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The PA-16 Piper Clipper

The PA-16 Piper Clipper

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By David Leininger

1949 Piper Cub Clipper 1949 Piper Cub Clipper

The success of the Piper Aircraft Corp. J-3 Cub aircraft fulfilled William Piper’s dream to have everyone flying.

The production of the recognizable yellow Cub in 1937 made it possible for thousands of would-be pilots to earn their flying certificates and placed the company on very stable footing in the aviation community.

In 1949, with Piper Aircraft well established, William Piper set his sights on making the personal airplane smaller, lighter, and affordable to operate and fly.

It was spring 1949 when the first PA-16 Piper Clipper was pushed out of the company’s Lock Haven factory doors. Piper’s sales approach for this particular aircraft came directly from the pages of the automotive market sales guides.

He priced the new four-place Clipper at an unbelievable $2,995 for a standard model, and a deluxe model Piper PA-16 featuring an upgraded interior and ornamental paint listed at only $3,095.

Additionally, the owner could configure his aircraft with reasonably priced accessories in keeping with the already low cost of the Clipper. Piper’s logic fell in line with current automotive sales wisdom.

With the introduction of the Piper Clipper, family transportation took on a whole new meaning. A family of four could fly 480 nautical miles cheaper than any other aircraft on the market.

This meant that pilots, who previously had to settle for slower, two-place tandem-seat aircraft, could now carry up to four passengers at speeds of over 100 mph with an operating cost of about one dollar per mile. Cheap indeed.

The Clipper promised comfort and economical transportation for all—and it delivered.

Performance on the cheap

Tipping the scales at 850 pounds, the Clipper is reminiscent of a trimmed-down prizefighter. She is frisky and frugal at the same time.

During a pilot evaluation of the airplane in 1949, Leighton Collins described the size and weight of the Cub Clipper: “The total weight is down, simply because the size is down; the airplane just isn’t big enough to weigh much.”

Straight and to the point was Collins’ assessment of the Clipper. Having a wingspan of just 29.3 feet and a length of only 20 feet, the Clipper is a small airplane. But she can carry four adults comfortably, with both headroom and legroom to spare.

The Clipper can be configured for four passengers, or two passengers with 36 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats. The Clipper can also carry nearly her weight in useful load: 800 pounds.

Powered by the famous Lycoming O-235 powerplant generating 115 hp, the Clipper’s performance is nothing short of stellar. Economically, it is the cheapest aircraft to operate, yet the aircraft’s performance is altogether surprising.

The engine delivers a rate of climb of nearly 900 fpm. With a cruising speed of 112 mph and a top speed of 125 mph, the useable range of 480 miles can be covered in reasonably short order.

All in all, the little Cub Clipper made its mark with pilots who had families, and 736 were produced and sold.

Presten gets his wings

Eric Presten of Sonoma, Calif., has had an eye to the sky since he was a young teenager.

He managed a ride to the Reno National Championship Air Races in the mid-1970s and walked every square inch of the airport grounds, paying keen attention to the display of speed parked on the ramp.

Returning home from that adventure, Presten would ride his bicycle to every local airport near his home in Fremont, Calif. But it was a trip to the Antique Airplane Association fly-in at Blakesburg, Iowa and a meeting with Gordon Bourland that put Presten’s flying in motion.

Presten describes the experience. “Gordon took me flying in his cabin Waco and no sooner had we left the boundaries of earth [than] he pulled the pin and swung the wheel over to me.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how to fly!’ He replied, “I’ll talk you through it.’

“And I flew the airplane for nearly 15 minutes.”

Once back down on the ground, Bourland said in a straightforward voice, “Why don’t you think about coming down to Texas and I’ll teach you to fly?”

The following summer Presten made his way to Texas and found what he described as “pure heaven for a kid like me.”

It was a grass strip, 5,000 feet long and 500 feet wide. Presten started flying lessons in an 85 hp Champ, and Bourland put him to work mowing the airfield.

“I mowed, and mowed, and mowed.” Presten said. “I mowed until I had soloed and logged 39 hours of flying time.”

Upon returning home from his adventure in Texas, Presten continued working toward his private pilot certificate and once completed, he focused his attention on studies and graduating high school.

Two passions, one goal

While pursuing a Bachelor of Science Degree is Aeronautics at Central Missouri State University, Presten was also pursuing his passion for aviation photography. During his sophomore year, to help offset his education expenses, Presten published his first book.

To expand his world of photography Presten began to ponder various aircraft designs and how they would benefit his needs as a photographer and pilot. After evaluating dozens of designs, he settled on the Piper PA-16 Clipper, building a model of the very aircraft he had decided on.

Presten began his quest for a Piper Clipper with his aeronautical degree in hand. His search led him—some years later—to an open hangar in Florida.

What he found inside was Piper Clipper NC5875H, serial number 16-493, that had rolled out of the Lock Haven plant on July 7, 1949. It was sold to Henry Hajl of Rosenburg, Tex., 10 days later.

During the next 30 years, the Clipper changed ownership 16 times—all to Texas-based owners—before being purchased by Leo Unzicker of Miami, Fla.

With the sale of N5875H to Unzicker, the Clipper left the hot and dusty Texas climate for the warmer, tropical conditions of Florida.

During his flying career, Presten has logged time in 84 different vintage aircraft types, and he agreed with all of the sales brochures’ claims about the Piper Clipper. In 1990, Presten purchased NC5875H from Unzicker.

“It was in flying condition, but had been stored in the humid Florida climate for 18 years and showed the wear of the wet, sticky, warm, tropical conditions of the region. It was a complete airplane, just in need of some TLC.”

1949 Piper Cub Clipper

The many guises of a Clipper

In 2002, Presten completed an extensive restoration of his Clipper, including the installation of a Lycoming O-320 powerplant.

During the course of the restoration he also acquired and restored a set of Murphy 1800A amphibious floats with the thought of a tour of the Mississippi River in mind.

During the summer of 2003, Presten loaded his two sons in the airplane and flew to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. After the completion of AirVenture, the trio traveled north to the origins of the Mississippi River, turned south and traversed every mile of the winding waterway as it divided the United States.

Presten passed through New Orleans and out to the Gulf of Mexico—a distance of 4,100 nm. The Murphy floats, attached underneath the diminutive Clipper, garnered its share of looks from aviation enthusiasts.

1949 Piper Cub Clipper 1949 Piper Cub Clipper 1949 Piper Cub Clipper

Interesting configurations

After World War II, Verl Buroker partnered with Art Whitaker, a Piper Aircraft dealer based in Portland, Ore., on a uniquely designed tandem wheel configuration. This new design was intended for landing and taking off again in rough field conditions.

In 1947, Whitaker gained approval from the Civil Aeronautics Administration (now the FAA) for their tandem wheel design and began manufacturing kits immediately.

Unfortunately for Whitaker, the creation and introduction of large bush and tundra tires made the tandem wheel mechanism obsolete.

In his travels, Presten was able to track down original Whitaker GW-100 series tandem wheels. This gear assembly is mounted to the original wheel axle using bungie cords and safety cables.

The twin-tire apparatus looks odd as they hang at an angle, much like that of a Boeing 747 wheel. In addition to the Whitaker set of wheels, Presten also has a set of original 25x11x4 Goodyear Air Wheels mounted to a pair of Piper Cub hubs with original brakes.

Another unique landing configuration Presten has for his Clipper comes in the form of a set of 1947 Call-Air clamp-on, wooden wheel skis as well as a set of Aluminum Federal 1800 clamp-on skis.

Presten can go from wheels to skis and vice versa in a matter of a few minutes, because unlike conventional skis, which slide onto the axles, the wheel assembly remains mounted to the axle and he simply lifts one wing at a time and slips the skis on underneath the tires. Presto, Presten’s Clipper is ready for family snow adventures.

In 2004 Presten purchased a 1946 Schweitzer open cockpit SGU2-22 Glider with the hopes his two sons would take an interest in aviation. He then installed a certified Schweitzer tow hook on the Piper Clipper so he could tow and release the vintage glider for his would-be future pilots.

To his delight, Presten saw both of his sons, Ben and Curtis, solo in the Schweitzer.

1949 Piper Cub Clipper

A passionate Clipper owner

Eric Presten has three absolute passions: his sons, photography and flying. He has earned both single- and multi-engine instrument/commercial/land ratings, Part 135 seaplane certification, and is a licensed airframe and powerplant mechanic.

He has flown in more than 800 aircraft and soloed in 117 different types. He has accomplished work for the movie industry as a pilot and advisor.

And his passion for photography and flying are reflected in his multi-roled Piper. He has photographed hundreds of aircraft from his Clipper, and his photography service is proudly displayed on the side of his airplane.

Of the 736 Piper Clippers built out of Lock Haven, Presten lays claim that his is the most diverse example of them all.

David Leininger is an aviation photographer from Northern California. His work has been previously featured in Piper Flyer as well as in FlyPast, Warbird Digest, Flight Journal and In Flight USA, among others. He is constantly looking for the next opportunity to create stunning imagery of aviation’s legacy. Send questions or comments to .

December 2016

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