Shop the six-seat, retractable piston-single market and you’ll find three basic choices: Beech’s Model 36 Bonanza, Cessna’s Model 210 Centurion and Piper’s PA-32R series, which is the Lance and Saratoga. At first blush, the Bonanza arguably handles better than the other two while perhaps squeezing out a knot or two over the Centurion. The 210, on the other hand, generally has better short-field performance than the Bonanza and offers an improved hand-flown IFR platform.
Piper’s Lance/Saratoga series, however, can carry more than the other two, albeit more slowly, and usually is thought of as the most stable of the three when flying IFR. That’s a plus for newly branded instrument pilots upgrading from trainers.
The PA-32R line (these are all retracs, and what we’ll focus on in this review) is tough to sift through because Piper kept it in long production, beginning somewhere around 1976 and ending in real numbers around 2008, where the current Aircraft Bluebook tags the PA-32R-301T as a $405,000 airplane. When equipped with a low-time Lycoming TIO-540, air conditioning, icing protection and oxygen, it might easily sell for over $500,000 in the current market. The current Aircraft Bluebook says an early Lance retails for around $85,000, but sales pros tell us that won’t buy you much. More realistic is $120,000 for a cherry one.
The Bonanza, 210 and Saratoga are growth versions of earlier, smaller airframes. All three are available in turbocharged models, either from the factory or in the aftermarket. In some cases, you have fixed-gear versions or derivatives as alternatives.
If trying to describe their differences by referring to the automotive world, the A36 Bonanza might be thought of as a BMW station wagon; the 210 as a Ford Explorer and the PA-32R as a Chevy Suburban. All three make fine platforms when there are two or three people and a few bags. But when there are a lot of bags and people, the Suburban is one that gets the job done with ease. So it is with Piper’s Lance/Saratoga. You just might have to stop for fuel a bit more often.
In the early 1970s Piper suffered a major setback when a flood destroyed much of its Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, plant. Among the casualties was the tooling for the popular, but labor-intensive, Comanche, which had an option for small third-row seats.
The company decided to abandon the Comanche in favor of a new retractable derived from the fixed-gear PA-32 Cherokee Six. The company was already having success with the Seneca, a light twin derived from the same airframe, so it made sense to build on a familiar design. Not much needed to be done to the Cherokee Six: The PA-32 was already available with the 300-HP Lycoming IO-540, so essentially the only change was to fit a retractable landing gear. That meant a new engine mount and changes to the wing. Piper also modified the wing spar in the process, allowing a 200-pound boost in gross weight, to 3600. The new airplane was dubbed the PA-32R Lance and introduced to the public in 1976.
The powerplant was the 300-HP Lycoming IO-540 K1G5D with a 2000-hour TBO in the normally aspirated airplanes and the TIO-540-S1AD with a TBO of 1800 hours in the later turbocharged models. (The first 140 Lances built had K1A5D engines, the only difference being in fuel pump design.) The D means that the engine has the infamous Bendix dual magneto system. The fuel system originally held 94 gallons in four tanks, later upped to 102 gallons.
The PA-32R borrows heavily from its siblings. The main landing gear is much like the Seneca—logical, since the basic airframe is the same—and the nosegear resembles the Seneca and also the Arrow. The PA-32R also came with Piper’s automatic extension system for the landing gear. The fuel system is similar to the Seneca’s.
The Lance remained essentially unchanged for two years. In the late 1970s, though, someone at Piper decided that T-tails were a good idea. We believe it unlikely that the responsible parties were aerospace engineers or experienced pilots, based on the aerodynamic qualities of the Piper T-tail singles in general. The Lance wasn’t the only T-tailed Piper. This also was when the PA-38 Tomahawk was rolled out and the T-tailed Arrow IV debuted.
Piper combined the T-tail’s introduction to the PA-32 airframe with a turbocharged variant. These two aircraft, the Lance II (PA-32RT-300) and Turbo Lance II (-300T), were not very well received. Though Piper ballyhooed the supposed advantages of the T-tail (smaller size and weight, reduced pitch changes with trim and flap application), the truth was that when the stabilator was moved up out of the propwash, the airplane’s handling suffered. In particular, takeoff runs increased significantly since it took a good deal of speed for the stabilator to become effective, and when it did, the result was a pronounced pitch-up. Some complained of lack of rudder authority. The T-tailed Lances were also sensitive to trim settings. The T-tail was also a pain to preflight, especially in winter, when a ladder is required to remove snow from the stabilator.
When pilots found out about these traits, sales plummeted. In 1980, two years after the T-tail’s introduction, Piper saw the light and reverted to the original tail design.
At the same time, the company applied the same wing upgrade that had already appeared in the PA-28 series. The constant-chord “Hershey Bar” wing was replaced with a semi-tapered planform. Piper also “simplified” the designation of the entire PA-32 series, renaming them Saratoga SP. The fixed-gear versions were simply called Saratogas. As before, there were turbo versions available, designated by a T at the end of the model number. The fixed-gear option was dropped in 1993, only to reappear briefly as the Piper 6X from 2004-2007. The retractable version saw various iterations under the Saratoga name until 2008.
Used values of the T-tail models have historically been lower than those of the conventional-tailed airplanes, which makes the T-tail a relative bargain in a six-place airplane. Owners of T-tails seem to like them. It should be noted that although T-tail owners without exception stand behind their airplanes and claim the poor reputation is undeserved, the airplane nevertheless has documented performance differences from the otherwise identical straight-tail version (more on this later).
The turbocharged engines have AiResearch turbos with wastegates mechanically linked to the throttle controls. The pilot has to adjust the throttle to maintain manifold pressure during climb, and it is possible to overboost the engine if too much throttle is applied. (The MP gauge is inconveniently located in front of the pilot’s right knee, but there is an overboost warning light on the panel’s eyebrow.)
The Turbo Lance II has an unusual updraft engine-cooling system that takes air in through a low-mounted “fish-mouth” oval scoop, forces it up over the cylinders, then back down and out through cowl flaps. Owners say the system is ineffective and requires the use of extra fuel and step-climbs to avoid engine meltdown. The Turbo Saratoga SP has a more effective cooling system replacing cowl flaps with louvers mounted on top and on the bottom of the cowling. A popular mod is to add an intercooler.
Most find the interior of the PA-32R quite comfortable. The cabin is over 10 feet long and 3.5 feet high. Shoulder room for the front and center seats is 4 feet and 3.5 feet for the back row. Most 32Rs have club seating and there’s a big side door for the passengers, who need not clamber over a wing to enter the airplane. It’s remarkably quiet, due in no small part to the presence of a nose baggage compartment located between the cabin and engine. The rear seats are easily removed for cargo, and some owners just leave the rear ones at home most of the time. Because of the wide cabin, there’s plenty of room on the panel for any gadget one might want. Other than that, it’s pure Piper single.
The fuel selector is a bit different from the familiar PA-28 sidewall-mounted pointer, being sensibly located on the center pedestal. One thing we don’t like is the sump-draining procedure. Not a simple matter of sticking a fuel tester in a quick drain, the procedure requires the pilot to first put a bucket under a nozzle in the belly, then get back in and hold down a lever located under the right center-row seat while simultaneously switching tanks.
This gymnastic routine continues for a minimum of 18 seconds due to the length of the fuel lines, after which the pilot gets to go back outside, look in the bucket and try to figure out which tank the water came from.
Later PA-32s have some good crashworthiness features, including seats with S-shaped frames designed to progressively crush on impact, plus a thickly padded glareshield.
Typical of single-engine airplanes, the Lances and Saratoga SPs force the pilot to choose between filling the cabin and filling the tanks. Still, an airplane this size is quite practical when it comes to hauling, because carrying four with baggage and full fuel is possible. The turbo models are a bit more limited. With six FAA-standard people aboard, a PA-32R can carry enough fuel to fly 2.5 to 3.5 hours. The CG range is quite wide, but with only two people aboard, care must be taken to avoid exceeding the forward limit. There are two baggage compartments, both with a 100-pound capacity: the nose bay and a large one aft of the rear. One way to improve the T-tail’s squirrelly handling reputation is to put 50 pounds in the aft baggage compartment to bring the CG aft into the center of the range.
While 150 knots isn’t all that bad, when compared to other big retractables the PA-32Rs are rather slow. Almost any A36 Bonanza or Cessna 210 will walk away from the 32R, being about 10 knots faster.
At 75 percent power, a Lance cruises at 158 knots while burning 18 GPH. The Saratoga SP isn’t faster, but improvements in induction air cooling allow their engines to be leaned to peak EGT, saving a couple of gallons an hour. The turbocharged airplanes can cruise at 177 knots while burning nearly 20 GPH up high, but at lower altitudes they’re only a couple of knots faster on the same fuel.
Because of its T-tail, the Lance II has a significantly longer ground roll than the conventional-tail models. The book indicates a 1650-foot ground roll under standard conditions, and notes the roll will be one-quarter longer if the airplane is loaded toward its forward CG limit. Ground rolls for the Lance and SP are posted as 1380 and 1200 feet, respectively. Initial rate of climb is just over 1000 FPM.
Several Turbo Lance II owners complained about their hot-running engines. (One said his mill once toasted the forward baggage compartment sufficiently to melt plastic diaper bags that had been stowed there.) However, as noted below, there are modifications designed to eliminate the heat problem.
Among recurring ADs are: 77-12-06, which requires the shanks of Hartzell propellers to be inspected and cold-rolled every 2000 hours or five years (90-2-23 also calls for a one-time inspection and possible replacement of the hub, and 94-17-13 requires recurrent inspection of hub grease fittings); 78-23-01, which requires the fuel drain lever doors in naturally aspirated Lances to be checked every 100 hours until they’re replaced; 93-5-22, which addresses the fuel injector lines on the TIO-540-S1AD engine; and 95-26-13, which requires recurrent inspection of oil cooler hoses.
A rash of engine fires in turbo-charged Lances and Saratogas prompted an Airworthiness Directive requiring portions of their exhaust systems to be periodically inspected and eventually replaced. The AD targets the fittings on a 90-degree elbow between exhaust ports and turbocharger in the Lycoming TIO-540-S1AD engine powering the big Piper singles.
In 1988, the NTSB issued a warning about the fittings when it concluded its investigation of a Turbo Lance that crashed during an attempted emergency landing in Lincoln, Nebraska. The safety board found the elbow fitting in the Lance had separated, allowing hot exhaust gases to flow into the engine compartment and start a fire. The board noted the gasket and flange on the fitting had been misaligned during maintenance on the exhaust system about a month before the accident occurred.
The FAA responded with an AD (89-12-4) requiring periodic inspections of the exhaust elbows and fittings, and replacement with modified components developed by Lycoming. The FAA estimated that compliance would cost $858 per engine.
However, later evidence of a string of exhaust system-related accidents and incidents involving both the Turbo Lance II and the Turbo Saratoga SP prompted the NTSB to call for a more stringent AD. Four such crashes occurred in 1990 alone. The safety board, noting that some of the crashed aircraft had received new parts called for by the AD, declared the AD was not an effective solution and called for a revision mandating repetitive inspections whether or not new parts are installed. The revised AD, AD 91-21-01, requires new exhaust parts that would beat the cracking problem.
Landing gear problems are prominent in Service Difficulty Reports, accounting for about a quarter of the total. Chief among them were broken nosegear actuators and cracked or broken nosegear trunnions. Other frequently cited problems included cracked engine mounts, exhaust system leaks and separations, broken magnetos and loose stabilator attachments.
Several companies have developed means to alleviate the heat problems plaguing the Turbo Lance II; if this is the model you’re interested in, check to see if one of these kits has been installed in a candidate airplane. TurboPlus still offers intercoolers for the turbocharged Lance and Saratoga (www.turboplus.com).
Aerodynamic cleanup kits (e.g., gap seals and fairings) are available from a number of companies, including Knots 2U (www.knots2u.com) and Laminar Flow Systems (www.laminarflowsystems.com). LoPresti (www.loprestiaviation.com) offers gap seals, too, along with a redesigned cowling, which the company says improves engine cooling and reduces drag. It certainly has good looks.
Precise Flight (www.preciseflight.com) offers speedbrakes, a standby vacuum system and a pulse-light anti-collision system. Upgraded propeller systems are available from both Hartzell (www.hartzellprop.com) and McCauley (www.mccauley.txtav.com) for most PA-32R models.
While not exactly a mod, Aircraft Sales Inc. in Smithville, Ohio, offers the Pristine Airplane refurbishment program for a variety of aircraft, but specializes in Saratoga, Lance and Cherokee Six models. The company is extremely selective when sourcing the airplane to be refurbished, which includes new paint, interior, avionics and an extensive teardown process. Most aircraft include a field-overhauled engine as part of the refurbishment process.
When we visited the company a couple of years ago at its facility on the Wayne County Airport, we saw a hangar packed with a variety of Saratogas and Cherokee Six models in various stages of refurbishment. Indeed ASI tears the airframe down deeper than even the most thorough annual inspection. Customers we spoke with admit paying a hefty premium for a Pristine Airplane refurbished model, but ended up with an aircraft that was like new. The company is currently listing a refurbished 1976 Lance for $199,900.
“The demand for Piper PA-32 models in general (including fixed-gear airplanes) is at the highest I’ve seen in my career,” ASI principal Matt Kozub told us during our research. According to Kozub, one reason for the demand is the PA-32’s utility. “Cabin size and useful load are two things that fit with the modern trend of today’s society,” he said.
Kozub reinforced a point that maintenance shops and owners seem to agree on: Piper products remain some of the least expensive to maintain. Parts are readily available and almost any mechanic can work on them. Contact www.pristineairplanes.com, 330-495-6569.
As for type organizations, several thousand owners of PA-28 and -32 series airplanes belong to the Cherokee Pilots Association (866-697-4737 or www.piperowner.org), which according to the website united with the Piper Owner Society. The group has an active forum and publishes the monthly Pipers Magazine, which focuses on maintenance, avionics and operational information.
PA-32R Accidents: Engine Failures
From the first time we flew the Piper Lance, we liked its docile handling as well as its manners on takeoff and landing, although we weren’t crazy about its lack of speed. The taper-wing Saratoga fixed that nagging problem nicely.
Our review of the 100 most recent accidents involving those airplanes confirmed our affection for the overall design of the machines as the accidents reflected an extraordinarily low rate of runway loss of control (RLOC) events, three, and fuel-related engine stoppages, four. For a system that requires the pilot to select among two tanks, only four fuel-related accidents place it at a rate nearly as good as what we see in the simplest fuel system: one that gives the pilot only the choice of off and on.
While PA-32R pilots had little trouble keeping the airplanes on the runway after landing, seven of them did manage to hit the runway so hard on touchdown that they damaged the airplane. We note that even though the Lance and Saratoga SP/HP are tolerant of some sloppiness in speed control on final, they will develop an impressive sink rate if power and speed are not coordinated.
We raised our eyebrows at finding eight inflight breakup events. While six-place singles will accelerate rapidly in a diving spiral and generally have the highest inflight breakup rates in general aviation, eight seemed high to us. All but two were in IMC, mostly in or near thunderstorms (one pilot had reported a vacuum pump failure). A few involved pilots who were ostensibly trying to remain VFR. Of the non-weather breakups, one came when a pilot descending at high speed hit the wake turbulence of a Boeing 737 and the other when a pilot apparently decided to perform aerobatics.
The largest number of PA-32R prangs came after a partial or total loss of engine power, often for reasons that could not be determined after the fact. Nevertheless, at least half of the engine stoppages were traced directly to maintenance that should have been performed and wasn’t or was done wrong. A fuel line that had been repaired rather than replaced—as called for in maintenance instructions—failed a second time, leading to an engine fire. A worn exhaust clamp on a turbocharged bird was the culprit in another engine fire.
The human-generated problems on the maintenance side of the flight equation were, sadly, matched by human-generated problems on the pilot side. Attempts to take off over gross and downwind on grass runways led to aircraft hitting obstructions about where the POH performance charts predicted they would—especially if pilots left the gear down. Five pilots attempted to remain VFR at night in questionable weather or in mountainous terrain on moonless nights and flew into terrain.
Five others shot instrument approaches to below minimums and hit the ground either while still in the clouds or attempting to circle to land beneath them.
Finally, we had little sympathy for the pilots who ignored a zero oil pressure indication because the engine was running smoothly. When it started making clanking noises, they turned for the nearest airport. The engine seized well before they got there.
We are three partners owning N886JH, a 1982 retractable Saratoga. I am a CFII and had flown the aircraft as an instructor at Hortman Aviation as long ago as 2001, and had flown her to Florida, Ohio and Maine on personal flights. In 2015 several of my former students and I began looking for a Lance or Saratoga to purchase. After several other choices, N886JH—which had been on leaseback to Hortman—arrived at Air-Mods in Robbinsville, New Jersey, where I had been instructing. After a prebuy and discussion with Dave Mathieson at Air-Mods and a thorough review of the logs, we decided to make an offer.
The aircraft was in need of a new interior and the panel was in poor condition, but the engine was below mid-time, the prop was new and the airplane was straight and had flown regularly since new. The paint was mostly original and presentable, but would need to be redone soon. We got a good deal on the plane and started in the fall of 2015 on a plan of significant restoration.
Air-Mods completely removed the interior and panel, and a new interior was installed (including new insulation), plus a new instrument panel was constructed. Mostly all new avionics—including new circuit breakers and master switch—were installed. We had the yokes leather wrapped and subsequently installed a door steward on the front cabin door.
We upgraded the avionics to a Garmin GTN750 and a GNS430W, and since our timing was before the introduction of Garmin’s GTX345, we have a GTX330ES transponder and a GDL88 for ADS-B compliance. We upgraded to a Bendix-King HSI, kept the Century 41 autopilot, moved the DG to the right side of the panel and installed an L3 EFIS as a backup. An EDM700 engine monitor, a digital tachometer and rebuilding of the original turn coordinator and AI completed the panel work. We moved all switches to the center of the panel, replacing the original ones with lighted switches. We installed LED exterior and panel lighting.
After the work, we ended up with a useful load of 1334 pounds. On the exterior we installed wingroot fairings, new wingtips and stabilator tips. The wingroot fairings do not appear to increase the cruise speed, but do make better mid-speeds possible at lower manifold pressure settings and seem to reduce wind noise some.
This Saratoga cruises between 155 to 160 knots, consistently burns 15 GPH in cruise and burns a quart of oil roughly every seven hours. Following the POH starting procedures, the engine starts in less than one turn of the prop when cold and in about eight seconds when warm. We keep her in a hangar and use the Reiff engine preheater and Switchbox to preheat before winter flights. We are using Shell multigrade in the winter and 100 in the summer.
With one CFII with many retractable hours in type and two relatively low-time pilots as owners, we pay about $2400 annually for insurance with the hull set at market value. We have no deferred maintenance and the last annual was under $4000 and we anticipate that the forthcoming annual will be about half that. We have a paint job scheduled for March of 2018.
Although the Saratoga with full fuel and two aboard without baggage is close to the forward limit of the CG envelope, we have no problem making smooth landings if a stable approach and gradual reduction of power to idle just before touchdown is followed. Fly the approach at 90 knots, reduce to 80 knots over the fence and 75 knots over the end of the runway and you will be rewarded with a good landing. The Saratoga handles crosswinds very well, is a stable instrument platform and the Century 41 autopilot does wondrous approaches as long as you intercept the final approach course a minimum of two miles outside the FAF. Of course, you still must manually reduce power and drop the gear, but the Century 41 is reliable and accurate. We use either heading mode or Nav mode and when aligned on the final course, hit APR and it intercepts and captures the glideslope and flies a perfect ILS or LPV.
In summary, the Saratoga isn’t quite as fast as a Bonanza, but with a wider and more comfortable cabin and a wider weight and balance envelope (and with good fuel endurance) we think she is the ideal traveling machine for our missions.
After owning my first airplane, a 1980 Piper Dakota, for six years and 600 hours, I decided to step up to the retractable six-seat 1985 Piper Saratoga SP that I’ve owned now for two years. I bought the SP to transport my family of four on cross-county trips mainly throughout the Midwest, typically covering 200 to 400 nautical miles.
The transition from the Dakota to the Saratoga was an easy one. The forward baggage area extends the nose of the Saratoga and provides a different view than a PA-28, but the noticeable drop of engine noise in the cabin was welcomed by the family members who camp out in the back and typically now do not use or need their headsets. We all love the extra room the Saratoga provides. The extra width a PA-32 provides is as enjoyable for me when I fly with other pilots or instructors as the length of the club seating is for the passengers. The back seats remove in seconds to provide a lot of space for cargo. The 102 gallons of usable fuel and nearly 1300 pounds of useful load provide a lot of options.
Cruise speed is less impressive; 75 percent power yields about 152 knots and consumes about 16 GPH. I typically fly at 65 percent power when I’m alone and consume around 13.8 GPH. At 55 percent power practicing approaches, it burns about 11.8 GPH.
Insurance for its $190,000 hull value and as an 850-hour pilot with 160 hours as PIC in this Saratoga costs me $3200 per year through AOPA insurance. The plane was refurbished inside and out by AirMart Inc. prior to my purchase, so besides a persistent coolant gas leak in the air conditioning system, maintenance items have been limited. Still, there always seems to be a number of small items that add to a typical $4000 annual.
I have been happy with my purchase and choice of the Saratoga for my Midwest travel. It provides an honest and stable IFR platform that transports both pilot and passengers in comfort.
I’ve owned a Saratoga SP for about 18 months now and absolutely love it. Mine is a fully refurbished 1984 model (the Pristine Airplane mod done by Aircraft Sales Inc. in Ohio) and so far it seems the company did an excellent job on it.
Later Saratogas had more standard equipment, including turbocharger, built-in oxygen, air conditioning and a de-icing system, but this reduced their useful load by 300 pounds or so. My normally aspirated model has a huge useful load—1407 pounds—which is enough to carry six adults and fuel for three hours, plus reserves.
The cabin is very roomy and comfortable. My wife and I have four kids and there’s plenty of room for everyone. A big rear cabin door lets you load just about anything in.
Most Saratogas have the club seating option, which is great for business and adults, but I’ve found that my kids all want to face forward. I had the club seating reversed to the forward-facing seating configuration and have been very happy with this. The back seats are easy to remove for cargo.
The Saratoga is fast enough for most travel, cruising at around 150 to 160 knots on 14 to 18 GPH. Climb performance at sea level with one person on board is 1500 to 1600 FPM. Turbo models go faster at higher altitudes, but have roughly 100 pounds less useful load and a more expensive engine overhaul.
My airplane is equipped with newer avionics including an Aspen PFD1000 EFIS, Garmin GNS530, JPI EDM730 engine monitor, GTX345 ADS-B transponder (with Bluetooth traffic and weather data on my iPad), a panel-mounted Garmin aera796 GPS and a Bendix-King KAP150 autopilot with GPSS steering from the Aspen PFD.
The Saratoga is not much more complex mechanically than a PA-28R Arrow—just bigger with lots more power. I’ve only been through one annual inspection so far, and that cost around $6000.
I’ve found that it flies similar to an Arrow or even an Archer, but it has a lot more inertia. It’s not heavy on the controls, but you’re controlling a larger mass with more inertia that’s going faster. It’s harder to fly a really tight traffic pattern like you can in slower aircraft, but it’s very stable with no surprising flight characteristics.
Last, the Saratoga looks sharp on the ramp. I often get compliments on it.