircraft was easy—all that was required was a drab coat of camouflage paint and a J-4 became an L-4.
Following the war, a boom in personal aviation occurred. Piper produced 8,000 Piper Cubs and Super Cruisers to meet pent-up demand. Competing companies, such as Beech and Cessna, also increased production. For a few years it seemed as though companies could not manufacture small airplanes fast enough to satisfy the market in general aviation. It has been estimated that over three dozen new aircraft manufacturing companies entered the market between 1945 and 1947. Piper established an assembly plant in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Then, just as quickly as the boom had appeared, it vanished. By 1948, sales numbers were dropping and the companies that had emerged to compete with Piper only two or three years earlier began vanishing as quickly as they had been formed.
William T. Piper, Jr., recognized the flying public wanted a different type of airplane than the original Piper Cub. The Cub was ideal for sport flying, that is, for short excursions leaving and returning to the same airport, and for training student pilots. As a two-seater, however, the Cub was simply too small for any distance flying. Piper Aircraft Corporation had acquired Consolidated Vultee’s Stinson Aircraft division in 1948. The Stinson assets included a design study for a twin-engine, four-passenger airplane. Piper waited four years, and in 1952 came out with the prototype for the Apache. The prototype had a twin-fintail design which performed poorly in flight testing. It was replaced with a more conventional tail, and went into full production shortly thereafter. Piper began delivering Apaches, which handled well even in stormy weather, in March, 1954.
Beginning in 1960, the Apache was replaced by the Aztec, an aircraft with more powerful engines than its predecessor. The Aztec B had seating for six, and subsequent models introduced improvements such as fuel injection and turbocharging. Piper stopped production of the Aztec in 1984. By the 1960’s, the corporate executive market was supplanting personal aviation. Piper responded with the Navajo, Mohave, and Cheyenne aircraft. Fully pressurized, the Cheyenne IV was capable of cruising at 400 miles per hour at an altitude of 40,000 feet. Although Piper is best known for its passenger aircraft, the company also developed the Pawnee PA-25, an airplane designed for use in crop dusting.
William T. Piper, Sr., died in 1970, shortly after a hostile corporate takeover of the Piper Aircraft Corporation in 1969. The Piper family lost direct control of the company, but Piper aircraft continue to be manufactured. Plagued by a variety of management woes and financial problems, Piper Aircraft almost shut down in the 1990’s. In 1995, Piper became an employee-owned company and managed to regain some of its lost market share. Now known as New Piper Aircraft, Piper today manufactures a variety of small airplanes, including a single-engine turboprop, the Malibu Meridian, and the twin-engine Saratoga. Still, even today, the name Piper continues to evoke the image of the original bright yellow Piper Cub, the small plane that for many generations of fliers symbolized personal aviation.
Bowers, Peter. Piper Cubs. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1993. Well researched history of Piper aircraft. Numerous illustrations. Francis, Devon. Mr. Piper and His Cubs. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1973. An official biography written shortly after Piper’s death. Rich in detail, but a little too hero-worshiping in places. Moore, Don. Low and Slow: A Personal History of a Liaison Pilot in World War II. San Antonio, Tex.: San Antonio Heights, 1999. Fascinating memoir of a pilot who flew over Japanese lines. Piper, William, Jr. From Cub to Navaho: The Story of the Piper Aircraft Corporation. New York: Newcomen Society, 1970. History of Piper written by William Piper’s son. Spence, Charles. “They’re Not All Piper Cubs,” Aviation History, November, 1997. Interesting and succinct history of William T. Piper and Piper aircraft. Triggs, James. The Piper Cub Story. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1978. A concise history with numerous photos and technical drawings. Includes reproductions of pages from the 1941 J-3 Parts Manual.
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