The Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six/Saratoga comes close to being the epitome of a utility airplane. In the payload/capacity/cost equation, its hard to find another airplane that can carry so much for so little. As such, its popular with charter and cargo operations, and fills the need well. With six seats and fixed gear, its only counterparts in the marketplace are the Cessna 206 and 207.
As a fixed-gear single, the PA-32 offers simplicity, relatively low maintenance costs (especially when compared to a twin) and low fuel consumption (again compared to a twin). Of course, something must be sacrificed-in this case speed-and the possible safety benefits of a second engine. (The single vs. twin safety debate is an old one, and we wont get into it here.)
The PA-32 shares many of the basic design features of its smaller siblings, the PA-28 series, like a stabilator, manual flaps, oleo-strut gear, general panel layout, and so forth.
But the big difference is the cabin. Its huge: four feet wide, four feet high, and 13 feet long. And access is easy-theres a standard door beside the front right seat, and another door aft of the wing on the left side. In many PA-32s, this is supplemented by an adjoining cargo door that makes loading large objects easy. Its not really convenient to move from the front to the back, however, since the wing spar runs through the cabin behind the front seats.
The rear seats come out easily, without the need for tools, leaving an unobstructed cargo cabin about 10 feet long. In the early 70s Piper offered a club seating option, which has proved very popular. Also offered was a seventh seat, actually a filler between the two middle-row seats that could be folded down to make a wide armrest.
Theres a baggage compartment behind the last row of seats with a 100-pound weight limit, and another in the nose between the cabin and firewall, also with a 100-pound capacity. Access to it is through a door on the right side of the fuselage.
The earliest (1965) Cherokee Sixes had normally aspirated 260-HP Lycoming O-540s that had a 1,200-hour TBO, later upped to 2,000 hours with the retrofit of larger exhaust valves. Virtually all of the older engines have been updated by this time. The year 1966 saw the introduction of the Cherokee Six 300, with an injected version of the Lycoming O-540 developing 300 HP. Both versions remained in production through 1978, when the 260 was discontinued.
In 1980 the same basic design changes that had already altered the shape of the PA-28s came to the PA-32, and the Hershey-bar wing was traded for a semi-tapered wing of greater aspect ratio. That in turn brought a change to the fuel system, replacing the fiberglass tip tanks with bladders. The name changed, too, to Saratoga. The year 1980 also brought the option of turbocharging to the PA-32. In keeping with the designation changes in the rest of the fleet, the PA-32-300 became the PA-32-301 and -301T. The turbo was dropped after the 1984 model year.
Most PA-32s have two-bladed constant-speed props, but some of the earlier Sixes had fixed-pitch units. These arent recommended, since they reduce both climb performance and cruise speed. A constant-speed model can be retrofitted, however. Three-bladed props were offered as an option on later models.
Aside from the wing change in 1980, surprisingly little was done to the PA-32 over the course of its production run, which finally ended in 1990.
Other minor changes included a new panel and throttle quadrant in 1970, two extra windows in 1974, and a larger fin in 1975.
The bottom line is that this is a remarkably homogeneous design; regardless of year, the airplane is pretty much the same. That can mean some relative bargains, since an older airplane will be very similar to a newer one, only slightly less expensive. The similarity between old and new airplanes also means that any given year of PA-32 will hold its value reasonably well.
One nice thing about the PA-32 is its W-I-D-E cockpit. The panel is so big it can fit a full selection of instruments, a double stack of radios, and still have enough room left over for a glove box. The Six has always had a good panel layout, and it got better with time. The fuel selector is well placed at the base of the pedestal. Most Sixes and all Saratogas have a throttle quadrant instead of push-pull knobs.
With the introduction of the Saratoga the electrical switches moved from the panel to a supplemental panel on the cabin sidewall under the pilots vent window. This is a superior placement for access, but the location under the vent window can mean water damage to the electrical system. The breakers are inconveniently located all the way to the right and on the lower edge of the panel.
Piper paid some attention to crashworthiness in its airplanes in the Seventies, and the PA-32 benefited from it. The seats on airplanes of this vintage and later were designed to progressively crush and absorb energy, and theres a large, padded glareshield. The door is typical Piper, with two latches; the upper one can cause the door to jam shut if the airplane comes to rest inverted. Mitigating this is the placement of the rear door on the other side of the fuselage.
The PA-32 can be equipped with a variety of niceties that make life more bearable for the occupants. One is air conditioning. Owners who have the standard blower/vent system have told us they wish it were more effective in the rear, and its something to consider if passengers are carried often. However, its yet another maintenance problem (not that theres anything wrong with the system, its just something else to break). Also, it carries with it the inevitable decrease in useful load.
Turbo Saratogas can also be found with built-in oxygen, but few PA-32s are regularly flown at altitudes where it would be necessary.
For keeping passengers happy, club seating is preferred. Though its a knee-knocking experience, it lends a spacious feeling to the cabin.
The PA-32s fuel system is simple enough, but it does have what we feel are problems with the design, from a safety standpoint.
The good news is the selector. Unlike the out-of-sight knob found on PA-28s, the PA-32s is a sliding lever at the base of the center pedestal. On Cherokee Sixes, it has five positions: one for each of the four tanks, plus Off. Theres a safety latch to prevent inadvertently shutting the fuel off. Saratogas still have four fuel tanks, but the outer two are bladders. The fuel selector was changed to a three-position left-right-off arrangement.
On the Cherokee Six, each tank has its own filler cap, of the umbrella style thats proven effective in keeping water out. The Saratoga, however, has only two fuel fillers, one for each wing. That makes it impossible to visually check the fuel level if theres less than 35 gallons in the wing.
Offsetting this somewhat are a pair of mechanical fuel gauges in the wing surface, but we prefer to actually eyeball the fuel.
The problem comes when its time to drain the sumps during preflight. There are external quick drains for each tank, but not one for the fuel strainer: instead, theres a drain lever on the front face of the wing spar behind the copilots seat.
The manual states that after all four external drains are used, a container should be placed under the fuel strainer outlet. Then the drain lever is held open while the fuel selector is cycled through each position in turn. This takes a while: the tip tank lines take 11 seconds each to drain, and the mains take six. Thats if everythings full-partial tanks will slow the process because theres less pressure available.Then the pilot has to get out and check the container. If theres any water, the entire process must be repeated. Just imagine doing this if its windy, cold, or raining outside. Its enough of a hassle that it just might be passed over.
Weight and balance
The PA-32s raison dtre is hauling loads, and it does it pretty well. However, like most airplanes, its essentially impossible to fill the seats, baggage compartments, and tanks all at the same time.
Even so, the useful load can run in the vicinity of 1,500 pounds, making the PA-32 a prodigious load hauler. However, not all of the useful load can be accommodated in all situations. Interestingly, the Six actually has a zero-fuel weight limit, one of the few singles to have one.
The total weight of passengers, cargo and airplane cant exceed 3,112 pounds when the seventh seat is used, according to the manual. This would limit the cabin load to about 1,300 pounds. The limitation only shows in the Cherokee Six manual, however.
Balance is a serious consideration. To counter the cabin stretch, Piper moved the engine forward, which left room for the nose baggage compartment. Filling it and the front seats will most likely put the CG too far forward.
To Pipers credit, later manuals contain extensive information about loading the airplane properly, including examples of what to put where in a variety of scenarios.
Those with delusions of fighter pilot-hood can forget it when climbing into a PA-32. Its about as far from snappy as you can get. But then, thats not why people own these airplanes. Pilots say its more like a station wagon than anything else.
Speed is about what one would expect, which is to say, relatively slow for such a powerful airplane. The book figures are reported to be a bit optimistic in the real world. Pilots report true airspeeds in the 140-145-knot range.
As noted above, fuel consumption is low-compared to a twin. Against other singles, its a very thirsty airplane, with fuel burns of around 16 GPH. The standard 50-gallon fuel system on early PA-32s limits the range prohibitively.
A review of FAA accident records for the period covering a representative six-year period turned up a grand total of 212 accidents involving fixed-gear PA-32s, of which 40 were fatal.
If any one category of accident stands out in the PA-32, its the landing mishap, particularly in the pre-1980 models. Owners report typical Cherokee behavior in power-off descents, which is to say that the airplane will come down rapidly. This may go a long way toward explaining the 16 undershot landings and 11 hard landings during the survey period. Only two of the undershoots and one of the hard landings occurred in -301 models with their higher-aspect ratio wings.
One surprising finding was the high number of stall/spin/mush accidents that occurred, which belies the PA-32s docile handling characteristics. Again, the earlier airplanes proved to be more of a handful: only one of the 16 accidents in this category happened in a Saratoga.
The PA-32 has a marked nose-high attitude on the ground, and the nose itself is quite long, restricting visibility on the ground (particularly when heavily loaded). Perhaps as a result, an unusually high number of accidents occurred while taxiing-nine, in all.
The Other/Undetermined category in the accidents chart includes a hodgepodge of accident causes. Among them: Mid-air collision, one accident; electrical failure, one; fuel contamination, one; takeoff groundloop, one; takeoff obstacle, two. In the miscellaneous category there were five instances of cowlings coming unfastened, a couple of bird strikes and the usual collection of bizarre occurrences.
The PA-32s popularity with Part 135 operations is reflected in the accident statistics. Of the 212 accidents, more than a third-75-occurred on charter, ferry or cargo flights. Several of these were a direct result of the extreme conditions under which some Part 135 operators fly their airplanes, like striking rocks while attempting a takeoff from a beach.
As far as fatal accidents are concerned, the number-one killer was the IFR-related accident, including unintentional flight into IMC, spatial disorientation and improper IFR operations (i.e., busting minimums or intentionally flying into the clouds without clearance). Fourteen of the forty fatal accidents were of this kind.
Accidents resulting from engine failure accounted for eight fatal accidents. Seven of the stall/spin/mush accidents proved fatal.
A scan of SDRs for a six-year period turned up 248 reports. The lions share of these were on the Cherokee Six-300 (142). This was followed by the Six-260 with 72, the Saratoga with 19, and the Turbo Saratoga with 15.
There werent enough reports on the Saratogas to draw any valid conclusions. However, there has been one area worth noting on the Turbo Saratoga involving the exhaust system. Turbocharged PA-32s, both fixed and retractable, were the target of an NTSB Safety Recommendation a couple of years ago. It dealt with the V-band clamps and tubing in the exhaust, which were failing and causing in-flight fires. Twenty percent of the SDRs found on the Turbo Saratoga were for the exhaust system, though this amounted to only three reports. Piper issued a Service Bulletin calling for replacement with a one-piece pipe.
One standout area on the Six-300 was the number of reports of wing problems. There was an AD (87-08-08) that called for inspection, and many of the SDRs resulted from trouble found while complying with the directive. Most of the reports were either on skin and spar cracking or corrosion in a variety of locations.
In March of 1992 the NTSB issued another Safety Recommendation as the result of a PA-32 crash in 1991. In it, the number one fuel injector line on a Turbo Saratoga SP retractable fractured along with the number one fuel injector nozzle. The crack was due to fatigue.
The Safety Boards recommendation applies to all fuel-injected Lycoming 540 engines, and calls for inspections of the fuel injector lines and installation of support clamps. That would cover all PA-32s with injected engines. Its too early to tell if it will become an AD, but its a possibility and something to watch out for.
STOL mods are available from Robertson, and Knots 2U offers speed kits. Reports on effectiveness vary, with one owner saying that a full Knots 2U speed kit added only two knots of speed to the airplane.
TurboPlus also offers intercooler mods for the turbocharged Saratoga. We got some reader feedback from an owner who had it installed on his Turbo Saratoga SP retractable, and was very pleased with it, noting that the standard Piper induction system is much less efficient. He reported a 10-knot speed increase in the SP as a result of better induction and cooling efficiency.
While not devoted solely to the PA-32, the Cherokee Pilots Assn., (813) 855-4996 does offer owner support to Piper pilots.
I owned a 1974 PA-32-300 Cherokee Six for about two years. Overall, it was a good, stable instrument airplane that could be loaded heavily and still have a reasonable range.
Its strengths include load carrying capacity, roominess, stability, relatively low maintenance costs and the ability to get in and out of short fields.
This airplane was traded in on a 1977 Lance, which has the same Hershey-bar wing and horsepower. By comparison, its faster, but weaker on takeoff. The Lance when fully loaded does not want to get off the ground in less than about 5,000 feet at our field elevation of 4,700 feet, where the density altitude is frequently between 7,000 and 9,000 feet.
The Lance is better at high altitudes. Though normally aspirated, Ive been to 16,000 feet for cruise. The Cherokee Six, on the other hand, has trouble climbing above 13,000-14,000 feet.
-James E. Roukema, D.O.
Ive had a 1970 Cherokee Six 300 for about three years. In terms of the airplane meeting my mission, Ive been extremely happy. I have two tall boys in addition to my wife, and the Six allows me to do what was difficult in the Arrow I had been renting.
In the Six I can put in all four of us, full fuel and basically any baggage we feel like taking. With this type of load, weight and balance are not a worry. However, the temperature-related performance of the Six is always pretty much the same regardless of loading. Its sort of like driving a station wagon.
As another example of how easy loading is, a friend of mine and I once managed to fit a 400 -pound spinet piano through the rear doors (with the rear four seats removed, of course). There arent a lot of singles you can do that with.
The speed is adequate for me. I can regularly plan on getting 146 KTAS. at 17 GPH. I have one pilot friend who owns a Mooney, and when he flies with me, he constantly refers to the Six as a pig. I always agree with him, but point out that hes always flying with one of his four family members on the ground.
My airplane is IFR-equipped, including DME and a Northstar loran. It seems 75 percent of my flying is in the clouds, and the Six is a stable flyer in less than ideal weather. As with most Cherokees, descents with the power off are impressive, and with a plane the weight of the Six, attention to power is important.
I have had some trouble with the airplane. I bought it with 900 hours on the 2,000-hour TBO engine. At 1,200 hours, after departing Pal-waukee Airport just outside the ORD TCA, the engine suddenly lost power, shuddered several times and quit. It was determined that the crankshaft had broken. By the time the engine was swapped out for a rebuild, it had cost me $14,000.
I also spent $1,200 to comply with a prop AD that the logbooks indicated had been done, but Hartzell said wasnt. Lots of avionics trouble seemed to have the airplane in somebodys shop at least once a month.
The front strut was a constant problem until I bought a Granville strut kit from Sportys, which cured the problem once and for all. Ive had my share of problems, but then, what can you expect from an old airplane?
Overall, in talking with other Cherokee Six 300 and Saratoga owners, my costs havent been unusual. In summary, I like the airplane a lot, and will buy another, newer one when the time comes for a replacement.
La Porte, Ind.
My partner and I have a 1977 Cherokee Six 300. Ive been an owner of the airplane, my first, for about 2-1/2 years and fly it about 120-140 hours per year. After full fuel (84 gals.) we can load on 950 pounds of people and baggage ,which I have done on several occasions.
Most of my trips, however, are with one to three passengers. CG is no problem at all. We have a full IFR radio stack, and being located in Michigan do more than our fair share of IFR flying. The airplane is very stable and very comfortable for such use.
My typical trip leg length is 500 nm, which means two fuel stops and about eight hours total time from here to central Florida. The true airspeed averages 143 knots (we have wing root and flap hinge fairings which add a little speed) and climb to 9,000 feet is about 10-12 minutes with a typical load.
The only problems weve had under the hood have been with accessories: a new vacuum pump, alternator rebuild, alternate air door cable coming loose, a bad impulse coupler, leaking oil cooler, bad voltage regulator, and a pinched line causing a bad reading on the fuel flow meter.
The only problem we cant seem to get solved is a nose strut that is either fully extended or flat despite two rebuilds, new valves, etc., etc.
My wish list for the Six (aside from more speed, of course) would include better ventilation for the rear seats, a less complex fuel system, and a greater willingness on the part of the airplane to transition from high-speed ground roll to actual flight on takeoff. (The landings are easy with plenty of rudder, elevator and power, if need be, to compensate for most any condition or lack of skill.)
-Russell F. McNamara
Traverse City. Mich.