Piloting a piece of history

Piper: The bare-bones J-3 Cub, first built in the 1930s, still takes flight in Clarksville, thanks to an Ellicott City instructor and aircraft restorer.

January 02, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

If anyone in Maryland wants to learn to fly a Piper Cub -- a real Piper Cub, not just any generic small plane -- they are likely to find themselves in Clarksville in Howard County, driving slowly down a country lane until they spot a row of small airplanes in the rolling landscape.

There, tucked away in a small trailer down an under-marked dirt road, they are likely to meet Dick Kreis, a mild-mannered Ellicott City man who has turned this rural area into a Piper Cub hot spot.

Although there are thousands of Piper Cub enthusiasts around the country and the world, and hundreds of Web sites lauding the bare-bones J-3 design that made Piper Aircraft famous in the 1930s, Kreis has cornered the market in this part of the world, not only restoring the antique planes but teaching people to fly them.

Frank Schmidt, 58, the man who taught Kreis how to fly, sometimes comes to Haysfield when one of his students wants to learn how to fly a Piper J-3 Cub.

Although Schmidt works full time as a manufacturing engineer, he said he has spent much of his free time in the past 30 years teaching people how to fly.

Lately, he said, J-3s have become especially popular as more people are building small planes from kits. Most of the kits, he said, call for a tail wheel, and the J-3 has a tail wheel, which makes it a good plane to learn on.

Kreis, who compares the Piper J-3 Cub to a Model-T Ford, says the planes, first developed in 1938, are "historically treasured," if "totally impractical for anything except for enjoying flying."

In other words, you wouldn't hop into a J-3 if you wanted to fly 500 miles -- or if you wanted to get anywhere fast.

"I just liked them," said Kreis, who seems to like flying a great deal more than he likes to talk about flying. "It's one of those things you can't explain why -- you just like them."

The planes, which in the old days were always bright yellow with black trim, have only the required instruments, nothing more.

To start the engine, someone must turn the propeller by hand. The planes go only 70 mph, compared to about 200 mph for a modern general aviation airplane.

The planes do not have electric heat or air conditioning. As Dick Kreis put it, "They have heat and air conditioning if you open the window."

When they were built, the average man was only 150 pounds, so taller, bigger men (or women) sometimes have a hard time squeezing into the seats.

It might be primitive by today's standards, but from the moment the plane hit the market in 1938, it was a success -- so much so that "Cub" became synonymous with "light plane."

Kreis, 61, learned to fly on a Piper J-3 Cub about 30 years ago. In 1981, while working as a flight instructor in Montgomery County, he met the woman who is now his wife, Jean Kreis. She was taking flying lessons at the airport.

First date

For their first date, he rented an aerobatic airplane and took her for a ride.

"It was fun," Jean Kreis said. "I probably looked a little green afterwards, but it was fun."

Not long after they married, the Kreises decided to start their own full-time flight school. They now rent out a fleet of about eight planes, six at Haysfield and two at Clearview Airpark outside Westminster. Their fleet includes a J-3 Piper Cub.

"We do have a lot of people who come here specifically to fly the Piper Cub," Dick Kreis said. "It's very difficult to find a place that rents those airplanes anymore."

Word of mouth

Kreis rents a hangar to restore Cubs -- for himself and for customers. Over the years, he said, he has restored about five Cubs and repaired many others. He doesn't advertise his services. In the aviation community, he said, word gets around.

"There are a lot of old planes tucked away in old barns and houses and garages," he said. "It's like old cars."

He plays down his mechanical achievements.

"This is not rocket science," he said, rubbing his hand over the bright yellow wing of the plane he is currently restoring. "It's extremely rudimentary. These things are welded steel tubing covered with fabric and then a heavy paint layer on top of the fabric. That's all it is. It's tedious work, but it's not technically difficult."

When he has time from teaching and restoring, which isn't often, Kreis said he likes to get in his plane and "chase parts," which usually means flying to small airports in the region and browsing in the parts shops.

Even though the J-3 is outdated, Schmidt said, it's still considered one of the best planes for learning.

`The best trainer'

"It was the best trainer ever built," he said. "It's very simple as far as design, and allows for a certain amount of error. So if the student makes an error, the instructor can easily override it."

Both Kreis and Schmidt laugh when asked whether Piper J-3 Cubs are safe, considering they were designed more than 60 years ago.

"That's like asking, `Is a Volkswagen safe?' " said Jean Kreis.

"They are no more dangerous than the pilot makes them," Dick Kreis said, adding, "It's just primitive technology, that's all."

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