Piper Seminole

The sole survivor from a 1970s experiment in marketing, a step-up light twin is still in demand and still built by New Piper.

Think twin trainer these days and probably the first airplane that comes to mind is the Piper Seminole, the sole survivor from the mid-1970s battle among Beech, Grumman and Piper for the twin-engine training and single-engine-owner transition market.

Unlike the Beech Duchess and the Grumman Cougar, which ended their runs not long after the light airplane market went south beginning around 1980, the Seminole has risen from Pipers pools of red ink not once but twice. A new copy today runs about $485,000. Buyers all go for the Avidyne option, which pushes the price to $533,200.

Want it for less? There are hundreds out there and the Seminole has not changed much over the years except for an engine variation and a turbo version.

From the beginning, good manners, simplicity, economy and good looks have carved a niche for the Seminole in the marketplace. High performance is not what its all about. This airplane wont haul a really hefty load and its range is not impressive. It has only four seats. Its engines are carbureted.There are singles that can fly faster for less money per mile.

What it does offer is two engines, with counter-rotating props so there’s no critical engine, in an easy-to-handle airplane. It appeals to flight schools because its simple design, based on the Piper Arrow cabin and a modified wing carrying a couple of 180-hp Lycoming 360s, is sturdy, easier and cheaper to maintain and more forgiving to fly than most twins. It appeals to single-engine owners looking for the redundancy of a twin in a machine that wont bite them, either in the backside or the wallet – at least not as fiercely as many other twins might.

Stepping up to a twin, there are a lot of maintenance issues that go with it, said Randy Augustinak of the Piper Owner Society. Thats not so true with a Seminole. Its a very honest twin and a darned good-looking airplane.He said most of the Societys Seminole owners are small business owners who were looking for get-up-and-go redundancy without a lot of cost or hassle.

Model History
Piper built a total of 614 normally-aspirated and 106 Turbo Seminoles through 2005. The 1979 model was the first, introduced a year after Grumman and Beech had begun selling the Cougar and the Duchess. Piper made 329 that first year and subsequent annual numbers have never come close to that. Production trickled to a halt in 1981 after 53 more were made but by then Piper had launched the turbo version. Only 106 were built before production ended with the 1982 model.

The Cougar and the Duchess fared no better. New company owner Allen Paulsen abandoned the Cougar when he bought the Grumman line-115 were built in two years of production-and Beech gave in on the Duchess in 1982 after making 437.

Camshaft failures and tappet-spalling were problems with the original E1A6D on the Seminole. Piper started making the normally-aspirated model again in 1989 using a new version of the Lycoming 0-360 engine, the A1H6. By the end of 1993, with Piper looking for survival in new high-end models like the Mirage, only 13 more Seminoles had been built. There were none in 1994.The current run began in 1995, when New Piper took over. From 1995 through 2005, it made 219 Seminoles.

The Seminoles production total is fairly modest compared to the brawnier Seneca, with we’ll over 4000 made. Piper sold more than 2000 of its earlier light twin, the faster and touchier Twin Comanche.

Except for turbocharging, the Seminole has seen few airframe changes over the years. The landing light was relocated in 1981 to allow for radar in the nose. Hot props and wing boots were added as options years ago but the airplane is not certified for flight in ice.

Market Scan
The Seminoles resale price has risen with inflation and the market at a steady rate, although there’s just the hint of a flattening during the last decade, according to our price chart.

Average prices for a typically equipped Seminole range from $108,000 for the premier 1979 model to $162,000 for the 1989 model and $430,000 for a shiny, new 2005 model, according to the Spring 2006 Aircraft Bluebook. It shows that prices for early Seminoles are a bit lower than those for the similar Beech Duchess, which range from $114,000 for a 1978 model to $132,000 for the final 1982 edition ($127,000 for the 1982 Seminole). A Cougar, which offers performance similar to the Seminoles with stingier 160-HP Lycomings, will run $105,000 for a 1978 model and $5000 more for the final 1979 model, $2000 more than a 1979 Seminole, according to the Bluebook.

The Twin Comanche doesnt quite fall into the same marketing niche, even though the Seminole was originally conceived to replace it in Pipers lineup.The Twin Comanches late-run model-1970-sells for about $114,000, not much less than a Seminole thats 10 years newer. The Twinkie still enjoys the edge in both speed and efficiency.

First the good news: The Seminole is forgiving so it is, in most ways, very good for training and for single pilots transitioning to a twin. It has a wide margin of 26 knots between its low Vmc (56knots) and its Vsse (single-engine demonstration/training speed).

With no critical engine because of those counter-rotating props, single-engine operation is less demanding than on conventional twins. For all its years of production, the Seminole pops up in only 93 accidents on the NTSB Web site. Just one appears to have involved a fatal Vmc rollover. Another Seminole stalled and mushed into terra firma right-side up with no fatalities.

For all its appeal as a trainer, the Seminoles lack of nasty habits has been considered a problem by instructors. They say it doesnt teach new twin drivers enough about the challenges of a twin with only one fan turning. The idea these days, however, is not to force any twin to demonstrate how nasty it can be, right?

The airplane has been described as handling like a heavy Cherokee, with a sluggish roll response. But the controls are fairly light and we’ll balanced.There’s little adverse yaw in the turns and the T-tail keeps the horizontal stabilizer out of the way so, when flaps are applied and gear is cycled, there’s very little pitch change. Owners have reported there’s a knack to takeoffs with the T-tail. A firm rotation is required to lift off the nose but back pressure must be released to keep from overdoing it as the airplane breaks ground. Single-engine performance is not great, with 212 FPM listed as the single-engine climb for the non-turbo; its 180 FPM for the Turbo Seminole. (A Duchess gets 235 and a Cougar is 200.) A high density altitude and a full load may mean there’s no place to go but down when an engine quits, which isn’t exactly news in any twin.

One Seminole was lost after the pilot failed to apply carb heat early enough in IMC and lost an engine. He broke out too high to get down on a runway and crashed into the trees in the attempt to turn back for another try.

A Bonanza and a Mooney, among other singles, can outrun a Seminole. Cruise at 75 percent is around 165 knots (182 for the Turbo) and 157 knots at 65 percent. Fuel burn for the normally-aspirated model will be about 22.4 GPH at 7000 feet and 75 percent. For the Turbo, it will be 24 GPH at 20,000 feet.At lower altitudes, the speeds between the two are five to 10 knots apart.

Seminoles shine in short-field work. The normally aspirated version needs only about 1520 feet to climb over a 50-foot obstacle and 1400 feet to land over one. For the Turbo, the numbers are 1500 and 1238 feet, respectively.The airplane has a high maximum gear-extension speed of 140 knots. Full flaps can go down at 111 knots.

Cabin Features
Piper gets good grades for the Seminoles ergonomics and fairly quiet ride. The airplane is as roomy and comfortable as an Arrow with good visibility. Its cabin is, however, a little smaller than the Duchesss and is not likely to be as we’ll appointed.

Another Piper plus, in our view, is the manual flap control, a Johnson-bar handle between the front seats. Its simple, the pilot can control the speed of retraction or extension and its not likely to fail. But note: there is a 1996 AD requiring inspections because the flap-handle attach bolt has been known to do just that.

Its annoying that Piper initially put the manifold pressure gauge and the tachometers at the bottom of the panel, on either side of the quadrant. That calls for a bit of looking around to establish power settings-not good during times of high workload in IMC.

Piper fixed the issue in the newer models of the Seminole, which have all the power gauges to the right of the altimeter and VSI.

We don’t like the fuel-selector setup. Its between the front seats and the pilot has to crane his neck to see it or work it by feel. The selector handle tabs must be moved through the OFF position to get from MAIN to CROSSFEED, which is primarily for engine-out situations. The design seems an invitation for a stressed pilot to make a mistake.

There’s only one baggage compartment behind the rear seats. It can hold up to 200 pounds.

Owners should know one quirk involving the cabin heater on some models. If they turn off the heater but forget to run the fan for a few minutes, they may very we’ll pop the overheat microswitch, which is in the nose and not accessible from the cockpit. If they did not reset a popped switch before flight on a cold winter day, theyll be in for some arctic conditions with no way to get the heater going. Make it part of the preflight or, if there’s no heat after starting, shut down, get out and reset the switch.

Range, Payload
The Seminoles useful load of 1394 pounds (its a bit lower in the new model) is less than what the A36 Bonanza, Cessna 210, Cherokee Six or Lance can haul. The Turbo can carry about 65 more pounds. A plus is the Seminoles wide CG range. Weve tried to find a way to load the airplane too far aft and couldnt do it. One experiment had 200 pounds in the baggage compartment. We added full fuel (108 gallons-Piper has offered no longer-range options), put a 170-pound pilot and 272 pounds of humanity in the two back seats and it was all legal.

As for range, one mostly enthusiastic Seminole owner wrote us some years back that his only complaint about the fuel system-which he described as simple and we’ll designed-was the lack of range. He wished for another 20 gallons. The Bluebook gives the maximum range with VFR reserve as 681 miles for the normally aspirated model and 850 miles for the Turbo.

The Seminole is not afflicted with a particularly long list of ADs. Only Seminoles built after March 1, 1999 (a small percentage of the fleet), as we’ll as those that had overhauls after that date, are affected by the infamous Lycoming crankshaft replacement AD that was issued in 2005.

But look over the logs carefully for evidence of repairs after gear-up landings, hard landings and gear failures, which the FAAs accident database shows to have been common for the Seminole. Still, it has proven to be a sturdy ship that, structurally, can take years of training abuse without developing any insidious problems.

Over the years, other ADs have dealt with a potential for fire in the Janitrol cabin heater fuel pump, which must be inspected and replaced if leakage is discovered (issued in 2003 and amended in 2005); cracks in the main gear trunnions, which could cause a gear collapse and require, according to a 1994 AD, repeat inspections until they are replaced; the nose gear, which the FAA decided in 1994 needed a mod to prevent collapses resulting from a failed bolt; and the control wheel attach point, which a 2004 AD targets for inspection because a screw was too short in some installations and resulted in failures.

Other ADs have dealt with the flap-handle attach bolt, binding aileron push rods, damaged skin at the aileron outbound leading edge, a damaged fuel line near the boost pump and binding in the throttle cable.

There were 294 service difficulty reports listed on the FAA Web site for the Seminole between January, 1997 and January, 2006. Some 15 percent, 45, involved gear-related problems including switches and hardware. Seventeen or five percent concerned fraying control cables. Sixteen involved failures of the carburetor airbox assembly.

Next in frequency (13) were spalled camshaft lobes and damage to valve lifter faces and tappets, a problem seen especially in the Seminoles original 0-360-E1A6D engine, which prompted the FAA to issue an AD in 1980 requiring the use of a Lycoming additive and regular looks at the oil for metal contamination. Lycoming addressed the problem in 1980 with its so-called T-mod, which included larger tappets and improved top end lubrication. There were 11 SDRs for internal engine component failures including rocker arms and pushrods. Eight had to do with magneto hardware failures, such as worn teeth and corroded points.

With the airplane still in production and so few changes to the model over the years, parts are no problem, owners have told us. The Piper Owner Society reports that, over the past few years, members have inquired most about the combustion heater issue and the main trunnion gear inspections. Upgrade them and the requirement for repetitive inspections is eliminated.

Owners looking for an airplane that offers a lot of extras in terms of performance arent going to start with a Seminole. For that reason, and the fact that there arent a whole lot of them out there, mod shops don’t focus on it.

One of the most practical modifications that owners have welcomed, said Randy Augustinak of the Piper Owner Society, is the replacement of the original aluminum electrical cables with Bogert Aviation copper electrical cables. They are said to boost cranking power and owners are happy with Bogerts support and service (www.bogert-av.com or 800-627-8088.)

A little extra speed has to appeal to owners of the Seminole. LoPresti Speed Merchants (www.speedmods.com or 877-565-1731) has underwing fairings, spats, splitters, flap seals and other hardware and each can add several knots. Knots 2U, Ltd. (www.knots2u.com or 262-763-5100) has a gear-lobe faring that adds four knots. It also markets a vortex generator kit that reduces Vmc and stall speeds for the good-natured Seminole. So does Micro Aero Dynamics (www.microaero.com or 800-677-2370).

If you want to get rid of the center strip that joins the original two-piece windshield, LP Aero Plastics, Inc. (www.lpaero.com or 800-957-2376) installs a one-piece unit with tinting, if desired, and thicker plastic for a quieter cabin.Some airplanes did not come from the factory with the super soundproofing option, which had the thicker plastic anyway. The STC is owned by Kosola and Associates, Inc. (www.kosola.com or 229-435-4119), which manufactures the installation kit and also sells it.

Owner Comments
I am an avid reader of your journal and love the articles. I have owned a 1981 180 Turbo Seminole for about three years. I am the third owner of the plane. It has a total of 1200 hours on the airframe and about 600 hours on the engines. The airplane is as close to flawless as a 1981 airplane can be.The plane is IFR certified with dual Collins Microline, Century 41 autopilot, IFR certified KLN 90 GPS and radar altimeter. An NSD HSI (unslaved), fuel totalizer and Strikefinder round out the package. Its got three-bladed hot props.

I maintain the plane meticulously. Annuals have averaged $4000 a year and insurance is about the same. I replaced the aggravating heater that has an AD on it with a ceramic-lined heater that does not need annual inspections. On runup, I have always had to lean the engines for a moment prior to checking the mags and the airplane is a smooth and stable and forgiving machine with counter-rotating props (why doesnt every twin do this?) and no critical engine.

Its a wonderful airplane for two people. I have flown with four people but that is cramped and I do not carry full fuel then.

I can carry full fuel (108 gallons) and burn 20 gallons per hour at 65 percent power and cruise at 160 knots. I have dual vacuum pumps, dual alternators and two engines! With two people, the airplane will fly and gently climb with one engine at zero thrust (11 inches of manifold and 2200 RPM).

I am surprised more Seminoles are not sought out for their safety and redundancy. If not overloaded, I cannot imagine a safer airborne machine. I received my instrument rating in the airplane and am a very conservative IFR pilot in terms of weather.

I do agonize over whether or not to put a new panel in with traffic and a slaved HSI. I have looked at a number of options including a Sandel HSI, Avidyne FlightMax with Ryan TCAD and Garmin 430. I could sneeze and spend another $35,000 to do this. Im not sure what the final gem would be worth with all of those electrics in the plane. A new Seminole without turbochargers is closing in on $500,000 and this one looks almost as new as a new one!

I live in Naples, Florida. Wish she was air-conditioned in the summertime but winter flying is a joy. Hope this is useful information for your fine magazine.

Robert B. Tober, M.D.
Via e-mail

Here are some choice pix of my 1981 Piper Turbo Seminole (only 80 or so made in 1981 and part of 1982). Hopefully you can use some of them for your upcoming article on Seminoles.

This one (N66CC) has all the mods including flap/aileron and gear door fairings. It also has vortex generators on all leading edges, three-blade props and polished spinners. Built-in oxygen, a custom paint job from Scheme Designers, leather interior and simulated wooden panel. Shadin fuel flow and altitude management, Sandel EFIS, Stormscope, GNS430, JPI engine monitors, terrain avoidance via GPS296 and XM satellite weather via GPS396 and Pocket Plates from Anywhere Map. Plus custom checklists via the IPAQ3800.

Its a honey! We dubbed it The Caribbean Clipper since I am using it to tour that area during my retirement from being the owner of an advertising agency in the Northeast. I am based at KSUA (Witham Field) in Stuart, Florida and also maintain a hangar at KALB in Albany, New York.

It has newly overhauled engines from the Lycoming factory. I don’t go crazy leaning the engines to the max so I realize 22-23 gph and 150kts at 65 percent power at 10,000 feet. Although I baby the engines and run them at 65 percent power at all times they are capable of 75 percent power and 170 knots at 10, 0000 feet or 190 knots at 20,000 feet.

Robert Woody
Via e-mail

I purchased a 1979 Seminole for the unbelievably low advertised price of $34,900. [These comments are from our archives and that purchase was made about 15 years ago. The Bluebook average retail for a 1979 Seminole today is $108,000. – Ed.] Both of the Hartzell two-bladed props were at the end of a five-year AD inspection limit, which I believe has since been rescinded for Part 91 personal use. One blade flunked inspection and was replaced for an additional $2000.

Since the aircraft was purchased for leaseback revenue at military flying clubs in the northwest, it was in fine condition. During that time, both engines made it to the 2000-hour TBO plus or minus 3 percent without any problem.

The O-360 engines originally installed in the Seminole had a cam problem service history, which resulted in an AD requiring Lycoming snake oil additive and time limit oil changes and examination for filter particulates.

Speaking of oil changes, there’s not enough clearance between the bottom of the engine oil pan and the access plate to allow installation of a quick oil drain kit. The good news is that the upper engine access cowlings are easy to pull off and re-install.

The fuel system is simple and easily checked for contaminants. My only complaint about fuel is the lack of adequate usable fuel quantity for use as a personal long distance cruiser. Another 20 gallons would have enabled non-stop flights from Monterey to Seattle. I flight plan for 18 to 19 gallons an hour at 138 to 142 knots at 55 percent power. At 22 inches and 2300 RPM, the ride is reasonably quiet.

The landing gear is a simple electric motor driving a hydraulic pump to operate the wheel retraction cycle following a cross country fuel stop. The emergency extension system is a simple matter of pulling on the gear handle to release the hydraulic pressure and allow the springs to push the gear down.

A few months later, on landing touchdown (also away from home base to get fuel) the left main landing gear trunnion cracked. This was shortly before a trunnion service bulletin and follow-on AD was released requiring replacement and inspections. So I opted to replace it with a used trunnion.

The mandated new trunnion replacement became the next owners problem. In 1995, I observed a Turbo Seminole collapse the nosegear on landing so my confidence in the landing gear system is questionable. But I have no reservations about the emergency backup.

Electrically, the only negative memorable event occurred over the Pacific Ocean near Catalina Island as smoke and smell started to exceed the denial stage. After securing all electrical power, we started reenergizing systems on line slowly to isolate the problem.

It was a shorted strobe-light capacitor box which is mounted on the aft floor bulkhead. I replaced the box and still had problems, which I was never able to resolve. The single landing light bulb in the nose frequently burned out. Its definitely a preflight item for night ops.

Another problem related to the alternators. Occasionally, one alternator would not stay paralleled and the other would pick up the entire load. The fix was a small screw adjustment in the paralleling circuit box under the nose cowling that required tweaking.

Airframe wise, the only gotcha is the Cherokee-type single entry door. After briefing another pilot on proper door closing technique, I didnt check his work and it popped open after takeoff; we managed to close it after a struggle.

As for the instrument panel and related switches, these are laid out acceptably. The engine RPM gauges are low on the panel and the MP gauge is on the right side. You get used to it because you have to. The side panel-mounted engine starter controls and light switches are fine when there is ample light to read which is which. The Janitrol heater controls are on the right side and work fine.

The Seminole is easy to fly we’ll and will not bite unless severely provoked. It flies like a heavier Arrow III, with a bit more roll heaviness.The T-tail is great for walk-arounds and the horizontal stabilizer is not susceptible to rock/gravel damage blowback from a swinging propeller.

Takeoffs are more like a launch when the aircraft gets to flying speed. The aircraft does have to be pulled into the air at 75 KIAS and shortly thereafter requires a bit of forward yoke to readjust the pitch attitude. On landing, it takes true skill to hold off the nosegear for a smooth letdown after main gear contact since the horizontal stab dies almost immediately.

Control pressures are light and gentle on the Seminole, as opposed to the solid sports car/high performance feel of the Twin Comanche. The Seminole is not a fast airplane. Its about 25 knots faster than a Cherokee 180 at only twice the fuel burn.

The Seminole is easier to slow down and configure for approach and landing than is the Twin Comanche. Also, Vmc is so low that its almost a non-issue.

I sold the aircraft to a FBO/flight school in 1993 for substantially more than I paid for it. Were I to buy another, I would want a flight director-equipped turbo-normalized Seminole, with long-range tanks, air conditioning, oxygen and TKS de-ice capability.

Guess what? That doesnt exist. I mentioned that to a New Piper salesperson at Sun n Fun and he pointed to a Seneca V, which had a sticker price of $705,000.

Ill bet Piper could make a pretty good trainer Seminole a great personal-use machine for minimal additional engineering investment and deliver it out the door for less than $500,000.

Steve Bulwicz
Bloomington, Minnesota

Also With This Article
“Piper Seminole Charts, History, and Specs”
“Accident Scan: Training Trauma”