I came to own piper(Papa), a 1960 PA-24 in a roundabout way. I had been screening ads in Trade-A-Plane and on the Internet for another airplane. I had studied Mooney, Beech and Cessna options but the airplanes that fit my needs were either quirky in some way or beyond my means.
I had previously owned a 1947 Piper PA 12. (Editor’s Note: For the story of Steve’s PA-12 see “My First Airplane, What Mike Taught Me About Flying”) June 2011, Piper Flyer) It was a very simple airplane and didn't burn much fuel but I wanted more speed. I had also owned a 1966 Cessna 182J. It was very comfortable and capable but burned a lot of fuel, especially since I almost always flew by myself.
My ideal airplane would be well-mannered, have a little speed and be easy to maintain—to me that meant a tried and true engine and prop combo, a reliable parts source and a good owner's club. A neighbor had been flying Papa back and forth to his Los Angeles job while his C-210 was being upgraded. When he got his 210 back he asked me if I wanted to buy her.
As I learned more about Piper's Comanche I realized that Papa would fit many of my wants. The "baby" Comanche is an airplane with a (bullet-proof) 180 hp Lycoming four-cylinder engine. The last owner had replaced the older design Hartzell HC-92 series propeller with a new-design compact hub Hartzell (HC-C2YR) prop a couple of years before—another plus!
Papa flew a little faster than my C-182 (135 to 140 knots) but burned 25 percent less fuel. Webco Aircraft (www.webcoaircraft.com) in Newton, Kansas more than filled the bill in my requirement for parts help, and the International Comanche Society (www.comancheflyer.com) had a dedicated staff of volunteers and a very robust cadre of maintenance forum contributors.
In addition the Lycoming could successfully burn future fuels (94 octane unleaded) with little or no modification. The engine only had 600 hours since a first-run field major overhaul, and the estimated airframe time was less than 2,500 hours. I say estimated because there was a blister on Papa's history—the logbooks before 1999 had been lost.
I was able to track down the FBO in Albuquerque (KABQ) that had supervised the maintenance during years past. They were able to supply some ballpark times so I started re-constructing the maintenance history. I also obtained a copy of the airplane records from the airplane registry division of the FAA (http://aircraft.faa.gov/e.gov/ND/airrecordsND.asp) which helped me flesh out the maintenance and ownership history.
The mechanic of the Albuquerque FBO told me that the logs had been held by an unscrupulous dealer in an attempt to leverage a rock bottom price from the owner's widow after his death. She didn't go for the deal so Papa sat on the ramp at ABQ before being purchased by a friend of my neighbor. All my attempts to track down the missing logs have failed. This glitch reduced the value of the airplane but I negotiated a purchase price that took this into account.
I purchased Papa in March of 2004 and logged 60 hours before I started in on a comprehensive inspection. My goal was to bring all the maintenance up to date, to upgrade the instrument panel from the scattershot layout that was the norm in 1960 to today's "sacred six" layout, and upgrade the avionics to permit GPS-guided light IFR flying.
The upgrade took from the end of 2004 completely through 2005 and until September of 2006. There was a lot of work but I did interrupt the upgrade in 2005 to work as the project manager for the AOPA Commander Countdown Sweepstakes.
After logging over 120 hours in the AOPA Commander criss-crossing the country delivering the airplane to the long list of generous vendors that contributed the latest products and hundreds of labor hours to the sweepstakes, I was glad to be able to get back to work finishing up my airplane upgrade.
To my delight I found that my "baby" Comanche does everything—climbs, has a much higher service ceiling, goes a little faster, and handles better than a Commander 112 on 20 less horsepower.
The Big Refurb
During the big refurb I changed the instrument layout in the floating instrument panel, installed all new comm antennas and installed the following avionics along the left side of the fixed panel using the Radio Rax (www.radiorax.com) mounting system: Bendix King KLN-94 GPS, King KX 155 Nav/comm, Collins VIR 351 Nav, Collins VHF 251 comm, Mid Continent MD 41-524 mode indicator, and King KMA 24 audio panel.
Other instruments installed included a Datron 811B digital clock/Timer, a Garmin GI 106A indicator, a JPI 700 engine monitor with fuel flow, a PS Engineering PM 1000 II intercom and a King KT 76A transponder.
I also replaced the left fuel bladder with a new one from Aero-Tech Services (www.aerotechservicesinc.com).
I sent both fuel quantity senders to Paul Malkasian at www.fuelsenders.com for rebuild and married those to an Aerospace Logic (www.aerospacelogic.com) fuel quantity instrument. I was able to replace the original oil pressure, oil temperature, fuel pressure and ammeter gauges—usually referred to as primary gauges—with new digital gauging from Aerospace Logic in accordance with its STC.
To top off the panel I put in a Horizon digital tach, a SIRS NV2c-2400 compass mounted atop a Dennis Ashby glare shield and provided instrument lighting by installing an Aero Enhancements Ultravision system that I mounted to the glare shield.
I also installed the Bogert copper cable kit, a Lamar starter, Leonard Spall shoulder harnesses, a Zeftronics generator voltage regulator, Micro Dynamics vortex generators and the Aviation Performance stainless Steel exhaust system.
Late in 2007 I removed the horizontal stabilizer assembly and sent it to Webco to be inspected in accordance with Piper Service Bulletin 1160 and repaired as needed. Bearings were replaced, the torque tube was inspected for internal corrosion, passed that exam and was corrosion proofed. The stabilator horn was inspected for cracks by eddy current. No cracks were found so I re-installed the stabilator with all new hardware. Then Papa and I flew and flew. I did a few annuals along the way—I hold A&P and IA tickets—but haven't had to do much. Papa has purred and purred since the big refurb.
In late 2007 I took all four cylinders down to a local engine builder because, although compressions were still in the mid 70s, the engine oil was getting as black as tar very quickly after each oil change. I replaced one cylinder due to a cracked exhaust port. We installed a lot of new parts and put everything back together. I also sent the magnetos to Cliff Orcutt at www.aircraftmagnetoservice.net for 500 hour inspections. The last step was replacement of the Garmin wet vacuum pump with an overhauled pump and the installation of a set of new Teflon engine hoses.
I was finally ready to log lots of hours—or so I thought.
Unfortunately my plans were pushed off track when I was downsized out of my full time employment in July 2008, and then fell and broke my right arm six weeks later. So after flying 170 hours since the rebuild Papa and I have had to be content with keeping the engine dried out and well-lubed on $100 hamburger flights to Harris Ranch (3O8) from my home near KPRB. Papa and I also fly up to visit my sister's family—1 hour 15 minute flight vs. 3 hour 45 minute drive—on a regular basis.
I have trotted out this fly vs. drive example over and over when people ask how fast Papa flies. My reply is always, "Fast enough that I can take off at 8:00 a.m. be at my sister's in time for a late breakfast, visit her and her family for seven hours and then return home for dinner at 7:00 p.m. and a good night's sleep in my own bed. When I drive that same seven hour visit takes an overnight stay and over seven hours of driving." My point is that airplanes save time, the one thing that money can't buy.
To preserve the engine and slow the formation of rust on critical parts such as the camshaft and lifters I've been changing the oil every four months (regardless of the hours flown) and adding the prescribed portion of Camguard at every oil change. The latest upgrade was the installation of rebuilt carburetor from MSA carburetors (www.msacarbs.com). I had visited this company and was very impressed with the quality of their work. This change was well worth the money. CHTs are lower during climb and the engine just runs better.
The longest cross country (7.6 hours each way) so far was in September 2007 when Papa and I flew down to Imperial County airport (N39) before crossing the Mexican border and heading southeast across the northern edge of the Gulf of California. We landed at Cuidad Obregon (MMCN) 3.7 hours later to clear Mexican customs before the short hop to Alamos (MM-45) and the fantastic Hacienda de los Santos resort (www.haciendadelossantos.com). We experienced absolutely no problem in dealing with the border crossing or with customs. I had joined the Baja Bush Pilots (www.bajabushpilots.com) for supplemental information about flying in Mexico.
The Hacienda resort is so unique and so well run that just one visit provided an experience my wife and I still talk about. Owners Jim and Nancy Swickard host two week-long Club de Pilots de México events each year and go out of their way to welcome and take care of their fly-in guests. You can read my write up about this resort at www.aopa.org/members/files/pilot/2009/march/postcards0903.html
Future Papa projects include new side windows, and perhaps one day I'll replace the "40 foot" paint job and the Artex interior. I enjoy working on Papa almost as much as I do flying him. The "baby" Comanche fits my flying needs (and wants) better than the other airplanes I've owned and I'm glad that I've done my part to keep another General Aviation airplane, my beloved "baby" Comanche flying.
Steve Ells has been an A&P/IA for 38 years and is a commercial pilot with Instrument and Multi-Engine ratings. Ells also loves utility and bush-style airplanes and operations. He’s a former tech rep and editor for Cessna Pilots Association and served as Associate Editor for AOPA Pilot until 2008. Ells is the owner of Ells Aviation (www.EllsAviation.com) and the proud owner of a 1960 Piper Comanche. He lives in Paso Robles, Calif. with his wife Audrey. Send questions and comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.