It has been over 30 years since Flight International operated its own editorial aircraft and despite the scores of pilots employed with the magazine, no serving member of the editorial team has ever fully owned or operated their own aircraft. These two deficiencies have been corrected in a timely fashion, to coincide with the 100th year of the magazine.
Flight’s Senior Technical Artist Joe Picarella is proud to introduce you to his Piper L-4B “Grasshopper” – G-FINT.
The aircraft in full profile:
G-FINT (Piper serial number 9444) was the 92nd of 980 L4Bs built specifically for the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and received into service on the 18th August 1942 as serial number 43-583. While aircraft from either side of 9444 on the production line would find themselves in combat zones around he world, 9444 would serve with several US Army ground force units in the United States until 1946.
Postwar she went through the 4168th Air Material Command (AMC) – South Plains Field TX, 3136th AMC – Tinker Field Dallas TX, 32nd Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Base Unit and Air Defence Command – Hensley Field Dallas TX, 3565th Basic Training Wing (Air Training Command) and 3565th Aircraft Observer Training Wing – James Connally AFB TX and finally to the CAP at Love Field TX.
In March 1956 the aircraft was transferred (donated) from the USAF tothe Texas wing of the CAP (the civil auxiliary branch of the USAF),where she continued in her roll as a primary trainer/patrol aircraft.
Bythe late 1970s 9444 was becoming a little “tired” and in 1981, afternearly 40 years in service she finally stood down and was offered forsale by the CAP. She went through one owner before being purchased byan airframe and engine (A&P) mechanic in 1988 and restored tofactory finish as a stock L-4B once again.
In the winter of2007, after almost two years of searching for the right “Warbird” tooperate, Joe and his wife decide that the time was right to purchase anaircraft again (following the sale of their T-6 Airframe in 2002) andthey purchased 9444 from its owner in Texas.
With the deed done, several months of planning fell into place.
Thefirst task was to get the aircraft ferried from its former home inTexas to Florida. While only around 1000 miles (a two-day flight for aGrasshopper!) it took a couple of weeks to plan and accomplished withthe assistance of the former owner. Once in Sarasota FL, the aircraftwas first delivered to Columbia Air Services, where it was expertlydismantled and crated into a 20ft shipping container and then it waspassed on to Don Ratliff at American King Air Ferries, Inc. Don did afabulous job of managing all of the legalities and shipping issues andin mid April, after 5 weeks at sea 9444 arrived in the UK.
In themeantime the real problems of aircraft ownership in the UK were beingtackled, namely finding hangarage in the South of England and startingthe transfer of an aircraft from the US N-register to the UK G-register.
Good friend of Joe Clive Edwards (of Edwards BrosAviation) performed the assembly and addressed the engineering issues ofre-registering the aircraft. Clive, who is internationally known forhis “larger” warbird activities, such as DC-3, Catalina, Constellationand B-17 maintenance and restoration, also owns a Tiger Moth and SuperCub and turns his hand expertly to lighter vintage types.
With allof the official paperwork in hand, thanks to Phil Lowe of CertificationLimited, and following the removal of three defunct wasps nests fromthe airframe – a surprisingly common problem with aircraft restorations- G-FINT was re-christened “Helen” (after Joe’s wife) and is now theoldest L-4B in Europe.
G-FINT will be operated as memorial to theLiaison pilots and crews that operated these aircraft in combat and assuch Joe and G-FINT will be attending as many fly-ins as they can fitinto their yearly schedule, so keep a look out for them at the showsand why not come and say hello to them.
The L-4was a militarised version of Piper’s legendary J3 Cub. Between 1931 and1946 over 20,000 Cubs and derivatives were be built, of which over5,500 were produced for all branches of the US military during the WWIIas the L-4.
In their wartime training role almost 75% of allUS pilots (435,000+) and 80% of all military pilots received theirbasic training in the Civil Pilot Training Program (CPTP) on Piper Cubsand L-4 Grasshoppers.
In its military role the L-4 would becomean instant success over the battlefields of North Africa, theMediterranean, Europe and the Pacific. Used for artillery spotting andreconnaissance the Grasshopper became a required element of thebattlefield, providing intelligence over the ever-changing frontlines.Initially launched from aircraft carriers and modified LSTs over thebeachheads of the US invasion forces of North Africa, Sicily, Italy,Normandy and South Pacific, L-4s would within hours be operatingalongside the infantry on the beaches, dirt tracks and fields. Theywere soon used as airborne command centres for the commanding officers,giving them what is now known as “real-time” views of the battlefronts.Generals’ Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and Marshal to name but a few,were often found above combat zones in L-4s, as was Winston Churchillon one occasion. In combat the Grasshopper would also be used as airambulances, downed-pilot recovery, VIP taxis and even Bazooka equippedstrike aircraft.
The L-4 would also become the “little friend” tothe GIs on the ground and often re-supply ground troops with ammunitionand the all-important mail. With “L-birds” in the air, enemy artilleryand troop movements were put on hold, as any indication of activitywould result in a hail of incoming artillery or fighter-bomber strikeson emplacements and vehicles. Typically operated between 500 and 800ft- the safe zone above snipers and below enemy fighters – the various”L-birds” would become so effective, that by 1945 the destruction ofone would result in either a weeks furlough for a soldier or twobottles of Champaign or two points towards a medal for the Luftwaffe’sfighter pilots. In all, over 350 (of the 2,330+) L-4s operated in theETO would be lost in combat.
Having ushered the United Statesinto their first WWII seaborne invasion (North Africa) in November1942, it is fitting to note that the last reported air-to-air combat ofthe European war was between an L-4 and a Fieseler Fi156 “Storch” onthe 8th May (VE Day) 1945, when Lieutenants’ Francies and Martin”forced” the Luftwaffe aircraft down with their Colt 45 pistols!
AfterWWII L-4s operated in the Korean conflict for a short while, untilreplaced by newer L-types and eventually the helicopter.
Today thelegacy of this little artillery/reconnaissance spotter can be seen inthe myriad of reconnaissance helicopters and UAVs operated over modernbattlefields.