Tom Grove's decade-long project resulted in a plane that's just the way he likes it.
Retired airline captain Tom Grove had never flown a Tomahawk until 1999. Once he did, he knew that all the Tomahawk naysayers were wrong. “I wanted a cheap operating aircraft, rented a Tomahawk—and loved it,” he said.
Besides having great ventilation and excellent visibility, a Tomahawk has “one of the best engines ever built, almost bulletproof,” according to Grove.
Plus, the PA-38 has a generous amount of cockpit space. “In a comparable side-by-side experimental, you’ll be bumping shoulders the whole time; the Tomahawk gives you a little more width—perhaps three to four inches—as well as better head room,” he explained.
An estate purchase
Tom Grove found this Tomahawk, N2324D, through Trade-A-Plane. It was owned by Ryder’s World War I Replica Fighter Museum in Guntersville, Ala., and was Frank Ryder’s personal aircraft.
Frank Ryder had started his truck leasing company many years earlier and also had great interest in World War I fighter aircraft. By 1994 he had more than 20 flying warbird aircraft (real, replica or otherwise built).
Sadly, Ryder, his wife and son were killed in Ryder’s Piper Malibu shortly after takeoff on a flight from Rochester, Minn. in 1994. Ryder had planned to teach his son—who was coming home with parents after a long fight with cancer—to fly in the Tomahawk. Ryder was having his Tomahawk painted with the same paint scheme as his Malibu when the crash occurred.
That Tomahawk, paint job complete, was placed in a corner of the Ryder museum and only pushed out and started occasionally until it was released by the courts in 2000.
“It was a typical example of an older Tomahawk—except that it was very low-time,” Grove recalled. At 879 hours TTAF, it had 3,000 to 5,000 hours less than most other Tomahawks.
“It was so low-time, I thought it was a misprint,” Grove explained. “I called on it immediately when the ad appeared. It was a real find: only used occasionally by two other owners, never smoked in, low mileage, with new paint and just waiting to go home with the right owner.”
However, the interior plastic was yellowed and cracked. The seats were cracked from age, and all the rubber was dried out. The instrument panel was slightly updated with a King KX 125 Nav/Com and transponder.
“All the worn and faded parts can be replaced,” Grove explained, “but you can never buy down the total time.
“When I talked with Frank Ryder’s sister, the trustee of the estate and the Ryder museum, she informed me that in fact there was a misprint on the ad, and apologized for the discrepancy: the total time on the airplane was only 876 TTAF. I explained to her I didn’t think that would pose a problem for me!
“I wired the deposit, flew to Huntsville, Ala. and was met at the airport by Mrs. Ryder the next morning. We drove an hour south to the museum in Gunnersville. I waited as the airplane finished its fresh annual and had five years of dust washed away,” he recalled.
“By 11:00 a.m., the plane was fueled up and I had my Garmin Pilot III loaded with my direct route home to 2TS6.
“I did a max performance short-field takeoff because of trees off the south end of the runway, and the Tomahawk lifted off as if happy to be airborne after all those years of sitting idle,” he said. “Once airborne, we climbed to 4,500 feet, and headed west for Jackson, Miss.
“After an uneventful flight and landing for fuel and lunch—and a friendly conversation with a local crop duster who just couldn’t get over such a nice shiny Piper Malibu paint job on a Tomahawk—I was back in the air at 6,500 feet.
“After another few hours of enjoying my seat above the earth, it was time to let down into the DFW area,” Grove said. “I landed at 2TS6 after only five hours and 45 minutes on the Hobbs and against a howling (for a Tomahawk!) 10-knot headwind.
“I cleared the runway with a left turn into my hangar ramp and shut down with a big smile on my face. I could tell that this was a happy airplane, and it flew straight as an arrow.”
“Within a few hours, all the fun lovers were stopping by to look at the ‘Traumahawk,’” Grove continued. “Tim, Robert, Jimmy and Marvin were unsure of the plane at first, but after flying around the area over the next few months, most of the guys began to discard their misconceptions. I think we ate at every airport restaurant within 100 miles,” he said.
The airplane was a delight to fly, and Marvin installed a PS 1000 intercom. “I flew it for about 100 hours before I decided to put it with a flight school to help ‘pay’ for the airplane,” Grove said. The flight school put 500 more hours on the airframe.
“At 1,481 aircraft hours, a student pilot on an East Texas solo cross-country flight experienced an engine failure. The engine had swallowed a valve and it shook the airplane pretty hard, the student said. He pulled the mixture, cut the engine then looked out the window—and as luck would have it, there was a runway right there in the middle of all those tall pine trees,” Grove recalled.
“The Tomahawk glided that student pilot to a dead-stick landing in the middle of the piney forest of northeast Texas, and didn’t get a scratch on it!” Grove said. “We retrieved the airplane at the little field.
“With an engine flush, replacement cylinder, a few quarts of oil and some labor, it flew out of that field as easily as it glided in,” Grove continued.
“I decided to completely tear down and overhaul the engine after getting back to Redbird Airport (now Executive Airport, KRBD) safely,” he explained. “I took it off lease with the flight school, then we began the overhaul process.”
An overhaul turns into an opportunity
Grove’s friend Marvin Wade overhauled the engine in 2001. “He’s an A&P/IA that has overhauled several engines, and he is the best man for the job—very detailed and intensely focused,” he said.
“We went through everything, piece by piece and component by component. Everything went to Barrett Precision Engines in Tulsa, Okla. for inspection and balance, or else it got replaced. We spent days inspecting hundreds of push rods just to find eight perfect ones,” he continued.
“We replaced the intake tubes with a later (i.e., thicker) Piper design; magnetos were rebuilt by Arron at Select Aircraft Services at Lancaster Field, Tex. (KLNC) and have operated faultlessly.
“In addition, we added new firesleeved hoses, new Millennium cylinders, a new 75 amp International alternator and Bogert cables. “The Bogert cables are basically fluid-proof,” Grove said.
The prop was balanced and twisted to a mid-range static rpm by Johnny Downs of Millennium Propellers at KLNC. (The prop shop has since gone out of business.) A carbon fiber propeller spinner backplate was added.
“Marvin got the authorization to purchase and build an oil cooler, while my friend Jimmy built the oil cooler mount and completely rebuilt the engine cooling baffles,” Grove explained.
Jimmy, who had learned his trade in the Air Force, is another neighbor and friend of Grove’s on the airpark. “Jimmy can make anything from sheet metal,” Grove said, “and once he has ‘Jimmy-ized’ it, it’s good for life!
“Marvin, Jimmy, Steve—and me, the Chief Flashlight Holder and Broom Sweeper—put the engine back to better-than-new specs, installed a new cam, balanced the crankshaft and added high compression pistons,” he continued.
The Lycoming O-235-L2A engine was modified to an O-235-L2A(M) with Air Mods N.W.’s STC SA4135NM. It also has Air Mods N.W.’s oil cooler STC, SA4136NM.
“The pistons give you about 125 hp—going from 112 hp, this did make a lot of difference. Even fully loaded in the summer, I can climb at 90 knots and still get 700 fpm,” Grove explained.
With the engine mods, N2324D cruises 10 knots faster. “A typical Tomahawk runs 2,500 rpm,” Grove explained, “and I can run continuously at 2,800 rpm for 112 knots on about 7.5 gph.”
Updates to the panel
The panel of N2324D had its first major updates a few years later. “For some reason, Jimmy and I were sitting around my hangar one evening in 2005 and thought maybe we could ‘freshen up’ the instrument panel a little,” Grove said.
“After a few days of tossing the idea around, Jimmy said it would probably only take a week or two to get the job done. I think we started taking stuff apart that night.
“One Mile Up panel planner software is a great tool. Just point and click, and before you know it, you have a complete full-color 3-D profile and price list.
“As we proceeded over the next few weeks, we were in over our heads electronically,” Grove said. “Fortunately, Marvin and Steve, both A&P/IAs, are electronic gurus. Before long the four of us were heads-down with electric planning, split buss isolation and load distribution conversations.
“For revision one of the panel, we put in all Electronics International gauges and added a second King KX 125 radio, and King KI 204, KI 203 rectilinear ILS and VOR/LOC indicators, a King KT 76A transponder, PS 6000MS audio control panel, a King KMD 150 moving map/GPS and a Garmin GPS 496 with panel docking station,” Grove said.
Grove added Electronics International engine and aircraft instruments in order to have visual annunciation and audio AV-17 warning systems, monitors and engine recording devices.
“These devices monitor and record about 15 different items related to engine and flight parameters and will record about 500 hours of data,” Grove explained. “Any time a parameter is met, I get a voice annunciation telling me to check that specific item as well as a flashing light on my visual AP-7 panel.”
The EI temperature sensor that monitors the engine is set to a limit of 140 degrees F. “If the sensor reads that,” Grove said, “I get an amber alert light and auditory warning, ‘Check Engine.’”
The foursome also added new under-the-panel emergency lighting, a HID nose landing light and an avionics cooling fan. “We also added an Approach Fast wiring harness and hub, which helped clean up the wiring bundle problem—we’d added almost everything Electronics International had in its catalogue at the time!” Grove recalled.
“It was a very nice panel selection, and by the time Jimmy cut an all-new instrument panel from .080 sheet metal, it was a thing of beauty,” he continued. “And, it fit like a glove… and installed with a shoehorn,” he added.
Grove enjoyed this configuration for about six years. “We put in the Garmin stack and Aspen 1500 Evolution dual-screen EFIS in 2011,” he recalled. “I opted to include SiriusXM Weather, Synthetic Vision and Terrain Awareness. It required four to five months of downtime,” Grove said.
He also added two Garmin 430s to the Tomahawk: one WAAS and one non-WAAS, and a VFS-101 GPS voice recognition system with voice tuning for the Garmin 430 WAAS.
The next item on Grove’s wish list is to upgrade the number-two Garmin 430 to a WAAS unit.
Parts are easy to come by
“With other aircraft,” Grove said, “I’ve found that some parts must be made from ‘Un-obtainium’—but not so with the Tomahawk.”
In 2002, all of N2324D’s interior plastic was replaced by Vantage Plane Plastics in Alva, Okla. “I learned of Vantage Plane Plastics by visiting the factory in Alva in 2000, talking to the sales staff and seeing the quality of their work,” Grove said.
“The manager at Vantage told me that if I would fly my Tomahawk to Oklahoma to their shop and leave it there for three weeks, they would use my airplane’s interior parts to redo their tooling—and they would give me a nice discount on my order.
“The project ran over by three weeks, but the manager told me if I would be patient with them, they would make it right. They did far better than that!” Grove said.
“When I arrived to pick up my airplane eight weeks later, the interior was completely fitted, painted to match my instrument panel and installed, complete with all instrument placards—and they’d replaced all my carpet. “It’s really nice, and I’m really happy about it,” he said.
In addition, Grove had the seats recovered with leather inserts, repaired and recovered the glareshield, replaced and recovered the control yoke center covers and replaced the yoke grips.
He also installed new Sterling Aviation Technologies door locks and sun visors. “These sun visors are well suited for the Tomahawk contours,” Grove said. “Sterling makes several PMA products for PA-38 aircraft—all very high quality parts.”
With the exterior paint in great shape, no changes were needed, but for convenience and peace of mind, Grove added a nosegear scissors link and a steel tail skid/tiedown, both made by Sterling.
In addition to the locks, sun visors, tail skid—and a wing spar STC that can double the remaining service life of a PA-38 wing—Sterling Aviation Technologies also manufactures hooks for overhead door latches, internal plastic pieces and rear tailcone bulkhead for the Tomahawk. “Jimmy and I installed this bulkhead when we removed the tail for inspection in 2003,” Grove explained.
He finished configuring the plane in 2012 at a total cost of about $70,000. “What price can you put on a faithful airplane?” he asked.
Perfect for little trips
Grove resides at a fly-in community in the Dallas-Fort Worth area called Eagle’s Nest Airpark (2TS6). Eagle’s Nest in Midlothian, Tex. has about 80 homes and 60 airplanes. “There’s lots of camaraderie, and somebody is always working on their airplane,” he said.
Of the Tomahawk, Grove says, “It’s just one of those fun things… perfect for little trips. It cruises fast enough, and I do often fly it IFR—at 7,000 to 8,000 feet, it’s perfectly happy.”
Fuel consumption for a typical PA-38-112 is 5.5 to 6.5 gph; with the engine upgrades and cruising at 112 knots, the fuel burn in Grove’s Tomahawk is around 7.5 gph.
The Tomahawk is owned solely for personal use, and Grove flies about 70 hours a year. The aircraft is now at 2,015 hours TTAF—less than half of the fleet average.
N2324D is in Grove’s hangar next to his Cherokee 235 as well as some other goodies: a 475 hp Carroll Shelby Cobra and a black 2006 Shelby GT-H Mustang. (Piper Flyer featured Grove’s 235 in September 2015. Take a look at “A Fun Flying Machine: Tom Grove’s Cherokee 235” in the archive at PiperFlyer.org. —Ed.)
An extra-special airplane
Grove lost his medical for 10 months in 2001. When it came time for an FAA checkride to reinstate his certificates, he was advised by the FAA to rent an aircraft he was rated on. As an airline pilot, Grove thought, “‘Am I supposed to rent a DC-9?’ A DC-9 rented at that time for about $100 a minute!”
Fortunately he clarified with the official; he could indeed use his Tomahawk for the checkride.
“After much coordination, I was able to obtain an FAA Medical that was only good for one day—the day of the hoped-for checkride,” he explained.
“Everything clicked, and after a 30-minute checkride, all 33 years of my military and professional flying career were reinstated. Once again, my little airplane returned home happy.”
Tom’s Tomahawk was what allowed him to return to flying again, so it’ll always be a special airplane. “You might say it is the airplane that brought me back to life,” he said. Grove now has 47 years of flying and 22,000 accident-free hours.
Bogert Aviation, Inc.
Electronics International Inc.
Superior Air Parts
Vantage Plane Plastics
Aspen Avionics, Inc.
Barrett Precision Engines, Inc.
One Mile Up, Inc.
Select Aircraft Services
Air Mods N.W.
Sterling Aviation Technologies, Inc.