The Piper Tri-Pacer is not what one would call a modern-looking airplane. Short-coupled, with stubby, strut-braced wings and thick-looking tricycle landing gear, the tube-and-fabric four-seater seems a bit dowdy.
It 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.
But owners delight in the airplanes pleasing mix of reasonable performance and load-carrying capability combined with low purchase prices and rock-bottom operational costs.
And theyve got a point. The Tri-Pacer can cruise faster than a vintage Cessna 172 while using from seven to nine GPH. It has good short-field performance, a wide CG range and good parts availability to boot.
The price for this ranges from about $15,000 up to around $20,000 or so, though a fixer-upper can be had for less. Thats a pretty good value, if the prospect of being snickered at doesnt bother you.
The Tri-Pacer is a crossover design, being introduced at a time when most light aircraft were taildraggers. In a way, it defined a whole new market niche, one that would eventually come to be dominated by the Skyhawk.
Introduced in 1951, the Tri-Pacer was not an all-new design. It was based on the PA-20 Pacer, and today its possible to reconvert a Tri-Pacer to taildragger configuration with an STC. Interestingly, the PA-20 is, to our eye, much more aesthetically pleasing than the Tri-Pacer. Amazing what that nose gear 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. But in 1956 Cessna introduced the world-beating 172, which outsold the Tri-Pacer so badly that production was stopped in 1960.
The first Tri-Pacers had 125 HP Lycoming O-290-D engines, which were changed halfway through the second year of production to 135 HP D2 models. In 1955, that engine was swapped out for a 150 HP Lycoming O-320-A1A. In 1958, the 160 HP O-320-B2A was offered as an option, giving a boost in useful load. The latter engine can be retrofitted with an STC; a worthwhile mod. Aside from this, there were no significant changes during the Tri-Pacers production run. Floats were offered as an option, as were 44-gallon tanks after 1955.
Despite two doors (one on the right front for the front seats, one of the left rear for the back seats), its tough to climb into, 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 will find the Tri-Pacer is cramped and dark. Two wide people sitting side-by-side should be very good friends, at least. An owner put it best: The Tri-Pacer is built for people who are either small, or who are intent on becoming good friends. Spacious appointments are not the Tri-Pacers virtue.
Built to last
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 fabric holds up well according to most owners, especially the Ceconite and Razorback coverings. Some might say they last too long, allowing corrosion to progress undetected for a long time.
Although Razorback can last more than 20 years, the structure underneath may rot away in only 10 years. Some owners, opting for safety, get the bird recovered every 10 years, whether it needs it or not.
Even with regular inspections and recovering, the steel-tube structure of the Tri-Pacer is somewhat susceptible to corrosion. 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.
The lift struts are another nettlesome component. Internal rusting is a well-known problem, as is cracking of the strut forks (well discuss these further, shortly).
Owners report maintenance offers no special 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 at the first signs of reduced cranking power seems to be the order of the day here.
Despite its rather rude looks, the Tri-Pacer is a surprising performer. The frumpy little four-placer earns high marks from owners in this regard.
Except for the lower-powered models, most Tri-Pacers can lift three adults, a smidgen of baggage, and full fuel-and still manage a decent climb rate. 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 quite possible to overload.)
Its got 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 9,000-foot mountains in the west.
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 or even a Warrior. Maximum altitude is also very good, with climb performance petering out at about 13,000 feet as engine power bleeds away.
The low-power models are another story, though. Dont expect to carry four people and more than an hour of fuel, because the airplane may not make it off the ground. Many Tri-Pacer pilots have become tree surgeons, wallowing through the branches after takeoff. The low-power models can make fine Sunday fliers, but dont buy one as a cross-country, load-toting machine.
Landing can be a dicey affair, judging by the aircrafts accident history. Getting slow on final can produce prodigious sink rates (as high as 2,000 FPM, according to one owner). This may be why the Tri-Pacer has a reputation for gliding like the proverbial brick. 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 down the speed (68-70 MPH) and carry power. As one owner notes, You pull the power back, and she lands.
Once the airplane is on the runway, the short fuselage and narrow landing gear can make for somewhat nervous manners. Swerves that are mild in other aircraft can be hair-raising in a Tri-Pacer. Hand-operated brakes dont help here, either.
This leads us to one of the Tri-Pacers few real problems-ground handling. Strong winds can be a real hazard for this airplane. Its stance on the ground and its high wing are almost an invitation to get blown over.
And taxiing is no tea party, either. Fast turns can spell disaster, as can turns from a headwind into a crosswind. Make a sharp, snappy turn off the runway with a strong wind, and remaining upright can be a real challenge.
But once its off the ground, 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. Pilots report the interconnect is easy to overpower for slips.
Though close-coupled, the Tri-Pacer is surprisingly stable. Although it will bounce around in turbulence, it 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.
Considering its age, the Tri-Pacer has fared very well in terms of ADs. Most were of the one-time variety and should have been complied with long ago.
However, 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). Part of the AD calls for annual inspections of the struts for corrosion, as well as treatment with a rust inhibitor (linseed oil). The service bulletin the AD specified using a Maule punch tester on the strut; however, some mechanics doubt the effectiveness of this test.
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 plane.
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 2,000 hours on them (1,000 hours for floatplanes or any plane that had been on floats at any time in its life).
But at 2,000 hours (or 1,000), 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.
Like most airplanes, the Tri-Pacer is steadily gaining in value. Nevertheless, its still a relative bargain, given its capabilities. At roughly $15,000 to $20,000, its about the cheapest four-seat trigear airplane around.
For example, a 1958 PA-22-150 was selling for $6,750 back in 1978. Today, that same airplane is worth about $19,000. On the face of it, the airplane has more than doubled in value.
But when inflation is taken into account, the real gain is somewhat less. In fact, the gain in the Tri-Pacers value has barely kept pace with inflation. In current dollars, the airplanes value has not changed much. Still, you wont be losing money by investing in one.
Besides all the usual items buyers should look for, the Tri-Pacer has some special points to be aware of. However, any mechanic worth his hourly rate (and familiar with the airplane) should catch most of these.
Of course, the airplanes AD compliance history should be carefully examined. While few of the airplanes ADs have been really serious, there are at least three that are genuine safety-of-flight items. Besides the aforementioned strut ADs, the third important one calls for reinforcement of the fabric over the windscreen. In several accidents, the 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.
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 10 years old could be doing the same.
The Tri-Pacer is no stranger to brake failures, so a careful check of the condition and history of the brakes is in order. Considering that the brakes are operated by a single hand lever (pressurizing two separate master cylinders), failure can make for some dramatic moments during landing. Look for recent (i.e., within the last 10 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 2,000 hours. Without, its only 1,200-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.
Some owners are turning their Tri-Pacers back into Pacers by removing the nose gear 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.
Perhaps the best mod is a simple engine swap, from the increasingly rare O-290 to the quite-common Lycoming O-320.
Owners who wrote to us almost universally noted Univair as their main source of parts. In addition to holding several STCs (including one to replace the wing ribs with stamped aluminum ones), Univair stocks many hard-to-get parts. Availability has not proven to be a problem. Thats a key consideration in an airplane this old.
Membership of 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. Theyre located in Halstead Kansas and can be reached at 316 835-3650.
As a recent pilot (one year) and a new owner of a 135 HP Piper Tri-Pacer (N2473A, pictured on p. 216), I am absolutely delighted with this wonderful bird.
For an initial investment of $12,000, my plane does everything I want and outflies some of our local 172s. I normally cruise at 130 MPH.
My first-year costs are averaging around $40 per hour. Insurance is $638 per year – I am a low-time pilot with about 240 hours. The only major addition Ive made is a set of covers from Bruces Custom Covers for $900. I also added an auto gas STC to reduce fuel costs. The annual ran $1600 due to the need for a muffler and magneto rebuild.
My Tri-Pacer has a useful load of 650 pounds with full fuel, and can actually fly four adults. Range is 400 NM with reserves.
The airplane is very stable in turbulence, has wonderful crosswind characteristics and great visibility for sightseeing. However, she does land like a brick. Thats the most difficult handling aspect. Theres almost no glide ratio and speed is absolutely critical for landing. As soon as you pull back power, she lands. I have discovered her sweet spot is 68-70 MPH on downwind, base and final. Keep that speed nailed, and she will land like an angel.
The best part of flying a Tri-Pacer is the greeting we get on landing. At Lindbergh Field in San Diego, we got a great job from the tower, and on the ramp the chief of security visited to see an actual Flying Brick. Not many Tri-Pacers seem to land at Class B airports.
I encourage anyone interested in Tri-Pacers to look into the Short-Wing Piper Club. Its a fountain of information and friendship for owners.
-Carol Ann Scanlon
My wife and I purchased our 1953 Piper Tri-Pacer in December, 1990 to avoid a seven-hour drive to our mountain cabin some 200 miles away. Since then, we have flown our airplane over 1400 hours, crossed the US twice and shes now part of the family. Weve made many, many upgrades.
N3607A came with the 135 HP engine, which we upgraded first to 150, then to a 160 with an STC. Living in the far west with 9000-plus foot mountains to cross to get to our cabin, we found the 160 to be the best choice for us, particularly climbing past 6500 feet. It adds that extra safety edge. If you dont have the constraints we face, the 150 is certainly adequate.
Weve added many of the readily available STCs, along with communication and navigation goodies, and have redone the paint and interior. We have never experienced a lack of parts availability. The Short Wing Piper Club is excellent as an information source, has a great magazine, a large membership, and annual national conventions in alternating sections of the US.
As a result of our upgrades, we now have a new airplane that includes GPS and IFR certification. The cost for all of this has been just over $19,000, including the initial purchase of our fixer-upper. All of this, of course, has required a lot of elbow grease on our part, but shes a showpiece. Including sunshade hangar, insurance, annual, engine maintenance reserves, and fuel (using 75 percent auto/25 percent 100LL), the cost of flying comes to $27.54 per hour. At that rate, we dont worry much about whether or not to use the airplane!
We have a close-to-all-out climb prop and no wheel pants, and still manage about 119 MPH at 7500 feet and 75 percent power. The fuel burn for this is 9 GPH.
The c.g. range for the Tri-Pacer is a generous 10 inches, almost making it a non-factor. Weve even hauled an airtight wood stove by taking out the back seat. Her short field capabilities have been much appreciated in the wilderness area of the Salmon River when we have gone canyon diving on the Forest Service strips. Weve added super tips to our wings and find a great deal more stability in the mountains where we fly so often.
Even the guys flying the twin wonderful come over and ogle her. They say, Thats a Tri-Pacer, right? That was the first airplane I ever owned and the best one! Would we ever sell her? Of course not!
-Bill & Ali Massey
I have owned my 1953 135 HP Tri-Pacer since 1984. I acquired it at a bargain-basement price, and almost immediately spent as much again on new radios (the airplane still had a vacuum-tube coffee grinder when I got it) and a new Ceconite cover.
A year later, a major overhaul of the O-290-D2 was in order. At the end of the refurbishment, in which I did much of the work with the help and supervision of a friend who is both an A&P and a Tri-Pacer owner, I had a sound and reliable airplane for about $11,000 (1986 dollars).
The airplane has since moved with me from Mississippi to California, Texas, Missouri and Florida, and now averages 80 hours a year, about evenly divided between cross country flights (500 to 1000 miles for vacations, family reunions, etc.) and short flights for recreation, pilot proficiency, and $70 hamburgers.
On cross countries I typically load two adults, full fuel (36 gallons), and 100 pounds or so of baggage, or about 200 pounds less than the 1850 pound maximum gross weight. Initial rate of climb from our near sea level airport on a cool morning is 900 FPM, tapering off to 300 FPM around 7000 feet. The Piper owners manual claims a cruise speed of 117 KTS (134 MPH). Actual 75 percent cruise at 7500 feet in my airplane is 105 KTS burning a little less than 8 gallons per hour. The rest of the book performance figures are about right.
The airplane is fun to fly. Control forces are light, but not excessively so. Because of the aileron-rudder interconnect, the airplane can be flown feet-on-the floor, or, when fussing with charts, with the rudder pedals only. The interconnect is easily overpowered for slips and crosswind landings. The airplane is also stable, i.e., it has little tendency to change attitude on its own, and when displaced, will return to straight and level flight at the trimmed airspeed. However, it does not take a lot of force to cause attitude changes. It bounces around in turbulence, and while it has more than enough control authority to cope with light and moderate turbulence, the pilot workload is higher in the Tri-Pacer than in a Skyhawk or Warrior in the same conditions. I limit my actual IFR flight to climbing and descending through the clouds and VFR-on-top.
Front seating is cozy for two adults. Large adults will find it cramped. The rear seat is suitable for children or bags. The Tri-Pacer proves the adage that the best two-seat airplane is a four-seat airplane with two people in it. The heater has proven adequate for Kansas City winters, and there is ample ventilation. Visibility could be better, and the noise level is very high – good headsets and an intercom are a must.
The short-wing Pipers have a reputation for gliding like a brick. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Our frequent destinations include breakfast flights to an airport with a 2000-foot runway that ends at the Gulf of Mexico, and a friends private 1600-foot grass strip with trees at one end and a chain link fence at the other. Under these circumstances, the Tri-Pacers lack of any tendency to float is appreciated. I have landed with crosswind components of 20 knots or more. On the ground on windy days one is advised to taxi slowly, especially when turning, and keep the ailerons and elevator properly oriented with respect to the wind.
Rust is always a concern when purchasing an old rag-and-tube airplane, but mine only needed one structural tube replaced (a small diagonal brace in the tail cone, about 14 inches in length). Rust on the lower longerons was superficial, despite the fact that the airplane had been kept outdoors in a humid coastal environment. A big problem area was the 3/8″ steel channel that forms a network of attach points for the aluminum fairings on the underside of the airplane. These Piper water-traps were completely rusted and had to be cut out. Replacements fabricated from new stock were welded in. Another problem was Pipers use of sheet metal screws to attach the fairings to these channels – not a good solution, especially with the screws pointing up. Several years ago I put Rivnuts in the channels, and replaced the sheet metal screws with machine screws. I have not lost a fastener since. The steel door frames were also badly rusted but repairable.
The 12 year old Ceconite (butyrate dope finish) has held up well with only occasional touch ups needed, despite spending four years tied down outdoors in Southern California. The airplane has been hangared the rest of the time since it was recovered. Even though the fabric still passes a Maule test, I plan to recover the airplane in a couple of years in order to get a good look at the frame under the fabric.
The engine had persistent low compression in one cylinder after overhaul which was finally solved (after two quick and dirty tops failed) by boring to .010″ oversize. Other than that, in 500 hours SMOH, I have replaced a leaking front bearing seal, complied with various magneto and carburetor ADs, and replaced the oil cooler mounting bracket and the ignition harness. I have the Petersen Auto Gas STC, but due to the inconvenience of hauling MoGas to the airport and refueling a high-wing airplane from cans, I use 100LL exclusively. I clean the plugs every 50 hours and change the oil (Aeroshell 15W-50) and filter every 25 hours, and have had no problems at all with lead fouling, valve sticking, or any other malady associated with using 100LL in an old (designed for 80 octane) engine. Airframe parts are no problem. Univair has almost everything needed to build a Tri- Pacer from scratch. Anything they dont have can be fabricated. The airplane is that simple. So far, engine parts I have needed have also been readily available, even though Lycoming no longer builds the O-290 series. If availability becomes a problem in the future, I can replace my engine with an O-320 (STC is available) rather than overhaul it again.
I have Univairs sealed lift struts and large diameter forks. These eliminate two ADs calling for time consuming and expensive repetitive inspections and periodic replacement. They also bring great peace of mind. I replaced Pipers aluminum battery and starter cables with copper and converted to a spin-on type oil filter when I overhauled the engine. Alternator and a disk brake conversions are popular, but I am still flying with a 35 amp generator and hydraulic drum brakes. I might switch to an alternator the next time the generator needs service, but I find the drum brakes reliable, effective and easy to maintain. The airplane can be landed without brakes on just about any runway long enough for it to take off from, and in half that with the drum brakes.
The best source of information on modifications and other aspects of owning and flying these airplanes is the Short Wing Piper Club. They will also loan members special tools (such as the all important shock cord tool) and engineering drawings and documents.
Because the airplane and its systems are so simple, I am quite comfortable performing all of the preventive maintenance and most minor repairs (with supervision and sign off by a licensed mechanic). This helps hold down maintenance costs, which could be even lower if not for my somewhat aggressive maintenance philosophy. When a part is needed, I replace it with new, never used serviceable. I will also replace other parts of the same type and similar age as a precautionary measure (e.g., when one ignition lead failed, I replaced the entire harness for both magnetos). My operating costs for the last year have been:
Annual inspection & repairs: $760
Other parts, repairs & maint: $580
Hangar rent $1680
Insurance (Liability and Hull) $690
AvGas (7.8 GPH @ $2/gallon) $1250
Direct cost/hour (80 hrs/year): $62
Engine and Fabric Reserve: $10/hour
Total cost per hour: $ 72
In summary, for about the cost of renting a Skyhawk, I have an airplane that is available whenever I want to use it. I have the confidence that comes with complete knowledge and control of the condition of the airplane, and while 105 knots (less head winds) is not blazing speed, it is fast enough to get me to most destinations faster than an automobile. With two aboard, the cost is comparable to coach air fare, and we are spared the aggravation of hub and spoke airline travel. Of course, travel schedules with the Tri-Pacer must include plenty of slack for weather delays, but thats true of any non-turbod piston single.
For personal transportation combined with recreation, the reliable, affordable Tri- Pacer is hard to beat.
Palm Harbor, Fla.