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J-3 Kitten to E-LSA

By Richard L. Weaver, EAA 789743

Richard Weaver
Richard Weaver’s flying ended January 2010 when he sold his J-3 Kitten.

My love affair with a J-3 Kitten began in the summer of 2005. While attending International Miniature Aircraft Association “big bird” remote-control events in western North Carolina, I met a flyer who told me of a partially built Kitten in a warehouse in Hendersonville. He said that two brothers started the building project in the early 1980s, lost interest, and put it in storage. I listened with interest as he continued to tell me of his involvement with the Grover Company, where the Kitten and Pup kits were sold. With no spouse consultation, I examined the brothers’ project, bought it, converted a 20-foot boat trailer, and towed it home. 

According to the flyer, a local aircraft enthusiast named Jesse Anglin didn’t like the open ultralights and scaled a J-3 Cub to 75 percent in size. The Grover Company was founded, and the 3/4-scale Pup went into production. Costs were too high to manufacture the chromoly curvatures of the tail assembly, so Jesse supposedly squared them off and sloped the fuselage from the cabin back for better control at low speed. The J-3 Kitten ultralight was born. Kits were also sold in stages of production.

The brothers bought theirs with the chromoly steel airframe and tail welded by the Grover factory welder. Later I found the welder. He told me that he was trying to build an airframe for himself, but company sales exceeded production; for the third time, he had to sell his airframe to eager customers. In later conversations he said that he built three with thicker tube walls from the rear of the cabin forward to the firewall. The brothers got his third one. This was good to know as the main spars and ribs that they constructed also exceeded weight and strength requirements. Examples that I found were a heavy I-beam spar construction for added strength and square spruce ribs. In the final weighing stage, I was shocked to find that I owned a “fat” ultralight eight pounds over FAR Part 103.

Cub
My little “Cub “

In the beginning, neither my wife nor I knew what we were getting into, but we blindly proceeded. I consulted a former Vermont aircraft wizard, Willard Van Wormer, who advised me to “use aircraft-grade material and no hardware substitutes!” Our oversized garage and adjacent “big bird” work area was used for the assembly. Soon costs began to build up at a staggering rate!

The research and work began slowly as no plans or specifications remained. Every move was carefully defined, redefined and sometimes redefined for the third time before the construction proceeded. Soon my giant-scale friend, Al Gould, who held a private pilot and A&E rating, was involved in the project. His aircraft construction experience
was limited, and mine dated back to the 1950s when I was involved in the reassembling and flying of a World War II L4A in Panama.

The Hipps family was a good source for parts and advice. Mrs. Hipps encouraged me to join the EAA and request an adviser. Three were available within my area, and a “wood and cloth” expert, ScottTallmadge from Twelve Oaks Air Estates, responded. He had restored a Jungmann and had a Jungmeister under construction at the time. When my EAA adviser arrived, he took one look at the wing construction stage and said, “First, get an FAA bible, and second, reconstruct the wing bracing.”

I was proud of the wing work but said to myself, “I did ask for an expert adviser,” and did as advised. In the final construction stage, the wings were covered with a variety of lightweight Ceconite fabric and painted using the Randolph process. Many coatings were applied for sun protection and aging. I sprayed the last stage with urethane while my wife was in England. It stuck to everything – floor, walls, equipment, and me. I had to scramble to get the area in shape for her return. With the help of EAA and many others, the J-3 Kitten project was completed and ready to fly as an ultralight in April of 2006.

The thought of flying the Kitten didn’t occur to me during the purchase nor construction phases. I ruled it out subconsciously due to my age and the years since last I flew. I got my private single engine rating in 1949 in a “rag wing” Cessna 120 owned by my brother and me, flew the L4A in Panama, and got my seaplane rating in a Cub in Pittsburgh in the ’50s, but nothing since…over fifty years! The advice from all quarters was to fly the aircraft, get at least 50 to 100 hours on it, and then sell it. Without the flying time, I couldn’t expect to recover much of the construction expense.

A local ultralight instructor, Jimmy Wolfe, gave me time in his trainer, but I didn’t have the nerve to fly my single-place Kitten. Jimmy did the first flight for me, and he “wrung it out.” I had overpowered the Kitten with a 50-hp Hirth F23 for float flying, and he used it all on the first flight. After several dual hours in Jim’s Talon trainer, I became more confident. However, I still was uncomfortable with the thought of flying my single seater and continued for many hours to taxi it around. As the days went by, I said to myself, “My vision, hearing, and general health are very good, and I have good eye-hand RC coordination...Why not fly it?” I bought a helmet, a portable handheld radio, and I taught myself to taxi, take off, and land on the 3,700-foot paved runway at Inverness, Florida. 

J-3 Kitten
J-3 Kitten ready for a flight

My self-training in the Kitten was a challenging process.At the break of dawn, I finished fueling, completed my preflight, had taxied the length of runway one, and was ready to check for any early traffic. I selected runway one as it has the best emergency landing if needed. On those mornings of unsuccessful attempts, I would taxi back to my tie-down hoping that no one had seen me. On my fourth try, with no wind in the “sock,” I cleared and taxied to the center of the runway. I said, “Okay, do it,” and as advised by my instructor Jimmy, I advanced the throttle. The ground moved fast, soon the tail lifted, and with a little back pressure, I was airborne climbing out! I throttled back to level flight, slowly reduced power, and landed. After settling down, I cleared for traffic, taxied to the end, turned around, and flew back. I continued to carefully fly from one end to the other about 20 feet off the ground for about 40 times in five days. Finally, on the forty-first flight, I had the nerve to climb out and fly a good left-hand pattern. The biggest problem during this period was stopping on landing as brakes were eliminated to reduce weight for the FAR Part 103 limit. There was only one way – into the grass!

During my ultralight training, my instructor told me that many private pilots are killed in ultralight aircraft trying to stretch a glide. Jimmy drilled this into my head, and it may have saved my life. When the engine stopped on the downwind leg in Inverness, I was in the beginning of an emergency “dead-stick” landing. As instructed I dropped the nose, kept my flying speed up, and went straight ahead into the city sewage spray field rather than try for the airfield. The next morning, the city refused to let me trailer my aircraft as I was in a no-trespassing area. After several hours of negotiation they were convinced that my aircraft was there because I had survived an emergency landing. It was established that the ethanol in the auto gasoline had attacked the original old fiberglass tank, and the fibers clogged the gasoline filter.

The FAA realized a need and created the Experimental Light-Sport Aircraft (E-LSA) category in 2007. I jumped at this opportunity to get a higher aircraft weight limit and more eyes to check it out for safety; I moved the project into the E-LSA category. My J-3 Kitten was registered N86047. The installation of an electrical system, starter, brakes, shocks, and two five-gallon wing tanks followed. With the additional tanks, it carried 15 gallons of auto fuel, cruised at 65 mph, used 3.5 gallons per hour, and didn’t require an FAA physical to fly it. It was the perfect aircraft for me, a pilot and photographer who lost his medical and wanted to continue to fly. I flew in the early morning with the right door up and held the stick with my knees, weight shifting for up or down movement. I would digitally film beautiful Florida from within the aircraft.

Inverness Airport
Inverness Airport where Richard learned to fly the J3 Kitten.

Most of my 53 hours flying the J-3 Kitten was after the age of 80, in Marion and Citrus counties from Inverness and Dunnellon airports. Both for safety and to reduce my anxiety, I flew early in the morning and at altitudes and locations that wouldn’t conflict with the “big boys.” The project was sold January 29, 2010, through Barnstormers.com to a Pitts pilot-builder from northern Wisconsin who bought it sight unseen, didn’t ask to see it fly, nor hear it run. He trailered it to its new home in northern Wisconsin at the Land O’ Lakes Airport. I then bought a red Pontiac hardtop convertible as a reminder of my last days of flying in the J-3 Kitten, N86047.

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