Adopting A Comanche
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 owner?"
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 at all.
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 to come.
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 beginning…
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 more work.
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 prop.
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 Cherokee.
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 in mid-July.
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 gear.
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 Bonanza.
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 models.
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 effort.
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 were.
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 learn.
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 strong.
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.
Dave 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.