September 2005- The design must have been perfect, because every Piper built until 1948 used exactly the same wing. Of course, that made for good manufacturing economies, which was one of Bill Piper’s specialties.
But suddenly, the order book began to get thin. More than 50,000 civil airplanes had been built since 1945, and the government began dumping another 31,000 military surplus aircraft on the civilian market at prices even less than Bill Piper could offer.
The Short Wings
The company was in trouble. There was a stockpile of Cub Specials and Super Cruisers parked around the airport at Lock Haven, but not many customers in sight. Piper’s major creditor, Manufacturer’s Trust of New York, sent William C. Shriver to help reorganize Piper, cut costs and restore its profitability.
He may not have been an airplane expert, but he knew what to do: shut down production, fire employees and get the numbers down to a bare minimum. He met with designer Dave Long on July 31, 1947 to find out how long it would take to draft a really inexpensive airplane.
Working with a large stock of components, Long was able to draft a new design in just 44 days, and the PA-15 made its first flight about a month later.
Shriver and Long had managed to out-cheapen even Bill Piper. They took an already cheap airplane, the bargain-priced PA-14 Family Cruiser—already the lowest-price four-place airplane in the world—and redesigned it into a bare-bones, two-place version that could sell profitably for $1,990—about the same cost as a new base model Buick.
Long used as many Cub assemblies as possible, and in a move that was part economy and part genius, he had shortened the wings three feet on each side. That saved six feet of material, parts and its weight, plus the cost of labor.
Wing spars were made of whatever suitable material was available, and the fuselage structure used a lighter and cheaper grade of steel. Long even suggested that odd leftover bits of cloth could be sewed together for covering. And, he reckoned, there might even be a performance gain.
Long had originally specified a Continental A-65, but Shriver had a better deal with Lycoming—which was located just a couple of dozen miles away, meaning almost no freight cost—to use its O-145 engine.
In the spartan cockpit, there was one bench seat, a single control stick and only basic instruments. There was no electrical system and the landing gear was rigid, with shock absorption coming from the 7.00 x 4 tires.
And as a final cost saving measure, every airplane came with yellow paint, but with no accent stripe.
It was called the PA-15 Vagabond, and while it may have not had much class, it had a certain charm. Performance was 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 square feet, 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.
The Vagabond was a quick and successful fix for the crisis. Between February and July 1948, the company built and sold 387 units worth $770,000. And, more importantly, William C. Shriver went away.
With Bill back in charge, changes were made immediately. Serial number 15-36 was converted to a step-up model, the PA-17 Vagabond Trainer, or Vagabond Deluxe. It was equipped with everything they’d left off the PA-15: dual controls, floor mats, gear shocks, prop spinner— and the Continental A-65 engine, which necessitated a new Type Certificate.
Popular options were a metal propeller, electrical system with radio and landing lights, an auxiliary fuel tank—and restoration of the accent stripe. All that luxury was available for an extra $200, which may not sound like much today, but it was a 10 percent premium, and in 1948 that amount represented a month’s salary to most Americans.
More than 500 Vagabonds and 214 Vagabond Trainers were built before production ceased in 1950, but it was enough to save the company from failure.
The market was still ripe for a good, inexpensive four-place air-plane, and although Piper had only modest success with its PA-14 Family Cruiser, it now knew that with the financial lessons learned and the new short wing concept, it could build a more profitable version.
Two additional seats were shoehorned into a lengthened Voyager Trainer fuselage, a second door was added a port and gross weight was increased. With 115 hp from a Lycoming O-23 5 and the short wing, performance was good, furnishing a 112 mph top speed and 480-mile, 4.2-hour range. It sold for $3,095.
As the first Clippers left the factory, work was already underway on a new version, which would be called the Pacer. There was some redesign in the tail and interior, widening of the gear and the addition of wing flaps, but the real motivation was the threat of a lawsuit from Pan American World Airways, who didn’t want customers to associate their famous “Clipper” flying boats with the little airplanes from Pennsylvania.
Piper manufactured 726 Clippers in the last year of the Forties before changing its emphasis to the PA-20 Pacer.
Once the decision was made to switch names, Piper also used the opportunity to do some upgrades on the PA-16, including a new tail design, two 18-gallon wing tanks, wing flaps and a new, wider 6-foot, 8-inch main gear tread.
But its biggest change was the option of a 125 hp O-290 Lycoming engine in addition to the 115 hp O-235. The more powerful version provided a 135 mph top speed and 125 mph cruise, 810 fpm climb and 580-mile range. In 1952, the Pacer got 135 hp and the cruise speed jumped to 134 mph at a 200 pound higher gross weight.
Between 1950 and 1954, 1,120 PA-20s were built. But it was the PA-22, the tricycle-gear version of the Pacer that would become the most popular Piper to date, with nearly 9,500 examples built from 1951 through 1963.
The original Tri-Pacer was a Pacer with its tailwheel replaced by a nosewheel—an arrangement that had gained popularity during World War II. While traditionalists thought tricycle gear was an abomination, it made things a lot easier for those who were new to flying. Besides putting the steering up front (as was normal in automobiles), the placement furnished a great deal more visibility.
The first PA-22 was completed in May 1950 and fitted with the 125 hp Lycoming O-290, and a second prototype was finished in November. The design included a rudder-aileron interconnect system, and the stance of the rather short fuselage perched on three 6.00 x 6 tires immediately inspired some unknown employee to dub it “The Flying Milk Stool.”
Before the end of 1950, production of the new model began on an assembly line alongside the PA-20, and the first six airplanes used the new fuselage mated to PA-20 wings. Its cruise speed of 125 mph was almost identical to its predecessor, although its takeoff and climb numbers were slightly less, but the tricycle gear furnished a more modern look, and at a selling price of $5,355 it began to catch on.
Pacer production had reached 874 in 195 1-52, and the Tri-Pacer added 353 more sales. As is usually the case, no factory ever gives a new model more than adequate power, and Piper was no exception. At least the practice left room for improvement.
Beginning in 1952, a 135 hp Lycoming was offered, then in 1955 the 150 hp O-320, and finally 160 hp beginning in 1958. Gross weight/useful load figures went from 1,800/740 pounds in the PA-22-125 to 2,000/900 in the -160, and cruise speeds climbed nearly 10 mph.
It looked like Piper had finally found the combination to offer competition in the four-place cross-country aircraft market.
Unfortunately, the market had changed. Tube and fabric aircraft had neither the appeal nor the value of the new all-metal designs. Cessna had introduced its Model 180 in 1953 and followed it with the tri-gear 172 and 182 three years later. Even though their cost was several times that of the Tri-Pacer, they were outselling it handily.
So in 1958 Piper reverted again to its specialty—lowering the retail price. The PA-22-150 was renamed the Caribbean. It was a minimally equipped airplane configured for the airport operator trade and priced at $8,395.
Then in 1960, Piper introduced the Colt, a two-place trainer designed to compete with Cessna’s new Model 150 until a suitable trainer could be built. The Colt had no wing flaps, was fitted with a 108 hp Lycoming O-235 engine and sold at a base price of $4,995.
Production of the Tri-Pacer and Caribbean ceased with number 7,630 on March 26, 1964 when Piper introduced its PA-28 Cherokee at Vero Beach. When Colt production ended three years later, it marked the end of the Short Wing era.
Daryl Murphy has been writing about flying and a variety of aircraft for 36 years. In addition to this magazine, his work appears in General Aviation News and Aviation International News. He has written five aviation books and one on automobile racing. Send questions or comments to .
*In the 1920s aeronautical engineering was more the product of an educated guess than pure science. Various aerodynamics and structural formulae were often the product of the design rather than a governing factor. Most wings were over-engineered, generated excess drag and were built stronger than necessary. The principal reason most airplanes were designed with conventional landing gear was to furnish ground clearance so that the largest—and therefore most efficient—propeller could be utilized. Tricycle landing gear furnishes much better forward ground vision, but limits propeller diameter.
“Piper Aircraft and their forerunners,” Pepperell & Smith, Air Britain Ltd.;
U.S. Civil Aircraft Series, Joseph Juptner, TAB Books Resources.
Short Wing Piper Club
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