In a marshmallow-soft GA market, where $100,000-plus creampuffs linger near the back of the rack like day-old croissants, so-called affordable classics like the Piper Tri-Pacer arent doing too badly. Then again, the PA-22, beloved by a devoted cadre of owners and fans but often utterly ignored by pilots looking for a simple, four-place single, has never been a hot commodity. Go shopping with $30,000 in your Dickies and youve got the pick of the PA-22 market.
All Tri-Pacers are not created equal. During a decade of production, Piper made notable (and some say, much needed) improvements adding horsepower, performance and bolstering cabin comfort. So criticism and virtues vary by vintage and condition: Some are beautifully restored classics (one won the big prize at Oshkosh in 1998), and others are tired and frumpy. A neglected Tri-Pacer, like any old airplane, will not remain a good deal for the long haul. Say what you want, the Tri-Pacer was nevertheless a landmark airplane; it was one of the first popular light aircraft with a nose wheel, and later models were marketed as the single engine business aircraft of its day.
Its not what you would call a modern-looking airplane, not unexpected given that it sprang from postwar necessity as the Vagabond in 1948. The short history is that Piper had sold a huge number of Cubs just after the war, but the boom went bust and Piper needed a cheaper, simpler (if there could be such a thing) alternative. The two-seat, clipped wing PA-15/17 Vagabond morphed into the four-seat PA-16 Clipper for 1949, but didnt take off as a design until it became the truly four-place PA-20 Pacer in 1950. As expected, horsepower grew with each iteration, starting with a 65-HP Continental for the Vagabond to a 115-HP O-290 Lycoming in the first Pacers.
By the late 1940s, wind slipped the sails of the taildragger favor. (Remember, the Bonanza and Ercoupe were around, and previously unpaved airports were getting regular visits from Mr. Tarmac.) In this crossover time, Piper launched the Tri-Pacer.
In a way, it defined a whole new market niche, one that would eventually come to be dominated by the all-aluminum Skyhawk. Introduced in 1951, the Tri-Pacer was not an all-new design; in fact, it was an expedient modification of the Pacer. A new tubular engine-mount structure was developed to carry the nosewheel (steered by the rudder pedals), surrounded by a sheetmetal smile. The main gear was moved back, of course, and the base engine was a 125-HP Lycoming. Thats about it.
In fact, the two models are so similar that today its possible to reconvert a Tri-Pacer to taildragger configuration with an STC. Interestingly, the PA-20 is, to many an eye, much more aesthetically pleasing than the Tri-Pacer. Amazing what that nosegear can do.
The Tri-Pacer was a great success back in the heady 1950s. During the airplanes nine-year production run, more than 7600 were built. And that domination might have continued, but Cessna introduced the world-beating (and, significantly, all metal) 172 in 1956, which went on to outsell the Tri-Pacer so badly that production was stopped in 1960. (Piper also had the Cherokee waiting in the wings, so motivation to keep the labor-intensive Tri-Pacer alive was not exactly overpowering.)
The first Tri-Pacers had 125HP Lycoming O-290-D engines, which were changed halfway through the second year of production to 135-HP O-290-D2 models. In 1955, that engine was swapped out for a 150-HP Lycoming O-320-A1A.
In 1958, the high-compression 160-HP O-320-B2A was offered as an option, giving a boost in performance and useful load. Ineligible for use of auto gas, the 160-HP engine is not considered a big improvement by some. Still, it can be retrofitted to earlier models with an STC; a worthwhile mod if only to improve the Tri-Pacers already modest climb performance.
Over the years, Piper also added width to the cabin for more comfort. Floats were offered as an option. Standard fuel capacity through the run was 36 gallons in two wing tanks, but an auxiliary tank (located behind the cabin) was offered as an option after 1955.
Its worth noting that many neo-classics of this vintage used engines that have not weathered the decades well-just try getting reduction gears for a Continental GO-300 in your Cessna Skylark-Piper put in with a good crowd, and the most of the four-cylinder Lycomings remain well supported.
Despite its, uh…distinctive looks, the Tri-Pacer is a surprisingly good performer. Except for the lower-powered models, most Tri-Pacers can lift three adults, a smidgen of baggage, and full standard fuel-and still manage a decent climb rate of 500 FPM.
And while stubbiness usually translates into a small loading envelope, owners report that its almost impossible to get the CG too far forward or aft. But its possible to exceed legal load limits.
Owners report cruise speeds in the 120- to 130-MPH range at middling altitudes (6000 to 7000 feet). This is comparable to a Piper Cherokee and somewhat better than the early Skyhawks, which had, if youll recall, a 145-HP engine.
It is the Tri-Pacer owners delight to point out that the vaunted early 172s would be sucking the Pipers stubby wake in cruise, although this reminds us of a big fish boasting from a bird bath.
Maximum altitude is also very good, with climb performance petering out above 13,000 feet as engine power bleeds away.
Back down here, the Tri-Pacer offers good short- and soft-field performance, provided the field isnt too high or hot.
But even then, the Tri-Pacer can hack the course if the loading is kept light, particularly the higher-horsepower models. One owner uses his Tri-Pacer to routinely fly over 9000-foot mountains in the west. In July of 1999, two dozen of them flew into and out of Leadville, Colorado, the highest airport in North America, without any performance problems. These airplanes are as much at home on a grass field as asphalt, too.
The low-power models are another story, though. On a hot summer day, expect to carry only two adults, light baggage with full fuel and you can expect only 250 FPM climb rates. The low-power models can make fine Sunday fliers, but dont buy one as a load-toting, cross-country machine.
On standard fuel (36 gallons), the 160-horse Tri-Pacer will stay aloft four and a half hours without reserves, so call it a bit more than 400 miles range absent big winds. About par for recreational airplanes of this vintage.
The Tri-Pacer can be a delight to fly. Controls are well harmonized and an aileron-rudder interconnect gives the pilot the choice of making turns with either his feet off the rudder or his hands off the yoke. (You wont impress your backseat passengers much, but it can be done.) Pilots report the interconnect is easy to overpower for slips. The large rudder provides excellent control authority in crosswind landings and despite the short wingspan, the Tri-Pacer flies about like youd expect in bumpy air. That is, like a fabric Skyhawk.
Although close-coupled, the Tri-Pacer is surprisingly stable. It will bounce around in turbulence, but doesnt wander or hunt up and down. It wont fly hands-off, but wont try to swap ends, either.
Another surprise is stall behavior. Many pilots report that the Tri-Pacer simply wont stall in the classic sense. Haul back on the yoke and the nose comes up, the airspeed goes down and the airplane soon starts to sink. But it never breaks or pitches over-it just sinks. However, correctly mishandled, the Tri-Pacer can raise the adrenaline of even hardened pilots. It can stall and spin if not flown properly, just like any other light single will.
Landing requires attention to airspeed. Judging by the aircrafts accident history, getting slow on final can produce prodigious sink rates (as high as 2000 FPM, according to one owner). This may be why the Tri-Pacer has a reputation for gliding like a Ceconite-covered cinder block. To those who arent familiar with the airplane, the insidious onset of a high sink rate on final can be unnerving (and lead to undershooting the runway). The key is to nail the speed (70 MPH) and carry power. As one owner notes, You pull the power back, and she lands.
Once the airplane is on the runway, steering is precise because the rudder pedals are connected directly (by steel rods) to the nose wheel. Small movement of the pedals is in order. Adding to this, the narrow landing gear can make for somewhat nervous manners compared to more recent aircraft with a wider stance.
Pilots need to be aware that the Tri-Pacer sits relatively tall on narrow gear and can be a challenge to keep pointed in the right direction in high winds. Oh, the airplane will manage the landing in quite a bit of blow, but can be skittish on the ground.
Despite two doors (one on the right front for the front seats, one of the left rear for the back seats), climbing in takes some getting used to, perhaps a bit of its taildragger heritage showing through. The gear is relatively tall, making for a long climb up, and the doors are small due to the need to clear some of the fuselage tubes.
Once inside, some passengers used to more modern aircraft may find the Tri-Pacer cramped. The earlier models are a tight fit, but models from 1956 forward are by the tape measure about as generous as a four-place Mooney. (Your mind will not agree, thanks in part to the small windows and prominent structural tubes crossing the windshield.)
Two wide people sitting side-by-side should be very good friends, at least. During a recent flight from Ohio to Alaska in a 1957 Tri-Pacer a front seat passenger observed, I thought I was going to be terribly cramped, but I actually have more room than I had in the back of a (Boeing) 747 flying to Scotland last year – and the view is much better! (Reason number 246 why we dont fly Air France.)
Tri-Pacer construction is fairly sturdy. Steel tubing covered with fabric was the factory standard and in terms of strength and lightness, it does well. But all-metal airplanes soon became the state of the art.
As a result, metalizing became a popular mod for fabric-covered airplanes like the Tri-Pacer. However, it seems most owners have been able to resist the urge to get their airplanes converted to spam-can condition. Most Tri-Pacers are still fabric covered.
The modern fabric holds up well, according to most owners, especially the PolyFiber (Stitts), Ceconite, or original Razorback (fiberglass) coverings. Some might say they last too long, allowing corrosion to progress undetected for a long time.
Although PolyFiber, Ceconite, or Razorback can last more than 30 years, the structure underneath may deteriorate in only 10 or 20 years. Some owners, opting for safety, get the bird recovered every 15 to 20 years, whether the fabric needs it or not.
Even with regular inspections and recovering, the steel-tube structure of the Tri-Pacer is somewhat susceptible to corrosion if left unhangared. One trouble area is the tubing around and under the doors.
Another seems to be the tail surfaces, especially the stabilizer. And several owners report finding the lower longerons and tail-section tubing rusted. Airplanes that are hangared fare much better.
AD 74-17-04 calls for reinforcement of fabric over the windscreen if the fabric is cotton or linen. In several accidents prior to 1974 the cotton or linen fabric became loose and lifted up. The ballooning fabric acts like a big scoop and a spoiler, creating incredible drag and destroying airflow over the tail surfaces.
This can make control just about impossible, and level flight is out of the question. This AD does not apply if the aircraft has been recovered with PolyFiber or Ceconite, which would be the majority of the fleet nowadays.
The age and overall condition of the fabric is another consideration. A fresh covering job may indicate an attempt to cover up expensive structural problems (like rusted tubing).
On the other hand, fabric thats more than 20 years old could be doing the same. A thorough inspection of the longerons and around the doors looking for rust-through is mandatory.
The lift struts are another nettlesome component. In the 1960s and 70s, internal rusting was a well-known problem, as was cracking of the strut forks (well discuss these further, shortly).
Piper issued a Service Bulletin last year to inspect the lift strut spar attachment fittings of all high wing Pipers unless the plane was recovered in the last 10 years.
There is a significant AD on the wing struts, AD 93-10-6 (this was once two ADs, 77-3-8 and 81-25-5), and has been superceded by AD 99-01-05. Part of the AD calls for annual inspections of the struts for corrosion, as well as treatment with a rust inhibitor (linseed oil).
The initial AD specified using a Maule punch tester on the strut; however, some mechanics doubt the effectiveness of this test. The most recent AD authorizes non-destructive testing.
The FAA has approved visual inspection by removing the fork and inserting a halogen light inside the strut.
Many owners have replaced their struts with sealed struts from Univair which eliminates the AD inspection entirely, or have their struts sealed in accordance with an F. Atlee Dodge STC that requires inspection every five years.
The other part of the AD addresses the lift-strut forks. According to the AD, the original machined-thread forks were prone to fatigue cracking.
The fatigue apparently originated at the bottom of the thread grooves, which were very sharp. The problem was exacerbated by people using the struts as steps when getting in and out of the airplane.
The AD calls for immediate inspection of the forks using magnetic means (read Magnaflux) to detect cracks, with the inspection repeated every 500 hours thereafter. If no cracks were found, then the forks could be returned to service if they had less than 2000 hours on them (1000 hours for floatplanes or any plane that had been on floats at any time in its life).
But at 2000 hours (or 1000), the forks have to be replaced with rolled-thread types (Piper part No. 14481-2). Buyers shopping for a Tri-Pacer and finding one advertised as low time should make sure the AD has been complied with, or the forks replaced with either the new Piper part or the Jensen Lifetime models.
Beyond the lift-strut brouhaha, owners report no special maintenance problems and upkeep costs are quite low. A scan of a six-year printout of FAA Service Difficulty Reports (SDRs) showed few real trends. In fact, only one other problem besides the aforementioned corrosion turned up with any regularity.
That involved the starter cables. Slow cranking and eventually, burned wires were cited in 10 reports, ranging through all models. Replacement with Bogert copper cables is a popular option. Another contributor to reduced cranking power seems to be caused by low/no battery charging from the 25-amp generator during taxi, and especially at night with all the lights and avionics running. Running the RPM up for a few minutes after landing and taxi insures a full battery charge the next time you want to go flying. Considering its age, the Tri-Pacer has fared very well in terms of ADs-again, excepting the lift-strut business. Most were of the one-time variety and should have been complied with long ago.
When it comes to eye appeal, the Tri-Pacer certainly has come in for more than its share of abuse, giving rise to charming appellations like Flying Milk Stool, Slow-Pacer, Flying Brick and Three-Legged Hog. However, many senior pilots look back with nostalgia on learning to fly in a Tri-Pacer or on their very first airplane ride in one.
Owners delight in the airplanes pleasing mix of reasonable performance and load-carrying capability. Of course they could just be cheapskates.
With todays prices ranging from about $20,000 up to around $30,000 or so, and the promise of rock-bottom maintenance costs-assuming the struts are up to snuff and the fabric is clean-the Tri-Pacer is a good value.
Well-maintained examples have generally appreciated over time, although the Tri-Pacer market seems to exist in a quiet tidepool, out of reach of the crashing waves of GAs recent value fluctuations.
Because of the low cost of the Tri-Pacer, you must be on the lookout for owners who have been tempted to cut corners on maintenance. There are some fine Tri-Pacers out there and more than a few with too many Ace Hardware bits jangling in the belly.
Any mechanic worth his hourly rate (and familiar with the airplane) should catch most of the worst transgressions, but keep in mind that the PA-22s basement buy-in makes rescue missions fiscally inadvisable.
In the same vein, dont expect top-line avionics; be wary of creaky radios with too many vacuum tubes in them. Piper changed the panel for the 1956 models, moving the radios to the center stack and enlarging the gyro panel in front of the pilot, a tremendous improvement.
The Tri-Pacer is no stranger to brake failures, so a careful check of the condition and history of the brakes is in order. The brakes are operated by a single hand lever (Johnson bar) pressurizing a single master cylinder. The rubber diaphragm in the master cylinder gets stretched and weakens after about three years service. It is recommended the diaphragm be changed at every other annual. A number of owners have installed the North River Brake Booster STC which replaces the rubber diaphragm with a machined piston and greatly improves braking performance while eliminating the fragile diaphragm altogether. Look for recent (i.e., within the last three years) replacement of the diaphragms and drum turning to ensure long-lasting, reliable brakes.
Another item to look for is half-inch exhaust valves in the O-320 engines. With the valves, TBO is a healthy 2000 hours. Without, its only 1200-pretty poor for such a low-output engine.
There are mods a-plenty for the Tri-Pacer. Owners can get everything from the mundane to the radical for their airplane. A mod worth looking into gets rid of the old drum-type brakes and installs disk brakes. You might look into Univairs brake STC.
Another is the Williams dual toe brake modification that makes it easier to turn a tight radius on the ground and is a must for taildragger conversions, below.
Some owners are turning their Tri-Pacers back into Pacers by removing the nosegear and moving the mains forward a bit. It improves the airplanes looks considerably, but brings with it taildragger ground handling foibles. Univair also holds an STC for this.
Another popular mod is to replace the puny 25-amp and 35-amp generators with alternators. Interav makes an alternator kit. Perhaps the best mod is a simple engine swap, from the increasingly rare O-290 to the quite-common and bulletproof Lycoming O-320.
Be careful, though, because the extra horsepower requires an additional rib in the older wings. The 160-HP Lycoming O-320 has an AD to inspect the front crankshaft seal for pitting and corrosion. A number of owners have added droop wing tips and vortex generators in an attempt to increase short field performance.
Owners who wrote to us almost universally noted Unveil as their main source of parts. In addition to holding several Sacs (including one to replace the wing ribs with stamped aluminum ones), Unveil stocks many hard-to-get parts. Availability has not proven to be a problem. Thats a key consideration in an airplane this old.
Membership in the Short Wing Piper Club is a must for Tri-Pacer owners. As a source of current news, maintenance tips and owner information, the club cant be beat. Members can borrow tools and engineering drawings from the SWPC library at no cost.
The Club also sells a CD containing some 500 Piper engineering drawings, and a massive two volume set of maintenance Tips & Techniques. Theyre located in Halstead, Kansas and can be reached at 316-835-3650 or through www.shortwing.org or email at [email protected].
As the owner of a 150-HP 1957 Tri-Pacer (N7424D) for seven years, I could not be happier with this wonderful bird. For an initial investment of $15,500 (for an IFR-equipped airplane with a high-time engine), my Tri-Pacer does everything I want. I had been flying a 1976 Archer II (180 HP) for several years in a flying club when I decided I wanted to own my own airplane.
I could not afford a 180-HP Cherokee/Archer and the Cherokee 140 and 160 Warriors would not let my wife and I fly more than two hours, eliminating real cross-country trips. The answer was the Tri-Pacer that gives me the same performance as the Archer II except for about 10 knots less in cruise and I still have a 3.5-hour range plus reserves. With a useful load of 600 pounds, I can put 450 pounds in the front seats, 100 pounds in the rear seat, 50 in the baggage area, fill the tanks, climb out at 400 to 500 FPM and fly 350 miles.
My costs average around $50 per hour. Insurance is $675 per year (I hold commercial and instrument ratings) with about 610 hours, half in the Tri-Pacer. My owner-assisted annuals have never exceeded $600, although after the first year I replaced the engine with a Lycoming factory overhaul.
I love it when other pilots at my airport (especially Steadman and Mooney owners), stop by the hanger and ogle at my Tri-Pacer with nostalgia and say something like, Can I get a ride in your Tri-Pacer? I learned to fly in one of these and I absolutely loved it.
One of my friends, a captain for Southwest airlines, commutes to and from work one hour each way in a tail dragger version thats full IFR.
Dont let anyone tell you it is not a good cross-country machine. In 2001 I flew my Tri-Pacer from Ohio to Anchorage, Alaska and back along with 70 other Short Wing Piper owners (some 135-HP models, some Clippers and Colts).
It was the experience of a lifetime! All performed beautifully and safely. Each year we attend the Short Wing Piper convention and fly-in and these birds have crossed the Rockies going from California to Florida and New York to Washington state. I think they are the best flying value in aviation today.
I am the owner of Tri-Pacer C-FJUD, a 1957 model with 150-HP Lycoming. It has standard 1957 instrument panel and the following mods: Madras tips, Univair sealed struts and heavy fork ends, Airwolf remote oil filter, Skytec lightweight starter and copper cables, and autogas STC.
I still have the hydraulic drum brakes with the feeble diaphragm single master cylinder/Johnson bar actuating mechanism. I feel that this system is totally inadequate and the brakes will be replaced ASAP with Cleveland disks and preferably dual toe brakes to allow differential steering.
The instrument panel is a mismatched array of different sized dials arranged in no particular order. Typical of the vintage, in my observation. This too will change to a standard T arrangement at next annual with modern rather than surplus World War II instruments.
I have owned this airplane for four years and much enjoy its flying qualities. Its not the fastest thing out of the gate but it always gets there, frequently before accompanying aircraft such as a PA28-140 and a C172 flown by my friends. In fact I can usually get to destination at the same time as another friend operating a Zenith CH200 homebuilt, also using an O-320.
The little beggar seems to be as tough as old boots. It will go into just about anywhere. The limiting factor being braking power on short fields. Besides I think it looks cute.
I fly a 1959 PA22/20 -160 hp (N9689D) which is a Tri-Pacer that has been converted to a Pacer (taildragger). This is a popular conversion made to improve both appearance and performance. I belong to the Short Wing Piper Club, which is a national club with chapters all over the country and members all over the world.
My Pacer will carry four persons will full fuel (36 gallons) unless in very high density altitude. It will outperform most Cessna 172s with regard to useful load and speed.
-George and Mary Greene
Presque Isle, Michigan
(Additional letters included below are bonus content and are not found in the print version of Aviation Consumer)
I purchased my 1956 PA-150 HP in December 2000. I have recovered it myself and made a few upgraded along the way. It is an IFR-certified airplane and in fact I received my IFR training and certification in this airplane.
It consumes 9.5 to 10 gallons of fuel per hour at a cruse of 110 to 115 knots per hour. This was confirmed on a trip from my home base at Lampson Field in Lakeport, California to Oshkosh Wisconsin in 2002.
My insurance runs about $800 per year and cost of maintenance is “usually” the cost of the inspection ($300) as I take care of any problems as they occur and perform all the labor during the annual. My Tri-Pacer does not have many costly items to fix during the year.
I fly 50 to 75 hours per year and most of the flying is recreational around Northern California. These are great airplanes to fly and can be operated in and out of very short runways. I have practiced take-off and landings in 600 feet and less on a paved runway with only me on board at 6-feet-1-inch and 200 pounds. I have four seats and a useful load of 820 pounds so I can take four adults and fly off to one of those $100 lunches. However, it is a great two passenger plane with luggage for going on a trip.
I own a 1959 160-HP Tri-Pacer. My wife Kim and I bought it in August of 1997.
I have flown it about 175 hours and find it very safe and enjoyable to fly.The high lift wing makes it somewhat bouncy in rough air, but that is to beexpected with the Cub airfoil. Costs are about $19 per hour for gas andinsurance costs me less than $900 per year.
My comments on Piper Tri-Pacer (PA-22-160): I have owned several Tri-Pacers over the years. I was at one time a Piper dealer and sold them new. They listed at something less than $9000 then. I have always thought the airplane under-rated. It will out perform the Cessna 172 in nearly any category. It will get off with just about anything you can put into it, even on a hot day/short field situation.
An excellent instrument platform and (with the aux tank) a decent X-C airplane. Mine has the droop tips. I really don’t think it improves the performance any except in slow flight. It has plenty of roll control even in a stalled condition. For the money, it’s impossible to beat. There seems to be two schools of thought about the appearance; ugly as sin or cute.
I own a 1953 Tri-pacer that had not been taken care of. I purchased the airplane after a complete pre-buy by a teaching university. Four years ago after the positive pre-buy and after talking with the AI that had done the airplanes annual for the past several years. I purchased the Tri-Pacer.
Since then, I have had to do a total rebuild on the motor, lost power over the Mississippi River in St. Louis airspace, consistently had minor problems and am 15 months into a total major rebuild by an AI in the St. Louis area. I live in Michigan.
The airplane cost about $13,000 when purchased. The motor rebuild was just under $12,000. The rebuild will be around $30,000. I added a pilot-side horizontal opening door like a Cessna has. This was done because my wife, also a pilot, couldn’t get into the airplane and still look like a lady. I also had a skylight and strobes added for safety.
I use about 8 gallons per hour of fuel and get about 11 hours on a quart of oil. A friend of mine just rebuilt his Tri-Pacer and it flys great and he has had no problem since rebuild. The rebuild took him over a year of full-time work. It appears to me that all Tri-Pacers have already been or should be rebuilt in order for them to fly well and be SAFE.
The purchaser should really be aware of all the hidden corrosion and worn parts. Over the years, there have been many required ADs on the airplane and some may not have been completed.
To summarize. I love the way a rebuilt Tri-Pacer flys but I am getting tired of the constant repairs. It seems that my friends aren’t having the repair problems that I have had.
The Tri-Pacer is one of the best values flying today. I own a 1955 Tri-Pacer, which is the first year it came out with a 150-HP Lycoming in it. It has been fully restored to its original condition except for the panel mount GPS/COM and transponder, although I do have a mock-up VHT-3 I can put in for that nostalgic look.
Flying the Tri-Pacer is delightful. I wish I had more time to expend on it. Support is half the fun with the Short Wing Piper Club being at the top of the list. With nearly 3000 active members with tons of knowledge coupled with factory drawings on CD available, a member e-mail list via the internet, and support from several companies for parts. So far, maintenance has been less than $300/year on my PA-22, but then my A&P is also my co-owner and we put nearly 100 hours a year on it.