Oilman, industrialist, investor, visionary… William T Piper has as much right to claim the title ‘Father of General Aviation’ as anyone.
His long insistence on making aircraft that were cheap to buy and easy to fly brought thousands of people into flying. What’s more, his insightful strategy of making learning to fly as cheap as possible is a lesson in GA promotion that’s as instructive as ever.
Unlike a lot of aviation giants, Mr Piper wasn’t irrevocably bitten by the aviation bug in his youth. He was born in 1881 in Knapp Creek NY, a prototypical rural setting on the NY/Pennsylvania border, and he never felt the need to move far from home.
From age nine, he helped his father ride the coat-tails of the booming oil business, repairing well pumps. Then, in 1898 he lied about his age to join the Spanish-American War. De-mobbed, he enrolled at Harvard to study mechanical engineering, graduating in 1903.
His father had moved his oil business to Bradford, PA, and Piper joined them there. Piper enlisted again during World War One, serving with the Army Corps of Engineers. Post-war, he returned to his own young family and oil business in Bradford.
Then, in the booming late 1920’s, a self-taught airplane designer named C.Gilbert Taylor came to Bradford with a simple new monoplane and a plan to manufacture it. The local business community pitched in $50,000 for a new factory at the local airport.
Piper didn’t join in – but his business partner did, pledging $400 in Piper’s name while he was out of town. Piper came home to find he was in the airplane business, and his fellow investors then voted him onto the board of Taylor Brothers Aircraft Corporation as Treasurer.
…and the Cub
NIcknamed ‘Cub’ for it’s original 20HP Brownbach ‘Tiger Kitten’ motor (which never got it off the ground) the Taylor Chummy was re-engined with a new Continental 37HP and certified as the Taylor E-2 Cub in mid-1931.
The asking price was an affordable $1,325 – well below the $4,000 Taylor wanted to ask. But Piper insisted on his ‘easy to buy, easy to fly’ model.
It was the most significant of near-continual clashes between Taylor and Piper. When the Great Depression caught up with Taylor Aircraft, Piper’s lone $761 bid for the company assets made him sole owner, but he graciously gave a half-share back to Taylor.
At age 50, William Piper took one of his new Cubs and learned to fly.
In 1932, Piper hired 19-year-old Walter Jamouneau to design cosmetic and practical improvements to the E-2, including the now-familiar round wingtips. The J-2 Cub was born. In 1937, additional changes created the J-3.
Jamouneau had started at the Depression-perfect rate of no salary. It was the best investment Piper never made. But the laugh may have been on the businessman – Jamouneau appears to have lied about his qualifications as an aeronautical engineer!
Between Taylor and Jamouneau, the Cub was an autodidact’s dream.
Lessons in aviation
While other plane-makers struggled to sell their more expensive, high performance planes through he 30s, Piper struggled to sell his affordable, easy-to-fly Cub. But sell them he did – creating a national network of sales agents and loyalists as he went.
In a visionary move, William Piper also realised the way to drive demand for his airplane was to make learning to fly just as affordable. More so.
He established a flying school at his new factory in Lock Haven, PA (established after the Bradford plant burned down), where anyone could learn to fly in a Cub for $1 an hour. At that rate, Piper employees learned to fly too, even though they were earning just 20¢ an hour.
For a while, more than one in ninety Lock Haven residents held a pilot’s license.
When World War Two came, Piper was uniquely placed to produce the huge numbers of ab initio pilots and liaison planes that the armed forces needed. Thousands of Piper’s pilots and aircraft would serve with distinction.
In the post-war years, William T Piper guided his company through a rapid boom-bust cycle in light aviation and continued to produce affordable, flyable aircraft.
By the time he died in 1970, aged 89, Piper had converted a $400 investment into a $30 million personal fortune and an even more valuable aircraft company. He was inducted in the US National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1980.
Sadly, the 1980s were cruel to the Piper Aircraft Corporation – but that’s another story.
Suffice to say that William T. Piper’s vision of aircraft that were “easy to buy and easy to fly” stands as a shining light to a struggling GA sector, along with his philosophy of treating pilot training as a long-term investment in demand, rather than just a short-term gain.
Come back Bill Piper, we need you.