A highly experienced pilot has strong opinions about the Pacer and Tri-Pacer. His flight in a Tri-Pacer tailwheel conversion puts those opinions to the test.
Images by Keith Wilson
2019 is the 70th birthday of the Piper PA-20 Pacer. Is there another aircraft which is so much better with a tailwheel than it is with a nosewheel?
What am I on about?
It’s just that no two aircraft I’ve flown contrast quite like the Piper PA-20 Pacer and the PA-22 Tri-Pacer in terms of looks, handling and performance. (For parity, see Resources for a list of articles praising the Tri-Pacer. —Ed.)
The good news for Piper is its customers didn’t share my opinion—eventually the company sold nearly nine times more Tri-Pacers. In 1953 alone, the Tri-Pacer outsold the Pacer 6 to 1.
A Tri-Pacer, converted to a Pacer
The test aircraft in this article is actually a Tri-Pacer converted to a tailwheel, so that makes it a PA-22/20 Pacer—if you’re confused, you’re excused. (For more about the particulars of this conversion, and a common STC used to perform it, see Resources for further reading. —Ed.)
Notwithstanding the improvement in looks, handling and performance, the tailwheel conversion also means you get an aircraft that is 50 pounds lighter (basically the nosewheel weight minus tailwheel weight) and has a 50-pound improvement in useful load for the same mtow. Plus, you get a wider track undercarriage once the original main gear legs are reversed or replaced, and the fuselage is modified to accept the changes.
A big criticism of the original PA-20 was its narrow track, which, combined with its short wing and fuselage, make it much more lively than its Cub/Super Cub antecedents.
For Tri-Pacer pilots, ground handling forms the basis of their side of the argument as to which is the better aircraft. In normal conditions, Tri-Pacers are easier to handle on the ground because of the nosewheel and wider track, and easier in the air because of the linked aileron and rudder controls.
Why link the aileron and rudder?
Both the PA-20 and PA-22 have classic wing designs with USA-35B airfoils (like a Piper Cub) and the relatively simple ailerons of all short-wing Pipers—but at just 29 feet, 3 inches wingspan, the PA-20s and PA-22s are approximately 6 feet shorter in span, with 40 square feet less wing area than a Piper Cub.
For “simple” (read: no) differential movement: the upgoing aileron moves as far as the downgoing one, producing yaw in opposition to the direction of roll.
Adverse yaw moment is also exacerbated in an aircraft with reduced yaw stability, and the fuselage of the PA-20 and PA-22 is 10 percent shorter (i.e., less stable) than a Cub. If you forget your feet and just turn the wheel, the PA-20 and PA-22 initially yaw away from the bank and you keep on going straight ahead.
This is one reason why I love the Pacer: it’s the ultimate tailwheel trainer because you just cannot forget your feet. PA-20 pilots quickly settle down and any initial cursing is replaced by a greater understanding of what is required to fly in balance in all three axes all the time.
The spring-connected ailerons and rudder on the PA-22 Tri-Pacer are the antithesis of this, in my opinion. I believe they have no place in a cockpit with a qualified pilot at the controls. Mercifully, the test aircraft has the ailerons and rudder disconnected from one another as part of the tailwheel conversion.
The rest of a Piper Pacer is as stock as you can get for the era: it’s a rag-and-tube high-wing aircraft much like any other Auster, Bellanca, Cessna and others. The original PA-20s and PA-22s were offered with a range of “flat four” Lycoming engines up front and many have been updated in later life. The test aircraft started with 125 hp and now sports a 150 hp Lycoming engine. Some extreme Pacers have 180 to 200 hp and there are plenty flying with tundra tires, floats and skis.
Owner Alex Smith has been flying his Pacer, G-APXT, for two years. He also has a share in a Nanchang CJ-6A, and before that, he shared a Yak 18T for many years.
I asked him why he bought a Pacer, and Smith said, “I needed a runabout for the family as my son will be barred from the [CJ-6A] by his mother for a good while yet. And I wanted something that would stretch me, so a tailwheel seemed a good call.”
“I wasn’t particularly looking for a Pacer,” he continued, “so it was something of a revelation when I found it. This one is a fraction of the price of a Super Cub and superbly finished.”
I next asked how he got on with flying the Pacer for the first time. He replied, “I think one of its challenges is its sink rate—it doesn’t float when flaring like Super Cubs. That means if you misjudge the flare height, it can plonk down a bit sharpish.”
“On the other hand, it doesn’t really stall as such—it just parachutes down,” Smith added. Another satisfied customer by the sound of it.
With his comments in mind, Alex and I went flying at White Waltham Airfield (EGLM) in Berkshire on a beautiful spring day before the ground had been baked hard by the drought.
What’s it like?
My first impressions of the aircraft were very good indeed. The Pacer is small but perfectly formed; a jaunty little tailwheel aircraft very unlike the rather brutish-looking (to me) tricycle version.
This is an immaculate restoration and although the colors of bright red and arctic white—inside as well out—might not be everyone’s taste, there’s no denying the workmanship that has gone into the restoration and paint job.
G-APXT has plenty of neat features, such as the faired-in grab handles at the back of the fuselage and a separate door for the rear seat passengers. The front seats are comfortable and there’s plenty of leg room once you have managed to clamber in, pulling yourself up with a hand on the tube frame which connects from the wing root to the top of the panel. The forward door is on the right, so the captain goes first.
I notice that only the left rudder pedals have toe brakes, so I opt for the right seat for the first flight as I haven’t flown one for years, and the PA-22/20 Pacer can be particularly squirrelly on the ground. It might be something to do with the main wheel alignment and/or the wheels toeing in and out under compression more than the original PA-20.
The rudder pedals are fixed, but the seats are adjustable. I find it’s better to do the adjusting with no weight on the seat (i.e., you will need to clamber back out again). Because of the short fuselage, the nose sits much higher off the ground than in a Cub and it’s an uphill struggle to slide the seat forward otherwise.
The panel is nicely laid out and sympathetically modernized with a GPS and upgraded radio/transponder atop the older King radio, which was probably put there in the 1980s.
Fuel is just 30 imperial gallons (36 U.S. gallons) in two tanks—15 per side, selected on the left cockpit wall. Here comes the first Pacer idiosyncrasy: you must not fly on the right tank with less than one-third fuel remaining unless straight and level. Alex told me that he got caught out early on with this limitation, and the Pacer’s engine stopped in a turn with the right tank selected and one-fourth remaining.
Another Pacer quirk is the position of the magneto rocker switches on the panel in front of the throttle. A hefty plunge of throttle in a hurry might well have you accidentally punching off one, or even both, mags. On the other hand, I do like the starter button (also on the panel) rather than a key. It’s cool.
Startup, runup and takeoff
Engine starting is as easy as it can be for a flat four: switch on the battery, switch on the left mag, select fuel left or right; prime as required; mixture rich, throttle set and hit the button.
After start, you must remember to switch the other mag on, and also the generator switch, otherwise you’ll flatten the battery in about 15 minutes. A friend of mine once did that to me mucking about taxiing around in a Tri-Pacer at Le Touquet (LFAT) in northern France while I was paying the parking fees at the tower.
I ended up having to swing a prop for the first time, but not before I had gone back to the tower to ask if they knew anyone who could swing the prop for me.
“Oui monsieur,” replied the man on the desk. When I asked who to look for, he replied, “He is very easy to recognize: he doesn’t have any fingers on his right hand!”
I never found out for certain if the French man at the desk was kidding, but I didn’t get any help. I remember standing in front of the aircraft, about to swing, when I noticed that the profile view of the cabin is that of a coffin. Later on, over Bordeaux, the engine quit because—yes, you guessed it—we were on the right tank with less than one-third of a tank of fuel.
Trying to bury these bitter memories, I get Alex to release the parking brake by depressing the foot pedals whilst pushing the brake lever and then we start moving forward, weaving that high nose. I’m tall and can just about see over it, but a Spitfire-style weave is the best thing to do, bearing in mind that you are also blind to the side where your colleague is sitting. I proceed cautiously.
One more quirk of the Pacer is that the foot brakes don’t work when the parking brake is set. This, the dodgy ailerons, the fuel quirk and the mag switches all make me wonder if the aircraft was designed in a bit of a hurry; it’s certainly not as resolved as the Piper Cub/Super Cub, that’s for sure.
Engine runup and pre-takeoff checks are completed in short order before we line up on the grass at Waltham and I open up the throttle. The tail stays down and there’s no pronounced swing but I quickly realize the rudder is skittish and have to calm down my inputs to stop seesawing the nose left and right down the runway.
At 40 mph the elevator is live, and I am able to raise the tail a little just before we fly off cleanly at 50 mph ias after a ground roll of just under 500 feet at mtow of 2,000 pounds.
Getting settled in the air
I quickly sort myself out and try and take stock of that rapid sequence of events. For sure this aircraft is nothing like a Cub/Super Cub. The Pacer is more lively, but sensitive; faster, but uses something over twice the runway to get off the ground.
Let’s look at the actual figures later while I try and wrangle this skittish machine. After initially climbing at 65 mph and 800 fpm, now we are climbing at 90 mph and 500 fpm before I level off at 2,500 feet and let the speed build up to a top speed of approximately 145 mph (it’s turbulent); then come back to 135 mph at 2,500 rpm with what I suspect is a cruise prop. A 150 hp Super Cub would be left in the dust at this speed: it’s 20 mph slower than the Pacer, and 15 mph slower than the Tri-Pacer.
Let’s look at those ailerons a bit more. Initially, the increased drag of the downgoing aileron means that as well as raising the wing it also causes the wing to pull back, causing adverse yaw. However, further column throw puts the Frise leading edge of the upgoing aileron into the airflow and the aircraft then swings into the turn. All in all, it’s pretty messy until you remember to use your feet, after which, a perfectly coordinated and balanced turn is possible.
Control harmony for roll, pitch and rudder is just about spot-on and the crank-style trim mounted overhead works well, just like in the Cherokee that came after this aircraft. I spend a little while just generally throwing this little bird around the sky before it’s time to fly with the Nanchang camera ship.
We settle on a speed of 100 mph for the photo shoot because both aircraft are happy there and we have a little extra “smack” in the Pacer to fly on the outside of a turn. The reduced visibility of a high-wing aircraft is apparent here, but I’m relatively comfortable flying alongside while Keith Wilson snaps away. Twenty minutes and we’re all done. Time to explore a bit further.
The tin parachute
Once away from the Nanchang, Alex and I try a little stalling. I reduce throttle to idle and pull the nose ever higher to try and induce a g-break. Alex did warn me.
Finally, at 47 mph and with the nose about 10 degrees above the horizon, the aircraft gives up; the nose drops and I briefly see 600 fpm on the VSI. Then it pitches back up again.
And so the nodding continues. We climb back up to a safe height and try it with flap—not a lot more happens, except it’s slower and reveals a little wing drop, with otherwise the same outcome. What a safe airplane!
Back into the circuit
Back at White Waltham we fly the circuit with ease in this really nice and characterful aircraft, going down and slowing down at the same time, then slotting in with the usual traffic. 90 mph downwind, 75 on base and 65 on final with three stages of flap works OK.
Over the threshold I slow to 60 mph—the classic 1.3 VSO—and then close the throttle to settle down in a nice little three-point attitude… when all hell breaks loose.
The combination of the Pacer’s short coupling, freshly-refurbished (read: stiff!) bungees in the undercarriage and White Waltham’s infamous bumps mean that I can’t quite catalog how I came to get to a walking pace in this aircraft.
We did another circuit and the same thing happened. If you fly a Pitts or similar, you’ll know what I mean.
When I came to write this story a few months later, I traveled up to G-APXT’s base at Sleap (EGCV) in Shropshire to try again at landing it with one of those variables removed—and it worked: I found myself able to control it. While it’s not as docile as a Super Cub, I decided that a Pacer is actually a bit better than a Pitts.
Bob Davy is s commercial pilot and aviation journalist from London, England. He spends most of his time flying around Europe in Avro RJs for airlines and private clients. He has 15,000 flying hours in nearly 300 different fixed-wing aircraft. Davy knows he is lucky because he regularly flies three of his five favorite aircraft: the P-51, the Nanchang CJ-6 and the Pitts Special. (His other two favorites are the Hawk and Spitfire). Davy has been published all over the world. In addition to writing hundreds of flight tests, he has also written a novel, “In Case of War Break Glass,” which takes place in World War II and is loosely based on the life of Robin Olds. Send questions or comments to .
FURTHER READING ON THE PA-20 CONVERSION
“The Practical Piper Pacer” by Myrna Mibus, April 2015
This article and others, including two PA-22 Tri-Pacer owner profiles, are available at PiperFlyer.org.
PIPER PA-22/20 CONVERSION STC
Univair Aircraft Corp.