A “new-from-the-wheels-up” Premier Edition Dakota from Premier Aircraft Sales is a leading example of Piper’s legendary PA-28 series.
Like many of you, I learned to fly in what is now described in Piper parlance as a high-wing “Wichita Spam can.” Cessna’s 150, 172, 182, 206, 210 and 336/337—I worked my way up through them all. I thought high-wings were the way to go.
Then in 1983 I got introduced to a brand-new Piper PA-28-236 Dakota. This, to me, was a game changer. Sure, the 182 was and is a wonderful airplane, but the 235 hp Dakota was all that and a bag of chips. In particular, the Dakota can carry a bigger load than the 182s of that era and, of greater significance to me, I think it looks cooler than the Skylane.
That combination of good looks and good performance are two of the many reasons why Fort Lauderdale-based Premier Aircraft Sales selected the venerable Dakota to create what many would call a better-than-new option for today’s pre-owned aircraft buyer.
“What we chose to do was to take a very good Piper product and update it to today’s standards,” explained Fred Ahles, president and founder of Premier Aircraft Sales, Inc. “I was looking for a project and then I was approached by Bill Nutt about creating a next-to-new Dakota for his son and the project took off from there.”
“There is no good used equivalent for the Dakota, and you can’t buy a new equivalent at close to the price that we can refurbish one for,” he explained. “I think a comparably-equipped new Archer sells for around $500,000 today.”
“Basically, we are selling our Premier Edition Dakotas for between $260,000 and $325,000 depending on the avionics,” Ahles added.
“That’s a lot to pay for a 37-year-old airplane, but it’s a heck of a lot less than buying a new Piper Archer. And the Premier Edition Dakota is faster and can carry more. All in all, we—and our customers—think it’s a very good value.”
While Premier doesn’t promote the Premier Edition Dakota as a next-to-new airplane, that’s essentially what it is. Premier takes the elements of a typical refurb project and kicks it up quite a few notches.
First comes the “mother of all annuals”
As Barry Rutheiser, Premier’s sales manager explained it, when the company locates a low-time candidate for the Premier Edition makeover, the engine is removed and the airframe is subjected to what he describes as “the first really good annual inspection any of these airplanes have had in at least 10 years.”
“We follow the Piper factory recommended guide and do everything in the book,” Rutheiser said. “We’ve found that typically these older airplanes have been in the hands of owners and mechanics who were doing the minimum to pass FAA muster every year. But that’s not what a Premier Edition buyer wants to have.”
“Our annuals have been running between $20,000 and $30,000 on these airframes—and that doesn’t include the engine,” Rutheiser explained. “That’s bringing everything up-to-date, including replacing every piece of cracked plastic and fixing all of the fiberglass components to like-new.”
The Premier annual also includes a super-detailed inspection by the experienced Piper technicians at Premier Aircraft Services, the company’s in-house MRO.
“We see all kinds of age-related issues in the airframe, which all get addressed by the shop,” Rutheiser said. “Nothing is left unfixed. It’s really the mother of all annuals.”
One of the items that Premier addresses is the long-standing Piper Service Bulletin 1006 that details a corrosion inspection of the main spar behind fuel tanks. “The inspection is recommended to be done every seven years, so that’s what we do,” Ahles said.
“You may not have a visible fuel leak, but we find seepage in the little lines at the back of the tanks that feed the fuel system. It’s small, but over time it can build up and cause corrosion on the wing spar. So, of course, we inspect the spars for any signs of damage.”
“When we have the fuel tanks out, we clean and inspect it all. We have yet to find one that doesn’t have some type of leak,” he said. “These are simple little eight-dollar rubber hoses that cost around $2,200 to change—but to do [the job] right, it has to be done.”
“Who wants to buy an airplane with a leaking fuel line? Not me,” Ahles said. “And I won’t sell one, either.”
After the airframe is inspected tip-to-tail and repairs are made, the control cables are all recalibrated to factory-new specifications and new stainless steel hardware is installed.
As mentioned earlier, when the airframe begins its annual, the engine is removed and sent to Certified Engines Unlimited, Inc. at North Perry Airport (KHWO) in Hollywood, Florida.
“Certified Engines does a complete overhaul of the Dakota’s 235 hp Lycoming O-540, including new factory cylinders,” Rutheiser said. “It’s a first-rate overhaul.”
It’s exhaust-ing work…
“Another thing I’ve always liked about the Dakota is the way the exhaust pipes come down on the side of the lower cowling. It’s pretty cool,” Ahles said. “But when you open the cowl and look inside these older airplanes, the exhaust looks like a patchwork quilt—there are so many patches welded on. It’s pretty ugly.”
“That’s not in keeping with the Premier Edition concept, so we take all that off and have a local sheet metal fabricator remake all those components,” he said. “When it’s all assembled and put back on the engine, inside the freshly-painted cowling and firewall, it just looks brand-new.”
Rutheiser pointed out to me that Premier is currently doing its first Premier Edition transformation on a Turbo Dakota. And while it’s exactly the same ground-up process, there is one big difference: they replace the original fixed wastegate turbocharger with a new generation Merlyn variable wastegate unit.
“The Merlyn will literally transform the engine’s operation,” he said. “I put one on my airplane, and engine management is now so much easier—and you get way better performance. In the case of the Turbo Dakota, we are literally improving on Piper’s original design.”
Along with all the new goodies under the cowling, Premier Edition Dakota buyers also have the option of upgrading to a new Hartzell three-bladed propeller, which gives the airplane greater climb and cruise performance as well as a quieter cabin.
New airplane smell comes standard
Once all the mechanicals are brought up to factory specifications—Ahles said the team turns its attention on the interior, starting with totally refurbishing the seats. “We have a really good interior shop nearby and they take the original seats and strip them down to the bare frames. This is not a low-cost operation—it’s first class stuff,” he said.
The seat frames are tightened up and repainted. Then the shop uses the best seat foam on the market to reshape the seat bottoms and backs.
“These are much more comfortable than what Piper originally installed,” Ahles explained. “We aim to make them as good as what you find in the new Meridian. The goal is to create seats that are really comfortable.”
“Depending on what the customer wants, the seats are covered in either a high-quality vinyl or leather—and all the owners so far have opted for leather,” Ahles added. “A couple of them have also wanted to go with wool carpeting. It’s very nice.”
When it comes to the avionics package, Ahles said each owner specs out the panel to their liking. Premier offers everything from a basic six-pack of steam gauges to a next generation-ready glass panel built around Garmin’s new G500 TXi display and GTN 750 touchscreen GPS units. Every Premier Edition Dakota leaves the shop fully ADS-B Out compliant.
While every Premier Edition Dakota the company has completed to date is a custom completion, Rutheiser said that they do start with one of three basic configurations depending on cost.
“Everyone wants a starting point,” he explained. “We offer a Premier Silver, Gold and Platinum—but I really try not to refer to them too much, because each owner has their own vision of what they want their Dakota to be.”
All dressed up and someplace to go
Obviously, you can’t do all this work on the airframe, engine, cabin and avionics and just rattle-can on any old paint job.
“We have all the paint work done by Ormond Beach Aviation in Ormond Beach, Florida,” Rutheiser said. “They do a great job. Colors are basically up to the individual owners, but we emulate the paint scheme found on the current PA-28s to ensure consistency.”
“After arriving at Ormond Beach, the airplane is stripped to bare metal and acid washed. All of the details—around the window surrounds, door edges, access panels—everything is prepped and painted to the highest quality,” he said. “Then it all gets clear-coated to ensure durability.”
“I’d dare say that the final finish on these airplanes is equal or better to anything that Piper turns out of the factory today,” Ahles said. “That’s not a knock on the factory—they do very good paint jobs in Vero Beach—ours are just that good.”
“And 20 years from now, Premier Edition airplanes will still look terrific.”
The devil is in the details
While investing nearly 900 man-hours totally refurbishing the airframe, engine, interior, avionics and paint down to the tiniest detail would be enough for most folks, it’s not quite enough for the folks at Premier. They want the Premier Edition Dakota program to offer benefits beyond what you’d expect
So Ahles’ team has taken their program further and provided buyers with the option to get great financing and a “power-by-the-hour” engine maintenance program. “The team at Scope Aircraft Leasing has agreed to finance these aircraft at the completed cost, and that’s a really big deal,” Ahles explained.
“Most times, when you take a nearly 40-year-old airplane and upgrade it at the cost of a couple hundred grand, the finished price is a lot higher than the bluebook value—and that can make financing really hard to get.”
“Scope has seen what we are doing and offers, with 20 percent down, full financing on the rest of the purchase price,” he said. “That’s really helped the program get going. If you already own your Dakota, Scope offers attractive financing on the cost of the Premier Edition upgrade.”
With regard to the piston engine maintenance program, Ahles explained that while every Premier Edition Dakota is covered by a nine-month warranty from Certified Engines Unlimited, Premier has worked out an attractive program with PistonPower™ to provide an optional hourly cost maintenance program on the engines.
“It’s like a power-by-the-hour program you find on turbine engines, but it’s only for piston engines,” Ahles said. “They offer a menu of coverage options. For example, we offer a three-year program under PistonPower that covers the cost of any repairs to the engine up to a major overhaul. Owners can also sign up for a more extensive program that covers that cost when it comes around.” (See the sidebar on Page 47 for details. —Ed.)
“In addition, aircraft enrolled in a PistonPower program will also get a higher residual value from the Aircraft Bluebook, Vref and many banks,” he said. “That’s a double benefit for the owner.”
Last but not least, as part of the Premier Edition Dakota program, Premier’s Chief Pilot Corbin Hallaran gives each owner a thorough checkout in his or her airplane as part of the delivery process.
“Corbin is not only a terrific pilot, but a terrific instructor as well—the best in the business,” Rutheiser said. “He does a very detailed walkaround with each owner and then gives them as much dual instruction as he feels they need before he will turn them loose with the airplane. It’s all about safety. If both the new owner and Corbin are not comfortable with the way they handle the airplane, they don’t leave here.”
You can make any Dakota a Premier Edition Dakota
While Premier Aircraft Sales started the Premier Edition Dakota program to stimulate sales of legacy Dakotas, Ahles said that if you’re lucky enough to already own one of these exceptionally capable airplanes, Premier is ready to work with you to upgrade it to your specifications.
“Should an owner bring us their Dakota, we can do any or all of our upgrades on their aircraft,” he said. “It’s totally up to the owner’s wants and wishes.”
As for the price, that’s based on what you want done. “I’d say it’s best to start with one of our detailed annuals and go from there,” he said. “That way, the owner will know what condition the aircraft is really in and determine their upgrade path.”
Bill Nutt “premiered” the Premier Edition Dakota
William “Bill” Nutt is the kind of guy you’d like to have in the next hangar over. He’s owned a lot of different kinds of airplanes over the years, and most recently he has had a Piper Archer, V-tail Bonanza, F33A Bonanza, T-34, a Baron, Piper Meridian and Piper Matrix. But the story behind why he went looking for what would ultimately become the Premier Edition Dakota revolves around his son, Alexander.
“My son is in medical residency in Billings, Montana and I wanted him to have an airplane that was a solid instrument platform and would also give him the performance to handle the high altitudes,” Nutt explained. “I’ve always been a huge fan of the Dakota so I started looking for a really nice low-time model for him.”
“I talked to Fred (Ahles) at Premier about the project and he thought it was a great idea. He shared my vision of making a Dakota better than Piper would today,” he said. “It’s one thing to refurbish an airplane for me, but when it’s for my son, it had to be perfect in every respect.”
And according to Nutt, that’s just how N43AN (for “Alexander Nutt”)—the first Premier Edition Dakota—turned out. Nutt found the ideal subject Dakota: a 1980 model in Georgia that was in excellent condition but had reached TBO so the owner wanted to sell.
“This was a great airplane to begin with,” Nutt explained. “The current owner had it for over 20 years and had taken excellent care of it. Premier sent their mechanic to do the pre-buy and then they flew it back to Fort Lauderdale Executive (KFXE) to begin the upgrade.”
“One thing I insisted on was to paint the new panel in light beige, because I think it makes the instrument scan easier,” Nutt said. “We painted it like a new factory Archer DX and it really looks great. It turned out exactly like I wanted.”
Nutt spends his winters living at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida and currently keeps the Dakota at the club’s private airport, 07FA.
“The Dakota is the perfect airplane for having fun flying,” he said. “People think it’s just an Archer with a bigger engine, but it’s not. It’s a much stronger, more robust airframe.”
“I can get in it alone and get an honest 135 knots all day,” Nutt continued. “I recently did something I’d never done before. I took off from Ocean Reef and headed to Billings. It took me two-and-a-half days and was a lot of fun. With the new engine, smoother Hartzell propeller and modern avionics, it was really an enjoyable trip.”
“I’ll have another...”
Nutt said he’s having so much fun with the nimble Dakota, he doesn’t want to let it go—so he bought another one and Premier is doing its Premier Edition magic on this one, too.
“This one will have the complete Garmin glass avionics panel including the new Garmin autopilot,” he said. “Plus, I’m having the engine upgraded to 250 hp. That will make it even better suited for flying in and out of the grass strip we have at one of our ranches in Montana.”
“The Premier Edition Dakota lets me really enjoy flying,” he said. “Last week I made three great trips around South Florida: I took my one son and his girlfriend to Key West to see friends. I flew my other son and his wife to Naples and then I flew my daughter and her two boys to Palm Beach for the day.”
“The Dakota is just that kind of airplane,” he said. “And the Premier Edition Dakota is the best version yet of a wonderfully fun-to-fly airplane.”
Dale Smith has been an aviation journalist for 30 years. When he’s not writing aviation articles, Smith does commission aircraft illustrations specializing in seaplanes and flying boats. Smith has been a certificated pilot since 1974 and has flown 35 different types of aircraft. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.