Piper Tomahawk

Cheap to buy and fun to fly, say PA-38 owners. But the model has a checkered accident record.


Just as in the car industry, if the notion of sure-thing profit exists in the world of general aviation, its in high-dollar airframes, not entry level two-place designs. Thats one reason why new trainer production came to a standstill during the 1980s and 1990s and why the volume in this market continues to be low.

But it wasnt always that way. In the heyday of GA, every major manufacturer-even the staid and upper crust Beechcraft-had a trainer. Some money could be made, of course, but a driving market force was the perception that entry level pilots developed brand loyalty and would step up from a basic trainer, to a retrac to a twin, all from the same manufacturer.

Such was the reasoning behind Pipers PA-38 Tomahawk, one new design from the company prior to great general aviation slump of the 1980s. Designed from the ground up as a trainer, it was supposed to precisely match the wishes of flight instructors and students.

On paper, it seemed like a good idea. The Tomahawk was sportier-looking than its main competition, the Cessna 152, it offered a reliable engine, good visibility and relatively benign handling if kept comfortably in the middle of its performance envelope.

But the Tomahawk was hit with a series of troubles early on-mostly ADs and service bulletins-but as the model has aged, its reputation has been tarnished by a less-than-stellar safety record. It has especially been the subject of unflattering attention for trick stall/spin characteristics. As noted elsewhere in this report, the Tomahawk isnt at the top of our list for overall safety but one model is actually a little worse, the Cessna 152.

The PA-38s mechanical troubles were rectified through ADs and service bulletins, but before the models reputation could be restored, production was discontinued along with most other light aircraft.

Today, a Tomahawk is a bit of a market oddity, having been made for only five years. At between $15,000 and $18,000-depending on year-its one of the cheapest trainers going and flightschools that operate Tomahawks seem to like them.

As long as the airplanes service history is adequately accounted for, that cheap buy-in makes for a good deal. But we have misgivings about the airplanes spin qualities and advise buyers to exercise extreme caution in flying them. A spin trainer the Tomahawk isnt.

Model History
Cessna was the first to tap the trainer market in large volume with its wildly successful and numerous 150. It was essentially an updated Cessna 140 with tricycle gear. At the same time, Piper had both the early Cherokee line and, a bit earlier, the Tri-Pacer. But the Cherokee was in a different class.

It was roomier than the 150 but burned more gas and was a little heavier to handle. The Tri-Pacer was dated by the time the 150 debuted and who wanted a rag wing in the go-go 1960s, before a taste for nostalgia made them fashionable again?

After dawdling for a few years, Piper undertook an aggressive marketing survey to find out what instructors and students really wanted in a primary trainer.

Ten thousand experienced flight instructors have assisted us in producing the ideal learn-to-fly airplane, boasted the press releases announcing the new Tomahawk. Attention was also called to the fact that the PA-38 was an all-new design, with Piper calling it the first new trainer in a generation.

The first Tomahawks appeared in late 1977 and they were different; quite sleek and modern compared to the frumpy Cessna highwings. The cabin was roomier than the Cessnas, the fuel tanks were larger and the overall appearance was of a more modern airplane.

Like many Pipers of the era, the Tomahawk had a T-tail. In hindsight, given the mixed results Piper experienced with other forays into high-mounted horizontal stabilizers, this was probably a mistake. T-tails in general have probably gotten a bad rap they dont deserve. On the other hand, they arent a popular design feature for modern aircraft for good reason.

Beech came up with a trainer of its own at the same time-the Skipper-that was nearly identical to the Tomahawk and, at a distance, is often mistaken for the PA-38. The Skipper was made for three years, while the Tomahawk lasted for five, during which time 2500 were made. Most were built during the models first three years.

Few changes were made to distinguish early models from later ones. However, because of all the flaws that emerged as the aircraft entered service, the later the model, the better, since each production year more improvements were incorporated, some mandated by AD.

The so-called Tomahawk II in 1981, therefore, boasted nearly invisible (on the outside) improvements such as better soundproofing, improved door latches and a larger, more positive throttle knob.

Purchase Caveats
Every would-be owner on the prowl for a cheap airplane dreams of the barn dwelling model that was put into controlled storage only 200 hours after its first flight. And the dream is just that.

Tomahawks were designed as working airplanes and work they did…and do. Students are notoriously hard on equipment, so if a clean example of an airplane that has never been a trainer can be found, its the preferred choice.

Of course, the sellers know this, so these airplanes will carry a hefty premium.

Competition for the Tomahawk basically boils down to its two-seat contemporaries: the Cessna 150/152, the Grumman AA-1 and the aforementioned Beech Skipper. All are powered by some variant of the Lycoming O-235 engine, except the 150, which has the Continental O-200. All three are roughly comparable in performance and payload. The Cessna tends to be more expensive, in our opinion because of the Pipers lingering bad reputation more than anything else.

The AA-1, particularly in the earlier versions, is a much more demanding airplane to fly, although it does offer good performance and is somewhat less expensive to buy than the Tomahawk, although the two models have converged in price in recent years.

The AA-1 Yankee is a true orphan. Grumman became AGAC, which then went out of business. The AA-1 is supported by Fletchair, however. The Tomahawk and Skipper are still supported by the original manufacturer.

In recent years, Diamonds ultra-modern Katana has become the two-place trainer of choice and although a sole owner looking for a cheap ride might consider one, flight schools certainly do. Thanks to favorable financing, the Katanas have proven a profitable choice for many schools which might have otherwise considered a Tomahawk or a Cessna 150/152. Decent examples of the latter are becoming harder to find with each passing year.

Trainers dont have to fly very far, very fast or carry a great deal to meet their design goals, which is a good thing, since the Tomahawk doesnt. Differences between it and similar airplanes are not dramatic, though they are noticeable and the Tomahawk does show up fairly well when compared to the 152.

When the Tomahawk first arrived on the market, we did a side-by-side test between it and the 152. At cruise the two are similar-100 knots or so-but flat-out, the Tomahawk was faster. We observed 114 KTAS at 85 percent power.

Climb rate, which on paper is almost the same, turned out to be somewhat better for the Tomahawk in real-world tests. The Tomahawk benefits from a high aspect-ratio wing here. Even so, climb rate is not the strong suit of any airplane in this class.

Standard condition gross weight climb is only 725 FPM and it gets worse with hot or high conditions. Poor climb rate is the biggest complaint amongst pilots, but thats not unusual in this class of airplane. And theres not much you can do about it except to avoid high density altitude days and/or minimize the fuel load.

Handling isnt bad, though in our opinion the control harmony could be a bit better, with a higher roll rate. Its well within the expected norms for a modern trainer.

As expected, the T-tail has an impact on low-speed handling since its perched up out of the propwash.

Once the airspeed is high enough, pitch authority is good, but there may be a tendency towards over-rotation with novices. Its a safe bet that any Tomahawk used for training has had its tail whacked into the runway at least once over the years.

In cruise, the novice may be surprised to note that the Tomahawks nose (and tail) hunts with turbulence in a manner similar to a V-tail Bonanza. Some of our test pilots even noticed the aircrafts tail mysteriously wiggled back and forth just a bit even in absolutely still air. But since the pilots sit near the center of rotation, they feel little of this side-to-side swaying, unlike rear-seat Bonanza passengers.

The Tomahawks flaps do their thing with minimal impact on trim, a characteristic we like and which we think is a good thing in a basic trainer. While on the subject of flaps, the Tomahawk has Pipers stone-simple manual flap arrangement consisting of a big lever in the middle of the floor with a detent button.

This is a terrific design that we wish more manufacturers had adopted, rather than succumbing to the temptation to mimic big airplane systems by adopting electric flaps.

Lowering the flaps at speed requires a strong pull, but thats about the only drawback of manual flap systems. We feel that its the best compromise there is. The flaps can pop down a notch of their own accord during taxi with a strong tailwind if theyre rigged right.

Ground handling is thoroughly conventional, and with the Tomahawks low wing, theres far less tendency to blow over than there is in the featherweight high-winged 152.

Unlike the trim arrangement found on most airplanes, the Tomahawk uses bungees. This requires a considerable amount of adjustment with airspeed changes and has been prone to trouble in the past. In general, bungees arent as precise as cable or leadscrew-controlled trim designs. We think its a cheap solution but hardly the best.

The Tomahawks stall behavior is certainly less benign than the Cherokees well-known mush, and is noticeably sharper than the 152s. The break is quite edgy for a trainer and the airplane is capable of dropping a wing to a surprising degree.

This seems to vary from airplane to airplane, however, lending some credibility to the claim by some that the Tomahawks wing may not be as stiff as it as ought to be. Piper did considerable work with stall strips before the airplane would pass muster.

The Tomahawk has been the subject of much unflattering attention in the past for its stall and spin behavior. Some may find the stall characteristics a bit jarring since the airplane will show the pilot a sharp break, a healthy nose drop and maybe even total loss of aileron control, provided the control wheel is not eased forward on the first buffet.

A disturbingly high incidence of stall/spin accidents in the early years of production led to addition of stall strips first on the outboard leading edges and later on the inboard portions, too. A full complement of four stall strips was called for by the NTSB and the FAA made it an AD.

The spin characteristics of the Tomahawk have been endlessly debated. The aircraft winds up quickly, steep and fast. Recovery requires aggressive action: full opposite rudder and full forward movement of the control wheel. Even then, according to testing done by a NASA pilot, the PA-38s spin can flatten, making recovery a multi-turn affair. Obviously, rearward CG aggravates this.

Stalls bring on a truly unnerving trait of the Tomahawk. Get into a full stall and the tail starts making some truly amazing rattling noises. A look back at it will show it shaking to an alarming degree: almost as if the whole tail were fluttering. This is normal, however, and as far as we know theres never been an actual structural failure because of it.

In general, as noted in the sidebar on page 29, the Tomahawks safety record is near the bottom of the heap for trainers. If NTSB data can be believed-something were not sure is always true-the Tomahawks weakest point is actually stall/mush type accidents rather than true stall/spins.

Compared to the Cessna 150/152, the Tomahawk is comfortable and spacious, which is one reason why some flightschools prefer it over the Cessnas. The cockpit is a generous 42 inches wide and theres adequate headroom. For a beefy student and similarly beefy instructor, this is a welcome trait during a hot afternoon of flight training. (That doesnt help the climb rate much, of course.)

The control and instrument layout is quite good. In particular, the fuel selector is just what we like to see: a nearly idiot-proof big red handle that points to the tank in use, with a separate gauge for each tank. This bit of design earned the Tomahawk a low fuel mismanagement and exhaustion rate.

The fuel system, by the way, holds 30 gallons, giving the Tomahawk significantly more endurance than other trainers. This can be good and bad, since trainers dont necessarily need impressive endurance and all that gas saps the climb rate.

The cabin boasts two doors, making entry and exit easy. However, theres one feature that could prove dangerous in an emergency, in our estimation. An overhead latch that engages both doors. Should it become jammed, both doors could be stuck shut. Not good design, in our view.

Up front is another feature we like: a fully opening cowling, making a proper preflight inspection easy. Out back, however, its impossible to properly inspect the tail or clear it of snow without a ladder. This is another annoying trait of T-tails. The new Katana has a T-tail as well but it isnt quite as high off the ground and can be more readily inspected.

The Tomahawk was never and is not considered the Mercedes of aircraft or even of trainers. It acquired a reputation for poor quality control, one that we feel was deserved.

The 1978 model is subject to no fewer than 36 ADs, a very high number for what should be the simplest of airplanes. Everything from rudder brackets to vertical fin spars.

Of course, most of these were onetime fixes and should have long since been completed, but they left the Tomahawk with a tarnished image that persists to this day, as evidenced by the difference in resale value between it and the Cessna 152; an airplane with the same engine, shorter range and a more cramped cabin. We suspect the Tomahawks checkered safety history may further depress its value.

Even today, ADs continue to crop up on the airframe but none since 1998, when AD 98-3-16 called for repair or replacement of the upper rudder hinge bracket.

Another relatively recent type-specific AD, 90-19-3, concerns the landing gear bolts and calls for modification of the landing gear system via SB 673B to preclude loosening of the landing gear attachment and possible gear separation.

This SB announced availability of two new kits with higher strength bolts, barrel nuts and clamps. Checks of the SDRs indicate that the landing gear has indeed been a source of many problems for Tomahawk owners, with reports of the landing gear simply collapsing or being wrenched backwards.

Naturally, student hard landings can be blamed for a lot of this, but much of the onus involves the aforementioned main landing gear attach bolts, which bend, crack, break or become loose. SDR report after report pleaded for redesign or strengthening of this element and suggested more frequent inspections.

AD 83-05-04 required owners to replace these bolts unless theyd already been replaced under Piper SB 673A. But some SDRs complain that problems recur even after replacement. (Sometimes after lots more flying hours are logged.)

Frequent complaints were also filed concerning the main landing gear liners, which would work loose and cause grief. In the nose landing gear the scissor link bushings, bolts and strut housing came in for their share of attention.

And in another gear-related matter, Piper SB 834 offers a reinforcement kit designed to prevent cracks or distortion of the rear spar frame assembly because of hard landings or abusive ground handling, such as manually turning the aircraft by pushing on the wings.

Presumably the ferocious shaking of the T-tail during stall exercises by students is to blame for problems involving the securing of the vertical tail fin to the fuselage. If weve tracked these correctly, no fewer than three ADs through the years have been issued to deal with ways to periodically inspect the Tomahawks forward and aft fin spars, bulkheads and attachment plates for cracks or to replace them.

Owner Comments
My brothers and I, all of whom are pilots, bought our first Tomahawk, a 1978 model, N9327T from Bluffton Flying Service where it was on the line for less than 100 hours in April of 1980.

We were in college and borrowed money from our father to enhance our education, to get not only college degrees, but also our SEL Tickets. It was a great airplane and we kept it until December of 1984 and flew it over 450 hours.

The initial ADs for the tail, the push rods and addition of stall strips were heart stopping for guys going to school with part-time jobs, especially after the warranty was up. It was enough to make one shy away from the mailbox.

The airplane was a gem however. Great handling characteristics even in a crosswind and excellent visibility makes new pilots feel they are on top of the world. Its like brand loyalty, once you start in a T-tail airplane, you always gravitate towards one.

Low points included the tendency to tuck over quickly following a stall-made a lot better with the addition of the strips-and an under-designed latch that pulls the doors together.

I can still hear my bother Bill saying after breaking the latch for the third time in a year…If it can take opening and closing it shouldnt be a latch.

The Tomahawk is great for trips under 300 miles and has had no more ADs than similar aircraft after the initial ones listed above. I can still remember leaving college after graduating with all my possessions in it and still being under gross weight.

Costs ran from a low of $43 per hour to a high of $66 dollars the last year when we flew less than 100 hours. Costs included fixed and variable including fuel, annuals, hangar rent and insurance. Of course, back then, hangar rent for starving college students was $25 per month.

At the time a Tomahawk rented for $36 per hour so it seemed reasonable to pay a little more for the joy of having your own plane.

When we moved to different states and the decision was made to sell the airplane, I gave it to a broker who picked it up and flew it to his office an hour away.

I had sellers remorse and called him up to get the plane back. When he answered he started the conversation by saying it was the quickest sale ever! When he landed on the field, walking to the office, a gentleman bought it for the asking price on the spot. He was writing me a check for the deposit.

Since I never got the airplane out of my system, I bought another in September of 1999, a 1979 Tomahawk. I had visions of fixing it up and flew it over 100 hours the first year, but the need for more range and IFR options lead to its sale in May of 2000. I still get to fly it, as a friend purchased it and bases it locally. I now own a Rockwell 112TC.

I think of a Tomahawk as a first love. If I win the lotto, Ill find one and fix it up like new, no matter what the cost, just like I have seen so many people fix up J-3 cubs, because to me, the Tomahawk was my Cub!

-Bob Dunne
Ashtabula, Ohio

I got my ticket in 1983 and promptly purchased the five-year-old Tomahawk I trained in. I flew it to Oshkosh four weeks later when I couldnt have had 75 hours total time. I owned and loved that little airplane for five years and put over 500 hours on it until a now-ex-friend took it up without permission and crashed itby runningout of fuel. But thats a whole nother story.

Ive heard all the horror stories about the Traumahawk. And all I can figure is that those folks who got into trouble in a Tomahawk just must have been bad pilots (just kidding).

I learned to fly in that airplane and Im sure I made every mistake possible in that first year or two. But Inever had so much as a moments worry overwhat it was doing or how it responded. Except for the time I accidentally flew out over the Atlantic ocean at night without an instrument rating and suffered a serious bout of spatial disorientation and almost died. But thats a whole nother story, too.

In my opinion the Tomahawk is safe, easy and fun to fly. But, of course your first flying memories are often your best and I may be waxing somewhat nostalgic. I dont think Id give up myCirrus to go back to my Tomahawk days. But Ill be darned if anyone will blaspheme that fine little airplane in my presence.

-Doug Warner
Atlanta, Georgia

I have owned my Tomahawk since June of 2000. I have had my PPL since June of 1999. I have about 120 hours in N2408B and about 160 hours overall.

I trained in Cessna 152/172s. I have flown Katanas, a Super Decathlon and a Warrior and based on that experience, heres my opinions.

Things I like about the Tomahawk:

• The very good visibility.
• The very wide cabin.
• The easy entry & exit into the cabin.
• The low price for an IFR-equipped aircraft.
• Its economical operation.

Things I dislike about the Tomahawk:

• I have to tow it between my hangar and the ramp because the prop clearance is too low for the gravel taxiway.
• I dont even think about landing on non-paved runways.
• It needs about 100 pounds more useful load and 20 to 30 knots additional cruise speed.

I bought the Tomahawk for $16,000. It was on leaseback before then and was nicknamed zero-eight broken.Since then I have replaced a K170A with a K170B, removed the DME (it never worked), installed a panel-mounted intercom and two power outlets, replaced the carpets and most of the interior plastic, overhauled the DG and AI, rebuilt the glareshield, installed a digital tach and had it painted.

Its no longer a cheap airplane and the insurance company will not cover it for what I have in it. I may fly this airplane for the rest of my flying career, which is okay. Its an adequate one-person VFR touring machine.

I tell people that it doesnt really fly, it swims. Any light airplane is tossed around by turbulence. However, the Tomahawk seems to like to rotate its nose and tail if theair is bumpy. I dont mind bumps.

I have never found takeoffs or landings to be a problem; you just have to keep the nose down.

I managed to get N2408B up to 12,700 feet. I could have made 13,000 if ATC had given me another hour.

-Jim Burrill
Via e-mail

Also With This Article
Click here to view Resale Values, Payload Compared and Prices Compared.
Click here to view “Tomahawk Safety Summary.”