Updating my logbooks, I came across a few of the many supplemental type certificate (STC) modifications that Jim designed for Super Cubs. Jim died peacefully at age 67 in December, surrounded by a close, supportive family. I wanted to know Jim better than I did, and after attending his inspiring celebration of life in Yakima, Washington, I’m sorry I didn’t get that chance.
While his designs are beloved by backcountry pilots, Jim’s genius in aircraft innovation seems underappreciated by other segments of general aviation. That appeared to be fine with him—maybe even preferred by him, an introvert with an active and curious mind. His daughter, Piper, captured it well in her eulogy. She said Jim was comfortable in stillness, where his mind could wander and dream and play. He called on musings from stillness to guide his active life and the company he founded and led brilliantly for 40 years.
Jim achieved the admirable position of being revered by peers—both pilots and aircraft designers—and deeply loved by friends and family who knew him best. He didn’t hold court in large settings or need volumes of followers or “likes.” The best way to know Jim was around a campfire in the backcountry where his reserved demeanor and thoughtful dialogue seemed in their natural habitat.
Jim earned his pilot and airframe and powerplant mechanic certificates at Moody Aviation, a missionary-focused aviation school. He took to the Piper Super Cub for its honest flying characteristics and backcountry capability. He began “flipping” Super Cubs at a time when flipping airplanes for a profit was hard to do. His experience flying airplanes in remote areas, combined with his work repairing and restoring airplanes, stimulated his vigorous mind to design solutions for the problems he encountered in the field. His keen eye for seeing design flaws and his relentless drive for improvement became defining character traits. Even after handing over day-to-day operations at CubCrafters, he’d walk the factory floor, offering suggestions to improve processes, parts, or aircraft performance. The people at CubCrafters respected him for it. His customers loved him for it. Today, CubCrafters is the largest producer of purpose-built backcountry airplanes, selling close to 100 airplanes and kits a year.
Jim was a risk-taker who was maniacal about safety. He disrupted aircraft manufacturing by leveraging nuances in FAA aircraft certification rules to rebuild Piper Super Cubs under the “spare and surplus” rule, and then developed the CC18 Top Cub, a derivative of the Piper Super Cub. He defended his business strategy vigorously in FAA negotiations and legal battles with competitors. Those who only knew him as a quiet, understated pilot and mechanic were surprised by his deep intelligence and competitive fire. He emerged from the rough and tumble start-up phase with CubCrafters, a company that implemented some 47 safety modifications in design or manufacturing processes to the Piper Super Cub type design. Some of the CubCrafters safety modifications resulted from Jim’s unique schemes, like the headerless fuel system, which he designed into the Top Cub and then made available to all Super Cubs via STC. Many of us who fly the PA–18 have multiple CubCrafters STCs that improve the safety and performance of our Super Cubs—thanks to Jim.
Jim was delightfully incongruous. A deeply spiritual man, he brewed beer and would haul it to backcountry fly-ins, where he’d share it with friends and newcomers. He would explain at length his recipes and brewing process, which were, of course, always changing and improving. He’d breach a serious demeanor with side-splitting humor, and he loved to pull a ruse.
Roger Meggers, one of the top tube-and-fabric aircraft rebuilders in the country, shared a story about the time he got a call from Jim, who had stopped in Baker, Montana, on the way to Oshkosh. “Roger, come to the airport, I need your help,” Jim said. “My tailwheel has fallen off.”
Roger hurried to the airport, wondering how that could possibly happen to one of Jim’s exquisite airplanes. Roger pulled up and got his first look at Jim’s newest design, the NXCub (a Carbon Cub with a nosewheel), and there stood Jim, smiling at his prank.
In safety, it’s hard to measure the accidents that don’t happen, but there’s no doubt that, through his innovation and tenacity, Jim thwarted accidents and saved lives. Jim Richmond has flown west. Through his work, he spared others from untimely flights west. What better legacy to leave in aviation?