AirCorps Aviation recently began a new project, the restoration of a WWII veteran L-4H. The L-4 version of the ubiquitous Piper J-3 Cub was the L bird of choice for Army Ground Forces support in the combat theaters of WWII.
This Piper was a classic “barn find”. While on a bike ride with his daughter, AirCorps’ Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales, Eric Trueblood, noticed a Beech C-45 in an outbuilding in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He couldn’t resist trying to find out more about it and contacted the property owner to learn what the situation was with the vintage Beechcraft. In the process, Eric discovered that there was another aircraft in storage at the site.
It was a Piper L-4H, which the owner believed to be USAAF serial number 44-7879.
AirCorps Aviation’s friend and customer, Pat Harker, has a varied collection of award-winning L birds, including some very rare liaison aircraft like a Stinson L-1 Vigilant and a Convair L-13A, but he doesn’t have the most common L-bird, an L-4, so Eric notified him that an L-4 might be available. The Grasshopper project was purchased and taken to AirCorps Aviation for restoration.
Once it arrived, research began on the Grasshopper’s history.
The previous owner, Daniel Romuld, had written several letters and had done some research on this airplane. He wasn’t able to find much information, so the history of 44-79780 was unknown at the start of the project.
But there is a good reason why Mr. Romuld wasn’t very successful.
Corrosion and accumulated dirt on the data tag obscured two important numbers. That led to misreading two numbers and Mr. Romuld . was researching AAF serial number 44-7978. That AAF serial number belongs to a P-40N(1). The discovery that the supposed serial number was assigned to a P-40N warranted a closer look at the L-4’s data plate.
By moistening the rusty data plate, the various numbers were much easier to read and it became clear that the actual AAF serial number is 44-79780. The other number Daniel misread was the order number. He was researching order number AF 86506. The order number corresponds with the contract number, the correct contract number is AC 36506(2). It is unknown at this point why the order number on the data plate begins with AF rather than AC.
The order number usually isn’t of much significance to the aircraft history, but in this case, Daniel Romuld chose to use that erroneous number as the aircraft N number N86506 when he obtained FAA registration on 12-30-2003 (canceled 3-07-2018).
(1)Army Air Force Serial Number Index
(2)Army Air Force Serial Number Index
With the correct AAF serial number, it was possible to obtain the Individual Aircraft Record Card from the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
Many thanks to James H. Gray for his invaluable help in interpreting the IARC. Jim is a well-known liaison aircraft expert and founder and president of the Sentinel Owners and Pilots Association, a club devoted to the Stinson L-5. He generously offered his help in decoding some of the codes and notations that are unique to liaison aircraft.
A pleasant surprise was that the history card shows this L-4H to be a war veteran.
*The meaning of the ‘F’ in the above project number is unknown. James Gray indicated that he had never seen this notation preceding a project number in over 4,000 IARCs that he had inspected. 90812 is the project number for the Italian campaign.
44-79780 is listed as being under the jurisdiction of the Twelfth Air Force from the time it was loaded aboard the ship until being delivered to the Fifth Army after reassembly in Italy. The delivery probably occurred at Pomigliano airfield, about 8 miles northeast of the docks at Naples.
Note: 44-79780 was very likely on a ship at sea from Italy to a destination in the Philippines or Marianas Islands at the time of VJ Day and was therefore diverted to San Francisco.
From James Gray’s IARC interpretation: “As far back as 1943, plans were begun for demobilization as soon as the war was over. Part of the procedures included ending war material production and stopping all ships from leaving U.S. ports loaded with more troops and equipment. Those already bound for the Pacific were to be halted and brought back to the States if they were less than halfway to their destinations. A study of shipping timetables shows that the time at sea for a fast freighter (14 knots) was 20 days from Naples to the Panama Canal (6,600 nm) and another 15 days to Hawaii (5,100 nm). The war ended on Sept. 2, so I’m speculating that by then the ship carrying 44-79780 was already in the Pacific Ocean, but less than halfway to its final destination (somewhere beyond Hawaii) when it was suddenly turned around and diverted to SFO. If this was not the case, it would not have ended up in San Francisco, it would have been returned from Europe by the cheapest and most direct means to an East Coast or Gulf Coast port.”(4)
(3)T he project number includes an “F” preceding the number (F90812). The meaning of the “F” is unknown and possibly unrelated
(4)James Gray, From email correspondence 9-25-2023
“S.C.O.” indicates the above information derived from an inventory list on file at the Statistical Control Office. Pyote AFB’s main purpose post-war was aircraft storage and dismantling.(5)
Command, due to normal wear and tear (condition code 1, mechanical Trouble): 7-28-1949 data entered 8-19-1949
Location Pyote AFB, 2753 Aircraft Storage Depot, from non-cocooned storage, loss codes CI indicates transfer to an organization outside the USAF: 9-23-1949
(79874 is the serial number of the next aircraft to be processed in the punch card file.)
The order for 500 L-4Hs was the second addendum to contract AC 36506 which was first approved on Feb. 17, 1943.
(5)James Gray ,From email correspondence 9-25-2023
(6)James Gray personal email 9-27-2023
Piper Aircraft Serial Number 12076
It is obvious in this photo that the tubing fuselage frame and the wooden stringers will need a great deal of work. The fuselage frame will be sent to Javron Inc. in Brainerd, MN, who specializes in this kind of work, for repair and restoration of the tube frame.
The L-4H was equipped with a Continental A-65-8, 4-cylinder air-cooled horizontally opposed piston engine with a displacement of 171 in. This version of what is also known as the Continental O-170 is rated to produce 65 hp at 2,300 rpm.
On February 18, 1941, William T. Piper, president of Piper Aircraft, wrote a detailed letter to Secretary of War Henry Stimson advocating the potential of light aircraft in support of Army ground forces. As a result of that letter and others received from competing light plane manufacturer’s representatives, the War Department decided to conduct a study on the use of light planes supporting ground forces. In March of 1941, Piper and his employees contacted Army commanders directly.
Interestingly, one of those commanders was a Lieutenant Colonel who said he knew that light aircraft had a great deal of potential, especially for directing artillery fire from the air. He was able to visualize the uses of light liaison planes better than most officers because he had a private pilot license. That Lt. Colonel was Dwight D. Eisenhower.(7)
The light plane industry’s efforts paid off with invitations to demonstrate their light planes at Fort Sill and Camp Bowie. The Second Army’s maneuvers in June of 1941 resulted in recommendations to the War Department for light airplanes to be made a regular component of the artillery.
The North American O-47 and Stinson L-1 (O-49) Vigilant were examples of much larger and heavier observation/liaison aircraft in use by the USAAF at the time.
(7)Richard Tierney and Fred Montgomery, The Army Aviation Story, Colonial Press , Northport , Alabama , 1963, p 45-46
By the end of April 1942, the tests and studies were finished. The War Department’s light liaison aircraft study found that for Army Ground Force support and autonomous operations, the small Grasshoppers” had several advantages over the heavier observation planes currently in use with the USAAF.
An L-4 aircraft was light enough for one man to pick up its tail and pull it. That light weight also was the reason smaller liaison planes proved ideal for operations from small fields and dirt or gravel roads. The diminutive overall size also made the Grasshoppers difficult to spot in the air or on the ground.
In the early 1940s, the Army used letters to identify different classes of aircraft: B for bomber, P for pursuit, and so on. Until 1942, O meant observation. The new letter for planes designated to work closely with Army ground forces was “L” for liaison. Originally designated O-59, the military Cub was redesignated L-4 after April 2, 1942.
(8) Richard Tierney and Fred Montgomery, The Army Aviation Story, Colonial Press , Northport , Alabama , 1963, p 59
A month later, the nickname that was almost universally applied to the lighter liaison aircraft came about.
Henry Wann, a district sales manager for Piper (and the same man who had initially telephoned Lt. Col. Eisenhower) was participating in maneuvers at Ft. Bliss, near El Paso on the Texas/ New Mexico border. . As part of the demonstration of the J-3 Cub’s military utility, Wann was tasked with the delivery of a message to Maj. Gen. Innis P. Swift.
Wann found Swift’s brigade easily because they stood out from the desert landscape, but the area was all sand, cactus, and clumps of grass. Wann brought the Cub in to land in the least obstructed spot, but the landing was still a bouncy one. Wann taxied up to the command post and delivered the message.
‘General Swift seemed quite impressed and remarked, “You looked just like a damn grasshopper when you landed that thing out there in the boondocks and bounced around” ’(9)
Later that day Gen. Swift needed Wann to return with the Cub and sent the message “SEND GRASSHOPPER signed SWIFT”.
The Grasshopper name stuck. Unlike names such as Mustang, Bird Dog, or Sentinel, it referred to more than one specific manufacturer’. Taylorcraft L-2s, Aeronca L-3s, Interstate L-6s, as well as the much more numerous Piper L-4s, were all commonly called Grasshoppers.
(9) Richard Tierney and Fred Montgomery, The Army Aviation Story, Colonial Press, Northport, Alabama , 1963, p 48-49