Big-engined four-place tricycle singles are an interesting – and small – class of airplane. Its almost always possible to go faster for less money and fuel, and often possible to get more utility than is afforded by sticking a bigger engine on a relatively small airframe. Nevertheless, muscular four-place singles have proven reasonably popular in the marketplace over the years; popular enough, at least, to support two significant entries. These are the Cessna 182 and Piper PA-28-235/236.
Theres another class of big-engined singles, exemplified by the Cessna 185 and Maule. They are more in the line of working bushplanes, however. The 182 and the Piper entry are more mainstream in their design.
The 182 has been, by any measure, a success. It features a good combination of utility, roominess and performance. The Piper entry, however, never quite matched the 182 in terms of popularity. Nevertheless it has a lot going for it: decent performance, simplicity, and common, proven components. If your needs include a big dose of horsepower coupled to a simple airframe, the biggest Cherokee is certainly a valid candidate.
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 all was said and done, the PA-28 had been mutated 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 derated 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 1966-68. 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 model 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. 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 1975-1978. 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 a 59-pound increase in empty weight. There were other, minor alterations, like the provision of standard shoulder harnesses for the front seats, and a stall horn to replace the stall light.
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. It was larger in a couple of critical dimensions, with another fuselage stretch of 7.5 inches and a span 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, less noise and vibration. It was also designed to use 100/130 avgas instead of 80 octane. 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 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. Few changes were made to the model, and production slowed to a trickle. The last produced came off the line in 1994.
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 areas of induction, cooling and exhaust air flow.
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. 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 enough, some owners love them.
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. 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 $97,000, versus $72,000 for the last Pathfinder. As a side note, the Turbo Dakota goes for only $80,000, some $17,000 less than the same year real Dakota.
The Cessna 182 enjoys much higher prices in the marketplace. A 1979 model currently fetches some $106,000 versus the Dakotas $97,000. 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. If money is more of an issue, theres 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, though not as well 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 very, very sure its right for you.
Most PA-28s handle about the same, and the 236/236 is no exception. Theres 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. 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.) Theres 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 is 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 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 well 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.
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. 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).
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 (14,000-16,000 feet). Only takeoff ground run performance declines, compared to the Charger (886 to 850 feet), although performance to cross a 50-foot barrier improves (1,216 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.
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. It is 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 (in the Dakota, it is 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 derated 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.
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.
The organization most frequently mentioned as a source of helpful information is the Cherokee Pilots Assn., (813) 935-7492.
Mods available include STOL kits from Sierra and Bush, and a few aerodynamic goodies from Met-Co-Aire and LoPresti Speed Merchants. Speed brakes are also available from Precise Flight.
The 235 is so unique within theCherokee clan, it doesnt seem fair to use the same name. Yes, the wing flies similarly, and yes, the looks are almost indistinguishable. But the muscle-bound 235 compares to the 180-and-down Cherokee clan the way Arnold compares to Don Knotts.
Ive owned my 1964 235 for two and a half years. Im a fusser/fiddler by nature, and Ive put over 20 337/STC mods into my airplane is as many months. Ive intimately researched and dealt with every AD ever issued against my airplane, and quite a few that took me a while to determine that they were not applicable to it. Also, with an older airplane and many owners (Im the 10th), I spent a fair amount of time finding all the wrong/broken/missing screws, changing all possible hardware to stainless, cleaning up old Velcro glue, repainting trim pieces and whatnot, etc., etc. Once I got all the vagaries of a 32-year-old airplane taken care of, it became a solid, reliable mount for almost any kind of aviation I wanted.
I bought my Cherokee primarily for the reliable Lycoming O-540 engine, and the superb cabin visibility. It has probably the thinnest window posts I know of, and wide-view sightseeing is a joy. The low-wing obscures a bit of ground below, but it more than makes up for this by being able to see all around the plane, especially in the traffic patterns.
Performance in brief: it cruises at about 153 MPH at 65 percent power at around 8000′. At that power setting, it burns around 12 GPH door-to-door. Even with all the stuff Ive done to it, it still weighs only 1520 pounds empty, and the gross of 2900 allows 1380 pounds of useful load. With all 84 gallons sloshing in the tanks (2 mains and 2 tips), I have room for 4 FAA occupants plus 200 pounds of baggage plus 20 pounds more of the normal stuff we all keep in our own airplanes (books, flashlights, survival gear, etc.). At that weight, it carries almost 250 pounds more payload than the vaunted 182, at similar speeds and ranges.
My bladder is good for maybe 4-5 hours; my airplane will last for 6-7 in normal cruise, or 7-8 at economy settings. Its easily an 800-mile craft, with generous reserves. I normally will push it to about 600 miles per leg on long trips and still land with 1/3 tanks.
What about all the worries of costs of operation on the big O-540 six-cylinder monster up front? When Im not in a hurry, Ill dial it back to 45-50% power and loaf along at 125MPH and 9.5GPH. Two weeks ago, we roamed all over Northern California for an entire Sunday, logging 4.5 hours of flying time for a total fuel expenditure of 34 gallons, about $70 at todays prices.
Among the many mods and upgrades and AD-eliminations, I have installed the MASA STOL kit, which consists of a dorsal fin and leading-edge cuffs. This mod lowers the stall speed by about 4-5MPH, but more importantly, increases the control in the stall to astonishing levels. With the yoke almost full back, full flaps and about 35% power, the airplane will simply live within a power-on stalled condition and fly happily around a crazily-tilted sky. The deck angle is around 35 degrees, airspeed about 48MPH, with the center of the wing in a busy buffet while the ailerons give full control and the prop-washed wing root keeps flying in the relative wind. Under zero-wind conditions, take-off and landing rolls at moderate weights are around 500 feet, even with the sluggish Piper laminar-flow (haha) Hershey-bar wing. All the speed and STOL mods put together have taken the stall speed down about 5-6MPH, not a huge amount. But, more importantly, there is a very solid, sure feeling of CONTROL in the stall. I really have to brutalize it to get a wing to drop.
Ive done nothing yet to the interior, which is passable but not bragging-level. The rear seat is incredibly comfortable, and the fronts are less so, but tolerable. Additional lumbar-foam will go in when I do the interior.
As an IFR platform, it is OK, nothing startling. It will drift off on one wing or the other if left uncorrected, but only gradually and so what else is new? The 4 tanks take some management, and I switch about every 20 minutes or so. If I let it go too long, she reminds me by getting wing-heavy. I consider this a blessing, a sort of auto-fuel-management system, and I would not own an aileron-trim system. I would very much like an autopilot – it came without one, and adding an S-Tec is up around $3000-$4000 these days.
Ground handling is spectacular. The CG is so low, the gear stance so wide, it feels like a sports car driving a Cherokee around the ramp. You have to remind yourself to be cautious, because side loads can be easy to self-induce, and the gears are attached directly to the wing spars. The low wing also makes for really easy cross-wind landings, so much in fact that I feel quite spoiled. By the time the wings get down to their 3′ height above the ground, most of the punch has gone out of any crosswind. I carry a crab almost to touchdown, then a touch of wing-low, and carefully take all the rudder out just as the nosewheel (no bungees) touches down. If I forget about the nosewheel, it will chirp back and forth once or twice, trying to caster straight against my crossed-controls.
For rough-field conditions, I put a bit of extra air in the struts and pick the whole airplane up an inch or two (all the struts have over 10″ of travel, so adjusting for specific conditions is possible once you understand the mechanics of things). Plus I run it light, of course. But even with full camping gear and 3/4 tanks, Ive put it in and out of fairly short strips (1200-1400 feet) with plenty of margin for error.
This early model was shorter than later Cherokees, and rear seat legroom will not accommodate basketball players, especially with long-leggers in the front seats. The shortness also made it wallow a bit in turbulence; fortunately, the MASA dorsal fin corrected that quite well.
The ventilation system leaves a lot to be desired, but it manages to cool off my passengers on all but the most brutal summer days. Unfortunately, the vents are little doors on the outside surface of the fuselage (later design took the air in from the wing and tailfin leading edges). When I open all five vents, I have recorded a cruise loss of 3MPH! A little drag goes a long way.
The early instrument panels were a far cry from post-1968 standard configurations, and Ive spent considerable time re-doing the panel arrangement. Fortunately, its not structural, so only logbook entries are called for in a panel re-do. With the radios very centered, and the control column using up depth behind the lower part of the panel, it takes some creativity to come up with a good design full of IFR panel components. I managed to get the basic-T in by using Terra radios (which are very compact). For other models, the stack would have to move to the right, and my IA tells me such a mod would probably warrant another 337.
My particular 235 came with a fixed-pitch prop, a mixed blessing if ever there was one. It lacks the weight, complexity, and AD (500 hours recurrent) of the Hartzell constant-speed prop. But it takes about 100 feet more to get off the ground, and it compromises the book service ceiling by 2000 feet. Luckily, I virtually never fly at gross weight, and my actual service ceiling is somewhere around 16,000 feet or more – I have never had the opportunity to determine it. On the way back from Oshkosh in 1996, my friend and I were at 16,500 (density altitude), with full camping gear, half tanks, 55% power, and climbing 600FPM at 100MPH The fixed prop also runs out of RPM at about 65% at cruising altitudes, so spending 75% power (14GPH) for some extra speed is not an option. I estimate the 75% setting might get me up towards 160+MPH or so. Putting a standard Hartzell on the nose is simple, except for one minor problem: my serial number is so early, I have the B2B5 engine, and the Hartzell is certified only for the B4B5. The difference, heavier crankshaft counterbalances, requires a major teardown. Ill probably put a constant-speed prop on it eventually, for the sake of short-field work, but it will be more for the purpose of another project and a slight performance edge, than any real necessity.
Of the entire list of ADs on the airplane, none are really any kind of heart-breakers. The early plastic control wheels tended to crack, and had a 50-hour recurrent inspection requirement. I replaced mine with the late-model rams-horn style, $600 from Wentworth. The early main-gear torque links also liked to crack (100-hour recurrent), so $150 worth of late-model links were installed. (Thanks again Wentworth) Oil hoses, stainless/Teflon, $150 for a full set. I added the Airwolf remote filter ($350), bumping the oil changes from 25 to 50 hours. The left mag impulse coupling needs inspection every 500 hours, which is about two years at my flying rate of 250 hours a year. And theres a couple of nuisance-level ADs, like the recurrent fuel-valve door inspection, which the pilot-owner can comply with.
Small headaches: oleo struts suck. The seals dont last very long, and the struts have a static friction, which can cause a rough ride even on smooth asphalt. Fortunately, when you really bump them, like on rough dirt, they move readily.
The alternator is a perennial headache for some Cherokee owners, but mine is trouble-free. The secret? – check out the mounting system and repair/replace any worn brackets. Then, shim the rear mounting lug with oversize washers to prevent its moving on its bushing. Double- and triple-check the belt alignment. Start the motor with the alternator field breaker OPEN – otherwise, the alternator will put out max current while you are cranking. My logbooks showed almost an alternator a year before I got the plane. Ive got over 400 hours on a rebuilt unit now, and no problems.
The door is a bit of a joke. I have yet to figure out how to get it truly sealed, without investing $600 in a high-tech inflatable door seal. I use headsets and ignore the noise. My Cherokee doesnt leak a drop of rain, which is NOT a typical story. There is some runoff from the wing spar which ends up in the belly of the fuselage, but one of Pipers service bulletins okays two small drain holes near the baggage bay spar, and the water just runs right out again before it can do any damage. The baggage door was also laughable, with multiple repairs having been ineffectually made, and the latch nearly useless after years of abuse. 15 hours of cleanup, rework, and careful sealing brought it back to functionality. Designed to flip up, the strapped-back door can deal a nasty cut if youre not careful climbing off the wing, so I watch it and caution my passengers. Better yet, I dont leave it open during passenger egress.
Overall, maintenance is a relative dream, especially compared to such nightmares as the multi-screwed, tight-cowled Mooneys and Bonanzas. The top cowl comes off with 4 quick-release latches. The bottom comes off for oil changes with only 12 screws. Rear seats remove with 6 bolts, front seats with 2 screws each. It takes me about 45 minutes to an hour to completely strip the airplane to get it ready for the annual.
The Cherokee systems are simple, easy to get at, and easy to fix. Virtually all the parts for the airplane are still available from Piper, and some are even reasonably priced. Although $140 for a throttle cable sounds like a lot, it aint bad compared to Cessnas $520.
For my 1964 airplane with nine previous owners, my first annual cost over $5000, including trim cables, exhaust system, ignition harness, and myriad lesser items. Since then, its been between $1000 and $2000. All costs are with me doing most of the work, signed off by my IA. I dont scrimp on anything, if its worn, it gets replaced, period.
Really worthwhile mods: higher alternator capacity, control columns, gear torque links, engine oil filter, instrument panel standard T, copper battery cables, Sky-tech starter, modern ELT with panel-remote. The K2U tail-cap strobe reduces electrical system load by about 6 amps. When my windshield gets scratchy enough, Ill put a 1/4-inch upgrade in (I fret about bird strikes).
Probably not worth the time/trouble: the STOL kit, most speed mods, Bogert battery-box mod. Unless youre a purist and cant sleep until everything that can be done has been done. (Like me.)
If it sounds like Im happy with it, I am. Oh, sure, Id like it to be faster, and slower, and maybe a bit sexier. Id LOVE two doors, and Id kill for a big baggage door like a Maule. But as an all-around airplane, a reasonably quick load-hauler, its very hard to beat.
The Dakota is a Cherokee on steroids. The performance difference is so noticeable that on more than one occasion Ive had passengers familiar with Warrior and Archer performance comment on how much more substantial feeling the Dakota is. Its probably the push in the back you get on take-off roll and the positive rate of climb that is achieved almost instantly on rotation that wakes up the masses.
Cruise is a comfortable 135 KIAS at 6000 – 9000 feet at something just under 75% power. Ive found that if I can get it to the airport in my Oldsmobile Aurora, itll fit in the plane and the plane will fly! (My barbell set excluded.) I fly missions for Angel-flight of New England and have had occasion to take three passengers, luggage for a trip to Europe – including a carton of medical supplies – and an adult stroller (used for the disabled when a wheelchair is not appropriate.) It fit, the W&B worked and I flew them into JFK without a hitch.
The downside of all this heavy lifting is that it costs bit more to operate than your average Skyhawk. Fuel burn runs about 14 GPH block to block and engine reserve must be higher than with a smaller 4 cylinder engine. I purchased my Dakota with 2132 hours on the original engine (400 hours STOH). I put on another 100 hours and went for a Lycoming Factory Overhaul. The engine set me back $16,700, and with prop, governor, mounts and R & R the job was almost $23,000. Next time around itll be even more so a $12.50 per hour reserve is not out of line.
The oleos are finicky. They bind in odd positions, sometimes extended, sometimes compressed. Theyve been serviced but I still find that I am often lifting up one side or the other just before I get in the car to go home after tying her down. For 14 months Ive been trying to figure out why I sometimes have difficulty getting to door to close and latch. No other PA-28 Ive been in, and Ive rented plenty of them, has given me this trouble.
The #1 exhaust riser broke off in flight recently leaving me with my JPI showing only 5 functional cylinders. Power was normal – just a little extra noise and vibration- so I avoided using the E word and exercising my right to foul up JFK traffic on a Sunday evening and made it back home (FRG) without incident. My A&P subsequently informed me that every Dakota he takes care of has broken the #1 riser. He considers it almost a normal wear item on this plane. It seems that there is no support for the mufflers other than the riser flange bolted to the cylinder head.
Far Rockaway, N.Y.