If you’re shopping the used four-place retrac market no doubt you’ll consider a Comanche. And you should. Sure, the Piper PA-24 series is old-one of Piper’s first metal, non-tailwheel cruisers-and ultimately a competitor to the Beech Bonanza and Cessna 210. With a tapered laminar-flow wing, respectable speed (big-engine models make downright impressive numbers), solid handling and lots of available speed mods, the right Comanche could be one of the most desirable vintage piston singles.
But unless you buy one that’s been particularly well-restored and cared for, getting an old Comanche up to snuff can be a pricey proposition. The good news is that lots of shops can work on them (although as the accident reports show, pick one that knows the model well), parts are available and market prices are steady, yet reasonable.
The Comanche hit the market running in 1958 and in its first production year, Piper offered the 180-HP PA-24-180 (Lycoming O-360) and the 250-HP PA-24-250 (Lycoming O-540). Both models had carbureted engines mated to constant-speed props. Piper kept the Comanche’s electromechanical manual landing gear relatively simple, although it can be a source of woes when not maintained properly.
The 180 and 250 Comanche airframes are the same and there’s an STC to upgrade the 180 to the larger engine-although the 250 boasted a significantly higher gross weight: 2800 pounds versus 2550 pounds for the 180. Piper didn’t distinguish between the 180 and 250 in its serial number records, but total production for 1958 was 336, comparing favorably to the 396 J35 Bonanzas Beech cranked out that same year.
The basic airframe proved successful and wasn’t changed much during its production run. Still, there were some notable improvements over early models. Initially the airplane was equipped with hand brakes, but after 1960 most Comanches were delivered with optional toe brakes.
The original airplane had a 60-gallon fuel system. In 1961, Piper offered an optional 90-gallon system, which gave the Comanche 180 seriously long legs: nine hours, provided it was only loaded with the pilot, one passenger and a little baggage. Range remains one of the Comanche’s strong points and many have been fitted with even more fuel capacity in tip tanks and fuselage tanks to give it impressive endurance. In 1961, the gross weight of the 250 was boosted by 100 pounds. Electric flaps replaced the manual ones in 1962 models. Production of both the 180 and 250 ended after the 1964 model year. The 180, which obviously came second to its bigger brother in load carrying and was not selling as well as the 250, was dropped altogether while the 250 was upgraded to the 260.
The 1965 Comanches are transitionairplanes in that they have the earlier fuselage mated to the later 260-HP engine, albeit with a carburetor. The big engine gives these airplanes excellent climb performance, as much as 1500 FPM. In 1966, the Comanche B, with a fuel-injected 260-HP Lycoming IO-540-D4A5, a boosted gross weight (now 3100 pounds) and two more seats, was added to the lineup, starting with serial number 24-4300.
These and later Comanches can be spotted by the extra cabin window and rear baggage door on the left side, which doubles as an emergency exit. The airframe dimensions are identical, but the internal fuselage structure was changed to accommodate the additional window. The added seats are in the baggage compartment.
The Comanche C was rolled out in 1969, with further refinements, including another gross weight increase and a distinctive “shark nose” cowl starting with serial number 24-4804. The 100-pound rise in gross gave the airplane a hefty 1427-pound useful load. The airplane also gained cowl flaps and an aileron-rudder interconnect.
By the time these models were introduced, the Comanche’s production run was about to end without warning, so this variant is comparatively rare.
Rayjay Turbo and A Beastly Eight-Banger
A turbonormalized version of the Comanche C was offered alongside the normally aspirated model in 1970. Dual turbochargers allow operation at altitudes up to 25,000 feet. The Rajay system essentially had a “second throttle” wastegate control the pilot used to manually set boost at altitude. Piper did the turbo 260 installation the right way by providing check valves and a turbo oil sump. Upon shutdown, this allows the oil to drain from the hot turbos instead of remaining inside them and cooking.
A side benefit of the standard turbo installation is that it’s quieter than the normally aspirated Comanche C. The -N1A5 engine, beefed up to handle the boost pressure and higher temperatures at altitude, is just as robust as the normally aspirated engine; both have a 2000-hour TBO. Also, as with the fuel injection system, earlier airplanes can have a turbo added.
Meanwhile, the ultimate in wretched excess, or perfection, depending on your point of view, has to go to the Comanche 400. It was introduced in 1964 and discontinued only a year and 146 airplanes later. This beast had a normally aspirated, fuel-injected, eight-cylinder Lycoming IO-720-A1A fitted with a three-blade prop. The airframe is essentially identical to the 250, except the 400 uses the Piper Aztec stabilizer.
Here that sucking sound? That’s the 20 to 22 GPH at 75 percent power that engine is consuming. To hold more fuel needed to feed it, there were optional 130-gallon tanks. That engine has an 1800-hour TBO and the current Aircraft Bluebook says the overhaul is around $65,000. But for the lucky 400 owners the cost of admission is worth it-most big-engined Comanche owners say that with speed mods, 200 knots is a way of life.
When compared to a Comanche B, the 400 has a gross weight 500 pounds higher. However, the empty weight is also higher, by 337 pounds. That extra payload has to go for fuel to feed the IO-720, meaning that for flights of more than 300 miles, the 400 actually has less payload available than the 260.
In 1972, there were two single-engine Comanche models still in production-the 260 and turbo 260. Their excellent build quality with total corrosion proofing before assembly and compound curve panels meant that the underlying cost structure was greater than emerging designs from either Piper or its competitors.
Then Tropical Storm Agnes drove the Susquehanna River out of its banks and wiped out Piper’s Lock Haven factory. This gave Piper a reason to pull the plug on the Comanche, choosing to concentrate on the more-popular, less-expensive and higher-profit PA-28 line, including the PA-28R Arrow being produced at the Vero Beach site.
Some years ago, there was some thought given to resurrecting the design at the hands of the legendary and brilliant Roy LoPresti, but like the Swift Fury, it came to nothing. LoPresti did create some interesting and worthwhile aerodynamic mods for the airplane, however. Most Comanche owners can vouch for them.
You might hear some say the Comanche is tough to land smoothly, and that it floats when in the flare, and then drops on. Pilots who have mastered the Comanche tell us you probably won’t make a smooth arrival every single time, but that it’s not much different from some other high-performance singles.
We’re told one way to smoothen those landings is by adding the Knots2U wing root fillets, which eliminate the vortex striking the stabilator when flaps are used. Still, the respected International Comanche Society (ICS) reports the best way to learn to land-and fly-this machine is to get some dual from an expert in the type, not the local flight school unless they have a Comanche expert on hand-and some schools even have Comanches. Based on our time in Comanches, we say fly it like it’s meant to be flown, really, and you’ll wonder what the barroom chatter was all about.
On takeoff there might be a tendency for the Comanche to wheelbarrow in crosswinds when holding the nose down to prevent the airplane from coming off the ground. Consider that the airplane had a tail-low stance when its weight is on the wheels. Some go as far as installing a smaller nosewheel tire and others simply pump up the main gear oleos to reduce the static angle of attack on takeoff.
Once off the ground, inflight handling is responsive and Comanche pilots will attest that it’s a delightful airplane to hand fly. It’s sturdy, which it makes it a good instrument airplane, plus it’s easy to fly in busy traffic patterns since it’s comfortably flown slow or fast. With practice and with the gear down, finals for a precision approach can be flown at 130 knots and, with the gear up, even faster. Slow it down in the last few hundred feet to land short and turn off at the first taxiway.
What the 180-HP Comanche lacks for cruise speed it certainly makes up for with endurance. It’ll burn 8 to 10 GPH and cruise at 140 knots. For comparison, an American
General Tiger with fixed gear goes just as fast and another contemporary retractable, the Mooney M20C or M20E, will outrun the 180. The Comanche 180 can climb at 700 to 900 FPM after using more than 2200 feet to clear a 50-foot obstacle. The 250 and 260 are better performers. Speeds are up around 155 to 160 knots at cruise, burning about 12 GPH. Still, these speeds trail contemporary designs of similar vintage and power, such as the P35 Bonanza.
The extra 10 GPH the big-engined Comanche 400 burns yields only about 10 to 15 extra knots. The 400 will, however, climb like a bat out of hell-every bit of 1600 FPM. Not many vintage singles in its class can match that.
The 180 Comanche’s load-carrying capacity is ample but modest. With a gross weight significantly lower than later Comanches, cabin payload with full standard fuel (60 gallons) is about 660 pounds-think three-person airplane. The 250 can haul 750 pounds with full standard fuel, while the 260s and 400 can lift up to 1000 pounds.
The straight roofline giving theComanche its distinctive crewcut looks also reduces visibility upward, although it’s not as bad as some airplanes and does provide welcome shade in hot climates. The cabin itself is roomy and comfortable with good width, if a bit drafty and noisy, say some owners. Legroom is good for both pilots and passengers, and the cabin is definitely more spacious than the Arrow that followed. The fifth and sixth seats, when available, are suitable only for children or the smallest of adults.
The panel is what one would expect from a circa-1960s airplane, with good space for instruments but early, unrestored models will look dated by modern standards. The same goes for the interior, obviously, although we’ve seen some Comanches decked out with some pretty nice and modern custom leather seating and trim. The early panel layout doesn’t conform to the later standard “T” configuration, so it may be unfamiliar to recently trained pilots or those coming from more modern rides. Those owners will eventually spend big money at the avionics shop for new metal panels and modern avionics, including autopilots and engine displays. There’s plenty of instrument panel real estate to pretty much do whatever you can afford.
There are mixed reviews from owners on maintaining a Comanche. First, we’ve worked on enough Comanches to say that the airplane is perhaps one of the best built all-metal singles of its time. Plus, it can be well-maintained at a lower cost than aircraft of lesser performance due to the widespread use of generic parts. There’s also a good supply of aftermarket and PMA’d parts for commonly needed items. However, while the airplane isn’t intrinsically difficult to service, understand and accept that this is an old aircraft-even the newest Comanche is nearly 50 years of age.
Moreover, the aircraft are relatively complex-certainly when compared to, for example, a Cessna 182-so don’t assume it will be as cheap to maintain. However, with care (and that’s important), costs will be more than manageable and once a system or component is properly repaired, it can be expected to stay that way for a while. The trick-as it is with any older aircraft-is finding a shop or technician experienced in the type. If you find the right person and keep them happy, you’ll be happy.
The landing gear on the Comanche gets our attention. No, it’s not complicated but a review of service difficulty reports (and the NTSB accident reports) indicates it’s a top sore spot, along with general airframe corrosion and engine/ prop issues. Those familiar with the Comanche maintain major causes of gear-system problems are poor maintenance or rigging by mechanics unfamiliar with it. Pilots who don’t understand the undercarriage and its various procedures, particularly the emergency extension procedure, also are a source of problems. We know of one flight school that had a Comanche on its flight line and it required renters to perform gear extensions and retractions with the airplane on jack stands. Kudos to them-we think every retrac pilot should witness a gear swing on the appropriate model.
The ICS is extremely resourceful, with a list of qualified instructors and shops familiar with the airplane. Aftermarket gear warning systems are also a good investment to supplement the system originally installed. Recurring ADs on any aircraft can run up the cost of operation, and Comanches are no different. One on the landing gear (AD 77-13-21) mandates replacement of landing gear bungees every 500 hours or three years to prevent landing gear collapse after manual extension. There’s also an AD on the vertical fin attachment (AD 75-12-06). A prop inspection (AD 2005-18-12) is the most oft-complained about, costing nearly $1000 every 500 hours or five years. Also, a different prop AD (AD 97- 18-02) can prove costly for 250/260 owners. As one result, many have opted to replace their old Hartzells for new two- or three-blade Hartzell or McCauley propellers, which terminates the AD. Apart from the aforementioned ADs, Comanches are unremarkable; most other ADs are minor and/or shotgun directives that apply to many airplanes.
No Shortage of Mods or Clubs
There are so many mods available for the Comanche line that probably no two aircraft are alike today. You can modify its engine, its look, its handling, its panel and its features. Check a copy of the Comanche Flyer magazine or the ICS website www.comancheflyers.com for examples. For instance, it’s possible to retrofit (via STC) the Lycoming O-540 engine into a Comanche 180 of 1960 or later vintage; there’s at least one published report of this being done on an FAA Form 337, although we don’t know of any shops offering the mod without doing the full-up STC. Aside from the engine and prop, it involves the engine mounts, some baffling, controls and the exhaust system. The result is essentially a Comanche 250 with a low gross weight. Also, the carbureted O-540 found in the Comanche 250 may be upgraded to fuel injection.
Whelen Aerospace technologies (formerly LoPresti Aviation) is now at www.flywat.com and offers the $499 Slipper Fairing mod. It mounts just aft of the nosewheel well and helps the existing cooling air turn parallel to the belly of the airplane in a more efficient pattern, yielding a 3-MPH speed gain.
The familiar Wholey Cowl (which is no longer available for Comanche singles) eliminates the Slipper mod and boosts the top speed by a whopping 15 MPH. There’s also the $289 Hubba Hubba wheel cap, with an access door for the tire’s air valve. We like that it keeps grime and dirt away from wheel assembly. Cowlings are also offered by Aviation Performance
Products (www.aviationperformanceproducts.com), which claims that its Eagle XP cowling increases speed, economy and improves maintenance access. The company also offers a stainless steel dual exhaust system. These mods are available for all Comanches except the 400.
There’s also Knots2U (www.knots2u.net, 262-763-5100) that has, in addition to the wing fillet mod, a dorsal fin kit, speedbrakes and a variety of other mods for Comanches. For sure, the Comanche’s list of mods, modifiers and parts resources is long and best accessed from involvement with the ICS and its members and publications.
Speaking of ICS, owners tell us the group is an exceptionally good resource for Comanche owners. It offers a magazine as well as other resources and can be reached at 888-300-0082 or via the website at www.comancheflyers.com. The ICS also offers a technical support service when you and your mechanic need someone to talk to. There’s also the Delphi Airworthy Comanche Forum (https://forums.delphiforums.com/Comanches), and we spotted tons of useful threads on all things Comanche-from avionics to lighting to service parts. For training info, try www.comanchetraining.com.
Comanche Crashes: Fuel, Ldg Gear
Ask someone about the Piper Comanche series and you’re likely to get a comment along the lines of “with that laminar-flow wing and low ground clearance, it’s a mutha to land-you float and float in ground effect, then it pays off and wham! you’re down.”
We kept that in mind as we reviewed the 100 most recent Comanche accidents. We did not find evidence that the Comanche has peculiar landing characteristics-there were only six hard landing events, well below what we would expect for an airplane that is truly difficult to land. There were eight runway loss of control incidents, low, we think-and one of them involved a student pilot.
To round out the landing accidents, only one pilot couldn’t get stopped on the available runway-well below what we expect to see in our accident reviews. Seven approached so low that they hit an obstruction or impacted the ground short of the runway. That number is high, and we don’t have a hypothesis to explain it, although we saw that three were at night and one of those hit power lines more than two miles short of the runway.
While we were pleased to find that the old wives’ tales regarding Comanche landings were untrue, we were concerned by the number of landing gear-related incidents. Twelve pilots simply forgot to extend the Firestones before ground contact. That’s more than twice the rate we expect to see on retracts-and is cause for concern for a potential buyer. Tied with 12 events in which the pilot could not extend the gear due to maintenance issues, it is our opinion that a potential Comanche buyer put attention to the landing gear system high on his or her checklist for ownership.
Depending on the model and mods, it seems like a Comanche can have a never-ending supply of fuel tanks. With the primitive indicating systems associated with many of the airplanes in the field, too often a pilot is faced with the dilemma, “Now where did I put that fuel?”
There were 17 accidents involving pilots either running completely out of fuel or running a tank dry and not then selecting a tank containing fuel and getting a restart in the time remaining in flight. We think at least two of those pilots did change to a tank with fuel, but didn’t wait long enough for it to fill the empty fuel lines between the selector and the engine before concluding that the new tank was dry as well and switching into another empty tank (or the original tank).
There were eight LOC events in IMC or dark night conditions. Four of those involved inflight breakups-the clean Comanche airframe will smoke through Vne in short order once the nose is down or in a diving spiral.
Finally, we felt the pain of the pilot who flew to a neighboring airport for fuel, only to find the tanks locked. Not bothering with a preflight briefing, he took off and flew to his Plan B airport, where he learned, on Unicom, that it was closed. He headed back to home plate and ran the airplane dry on downwind. There would have been a happy ending, but he stalled the airplane on short final, over the runway, and stuck a wingtip into the ground.
I have over 30 years’ experience owning, flying, maintaining and modifying aircraft, including Piper Comanches. The old boys that I learned to fly with would say that if you can shut the door on whatever you got into a Comanche, it would fly away without a problem. I would prove that time and again in my Comanche 250.
In flight, the Comanche is smooth, stable and tight, with a climb rate that is impressive and difficult to prevent. As for range, even an old 250 model with 60 gallons of fuel will generally go from Western Massachusetts to North Carolina in 3.5 hours with one hour of fuel remaining. If you want to coax Comanche 260 speeds from a 250 model, try using the 260’s power settings. The engines are identical, but with a different propeller redline.
The AD list is pretty long, but most of the items are one-time fixes, followed by future inspection. I’ve found that many aircraft are compliant. The number of available aftermarket mods for the plane is extensive; some are overpriced and pointless in my view, while othersare fairly cheap and offer great results. Products from Knots2U andWebco are respected.
The mods that can offer the most speed include relocating the brakes to the inside of the gear forks, gap seals, wheel well slippers and wingroot fairings, both front and rear. Since it’s important that the flight controls are properly rigged (while ensuring the landing gear and landing gear doors are retracted fully and fit flush) this should be the first step before any aftermarket mods are installed. I’ve found that landing gear bungees generally need replacement at every annual inspection.
After years of distance-traveling in my airplane (to places I never would have visited if it weren’t for my Comanche), I believe a full-featured autopilot is perhaps the most useful avionics system you can buy.
The Comanche market has two price points, really. Consider that you can buy a cream puff in the $125,000 to $150,000 range, and an airplane that needs serious work for $19,000. Either way, a realistic budget should be around $100,000. If you wanted to start out with a cheaper airframe, buy a 180-HP model and do a 260-HP conversion with fuel injection. In my opinion, there is no reason to own a 180 Comanche unless you are consumed with fuel range and can tolerate the vibration from the engine being so far out from the firewall. I’ve seen some IAs do the six-cylinder engine conversion and sign it off with a logbook entry.
Speaking of logs, before buying, examine the logbooks for entries that indicate the airframe has a history of good landing gear system maintenance and repair. With the plane on jacks, swing the gear and look for loose fits and bushings. All of the fuel bladders should be replaced with new ones. If not, the selling price should be adjusted to reflect a cost of $1500 per bladder. While Comanche engines are generally dependable, beware of top-end overhauls that were accomplished without replacing the cylinders with new ones.
While many Comanches sport three-blade propellers, some could have old clamp-style propellers.
A prop can cost $15,000-plus.
Cabin and cowling door repairs are often neglected, so be sure to inspect them for shoddy repairs and improper cabin door seals. A competent tech can generally rig a cabin door in an afternoon. Even heeding all of my advice, expect to spend money to acquire and keep an aging Comanche.
I’ve owned my 1961 PA24-250 N7754P for six years, and the airframe has 2200 hours total and the engine has 980 hours since factory reman. It’s a true traveling airplane and I flight plan for 157 knots when at full throttle. The Comanches have a “speed wing” so it’s not a comfortable ride in moderate or greater turbulence, so slowing it down softens the bumps. I flight plan for 13.5 GPH, but flying from 9500 to 11,500 feet will reduce the fuel flow to around 12 GPH. My engine is carbureted.
The Comanche is gentle when it comes to stalls and is stable for flying instruments. It tends to be nose-heavy on landing so I use a lot of nose-up trim for an easier flare. My hardest transition in flying the Comanche was planning enough time to slow it up to the gear extension speed of 150 MPH and managing four fuel tanks (90 gallons total) and an electric fuel pump (on and off for landing and takeoffs). Most of my flight time is in single-engine Cessnas.
Insurance runs about $1600 per year. It went up in January when the panel upgrade was completed. The installation included dual Garmin G5 digital flight instruments, a PMA450 audio system, Garmin GTN 650 WAAS/GPS navigator and a GNC 255A VHF radio. The plane is ADS-B Out compliant with a Stratus transponder installed in 2016. Also installed was a new glare- shield and a metal panel.
Insurance will vary with a pilot’s experience. I hold commercial, instrument and multi-engine ratings, have 2300 hours total time with 500-plus hours of complex time, plus I’ve logged about 200 hours in my Comanche.
The plane has not been a drain maintenance wise. Basic annual inspections are done at a full-service FBO and run about $1400 when owner assisted. The only major issues have been a nosegear door repair and re-rigging the trim cable.
The International Comanche Society has been an invaluable resource for me. It has excellent technical advisors and sponsors a Comanche pilot proficiency school covering major systems and is complete with an optional checkride, which will be a flight review. I’ve taken the course twice. Keep it on the centerline!