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Piper PA-32: The Unsung Hero of Southwest Alaska

Piper PA-32: The Unsung Hero of Southwest Alaska

“King Salmon Tower, Cherokee N32785 is a Cherokee Six, 8 miles east of the field; inbound for landing Runway 18; got Echo.”
“Good morning, Lydia; King Salmon Tower. Traffic is Justin in the Katmai Beaver, at your 2 o’clock, 3 miles, for the river.”
The nonchalant and personal interaction with the tower in this small frontier town is part of the reason why I love it so much. The tower controllers at King Salmon Airport (PAKN) know our names, our airplanes and where we are from. They know everyone and talk to us like friends.

In no time, I was on a short approach for a long landing on Runway 18. I watched Justin cruise smoothly down to the river. My long landing brought me almost all the way to the southeast ramp, where I would offload some of the cargo from my company’s Cherokee Six. 

I cleared the runway and started shutting down my avionics and recording my times. I parked in the same corner I always parked in and reached over my copilot to unlatch the door. Once out on the wing of the Cherokee, I did a quick scan of the ramp. 

Behind me, an unmistakable paint job taxied into view. The orange and yellow Andrew Airways Saratoga, also from Kodiak Island, parked behind my bird. In front of us, a brown and gold Cherokee Six, painted identical to another one in our fleet (both from an air taxi in Skagway), taxied out for departure. 

Sitting on the ramp in Karluk, Alaska (PAKY), the shortest and one of the most challenging airstrips we fly into.
Approaching to land at Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak/Kodiak Airport (PADQ).

As I looked around more, I realized the ramp was cluttered with these Piper heroes; private and commercial aircraft alike. I quickly offloaded some of my freight and pressed on to Naknek, a small community 12 miles further west of King.

The Naknek Airport (5NK) is a quaint one; two narrow gravel runways form an “L” shape. There isn’t really a ramp; instead, the intersection of the runways served as a cluttered parking lot. You sort of just roll out to the end and shut down wherever your plane stops. 

On each side of the runway, there were Piper Cubs and Cessna 180s tied down in the brush. I maneuvered my Cherokee around a Cessna 206 and “nosed in” to a group of three other Cherokees. I shook my head as I jumped off the wing of the little plane. The population of Sixes and Saratogas in this region was amazing. I had never seen so many in one place. 

Due to the surrounding terrain, the wind has a tendency to get extremely turbulent and cause a tailwind regardless of the direction you land.

 

When I first started growing in my aviation career, I worked on the ramp for a small air taxi on the coast of Maine. Penobscot Island Air exclusively flew Cessna 206s and 207s, servicing several remote islands. For two years, I threw bags and fueled their planes. I took every opportunity to ride along, in total awe of these workhorses. They seemed to take all the abuse we could give them, from icy runways to 90-degree days. Mail and freight and lobster would weigh the planes down daily, but they never faltered. They were trusty and sturdy and unrelenting.

Island Air Cherokee Sixes on the ramp in Old Harbor (6R7), one of the villages on Kodiak Island.

Upon moving to Anchorage, I found the story to be quite similar: many of the operators flew strictly Cessna 206s and 207s. There wasn’t a Cherokee to be found. 

When my summer season in Anchorage came to a close and I began to look for a new job, I was referred to Island Air Service in Kodiak, Alaska. I remember speaking with the chief pilot on the phone and asking questions about the operation. I was standing on the dock looking out over Lake Hood when he mentioned their wheelplane fleet consisted of mostly Cherokee Sixes. 

I almost choked. Cherokees? On short gravel runways? In the middle of nowhere? What?

An Island Air Cherokee on the slushy ramp at Ouzinkie Airport (4K5). Ouzinkie is a village on Spruce Island just north of Kodiak Island.

Oh, how ignorant I was. Later that year I was sitting wide-eyed in the pilot’s seat for three weeks of training, every day learning something new that the little low-wing Piper could do. 

There wasn’t much it couldn’t do. Its sturdy gear absorbed stiff crosswind landings with ease. It cruised anywhere from 120 to 135 knots but slowed to a mere 75 to 80 knots on short final—an ideal airspeed for the shorter fields we landed on. 

The empty weight of the Cherokee Six averages about 1,700 pounds. The useful load of that same plane sits at a little over 1,600 pounds. The plane can almost carry its own weight in fuel, gear and/or passengers. When loading an airplane in the remote villages I fly to, weight and balance is a huge factor. 

With short runways, gusty winds and unpredictable weather, I want to know that I am getting optimal performance out of my airplane in every given aspect. If I’m taking 1,000 pounds of gear and hunters out of a short one-way airstrip with a 15-plus knot tailwind in marginal weather, the last thing I want to think about is an airplane out of CG. 

That’s the magic of the PA-32’s center of gravity. The Six can be loaded in just about any manner to maximum gross weight and still be in the center of gravity envelope. Of course, every airplane has its limits, but the overall maneuverability of the airplane seems unchanged. 

The PA-32 is comparable to the Cessna 207. If you were to place a 207 and a Cherokee Six side by side, performance is nearly identical. At an average empty weight of 2,000 pounds and a useful load of 1,800 pounds, the 207 has an equally generous CG.  

On Kodiak Island, the average village airstrip is about 2,000 to 2,500 feet long with at least one approach over water (no obstacles) and every strip is within a few hundred feet of sea level. The performance, useful load and overall stability of a Cherokee Six in this environment makes this underrated and underappreciated aircraft a huge part of Island Air Service’s fleet. It’s the same story for many other air operators in this region of the state. 

Kodiak, Alaska, looking south.

 

Chilliwack, British Columbia, right before a test flight after getting sheet metal work and a paint job at Upper Valley Aviation.

Each of these planes have survived decades of use. My favorite Cherokee in our fleet has over 16,000 hours on the airframe, with its entire life here in Alaska, operating as a cargo-hauling, Part 135-flying beast. It still flies straight and true, as if fresh from the factory.

Lydia Jacobs is a line pilot for Island Air Service in Kodiak, Alaska. Originally from Corinth, Maine, Jacobs bought a Cessna 150 at age 18. In the spring of 2017, Jacobs sold her car and used the money for fuel to fly her 150 solo from Maine to Anchorage, Alaska. The trip took over 60 flight hours, and she often slept in her plane or in a tent. Jacobs currently has a little over 1,500 hours. Send questions or comments to .

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Q&A: Adding Toe Brakes to a Cherokee, Hand Controls for Wheelchair Aviators

Q&A: Adding Toe Brakes to a Cherokee, Hand Controls for Wheelchair Aviators

Q: Hi Steve,

I just bought a 1968 PA-28-180 Cherokee 180 B. So far, it’s been wonderful, but there’s one thing that I haven’t yet gotten used to. I trained in a newer Cherokee and it had toe brakes. My airplane just has a brake handle that I pull on to apply both main brakes at the same time. 

How can this be a good idea? Every airplane I flew in my training had toe brakes and whenever I wanted to turn sharply, I used the brake to sharpen my turn. I can’t do that in my “new” Cherokee and I am hoping you can point out how I can install toe brakes in my airplane. 

 

A: When I looked in the PA-28 and PA-28R Parts Catalog (Piper Part No. 753-582) for the PA-28-180, the way I read it, toe brakes were available on the left side on the PA-28-180 from Serial No. 28-1 up through 28-7305611.

The serial number range for your airplane, the Cherokee 180 B, includes serial numbers from No. 28-671 through 28-1760.

Toe brakes were an option from the factory. All Cherokees were equipped with hand brakes, but only the ones that were ordered with toe brakes also got the factory-installed toe brakes. 

There is no STC to install toe brakes on Cherokees. I have heard of owners who went to an aircraft salvage yard for the entire toe brake package—pedals, crossbar supports, links, firewall reinforcements, master cylinders and other parts that were available—and had these parts installed. Since all the parts are listed in the parts manual for the Cherokee 180, this is certainly doable. 

Some mechanics will say this change is a minor alteration for two reasons. First, Piper already approved the installation of the toe brake system at the factory and all the parts are Piper-produced. Second, it is not listed in the list of major alterations in Appendix A of Part 43 of the regulations. Minor alterations require only a logbook entry for a return to service.

Despite those facts, these days most shops will seek FAA approval in the form of a field approval sign off on a Form 337 (Major Repair and Alteration). This is despite the fact it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get a maintenance inspector at a local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) to sign off a 337.

For what it’s worth, I did see a set of Cherokee toe brake pedals on eBay today. It lacked the master cylinders and the necessary firewall reinforcements, so you’d have to source those parts elsewhere.

My 1960 Piper PA-24 Comanche is the first airplane I’ve ever owned that does not have toe brakes. At first, I was skeptical too. 

I soon learned that I didn’t miss the toe brakes at all. Part of the reason is that I used to lock up and flat-spot tires when I had toe brakes. That got expensive. Yes, I had to learn to live with the turning radius of my Comanche, but now that I know about it, the larger turning radius hasn’t been a headache. 

Many owners with the handbrake controls, myself included, strongly suggest that you live with your hand-actuated brake system for a few months before you make your final decision. It’s a good system.

Happy flying,

Steve

A Piper handbrake, like this one installed in Steve’s PA-24 Comanche, is simple to operate. The brake system applies equal braking pressure to the main wheels. Just pull the handle to slow down.


Q: Hi Steve,

I expect my mechanic can answer this, but I haven’t asked him yet. I have a Piper PA-28 Cherokee that I’ve owned for years. This airplane has been a central part of our family trips and vacations. 

My son was severely hurt last year in a motocross accident and has lost the use of his legs. He gets around fine in his wheelchair and has expressed an interest in flying. I have heard something about wheelchair pilots, but don’t have any details. 

Is there a way to equip my Cherokee so that my son can take flying lessons?

Flying Dad


A: Hi Dad,

I’m sorry to hear about your son’s accident.

Yes, theoretically there’s a way to equip your Cherokee with controls that will enable your son to safely fly your airplane. But unless you can find a used set of hand controls to install in your airplane, it’s going to be tough.

Unfortunately, the two companies that developed hand controls for disabled pilots and had them approved through what’s called a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) are no longer producing the hardware and paperwork for installation of the controls.

STC SA1741WE approves the installation of hand controls in PA-28-140, -150, -160, -180, -235 and PA-28R-180 and R-200 aircraft. This modification is sometimes known as the “Blackwood hand control” after the originator. The STC is presently owned by Mike Smith, but is not in production.

During my research, I spoke with Justin Meaders at International Wheelchair Aviators. Meaders is a pilot and uses a wheelchair. He was able to update me on the state of STCs for equipping Pipers for pilots who require hand controls to fly. 

Meaders told me he is working to get the FAA to recognize the Blackwood hand control for Pipers as a medical device that would not require an STC for installation.

Vision Air of Australia has Australian approval for a hand controls system for Cherokees, but it hasn’t been approved for use in the United States.

There is a similar STC for Cessna hand controls known as the Union control. The STC is in suspension now, but has been purchased by Linwood Nooe of Operation Prop in Brandon, Mississippi. 

I asked Nooe if he knew of a source for the hand controls. He told me that his nonprofit organization offers flights and flight training to men and women that can’t operate foot controls, and that people donate used controls to him from time to time. 

Nooe also invited anyone who needs hand controls to fly to come to his facility in Mississippi  for both introductory flights and flight training. (Nooe’s contact information is in Resources. —Ed.) 

You can view videos of hand-controlled flights using the Vision Air controls and Union control on the website of the United Kingdom-based nonprofit Freedom in the Air. (See link in Resources. —Ed.)

Best wishes on helping your son fly,

Steve

These diagrams, provided by Linwood Nooe, show the Union hand control.
It is similar to the Blackwood control used on Piper Cherokees. 

Know your FAR/AIM and check with your mechanic before starting any work.

Steve Ells has been an A&P/IA for 44 years and is a commercial pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings. Ells also loves utility and bush-style airplanes and operations. He’s a former tech rep and editor for Cessna Pilots Association and served as associate editor for AOPA Pilot until 2008. Ells is the owner of Ells Aviation (EllsAviation.com) and the proud owner of a 1960 Piper Comanche. He lives in Templeton, California, with his wife Audrey. Send questions and comments to .

RESOURCES >>>>>

FAR PART 43, APPENDIX A
Federal Aviation Administration

BLACKWOOD HAND CONTROL STC FOR PIPER PA-28
Federal Aviation Administraton
rgl.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library/rgSTC.nsf/WebSearchDefault?SearchView&Query=SA1741WE

INFORMATION FOR WHEELCHAIR AVIATORS
Able Flight
ableflight.org

Freedom in the Air (flight videos)
freedomintheair.org/hand-controls

International Wheelchair Aviators
wheelchairaviators.org

Operation Prop (Linwood Nooe)
operationprop.com

Vision Air
mirageair.com.au/vision.shtml

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“Bold Warrior”: A New Pilot Buys a Piper PA-28-151 for Training & Traveling

“Bold Warrior”: A New Pilot Buys a Piper PA-28-151 for Training & Traveling

Photos by Mike Maez

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been obsessed with anything fast. Anytime a plane would fly overhead, I was—and still am—the boy that would stop everything to look up and watch it fly by. I spent a lot of my teenage years playing various flight simulator games. 

As I grew older, my obsession with speed and adrenaline obviously led me to cars. I started racing cars as soon as I could drive and did everything from drag racing to professional-level drifting. 

One of the things I was always fascinated with though, was aviation. I just never thought it was possible to get into it so early in life. Boy, was I wrong. 

 

The fast track

A little over a year ago, I came across a picture on social media of my friend Alex Luke flying a C-172. Having no idea that he was a pilot, I messaged him immediately to tell him how envious I was of him flying planes. I begged him to take me for a ride. 

As it turns out, Alex was building time for an instrument rating, and was constantly spending money to rent the C-172. He was excited to hear how into aviation I was, and agreed to take me up on one of his flights.

I knew this was going to be something special, but I could never foresee what would be coming next. 

We went on one airplane ride and the aviation bug hit me hard. Less than a month later, Alex and I bought a plane together, and my life changed forever. 

I picked up my PPL within two-and-a-half months: I scored 93 percent on my written and passed my checkride on the first try. 

We. Went. Everywhere. 

It seemed like Alex and I were in the air more than we were on the ground—and I was loving every minute of it. We managed to put 300 hours on the airframe in the first four months of ownership. By then, Alex had finished his IFR, and I bought out his share as we had planned from the beginning.

 

A shiny new panel

Once the plane belonged solely to me, I began researching ways to personalize it. I have always been a tech nerd of sorts, so the panel was definitely something I had my eye on upgrading. 

I started the upgrade by installing a PMA450 audio panel from PS Engineering. I had all the audio panel wiring redone with four-place headset jacks and panel-powered Bose LEMO plugs. I then installed a Garmin GTX 330ES transponder and GNS 430W GPS, and linked them all together for ADS-B compliance. 

I also did my own custom mount under the throttle quadrants for a Stratus 2S to receive ADS-B In, and had an AirGizmos’ iPad panel mount installed. Finally I bought a sheet of real carbon fiber that I had laser cut to complete the panel.

 

A custom interior

Next up, I really wanted to bring the interior of the Warrior back to life. All of the aviation interiors I was finding online seemed very standard and ordinary. I really wanted something different that wasn’t run-of-the-mill and would also be durable. 

Through my research, I found that Ron from Aviation Creations was the go-to guy to talk to about this. Working with Ron, I carefully crafted my own overall design and picked all of the colors and fabrics to make it a truly custom interior. 

I completely revamped the Warrior’s interior head-to-toe, replacing everything that was worn out or broken, mainly with new OEM Piper parts and all new hardware. This included the headliner, rear bulkhead, glareshield—all of it. I had most of the interior plastics, including the overhead panel, wrapped in aviation-grade Ultrasuede, a synthetic microfiber. 

Doing all of the installation work myself with the help of my friend Alex Simpson, we also replaced all the windows with new solar control windows from Great Lakes Aero Products. I just took my time, and tried to research how to do the stuff online. I also got a lot of advice from my A&P/IA at Falcon Executive.  

I do my own oil changes and my own tire/tube changes as well. Basically anything that I am allowed to do I prefer to do myself. I am a perfectionist, and have the mindset of “do it once, do it right,”—and the same mindset applies to the Warrior. When I am not allowed to do something I work with the staff at Falcon Executive at Falcon Field Airport (KFFZ) in Mesa, Ariz.

 

Speed mods and STCs

The Warrior already had various speed mods installed when Alex Luke and I bought it. These included upgraded wheel pants from Knots 2U; wing root seals; and Laminar Flow Systems’ flap gap seals, flap hinge fairings and aileron seals. I did replace the landing light with a Teledyne LED light since the OEM light doesn’t provide as much illumination for night ops.

In addition, N4402X had the 180 hp “Bold Warrior” STC applied to it back in 1998. According to the STC, #SA1842NM was issued to Auto-Air and includes installation of a Lycoming O-360-A4M engine and a Sensenich 76EM8-0-60 propeller and associated installation components. 

The STC helps with flying all year long in the hot Arizona desert with high density altitude airports such as Sedona and Flagstaff. Given the flexibility of the extra horsepower—it essentially turns the aircraft into an Archer—and the robustness of the O-360 platform which is known to run well over its 2,000-hour TBO, we managed to put 450 hours on in the first year with no major issues or unwanted downtime. 

 

A variety of experiences

Over the first year of flying I have experienced a vacuum pump failure in flight, an alternator failure during runup, and got stuck on the taxiway of a very small airport due to a punctured tube. 

I’ve currently have amassed almost 200 hours of cross-country time in just over a year by doing trips all over the Southwestern United States with a lot of night cross-country stuff as well. I have also done numerous flights in and out of fairly busy airports like John Wayne-Orange County Airport (KSNA) in Santa Ana, Calif. and Tucson International (KTUS). 

Most of my flying these days consists of cross-country trips with my girlfriend to some of our favorite stops including San Diego, Orange County and Las Vegas. 

My future plans include adding an instrument rating—and likely upgrading to a larger single, so that I can haul more people to the beach.

After a little over one year of flying, I feel like I have seen a lot already. One of the things that I love about aviation is no matter how much you do, there is always so much more to learn.

 

Special thanks to Bruce and Brad at Falcon Executive Aviation; Ron Matta at Aviation Creations; and Alex Luke, Alex Simpson and Dax Rodriguez. Justin Derendal is a 34-year-old pilot residing in Peoria, Ariz., and an avid aviation enthusiast. He is a former race car driver and Honorary Commander of the USAF 607th Air Control Squadron at Luke AFB. Send questions or comments to .

RESOURCES >>>>> Upgrades and modifications – PFA supporters

Aviation Creations 
 
Bose Corp.
 
Garmin Ltd.
 
Great Lakes Aero Products, Inc.
 
Knots 2U, Ltd.
PS Engineering, Inc.
 
Stratus 2S
 
Teledyne Technologies Inc.

Other upgrades and modifications 

AirGizmos
Laminar Flow Systems
STC #SA1842NM
FAA certified repair stations
Arizona Aircraft Accessories, LLC
Falcon Executive Aviation
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Premier Edition Piper Dakota

Premier Edition Piper Dakota

A “new-from-the-wheels-up” Premier Edition Dakota from Premier Aircraft Sales is a leading example of Piper’s legendary PA-28 series. 

Like many of you, I learned to fly in what is now described in Piper parlance as a high-wing “Wichita Spam can.” Cessna’s 150, 172, 182, 206, 210 and 336/337—I worked my way up through them all. I thought high-wings were the way to go.

Then in 1983 I got introduced to a brand-new Piper PA-28-236 Dakota. This, to me, was a game changer. Sure, the 182 was and is a wonderful airplane, but the 235 hp Dakota was all that and a bag of chips. In particular, the Dakota can carry a bigger load than the 182s of that era and, of greater significance to me, I think it looks cooler than the Skylane. 

That combination of good looks and good performance are two of the many reasons why Fort Lauderdale-based Premier Aircraft Sales selected the venerable Dakota to create what many would call a better-than-new option for today’s pre-owned aircraft buyer.

“What we chose to do was to take a very good Piper product and update it to today’s standards,” explained Fred Ahles, president and founder of Premier Aircraft Sales, Inc. “I was looking for a project and then I was approached by Bill Nutt about creating a next-to-new Dakota for his son and the project took off from there.”

“There is no good used equivalent for the Dakota, and you can’t buy a new equivalent at close to the price that we can refurbish one for,” he explained. “I think a comparably-equipped new Archer sells for around $500,000 today.”

“Basically, we are selling our Premier Edition Dakotas for between $260,000 and $325,000 depending on the avionics,” Ahles added. 

“That’s a lot to pay for a 37-year-old airplane, but it’s a heck of a lot less than buying a new Piper Archer. And the Premier Edition Dakota is faster and can carry more. All in all, we—and our customers—think it’s a very good value.”

While Premier doesn’t promote the Premier Edition Dakota as a next-to-new airplane, that’s essentially what it is. Premier takes the elements of a typical refurb project and kicks it up quite a few notches.

 

First comes the “mother of all annuals”

As Barry Rutheiser, Premier’s sales manager explained it, when the company locates a low-time candidate for the Premier Edition makeover, the engine is removed and the airframe is subjected to what he describes as “the first really good annual inspection any of these airplanes have had in at least 10 years.”

“We follow the Piper factory recommended guide and do everything in the book,” Rutheiser said. “We’ve found that typically these older airplanes have been in the hands of owners and mechanics who were doing the minimum to pass FAA muster every year. But that’s not what a Premier Edition buyer wants to have.”

“Our annuals have been running between $20,000 and $30,000 on these airframes—and that doesn’t include the engine,” Rutheiser explained. “That’s bringing everything up-to-date, including replacing every piece of cracked plastic and fixing all of the fiberglass components to like-new.”

The Premier annual also includes a super-detailed inspection by the experienced Piper technicians at Premier Aircraft Services, the company’s in-house MRO. 

“We see all kinds of age-related issues in the airframe, which all get addressed by the shop,” Rutheiser said. “Nothing is left unfixed. It’s really the mother of all annuals.”

One of the items that Premier addresses is the long-standing Piper Service Bulletin 1006 that details a corrosion inspection of the main spar behind fuel tanks. “The inspection is recommended to be done every seven years, so that’s what we do,” Ahles said. 

“You may not have a visible fuel leak, but we find seepage in the little lines at the back of the tanks that feed the fuel system. It’s small, but over time it can build up and cause corrosion on the wing spar. So, of course, we inspect the spars for any signs of damage.”

“When we have the fuel tanks out, we clean and inspect it all. We have yet to find one that doesn’t have some type of leak,” he said. “These are simple little eight-dollar rubber hoses that cost around $2,200 to change—but to do [the job] right, it has to be done.”

“Who wants to buy an airplane with a leaking fuel line? Not me,” Ahles said. “And I won’t sell one, either.”

After the airframe is inspected tip-to-tail and repairs are made, the control cables are all recalibrated to factory-new specifications and new stainless steel hardware is installed. 

As mentioned earlier, when the airframe begins its annual, the engine is removed and sent to Certified Engines Unlimited, Inc. at North Perry Airport (KHWO) in Hollywood, Florida. 

“Certified Engines does a complete overhaul of the Dakota’s 235 hp Lycoming O-540, including new factory cylinders,” Rutheiser said. “It’s a first-rate overhaul.”

 

It’s exhaust-ing work…

“Another thing I’ve always liked about the Dakota is the way the exhaust pipes come down on the side of the lower cowling. It’s pretty cool,” Ahles said. “But when you open the cowl and look inside these older airplanes, the exhaust looks like a patchwork quilt—there are so many patches welded on. It’s pretty ugly.”

“That’s not in keeping with the Premier Edition concept, so we take all that off and have a local sheet metal fabricator remake all those components,” he said. “When it’s all assembled and put back on the engine, inside the freshly-painted cowling and firewall, it just looks brand-new.”

Rutheiser pointed out to me that Premier is currently doing its first Premier Edition transformation on a Turbo Dakota. And while it’s exactly the same ground-up process, there is one big difference: they replace the original fixed wastegate turbocharger with a new generation Merlyn variable wastegate unit.

“The Merlyn will literally transform the engine’s operation,” he said. “I put one on my airplane, and engine management is now so much easier—and you get way better performance. In the case of the Turbo Dakota, we are literally improving on Piper’s original design.”

Along with all the new goodies under the cowling, Premier Edition Dakota buyers also have the option of upgrading to a new Hartzell three-bladed propeller, which gives the airplane greater climb and cruise performance as well as a quieter cabin. 

 

New airplane smell comes standard

Once all the mechanicals are brought up to factory specifications—Ahles said the team turns its attention on the interior, starting with totally refurbishing the seats. “We have a really good interior shop nearby and they take the original seats and strip them down to the bare frames. This is not a low-cost operation—it’s first class stuff,” he said. 

The seat frames are tightened up and repainted. Then the shop uses the best seat foam on the market to reshape the seat bottoms and backs. 

“These are much more comfortable than what Piper originally installed,” Ahles explained. “We aim to make them as good as what you find in the new Meridian. The goal is to create seats that are really comfortable.”

“Depending on what the customer wants, the seats are covered in either a high-quality vinyl or leather—and all the owners so far have opted for leather,” Ahles added. “A couple of them have also wanted to go with wool carpeting. It’s very nice.”

When it comes to the avionics package, Ahles said each owner specs out the panel to their liking. Premier offers everything from a basic six-pack of steam gauges to a next generation-ready glass panel built around Garmin’s new G500 TXi display and GTN 750 touchscreen GPS units. Every Premier Edition Dakota leaves the shop fully ADS-B Out compliant. 

While every Premier Edition Dakota the company has completed to date is a custom completion, Rutheiser said that they do start with one of three basic configurations depending on cost. 

“Everyone wants a starting point,” he explained. “We offer a Premier Silver, Gold and Platinum—but I really try not to refer to them too much, because each owner has their own vision of what they want their Dakota to be.”

 

All dressed up and someplace to go

Obviously, you can’t do all this work on the airframe, engine, cabin and avionics and just rattle-can on any old paint job.

“We have all the paint work done by Ormond Beach Aviation in Ormond Beach, Florida,” Rutheiser said. “They do a great job. Colors are basically up to the individual owners, but we emulate the paint scheme found on the current PA-28s to ensure consistency.”

“After arriving at Ormond Beach, the airplane is stripped to bare metal and acid washed. All of the details—around the window surrounds, door edges, access panels—everything is prepped and painted to the highest quality,” he said. “Then it all gets clear-coated to ensure durability.”

“I’d dare say that the final finish on these airplanes is equal or better to anything that Piper turns out of the factory today,” Ahles said. “That’s not a knock on the factory—they do very good paint jobs in Vero Beach—ours are just that good.”

“And 20 years from now, Premier Edition airplanes will still look terrific.”

The devil is in the details

While investing nearly 900 man-hours totally refurbishing the airframe, engine, interior, avionics and paint down to the tiniest detail would be enough for most folks, it’s not quite enough for the folks at Premier. They want the Premier Edition Dakota program to offer benefits beyond what you’d expect

So Ahles’ team has taken their program further and provided buyers with the option to get great financing and a “power-by-the-hour” engine maintenance program. “The team at Scope Aircraft Leasing has agreed to finance these aircraft at the completed cost, and that’s a really big deal,” Ahles explained. 

“Most times, when you take a nearly 40-year-old airplane and upgrade it at the cost of a couple hundred grand, the finished price is a lot higher than the bluebook value—and that can make financing really hard to get.”

“Scope has seen what we are doing and offers, with 20 percent down, full financing on the rest of the purchase price,” he said. “That’s really helped the program get going. If you already own your Dakota, Scope offers attractive financing on the cost of the Premier Edition upgrade.”

With regard to the piston engine maintenance program, Ahles explained that while every Premier Edition Dakota is covered by a nine-month warranty from Certified Engines Unlimited, Premier has worked out an attractive program with PistonPower™ to provide an optional hourly cost maintenance program on the engines.

“It’s like a power-by-the-hour program you find on turbine engines, but it’s only for piston engines,” Ahles said. “They offer a menu of coverage options. For example, we offer a three-year program under PistonPower that covers the cost of any repairs to the engine up to a major overhaul. Owners can also sign up for a more extensive program that covers that cost when it comes around.” (See the sidebar on Page 47 for details. —Ed.)

“In addition, aircraft enrolled in a PistonPower program will also get a higher residual value from the Aircraft Bluebook, Vref and many banks,” he said. “That’s a double benefit for the owner.” 

Last but not least, as part of the Premier Edition Dakota program, Premier’s Chief Pilot Corbin Hallaran gives each owner a thorough checkout in his or her airplane as part of the delivery process.

“Corbin is not only a terrific pilot, but a terrific instructor as well—the best in the business,” Rutheiser said. “He does a very detailed walkaround with each owner and then gives them as much dual instruction as he feels they need before he will turn them loose with the airplane. It’s all about safety. If both the new owner and Corbin are not comfortable with the way they handle the airplane, they don’t leave here.”

 

You can make any Dakota a Premier Edition Dakota

While Premier Aircraft Sales started the Premier Edition Dakota program to stimulate sales of legacy Dakotas, Ahles said that if you’re lucky enough to already own one of these exceptionally capable airplanes, Premier is ready to work with you to upgrade it to your specifications.

“Should an owner bring us their Dakota, we can do any or all of our upgrades on their aircraft,” he said. “It’s totally up to the owner’s wants and wishes.”

As for the price, that’s based on what you want done. “I’d say it’s best to start with one of our detailed annuals and go from there,” he said. “That way, the owner will know what condition the aircraft is really in and determine their upgrade path.”

 

Bill Nutt “premiered” the Premier Edition Dakota

William “Bill” Nutt is the kind of guy you’d like to have in the next hangar over. He’s owned a lot of different kinds of airplanes over the years, and most recently he has had a Piper Archer, V-tail Bonanza, F33A Bonanza, T-34, a Baron, Piper Meridian and Piper Matrix. But the story behind why he went looking for what would ultimately become the Premier Edition Dakota revolves around his son, Alexander.

“My son is in medical residency in Billings, Montana and I wanted him to have an airplane that was a solid instrument platform and would also give him the performance to handle the high altitudes,” Nutt explained. “I’ve always been a huge fan of the Dakota so I started looking for a really nice low-time model for him.”

“I talked to Fred (Ahles) at Premier about the project and he thought it was a great idea. He shared my vision of making a Dakota better than Piper would today,” he said. “It’s one thing to refurbish an airplane for me, but when it’s for my son, it had to be perfect in every respect.”

And according to Nutt, that’s just how N43AN (for “Alexander Nutt”)—the first Premier Edition Dakota—turned out. Nutt found the ideal subject Dakota: a 1980 model in Georgia that was in excellent condition but had reached TBO so the owner wanted to sell.

“This was a great airplane to begin with,” Nutt explained. “The current owner had it for over 20 years and had taken excellent care of it. Premier sent their mechanic to do the pre-buy and then they flew it back to Fort Lauderdale Executive (KFXE) to begin the upgrade.”

“One thing I insisted on was to paint the new panel in light beige, because I think it makes the instrument scan easier,” Nutt said. “We painted it like a new factory Archer DX and it really looks great. It turned out exactly like I wanted.”

Nutt spends his winters living at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida and currently keeps the Dakota at the club’s private airport, 07FA. 

“The Dakota is the perfect airplane for having fun flying,” he said. “People think it’s just an Archer with a bigger engine, but it’s not. It’s a much stronger, more robust airframe.”

“I can get in it alone and get an honest 135 knots all day,” Nutt continued. “I recently did something I’d never done before. I took off from Ocean Reef and headed to Billings. It took me two-and-a-half days and was a lot of fun. With the new engine, smoother Hartzell propeller and modern avionics, it was really an enjoyable trip.”

“I’ll have another...”

Nutt said he’s having so much fun with the nimble Dakota, he doesn’t want to let it go—so he bought another one and Premier is doing its Premier Edition magic on this one, too.

“This one will have the complete Garmin glass avionics panel including the new Garmin autopilot,” he said. “Plus, I’m having the engine upgraded to 250 hp. That will make it even better suited for flying in and out of the grass strip we have at one of our ranches in Montana.”

“The Premier Edition Dakota lets me really enjoy flying,” he said. “Last week I made three great trips around South Florida: I took my one son and his girlfriend to Key West to see friends. I flew my other son and his wife to Naples and then I flew my daughter and her two boys to Palm Beach for the day.”

“The Dakota is just that kind of airplane,” he said. “And the Premier Edition Dakota is the best version yet of a wonderfully fun-to-fly airplane.”

 

Dale Smith has been an aviation journalist for 30 years. When he’s not writing aviation articles, Smith does commission aircraft illustrations specializing in seaplanes and flying boats. Smith has been a certificated pilot since 1974 and has flown 35 different types of aircraft. Send questions or comments to .

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