Piper Tripacer, Tri-pacer, PA-22, Pacer, Pilot Report

We Fly What May be the Best Kept Four-Place Secret in Vintage Aviation

Text and Photos by Budd Davisson, Plane and Pilot, 1999 (?)
See www.shortwing.org for more Tripacer information.

Piper's Utilitarian Milk Stool

       It was July 4th, 1959 at Lincoln, Nebraska's now long-gone Union Airport. The grass of the north-south runway stretched before me and disappeared in the distance. There was no way I could know exactly how far away the other end of that runway would prove to be: When Tri-Pacer N8518D carried me off the far end on my first solo flight, the distance covered would eventually span a life time. At one end I was a 17-year-old kid from a small town and all that implies. At the other end I had become a 17 year old with stars in his eyes who would never look back.
               I still remember the smell of that first Tri-Pacer and, although within the hierarchy of classic airplanes, many put the PA-22 near the bottom, I don't and never have. And it is more than nostalgia. The Tri-Pacer, despite its almost comically compact lines, delivers. It will do the job and today, with nearly 8,000 having been built, 1951-1960, it may well be one of the better bargains in four-place airplanes. It is, however, not without its problems, chief among them being some rather ominous AD's.
               Tri-Pacers are old. Of more importance, they are made of fabric covered steel tubing and therein lies possible problems. Steel rusts. If the airplane has been hangared most of its life, chances are this isn't an issue. But most haven't. The primary areas of concern are the areas covered by the flat metal frames around the door posts, the struts, strut fittings and the lower carry-through structure in the bottom of the fuselage. The AD's were issued after a Tri-Pacer lost a wing. Before buying a Tri-Pacer, have it very carefully inspected by someone who really knows the airplane. Very few of the airplanes are in critical condition, but a little paranoia is always a good thing.
               Tri-Pacer wings are fabric over an aluminum structure and, other than inspecting for damage and obvious corrosion, they represent no unusual problems other than the condition of the covering. 
               Modern synthetic covering materials (as opposed to cotton or linen) go under several different trade names but most are a variation of either Dacron, a polyester, or fiberglass. Dacron materials, if kept in a hangar are good for years and years, as long as 20 or more. Ceconite and Razorback can go forever, which can be a disadvantage. Rag and tube structures should be periodically opened up and inspected. On a potential purchase, have the covering inspected, again by a pro, as it can cost every bit of $10,000 to have a decent covering job done (Ed. Note: that would $15-$19K in 2006).
  Piper Tripacer, Tri-pacer, PA-22, Pacer, Pilot Report
Although the Tripacer's wings are short, it gets off surprisingly well.

             One of the reasons the Tri-Pacer suffers so much in the eyes of high-brow purists is its landing gear. The original PA-20 Pacer, from which the Tri-Pacer descended, was a cute-as-a-bug airplane which, unfortunately demanded some attention on takeoff and landing. As soon as Piper hung a nose wheel under it, sales sky rocketed as the airplane became brain-dead simple to takeoff and land. Unfortunately the cost paid was that it earned its "milk stool" moniker because of the near-tripod appearance of the landing gear.
               What many of the purists fail to concede however is how well the airplane performs. If you compare POH numbers you'll see a 1958 160 hp Tri-Pacer will cruise within 4 knots of a similarly powered 1986 172P, stalls four knots slower, out climbs it, lands shorter and has a much higher service ceiling. It does give up some distance in the takeoff roll and has 50 pounds less useful load and 7 gallons less fuel, but it also costs about a third as much.
               The foregoing is all on paper. The big question is: How does the Tri-Pacer fly in the real world? To find that out we contacted Stan Watkins, Executive Director of the Short Wing Piper Club Foundation, who bases his PA-22-160 at Scottsdale, AZ.
               Stan's airplane, Spud, came to live with him in 1990 and it was, in his words "...ugly as homemade sin..." He had the airplane painted in Ditzler Durathane and turned the interior over to Paul Sanchez at Elite Interiors in Portland, Oregon who did it up in leather. At the same time, Sanchez completely rebuilt the seats for comfort and Stan says the difference is remarkable.
               About the name "Spud." The Watkins family initially referred to Stan's new purchase as a flying potato. More specifically, an ugly little spud potato. The name stuck.
               One sunny afternoon, Stan taxiied up, put his wife Cheryl, who learned to fly in the airplane, in the back seat, and the three of us took Spud aviating.
               The Tri-Pacer is one of the few airplanes (I can't actually think of another) that has a right door for the front seat and a left door for the rear seat. The upside to that is the rear passengers have their own door. The downside is the pilot has to be in before the front passenger. Fortunately, boarding through either door is actually easier than getting in a 172.
               Once inside, the smallish size of the cockpit is exaggerated by a window area that is smaller than on modern aircraft. For someone coming out of a four-place Cessna, for example, the cabin is going to feel dark and claustrophobic. Fortunately, that feeling goes away in minutes.
The first test while flying a Tri-Pacer is figuring out how to start it. If a person comes to the breed with no prior knowledge his chances of getting it fired up are absolutely zero because they'll never find the master switch and starter button. Unless the airplane has been converted, the pilot has to reach between his legs and under the bottom of the seat for both switches.
               With the engine cranked, we were ready to taxi. The nose wheel steering feels pretty much like any other however some people find the lack of individual brake pedals a little disconcerting. A lever, often called a "Johnson Bar" hangs from under the panel and activates both brakes at once. In reality individual brakes aren't needed for tight maneuvering, as the turn radius with that narrow gear is so tight the inside wing tip is nearly tracking backwards. Also, the wings are so short, it'll fit in some awfully tight holes

Some Random Personal Thoughts
At this stage of the game I've been flying for forty-nine years (an unbelievable thought). During that period of time I've owned a number of airplanes ranging from Cessna 195's to Clipped Cubs to P-51 Mustangs. Through it all, there has been this underlying thought, "I ought to just buy a Tripacer and be done with it." I've always regarded the airplane as being one of the most practical, and certainly one of the most cost-efficient ways of getting around. So, at some point, I'll probably wind up with one. They make too much sense not to.

               While taxing, I was reminded that Tri-Pacer's came with two basic instrument panel configurations. The early airplanes had the "low panel" and have much better visibility over the nose than the later ones but are cramped for radio space. "Spud" has the high top panel and is IFR equipped, although Stan seldom uses it as such.
               On takeoff, the 160 hp Lycoming tugged us along with respectable acceleration which was nice. Tri-Pacer's come with engines as small as 125 hp (fairly rare) with 135 hp and 150 hp being by far the most common. The 160 hp was on most of the later airplanes and the extra power is very noticeable. The small engine airplanes are really too under powered to give solid performance at gross weight. This is especially true out west. With only two people on board, however, they fly just fine.
  Piper Tripacer, Tri-pacer, PA-22, Pacer, Pilot Report
The 150/160 hp airplanes are much better suited for carrying four people. Especially at higher density altitudes.
              Keeping Spud on the centerline during takeoff was an absolute no brainer and, even though there was a slight crosswind, I don't remember using my feet for anything. Stan advised rotating cleanly off the ground at 65 mph or when thenose felt light. This too was a no-brainer. A gentle tug at the right moment and it stepped into the air with no hesitation or tendency to settle back on.
               I purposely kept a shallow attitude letting the speed build to 80 mph which Stan said was a good speed at our weight. The airplane was quite speed stable and willing to sit on  80 mph with only a little trimming. It was the trimming that was a problem, albeit, a minor one. The overhead trim crank takes a little getting used to, if only to remember which direction to turn it. 100% of the time I turned it the wrong way first, even though Stan told me counter-clockwise was down. Or was it up?
               As the airplane settled into a climb, the ASI glued itself to 900 fpm and stayed there until we leveled out at altitude. Considering that we were three people and full tanks that's not bad for an airplane everyone makes fun of.
               When we leveled out in cruise Stan commented that he really babies his airplane and purposely uses lower than normal power settings, around 2300 rpm, for cruise. Also, his prop is a compromise between cruise and climb. This power setting gave us about 115 mph indicated which is what he says he uses for flight planning purposes, but almost always beats that number. Other Tri-Pacer owners report that most will true out at 120-125 mph at 2450 rpm depending on the prop.
               Considering that one of the integral parts of the airplane's unearned reputation is its short wings and its supposed tendency to imitate a hockey puck, the stalls are hardly worthy of the name. In any configuration, gradually pulling the yoke to the stop produces nothing but a soft mushing and the VSI needle sagging to something around 500 rpm. It's nearly impossible to get it to break short of a full power, accelerated stall.
               People tend to forget that the Tri-Pacer is a product of the time when they were trying to engineer required-skill out of the pilot equation. The Ercoupe was the extreme example in that it eliminated rudder pedals completely. The Tri-Pacer didn't go that far, but it did have spring interconnects between the aileron and the rudder so you could fly it with your feet flat on the floor and still have the ball centered. It had been some time since I'd flown a stock Tri-Pacer and I was surprised to find the interconnect wasn't as strong as I remembered. While rocking the wings with the yoke did cause a little automated rudder input, it was easily over come to induce a slip, if wanted. Also, the roll rate is quite a bit higher than I remembered and higher than a C-172, which I liked.
               While cruising around, the visibility is perfectly fine, although the illusion is that it's less than something like a 172 because everything in the cockpit is a little closer together. However, if sight angles were measured, I'd be willing to bet there really isn't that much difference, if any.
               One thing about the Tri-Pacer legend that is absolutely true is its glide ratio. Notice I said glide ratio, not rate of descent. Yes, it's coming down a little faster than some airplanes, but it's coming down a lot steeper than most. Its power off angle of descent with only one notch of flaps is about the same as a Cessna with the boards all the way out. This much I remembered and planned the approaches accordingly.
               I brought the power down to 1500 rpm and set up 80 mph as an initial number intending on going down to 70-75 over the fence. As the runway numbers started moving down the windshield indicating we were high, I eased the power to idle and we immediately started sliding down towards the numbers. We only had 10° of flaps out and it was obvious we didn't need any more. Stan says he seldom uses full flaps for anything.
               I was using the 1000 foot markers as my touch down point and they stayed rigid in the windshield as we fell at the ground. To a Cessna pilot, the angle and rate of descent may look high but I think they'd also sense the rock steady feeling of the airplane in that situation. There's no moving around or fidgeting. The airplane feels as solid as a cement block. Right at the bottom, as I started to flair, I cheated by squeaking on just a touch of power as insurance and bled it back off as I got deeper into the flair.
               The mains touched with an authoritative "thunk" and stayed there. I was able to hold the nose off only briefly before it too came down. Then it was carb heat off, flaps up and let's do it again.
               I really enjoyed Spud. In fact, I enjoyed just about everything about the airplane. I'm now convinced that most Tri-Pacer fanatics aren't bothered at all by the airplane's less than glamorous reputation. That helps keep the prices down and that undoubtedly suits them just fine.


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