December 2, 2001
AVweb Special Projects Editor Dave Higdon adopted a Comanche 180 a few years ago. He approached the purchase with all the warmth of a bill collector. Efficiency ... payload ... performance ... bang-for-the-buck. Now he's fallen in love. If you're not going to see A Christmas Carol this season, read Dave's story instead and enjoy his transformation.
AVweb's readers frequently honor me with questions related to general aviation. Most inquiries vary around one of these three themes: "What's the best airplane to (a) buy, (b) fly, (c) own?" The second-most-frequent question, while very similar, varies the tone a bit: "What's the best deal in a new plane?"
Regardless of the questions' structures, they tend to trigger the exact same answers. First: "The best airplane is the one that most closely matches your flying needs."
Second: "The best deal in a new plane is a good, used version of what best fits your flying needs, fixed up to give you the best of that kind of flying."
Sometimes, the disappointment of the inquirers is palpable. They are
seeking some grand pronouncement on the advantages of something currently
rolling off an active assembly line so they can narrow their own search or
research. My response merely poses another question: What sort of flying do
you long to do?
If that doesn't end the conversation, I pose the follow-up questions:
"How much can you (or will you) spend?" and
"Why are you thinking about buying new when very little capability
available in a new-production plane is unavailable to the used-plane
Think about it for a moment. You'll get equal or better performance
compared to similar new planes, since little out there in current production
really differs appreciably from used examples of the same model. You can
make panel and engine equipment match almost anything delivered today from
the best factories. You can even apply new paint and interior to make a used
one look nearly identical to a new one to all but maybe the folks from the
factory. In some cases, used models may be better than new. It's either a
case of they don't build them like the used to or that they don't build them
Sure, your used airplane will require a different level of attention and care
than a new one. But compared to the price of most new planes, you'll likely
save a bundle for your trouble even after paying for improvements. The
savings should cover your used-plane maintenance and flying costs for years
Those are the questions we asked ourselves before buying our first
airplane, as well as our second. Our answers led us to add a family member --
really, a staff member of our company -- when we opted to buy a Piper PA-24
Comanche as our second airplane. We expected it to be the last we'd buy.
Nearly anything we want in an airplane can be fitted to our bird, a solid,
low-time 1961 that was more original than new when we bought it.
We've upgraded it some each year. It's now part family member, part
company asset, and all we wanted in an airplane: roomy, comfortable, fast
for its power, efficient, and relatively inexpensive. Best of all, it's a
great plane to fly.
Looking For A Bargain Bird: Stepping Up Without Going Broke
For my business partner -- my bride Annie -- and me, the
spend-as-little-as-possible philosophy perfectly matched our initial
aircraft ownership plans. This was, after all, to be our first airplane. It
would serve as a test bed for whether we could derive some benefit from
having a "company" airplane in the new freelance writing and photo
business we founded in June 1995. In July 1995, we found what we needed in a
1969 Cherokee 140B with nearly 7,000 hours. IFR-equipped and not yet midway
to TBO on its 150-horse Lycoming O-320, our little $18,000 PA-28 worked out
perfectly -- with no more than the normal level of breakage than you'd expect
flying around a 26-year-old airplane about 175 hours a year. At least in the
After about 14 months, we cleared the 200-hour mark and began to realize
that the more we flew, the more opportunities we found to fly. Since we
expected to travel more in the coming years, 110 knots began to seem less
practical with every day-long, one-way trip. It was more than a classic case
of "Step-Up Fever." Our thoughts about upgrading stemmed from the
growing use of our airplane in our business. Faster meant fewer hours in
transit, more stops on a multi-day swing, and more opportunities to take on
While flying to Sun 'n Fun 1997 in our trusty little Piper, we decided to
start "window shopping" at the fly-in to take advantage of the
vast sampling of step-up airplanes available to ogle on the field at
Lakeland. By our calculations, once we completed that trip and a couple of
others we'd already booked, we would clear 330 hours of Cherokee flying
after only 22 months with the airplane. We committed to trading up --
providing we found what we needed at a price that wouldn't greatly increase
our per-mile outlay.
We cast a wide net. During the course of the week, we examined Piper
Arrows, browsed older Bonanzas, checked out Cessna Cardinals and moved in on
C and E versions of the M-20 Mooney. Additionally, we viewed a few Vikings,
targeted a couple of Tigers, and generally enjoyed the free fun of tire
kicking and imagining the "what if" scenarios we concocted to
accompany each of the models.
It wasn't until late in the fly-in, when we took a ride to the west side
GA Aircraft Campground to check the ropes and condition of our little bird,
that we saw a pair of Pipers tied side-by-side. They were both knockouts and
the nearer one had a "FOR SALE" banner on the prop. We made our
way to the south end of our row and found what we thought were two Arrows.
The nearer one was, indeed, a PA-28R and we checked it out. We found, as we
had before, that the Arrows seemed nice -- identical, for all practical
purposes, to our Cherokee, save for the extra knobs controlling the gear and
But instead of another Arrow in the next slot, there sat a Comanche -- a
250, in this case -- complete with its pilot and his friend preparing some
lunch at their camp. At the pilot's invitation, we stepped up onto the wing,
climbed in and sat down. And in those steps, a new option unveiled itself.
To this day, I still wonder how many other Comanches I'd misidentified as
Arrows that week and didn't seriously examine. After all, I reasoned, when
you fly a Cherokee, how many times do you need to look at the two extra
handles of an Arrow to understand the distinctions. This 250, on the other
hand, was obviously something quite different.
The Comanche was wider in beam, longer in cabin length, with an expansive
panel and a huge (by our standards) luggage compartment. It even felt more
adult or mature than the Arrows. While taking in the differences, I
recollected conversations with my primary CFI, Don Hicks. When Don
instructed me in our Cherokee, he regularly talked about how much he enjoyed
Piper's Indians and of his years as the owner of a great Comanche 250. He
regaled me with stories of family outings, business trips and the beauty of
flying an airplane as well-harmonized and efficient as the PA-24.
By the time we departed Lakeland, the Comanche held the lead in our
search. Once home, after researching performance and prices, we committed to
finding a good, solid example of the type. In between, we learned that
prices made the Comanche a better value than other planes we coveted and
that the 180 could be flown as inexpensively per-mile as our humble
By the end of June, we had found our bird after flying a couple of older
and younger models offered by individuals, brokers and one retail outlet in
Oklahoma -- a place where the white patent-leather belts and shoes of the
sleaziest used-car salesman you can imagine would be right at home.
We bought a 1961 PA-24 with less than 2,500 hours total time and an O-360
Lycoming with a mere three hours since overhaul. The radios were Bendix/King,
circa the late 1960s and early 1970s. The IFR cert was current and the
airplane was only three months into its annual. The price was higher than
some others, but the combination of low time for both airframe and engine
and the as-originally-built condition made it our choice. We took delivery
Meet Piper's First Modern Single
Jump back with me four decades plus five
--- back to when the Bonanza
ruled the roost as the high-performance single of the day. Cessna's
business-oriented 190 and 195 were gone and the 182 was the new personal
choice of high-wing fans. Mooney was offering something new from its home in
Kerrville, a sleek, slim single with a laminar flow wing and retractable
Meanwhile, the hottest thing coming out of Piper's Lock Haven plant was
the new Apache twin and the single-engine Tri-Pacer four-place. Both
airplanes performed very well for their horsepower, but Piper's continued
use of tube-and-rag airframe technology dating back to the original Cub
trainer put the company at a disadvantage. Piper's competition had moved to
metal -- stressed-skin and monocoque construction -- technologies Beech
brought to the fore of personal flying with the groundbreaking 1947
During a visit to Vero Beach some years ago, it was my pleasure to visit
with a retired-Piper-turned-docent who worked on the Comanche line in its
early years. He told a story about this period in aviation history -- maybe
the mid '50s, he winked -- when Al Mooney diverted to Lock Haven to avoid
weather en route to Washington, D.C. He was flying, the story went, a
prototype of the upcoming M-20, Mooney's first four-place. Naturally, W.T.
Piper was more than willing to help out his friend and colleague. Mr. Piper
secured a hangar for his friend Mooney's bird to protect it from the
weather. The Lord of Lock Haven even arranged transport to a train station
so that Mooney could keep his appointment and saw the Kerrville impresario
to the station.
Meanwhile, in Mooney's absence, Piper's mechanics and engineers examined
every inch of the new Mooney model, from its landing gear up. Mooney
returned to Lock Haven and headed home to Texas, supposedly unaware of the
legendary examination, the docent chuckled. But the crew in Lock Haven
always wondered what Mooney's reaction was to the Comanche. From the laminar
flow wing to the overall proportions, the choice of power and
gear-retraction linkage, the two designs share a remarkable similarity.
Piper's engineers were about to fire their long-overdue return salvo with
the company's first all-new all-metal design: the 1958 Comanche. W.T. Piper
wanted nothing to do with manual gear, so the mechanical linkage approach
was kept, but with an electric motor providing the motion -- not Pilot
Armstrong power, as in the early Mooney. For space, Piper wanted the
fuselage proportional but larger, so the Comanche cabin was scaled up to
handle four people of above-average height for the period.
That tight, tiny cowl left no room for any major engine options, so the
Comanche got a compartment capable of handling both the four-cylinder O-360
and six-cylinder O-540 Lycomings. In fact, during the dual production runs
of the 180 and 250 Comanches -- from 1958 through 1963 model years --
virtually every part of the airframe from firewall aft is the same,
regardless of engine. The engine question depended solely on the paperwork
at the engine-installation station on the line. W.T. also wanted nothing to
do with cowl flaps, continuing with the simple economies of one airframe and
cowl that allowed for various engines.
Introduced as a 180-horse airplane, sales started off solidly. A few
months later, the addition of the 250-horse model helped spike those sales
considerably. The big six-cylinder O-540 Lycoming made the Comanche a
full-fuel, full-seats airplane -- thanks to the standard 60-gallon tanks. In
'61, the year our bird took to the air, Piper added an option for two
15-gallon tip tanks. Later, Piper made 90 gallons standard on the big-bore
In addition to the 180 and 250 horse Comanches built between '58 and '63,
Piper also created incarnations with 260 horsepower, a turbo-260, stretched
the fuselage and, in a brief stint of bravado, build somewhere around 145
PA-24s with an IO-720 Lycoming -- the fire-breathing Comanche 400. Many 180s
were converted to 250s -- an STC exists to cover the conversion -- and others
received turbonormalizing upgrades through a variety of STCs, an upgrade
we'd love to make if we could find an active STC.
Not only did the original Comanche 180 evolve into the more-powerful
versions, it also morphed into the PA-30 Twin Comanche and, later, the
PA-39 Twin Comanche. The latter featured counter-rotating engines to
eliminate the critical-engine factor in engine-out operations, an idea Piper
later applied to the Seneca still in production today.
The Comanche sold well in its early years, thanks to a $6,000 to $8,000
price advantage over the faster Bonanza. In the first five years alone,
Piper sold nearly 3,300 of the nearly 5,000 Comanches built before a flood
and changing market economics ended line production in 1972. Comanche sales
wallowed in double digits in the six years prior to the flood, thanks in
large part to the success of the lower-priced Arrow retractable that evolved
out of the 1961 Cherokee. After the flood destroyed the factory and the
Comanche tooling in Lock Haven, Piper executives decided to let their
Pennsylvania years end there and focused on new products and production at
the Vero Beach plant opened in 1960.
Your Basic PA-24: Sleek And Modern Even Today
The result of Piper's original work: a roomy, simple, harmonious airplane
with loads of load-carrying options. Many pilots consider the 180 be one of
the best-harmonized airplanes ever made. Control forces are light and
balanced. Aggressive use of pitch trim makes climbs and descents easier to
manage -- particularly during approaches. You won't suffer instant forearm
cramps if you neglect the trim on a 180. However, the six- and
eight-cylinder models have the weight up front to keep you from forgetting
to rotate the handle for long.
As instrument platforms, Comanches give away nothing to most airplanes.
Only a few aircraft fly in the same league and fewer handle instrument
conditions better. The work it took for me to get my instrument rating and
the hours of actual flown since have taught me the value of such a solid,
stable machine in IMC.
The exemplary handling traits that sold the Comanche initially continue
to make it attractive today -- along with its high efficiency. For example,
as purchased, our 1961 bird held its own with new Arrows, posting cruise
speeds in the low 130-knot range -- slightly below the book speeds developed
34 years ago on aircraft devoid of antennae, lights or beacons. Fuel
consumption was typical for the 180-horse Lycoming: in the mid-10-gph range.
Even after the addition of two nav/comms, a transponder, audio panel, ADF
and Loran, we still had an airplane with a useful load above 950 pounds.
The work we've done since has alternately added to and subtracted from
that number. The most recent changes gave us back 21 pounds, raising our
payload to more than 980 pounds. Subtract 360 pounds for full fuel and we've
got 620 pounds of useful load. That's 60 pounds short of four 170-pound
adults, but plenty for three adults with luggage, something we've done
numerous times. We've also completed some four-adult trips by launching with
48 to 50 gallons.
Speaking Of Mods: Comanche Fans Enjoy Numerous Options
Our first upgrade came at our first annual. When the shop folks towed our
bird into their heated hangar from our below-freezing hangar, the
temperature change started the right side windshield half to cracking.
Already familiar with advantages of a thicker, one-piece windshield, we went
for it. We also opted to replace a warped plastic glare shield with a
modern, composite part complete with integral brow lighting.
After only seven months ownership, we were on our way. Comanche upgrades
cover the spectrum, from glass to seat belts, aerodynamic to comfort.
Vendors range from the well-known -- Knots2U and LoPresti Speed Merchants, to
name two -- and specialty shops offering one or two products, such as
Johnston Air Services in California, maker of some slick tips.
In four years, we've concentrated on safety, comfort and efficiency,
adding: sound insulation and new thermal insulation, ¼-inch glass all the
way around to improve both safety and lower sound levels in the cabin,
wingtips to improve low-speed handling and cruise-speed stability, wing-root
fairings fore and aft, gear-well fairings, flap and aileron gap seals,
standby vacuum, four-point strobe lights, an aftermarket gear-alert system,
electronic ignition, a spin-on oil-filter adapter, and a three-blade prop.
The most recent annual provided us with an opportunity to bring the
electrical system into the 21st century. We installed B & C Specialty
Products' own 60-amp lightweight alternator, lightweight geared starter, a
new lightweight battery, and a trick little voltage regulator that powers
its own annunciator light to warn of low or high voltage problems. Mounting
the starter presented some challenges that required a bit of extra work.
Conversely, the alternator, regulator and battery installed with little
The changes took 21 pounds off the empty weight of the airplane and
improved everything else in the process. Starting is fast and eager. The
alternator carries 90 percent of the airplane's load potential -- at idle.
The battery is maintenance-free. The regulator works seamlessly and its
annunciator light provides a quick reminder should I forget to switch off
the master -- as does the light associated with the standby vacuum system
and the light for the electronic ignition.
We've added speed mods -- which raised our cruise speed to about 142 knots
true -- and (as I reported in my prior articles -- Part 1 and Part 2) a Unison LASAR electronic ignition system that improves fuel
consumption. Those 3:30 legs now cover nearly 500 nautical miles and leave
us with about 1:15 in cruise fuel remaining. Throw in the JP Instruments Inc. FS-450 fuel-totalizer system we added this summer, and we've pretty
much eliminated any questions about our fuel status, regardless of how much
we carry at launch.
Inside, we've reupholstered, added shoulder harnesses for the front
seats, installed new carpeting and made the plane comfortable for those
occasional five-hour legs now possible with the lower fuel burn delivered by
the electronic-ignition system.
Our most-recent mod was the FS-450 fuel totalizer mentioned earlier.
JPI's budget totalizer helped me resolve my mistrust of the only part of the
airplane I inherently question: the fuel-tank gauges. Based on more than 50
hours of flying with this digital fuel-flow meter so far, my impression is
that it's equal parts "safety enhancement" and "performance
monitor," giving me precise information on both flow and consumption.
Together, these mods make our Comanche much more capable than when we
bought it. We started with a 130-knot plane capable of flying 4.5-hour legs
over about 585 nautical miles and landing with a 10-gallon reserve. Today,
the same bird delivers better than 140 knots and can cruise for 700 nautical
during a five-hour leg -- with that same 10-gallon reserve on landing.
And we have yet to tackle many other available mods. There are worthwhile
panel upgrades (pre-1961 Comanches have shotgun-style layouts with
instruments, gauges and radios all over the place). Numerous firms offer new
cowlings, fuselage alterations that increase windshield size, wingtips of
several design philosophies, wing-tip tanks, and more.
Who says you can't teach an old bird new tricks?
The Downsides: ADs, The Odd Parts Shortage, Finding A Decent Mechanic
Recall that our decision to buy a Comanche stemmed more from economic
considerations than from brand loyalty. We purchased the airplane to use it
in our business, so the numbers -- performance, costs, etc. -- are more than
an abstract aggravation. If something came along today that made more
economic sense, it would get due consideration. Nevertheless, selling our
Comanche today would be more difficult emotionally than parting with our
trusty little Cherokee. We've flown it more than 700 hours in the past four
years and enjoyed some of the best trips or our lives -- work though they
We do face those days when we fantasize about owning a new model that has
no ADs, has parts in production and is growing in numbers instead of
shrinking. The problem with upgrading is always the same: We're already
flying all the airplane we can reasonably afford. Those rare three-day
annuals remind us of what the best could be like. However, the more frequent
three-week inspections don't daunt us because the delays usually result in
part from our decision to install an upgrade. Besides, the number of
airplanes with no ADs, no special considerations and flawless records are
damned few and far between. So, we live with what we can afford and love the
one we're with.
Fortunately, the recurring ADs that we have to live with are, well,
livable. Many of the most onerous orders -- issued way back in the 1960s and
1970s -- also benefited from terminating actions developed long ago. And many
of those had been dealt with before we purchased our bird. Furthermore,
we've done everything we can to terminate others. An example, a 100-hour
inspection requirement for mufflers with baffles.
The muffler on the engine when we bought our bird lacked the baffles, so
no hassle there. Conversely, at our last annual the muffler needed replacing
and finding a replacement without baffles proved a bit frustrating. Every
new 180 muffler we found won its FAA parts manufacturing approval (PMA) with
the original-design baffles. We found two 180 mufflers with baffles and one
250 muffler -- sans baffles, thank you -- before we learned that a set of
adapters allows the use of the 250 unit on the 180 engine. The only
difference between the two versions is the diameter of the exhaust-stack
inlets: 2 inches for the 180, 2.5 for the 250. So, another $100 for
the adapters and installation, and we avoided that 100-hour AD.
Other ADs worth noting include: recurrent inspection requirements for the
landing gear, much of which can be terminated with aftermarket parts,
mandatory replacement of bungees on the gear after three years, inspection
of rivets and the forward spar of the vertical stabilizer, and inspection of
the bolts that hold the stabilator hinge block (terminatable by replacing
the original bolts with stainless bolts).
The odds of finding a used Comanche that hasn't benefited from
terminating actions on most of these is small, considering the hassles of
dealing with the recurrent cycles. But as in any airplane purchase, the
smartest approach involves finding a good mechanic and subjecting the plane
to a thorough pre-purchase inspection and logbook review. If the seller
balks at that step -- or suggests waiting until you've signed a firm purchase
with no outs for what shows up -- don't walk, run for the hangar door. You'll
find another plane for sale by someone who is less afraid of what you might
Before or after the purchase, you can tap the technical advice available
through membership in the International Comanche Society. The main source of
much Comanche esoterica is former Piper man Maurice Taylor. Based at Wiley
Post Airport in Bethany, Okla., the ICS also provides a solid social structure
and club-like camaraderie through the organization's regional
"Tribes." Each Tribe organizes several gatherings per year that
draw Comanche families from inside and out of the region. The ICS's annual
convention is among the nicer gatherings of any type club in the nation.
The one potentially frightening area (although we've suffered no serious
problem) is parts availability. Several vendors -- Newton, Kan.-based Webco
Inc., for one -- specialize in the PA-24, PA-30 and PA-39 airplanes. Some of
these shops, Webco among them, make many needed parts under PMA approval.
They also salvage useable parts from totaled aircraft. Other specialists
include Desert Aircraft Salvage in Artesia, N.M., Wentworth Aircraft in
Minnesota, and Johnston Air Services in California.
Aside from airframe and engine needs, any Comanche can usually be fitted
with the latest in avionics and instruments. You can install digital
replacements for those old mechanically tuned radios and modern gauges and
gyros for old, tired instruments. If you're so inclined, you could also make
over your panel with the latest and greatest in displays, electronic flight
instruments, satellite navigation and autopilot or flight-control equipment.
With the work we've completed so far, we're coming close to making ours
the dream machine we've always wanted. We still hope to undertake a panel
makeover and a power plant improvement to give the little Lycoming a bit of
high-altitude help. For the panel, my wish list includes new radios, gauges,
gyros, engine and fuel instruments, weather avoidance, datalink
capabilities, a multifunction display and an autopilot. My partner most
covets a turbonormalizing system so our little Lycoming can regularly fly up
in the teens and still pull 75-percent power -- which should be good for an
extra 40 knots or so. So far, however, we can't seem to find a vendor with
an active STC for the turbo upgrade. We continue to look for that one.
The Comanche Quotient: Solid Performance, Great Traits, Bargain Cost
To repeat something from above, our choice of a Piper Comanche 180
stemmed from our need to stick to a budget and buy the best bang for those
few bucks, rather than out of brand loyalty or some intangible affinity for
the Comanche legend. Four years later, with used-plane prices up across the
board, our decision seems even more sound. No other type delivers similar
performance and comparable room for near the money.
That said, there's also no getting around the fact that we've become
loyalists, fans of an airplane many current and former Piper people laud as
"the best design" the company ever produced. We find inactive
loyalists everywhere, people who moved on to other models who still remember
what they loved about the Comanche. And Comanches offer a lot to love for
the prices they bring.
The Comanche airframe is solid, sturdy and roomy. The engines are common,
easy to maintain and near bulletproof. And the total package makes for an
efficient airplane, fast for the horsepower and economical at the gas pump.
Add to that well-balanced, nicely harmonized handling, and you have a great
step-up airplane en route to something faster and newer, as well as a
wonderful keeper for those who are ready to settle in.
Given the reasonably good parts availability; the plentiful number of
available upgrades; numerous vendors specializing in Comanches -- work, parts
or both; and a solid support organization in the International Comanche
Society, the attraction for anyone who gets to know the bird is generally
There's more than a little bit of pride in taxiing onto a ramp and
meeting people who admire our airplane for its heritage, its nature, its
performance and appearance. There's no counting how many times we've heard
someone reminisce about their days of flying a Comanche -- and their sadness
at being without one today.
As much as we feel for their plight, they'll have to find their own. Ours
is a keeper. Besides, we'd only have to start the whole thing over again if
ever we sold our Comanche, because we still believe the best deal in a new
airplane is a solid used one, tricked up for our own needs.
See you on the airways.
Higdon has a
distinguished background in aviation journalism. As aviation editor for The
Wichita Eagle for more than five years, he has established a reputation as one
of the best general aviation reporters in the business. Previously, Dave held
a variety of aviation journalism assignments with The Journal of Commerce, Air
Transport World, and AOPA. He has covered every facet of aviation from sport
aviation in Tennessee to the FAA in Washington, D.C., to Cessna, Beech, Boeing
and Learjet in Kansas. He's also a professional aviation photographer. Dave is
an instrument-rated private pilot and owns a very clean Piper Comanche. He and
his wife Annie live in Wichita, Kansas.