Piper, William Thomas Sr.
IndustrialistEnshrined 1980 1881-1970
Piper realized that aircraft sales were directly related to the number of people who knew how to fly. So he set up a flying school in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, at his manufacturing plant adjacent to the Lock Haven airport. Students who wanted to learn to fly paid their transportation, lodging and meals and Piper taught them to fly for $1 an hour which included the cost of the airplane and instructor. This low instruction cost also applied to his employees. At one time one out of every 90 persons in Lock Haven held a pilot’s license. It had a positive impact on the business because as long as the kids wanted to fly, they would build a good product.
- In 1929 invested in the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Corporation and then bought its assets in 1930 reorganizing it into the Taylor Aircraft Corporation.
- During the Depression, Piper invested in designing and building low-cost airplanes. The most popular, the Piper Cub, cost only $1,325 with free flying lessons. Established the Piper Aircraft Corporation in 1937 and by 1940 Piper dominated the light plane field.
- In World War II the first Piper L-4 went into combat during the invasion of North Africa.
- Throughout World War II, more than 5,000 Cubs were used in training, observation, artillery-spotting, patrol, and ambulance roles and served in every campaign on every front.
- After World War II, he added various lines of the Cub to the military, corporate and general aviation fields.
William Thomas Piper, Sr. was born in 1881 at Knapp Creek, a small village in New York. There his father dabbled both in dairy farming and in the promising crude oil business.
By the time he was eight, young Bill Piper was already cast in the mold of rural America, milking cows and walking several miles to a one-room country school. At the age of nine he introduced himself to the oil business when he assisted in the grimy task of repairing well pumps. When family finances improved, the Piper family moved to Bradford, Pennsylvania.
In 1898, when war hysteria swept the country after the sinking of the battleship Maine, Piper fibbed about his age and joined the Army during the ensuing Spanish-American War. He participated in one brief skirmish with a poorly equipped and disciplined enemy platoon. After the war, Piper enrolled in the mechanical engineering program at Harvard. There, he starred in a track meet with Yale where he threw the hammer almost 129 feet. After graduating from Harvard in 1903, with honors, he worked in the building construction field. He also sang in a church choir, where he met his eventual wife, Marie van de Water. After they were married, they returned to Bradford, where Bill took up his father’s oil business, and with a partner formed the Dallas Oil Company. During World War I, Piper served as a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers. After the war he returned to the oil business, which gradually grew less profitable and presented a problem with a wife and five children to support.
Bill Piper’s entry into aviation was completely unplanned. It began after C. Gilbert Taylor, a self-taught airplane designer, built a small monoplane. Taylor convinced Bradford’s community leaders to pledge $50,000 toward building a facility to produce it at the town’s airport. Piper’s business partner, in his absence, pledged Piper to invest $400 in the new business and later told him: “Bill, you’re in the airplane business.” William Thomas Piper had very little knowledge about aviation when he invested $400 in the newly-created Taylor Brothers Aircraft Corporation, and was elected to its board and named treasurer. The Great Depression descended upon the nation and, when few Taylor biplanes were sold, the company went bankrupt.
In the ensuing public sale, Piper’s lone bid of $761 made him sole owner of the company. Though times were hard, his company designed several low cost planes. Among them was the “Cub”, a small monoplane that was destined for aviation history. It proved to be a dream to fly, and its price of $1,325 fit Piper’s philosophy of giving the most airplane for the dollar. Piper also surprises nearly everyone when he learned to fly a Cub at the age of 50.
But then skidding sales in 1932 caused him to seek out prospective dealers all over the country, pushing the Cub’s appealing low cost and free flying lessons. By 1935 he had brought the company well into the black, as the Cub enabled thousands to experience the thrill of flying for the first time. Piper constantly promoted Cubs with dealers and at exhibitions of all kinds. A Cub also stole the show at the air races, when “Mike” Murphy landed one atop a speeding car.
After the prettied-up J-2 Cub was introduced, increased sales in 1937 required a second production shift. Unfortunately, a fire swept the plant, causing great losses. But Piper soon had production rolling again. Later, his three sons: Thomas, Howard and William, help him convert an abandoned silk mill in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, into an airplane factory, and reorganize the company into the Piper Aircraft Corporation. Soon the dolled-up Piper “Cub Sport” was introduced. By this time, Cubs were setting all kinds of records. One even stayed aloft 218 hours.
As the threat of war hung over Europe, President Roosevelt inaugurated a college pilot training program that used Cubs to turn out thousands of pilots. Even the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt went aloft in a Cub to promote this most ambitious program. Meanwhile, Piper introduced the handsome J-4 “Coupe” and the more powerful J-5 “Cruiser”. By then, Pipers represented a third of all civilian aircraft in the United States.
Piper’s big break to demonstrate the military potential of his planes came during the 1941 Army war games. At these games, Cubs directed armored columns and artillery fire from the air, and acquired the military nickname “Grasshopper”. Only hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Piper said of his Cubs: “They will have their place in the war.” His statement proved correct, for the Army Air Forces quickly ordered 1500 Grasshoppers, and training of field artillery pilots began, giving birth to Army ground force aviation in which a single man in a tiny plane could influence the course of battle.
Improved Grasshoppers soon flowed from Piper’s factory, including ambulance planes for the Navy, and glider trainers. The Grasshoppers first went into combat during the invasion of North Africa, when three took off from a carrier for reconnaissance flights. After this, they operated with the Army in every campaign and on every front of the war. In the invasions of Sicily and Italy, Grasshoppers really won their spurs directing Naval fire over the beaches, as General Mark Clark used his Grasshopper to inspect the seething battlefront at Anzio. In the drive up the Italian boot, Grasshoppers showed the way.
In the invasion of Europe, Grasshoppers directed broadsides against fortifications along the beaches of Normandy. Then, as the Allies swept inland, pilots added bazookas to their Grasshoppers to knock out tanks and entrenched artillery. Meanwhile, Eisenhower inspected the raging battle areas in his personal Grasshopper, as Patton’s tanks raced into the heart of Germany.
In McArthur’s struggle in the Pacific, Grasshoppers went ashore to direct artillery against Japanese strongholds and provided vital support in campaigns from New Guinea to the Philippines. In the end, Piper’s planes played a vital role in winning the war, having helped train four out of five American pilots, and revolutionizing almost every aspect of land warfare.
When peace came, prospects for light planes seemed bright, as Piper’s “family cruiser” is added to the pre-war “Cub” and “Cruiser”, followed by the “Super Cruiser”. Then, as the post war boom fade, the low-cost, stripped-down “Vagabond” was added to spur sales. Soon the Piper “Pager” was introduced to the line, as is the popular “Super Cub”, which replaced the old faithful Cub after 20,000 had been built.
In the early 1950s, Piper made Grasshoppers which it produced for the Air Force and NATO countries. Also Piper’s first crop duster was introduced for the agricultural market. Meanwhile, the newly-created “Tri-pacer 135” became an instant success. In 1954, the twin engine “Apache” became the cornerstone of Piper’s postwar growth, meeting the needs for an above-the-weather airplane, and amazingly, at the age of 73, Bill Piper soloed in an Apache.
In 1957 Piper opened a new plant in Florida, where the “Cherokee”, the world’s best selling low-wing monoplane, is produced, along with the high-styled “Comanche”. Then came the “Colt” trainer and the “Pawnee” agricultural plane, followed by the “Aztec”, one of which was purchased by the Arthur Godfrey Foundation for the African Research Foundation in Kenya. Next came the “Twin Comanche”, as well as the luxurious pressured “Navajo” for the executive market, and finally the “Seneca”, the world’s lowest-priced multi-seat twin.
In the decade of the ’60s, Piper had a third of the lightplane market and new plants had been added in Pennsylvania and Florida, while engineering and administration buildings were dedicated to carry on the company’s heritage of continuing innovations and quality and building the very best airplane for the dollar. In 1968, Piper finally relinquished his presidency to his son, Bill, while he retained board chairmanship.
His death in 1970 brought to an end a career that added immeasurably to the role of the private airplane in the great transportation revolution.
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