June 2014- Historians will tell us that a recession began at a particular time and ended on another. Economists will give us the reasons behind the recession: inflationary pressures, tight credit, and so on.
Those of us who have lived through recessions know that each industry, each company and each individual experiences the event differently and at different times.
The postwar recession is said to have begun on November 1948 and ended on October 1949 and was driven by many factors, including the increasing availability of goods (which exerted increasing downward pressure on prices); the leveling off of the postwar pent-up demand; and the beginning of a slight decline in private fixed investment.1
Piper Aircraft, however, began to feel the effects of these factors as early as 1947. In addition to the issues affecting the entire U.S. economy and the General Aviation industry, Piper was dealing with additional circumstances that adversely influenced its bottom line.
Piper management guessed correctly that pilots returning from World War II would be interested in purchasing personal aircraft, and as the war wound down, the company geared up to produce those planes. In 1945 Piper produced 1,802 airplanes; for its fiscal year ending September 1946 it sold 7,782. Despite sales in excess of $11 million, the company managed to lose money—its Cubs were underpriced.
Adding to the company's woes, its Lock Haven factory was flooded in May 1946 when the west branch of the Susquehanna River overflowed its banks. Piper lost finished planes, components and tooling. The company struggled to meet the demand for more planes.
Piper was producing airplanes at the rate of 30 a day in late 1946 and the early months of 1947. In the summer of 1946 Piper opened a factory in Ponca City, Okla. to keep up with the still-unabated demand for light aircraft.
In addition to Piper's output and what the other civilian manufacturers were cranking out, the United States government had unloaded more than 30,000 low-cost, war surplus airplanes to the public. The thirst for light aircraft was being quenched with a fire hose—and it didn't take long for the market to become saturated.
Add to that the fact that Piper was selling virtually the same plane in 1947 that it had been selling in 1940 (with features similar to what the war-surplus planes offered, but at a lower price) and you have a recipe for a crash.
Inventory levels increased and prices dropped and the light plane market collapsed. By the end of March 1947 sales of Piper Aircraft had dwindled to just a few a week.
From red to black with a little yellow plane
Piper management had a mess on its hands. Materials and components and unsold Cubs the company had in surplus, but customers were scarce and the company's losses exceeded $560,000.
Pay cuts and massive layoffs were not enough to stem the tide of red ink—or to satisfy Piper's creditors. In July 1947 Piper's major creditor, Manufacturers Trust Co. of New York, brought in William C. Shriver to set the company back on its feet.
Shriver closed the Ponca City factory and directed the engineering staff led by Walter Jamouneau to come up with a design for a cheap airplane that could be built from existing inventories of materials. Within a scant two months the design team of Tony Piper, Howard Piper and Dave Long developed a short-coupled, high-wing, fabric covered two-place aircraft with side-by-side seating.
In a move that longtime aviation writer Daryl Murphy explained as "part economy and part genius," Long shortened the wings by three feet on each side. "That saved six feet of material and parts as well as lowered the aircraft's weight, and further minimized the cost of labor," said Murphy.
Dubbed Vagabond and certified on July 1, 1948, the new model was powered by a 65 hp Lycoming O-145-B2 and cruised at 90 to 95 mph. It featured rigid, conventional landing gear without shock chords, along with a single stick and basic instrumentation. It had a gross weight of 1,100 pounds. Exterior options were limited—yellow paint, no stripe.
The Vagabond's plain exterior belied its snappy handling. Murphy describes the performance as "better than expected, and because of its shorter wings and five-foot shorter fuselage, it exhibited quick control response rates. Pilots found it genuinely fun to fly.
"Shortening the wings reduced wing area to 148 ft², which in turn decreased surface drag without a significant loss in rate of climb, stall speed or takeoff and landing ability, and increased the overall efficiency of the design."
Its low price of just $1,990 made it attractive to buyers and its low cost of construction made it immediately profitable for Piper, but its technology was outdated. Piper dealers and flight schools began complaining about the lack of dual controls and shock absorbing landing gear.
Piper responded by bringing out the PA-17 Vagabond, called the Vagabond Trainer. By the time the last PA-15 rolled off the production line, 387 had been built and Piper had averted bankruptcy.
Certified on Aug. 26, 1948, the PA-17 came with shock chord suspension, dual controls and a 65 hp Continental A-65-8, or -8F. Gross weight was increased by 50 pounds and it sold for $2,195. A total of 214 PA-17s were built in 1948 and 1949.
Short wings and four seats: Clipper and Pacer
Piper had been working on a four-place Cub based on the popular the PA-12, but the plane—the PA-14—was complicated to build and priced near $4,000. Market conditions were not favorable and the decision was made to scrap the PA-14 and concentrate on making a four-seat version of the PA-15.
The four-place PA-16 Clipper was certified on Oct.18, 1948 and sales began in early 1948 at a price of $2,995 for the standard version with blue and yellow trim and at $3,095 for the deluxe version with a hand-rubbed ivory finish. It was fitted with a Lycoming O-235-C1 engine providing 115 hp at takeoff and 108 hp for all other operations. With a range of 600 statute miles and a cruise speed of 112 mph, the Clipper sold well.
Pan Am was not happy that the perky little Piper shared the name of its iconic seaplanes and threatened to sue. Piper had an updated version of the Clipper ready to go for the model year 1950 and wisely chose to rename it the Pacer. In all, 736 PA-16 Clippers were produced.
The PA-20 Pacer had a redesigned tail and an updated interior that included control wheels to replace the sticks. Its gear was widened to improve ground handling and two wing fuel tanks came standard. The airplane was certified on Dec. 21, 1949 with a 125 hp Lycoming O-290-D engine.
A 115 hp Pacer fitted with a Lycoming O-235-C1 was certified on March 22, 1950. This low-powered version did not sell well and only 23 were produced.
On May 5, 1952 the 135 hp PA-20-135 (note: the TCDS shows this as PA-20 "135," and other sources show both designations as separate sub-models) was certified and replaced the PA-20. Powered by the Lycoming O-290-D2, it cruised at 134 mph. Seaplane versions of each of the iterations were available and were identified as PA-20S. The flying public like the roomy cabin and performance of the PA-20 and 1,120 were produced between 1950 and 1954.
On the nose: Tri-Pacer
As the 1940s came to a close, more pilots and prospective pilots were becoming fans of airplanes with tricycle landing gear. They were perceived as easier to land and taxi, and takeoffs were said to be easier as well.
Working with the Pacer fuselage as a base, Piper engineers moved the main gear aft and added a nosewheel of the same size. The engine mount structure was also redesigned to accommodate the nosegear.
The new Piper PA-22 Tri-Pacer was the first Piper with interconnected aileron and rudder controls. Promotional material at the time of the Tri-Pacer launch described the "hydrasorb tricycle landing gear" that would "automatically make the aircraft roll straight on takeoff." The interconnected controls would allow pilots to fly "with wheel alone or feet alone."
The Tri-Pacer was certified on Dec. 20, 1950 and was an immediate hit. The Lycoming O-290-D delivered 125 hp and a cruising speed of 123 mph, similar to its Pacer sibling.
In May 1952 the PA-22-135 with a 135 hp Lycoming O-290-D2 was certified. The 1953 model year saw the fuselage widened at the rear and the baggage compartment increased from six to over 14 cubic feet. An outside baggage door was added for easy loading and unloading. In 1954, improvements were made to soundproofing, seats and the bottom engine cowl.
The PA-22-150 with 150 hp Lycoming O-320-A2A or -A2B was certified on Sept. 3, 1954 and the 160 hp PA-22-160 on Aug. 27, 1957. The 160 hp version had a gross weight of 2,000 pounds, a maximum speed of 141 mph and cruising speed of 134 mph. It had a range of 536 miles with standard 36 gallons. An optional eight-gallon tank boosted range to 655 miles.
In 1959 the Tri-Pacer came with Piper AutoControl—a gyro-controlled stabilizing device to control climb, descent and turns—basically, a simple autopilot.
Both the 150 and 160 hp Tri-Pacers were offered through the start of 1959 when the PA-22-150 was renamed the Caribbean. The Caribbean was a minimally equipped airplane configured for the airport operator trade and priced at $8,395. A deluxe version with better radios and navigation instrumentation could be had for $9,350.
Down, but not out
With the introduction of the PA-28 Cherokee in 1960, Piper ended production of the Tri-Pacer; however, a special order of 12 Tri-Pacers was produced in 1963.
The Tri-Pacer had proved to be a popular plane with 7,641 built. Times were changing, though, and Piper's competitors were offering all-metal aircraft at comparable prices. (The 1960 Cessna 172 sold for a base price of $9,450.) But Piper was never a company to let equipment or material go to waste, and so the PA-22 jigs and tooling were put to use making a two-seat version of the Tri-Pacer.
The PA-22-108 Colt was a two-seat "compact of the air" made by removing the rear seats, baggage door, left rear door, rear windows, interconnected controls and flaps from the Tri-Pacer. Gross weight was reduced to 1,650 pounds and it was powered by a 108 hp Lycoming O-235-C1 or -C1B engine. It was certified on Oct. 21, 1960 and priced at just $4,995. (The 1960 Cessna 150A sold for $7,495.)
Bill Piper announced the Colt by saying, "We are very pleased to be able to offer once again a low-priced aircraft and confidently believe the Colt will meet very wide acceptance." He hoped that sales of the small plane would boost his dealer network and help to create buyers for additional Piper products. The Colt fulfilled its mission with 1,849 of the little planes helping to create Piper fans over its four-year run.
In a company whose history sometimes reads like a seismograph line, it's hard to overstate the importance of the Short Wing Pipers. The scrappy little yellow Vagabond put Piper on the road to profitability, and its descendents kept the company bumping along during the post-World War II years.
From our vantage point we know that Piper will face many more challenges in the ensuing years, but for now let's bask in the glow of the success of those endearing Short Wing Pipers—the right planes at the right time.
Jennifer Dellenbusch is president of the Piper Flyer Association. Send questions or comments to .
1. The recession dates and factors are according to "A Case Study: The 1948-1949 Recession" written by Benjamin Caplan. The case study is a chapter in Policies to Combat Depression, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc. in 1956.
"Piper Aircraft," by Roger Peperell. Air-Britain, 2006.
"Piper: A Legend Aloft," by Edward H. Phillips. Flying Books, 1993.
|Specifications and Performance|
|Gr. wt., lb.||1,100||1,650||1,150||1,750||1,800||1,950||1,800||1,950||2,000||2,000||1,650|
|Empty wt., lb.||630||850||650||1,010||1,005||1,020||1,060||1,060||1,100||1,110||940|
|Std/opt fuel, gal.||12||30||12||36||36||36||36||36||36/44||36/44||18/36|
|Top speed, mph||100||112||102||125||135||139||135||137||139||141||120|
|Take off, ft.||720||580||1,220||1,100||1,220||1,220||1,120||950|
|Landing roll, ft.||650||780||780||500||780||500||500||500||500|
The Short Wing Pipers
PA-15 Vagabond, certified July 1, 1948
PA-17 Vagabond Trainer, certified August 26, 1948
PA-16 Clipper, certified October 18, 1948
PA-20 Pacer, certified December 21, 1949
PA-22 Tri-Pacer, certified December 20, 1950
PA-22-108 Colt, certified October 21, 1960