The Piper Super Cub shows her individuality in the way she eyes the sky. As a tailwheel plane she has a naturally upturned face. She also has a bee-stung red nose and a custard-yellow body. Her engine makes an ear-splitting shout, as if to say, “I’m not done yet!”
Members of the Bombay Flying Club (BFC), established in 1928, share the sentiment. That is why, though the Cub is 70 years old and despite the interference of the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the BFC has painstakingly rebuilt the aircraft.
The Cub is a fabric aircraft. Such things are not made any more, BFC members say. She used to be flown on weekends in the 1940s by India’s first pilot and BFC co-founder J R D Tata, who got his pilot’s licence in 1929. Tata himself trained the first 93 BFC pilots on Cubs, over a decade or so.
This Cub, which was imported from the USA for Rs 900 in the 1940s, will get her due when she goes for a spin on the 100th anniversary of civil aviation in India in December. The air route between Karachi and Delhi was opened by the Indian state air services in collaboration with the UK’s Imperial Airways in 1912.
“We didn’t want to celebrate the anniversary for the heck of it,” says Capt Mihir Bhagvati, president of the BFC. “We wanted something to celebrate. There can’t be a better reason than this.”
In the 1940s, the BFC had six Piper Cubs, of which only one has survived. “We have lost many old planes because the AAI and DGCA were reluctant to restore them. When we approached the AAI with a proposal to rebuild this aircraft in 2009, the AAI asked me ‘What will we gain from this?’ This is like asking why one should repair the Gateway of India,” says Bhagvati. “On the one hand we were asked to celebrate the centenary, and on the other all sorts of hindrances were created to stop us restoring this aircraft. This plane is a part of our club’s history and a flying national treasure, and we didn’t want to lose it like we lost the rest.”
The BFC’s oldest member and chief technician, Erik Lobo, 75, was asked to inject new life into the Cub. Lobo, with 25 students of Aircraft Maintenance Engineering (AME), the BFC academy which has a licence course, worked on the Cub for three years. They fitted Rs 15 lakh worth of new material including fabric and a wooden propeller, and spent 10,000 man-hours on the job.
“It was interesting and frustrating,” says Lobo. “There were at least four long interruptions. The DGCA didn’t want any work in the hangar until the new chief engineer came. Our old engineer had left. Also, paint and materials for the plane were not available. To get back from those breaks, motivate myself and the youngsters working with me was difficult.”
There were other interruptions from the communications ministry, which asked for “radio papers” before giving the Cub a license to fly. Cubs made in the 1940s had no radios; they were flown with a magnetic compass and a map. Radios were introduced only in the 1960s. The BFC was asked to produce papers for each of the 20-odd years from 1940 until the inception of radios to show “how did the plane fly without a radio”. With no such documents available, and logical explanations not sufficing, this became another reason for delay.
Lobo is an unassuming man. You can gauge his talent from his miniature model of the Cub. In six inches he has wrought a marvel of accuracy. Lobo won awards in the 1980s for “detailing the specifics”. For continuing to show, despite his age, a tireless ability to detail the specifics, Lobo was, with chief engineer Suresh Shinde, also 70, given this Cub project.
“When you rebuild planes like this, says Shinde, “the fabric is the most difficult to handle.” The poly fabric was imported from the USA. Shinde believes that “just old age cannot be the excuse for retirement”. “The majority of flying clubs nowadays do not give training on how to repair a damaged fibre sheet. It is a cumbersome process,” he says. “In AME we have kept this tradition alive.” Now that the AME students have handled the Cub by “stripping it to the bone and rebuilding it”, each one feels like “a man among men”.
For pilots, too, training on the Cub is still thought to be the ideal route of entry into the aviation community. During the Second World War, Piper Cubs were used by the American government for training, photo-reconnaissance and as artillery spotters. Because of their low landing speed, Cubs were also popular for their ability to dodge enemy planes.
The single-engine, two-seater Cub at the BFC has been certified airworthy, though radio licensing is still due. The BFC hopes to wrap up this last bit of “mindless paperwork” and “kiss the sky” soon.
For that special occasion, Capt Bhagvati is preparing to extend a formal invitation to Ratan Tata. If Tata accepts the invitation and goes solo, he will be flying a Cub with history — the very same plane that his uncle JRD and India’s other early aviators adored. He will surely agree that “just old age cannot be the excuse for retirement”, even of planes.