Even before the U.S. entry into World War II on December 7, 1941, numerous private fundraising programs were conducted in support of the British cause. One of these programs began with the donation of a single Piper J3 Cub by William T. Piper and Franklin Motors in support of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. This plane (CAA registration number NC1776) was to be raffled off. Piper distributors nationwide were also encouraged to provide one Piper J3 for each of the then 48 states for a wider fundraising program.

Piper Cub, Model J-3C-65, serial no. 3150, NC23413, predated these activities having been built in June 1939. It was discovered forty years later in pieces in an old hanger in Conroe, Texas. NC23413 consisted of two sets of wings and tail feathers, one and a half fuselages, and several “wash tubs” of airplane and engine parts. After transporting the collection to Cannon Field, it sat in storage for more than a year during which time Hardy Cannon and ALG squadron members finished the restoration of a Taylorcraft L-2 and an Aeronca L-3. Welding and structural work, along with wing and fabric work, led eventually to the assembly of pieces and mounting a Continental A-75-8 engine. The J3 was returned to service in May 1984.

Flitfire Texas at Cannon Field, October 2019. Photo by Paul T. Bigelow.

At the time of its reconstruction, several olive drab L-4 aircraft were flying in the San Antonio area, including squadron member Wes Kule’s “WK” and another owned by Arnold Phillips. Thus it was decided to restore NC23413 “in a more colorful warbird configuration.” A plan was hatched to replicate Flitfire Texas. Squadron members turned to Jospeh P. Juptner’s U.S. Civil Aircraft book collection where a published black and white photo (Vol. 7, pg. 311) gave the mistaken impression that the Flitfire was painted in yellow, like all civilian Cubs. The photo also showed colorless British roundel and markings, known to be in red, white and blue. This paint scheme was backed up by a Flitfire photo appearing in National Geographic. ALG members, after painting the J3 yellow and flying it to Oshkosh, would later find out from Mike Strok, an employee and pilot for the Piper Aircaft Company who led the Flitfire project and fly-bys in New York, that the real color was that of aluminum primer. A color photo of New York event appeared on the July 1941 cover of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine.

Flitfire in yellow following restoration at Cannon Field, 1982.

Flitfire Brigade

In all, 49 Piper aircraft were painted in the special silver color scheme with RAF insignia and dubbed “Flitfires,” a wordplay on the RAF’s famed Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft. The Flitfires were all gathered at La Guardia Field in New York in April 1941, and christened the Flitfire Brigade. With the exception of NC1776, each was named for one of the U.S. states. Alaska and Hawaii had not yet entered the Union.

A small number of these aircraft have survived to the present day, including NC1776. Now on display at the North Carolina Aviation Museum & Hall Of Fame (formerly Peddycord FAC Flying Museum) at Asheboro Regional Airport, NC1776 was won by New Yorker Jack Krindler on April 29, 1941. After an ownership change, NC1776 served the War Department in the U.S. Civilian Pilot Training Program during WWII, and Orville Wright was known to have piloted this particular airplane in 1943. Flitfire New Jersey, NC37916, following an 6-year restoration resides at Sky Acres Airport, New York, in private hands. It won Sentimental Journey Fly-in’s “Best J-3 Cub” in 2015 and a Silver Lindy for Antique Reserve Grand Champion in the Bronze Age category at AirVenture in 2017.

Today (July 2020), Alamo Liaison Squadron maintains a flying replica of the Flitfire located at Cannon Field. It is a joy to fly from the rear seat with its right hand clamshell door and window open. In a famous photo, the original Flitfire is shown flying in front of the Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island in New York. This aircraft, a popular J3 Cub in its heyday, was used as a primary trainer for many pilots who received their first flight lessons and tailwheel endorsements.

Flitfire Texas flying at Cannon Field, October 2019. Photo by Paul T. Bigelow.

NC23413 originally shipped with a Franklin 50 hp engine and a Sensenich 70-inch wood propeller. At one time, the airframe was equipped with a Lycoming O-145-B2 outputting 65 hp at 2550 rpm. Presently it has a Continental A-65-8 engine delivering 65 hp at 2300 rpm. It operates with both metal and wood propellers and must be started by hand.

The Cub was purchased originally from Piper Aircraft Corporation by Lee Eikenberry of Flora, Indiana. Eikenberry was the Indiana distributor for Cubs (Muncie Evening Press, 24 September 1938). He later served as sales manager for the Muncie Aviation Corporation (The Daily Banner, Greencastle, Putnam County, 14 June 1946). A storied aviator, Eikenberry was the first man to fly a plane with retractable landing gear. The plane was designed by AI Moody of Colorado, called the Eagle Rock Bullet, and was the forerunner of the first Boeing airliner. Eikenberry was also, according to Indiana state lore, the greatest barnstorming pilot on record. He made 17,000 flights carrying 32,000 paid passengers during the 1930s. Born in 1893, Eikenberry also set a record in a Waco 3-place biplane by flying it 928 hours without an overhaul in an era when overhauls usually were required after 100 hours in the air. The endurance record for keeping a Piper Cub aloft by a Hoosier was set in Muncie circa 1925 by Eikenberry, Kelvin Baxter, and Robert McDaniels, who kept the plane in flight for three weeks. Refueling was done by hoisting 5-gallon cans into the plane from a moving pickup truck. Born near Kokomo, Eikenberry learned to fly in the Army in 1917.

Though NC23413 saw no wartime service, it was used for occasional Emergency Police Patrol in September 1941.

More than 30 owners, with 27 changes of ownership, have curated this Cub. It spent one-and-a-half years in a flying club in Indiana and six years in a Wisconsin flying club. It flew as seaplane (beginning in 1972) for five years. NC23413 has been with ALS since 1979 where it has flown on average 21 hours per year.

The states to which the Cub has called home include: Indiana 1939–1945 ~6 years, Illinois 1945–1949 ~5 years, Iowa 1949– 1950 ~9 months, Wisconsin 1950–1972 ~22 years, Florida 1972–1976 ~4 years, then Texas 1976–2022 ~46 years.

Ready for delivery, the Royal Air Force (RAF) Benovelent Fund Piper J3 Cub Flitfire fleet, 1941.

The New Cub was offered with a choice of 40 hp, 50 hp, 55 hp and 65 hp engines, but the J-3C/65 with a 65 hp Continental A-65 powerplant proved most popular. Piper’s salesmanship was truly astonishing. Before long he had a worldwide network of 1,500 dealers and a mile-long production line which churned out a gleaming yellow Cub once every 70 minutes. Count the Cubs became a Piper slogan. It was difficult not to. At a Miami airshow, 261 out of 625 aircraft attending were Cubs. Ten cents bought you a little Cub bear emblem on a stick-pin. A tobacco company gave away a Cub on its radio show every week for a year and a half. In 1941, 48 Cubs, one for every State of the Union, toured the country em­blazoned with Royal Air Force roundels and the name Flitfire, drumming up funds for the RAF Benevolent Fund in Britain with the aid of 48 winsome young ladies who rode in their back seats.

Excerpt from (source unknown): Piper J3 Cub – Yellow is the colour of my true love’s hair…
Landing incident with the Cub at Stevens Point, WI (KSTE), circa 1949. Photo provided by Jaime Klasinski, son of the “young man holding the tire.”
J3 clips power lines on landing and ends up in the trees. Passenger and pilot were okay and the Cub was rebuilt. San Antonio Express-News, June 10, 1984.
Flitfire on the cover of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, July 1941.
General Aviation News Leading Image, February 6, 2020 – Flitfire Texas

Read more about the Flitfire at EAA’s Vintage Aircraft Association.