Piper PA-28-235/236

With a Lycoming O-540, the Charger/Pathfinder/Dakota series is an affordable airplane that will carry half a ton of payload.

Over the years, manufacturers have experimented with modest airframes equipped with largish engines, with the Cessna 182 being the best example and the Cessna 206 being yet a larger example. The pysche of owners buying such airplanes has more to do with the ability to haul a lot of stuff than it does to go fast.

Cessna has done we’ll with the 182, we’ll enough, in fact, to bring it back with an even larger engine the O-470 that made the model such a popular choice in the first place. In the four-place realm, Pipers only serious competition to Skylane is what became known as the PA-28-235/236 cum Charger, cum Dakota. Although by no means a failure, the 235 series was not a huge seller, possibly relating more to marketing than the airplane itself. After all, it has decent speed, isn’t expensive to maintain and will haul heroic loads.

Its therefore a niche airplane, the perfect choice for someone with a small family who wants to cart everyone to the beach on weekends without leaving the patio furniture and grill behind. Owners tells us the 235 series isn’t fast but its fast enough and they don’t have to pay the additional maintenance load of retractable landing gear.

History of the Line
Starting in the 1960s, Piper proved to be the absolute master of taking a single design and turning it into a bewildering variety of airplanes. The PA-28 Cherokee started life as a basic four-place, fixed-gear single with a 160-HP engine, positioned opposite the Cessna Skyhawk. Before it was done, Piper mutated the PA-28 into everything from the lowly Cherokee 140 up to the Turbo Arrow IV.

The Cherokee 235 represented the top end of the fixed-gear PA-28 line, with a de-rated Lycoming O-540 engine mated to the basic Cherokee airframe. It was brought to market less than three years after the original Cherokee hit the scene. Aside from the engine, the only significant difference between the Cherokee 235 and its less-powerful siblings was an extra two feet of wingspan. The extended wingtips housed fuel tanks, boosting the total fuel capacity to 84 gallons.

The original 1964-65 model came equipped with a fixed-pitch two-bladed propeller mated to a 235-HP Lycoming O-540-B2B5 engine having a TBO of only 1200 hours. Plane spotters can identify this, along with the follow-on B model, by the presence of only two side windows. The B-model also had an optional constant-speed propeller. It was produced from 1966 to 1968. The 1968 model boasted an increased TBO of 2000 hours: the improvement was retrofittable and by now there should be none of the 1200-hour engines left in service.

The 1969 C-boasted a third side window, new instrument panel and power controls. Few other significant changes were made for this, the D, E or F models. This first PA-28-235 series finished up in 1972, with the F.

The 235s second decade began with the 1973-74 Charger, a somewhat rare bird. It was still a PA-28, but with enough differences to be significant. For one thing, the constant-speed prop was made standard. The follow-on model, dubbed Pathfinder, was produced from 1975 to 1978. During the reign of these two models, several alterations were made, the most notable being a five-inch fuselage stretch coupled with a 100-pound boost in takeoff weight and a corresponding 59-pound increase in empty weight. There were other minor alterations, such as the provision of standard shoulder harnesses for the front seats and a stall horn to replace the stall light found in older Cherokees.

The final variant, the PA-28-236 Dakota, was introduced in 1979. This airplane boasted the new semi-tapered wing planform that had first turned up on the Warrior in 1975 and marked the emergency of the modern Piper line that still exists today. It was larger in a couple of critical dimensions, with another fuselage stretch of 7.5 inches and a wingspan increase of 3.4 feet.

Also new was a different engine variant, the Lycoming O-540-J3A5D, still of 235 HP. It offered better fuel efficiency and less noise and vibration. It was also designed to use 100/130 avgas instead of 80-octane, which even then was beginning to be phased out. The Dakota also had a new cowling and Pipers new-style wheel pants.

Along with the new wing came new ailerons and a new fuel system that decreased capacity from 84 to 77 gallons (73 gallons usable). Despite the drop in fuel capacity, range didnt suffer as much as one might expect. This can be attributed to better engine efficiency and improved aerodynamics, thanks to the long, semi-tapered wing. By the time the Dakota came out, general aviation sales were beginning to drop dramatically and Piper saw the end coming. Few changes were made to the model and production slowed to a trickle. The last one came off the line in 1994.

High Flyer
We did leave one Dakota out of the history detailed above. This is not a mistake, its intentional, because its really a different airplane: the PA-28-201T Turbo Dakota, with a turbocharged 200-HP Continental TSIO-360-FB powerplant. Aside from the questionable move of putting a significantly less powerful engine into an airplane that people buy because of horsepower, the execution left a great deal to be desired.

In the Dakota, the result was a bundle of mechanical trouble. The 201T has historically proven to be far less reliable than the more powerful, normally aspirated Dakotas, with trouble and accident rates four times higher than one would expect, based on the proportion of 201Ts in the population. (Its impossible to be precise, since FAA lumps all PA-28s together in the activity surveys.) An unusually large percentage of accidents, incidents and SDRs are directly related to the powerplant and accessories.

The non-Dakota Dakota was made for one year, 1979, and only 91 were built, making it the rarest of all Dakota variants. Some of these were sold as 1980 models. Suffice it to say that everybody makes mistakes and this was one of Pipers big ones. Oddly, some owners love them, singing the praises of being able to climb above the weather, even though the speed is nothing exceptional for a turbocharged airplane.

If you can find one that you just cant resist, be certain it has a solid-gold pedigree, with documented proof of meticulous maintenance before you consider purchasing it. A recently overhauled engine by a reputable shop would be a huge plus. Otherwise, run the other way. Fast.

The big PA-28 of choice is the PA-28-236 Dakota. The enhanced performance provided by the new wing makes a real difference and its reflected in the prices they bring. According to a recent Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest, the earliest Dakota retails for $82,000 in the summer of 2004, versus $70,000 for the last Pathfinder model, a 1977. As a side note, the 1979 Turbo Dakota lists for $82,000, while a normally aspirated model of the same year sells for $99,000. That shows how the market values the turbo model. However, the turbo model has, inexplicably, gained value in recent years, according to the Bluebook.

The Cessna 182 continues to enjoy a slightly higher value than the Dakota but the latter has closed the gap. A 1979 Skylane currently fetches $105,000 versus the Dakotas $99,000. There are similar differentials between the Cherokee 235 and earlier 182s. If youre in the market for a big Piper, wed opt for the nicest Dakota we could find. Also, bear in mind that with only a $6000 price differential, the Dakota and Skylane are essentially considered the same value in the market.

If money is more of an issue, there’s an interesting trade-off that can be made. As noted below, the pre-Charger and Pathfinder PA-28-235s actually perform better than the Charger/Pathfinder do, although not as we’ll as the Dakota. The trade-off comes in the extra useful load and interior space afforded by the Charger and Pathfinder. As noted above, its wise to avoid the Turbo Dakota unless youre sure its right for you.

Handling, Performance
Most PA-28s handle about the same and the 236/236 are both typical of the breed. There’s more difference between early Hershey-bar models and later, taper-wing versions than there is between the different models with the same wing. The Hershey-bar-equipped versions are quite stable in all but the most turbulent air (at which point they become very high workload if you want to fight rather than accommodate conditions). Many pilots term them truck-like and theyll sink like a stone when slow with no power.

The taper-wing Dakota is more responsive and requires a lower level of effort.

A well-known feature of PA-28 handling is also present in the 235/236 and is caused by the fact that the nose gear is not self-centering and is connected full-time to the rudder pedals. When the rudder is deflected in flight, the nose gear is, too. The effect is compounded with larger fairings and wheel pants. (Having trouble maintaining desired heading in cruise? See if you are inadvertently putting some pressure on one of the rudder pedals, or kick the pedals left and right to see if the nosewheel is centered.) There’s an obvious hazard if the pilot has the rudder deflected when the nose wheel touches down.

Its not really a problem, but something for new Piper pilots to remain aware of. Still, for all the years these characteristics have been known, the long-term damage caused by improper stress and loss of control and gear collapse accidents occur with high frequency. There’s a particular handling quirk found in this biggest of Cherokees that you wont find in an airplane like the Warrior, however. That big engine weighs a lot, and it affects the way the airplane handles in the flare.

The 235 is an easy-flying airplane and many owners praise its stability in IFR operations. But the greater weight of the engine/propeller combination out front-while contributing to a generous CG envelope-increases the tendency to under flare in landing and even under roatate during takeoff. Lightly loaded, the 235 can be difficult to flare properly during landing, especially if speed control is not good and airspeed is high and full flaps are used. The same trick that works so we’ll in PA-32s and PA-34s, using the first or, at most, second notch of flaps, helps the pilot to hold the nose gear off. The Cessna 182 shares similar traits.

Unlike some airplanes, the performance of the early Cherokee 235s was better than that of the later models. This is due, in part, to the fact that many designs start out underpowered; not so the 235, which had plenty of horses from the outset.

Cruise speed, rate of climb, range, service ceiling and landing performance all decreased to some extent when the 235 became the Dakota. One of the most notable performance losses was the comparably poor altitude performance of the Charger/Pathfinder, which can be attributed to the same engine hauling around more airplane. Even the official figures reflect this. Late-model 235s with constant-speed props have a service ceiling of 16,500 feet. The Chargers official top is a dismal 12,000 feet, and even getting to 10,000 in the summer is a trial, say some owners.

The new, longer wing on the Dakota brought much better performance to the design. The service ceiling went back up to a very respectable 17,900 feet, which assures adequate density-altitude performance and ability to cruise with relative efficiency at the middle altitudes (14,000 to 16,000 feet). Only takeoff ground run performance declines, compared to the Charger (886 feet versus 850 feet), although performance to cross a 50-foot barrier improves (1216 versus 1,410 feet).

Climb performance in the Dakota is also markedly improved, again because of the longer wing. These are the characteristics that attract people to big-engined singles-an airplane with a smaller engine simply cant hold its own in a hot-high-heavy situation the way a Dakota can. In its own way, the Dakota shows what aircraft development within a model line should be but rarely is: improved utility, improved performance. The Dakotas wing also pays off in improved roll response, due to the taper and new aileron design.

Cherokee Systems
There are a few things to be aware of about the PA-28-235/236s systems, some of which are potential problems for the uninitiated. The brakes come in for routine castigation. Especially in the later models, pilots complain there is too little braking power available and that pedal feel is too spongy. This may be a perception rather than a fact. Brake power may be properly modulated to the airplanes performance and wheel and tire size. Too much brake power puts the expense elsewhere, in replacing flat-spotted tires.

The fuel system in earlier airplanes deserves mention as well. The original four-tank fuel supply requires constant attention to fuel management. Accidents continue to occur because of failure to switch tanks or because a tank with no fuel or low fuel is selected. This occurs despite the location of the fuel gauges and selector on the 235s in the center of the cockpit, below the engine controls. In the Dakota, the fuel system is simpler but the selector is in the usual out-of-sight, out-of-mind PA-28 position on the left side wall.

Another potential problem area is the pitot/static system design. With the pitot tube (or blade in this case) mounted on the bottom of the port wing, the system is very susceptible to water contamination and bug blockage. Its nearly impossible to inspect properly and frequently the only indication is the lack of or clearly erratic indication of airspeed during the takeoff run.

In later models, with more seat adjustments in both the front and rear and better attention to seat shape, the 235 is better than the average lightplane over long stage lengths. A number of owners have commented on seat design as a plus. We agree and not only for comfort reasons. Piper is one of the only manufacturers to pay attention to crashworthiness of their seats: The S shaped seat frame deforms on impact, absorbing energy.

Especially after the fuselage stretch introduced in 1972, the 235 series provides reasonable comfort for four people. The front-seat passenger actually has an easier time keeping out of the pilots way than in a Bonanza. The Dakota is roomier still.

Cockpit layout is typical Piper, which is to say that its good in our opinion with the exception of the engine instruments. While there is a certain logic to putting the tachometer and manifold pressure gauge near the throttle, we prefer to see the critical powerplant information up high and near the pilots line of sight. To us, the late-model Bonanza is about as good as it gets in a single. From an operational standpoint, fuel management raises pilot workload in the earlier models while in the Dakota, its a relatively simpler matter of maintaining reasonable lateral balance.

The 235/Dakota has a huge advantage going for it when it comes to maintenance: reliability. The O-540 is significantly de-rated compared to some variants of the same engine, like the 350-HP versions in the Navajo. That means stresses are low and service reports verify that the 235-HP version is nearly bulletproof, something that can be said of all large displacement engines.

With the core engine still in production and tens of thousands in the field, support has not been a problem. With parts and service widely available, proper maintenance does not require a guru. Being a PA-28 also means that parts and service for the airframe are quite easy to come by. As these things go, its an easy airplane to live with. These observations, of course, do not apply to the Turbo Dakota.

The powerplant and accessory problems it suffers are legion by comparison, with premature cylinder wear and valve guide problems relatively routine. However, these appear to be less of an issue in the small-displacement Continental engines than in the 520/550 powerplants.

As far as ADs go, the 235/236 series has a rather long list but the good news is that many of these are shotgun-type ADs which apply to a number of engines and appliances, not just this particular model. AD 74-19-01 requires replacement of an outboard spar assembly in some airplanes, 72-14-07 requires checking of torque in stabilator hinge fittings and 96-10-03 requires checking and/or replacing of the flap handle attach bolt. The 236 series has a much shorter list of ADs, but they overlap with the 235 aircraft.

Mods, Groups
The organization most frequently mentioned as a source of helpful information is the Cherokee Pilots Association which can be contacted at 813-948-3616 or on the Web at www.piperowner.com. Recently, a new Piper owner organization was established, as a splinter from the Piper Owner Society (see www.piperowner.org.) The new group is called the Piper Flyer Association and can be reached at www.piperflyer.org.

Mods available include STOL kits from Sierra and Bush and a few aerodynamic goodies from Met-Co-Aire (www.metcoaire.com) and LoPresti Speed Merchants at www.speedmods.com. Speed brakes are also available from Precise Flight at www.preciseflight.com. Prop STCs are available from both McCauley and Hartzell and Aero-Diesel Propulsion is working on mods to install the SMA SR305 in the PA-28 series and that may eventually include the Dakota. Find McCauley at www.mccauley.textron.com and Hartzell at www.hartzellprop.com.

Owner Feedback
I was a 1980 Dakota (PA28-236) owner for seven years and feel it is one of the best fixed-gear, single-engine, four-seat aircraft out there. The load hauling ability is fantastic, it can carry four adults and bags with full fuel. My Dakota has over 800 pounds of payload with full fuel; thats over 200 pounds per seat. The cruise speed is respectable at 135 knots or so. The engine is a very reliable Lycoming O-540 that is only asking 235 HP maximum at 2400 RPM.

It does have a constant speed prop but the gear stays down, making it a high performance aircraft. The flaps are manual, having very little to go wrong.

The true Dakotas are made on and after 1979 and have the improved semi-tapered wing and the largest fuselage of the four-seat Cherokees. The O-540 J3A5D is a high-compression engine and cannot use auto fuel. The dual magneto was a worry to me, but never ever caused a single problem. I did get it overhauled at every 500 hours of use.

I had most of the speed mods installed on the airplane prior to the re-painting. They were helpful in handling, but were not as good delivering the extra speed promised. The biggest bang for the buck was to have the airplane rigged properly. I gained more speed getting rid of a drooped flap and improperly rigged ailerons than any speed mod.

The Aero Enhancements wood instrument panels are a fantastic upgrade and significantly improve the instrument lighting as part of the deal. RMD Aero Lighting made the replacement wingtips with landing lights that were a huge improvement for night operation. I also installed the Pulselite power supply to add to the recognition of the aircraft in terminal areas.

The operating expense was reasonable for a high-performance aircraft that had the weight hauling ability. She would burn 13 GPH at cruise and I had $1 million smooth insurance policy with a $100,000 hull for around $1500 per year. This is a great first aircraft as the gear is fixed, so the insurance companies are not too worried.

The direct competitor is the C182, but I have always thought Piper does a better job with the interior and they look nicer to me. The Dakota is a definite one to look at if you are in the market. It is a real four seater and has the muscle to work in high density altitudes at gross weight. She is very stable as an IFR aircraft and flies like any Cherokee. She has no bad habits and is probably the least complex high-performance aircraft out there. Very easy to find parts and service, as almost everyone has worked on a Cherokee.

She was a fantastic first aircraft and safely flew us thousands of enjoyable miles.

-Jamey Duffey
Via e-mail

My wife and I purchased our 1979 model Piper Dakota in May of 1999. I had just begun training on my instrument rating when I went to test fly it. I spent a few hours getting my high-performance endorsement and then went back to work on my instrument rating. It is a great instrument airplane.

We spend most of our flying time flying from Knoxville, Tennessee to West Tennessee where our family lives. It turns a six- hour drive into two hours of flight time. It is a great medium distance touring aircraft.

We have made a few trips with my sister-in-law and husband on the above mentioned trip. Both of us guys hover around on either side of 200 pounds and our wives are of average weight. Including luggage, we had to leave about an hours worth of fuel behind. For the two-hour trip, we had enough fuel reserve.

I use a conservative rule of thumb when doing flight planning. I plan on 135 knots true air speed and 15 GPH fuel burn. With full tanks (72 gallons), I estimate five hours of flying time. I prefer two to three hour legs.

We have made several trips over the Appalachian Mountains to West Virginia, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Flight over our eastern mountains is not usually a problem, occasionally it is difficult to get over the turbulence without having oxygen. We have made a few long trips to San Antonio, Des Moines and Muskegon, Michigan. Breaking up trips like that into three hours legs makes for pleasant trips. I always carry The $100 Hamburger book with me to plan the stops. I have also used my Dakota on several Angel Flight trips. I average about 100 flight hours a year.

When I purchased the Dakota, it had about 1700 TT both on the airframe and engine, knowing it would have to either have the engine overhauled or be sold in two or three years. A Millennium engine overhaul was chosen at about 2030 hours. Actually, the engine was still running good and was not giving any problems.

I had heard my insurance might not cover the aircraft if damage was caused by engine failure if it was we’ll beyond TBO. While waiting for the engine to be returned from Florida, some work was done on the panel. A JPI engine analyzer, Garmin GNS 430 and Garmin GTX327 was installed. These three items make flying easy.

This past year, a LoPresti Boom Beam landing light and wing tips with landing lights were added. The glass was replaced and new interior seats and carpet was installed. I would send you a picture but the exterior looks bad due to fiberglass work done on the wheel pants and cowling. It has red primer spots all over. I plan to have it painted soon.

The biggest maintenance problem was trying to correct a nose wheel shimmy. Three different shops have worked on this problem with no success. Reading about Cherokee maintenance problems; I found a kit from Piper for around $1000 which would permanently fix the problem. It would have saved me a lot of money and a few scary moments if I had found that solution sooner. As a result of the shimmy, several motor mounts needed replacing, plus exhaust pipe problems. These might not have occurred if the problem had been corrected a couple years earlier.

By the time I get my Dakota painted, I will probably have twice its worth tied up in it. It carries my wife, my 75-pound black Lab, me, all the luggage we could ever possibly want to carry and full fuel most anywhere we want to go.

The dentist who sold it to me and bought a Bonanza keeps telling anyone who will listen that he is going to buy it back from me. He just doesnt know how much it would cost him.

Insurance was $1777 this year. Cost for outside tie-down is $55 a month at Knoxville. IFR certification was $295 this year. Oil change runs about $275. I don’t think I have had a typical annual. Last years was $4200, but that included a new muffler, one exhaust pipe and a new alternator.

The Dakota seems to go through alternators fairly regularly and until having the ring gear replaced during the engine overhaul, it went through starters pretty often also.

-Tom Hudson
Via e-mail

Also With This Article
“Piper PA-28-235/236 Charts”
“Accidents: VFR-into-IMC”