IFR in a Super Cub

To most people, saying IFR and Super Cub in the same sentence would be an oxymoron because from back in 1936 when the Cub first puttered into the air with it's tiny, 40 horsepower engine, the most it ever had in the way of instruments was a whiskey compass and a sensitive oil pressure gauge. The instrument panel was the ultimate in simplicity; compass in the middle with two flight instruments, airspeed and altimeter, to the right and two engine instruments, tachometer and a combination oil pressure and temperature to the left. Since they were flown solo from the back seat, the student never saw the instruments till the instructor got out. They were strictly a daylight, clear weather airplane that you flew by the seat of your pants. The ubiquitous Cub was one of the best trainers around because, while it was totally honest and would do the same thing every time it was placed in a particular attitude, it did require a certain amount of skill to fly it well enough to be allowed to go solo in it.

The Cub just about died as a design when most companies put a training wheel under the nose of their airplanes and people were taught to take a drive in the sky instead of actually flying. It was still popular enough for things like flying pipelines, towing gliders and for use on ranches that it didn't go completely out of production. It was beefed up, made slightly more comfortable and fitted with larger engines for the needs of the niche market that it filled. The pilot's seat was moved to the front where they could reach things like the mixture, starter and other controls. It wasn't till 1980 when the FAA mandated at least a turn and bank indicator in all new airplanes which, hopefully, would allow someone who blundered into clouds to get back out. It was stuck into the space just below the compass. However, this one particular Super Cub had been in the shade on it's delivery flight from the factory.

I picked this particular Super Cub up at the factory in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania for delivery to Colorado Springs where it would be fitted with a larger engine and a towhook for towing gliders. I made it to Wadsworth, Ohio where a cousin of mine lives and I stopped to spend the night with him. Next morning there was a low ceiling over the area but a call to Flight Service for a weather briefing let me know that the clouds were only about a thousand feet thick and ended some fifty miles to the west. The bad thing was they weren't expected to go away for the rest of the day. I checked the maps in the airport office to be sure there were no approach patterns in the vicinity of the small airport, filled the tank and prepared to leave. Another pilot who was waiting out the weather couldn't believe that I was going to take off with such minimal equipment and especially without a radio.

I checked the whiskey compass (called that because they were filled with alcohol so they wouldn't freeze in cold weather) to be sure it agreed with the runway heading and rolled down the runway. I lifted off, established a climb speed of 65 mph which would give about 500 feet per minute climb, and a few seconds later I was enveloped by the wet clouds. By maintaining runway heading and keeping the wings level with the turn and bank, it took only two or three minutes until I popped out on top of the fluffy white clouds. I swung the nose to the west and headed for Colorado.

My next flight in that ship was to deliver it to the new owner in Lexington, Kentucky. The 150hp engine had been replace with one producing 180hp and a towhook for towing gliders. The additional 30 horsepower increased the rate of climb considerably but did little for the cruising speed of about 100 mph. It was about 1100 miles or eleven hours plus time on the ground for refueling so the trip took two days. Kansas City was the midpoint so I landed at the old airport tucked in between downtown and the river, an easy walk or short taxi ride to the best Bar B Que around. The flight on to Lexington the next day was equally uneventful.

About a year later I was called to pick the plane up in Lexington and return it to Colorado for an annual inspection and relicense. During that year, the owner had installed an instrument panel that was easily worth more than the airplane. The old rounded top panel had been replaced with a wider one with shoulders that spread all the way to the windshield on either side. The magnetic compass was now in a small pod above the windshield and in it's place in the center of the panel was a Flight Director and HSI, the latest in instruments found only on corporate jets and airliners. Clustered under them to complete the IFR group was the airspeed, turn coordinator and rate of climb. A line of 2" engine instruments were on the left side and a redundant set of 2" IFR gauges were stacked on the right side. Below the center of the panel was a stack of the latest King Gold Crown radios including the new R-Nav which will electronically move a ground navigation station so you can fly in a direct line without having to zigzag from one station to the next. It had also gained a new registration number ending in JB, the initials of the owner.

I planned the return flight to spend the night in northern Missouri where I'd pick up a lady who was spending a few days with her parents. She was a fellow glider pilot and was working toward an airplane rating and could use the flying time toward that end so she was flying in the front seat and I took the rear seat where I had a duplicate set of flight controls but not much else. We stopped for fuel in Hastings, Nebraska and headed on toward Denver. She had left her car at Centennial Airport in the south part of Denver so at least we wouldn't have to fight with the airliners for an arrival slot.

About fifty miles before we got to Denver, I had her turn on the communications radio to the Centennial ATIS so we could get arrival information. They reported IFR conditions all up and down the front range due to a low pressure down around Pueblo that was pumping moist air up against the mountains and the upslope conditions were producing heavy overcast. I could do an approach looking over her shoulders but the radios were more than she was trained to handle. We would have to swap seats and doing so in the air would be like two people playing a twister game in a telephone booth on its side. We landed in a wheat field near Strausburg, did a Chinese fire drill seat swap and were off the ground in a few seconds. As we lifted off, I spotted a pickup truck bounding across the field, evidently the farmer coming to see why an airplane had landed in his wheat field. I didn't have an approach plate for Centennial so asked them for a radar surveillance approach.

After I dropped her off, I filed for IFR to Colorado Springs using a back course approach to runway 18 planning to do what we called the Black Forest One approach to the gliderport. That approach isn't published and isn't known to very many people but the back course approach was four miles west of the gliderport. You fly that approach till you reached the inbound fix which was about a mile past the gliderport runway. On that approach, you would be at 9,000 feet which was 2000 above Black Forest. You cancel IFR, make a 90 degree left turn and begin a 700 feet per minute descent down to 7500 feet at which point you should be able to see the ground 500 feet below. That should also put you over Woodmen Road which you follow to the gravel pits, make a quick left turn and you will be lined up with the runway.

A month or so later I was asked to return the plane to Lexington and I decided to take my wife along and we would stop to see her sister in Bowie, Texas. That would leave about 700 miles which could be done in one day with only one fuel stop. Next morning a warm front had moved over that area and as they would say, the ducks were walking. No big deal, I'd get to use those fancy instruments so I filed direct to Memphis. We droned on and on, sometimes in light rain and at times not even being able to see the wingtips. We finally broke out of the clouds with the Mississippi River and Memphis in the windshield. We landed at Mud Island Airport which is just across the freeway from downtown Memphis. The place got its name because it was built of mud dredged up in making the river deeper.

I told Freda that it was another three and a half hours to Lexington and we would arrive at about dark or we could stay there and go on the next day. She quickly decided that she had enjoyed all that sort of flying she cared to in one day and dinner at the Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous was a far more inviting thought. The dinner was most enjoyable but when I woke up to rain pounding on the windows of the hotel, I had a good idea what was happening. The warm front was moving east and we were going to have to fly through it again.

A call to Flight Service the next morning confirmed my suspicions so I began to file the flight plan, "Piper PA-18/180/Foxtrot, November two two seven Juliet Bravo, Mud Island Memphis direct to Lexington, Kentucky."

"Is that a Piper Navajo?" he asked.

"No, Super Cub." I replied.

"A Senica?"

"No, it's a Super Cub."

"What's that, a Cherokee?" he asked, obviously he had never filed an IFR flight plan for a Super Cub.

"It's a Super Cub, high wing, single engine," I replied.

"Oh, a Super Cub! Does it really have Foxtrot equipment?"

"Sure does, everything except hot prop and boots."

"That's amazing," he replied and we went on with filing the flight plan and he gave me a departure slot and transponder squawk to use as soon as I was airborn. The transponder replies to radar and the special number gives them the aircraft's registration number and flight plan which goes into their computer.

I called Memphis departure as I broke ground. "Super Cub Two Two Seven Juliet Bravo, turn to a heading of Zero Nine Zero and stay below 500 feet AGL until cleared for a higher altitude. A Seven Forty Seven Heavy is on approach and will be crossing above you at one thousand feet."

I looked up and the sky was full of airplane. Even from 500 feet below, that is one big airplane and we could hear it over the sound of our own engine.

I was cleared to my cruise altitude in the clouds and about ten minutes later Memphis Center called, "Piper Juliet Bravo, state your type of aircraft."

"Piper Juliet Bravo, Super Cub," I replied

"Oh, no wonder you are going so slow. I had you filed as a Navajo at 220 knots."

The next time we saw the ground was at 500 feet high, half a mile from the end of the runway at Lexington. Flying on instruments is much easier if you can punch up an autopilot instead of hand-flying it every minute.

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Copyright 2006 by Jim Foreman