The family Cub

“They look like a field of buttercups,” is how one visitor to AirVenture 2012 described the sea of J-3 Cubs parked in the vintage area of Oshkosh.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the popular Piper airplane and as part of the celebration Cubs arrived in droves at the big show, one after another like a disciplined line of butterflies. One of those belongs to Frank Swinehart, from Lock Haven, Pa., the very home of Piper Aircraft back in the day.

“This airplane is a 1946 J-3,” said Swinehart, gesturing to the airplane like he was introducing a family member. “It has been in the family since 1963. My Dad bought it. The paint scheme is very similar to the way my Dad bought the airplane. Even when we removed the skin to recover it, we put it back the way it was. It has been rebuilt and recovered three times. I’m the caretaker of the airplane now and proud to be it!”

Swinehart was part of a three-ship convoy that made the trip to Oshkosh from Lockhaven.

“We split the trip up in two days,” he said. “We gathered with the Cubs in Hartford, Wis., for the Cub Club celebration and came up here as part of the mass arrival.”

“It was quite unique and interesting,” he continued. “I was proud, but a little nervous. We had so many Cubs and no one really knew the other pilots. I’ve been to Oshkosh before, but this is the first time I had ever flown in. I was glad I arrived early in the morning before it got too busy.”

Swinehart made the trip to Oshkosh in part to pay homage to his parents, both of whom have gone west.

“You’ll find the name ‘MaryAnn’ painted on the side of the airplane,” he said. “MaryAnn is my mother. She passed away in 1996 and my father and I decided it was right to put her name on the side of the airplane.”

“My father passed away a year and a half ago. I felt like I had to make this flight to honor both my parents. My dad would have been so proud of the airplane — it made that long trip from Lock Haven without a single cough or wheeze.”

Even if Swinehart hadn’t been standing next to his yellow and red airplane, you would have known he is a Cub man based on his attire. He sported a bright yellow Piper Cub T-shirt, a watch with the Cub logo on the face, and a cap with the Piper logo.

“There is a lot of Cub pride,” the 32-year-old explained. “My father spent 17 years working at Piper, most of that time as a welder, and some of it as a Methods Analyst. You could say that I grew up at the airport in Lock Haven with the airplanes. My first airplane ride was in a Piper Cub. I don’t remember it, but I was told that my mother held me in the backseat.”

While he was growing up. Swinehart would join his father for flights to scout for deer during hunting season.

“My Dad would take me flying without my Mom. He’d put me in the front seat and within a few minutes I’d fall asleep! He had to reach around and pull me off the stick.”

Swinehart soloed the Cub on his 16th birthday. His flying experience includes Cessna 150 and 172 trainers, a few Piper trainers, and a few hours in a flight school twin flying deadhead legs from the right seat. He’s logged about 900 hours, with the majority — 700 — in his Cub.

Swinehart makes his living as a mechanic and IA, so he does his own work on the J-3.

“The last restoration I was involved in the airplane just needed recovering,” he said. “It still had the cotton on the frame. The wings are still covered with cotton and they are the next thing to be redone. The rest of the airplane is done in Seconite.”

Over the years, Swinehart has added a few upgrades to the J-3 in the name of safety.

“We added an electrical system with a wind-driven generator so we could have a decent radio without having wires hanging all over the place,” he said. “We also added the nav lights so we can come back from a night flight at dusk and not be illegal, But I hope I never get caught out after dark!”

Swinehart notes it’s not a challenge to find parts for the Cub. “It has some of the best support for a vintage airplane out there,” he said. “You can practically build a Cub out of a catalog.”

What sets Swinehart’s airplane apart from so many other 1940-era Cubs is the detailing. Rather than black accents, the Swinehart Cub has red trim and a large germanic S on the tail.

“The colors are Lock Haven Yellow and Tennessee Red,” said Swinehart. “The S is for Swinehart. When Dad bought it, it had dual Piper slashes on the tail. He had a little bit of an incident shortly after he bought the airplane. He put it into a tree. Of course the tail had to be recovered. A friend of Dad’s in the paint shop came up with the family German S and said ‘let’s put this on the tail!’ and we did.”

Today Swinehart takes the Cub for breakfast runs to grass strips near his home.

“I fly low and slow with the doors off. Sometimes I carry an air horn when I fly low over people to get their attention,” he said.

He certainly didn’t need the horn at AirVenture to attract attention to his family Cub.

“I get more comments about it,” he beamed. “It stands out in a crowd. People are so happy to see the old airplane.”


  1. Steve Bowes says

    I knew the Swineharts in the 1940’s, early 50’s. Our little neighborhood was the 10 company houses that came with the abandoned silk mill W.T. Piper bought in the 30’s.
    The houses were identical; three on Prospect Ave. & seven on Madison Ave. All were situated at the end of the assembly line. Mary Ann lived across the “street” from us.
    Ours was a great neighborhood in a great town during what was perhaps the greatest time to be raised.

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