Piper PA-38 Tomahawk

A lot roomier than the 150/152, the Tomahawk has the makings of a good trainer...but be certain to check its AD compliance carefully.

The Tomahawk, one of the last all-new designs introduced by Piper before the great general aviation slump of the 1980s, was supposed to be the ultimate primary trainer. It was billed as a design that answered the wishes of flight instructors and students everywhere.

It certainly had a few things going for it. Definitely sportier-looking than its main competition, the Cessna 152, the Tomahawk offered a reliable engine, good visibility, a hefty 30-gallon fuel capacity and well thought out systems. But it was hit with a series of troubles early on; these, of course, were rectified through ADs and service bulletins, but before the PA-38s reputation could be restored production was discontinued along with most other light aircraft.

Today, a Tomahawk can be had for $10,000 to $12,000 less than a similar-vintage 152. As long as the airplanes service history is adequately accounted for, that savings makes it a pretty good deal.

In the late 1950s Cessna came up with an undeniable hit with the 150. Essentially an updated 140 with tricycle gear, the 150 became the archetype of the primary trainer. The basic formula was a good one: docile handling, rugged construction, and an economical engine.

Pipers answer was the Cherokee, but it was really in a different class. It was roomier, but there were some strikes against it. For one thing, the handling wasnt quite as crisp, especially in the stall. This was seen as a drawback for primary training. But the real reason that the Cherokee 140 didnt have the same success as a trainer was simple economics. With its 150 HP engine, it was far more costly to operate. The same factor stood in the way of the Beech 19.

In the mid-1970s, Piper decided it was time to go head-to-head with Cessna. Rather than come up with another variant on the amazingly versatile PA-28 airframe, the company elected to launch an all-new design. The idea was to put it squarely in the same class as the 150, but make it decidedly more modern.

Piper made much of its drive to solicit input from end users. Ten thousand experienced flight instructors have assisted us in producing the ideal learn-to-fly airplane, ran the press releases. Attention was also called to the fact that the PA-38 was an all new design, with Piper calling it the first new trainer in a generation.

The first Tomahawks appeared in late 1977, and they certainly were different. The cabin was far roomier than the Cessnas, the fuel tanks were much larger, and the overall appearance was of a much more modern airplane. Like many Pipers of the era, the Tomahawk had a T-tail. In hindsight, given the mixed results Piper experienced with other forays into high-mounted horizontal stabilizers, this was probably a mistake. However, it did serve to set the Tomahawk apart on the flight line. Oddly enough, Beech came up with a trainer of its own at the same time-the Skipper-that was nearly identical to the Tomahawk.

Production of the Tomahawk lasted only five years, and few changes were made to distinguish early models from later ones. However, because of all the flaws that emerged as the aircraft entered service, the later the model, the better, since each production year more improvements were incorporated.

The so-called Tomahawk II in 1981, therefore, boasted nearly invisible (on the outside) improvements like better soundproofing, improved door latches and a larger and more positive throttle knob. And by ducting defroster heat directly from the heat exchanger, windshield defroster effectiveness was supposed to have been improved.

Altogether, nearly 2,500 Tomahawks were built in five years or so of production, with most of those being constructed during the first two years. A relative handful (fewer than 200) rolled out of factory doors each of the last three years.

Caution should always be exercised when considering used trainer aircraft. Students are notoriously hard on equipment, so if a clean example of an airplane that has never been a trainer can be found, its the preferred choice. Of course, the sellers know this, so these airplanes will carry a hefty premium.

Competition for the Tomahawk basically boils down to its two-seat contemporaries: the Cessna 152 and the Grumman AA-1. All three airplanes use the Lycoming O-235 engine, and all three are roughly comparable in performance and payload. The Cessna tends to be more expensive, in our opinion because of the Pipers lingering bad reputation more than anything else. The AA-1, particularly in the earlier versions, is a much more demanding airplane to fly, though it does offer good performance, and is somewhat less expensive to buy. The latter is also a true orphan: Grumman became AGAC, which then went out of business.

Expect to pay anywhere from $15,000 to $17,500 for an average-condition Tomahawk, or far more if you insist on a really clean non-trainer.

Trainers dont have to fly very far, very fast or carry a great deal to meet their design goals, and the Tomahawk is no exception. Differences between it and similar airplanes are not dramatic, though they are noticeable and the Tomahawk does show up fairly well when compared to the 152.

When the Tomahawk first came out we did a side-by-side test between it and the 152. At cruise the two are similar-100 knots or so-but flat-out the Tomahawk was faster. We observed 114 KTAS at 85% power.

Climb rate, which on paper is almost the same, turned out to be somewhat better for the Tomahawk in real-world tests. The Tomahawk benefits from a high-aspect-ratio wing here. Even so, climb rate is not the strong suit of any airplane in this class. Standard condition gross weight climb is only 725 FPM, and it gets much worse with hot or high conditions. Poor climb rate is the biggest complaint amongst pilots, but thats not at all unusual in this class of airplane.

Handling isnt bad, though in our opinion the control harmony could be a bit better, with a higher roll rate. Its well within the expected norms for a modern trainer.

As expected, the T-tail has an impact on low-speed handling since its perched up out of the propwash. Once the airspeed is high enough pitch authority is good, but there may be a tendency towards over-rotation with novices. Its a safe bet that any Tomahawk used for training has had its tail whacked into the runway at least once over the years.

In cruise, the novice may be surprised to note that the Tomahawks nose (and tail) hunts with turbulence in a manner similar to a V-tail Bonanza. Some of our test pilots even noticed the aircrafts tail mysteriously wiggled back and forth just a bit even in absolutely still air. But since the pilots sit near the center of rotation, they feel little of this side-to-side swaying, unlike rear-seat Bonanza passengers.

Unlike many aircraft, the flaps do their thing with minimal impact on trim, a characteristic we like. While on the subject of flaps, the Tomahawk has Pipers stone-simple manual flap arrangement consisting of a big lever in the middle of the floor with a detent button. Lowering the flaps at speed requires a strong pull, but thats about the only drawback of the system. We feel that its the best compromise there is. The flaps can pop down a notch of their own accord during taxi with a strong tailwind if theyre rigged right.

Ground handling is thoroughly conventional, and with the Tomahawks low wing theres far less tendency to blow over than there is in the featherweight high-winged 152.

Unlike the trim arrangement found on most airplanes, the Tomahawk uses bungees. This requires a considerable amount of adjustment with airspeed changes, and has been prone to trouble in the past.

Stall behavior is certainly sharper than the Cherokees well-known mush, and is sharper than the 152s. The drop is sharp for a trainer, and the airplane is capable of dropping a wing to a surprising degree. This seems to vary from airplane to airplane. Piper did considerable work with stall strips before the airplane would pass muster.

Stall/spin caveats
The Tomahawk has been the subject of much unflattering attention in the past for its stall and spin behavior. Some may find the stall characteristics a bit jarring since the airplane will show the pilot a sharp break, a healthy nose drop and maybe even total loss of aileron control, provided the control wheel is not eased forward on the first buffet.

A disturbingly high incidence of stall/spin accidents in the early years of production led to addition of stall strips first on the outboard leading edges, and later on the inboard portions, too. A full complement of four stall strips was called for by the NTSB, and the FAA made it an AD.

The spin characteristics themselves of the Tomahawk have been endlessly debated. The aircraft winds up quickly, steep and fast. Recovery requires aggressive action: full opposite rudder and full forward movement of the control wheel.

Stalls bring on a truly unnerving trait of the Tomahawk. Get into a full stall and the tail starts making some truly amazing rattling noises. A look back at it will show it shaking about to an alarming degree: almost as if the whole tail were fluttering. This is normal, however, and as far as we know theres never been an actual structural failure because of it.

Inside, the Tomahawk is very comfortable compared to the Cessna 150/152. The cockpit is a hefty 42 inches wide, and theres adequate headroom. This makes a lot of difference after an hour or so in the cockpit.

The control and instrument layout is quite good. In particular, the fuel selector is just what we like to see: a nearly idiot-proof big red handle that points to the tank in use, with a separate gauge for each tank. This bit of design earned the Tomahawk a low fuel-mismanagement and exhaustion rate. The fuel system, by the way, holds 30 gallons, giving the Tomahawk significantly more endurance than other trainers.

The cabin boasts two doors, making entry and exit easy. However, there is one feature that could prove dangerous in an emergency. Theres an overhead latch that engages both doors. Should it become jammed, both doors could be stuck shut.

Up front is another feature we like: a fully opening cowling, making a proper preflight inspection easy. Out back, however, its impossible to properly inspect the tail or clear it of snow without a ladder.

The Tomahawk built up a reputation early on for poor quality control, one that we feel was well deserved. The 1978 model is subject to no fewer than 36 ADs, a very high number for what should be the simplest of airplanes. Everything from rudder brackets to vertical fin spars. Of course, most of these were one-time fixes and should have long since been completed, but they left the Tomahawk with a tarnished image that persists to this day, as evidenced by the difference in resale value between it and the Cessna 152; an airplane with the same engine, shorter range and more cramped cabin.

Even today, ADs continue to crop up on the airframe. The latest one appeared only this year: 98-3-16, calling for repair or replacement of the upper rudder hinge bracket.

Another relatively recent type-specific AD, 90-19-3, concerns the landing gear bolts and calls for modification of the landing gear system via SB 673B to preclude loosening of the landing gear attachment and possible gear separation. This SB announced availability of two new kits with higher-strength bolts, barrel nuts and clamps.. Checks of the SDRs indicate that the landing gear has indeed been a source of many problems for Tomahawk owners, with reports of the landing gear simply collapsing or being wrenched backwards. Naturally, student hard landings can be blamed for a lot of it, but much of the onus involves the aforementioned main landing gear attach bolts, which bend, crack, break or become loose

Report after report pleaded for redesign or strengthening of this element, and suggested more frequent inspections. AD 83-05-04 required owners to replace these bolts unless theyd already been replaced under Piper SB 673A. But some SDRs complain that problems recur even after replacement. (Sometimes after lots more flying hours are logged.)

Frequent complaints were also filed concerning the main landing gear liners, which would work loose and cause grief. In the nose landing gear the scissor link bushings, bolts and strut housing came in for their share of attention.

And in another gear-related matter, 1986 Piper SB 834 offers a reinforcement kit designed to prevent cracks or distortion of the rear spar frame assembly because of hard landings or abusive ground handling, such as manually turning the aircraft by pushing on the wings.

Presumably the ferocious shaking of the T-tail during stall exercises by students is to blame for problems involving the securing of the vertical tail fin to the fuselage. If weve tracked these correctly, no fewer than three ADs through the years have been issued to deal with ways to periodically inspect the Tomahawks forward and aft fin spars, bulkheads and attachment plates for cracks, or to replace them.

Engine mount (tube) cracking has been the subject of attention by AD 81-23-7, calling for repeated inspections or modification or replacement.

We think the Tomahawk has a lot going for it, despite its maintenance troubles. Many of the problems were taken care of by the ADs, and a wise previous owner will have chosen to modify rather than repetitively inspect the components called out on the either/or directives.

Nevertheless, special care should be taken to ensure that all ADs and factory service bulletins have been properly dealt with. That means a thorough prepurchase inspection; always a good idea, but a real necessity with an airplane like the Tomahawk. Once youre satisfied that all is in order, it should be fine.

What you get for your money is basic transportation thats remarkably inexpensive to operate. Thanks to the Lycoming O-235s 2400 hour TBO, engine reserves are an astonishing $4,80 or thereabouts, and fuel is sipped at the rate of only 6.5 GPH. That means you can do a lot of flying for not a lot of cash.

Owner Comments
Ive owned a Tomahawk for about two years. Before that I owned an Aeronca Champ. Both are fun airplanes, but I enjoy the Tomahawk more because it has a starter and a decent heater.

I do think the Tomahawk has an undeserved bad reputation; Ive heard it called the Terrorhawk. It supposedly has more than its fair share of ADs, and Ive heard that it wont come out of a spin.

As far as it being called a Terrorhawk, the only time I almost called it that was when I went into a stall and looked back at the tail doing a lot of shaking. But Ive never heard of one falling off. As far as ADs, I feel it came out of the annual inspection just fine. But Im not sure what constitutes a lot of ADs.

Speaking of spins, it will go into a spin easier than a Cessna 150/152. You do need to go through a full spin recovery technique to bring it out, whereas the Cessna will practically recover itself. If the pilot is aware of this before entering the spin, theres no problem. Piper built the airplane this way because thats what a number of instructors asked for.

I really enjoy flying my Tomahawk. The visibility is great and its roomier inside than a Cessna. The actual performance is better than a Cessna 150, but not as good as a 152.

Full coverage insurance for me (7800 hours, ag-pilot) costs $403 per year. Annuals cost $325 plus parts and repairs. It seems the price range is about $12,000 to $20,000.

I feel that I get a lot of bang for the buck with the Tomahawk.

-Steven Taylor
Griffithville, Ark.

The biggest problem Ive found is the lack of a genuine trim tab system. They have a cheap, and less effective spring-load assist, and after a year or two the springs apparently weaken so that even with full aft trim one cant fly hands-off for even a moment without doing a nose dive. The plane isnt very stable in the lateral axis, either-perhaps a good thing for a student.

The visibility is great-much better than in the wider Cherokee, and better than in the 172. The panel layout and fuel controls are excellent. Having full access to the engine with the removable cowling is excellent.

-Bill Greenwood
Aspen, Colo.

Also With This Article
Click here to view charts for Resale Values, Payload Compared and Prices Compared.
Click here to view the Piper PA-38 Tomahawk features guide.