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The Paradox of Choice: Airplane Edition

The Paradox of Choice: Airplane Edition

There are thousands of used airplanes on the market, and no two are exactly alike. The range of choices available to a buyer is both a blessing and a curse. Defining your mission, purchase goals and a budget can help methodically pare down the list of potential candidates. A systematic approach also offers the side effect of decreasing pre-purchase anxiety as you zero in on The Right Airplane For You.

If you comb through hundreds of classified ads, looking at as many different airplanes as possible, you’re increasing your odds of finding a great deal on The Right Airplane For You, yes?

Not so fast.

As you view more and more choices, each with their pluses and minuses, choosing between all the available options can become more challenging. They may all just seem to blend together, differentiated by a few hours here and a little damage history there.

The process of choosing becomes more difficult, and that difficulty produces anxiety. Airplane buying just went from a fun and exciting adventure to an anxiety-producing marathon.

Anxiety about choices and their respective consequences can discourage us from prompt, decisive action. We may avoid making the tough choice and instead run away (i.e., give up entirely) or opt to find a different, easier choice to make.

This behavior is the basic premise behind Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice.” It’s a fascinating read about modern consumer behavior in an era of multitudes of poorly-differentiated products. I highly recommend it.

Here’s a real-world example. When I was growing up, we received four TV channels over the air. Three were national networks, and one was public broadcasting. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to flip the dial to see what was on. A typical choice on a weekday evening would be between a sitcom, the world news, a baseball game and a documentary about rabbits. That was tough enough. I usually gave up and put on “Top Gun” (yes, on VHS tape).

Contrast that to today, when—if I subscribe to cable or a satellite service—I can have hundreds of channels at my fingertips. There’s also on-demand video from Netflix, Amazon Prime and others. YouTube alone gives me the option to choose one of 5 billion (yes, billion) videos.

Don’t ask me to choose. I give up. I’m going to go read a back issue of Piper Flyer.

The same expansion of choice has occurred in the used airplane market in the Internet Age. Though the number of airplanes changing hands hasn’t varied substantially over the years, the visibility of the choices available to buyers has changed dramatically.

Once upon a time, airplane transactions were guided by word-of-mouth and flyers on airport bulletin boards. There would be a few options available, and you might dig up a half-dozen more if you started asking around the airport. A broker might be able to do some of the legwork for you by calling his or her friends.

Though you certainly can still find a solid bird on the bulletin board, now we have Barnstormers, Trade-A-Plane, Controller, online broker inventory, Craigslist, Facebook groups and myriad type-specific forums (each with their own classified section). A quick search can pull up thousands of airplanes for sale.

The sheer number of choices is intimidating, especially for first-time buyers.

So, how do you start weeding through these thousands of candidate airplanes to find The Right Airplane For You?

It’s simple (sort of)

Just answer this single question and we’ll have you on your way to finding the best new-to-you airplane: What do you want?

Well, I personally want a Northrop F-5E Tiger II with a Soviet Air Force paint scheme. I watched that “Top Gun” VHS tape…a lot. And I speak Russian (poorly), so I’m sure I’d make a great “enemy” pilot.

But, by asking myself a few more basic questions, I can tell that acquiring and maintaining that F-5 isn’t practical.

The mission: who, what, when, where, why and how?

Who is going to be in the airplane with you? What do you want to be able to do with your airplane? When/how often/how far will you fly? Where will you go? Why do you want to be an owner? How much can you afford to spend on this endeavor?

If you can answer these questions, you’re well on your way to defining your mission. The F-5 obviously doesn’t work for me. It fails on “who”—you can’t safely fit two people and two dogs into a fighter jet. 

Additionally, as much as I’d love to scream around at 400 knots while listening to “Danger Zone” through my fancy Bluetooth headset, I can’t find a way to make the “how” work without robbing a bank or three.

For a more realistic example, let’s check out a recent post on the Piper Flyer forum. The author, Eric, explains his plans:

My story is that I’m 40, in information technology, and have decided to change careers to pursue my dream of flying professionally. I successfully got my private pilot certificate in April in a Cessna 172. Now I want to work through all of my ratings up to CFI.

Congratulations, Eric, on your new certificate!

Eric has a solid idea of what his new airplane will need to do, and he also understands that this isn’t a short-term purchase. He says he’s a “firm believer in [the philosophy of] buy your last plane first.”

That’s a good start.

He goes on to answer the who, what, when, where, why and how. In his words, he’s looking for:

1. Stable IFR platform I can complete my instrument rating and commercial certificate in.

2. Capable cross-country cruiser that can take two people (myself and a passenger) and some luggage comfortably. I am anticipating at least one cross-country trip a month of over 300 miles, with some even longer. So, decent performance would also be a plus.

3. If possible, I’d like to get something that is auto fuel STC capable. This is not a hard requirement, but a nice-to-have.

4. I am anticipating flying 200 to 300 hours a year.

5. Budget would be up to $60,000, but I would like to stay below that as much as possible.

Most readers are probably starting to come up with a few ideas for Eric. It’s easy to help spend someone else’s money! But let’s not get too far ahead. This is a good time to do a sanity check, especially for first-time buyers and those who must stick tightly to a budget.

It’ll often be tough to find a perfect airplane for all your possible missions without breaking the bank. Set a realistic goal of fitting 80 to 90 percent of your mission profile. You can always rent or borrow an airplane, drive or fly commercial for the remainder of the missions.

Rather than immediately going down the rabbit hole of online listings, talk to a trusted and experienced aviation friend, mechanic or airplane broker—or better yet, several of each.

Your guiding question is basic: “Do airplanes that can do 90 percent of what I want exist for around the price I want to pay?” In case you haven’t noticed, aviation people like to talk. You’ll get plenty of opinions. Keep this discussion simple—you just want to find out if ownership is a good option for you.

If the consensus answer is “Yup, you can find that,” continue.

The Piper PA-24 Comanche is a speedy and comfortable cross-country machine.
Many vintage panels have steam gauges and older IFR avionics. 
Purchase goals

With a mission in mind, it’s time to start thinking about what The Right Airplane For You looks like. Don’t worry about specific airplanes just yet—we’re looking to outline the makes and models that fulfill the mission criteria.

We’ll call these criteria our purchase goals. For Eric, it plays out something like this:

Goal No. 1: Budget of $60,000 for initial acquisition.

• Eric’s budget is clear: $60,000 or very near.

• Other expenses may decrease the amount available at closing. State and local taxes, pre-buy expenses and other acquisition costs can quickly add up.

• It’s also smart to have a significant amount in reserve for deferred maintenance items that may become apparent in the few months after purchase. I’ve heard recommendations of anywhere between 10 and 50 percent of the purchase price. Also, make sure you’re accounting for any upgrades that will be done soon after purchase.

• Like with real estate or cars, the asking price for an airplane isn’t always the sales price. It typically won’t hurt to make offers, but it’s a seller’s market for piston singles right now, and most sellers won’t move tens of thousands of dollars on price. It would make sense for Eric to limit his search to airplanes with asking prices of less than approximately $70,000.

Goal No. 2: Decent performance.

• Eric says he wants to do 300 nm cross-countries. For the sake of discussion, we’ll assume he’ll be best served by an airplane that cruises at 120 knots or better.

• To get this sort of speed, he will want to look at high-performance (200-plus hp) and/or retractable-gear airplanes. Some fixed-gear 180 hp and 200 hp airplanes can deliver this speed as well.

• Ensure that the make and model airplane can get into and out of the airports you want to use without undue worry. A pilot who will be flying into backcountry strips in the Rockies will need a different airplane than someone whose home base has 8,000 feet of pavement at sea level. Eric states that he may be flying in New Mexico a bit and would welcome additional high-and-hot performance.

• Given the need for some speed and high-and-hot performance, a 200-plus hp airplane makes good sense for him. A sleek 180 hp airplane would also work.

More horsepower usually equals more speed and greater useful load. Of course, this comes at the cost of more fuel and additional maintenance. 

Goal No. 3: Predictable and reasonable operating and maintenance expenses.

• Since Eric plans to fly frequently and build hours in a short time, he wants an airplane that won’t always be in the shop.

• Simple, proven systems will help limit ongoing maintenance expenses. There’s a reason that most shops charge more for an annual inspection on a complex (retractable-gear), high-performance airplane than, say, a 180 hp fixed-gear single. These complex airplanes are just as they sound—more complex! Similarly, an engine with more cylinders has more cylinders that can have problems, not to mention that it will usually burn more fuel.

• Generally, the rarer a make and model, the more difficult it is to find replacement parts.

• It would be wise for Eric to choose a make and model with simple systems, and one which is widely supported, with good parts availability to limit maintenance expenses and downtime.

Goal No. 4: Must have a range of 300 nm minimum, with IFR reserves.

• Assuming a 120-knot cruise speed and legal minimum IFR reserves, Eric’s airplane will need a range of 390 nm (3.25 hours).

• Let’s look at a few Piper piston singles to get an idea of what is considered standard range. A Piper PA-28-161 Warrior II carries 48 gallons and burns around 7.5 gph at cruise for a maximum endurance of about six hours and a range of 525 nm. A Piper PA-28-235 Cherokee 235 carries more fuel; 84 gallons. It burns about 13 gph, has an endurance of about six hours and a range of 710 nm.

• Eric needs a range just shy of 400 nm. This should be well within the range of most four-seat piston singles with full tanks.

“If it fits, it ships,” or so say many Piper PA-28-235 Cherokee 235 owners. Early models have useful loads of more than 1,400 pounds. 

Goal No. 5: Cross-country comfortable for two people, with sufficient baggage capacity.

• Few two-seaters offer enough useful load to allow for long cross-countries with two people, three-plus hours of fuel and baggage.

• A two-seat Piper PA-38 Tomahawk, for example, probably won’t be able to complete Eric’s mission. The useful load of the PA-38 is around 500 pounds. With two 200-pound adults and 40 pounds of baggage, you only have 60 pounds left over for fuel. You won’t get far on 10 gallons of Avgas. The math is, of course, better with smaller passengers.

• In addition, comfort is often lacking in many two-seaters. 

• Thus, a four-seater is going to provide the most flexibility for Eric’s intended use.

Goal No. 6: IFR-equipped.

• Though technically a single nav radio with glideslope will suffice for “IFR equipment,” if Eric plans to become a professional pilot and wants to learn how to fly real-world IFR, a WAAS GPS is practically mandatory.

• A modern, coupled autopilot would also be a nice-to-have.

• Acquiring an airplane with avionics already installed is much cheaper than retrofitting them after purchase.

• Eric’s budget will have him looking at older airplanes, where the avionics may have been replaced several times. Though choosing an airplane with appropriate avionics is important, avionics tend to be specific to an individual airplane (rather than make and model). Installed avionics are not an important criterion for filtering by make and model, but are incredibly important when looking at individual airplanes.

Goal No. 7: Auto fuel STC capable. 

• Though many Piper singles are eligible for auto fuel STCs, the complexity of the STC varies. Some airplanes can use auto fuel after a paperwork-only STC, while others require expensive modifications to the fuel system.

• If this is an important factor in keeping operating costs down, Eric will want to consider a model with paperwork-only auto fuel compatibility.

Goal No. 8: An airplane I can fly (and be insurable in).

• Eric recently earned his private pilot certificate and just under 70 hours, primarily in Cessna 172s.He does not have a multi-engine rating, so he’ll be limited to singles.

• The transition from a Cessna 172 to, say, a Cherokee 180 is not a difficult one. Conversely, the jump from a 172 to a twin-engine Piper Navajo would be quite challenging.

• Additionally, a low-time private pilot might find it difficult or impossible to obtain insurance in an airplane which requires more pilot skill. In addition to high premiums, the insurer may also require a significant amount of dual instruction for the owner prior to solo operation.

• Should you (or Eric) consider a taildragger? First, can you fly one? Next, can you be insured in one? I received a quote on a high-performance taildragger a few years back. Though the hull wasn’t expensive, my relative lack of tailwheel time combined with a high-risk model pushed the premium to over $3,300/year (and 25 hours of dual required before solo!). That’s a lot of Avgas.

• Eric received a quote on a Cherokee 235 and found that the premiums and training requirements were quite reasonable: $1,100/year and a two-hour CFI checkout.

• Eric must consider insurability and insurance premiums to limit his ongoing costs.

Goal No. 9: An airplane that I’d like to own.

• Do you prefer a specific make and model based on looks, reputation or personal experience?

• Do you have opinions on what constitutes “too old” or “too new,” either in terms of calendar age or airframe/engine times?

• How much work do you want to do on a new-to-you airplane? Some people love reclamation projects; others just want to fly.

• What degree of importance do you place on cosmetics (paint, interior, etc.)?

• What are your opinions on standard aluminum construction versus tube-and-fabric versus composite?

• Eric doesn’t say much about this, but these are an important consideration for many buyers.

Cosmetic refurbishments, like the fresh paint on this 1964 Cherokee 235, can make a vintage airplane look factory-new. 
Prioritize purchase goals

In Eric’s purchase, budget is a major factor, whereas an auto fuel STC is a nice-to-have.

You’ll want to make a list (actually, three) with your nonnegotiable items, nice-to-haves and lastly, unlikely luxuries. This outline will serve you well when you start evaluating makes and models, as well as specific candidate airplanes.

When I purchased my most recent airplane, I wasn’t initially looking for a Piper. I’d set my sights on a Cessna 177B Cardinal. I thought the Cardinals were sexy, modern-looking airplanes. I loved the big doors and spacious interior.

As I got more serious with defining my mission and assessing various makes and models, I realized that a nicely-equipped Cardinal was going to cost tens of thousands more than a comparable Piper—yet the Piper would deliver the same performance.

Passing on the Cardinals meant I wouldn’t be flying as sleek of a bird, but if I went Piper, I could get a low-time four-seater with decent avionics… and would still have a bit of money to spend on upgrades after the purchase. 

I found a nice Cherokee 180, and the rest is history. As it turns out, in addition to checking all my must-have boxes and most of my nice-to-haves, I even ended up with a few unlikely luxuries. 

Still, if cost had been less of a consideration for me, I might’ve gone ahead and bought a Cardinal (or a Comanche!). It’s hard to put a price on the toys we desire.

Shortlisting makes and models

Publications like Trade-A-Plane and Controller are great tools for coming up with a shortlist. Online versions work too, but there’s something uniquely satisfying about applying a highlighter to a paper magazine.

For a shopper like Eric, his search starts at the beginning of the single-engine piston airplane section. He might pare down the list by first looking at only common makes and models (a nod to parts availability and ease of maintenance). Next, he might note all the four-seaters, then, of those, just airplanes with 180 hp or more. From there, eliminating the aircraft outside his budget will trim down the results even further.

The first-time buyer, especially one who is new to General Aviation, will need to do some research at this stage. It’s likely that there will be models you’re not familiar with—there might be a lot of Piper PA-22/20s on the market in your price range, but do they match the goals you’ve defined?

With any luck, you’ll quickly winnow down the list to a handful of makes and models which fit most, if not all, of your purchase goals.

Expert advice

You’ll want to do some follow-up on the makes and models you’ve identified to ensure there will be no nasty surprises after your purchase. There may be a reason a specific make and model is so cheap.

What are common complaints and maintenance issues? What do owners love about their airplanes? How many ADs apply? How many of these are recurring? How expensive is insurance?

Yes, it’s again time to talk to people—and not just the pilots who gather at the airport on Saturday morning for the free doughnuts and coffee. You want to talk directly to people who have owned, operated and maintained the makes and models you’re considering. You might also get some tips on other makes/models which would fit your mission from these aviation sages. Heck, they may even know of a good airplane or two for sale.

It could be the woman who owns the flight school which operates a fleet of Piper Arrows. It could be the guy who maintains that fleet. Or perhaps it’s the experts who frequent the Piper Flyer forum.

It’s also wise to get hands-on time with each make and model you’re considering. Flying them is best, of course, but even sitting in the cockpit will give you an idea of whether the airplane is a good physical fit for you.

Zeroing in

From here, your job is to find the specific airplanes that have all (or most) of your must-have features. Don’t restrict yourself to print publications—now that you have a search image in mind, it’s time to revisit Barnstormers, Facebook groups, type-specific forums and so on. Except now, rather than digging through thousands of airplanes for sale, you can quickly home in on the few that fit your needs.

Here’s another suggestion: post a wanted ad—either at your airport or online. Some owners may be considering selling their airplanes, but don’t want to deal with the tire-kickers that come with posting an airplane for sale publicly.

I recently sold my airplane to someone who had posted a “looking for…” ad. It was quick and easy for both me and the buyer. I got a painless sale; he got a great airplane for a few bucks less than market value.

Speaking of market value, as you look through advertisements, you should keep a keen eye on pricing. For example, what is an average late 1960s Cherokee 235 listed for? How does that change with airframe and engine times? What sort of adjustments are being made for installed avionics? Is there a regional adjustment in price for that make/model? Though you won’t have access to final sales data, you can get an idea of what a fair deal is—and then be ready to pounce when you see one.

Geography becomes important at this stage, too. It’s much easier to look at candidate airplanes which are within a few hours’ drive or flight. For the most common makes and models, there’s likely to be several for sale nearby. For more rare airplanes, you may need to be willing to travel.

Though it is certainly possible to buy an airplane with dated avionics and upgrade them yourself, you’ll be money ahead if you buy an airplane with a “dream panel” already installed. 
Targets acquired

Eric identified a few prospective airplanes in his forum post: a 1958 Piper PA-24-180 Comanche 180 and a 1964 PA-28-235 Cherokee 235. Both were priced near his budget. Both airplanes had an IFR GPS installed. The 235 also had ADS-B Out and an autopilot.

Neither airplane fit all of his stated goals. Eric had questions about the cost of ownership on the Comanche; the 235 had an asking price slightly above budget. But both appeared to be very good candidates which would do 90 percent or more of the missions he’d outlined.

Since Eric had done his homework, the choice was now about which would be the best airplane—not whether these candidates would minimally suffice.

A compelling argument could be made for either airplane, though they are fundamentally different craft. Piper Flyer contributing editor Steve Ells said it well on the Piper Flyer forum: “You might consider the Comanche as a well-mannered and good-looking sedan while the Cherokee 235 is a small SUV.”

The Comanche is more economical in terms of fuel burn (8.5 gph versus 13 gph) for 130-ish knots. It has a Lycoming O-360—about as bulletproof a four-cylinder engine as there is.

On the other side, the Cherokee 235 can lift practically anything you can fit inside it, has broad parts availability, and nearly any mechanic can wrench on one. It’s not as pretty on the ramp as the Comanche (in my opinion), but it performs well and has a reputable six-cylinder engine.

A 200 hp PA-28R Piper Arrow (or Turbo Arrow) comes to mind as another good Piper option. In fact, there was a slick little PA-28R-201T on my home airport’s ramp last week with a For Sale sign in the window for around Eric’s budget.

A PA-28-236 Dakota would’ve been a nice match for the mission, but a Dakota equipped for modern IFR would be cost-prohibitive. Some of the 180 hp models like the Cherokee 180, Archer or Arrow could have worked too, though they won’t ever be confused for speed demons.

Out of the two airplanes he’d identified as candidates, Eric decided to opt for the Cherokee 235 as it had a few more “nice-to-haves,” in addition to fitting much of his mission profile.

Good airplanes which are priced right are selling fast in today’s market, so don’t be surprised if you miss out on a few. I’ve been watching for-sale postings closely over the past few months and have seen several pristine high-performance Piper singles go under contract within hours; sometimes even minutes. Still, by knowing exactly what you want and how much it should cost (and having your financial house in order), you can be that buyer who jumps on a good deal when it comes up.

“All used airplanes have fleas”

Remember, used airplanes have been in service for some years and hours and not everything will be as factory-new. To quote my mechanic, “All used airplanes have fleas—you just want to find one where the fleas won’t eat you, too.”

Your next step is to figure out if your chosen candidate has the kind of parasites that will feed heavily on your pocketbook. This is another spot where you’ll want to enlist expert help.

Piper Flyer has published several articles in the recent past about conducting effective pre-buys. (See Resources for a list of titles and where to find them. —Ed.) I’ll say this: read up on pre-buys and be sure to have a thorough one done. It’s money well spent.

On my last purchase, I walked away from a couple of airplanes after conducting (rather expensive) pre-buys. One of these airplanes experienced a left main landing gear failure about four months after the pre-buy. The accident resulted in significant injuries to a passenger and a total loss of the airframe.

My mechanic had advised me not to buy the airplane because of a problem he observed at the left main gear attach point. The seller (and seller’s mechanic) didn’t think it was an airworthiness issue. He said he’d just sell it to the next buyer in line (which he did). Sure enough, that attach point is where the failure occurred.

A pre-buy inspection from a trusted A&P with experience with the make and model is essential. Don’t hesitate to walk away if you find that the fleas keep multiplying as you dig deeper into the aircraft records or mechanicals. Paperwork issues (missing logs, 337s or STCs) may not cause safety problems, but they can be a huge headache when it comes time for resale.

The receipt of a satisfactory pre-buy inspection from your expert of choice should be exciting and confidence-inspiring. You’ve done your research. You’ve identified the right make and model. You’ve found an airplane that fits your budget and your purchase goals. After a good pre-buy, you’ve got the option to purchase a beautiful, thoroughly-inspected example of The Right Airplane For You.

Now, all you have to do is write the check and fly it home. Enjoy!

Scott Kinney is a self-described aviation geek (#avgeek), private pilot and instructor (CFI-Sport, AGI). He is associate editor for Piper Flyer. Scott and his partner Julia are based in Eugene, Oregon. They are often found buzzing around the West in vintage airplanes. Send questions or comments to .

RESOURCES >>>>>

ADDITIONAL PRE-BUY ARTICLES PUBLISHED BY PIPER FLYER

“Start with the Right Airplane” by Dennis Wolter, August 2018

“Deciphering Logbooks: Pre-Purchase Maintenance Record Review” by Kristin Winter, December 2017

“Hazardous Attitudes in Aircraft Purchasing” by Kristin Winter, November 2017

“Buying Power: Take Control of Your Next Plane Purchase” by Steve Ells, August 2017

“Pre-Purchase Particulars: What You Should Know” by Kristin Winter, December 2016

“The Do’s and Don’ts of Buying and Selling a Plane” by Michael Leighton, April 2015

“Pre-Buy Prop Inspection” by Tim Kern, August 2012

These articles and many others can be found on PiperFlyer.org under the Magazine tab. Select the issue you’re seeking under “Online Magazines,” click on the cover image and open or save the PDF file to your device. Note: you must be logged in to view online magazines.

PFA MEMBERS-ONLY AIRCRAFT (AND PARTS) BUYING AND SELLING

“For Sale/Wanted” section of Piper Flyer forum
ADDITIONAL AVIATION BUYING AND SELLING WEBSITES
Barnstormers
Controller
Craigslist
Facebook
Trade-A-Plane

FURTHER READING

“The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz.
Harper Perennial, 2004.

 

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PA-24 Comanche Buyer's Guide

PA-24 Comanche Buyer's Guide

What you need to know about buying and owning a Piper Comanche.

When some pilots think of Piper, they think of the Cherokee line and its derivatives which are still in production today. The Piper Comanche is a different design and preceded the first Cherokee by three years.

While Cherokees were designed and built in Vero Beach, Fla., the Comanche is a Lock Haven, Penn. aircraft. Lock Haven was Piper’s original factory. The Comanche was the first all-sheet-metal, semi-monocoque aircraft that Piper designed and produced.

Piper opened the Vero Beach facility to devise and assemble a line of aircraft that were less expensive to produce than the Comanche. A combination of design choices for ease of manufacture and the lower labor rates in Florida led to the Cherokees eclipsing the Comanches. Comanche production ceased in 1972.

Strong airframe, good performance

The Comanche is said to have about 50 percent more parts than does the Cherokee. I believe it.

It clearly took more manpower to build the parts and assemble the aircraft. One result was a particularly strong airframe.

The Comanche was designed to withstand 7.5 gs rather than the 5.7 gs required by FAA regulations.1 Though the aircraft was only officially certified in the normal category for 5.7 gs, the reserve of strength allowed for bigger engines and increased gross weight as the design was refined over the years.

So why is there any interest in an aircraft that has not been produced in almost half a century? The answer is in the specifications.

When a pilot starts to look for an honest four-place traveling aircraft with good speed and range, they usually find the performance numbers of a Comanche attractive. I developed this guide for those who are not immediately repelled by the idea of an older airplane and are intrigued by the performance.

The Piper Comanche is a classic. It’s one of the nicest planes to fly and own—and also one of the hardest to try and find a truly nice one for sale.

Comanches tend to be loved to death. By that I mean that owners hang on to them long after they should have sold them. So many have been sitting idle for too long because the owner keeps hoping to get that medical back and just can’t bear to sell the plane that he or she has had for decades.

Designed to compete

Piper designed the Comanche to compete with the Bonanza. Arguably Beech won that competition, but Comanche owners are every bit as dedicated to them as Bonanza drivers are dedicated to the various models.

The “Bo” generally wins on fit and finish. They are both nice flying, with the “Bo” generally faster down low, and the Comanche often faster in the low teens where the Comanche wing starts to strut its stuff.

The “Bo” is nicer landing, but the Comanche is cheaper to buy and maintain. I have well over a thousand hours in various Bonanza models, and prefer the Comanche—especially when I am paying the bills to keep the plane running.

The cabin is roomy and comfortable, and the wing is optimized for operation at higher altitudes which increases their efficiency and range.

In its 14-year production run, Piper made numerous changes to the Comanches. Initially the Comanche was certified and produced as a 180 hp version powered by a Lycoming O-360-A1A. The first 100-plus aircraft produced were all Comanche 180s.

Comanche 180


The 180 had a maximum gross weight of 2,550 pounds, and today typically have a useful load of between 900 and 950 pounds. (Keep in mind that these specifications are approximations based on my experience.) Comanches are often very highly modified with speed kits, etc., so each aircraft really has to be treated as its own design.

The Comanche 180 demonstrates the soundness of the aerodynamic design. A stock 180 in good condition will typically outrun an Arrow, carrying the same load on 20 less horsepower—a 75 percent cruise of 140-plus ktas on 10 gph or so.

Applying all the possible speed mods has brought the cruise speed of a Comanche 180 to over 150 ktas and close to that of a Cirrus SR20, the latter of which has the benefit of composite construction and computer-aided design.

The Comanche 180 carries 60 gallons of fuel, of which 56 gallons is usable. This gives a four-hour endurance with a very comfortable reserve. It is also the nicest handling and nicest landing of all of the Comanches.

There is nothing from the outside that identifies a Comanche 180, save for the insignia. They have the identical appearance to the 250 and the early 260s. The hallmark of the early Comanches is the two windows on the side. The cowling is even the same for the four-cylinder 180s as it is for the six-cylinder 250s/260s.

Comanche 250

In the spring of 1958, Piper received its certification for the Comanche 250 and started making deliveries. The 250s had a maximum gross weight of 2,800 pounds. Stock airplanes commonly has useful loads around 1,100 pounds.

They are generally equipped with an O-540-A1A5 engine. The 250s would cruise at around 155 ktas at 75 percent power and burn about 14 gph at optimal altitude.

Like all Comanches, if you take it up higher, you’ll be rewarded with big fuel flow decreases with only small decreases in speed. Cruising above 10,000 feet will only cost a few knots in speed, but the fuel flow will drop to 12 gph or less. Keep climbing and the efficiency just keeps improving.

With 56 gallons of useable fuel, 500- to 600-mile flights with reserve is easily possible. Tiptanks are an STC’d option that increases the fuel capacity by 30 gallons and in most models, increases the gross weight.

The 180/250 came originally with the instrument cluster toward the center of the panel and the avionics on the left side. This was apparently so that the copilot would have easy access to the flight instruments. This configuration was fairly common in early aircraft, but was going out of fashion even in the 1950s.

Early Comanches had manual flaps and an arm that serves as the emergency gear extension lever that sticks up from the floor and lays down when the gear is raised. More than one unwary pilot has lost an iPad to that arm by putting the device on the floor in front of and between the front seats.

In 1961, Piper made significant improvements. The company increased the fuel capacity to 90 gallons with 86 useable by adding two optional 15-gallon auxiliary tanks outboard of the mains. This was only available for the 250 Comanches. That much fuel gives the Comanches a range of 900 to 1,000 nm. With tiptanks as well, 116 gallons of usable fuel could make a 10-hour flight a reality.

Also for the 1961 model year, toe brakes were added to the pilot side in addition to the handbrake, and the panel got a center stack configuration for the radios. To make sure that the additional fuel did not eat up too much of the cabin capacity, Piper increased the gross weight to 2,900 pounds.

For the 1962 year, Piper replaced the manual flaps that mostly just pivoted downward with Fowler-type flaps that moved back and down, thereby increasing the wing area. That in turn reduced the stall speed and takeoff roll.

At some point in 1962 or 1963, apparently with the 1963 model year2, fuel injection became an option.

By the end of 1963, Piper quit producing the 180 hp model except upon special order, and then stopped the 180 altogether in 1964.

Comanche 400, Comanche 260

Big changes were forthcoming in 1964. Piper introduced the 400 hp version of the Comanche, and by mid-year, started producing the 1965 model year—the first of the 260 hp Comanches.

The 400 Comanche was the brainchild of Howard “Pug” Piper who wanted a Comanche that would cruise in the high teens and low flight levels without the complication of turbocharging. The 400 has an eight-cylinder IO-720 engine that indeed will climb up and cruise in the flight levels.

The aircraft came out in 1964 powered by an IO-720-A1A engine with 400 hp. The fuel capacity is 130 gallons. Cruise speeds range from 190 ktas or so at 75 percent burning around 22 to 23 gph, to 160 to 170 ktas at higher altitudes burning 15 to 16 gph. (Again, speeds depend a lot on what speed modifications are installed.) The gross weight is 3,600 pounds, with a typical useful load of 1,350 to 1,400 pounds.

Piper made 147 of the 400s—all in the 1964 model year—and they are still prized as a niche aircraft. They climb like a homesick angel, but the engine is expensive to overhaul, running $60,000 to $70,000 for a quality rebuild.

The 1965 model was the first of the 260 Comanches which were delivered from late summer 1964 through 1965. With a new prop and a fuel injected engine (which was now redlined at 2,700 rpm instead of 2,575 rpm), an additional 10 hp was gained.

Piper also improved the aerodynamics by changing to a single-fork main landing gear which tucked the strut and the brake caliper into the wheel well, reducing drag.

Another desirable improvement was the installation of dual exhaust. These removed the muffler from the rear of the engine which had a tendency to overheat the cabin through the firewall. The new dual exhaust was also less prone to exhaust stack cracking which was, and still is, all too common, especially on the right side stack of the 250 Comanches.

Comanche 260B

Arguably the largest cosmetic and functional change in the Comanche took place with the 1966 B model Comanches. The fuselage was altered to make it possible to install a fifth and sixth seat in the baggage compartment. To accomplish this, Piper removed the back bench seat and replaced it with individual seats.

The baggage compartment seats are essentially three- to four-inch pads that attach to an anchor and sit on the floor. A padded back also attached and rested against the back bulkhead. Two little foot wells were placed under the rear/middle to accommodate these passengers’ feet. Piper was also required to move the baggage door to the left side of the fuselage so that it could act as an emergency exit, and added an additional window.

The B models and later are easily identified by the three windows down each side as opposed to the two windows for earlier Comanches. This made the fuselage appear longer, but in fact that is an optical illusion. The fuselage deimensions for all Comanches are the same. The overall length can change due to differences in prop and spinner. The B model was produced from 1966 through 1968.

Comanche 260C

For the model year 1969, Piper made a number of significant refinements. The main improvement was a much more modern-looking instrument panel in the standard six-pack configuration. Gone were the old toggle switches and the overall look that seemed to come out of an Ernie Gann novel. Lighted rocker switches and a power lever quadrant replaced the push-pull engine controls and made the Comanche C a more modern-looking plane.

Also gone was the classic Comanche “smiley face” cowling. In its place was the “shark’s nose” cowling with an extended prop hub. Cowl flaps were added in an effort to reduce cooling drag. The gross weight was increased 100 pounds to 3,200 pounds, but the majority of that was eaten up with the changes.

With the Comanche C, Piper also made factory turbocharging an option. The PA-24-260TC was actually the fastest of the Comanches when it was taken up into the flight levels. The manual wastegate controlled the manifold pressure once the aircraft could no longer maintain the desired power setting. These are the rarest of the Comanches with only around two dozen produced.

Turbocharging does provide significant altitude capability, but it comes at the expense of low altitude performance. The back pressure in the system caused by the manual wastegate means a reduction of about an inch in manifold pressure on takeoff. The turbos also come at a financial cost, as they increase the maintenance expenses and the engine overhaul expenses.

Knowledge sharing

Successful ownership and enjoyment of a Comanche generally requires the owner to take a role in the maintenance of the aircraft and take responsibility to obtain training from a knowledgeable instructor.

There are few shops in the country that truly know how to care for a Comanche and know what the current availability and lowest cost options are for parts. Most shops don’t see more than a few Comanches every decade, and their design is significantly different from the Cherokees and their derivatives.

When a known Comanche-savvy shop is not readily available, a partnership between a local IA and the owner can bridge the gap to help keep a Comanche in good airworthy condition.

There are online Comanche communities, such as the Airworthy Comanche Forum and the International Comanche Society, plus training programs by the Comanche Flyer Foundation.

One or more of these in combination with resources from your Piper Flyer Association can provide an owner with ready access to the information necessary to get any Comanche back in the air expeditiously.

Pre-purchase considerations

When purchasing a Comanche, it is important to have a pre-purchase inspection by someone who actually knows Comanches, not just one who claims to know them based on having done a few annual inspections over the years. There are a couple of areas where any old mechanic will not do.

The landing gear is the chief area where lax maintenance can cause a significant problem—and a significant expense—for a new owner. Failure to ensure that the landing gear has been properly maintained can be a $10,000 mistake if the entire system needs to be restored.

The Comanche landing gear is robust and perfectly safe, but it is not idiotproof. It does not have mechanical down-locks, which means the system needs to be rigged properly to keep the drag links overcenter so that no bounce or side load will allow the retraction of gear.

Because mechanics often do not have a good feel for how much play in a landing gear system is too much, Piper came up with a detailed inspection with Service Letter No. 782, and the FAA mandated that inspection to be done every 1,000 hours with Airworthiness Directive (AD) 77-13-21, paragraph (a).

That same AD also mandates the replacement of the landing gear bungees which help unload the landing gear transmission as the gear comes up. Replacement is every 500 hours or three years, whichever comes first.

AD 77-13-21 creates one of the first gotchas for potential owners, because it mandates two actions at different intervals. Mechanics rarely miss the paragraph (b) requirement to replace the bungees, but not so the 1,000-hour inspection which calls for partial disassembly of the landing gear and checking the bolts and bushings for excessive wear. This wear inspection is often overlooked—or even occasionally signed off without having been performed.

An experienced Comanche mechanic can tell in less than an hour what the condition of the landing gear is, but that is knowledge that comes from having performed a number of the 1,000-hour inspections to learn the before-and-after condition.

AD 2012-17-06 on the stabilator torque tube horn requires a 500-hour repetitive dye penetrant inspection for each horn with more than 1,000 hours time in service. The inspection takes about six hours. There is an STC to permanently comply with that AD by installing a new horn.

The STC’d horn runs close to $1,000 and will take eight to 10 hours to install, and then is subject to a 100-hour visual inspection that requires no disassembly.

Piper Service Bulletin No. 1189 provides more information, but fortunately, the AD is not as strict as Piper’s Service Bulletin. Thanks to some dedicated Comanche owners, one of whom is an aeronautical engineer, the FAA was convinced that longer inspection intervals were appropriate.

The two ADs detailed above are only a few of the ADs that may apply to a particular Comanche. In my experience, maintenance logs may state an AD has been permanently complied with, when it was only partially complied with—and repetitive inspections are, in fact, required. Research and verify the status of every single AD on the airframe before buying.

 

The Comanche is a great traveling machine. It hauls a good load, quickly, over a long distance. Comanches have been prominent over the years in racing circles, and numerous Comanches and Twin Comanches have circled the globe.

If are looking for a airplane that can haul a family, a Comanche is worth a look. It is frequently the last plane someone buys—and it could be the last plane you ever need to buy.

 
A&P/IA Kristin Winter has been an airport rat for almost four decades. She holds an ATP-SE/ME rating and is a CFIAIM, AGI, IGI. She has over 8,000 hours and owns and operates a 1969 C model Twinkie affectionately known as Maggie. Send questions or comments to .

 March 2017

1Author Ted Durosko is quoting Piper Chief Design Engineer Fred Strickland in “Check Pilot Report: The Piper Comanche.” Flying, Feb. 1958.

 2Piper followed the same protocol as automobile manufacturers who usually started the next model year in the fall of the previous year.

 

RESOURCES >>>>>

Owner information and assistance

Piper Flyer Association
Airworthy Comanche Forum

 

Safety and training

Comanche Flyer Foundation

cffpilot.com

 

Maintenance documents

AD 77-13-21, “Prevent Landing Gear Collapse”

rgl.faa.gov

 

Piper Service Letter No. 782A
“Landing Gear Manual Extension System Inspection and Nose Gear Down Lock Spring Installation”

 

Piper Service Bulletin No. 1189

“Stabilator Horn Assembly Inspection”

 

AD 2012-17-06

“Stabilator Horn Assembly Inspection and Replacement”

 

All three documents are available at PiperFlyer.org/forums under “Magazine Extras”

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