It seems there’s always an Arrow on the ramp as well as a good selection of them on the used market. Flight schools have long sworn by them as relatively economical complex trainers, and owners report happy relationships with their combination of useful load and range. Through longevity and numbers, it may have replaced the Bonanza as the ubiquitous retractable single.
Since it’s little more than a retractable Cherokee, the Arrow is a logical step-up airplane for pilots accustomed to Piper’s fixed-gear four-seaters. Moving from one cockpit to the other, everything will be familiar, from gauge placement to systems to handling and procedures. That’s no accident, of course: Offering a full line of airplanes was the basic marketing model for all of the major manufacturers in the 1960s and 1970s. As they started out in two-seat trainers, pilots were encouraged to step up into similar four-place, fixed-gear models, then to retractables from the same blood line.
While the market has changed, the Arrow soldiers on. It’s a relatively ubiquitous airplane, available in many flavors ranging from the original, relatively sedate 180-HP version with its short, stubby wings to a fire-breathing, T-tailed, turbocharged version perhaps best known for heat-management and runway-hogging issues: Even Piper has a bad day. A few quirks aside, though, some version or vintage of the Piper Arrow may be the right airplane at the right time for a prospective owner.
History of the line
The original PA-28 owes its existence to three pioneering designers, John Thorpe, Karl Bergey and Fred Weick, who were charged with developing an airplane that would compete with the Cessna 172. Introduced in 1962 as the Cherokee 150 and 160, the PA-28 gave Piper a badly needed shot in the arm in the low-end market. Cessna had a runaway success on its hands with the 172, and Piper’s competition—the Tri-Pacer—was downright dowdy by comparison.
The original Cherokee did well, and was soon joined by the 180 and 235, giving Piper a strong lineup of fixed-gear singles meeting many missions. Since all Cherokees share the same basic airframe, the company was also able to realize some manufacturing economies.
By the mid-1960s, Piper began considering the PA-28 as a candidate to compete in the light four-place retractable market, then dominated by Mooney with Beech’s least expensive retractable—the Debonair—costing a third again as much as a Mooney. Cessna had no comparable airplane at all, and Piper’s Comanche would go out of production in the mid-1970s.
Piper folded the gear on its Cherokee 180 and in 1967 unveiled the first Arrow. It was every bit a Cherokee, from the fat, constant-chord Hershey Bar wing to the stabilator. The base price was $16,900, some $1350 less than the Mooney M20C Mark 21 (according to the Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest). However, the average equipped price of an Arrow, as delivered, was actually about $2000 more than the Mooney. A Cherokee 180 from the same year had a base price of a mere $12,900.
The PA-28R-180 came with a constant-speed prop turned by a Lycoming IO-360-B1E engine. The new retractable gear was electro mechanical (compared to Mooney’s distinctive manual “Johnson bar” arrangement), and had a unique feature designed to enhance safety: an auto-extension mechanism that would lower the gear if the airplane slowed below a certain airspeed. More on the Arrow’s gear system in a moment.
The original Arrow compared well with the Mooney in some departments, such as roominess and cost, but fell short in terms of speed. Cruise was pegged at 141 knots, compared to 158 for the Mooney. Still, the Arrow was considerably faster than the carbureted, fixed-gear, fixed-prop (but otherwise identical) Cherokee 180.
After two years and sales of almost 1100 airplanes, Piper came out with a 200-HP version of the Arrow. An extra $500 bought pilots a Lycoming IO-360-C1C engine, a few knots and a 100-pound boost in gross weight, though that was eaten into by a 79-pound increase in empty weight. The -C1C engine was more costly in other ways, too—it had a 1200-hour TBO, compared to 2000 for the 180. That short TBO has since been lengthened by fitting new exhaust valves, and it’s highly unlikely that any of the 1200-hour mills remain. The 200’s TBO is now also 2000 hours.
The 200-HP Arrow was sufficiently more popular than the 180 that the latter was dropped in 1971. Starting with the 1972 model year, the airplane was redesignated the Arrow II. Its fuselage was stretched five inches, providing more rear-seat room; its wingspan increased 26 inches by widening the Hershey Bar design and the stabilator’s span increased. This allowed 50 pounds more gross weight, and the addition of the long-awaited manual gear-extension override. Thanks to larger bearing dowels, the old 1200-hour TBO was boosted to 1400 hours. The next year marked the development of a redesigned camshaft and another TBO increase—to 1600 hours.
In the mid-1970s, Piper revamped its line of metal singles (leaving the Super Cub alone), starting with the bottom of the PA-28 line. Beginning in 1975, the airplane that had been the Cherokee 140 became the Warrior, sporting a new, semi-tapered wing of higher aspect ratio than the familiar Hershey Bar and a 150-HP engine. This new wing found its way onto the Arrow in 1977, creating the Arrow III. In that same year, Piper made a turbocharged version of the Arrow. More on this variant in a moment.
The new wing improved performance somewhat, most notably in terms of glide. It also gave pilots a healthy 24-gallon increase in fuel capacity.
The Arrow III lasted only two model years. In 1979, Piper made a controversial design decision, opting to follow the T-tail design fad. The was dubbed “Arrow IV.” Predictably, performance suffered. Like many T-tail airplanes, the Arrow IV flies differently than Arrows with conventional tail feathers. The T-tail, depending on airspeed, is either very effective or far less effective than a conventional tail (which isn’t as prone to abrupt transitions between different flying regimes). This occurs because the stabilator sits up out of the propwash, and so is less effective at low airspeeds. Many pilots complain that the Arrow IV has squirrelly low-speed performance, with a tendency to over-rotate on takeoff. Others, who don’t try to fly the Arrow IV like the earlier models, look more favorably upon the T-tail. Regardless, some who have flown both report the T-tailed version also demands more attention to pitch trim when changing airspeeds.
During the general aviation slump of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Arrow production was spotty: The normally aspirated Arrow IV wasn’t built for model years 1983 through 1987; only the Turbo Arrow IV was available. For model years 1988, 1989 and 1990, conventional tail, normally aspirated Arrows were made alongside T-tailed turbo models. The last three Turbo Arrow IVs were 1990 models; subsequent Arrows through current production all have conventional tails and lack turbos. No Arrows of any flavor carry 1991 or 1993 model designations; this was the time when Piper was on the rocks, searching for a buyer. One Arrow is labeled as a 1994 model.
Piper emerged from bankruptcy in 1995 as New Piper, a moniker dropped in 2006. Today’s version—known simply as the “Arrow,” without any Roman numerals—is essentially an Arrow III, arguably the best of the bunch. The 2012 model’s base price is $414,900, which includes a Garmin G500 avionics suite, but no autopilot.
When the Arrow was introduced, its only real competition came from Mooney’s early M20s. Other manufacturers soon realized the viability of the market segment, however, and it wasn’t long before other competitors appeared. Beech’s offering was the rather lackluster (though roomy) Sierra, while Cessna weighed in first with the Cardinal RG, then the Cutlass RG. Rockwell got into the small retractable business with the Commander 112, and Mooney upped the ante with the landmark 201.
The average equipped prices of these airplanes when new in 1977 (the first year all of them were offered at once) ran as follows: Arrow III: $50,320; Cessna Cardinal RG: $50,095; Rockwell Commander 112: $61,295; Beech Sierra: $53,594 and Mooney 201: $57,420.
The marketplace has declared the Arrow the runaway winner in terms of non-adjusted appreciation: That same 1977 airplane has increased in value by 21 percent. The Mooney is second, up a little over 18 percent. The big loser is the Sierra, which has lost considerable value. It’s worth noting the used marketplace doesn’t like the T-tailed Arrow much, either: A 1979 PA-28RT-201 has not yet recovered its new average equipped price, while a 1978 Arrow III is worth about 10 percent more than its new cost.
The Mooney runs away from the rest in speed and efficiency, which have great value. This is food for thought, since the Arrow is no faster than, say, a Grumman/AGAC Tiger, an airplane that delivers this performance on 20 less horsepower with a fixed-pitch prop and fixed landing gear. It costs about 15 to 20 percent less to buy, and less to maintain.
The 200-HP Arrow is an unremarkable performer; the 180-HP version is, well, doggy. Cruise speeds range from 130 (180-HP) to 143 knots (normally aspirated 200-HP T-tail) and as high as 170 knots for a turbocharged version flown in the teens. The non-turbo’d Arrows consume nine to 12 gallons per hour, with the “blown” versions using around 14 GPH when pushed. A Cessna Cardinal RG, Cutlass RG or Grumman Tiger will go as fast, while burning less fuel. And a Mooney 201, on the same fuel, goes the fastest. Still, the Arrow has a roomier interior than all but the Cardinal, and its useful load is the greatest: 1200 pounds.
The first two Arrows had somewhat limited range, thanks to their 48-gallon fuel capacity. Beginning with the taper-wing Arrow III, 72-gallon fuel tanks eliminated that problem. Taper-wing Arrow owners report as much as 6.5 hours’ endurance, while Arrow II owners sometimes wish for larger tanks.
The Arrow handles much like any PA-28, which is to say it’s fairly benign. Stalls are a non-event. The wing loading is lower than higher-performance retractables like the Bonanza/Debonair and Mooney, which means a less solid ride in turbulence and lower speeds. However, that’s also a benefit during landing. Owners report few vices.
Climb performance is competent, but unremarkable. The Arrow is not a STOL airplane, but it doesn’t eat up runway, either. During letdowns, the Arrow’s gear serves as an effective speed brake. The gear extension limit is close to the cruise speed (which really says more about the cruise speed than it does about the gear), so descents aren’t the problem they are in slick airplanes like the Mooney.
The Arrow’s interior is quite comfortable. Piper deserves mention for its seat design in later aircraft, which have a crashworthy S-tube design meant to progressively collapse and absorb energy during an impact. This same basic design is used in the JAARS bush-plane seat. Piper also gets crashworthiness kudos for installing a thickly padded glareshield.
Heating and ventilation are both quite good, unlike some other airplanes in the class, with lots of overhead and floor vents. Egress is not the best, we don’t like the single cabin door, especially when compared to the double-doored Cardinal RG, Cutlass RG, Commander 112 and the Beech Sierra. Further, the double-latch system can confuse passengers, particularly in an emergency: Be sure to brief them.
Piper chose long ago to put the engine gauges near the power controls, which makes a certain amount of sense except when setting and monitoring power on takeoff. We’d rather see the gauges up in the pilot’s line of sight where they’re hard to miss.
The Arrow’s automatic landing gear extension system was intended as a safety feature; Piper touted the Arrow as the perfect airplane for pilots transitioning to retractables. Many pilots and insurance underwriters embraced the “foolproof” gear system with some insurers even assigning lower rates. Alas, the system isn’t perfect, and didn’t prevent landing gear-related mishaps in the Arrow.
Also the Arrow’s automatic gear extension system is a good example of how safety features can spawn new hazards even while eliminating old ones. In high-power, low-airspeed configurations, the system could either delay retraction or lower the gear at an unwanted time.
Then there are Arrow pilots who lose their engines and decide to ditch with the gear up. Unfortunately, some forget to override the automatic extension system. The gear plops out seconds before splash down—sending the Arrow head over heels. Savvy Arrow pilots learned early on to “pin”—override—the system to keep the gear retracted when doing any sort of max-performance work.
There is a second pitot tube, located on the left side of the cabin, for the automatic gear system. If it is equipped with pitot heat, it should be checked, along with the primary pitot tube before flight, as more than one pilot making a high-speed, IFR descent through a thin stratus layer has had the gear suddenly extend because that second pitot froze over.
There were enough “misunderstandings” by mid-1987 that Piper, then owned by Lear-Siegler, ordered the system deactivated because of concern over liability suits. It sold kits to do so, and told customers it wouldn’t provide parts to repair the existing system. Piper sold 1400 kits.
A year later—then owned by M. Stuart Millar—the company withdrew its deactivation order, provided that pilots “take the necessary actions to assure that any pilot flying these aircraft are fully advised of the system and its proper operation.” In part, Piper was responding to the complaints of irate owners who believed the system worked often enough to be desirable.
That Troublesome Turbo
When Piper hung a 200-HP turbocharged Continental TSIO-360-F onto an Arrow III in 1977, the combination looked like a perfect match: the world’s premier economy retractable single and a powerplant promising high-tech performance at low-tech prices.
The extra money—the average 1977 Turbo Arrow III went out the door costing around $4600 more than its non-turbo’d sibling—boosted book max cruise speed from 149 KTAS to a whopping 177 at altitude. A new cowling rounded out the deal and announced to the ramp rats your bird was turbocharged.
Soon, however, the engine began earning a reputation as tricky to operate and prone to self destruction. It didn’t help much when, in 1979, Piper combined its T-tail airframe with the turbo’d engine, even if the powerplant got a different suffix and much-needed TBO extension (from 1400 to 1800 hours).
The result was a handful on the runway: The T-tail’s tendency to encourage overrotation, coupled with the engine’s need for attention on the takeoff roll meant a busy time, especially on high-elevation fields. On the good side: The engine’s fixed wastegate introduced legions of pilots to the term “bootstrapping.” For pilots transitioning from a normally aspirated Arrow, it was too tempting to run the throttle to its stop early in the takeoff roll, just as one would with the non-turbo’d version.
Do that with the Turbo Arrow, though, and you’d get a red “overboost” light very soon, often followed by your mechanic’s bill for the subsequent inspection. Instead, the favored technique was to run up the MAP to no more than 30 or so inches early in the takeoff roll, then forget about it while monitoring the other engine gauges and keeping the centerline straddled.
When workload permitted—or runway length demanded—and after the system spooled itself up to around 35 inches, a gentle nudge to the throttle gave around 39 or 40 inches; and then the engine likely would boost itself the rest of the way to its 41 inches of manifold pressure limit and off you went.
Alas, the engine wasn’t as bulletproof as Continental intended or Piper hoped. One five-year printout of FAA Accident and Incident Reports for the Turbo Arrow disclosed no fewer than 54 instances of powerplant failures. Furthermore, the engine stoppages weren’t the result of typical pilot errors such as fuel mismanagement, fuel exhaustion, etc. They occurred from failed connecting rods or rod bolts, broken crankshafts and damaged pistons.
Things got so bad that the National Transportation Safety Board in 1985 called for an airworthiness design review of the engine, citing a litany of component failures. Then-FAA Administrator Donald Engen rejected the request.
These days, things have calmed way down with the Turbo Arrow. A recent check of Service Difficulty Reports (SDRs) going back into the 1990s did not uncover any real trends with the Turbo Arrow’s engine, airframe or appliances.
One of the reasons for the Turbo Arrow’s recent reliability may be the aftermarket mods available. Two are significant: intercoolers and an automatic wastegate. Turboplus (www.turboplus.com) and Airflow Systems (www.airflow-systems.com) offer intercoolers. At 12,000 feet, the Turbo Arrow has a fairly low critical altitude—the max altitude at which the engine will develop its rated horsepower. Owners say they get a higher critical altitude with the intercoolers, along with lower operating temperatures.
Meanwhile, in an effort to prevent bootstrapping on the Turbo Arrow and other aircraft with the TSIO-360 engine, Merlyn Products (www.merlynproducts.com) has taken an even more dramatic step and come up with an automatic upper deck controller that looks like the answer to a prayer for Turbo Arrow owners. It increases the critical altitude by 5500 feet while boosting cruise climb and speed slightly, and lowering CHT and oil temperatures significantly.
The ostensibly nifty benefits of this system are much lower turbo speeds, lower engine RPM settings at all altitudes and generally allowing lower engine operating temperatures.
Clubs, More Mods
A variety of aerodynamic mods are available for PA-28s, from the usual flap and gap seals (Knots-2U, www.knots2u.com) to shoulder harnesses (AeroParadise, www.aeroparadisellc.com) to the high-spiff-factor LoPresti (www.speedmods.com) cowling. Speed brakes can be had from Precise Flight (www.preciseflight.com), though the Arrow doesn’t really need them.
As with any personal airplane, we strongly recommend joining a type club. Their expertise can save real money when tracking down common problems. Arrow owners have two excellent organizations from which to choose: the Cherokee Pilots Association (www.piperowner.com) and the Piper Owner Society (www.piperowner.org).
I bought my 1973 Arrow II with Knots2U speed modifications in December of 1999. With the speed mods, I file for a true airspeed of 140 knots. I find that I need to plan ahead to slow the aircraft from cruise, unlike the Arrows I flew without the mods. However, once slowed, the aircraft has the sink rate of a typical Arrow. This took a little adjustment at first.
Since buying the airplane, I’ve upgraded the paint, avionics and interior and had to replace the prop because of an AD. The aircraft has been a joy, with no extraordinary, massive expenses, other than the paint, avionics and interior, which were my choices.
I first started flying 180-HP Arrows in the 1970s and flew an Arrow to Alaska from Chicago, camping out beside the aircraft. My only complaint is that it would be nice to have a 180- or 200-knot aircraft, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.
I purchased my 1976 Arrow II back in 1998 for $62,000—in the good old days of ever-increasing resale values—after earning my instrument rating. It had never been used as a trainer and was therefore in very good condition, which can be hard to find in this model.
Over the years, I thought many times about upgrading again to a Bonanza F33 or Mooney J model. However, I realized that the Arrow was really perfect for my typical 300-mile or shorter mission. While not as fast as a Mooney or Bonanza, it is more efficient and more comfortable. Compared to a Mooney, it can carry plenty of weight fully fueled—fill the tanks and you can still carry four average adults or two adults and plenty of baggage, and it is far cheaper to operate.
It is fast enough as a short- to medium-range cross-country airplane. While 140 knots is possible at max power, I typically flight plan 135 knots at 65-70 percent power on 10 GPH. For the extra few knots a Mooney might deliver, the Arrow is a more comfortable and pleasurable plane to fly.
The Arrow has no handling quirks or bad habits and is a joy to fly. The only drawback I have found is the 48-gallon useful fuel capacity of the Arrow II—an issue that was rectified in the Arrow III with the adoption of the tapered wing and 68 gallon tanks. But I can still get four hours plus reserves—which is plenty for my usual flights.
While the tapered wing Arrow III is generally considered more desirable, having flown both I have noted little difference in performance or handling. I currently have over 1300 hours on the engine, and compressions and oil consumption have remained relatively constant. It has been a very reliable and relatively inexpensive airplane to maintain. I have never had to cancel a planned flight due to maintenance issues.
Parts are plentiful and inexpensive compared to Beech or Mooney parts, and the Lycoming IO-360 is bulletproof. Parts availability and factory support is a given. Reliability is due in part to simple mechanical systems and design. In all my 14 years of ownership, I have never had a retractable gear maintenance issue.
Having decided to keep the aircraft rather than replace it, I have had it completely updated over the last two years, including new custom paint and interior by Central Aviation in Watertown, Wisconsin, and a new panel by JA Air Center in Aurora, Illinois. The interior refurbishment included all-new plastic trim, overhead console and headliner, along with leather-wrapped control wheels.
The new panel consists of a custom metal upper panel with instrument bezel lighting, replacing the old plastic overlays. I installed a new Aspen PFD and replaced the aging King radios with a new Garmin stack, including GMA 340 audio panel, GTN 650 GPS/Nav/Comm, GTX 330 Mode S transponder with TIS traffic, S-Tec 60-2 autopilot wired through the Aspen for GPS roll steering and a panel-mounted, hardwired Garmin Aera 560 that displays XM datalink weather and plays XM radio through the audio panel.
I retained an original KX-170B with the MAC 1700 digital tuner conversion as my No. 2 navcomm along with the original Narco DME. I also retained the WX-900 Stormscope. With these upgrades, my aging Arrow is now a reliable, capable, modern aircraft that is efficient and functional for both local and cross-country flying.
With respect to costs of ownership, my annual insurance premium is around $1300 for $1 million smooth liability and $115,000 hull value. I upped the hull value after the panel upgrades—insurance for the average Arrow would be much less. Annuals usually run in the range of $2000–$2500. Little maintenance is typically required between annuals. I would estimate average yearly maintenance costs at around $3000.
I know that I would not recover the cost of my recent upgrades if I were to sell, but I have decided this Arrow is a keeper. It may not be an airplane that is really great at any one thing—there are faster planes and better load-hauling planes. But it is reasonably good at a lot of things—a great combination of acceptable speed, decent payload, efficiency and low operating costs.
I think the Arrow is great for efficient, low-cost, cross-country transportation. I encourage anyone considering one to buy. The only caveat would be to try and find one that has not spent its life being beaten on as a trainer or rental, which can be a challenge since Arrows are very popular for those uses.
Engine management was probably the largest burden I faced in my transition from a rental Cessna 172 to my purchased Turbo Arrow.
My recommendation is to force yourself to get in the habit of checking the engine instruments often. Include them in your scan, and look at them after every configuration change.
During takeoff roll, ease the throttle forward to increase RPM, allowing the turbo to spool up. This will smooth the effects of P Factor and you will not require as much rudder input as you would if you just threw the throttle into position. As you feel the turbo “kick in,” ease the throttle forward to achieve recommended takeoff manifold pressure.
After rotation, double check manifold pressure and adjust as needed. Check the manifold pressure as you retract the flaps. Again, as the gear is retracted, keep an eye on the manifold pressure.
The throttle is very touchy on the Turbo Arrow, and what you may think is a minimal change will actually be a huge change. So easy, tiny movements on the throttle are required.
I am the chief instructor for the Aspen Flying Club at Denver Centennial Airport. The club has owned and operated a Turbo Arrow for several years. In my opinion, the PA-28 201RT is one of the best airplanes for the money. I think that you can readily find them in a variety of conditions and diversely equipped.
Consider the comparison of a Cirrus SR22 vs. a Turbo Arrow. A Turbo Arrow costs several hundred thousand dollars less to acquire, is just a couple of 10s of knots slower and burns two-thirds the fuel. My experience is that the Turbo Arrow is a high density-altitude, go-anywhere Colorado aircraft.
Our club checkout process isn’t that difficult. To start, the policy requires all pilots to have a total time of 125 hours with 25 hours of retractable gear time or 10 hours in make and model and a checkout flight after passing a written aircraft checkout quiz. We have had some maintenance issues due to improper operation of the airplane, so we may need to increase those times.
We have a document created by the owner of the airplane—it’s on leaseback—that discusses the particularities of the Turbo Arrow. Each renter is required to read this and sign it before the checkout. Additionally, each unique component’s information manual is available on the club’s website page for the Turbo Arrow. Each renter is expected to become familiar with the functions of these components. Lastly, we require our members to watch a video on turbocharged engine operations.
The majority of the checkout flight is routine. We will do slow flight, approach and departure stalls and recoveries, simulated engine failure and a handful of touch-and-goes. Because of the capabilities of this aircraft, we include at least one high-altitude flight. This allows the pilot to understand the use of supplemental oxygen as well as turbo operation where it matters.