While other light twins have gone away, the PA-44 is still doing what it does so well—safely teaching pilots how to fly twins.
I've set my Wayback Machine for Feb. 21, 1978. The place: Dallas, Tex. The event: Piper Aircraft's annual meeting of the North American distributors. The backstory: Cessna has already announced its 303 Clipper, while Beechcraft has debuted the Duchess.
The head of Piper's sales and marketing (sorry, I can't quite make out his name tag—focus is a bit fuzzy), is at the podium, where he makes an announcement.1
"We are coming into this [training] market as possibly the last manufacturer to introduce a light twin—and quite possibly will be the first to produce. Deliveries are expected in 90 days," he boasted to the group.
"The Seminole joins Piper's twin-engine line with a distinctive T-tail, counter-rotating propellers and semi-tapered wings. It is the ideal aircraft for the single-engine pilot to step up to twin-engine flying," he continued.
"The balance of purchase price, operating cost and performance makes the Seminole an excellent multi-engine trainer," he said to the rapt group of distributors.
Back to the future
According to historian Roger Peperell, the PA-44 that Piper introduced in early 1978 had actually begun at the company's Lock Haven headquarters in 1972 as a Twin Arrow. In his book "Piper Aircraft," Peperell tells us, "Piper's goal was to introduce a new, light four-place twin as a lower-cost replacement for the PA-39 Twin Comanche and the short-lived PA-40 Arapaho."
As Peperell explains it, "the fledgling project was passed to Vero Beach in 1975 and renamed 'light twin' with Tony Morely and Peter Peck [as] the key engineering staff. They updated the design [with] 180 hp engines to ensure an acceptable single-engine rate of climb [could be] obtained."
"The experimental aircraft (s/n 44-7812001, registration N998P) [sported] two counter-rotating 180 hp Lycoming L/O-360-E1A6D engines, semi-tapered wings and a large T-tail [and] was first flown by test pilot John Patrick on May 28, 1976 at Vero Beach," Peperell continues.
The N998P registration was deliberately chosen, claims Peperell, as it was "very similar to the company's familiar Arapaho N9998P—and it was painted in the same scheme. This was to mislead the casual observer into thinking that Piper had put a T-tail on the company Arapaho, which was also based at Vero Beach. (Remember, these were the days when there was actually competition in the GA industry!)
"In early 1977, the rear of the aircraft was re-engineered," Peperell explains, "including fitting it with a smaller T-tail. In March [of that same year], the company switched to a longer rear fuselage [and] that version first flew on March 15. April saw the installation of new ailerons."
Peperell continues, "After further development, the experimental aircraft was scrapped and work began on the first clean-sheet PA-44 Seminole. The prototype PA-44-180 (s/n 44-7995001, using the same registration N998P) was completed in November 1977."
"Certification testing was carried out between November 1977 and February 1978. Piper received the FAA certification for this four-seater [Type Certificate Data Sheet No. A19SO] on March 10, 1978.
"Deliveries from Vero Beach commenced in July 1978 at a base list price of $73,900. [The Seminole] could cruise at 166 knots at 75 percent power. (If you were around and remember the Seminole's introduction, it was actually targeted for delivery in mid-May of that year—but in aviation, even a six-month delay is still 'on time.')
"While the new Seminole was created to be an 'everypilot's' light twin, it did have a few unique design features. For example, it had a new fuel drain sump design with only two drains for the entire system, both on the right side of the fuselage for easy access. And all the fuel was stored in two nacelle fuel tanks.
"With the ink still wet on its TCDS, Piper engineering began work on the PA-44-180T Turbo Seminole. Deliveries of the Turbo Seminole began in April of 1979 and it stickered for $112,160.
"In 1980, Piper offered three-blade propellers and propeller synchrophasers as some of the Seminole's options. The 1980 model year also had an improved cabin ventilation system and new exterior paint schemes.
"Then, in 1981, just three years after it was introduced, Piper ceased production of the normally aspirated Seminole. The turbo version got the ax in October 1982."
The Seminole flies like the Phoenix...
In 1988, as the fleet of available light-twin trainers was getting too long in the tooth to be practical for flight schools, Piper made the bold move to revive the normally aspirated Seminole and target it specifically toward the growing ab initio flight training industry.
The company also took the opportunity to re-power the aircraft with 180 hp Lycoming L/O-360-A1H6 engines. The "new" Seminole first flew on March 16, 1989. FAA approval was received in July of that year, and the first aircraft was delivered to the University of North Dakota (UND) in August. The list price for the reborn trainer was $225,900.
The Seminole remained pretty much the same for the next decade. (Heck, why mess with a winner?) Yet, while the airframe and engines have remained basically unchanged for nearly 25 years, that doesn't mean Piper hasn't kept its littlest twin up with the times.
For example, for the Y2K model year, Piper made some significant changes. The long standard King avionics package was upgraded to include a Garmin GNS 430 GPS Nav/Com unit. A second GNS 430 and an S-TEC System 55X autopilot were also offered as options.
The next big change came in 2010, when the company offered an all-glass panel featuring the Avidyne FlightMax Entegra integrated flight deck as optional equipment. A year later, Piper introduced the Garmin G500 suite as an option.
Then in mid-2013, Garmin's G1000 suite became standard equipment on the Seminole as well as on Piper's entire fleet. The first G1000-equipped Seminole was delivered to FIT Aviation LLC just a few months ago.
In case you are wondering, a well-equipped Seminole trainer retails today for just over $683,000. That's about nine times what it listed for in 1978.
Piper's global training leader
Since its reintroduction, Piper has delivered Seminoles to training schools around the world including the aforementioned UND; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; ATP Flight School; Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology; FlightSafety Academy; Purdue University; CAE Oxford Aviation Academy and FIT Aviation (Florida Institute of Technology. It has also delivered Seminoles to operators in China and Malaysia.
On an interesting side note, China's U-Jet aviation magazine recently named the Seminole as the most popular twin-engine propeller aircraft in China. According to Jackie Carlon, Piper's director of marketing and corporate communications, the U-Jet award is significant considering the potential for growth in a Chinese market that is gaining speed in not only flight training and business aviation, but also General Aviation.
The Seminole is the perfect "FIT"
Based in Melbourne, Fla., FIT Aviation LLC, the flight-training arm of the Florida Institute of Technology's College of Aeronautics, has been using Seminoles and other Piper aircraft in its fleet for a long time.
FIT Aviation offers ab initio professional flight training programs as well as private pilot through ATP training for walk-in students. The school also offers specialized courses in conventional landing gear (taildraggers), aerobatics, air taxi operations and more. Its current Piper fleet includes Warriors, Archers, Arrows and of course, Seminoles.
"I believe we started using the Seminoles in 1985 or '86. We had been using Piper Aztec[s] and they were getting old and no longer in production," explained FIT Aviation's chief ground instructor Richard Funcheon.
"We currently have six Seminoles in our fleet," Funcheon continued. "We recently got a new one with the Garmin G1000 avionics. I think we are the launch customer for that package."
"No matter how the panel is equipped, the Seminole is a great airplane to learn in," he said. "You really have to let things get out of hand pretty bad to get in trouble with a Seminole. That makes it forgiving enough for low-time pilots to safely train in."
Jason Altonaga, one of FIT Aviation's flight training supervisors, echoed Funcheon's remarks on the stability of the Seminole. "I did my initial training in the Seminole and I've built over 600 hours in the airplane—I still think it's a very manageable twin for any student," he said. "It's really not that much faster than a higher-performance single."
"It does introduce some more complex systems, and it gives you a bit of a rush and boost in the form of performance, but it's balanced in that it's not too much of anything at one time," Altonaga said. "It's a very manageable jump from our singles to the Seminole."
Of course, the Seminole's manageable mannerisms come as no surprise. Pipers are known for their stability and smooth handling. And when the company's engineers set their goals on building a multi-engine trainer, then it's pretty much assured that it will be a good, stable, reliable platform. The Seminole was designed around safety.
The heart of the Seminole's single-engine stability lies in its counter-rotating propellers. And if, like most of us, you did your training in something other than a Seminole, you can immediately appreciate what this means. Improved safety and handling in a multi-engine airplane when it suddenly goes single is a very welcome thing.
One of the hardest and most dangerous times in multi-engine training is the student's handling the aircraft at single-engine minimum controllable airspeed (Vmc); that point where the airspeed runs out, your rudder foot is in the wrong place—and all hell breaks loose.
In a twin without counter-rotating propellers or centerline thrust, dropping below Vmc translates to an uncommanded roll and yaw at airspeeds barely above the stall speeds. Successfully achieving the Vmc balancing act takes hours and hours of practice for the typical student.
The Seminole tamed the Vmc demons with use of counter-rotating propellers which eliminated the critical engine issue and lowered the aircraft's Vmc. In a Seminole, Vmc is 56 kias clean—which is only one knot above the aircraft's 55-knot stall speed (dirty), and one knot below the clean stall speed.
"Depending on temperature and the aircraft's weight, it's possible to even have the stall speed below 55 knots," Funcheon said. "If it's fully loaded, the stall speed and Vmc are almost going to be the same."
"On a flight check it's generally required for a trainee to recover at the first sign of a stall or Vmc, whichever comes first," he explained. "But sometimes you get the stall horn and buffering before you get the first indication of loss of directional control. That's when you're trained to recover."
"For our training program, we have come up with ways to delay the stall onset to allow the students to experience that loss of directional control so they know what to do," Funcheon said.
"Hearing about it and feeling it are two different things. You need to experience it to know how to react. The Seminole just gives us that extra margin of safety."
Always ready on the line
As for how FIT's Seminoles stand up to the obvious rigors from its students, director of maintenance Rod Kern said that, all in all, the Seminoles are as rugged as advertised.
In fact, based on his years of experience, the Seminole is one of the best overall aircraft FIT Aviation has had in its fleet from an inspection and ease of maintenance perspective. (High praise indeed for an airplane that trains ham-handed students all day.)
Couple that with the fact that the aircraft is still in production so parts are easy to get, and FIT can ensure that its Seminoles are ready on the line when its students need to go flying.
"I have almost 2,000 hours in multi-engine airplanes—1,500 of which are in the Seminole as an instructor—so I know firsthand it's a very capable and comfortable airplane to teach and learn in," stated Dr. Ken Stackpoole, Vice President for FIT Aviation Programs and executive director for FIT Aviation.
"We have had a long and great history with Piper and all of its aircraft and we believe that's an important relationship to maintain."
While their good history and relationship with Piper is important, Dr. Stackpoole stressed that it's all about having the best aircraft for the job. "We train commercial pilots. That's our role today," he said. "The philosophy in our curriculum is from zero time through the type ratings, it's all about setting the student's mind on the airline cockpit.
"We believe the Seminole was, and is, the best light twin to achieve these goals."
1Passages excerpted with permission from "Piper Aircraft," by Roger Peperell. Air-Britain, 2006.
FIT Aviation, LLC