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Piper PA-32: The Unsung Hero of Southwest Alaska

Piper PA-32: The Unsung Hero of Southwest Alaska

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“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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