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A Timeless Tri Pacer

A Timeless Tri Pacer

When it comes to PA-22 rebuilds, there are good Tri-Pacers and there are great Tri-Pacers. This is the story of an exceptional “truly better than the day it was built” Tri-Pacer.

The one thing I like most about attending events like Sun ‘n Fun and EAA AirVenture Oshkosh is the opportunity to just wander around and look at airplanes. Walking the grounds with the sun barely up and the dew still dripping from wings, I sometimes am lucky enough to come across an airplane with a story that just has to be told.

Such was the case when I happened upon my friend Darin Hart, owner of American Legend Aircraft Co., on a sunny Wednesday morning at Sun ‘n Fun. He was busily wiping Lakeland, Florida’s “liquid sunshine” off the most amazing-looking Piper PA-22 Tri-Pacer that I have ever seen. It was like stepping back some 60 years to a spring morning in Lock Haven, just after the pristine PA-22 rolled off the assembly line. 

“This is without a doubt the nicest Tri-Pacer in the world,” Hart said. “And it’s not just because we rebuilt it. It’s as close to brand-new as you’re ever going to find. And it should be, considering the owner spent nearly $250,000 on it.”

While Darin had me at “the nicest Tri-Pacer in the world,” the thought that the owner had spent nearly $250,000 having it rebuilt meant this was a story to share.

 

You can’t put a price on love

“A lot of people say I’m nuts and that I’ll never get my money back,” explained the Tri-Pacer’s proud owner, Mark Wyant. “But I’m OK with that. That’s not what this is all about. This is not just any airplane to me. It represents a lot of great memories and a very special part of my life.”

Bringing back great memories and paying homage to his father are the two reasons why Wyant began the project to rebuild his beloved Tri-Pacer in the first place. 

 

 

To understand how we got where we are today, we have to go back to 1974, when Wyant was an eighth-grader in Dallas.

“When you’re going to school in Garland, Texas, if you don’t play football, there’s not much left for you to do. I was too skinny for football, so I spent a lot of time reading,” Wyant said. “I got a copy of  ‘Anyone Can Fly’ by Jules Bergman, and I was hooked. I read that book three or four times.”

“It was all about Bergman learning to fly in a Piper Tri-Pacer. It was full of Tri-Pacer stories and pictures, and that was my introduction and motivation to learn to fly,” he said. “And, of course, I fell in love with the Tri-Pacer because of the book.”

When he turned 15, Wyant started taking flying lessons at Dallas’s Addison Airport (KADS) in a Cessna 150. 

“Then, my dad and I got the idea of buying a Tri-Pacer together,” Wyant said. “We started looking around for a nice one. Turned out there was one for sale at Addison Airport where I was learning to fly. My dad and I went over to look at it together.”

“I just fell in love with it right there. We ended up buying it for $5,000.”

“Later that night, I snuck back into the hangar where it was parked. My best friend Jon Contreras and I just sat in it with the master on and all the lights flashing,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been more proud of it than if it was a new Learjet.”

“I finished up my license in 8664D at nearby Rockwall Municipal Airport (F46). The Tri-Pacer was a lot more fun to fly than the 150,” he said. “Two months after I got my license, I flew my mom and dad a thousand miles up to Indiana to see my grandmother. My parents were very trusting—neither of them were pilots. I even took my grandmother for a ride back in the summer of 1976. It doesn’t seem like that long ago.”

Wyant said that during his senior year in high school, he took a lot of his friends flying and that the guys on the football team were now looking up to him—literally.

“I was suddenly the big man on campus, so to speak,” he said. “Not many high school seniors have their own airplanes. The Dallas Morning News even did an article on me when I got my license on my 17th birthday.”

While Wyant loved his Tri-Pacer, once he was out of high school, his head was turned by airplanes that were just, well, sexier. 

“We had the Tri-Pacer for about a year, then sold it,” he said. “You always want to go further and faster. I went on to become a CFI and fly freight at night. After a while, I went to work flying for American Eagle, and finally as an international 767 pilot for American Airlines.”

8664D: Gone but not forgotten

Wyant spent a total of 22 years flying for American. While he loved his job, when the opportunity came along to take an early retirement from flying the line, he took it. Wyant had a logbook full of hours in a wonderful assortment of aircraft types, yet he never forgot about his first love.

“I always knew my Tri-Pacer was out there. I kept checking the FAA registry for it and fortunately nobody ever changed the N-number,” he said. “That airplane just meant so much more to me than tubing and fabric. It has a history with me—a short one, but a very meaningful one in my life.”

“My dad passed away some 18 years ago, and he was always very supportive of my flying. It was one of those things that he and I shared a great attachment to,” Wyant said. “My dad couldn’t fly because of poor hearing and eyesight. But that didn’t stop him from loving time in the cockpit. He loved to fly. This right seat was his whenever we flew together.”

“As time went on, whenever we would buy another airplane—whether it was the Mooney, Bonanza or Aerostar—when we flew together, we’d laugh and say, ‘It sure beats the Tri-Pacer.’ But, that’s not a bad thing. That little airplane meant something really special to us,” he said. “That’s why I had to get this airplane back.”

As luck, or maybe fate, would have it, Wyant’s first love was living not far away in Tyler, Texas, which is about 80 miles from his home in Dallas.

“I had searched out the owner’s phone number and called to see if he was willing to sell. His answer was no,” Wyant said. “About a year later, I called and asked again. Same answer. About another year later, I decided that I was going to give it one last shot, so I called and offered twice what it was worth. That got his interest.”

As Wyant happily admits, he ended up paying “stupid money” to get his beloved Tri-Pacer back. When it comes to settling affairs of the heart, some things just can’t be measured in money. 

She didn’t look at all like her yearbook photos…

“When the owner had finally agreed to sell the Tri-Pacer, he had described it as being in ‘excellent condition and always hangared,’” Wyant said. “After I arrived at the airport, I found that, yes it was in a hangar all right—but leaning up against the hangar was more like it. It was horrible-looking. It hadn’t been out of that hangar for a long time.”

Wyant was in too deep to turn back, so he bought 8664 Delta and flew her back to Addison. While many an owner would have been totally disheartened by the sad condition his high school sweetheart was in, Wyant saw it as an opportunity to not just bring his beloved Tri-Pacer back to the way he recalled, but to make her even better. 

“That’s when I contacted Darin Hart at American Legend Aircraft Co. When I decided to do a restoration, I didn’t want just any restoration—I wanted to make this Tri-Pacer as good or better than the day it left the factory in Lock Haven,” Wyant said. “You can’t find many people that can do that.”

And who better to do a “factory-fresh” restoration on the Tri-Pacer than a company that currently makes factory-new Cubs? That is precisely what the craftsmen at American Legend Aircraft Co. have been doing since 2004 with their popular Legend Cub series.

Along with manufacturing new Legend Cubs, Darin Hart has become a legend of sorts among the Piper community with the exceptionally high-quality aircraft rebuilds that come out of his facility in Sulphur Springs, Texas. 

“American Legend Aircraft Co. actually started from our work doing high-quality restorations on Cubs. I think we’ve won five or six Lindy Awards at Oshkosh over the years,” Hart said. “People call us on a weekly basis wanting to do a restoration on a Cub, Champ or Tri-Pacer, but they have to be really serious for us to do the job.”

“For us just to pull the covering off and replace it, without doing anything else, will take 400 man-hours and cost $38,000,” he said. “And that’s not sandblasting the frame or replacing any hardware. That’s just the covering. The price scares a lot of window-shoppers away.”

Hart said that when Wyant called him about rebuilding 8664D, his first response was that the airplane wasn’t worth the cost of just stripping and recovering it. 

“But then he explained the story behind it. I could tell that this wasn’t really about the airplane to Mark; it was much more,” Hart said. “I am proud that he put his trust in American Legend to do the work for him.”

You want it when?

While Wyant was more than happy to pay American Legend Aircraft Co.’s premium price for the work, there was one catch. 

“We started the project in late January, and Mark said he had to have it at Oshkosh that July. We had inside of six months to rebuild the Tri-Pacer,” Hart said. 

“I think he was a bit surprised when I said that would be no problem at all. We are a production shop, so we are used to getting airplanes in and out quickly. We don’t have room or time to keep projects sitting around for years.”

While the timeframe was not out of the ordinary, the team didn’t have any time to waste. Hart said that a big part of what sets an American Legend rebuild apart from others is the high level of research and detail they put into the project. 

After stripping the airplane and inspecting the steel tubing and wood ribs and components, they set about repairing and replacing whatever needed doing. All in all, Hart said, it was in serviceable condition for a 60-year old airframe.

“We took the frame down and sandblasted it clean, then replaced what metal tubing wasn’t up to our standards,” Hart said. “It’s essentially a new airframe. Then we replaced every nut, bolt, pulley and cable. Everything is brand-new.”

 

 

 

 

 

“Univair Aircraft Corp. has a tremendous stock of parts for these classic old Pipers. It was easy to buy practically everything we needed,” he said. “Control surfaces, ribs, flying wires, struts, the entire exhaust system—even the fairings that go around the struts—things you think you’d have to fabricate, you can buy from Univair.”

Hart said that instead of overhauling the 160 hp Lycoming O-320 engine, Wyant wanted a brand-new engine because that’s the way it left the factory in 1958. 

 

 

Speaking of achieving that factory look, Hart said that one detail that many restorers overlook is the painstaking replication of the original factory stitching. As Wyant recalled, “Darin went back and found the original build sheet on this airplane to find out how they laid the fabric on, how it was stitched and even the location of the ‘dollar patches.’” 

“The way American Legend stitched it all is exactly to the original Piper specifications published in the Piper production manual. Everything is as authentic as it can possibly be.”

“Also, most people don’t realize that the back half of the baggage compartment was originally made of canvas cloth,” he said. “Most have long since replaced it with the same fabric as they use to cover the exterior, but that’s incorrect. We found original OEM canvas and put it back where it belonged, including the strap that holds the tow bar in place.”

 

Back to the future

Of course, you can’t put all that work into making every detail factory correct and then rattle-can on any old paint scheme. So, while Wyant liked the yellow and white scheme the Tri-Pacer had when he flew her as a teenager, it wasn’t as she left the factory.

Since they already had Piper’s dimensional drawings of exactly where the stripes and N-number were laid out on the airframe, Hart contacted Piper restoration expert Clyde Smith, aka “The Cub Doctor,” to find out the exact colors the factory would have used in 1958.

“He knew by the serial number what the exact colors were for that airplane,” Hart said. “Santa Fe red and Daytona white. It’s a very classic combination for Pipers.”

“The only difference in the factory paint and what we used was that ours is shiny, while the factory originally used a matte finish. We felt the shiny paint would hold up better and be easier to clean,” Wyant said. “All of the interior fabric is also Piper spec. Turns out, it was the same upholstery that was originally from a 1958 Mercury Marquis automobile, which we were able to find from a supplier.”

 

Hart said that while finding the original material to redo the upholstery was easy; replacing the original batting material used for cabin soundproofing was much more labor-intensive. But, again, if it was done at the factory, it was replicated in Mark Wyant’s Tri-Pacer.

While it’s crystal clear that Wyant and American Legend spared no effort nor expense to make the Tri-Pacer as 1958 as possible, that type of originality won’t work when it comes to an airplane that’s actually going to fly in today’s airspace, especially with the 2020 ADS-B mandate on the horizon. 

 

 

 

 

N8664D goes NextGen

So how do you keep an airplane looking like it’s right out of 1958 while having all the avionics capabilities needed to safely navigate around Dallas’s busy airspace? Well, it turns out a bit of visual trickery does the job.

“My friend Jon—the same friend who sat with me in the airplane the night I bought it in 1976—and I took the panel rework on as our project. All of the instruments were sent to Keystone Instruments in Lock Haven where they were rebuilt, and the faces were repainted in the original off-yellow color,” Wyant said. “Most people think they’ve yellowed with age, but they were originally that color so that they would show up better when lit by the red cabin light.”

Wyant was even able to locate and reinstall the original Piper ashtray that came in the Tri-Pacer, not that there’s any smoking allowed. 

While he was able to add in many OEM details, when it came time for equipping the Tri-Pacer with modern avionics, Wyant was faced with a more difficult challenge. That’s where the high-tech trickery comes in.

“I wanted anyone looking in the cockpit to see an airplane the way it was in 1958, but I also needed avionics that give me the same safety and capabilities I have in my Citation Mustang,” he said. “To accomplish what I wanted, Jon took an original Narco Omnigator and a VLR-3 low-frequency receiver and cut them down so that they were about an inch and a quarter deep. We needed several “donor” radios to accomplish this, and it took over two months to pull it off.”

 

 

“We mounted them to a false panel piece that looks just like they are original. They even light up when you turn them on,” Wyant said proudly. “But, when you remove the faceplate, you’ll find a brand-new touchscreen Garmin GTN 750 and a Garmin GTX 345 ADS-B Out/In transponder. As it turned out, once installed in the panel, the height of the 750 and 345 were the same as the Omnigator and VLR-3 units, so it’s the perfect match.”

Another significant upgrade Hart and his team performed on the Tri-Pacer was the switch from the OEM BFGoodrich brakes to more modern and reliable Cleveland wheels and brakes. In addition, they replaced all the old incandescent exterior and interior lights with new LED lighting.

“Now I can leave all the strobes and landing lights on all the time, which is good for safety,” Wyant said. “For additional reliability, we also upgraded to a new lightweight, Sky-Tec starter and replaced the old alternator with a new 60 amp alternator.”

What goes around, comes around…

Wyant said that, true to their promise, the team at American Legend Aircraft Co. completed the “brand-new” Tri-Pacer in time for Hart to fly it to Oshkosh AirVenture 2017. 

“We put just about 1,800 hours into the total rebuild,” Hart said. “I have to say that it really turned out great. And that it’s a very nice flying airplane. I’ve flown it to Oshkosh, and to Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland and it’s a very comfortable cross-country airplane.” 

“Although, I can see why Piper quit making them. They are very complex airplanes, and they couldn’t compete with the Cessna 172 for production,” he said. “In particular, the control cables—being fully interconnected—were very sophisticated and labor-intensive to install. Compared to the Piper Cub, the Tri-Pacer is probably twice as complex to put together.”

No matter how complex the project was or how much it ultimately cost, Wyant says that he is thrilled with how his beloved Tri-Pacer turned out. 

“I believe it’s the finest example of a Piper Tri-Pacer in the world,” he said proudly. 
“I don’t mean that as any type of hyperbole, but I truly believe that we achieved our goal in every way.”

So, you ask, now that the Tri-Pacer is done, what are his plans for it?

“Back in 1958, people thought they were dumpy-looking and nicknamed them ‘flying milk stools,’ but today, I think they’ve become retro,” he said. “My son is 13 and he’s a fan of the way it looks and flies. I’m slowly teaching him to fly the Tri-Pacer, and he’s loving it.”

“Another funny part to our story is that the hangar where I originally found 8664 Delta is only about 75 feet away from my current hangar at Addison Airport,” Wyant said. “Today, my Tri-Pacer lives in my hangar next to my Citation, and my hangar office is right inside. Every day when I walk in, I take a minute to give her a little pat.”

“This is not just an airplane to me; it represents a lot of great memories and a very special part of my life and the people in it,” he said. “There is no question that I own the world’s most expensive Piper Tri-Pacer. And I’m totally fine with that.”

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 General Aviation, business and World War II vintage aircraft. Send questions or comments to .

RESOURCES >>>>>

TUBE-AND-FABRIC REPAIR AND RESTORATION SERVICES
American Legend Aircraft Co.
legend.aero

PARTS MANUFACTURERS AND SUPPLIERS – PFA SUPPORTERS
Garmin Ltd.
garmin.com

Hartzell Engine Technologies LLC (Sky-Tec starter)
skytec.aero

Parker Hannifin Corp. 
(Cleveland wheels and brakes) 
ph.parker.com/us/en/aerospace-wheels-and-brakes

Univair Aircraft Corp.
univair.com

Save your Starter

Save your Starter

Starter duty cycle and system troubleshooting tips

Show of hands if you’ve ever had anyone direct you in how to properly treat your airplane’s starter? Let’s see… one, two, three—you in the blue shirt: really? That’s what I thought.

The truth is, beyond a cursory glance at the POH, very few pilots have ever had, or considered, any formal starter-operations training. From the day you first set your butt in the left seat, it’s pretty much been, “Just turn the key and hold it until the engine starts—or the starter burns up—whichever comes first.”

No wonder so many of us have chronic problems with our starter’s performance and reliability. 

So what’s going on here, anyway? To get an answer, I went directly to a source of all things starter-related: Hartzell Engine Technologies (HET), makers of the Hartzell and Sky-Tec brands of aircraft starters. 

According to Tim Gauntt, Director, Product Support for Hartzell Engine Technologies, the main cause of most starter problems is most owners don’t really understand their aircraft’s starting system and the stresses the starter experiences when you turn the key. 

“One area that the majority of pilots I talk to have little understanding of is the importance of knowing and adhering to the duty cycle that pertains to their aircraft’s starter,” he said. “Knowing and following the duty cycle guidelines will go a long way toward maximizing your starter’s operational life.”

“But,” you ask, “What is a ‘duty cycle’?”  

“The starter’s duty cycle determines how well the starter can tolerate repeated starting attempts. Each unsuccessful attempt is meant to be followed by a specified starter cool down interval,” Gauntt explained. 

“Not following specified duty cycle procedures will cause the starter to overheat and severely damage the starter’s internal components, leading to premature starter failure.” 

Most pilots don’t understand that violating the duty cycle just a couple of times will do irreparable damage to the starter. In extreme cases, it can render the starter inoperable—then you’re stuck. Excessive cranking can also overheat the electrical supply system and cause accelerated wear to the contactor and elevated corrosion rates for connections in the circuit.

The folks at HET feel so strongly about the importance of following proper duty cycle procedures that they produced a short training video on the subject. (See Resources at the end of this article for the link. —Ed.) 


Not all duty cycles are the same.

As discussed in the informational video, every type of starter has its own particular duty cycle requirements. And it’s critically important for you to know which starter is in your airplane and how its duty cycle works.

So you don’t have to take notes, here are the duty cycles for the most popular starter types as described in Hartzell’s video.Typical duty cycle times for HET Sky-Tec starters:
• 10 seconds of engagement followed by 20 seconds of rest for up to six
start attempts;
• After that, allow 30 minutes of
cool down before beginning the next
start sequence.


Typical duty cycle times for HET E-Drive and X-Drive starters:
• 10 seconds of engagement followed by 20 seconds of rest for up to 20
start attempts;
• After that, allow 10 minutes of cool down before beginning the next start sequence.


Typical duty cycle times for HET PM-Series Continental starters:
• 15 seconds of engagement followed by 30 seconds of rest for up to six
start attempts;
• After that, allow 30 minutes of cool down time before beginning the next start sequence.


Typical duty cycle times for “legacy” starter models, including Prestolite and Electrosystems:
• 10 seconds of engagement flowed
by 60 seconds of rest;
• Then 10 seconds of engagement
followed by 60 seconds of rest;
• Then 10 seconds of engagement
followed by 15 minutes of cool down time before beginning the next start sequence.

“Following the duty cycle procedures may add a few minutes to your typical starting sequence, but understanding and following the procedures correctly will help your aircraft’s starter provide you with many years of reliable service,” Gauntt said.

 

Starting problems aren’t always starter problems.

A weak or slow cranking starter is one of the leading causes of people exceeding a starter’s duty cycle. But those symptoms don’t always point directly at a dying starter.

“The starter is actually the last part of a sophisticated, multi-component starting system, and issues with any of the parts—whether environmental, mechanical or operator-induced—will show up as ‘starter problems,’” Gauntt said. “The health of the entire system must be well maintained in order to achieve consistent engine starting performance.”

In addition to individual performance issues with the system’s components, if the engine is improperly adjusted or has a poorly operating fuel system, the engine will also be difficult to start. 

Parts of the multi-component starting system include the following items.

Battery: Batteries can vary in size and mounting location, either of which can have an effect on the performance of the starting system. 

Electrical connectors: They serve as the termination points for the electrical conductors that interconnect all of the starting system’s various components. 

Electrical conductors: Typically these are highly flexible insulated copper or aluminum cables. The length and condition of each has a significant impact on the system’s performance. 

Switching devices: Their primary use is to control the flow of electrical power throughout the starting system. 

Starter: The starter is the actual unit that converts the electrical power to mechanical energy in the form of torque, which is used to physically rotate the engine to initiate the starting process. 

“No matter what the cause or reason, if any of the system’s components are not working properly,” Gauntt said, “the results can run from poor starter performance to outright damage to the starter itself.”

 

How is all works… and what to do if it doesn’t.

In its simplified form, the starter converts the battery’s electrical power to mechanical energy in the form of torque, which is used to crank the engine. 

Cranking requires a significant amount of current (typically ~400 amps in-rush; ~70 amps cranking). Voltage at the battery equals the potential (or “push”) in the system, but if the system has too much resistance along the path, the battery can’t flow enough current to the starter to do its job. That resistance comes in the form of corroded terminals, dirty or worn contactors and old wiring. And, since they suffer from lower potential already, older aircraft with original 12-volt systems are especially prone to problems. 

Also, take time to check the other components of the system to ensure good current flow including the aircraft’s switches, relays, and even the aircraft’s key or push-button starter device. 

Age-related and moisture-induced corrosion can attack the connecting terminals and erode the internal contacts slowing the flow of power. Even the smallest bit of corrosion on a wire or connection point could be the source of a problem.

Gauntt said that a commonly overlooked point of corrosion is the engine bonding strap. The ground system should be checked for electrical ground integrity using a volt ohmmeter. A maximum of 0.2 ohms of resistance at any bonding/ground connection is the borderline limit.

While you’re under the cowling, check the condition of the electrical conductors and insulation around the wires for chafing damage. Gaps in the insulation will allow moisture to corrode the wiring, increasing its resistance.

A weak battery will make even the cleanest system struggle. Low voltage will require the starter to turn slowly and remain engaged for a longer period of time. Extended engagement periods will lead to heat buildup in the starter motor and reduce its service life.

When it comes to battery troubleshooting, always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for ongoing inspections, real-charge capacity testing and maintenance—including checking the terminals for corrosion. 

Keep in mind that even a well maintained battery will lose a percentage of its charge over time. Corrosion on the battery leads, older batteries, and batteries exposed to extreme temperatures or humidity will see a faster rate of discharge.

 

A quick word about kickbacks.

The dreaded kickback occurs when, during the starting process, the engine’s crankshaft abruptly changes rotational direction. 

A significant kickback can displace the crank as much as 90 degrees in 33 milliseconds and cause significant damage to the starter’s drive and gear engagement system. In extreme instances, kickback can actually break the starter’s mounting pad away from the engine.

Gauntt explained that kickback issues can often be resolved by adjustments to the engine’s ignition and fuel systems or through the pilot’s modification of engine starting techniques. Always follow the engine OEM’s instructions when making changes to the system’s settings or starting procedures. 

Show of hands for who would like reliable starting performance in their aircraft? Everyone? That’s what I thought. 

Though the functionality of starters hasn’t changed in decades, duty cycle guidelines do vary, and the stresses that a starter experiences during the aircraft startup process are immense. 

Know and follow the duty cycle for your starter, keep an eye on the condition of all of the components in the starting system, and you’ll be rewarded with reliability when you turn the key.

Know your FAR/AIM and check with your mechanic before starting any work. Always get instruction and supervision from an A&P prior to attempting maintenance tasks.

Dale Smith has been an aviation journalist for 30 years. He has been a licensed pilot since 1974 and has flown 35 different types of General Aviation, business and World War II vintage aircraft.
Send questions or comments to .

RESOURCES >>>>>

Informational video

“Understanding Your Aircraft Starter’s Duty Cycle”

 
Starter suppliers – PFA supporters

Hartzell Engine Technologies

 
Tempest Plus

tempestplus.com

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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