Picks vary based on mission and budget, yet almost every Piper has a niche.
By Kristin Winter
With photos by Jim Lawrence
Almost all airplanes are good for traveling, when compared to cars. In the past, I regularly used a Tomahawk for 300 nm trips, though it wouldn’t be my first choice for a traveling aircraft.
As you can guess, there is no one best traveling aircraft. It depends on how far you need to go and how much you need to carry. The options are also informed by your budget. Here I discuss some of the best options to cover several different missions for personal pleasure travel.
For a budget weekend traveling machine that is also economical for local flights or training, my pick would be an Archer II. I favor the 1978 and 1979 models. Starting with the 1978 model, the streamlined wheel pants boosted the speed to nearly 130 ktas.
To me, those two model years were the sweet spot for the 180 hp version of the fixed-gear Cherokee. After 1979, Piper started to add deluxe interiors and other amenities that eroded the carrying capacity.
Earlier versions may haul more, but are slower. All of the 180 hp PA-28s are good, stable aircraft and make good instrument aircraft as well.
All of the PA-28-180/181 aircraft are great airplanes. Some have been modified with aerodynamic enhancements that allow these older Archers to rival the speed of the Archer IIs with the factory speed wheel pants.
Range for the Archer II is somewhat modest even with full tanks. A 500 to 550 nm flight with an hour reserve allows 650 to 700 pounds of payload. This makes the Archer II good for weekend jaunts for a family of four, or three adults.
The cost of operation with the reasonably bulletproof O-360 Lycoming engine, fixed gear, and fixed pitch prop makes an Archer II quite economical. This is also an aircraft that can be purchased to learn in as it makes an excellent trainer as well.
For a little more range, a little more speed, and a fair bit more carrying capacity, the Piper Dakota (PA-28-236) is a very popular aircraft, as attested to by the strong demand for them.
The Dakota will typically lift 1,200 to 1,250 pounds of fuel and payload. This makes it a true four-place aircraft.
The 72 gallons of usable fuel gives the Dakota a range of 600 to 700 nm, and its 235 hp O-540-J3A5D engine with a Hartzell constant speed prop delivers a cruise speed slightly in excess of 140 ktas.
If there is a downside to the Dakota, it is its popularity. It’s not uncommon to see nice ones for sale for much more than $100,000. That is at least 30 percent more than the Archer II. The Dakota is also more expensive to maintain with the constant speed prop and a six-cylinder engine that costs more to overhaul. The Dakota can burn up to 14 gph, while the Archer II burns about 10 gph at most.
The distance runners
For the family of four or less that wants to use the aircraft for longer trips, such as from New England to the Gulf Coast or down to Disney World, a faster aircraft with longer range better fits the bill.
Generally, non-aviation enthusiasts, and even some veteran flyers, don’t want to spend more than three to 3.5 hours in a small aircraft at one time. This fact limits the effective range to about six to seven hours of flying in a day, punctuated by a fuel and lunch stop. If your vacation trips are going to cover 1,000 nm or more, then an Archer or Dakota will be hard-pressed to make that journey in two legs.
For the longer trips where huge load is not critical, a Turbo Arrow III fits the bill nicely. It has the altitude capability to get up where the air is smooth and cool and to take advantage of the increased true airspeed. The Turbo Arrow III is also an easy aircraft to maintain, as it is a PA-28 to the bone. Its TSIO-360-F or -FB Continental engine is not as robust as the Lycoming, but it is a very smooth-running engine.
There is one other option that has passionate adherents. The Comanche will rival the performance of the Turbo Arrow into the low teens, will haul a bit more, and is a gorgeous flying airplane. Comanches are also better protected against corrosion. All aluminum components on the Comanche were primed with zinc chromate before being riveted together, providing corrosion protection in the lap joints.
The downside is that it is hard to find a maintenance shop that is really well-versed in the Comanche. Unless one is nearby, the best strategy for a new owner is to find a careful and competent mechanic and stay involved in the maintenance by doing the legwork to find solutions to issues as they come up.
The information and the solutions are available, but it often requires tapping into the tribal knowledge of other owners on forums such as the Airworthy Comanche Forum and Piper Flyer Association. Maintenance personnel will rarely take on that task, leaving it to the owner. (Piper Flyer published a Comanche buyer’s guide article in the March 2017 issue. —Ed.)
For some, bigger is better
For those that have a bigger family or need to haul larger loads, the Cherokee Six and the Lance/Saratoga family are good bets. My choice here is a 1976 or 1977 Piper Lance. Without going to the expense of the turbocharged option, the Lance offers the best balance of speed and carrying capacity.
Earlier Cherokee Sixes will carry more weight, but are slower. The later PA-32s have more luxurious interiors and more amenities, at a cost in useful load. (Later this year, Piper Flyer will have a complete buyer’s guide to the Cherokee Six, Lance, and Saratoga lines. —Ed.)
In 1979, the Lance morphed into the Lance II. The T-tail configuration cost useful load and made the aircraft unsuitable for soft fields due to the inability to lighten the nose on takeoff roll. However, the configuration works for many, and the Lance IIs are generally significantly cheaper than the Lance. After the Lance II, Piper added the tapered wing and rechristened it the Saratoga; a nice plane, but carrying capacity suffered.
The Lance is a solid 155 ktas aircraft that in my experience will lift 1,450 to 1,500 pounds. The usable fuel is 94 gallons, which at that speed is good for four-and-a-half hours or so. At 155 ktas, one can expect to burn 16 to 18 gph.
With forward and aft baggage compartments and six seats, the Lance, like the whole Cherokee Six line, offers many loading options if the pilot is careful with the center of gravity. The big cargo door in the back allows for the loading of bulky items, whether it’s taking a child to college or loading camping gear or mountain bikes. In 1977, club seating became an option on the Lance.
Many Lance owners that don’t need all the seats will sometimes remove one or both of the middle seats for more legroom and more space for baggage or coolers for in-flight dining.
Higher, faster, farther
For the traveler who wants both long range and pressurized comfort, the Malibu and the Mirage might fit the bill. At one time, the Mirage was the preeminent reciprocating single-engine pressurized aircraft. It has since been superseded by Piper’s M-series aircraft as the M350, but is still available as a great used aircraft.
The original Malibu was produced with the turbocharged Continental 310 hp engine and was produced for five years before Piper certified the aircraft with a 350 hp turbocharged Lycoming TIO-540 and renamed it the Malibu Mirage.
The Malibu and Mirage were made to cruise high, fast and far. Range can extend to 1,550 nm, depending on altitude and power setting. Cruise speed is between 185 and 225 ktas; again, depending on power setting and altitude. Both models, as well as the newer M350, have 120 gallons of useable fuel.
While the Malibu was originally touted as burning 15 gph lean of peak (LOP), there were some significant engine problems with the Continental. Whether that was due to operating lean of peak, or was due to operators not operating LOP properly, is a matter of debate.
The 350 hp Lycoming on the Malibu Mirage is going to want something closer to 20 gph; the M350 with its Lycoming TIO-540-AE2A engine and dual turbochargers touts a “consistent fuel burn at any altitude,” according to the sales brochure.
The shortcoming of the Malibu/Mirage is that while the aircraft has six seats, you aren’t going to sit six adults in the airplane and do more than taxi around the airport. Even then, it would not be terribly comfortable. The real-world useful load runs about 1,250 pounds. With full tanks, the payload on these aircraft is slightly more than 500 pounds. (The M350 shows a standard useful load of 1,308 pounds. —Ed.)
The weight and complications of pressurization and all-weather capability exacts its toll on both carrying capacity—and on one’s wallet. PA-46 aircraft are not designed for short or soft runways, but they can get above much of the winter weather in pressurized comfort for a family of four and cover a lot of distance.
The traveling twin
One more category of personal traveling machines to discuss are the light twins. For some, flying in a single engine aircraft over rough terrain or over water makes them uncomfortable. Without getting into the all-weather aircraft that we will discuss in an upcoming article on business aircraft, the Twin Comanche gets a shout out as a great traveling machine.
The “Twinkie” offers more speed than the Lance on less fuel. It carries the same as a Turbo Arrow III, or maybe slightly more, but goes further and faster, at least until the T-Arrow gets up into the mid-teens.
The Twinkie is powered by a pair of Lycoming IO-320 engines which are about as reliable as any aircraft engine ever made. The redundancy in systems and powerplants can be very comforting over the middle of Lake Michigan at night, or over an expanse of the high desert like southern Utah. (Kristin Winter has written a couple of in-depth articles about the Twin Comanche. Refer to the February 2016 and March 2016 issues of Piper Flyer. —Ed.)
As mentioned, in a later edition we will examine the best options for business travel. The commonality in that selection is that business needs a reasonably all-weather aircraft. However, there is a small segment of pleasure travelers whose needs fit better into that category than those we have just covered.
With the exception of its cropdusters, all Pipers are traveling machines to a degree. Range, payload and speed are the prime considerations. Next is weather capability. All the models discussed have the ability to be equipped to fly at least light IFR.
For those shopping for their first plane, those looking to upgrade—and those merely dreaming about a plane for personal travel—enjoy that journey. Buying a plane is a memorable event. Picking the right plane will make it memorable for all the right reasons.
Sources: “Piper Aircraft” by Roger W. Peperell. London, Air-Britain, Ltd., 2006; FAA TCDS 2A13, Rev. 56 (PA-28); TCDS A1EA, Rev. 18 (PA-30); TCDS A3SO, Rev. 33 (PA-32); TCDS A25SO, Rev. 27 (PA-46); piper.com; various Piper Aircraft POHs.
Kristin Winter has been an airport rat for almost four decades. She holds an ATP-SE/ME rating and is a CFIAIM, AGI, IGI. In addition, Winter is an A&P/IA. She has over 8,000 hours, of which about 1,000 are in the Twin Comanche and another 1,000 in the Navajo series. She owns and operates a 1969 C model Twinkie affectionately known as Maggie. She is a recognized authority on Piper Comanche aircraft. Currently she is serving as Director of Operations for a commuter airline in Southeastern Alaska. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.