Piper's Saviours-The Short Wing Pipers

By Willie Bodenstein

World War two was over and Piper, once the world's most prodigious manufacturer of light basic inexpensive aircraft, was still a family run business essentially building pre-war designed aircraft and in dire financial straits.

Under extreme pressure from creditors and in a changing market clamouring for larger and more sophisticated products Piper had to take drastic actions. The fate of the company was left to a team led by Chief Design Engineer Dave Howard and Piper's sons, Tony and Howard. They burned the midnight oil and in six weeks designed and created a set of blueprints. The result of their genius was the Vagabond, the first of the Short Wing Pipers so called because the wings of the new designs were almost 6 feet (2 meters) shorter than that of the Cubs on which they were based.

The Vagabond was Piper's first post WWII design. Powered by a Lycoming O-145, 65 hp (49 kW) PA-15 the PA-15 Vagabond had its first flight in 1948. Designed around a new side by side twin seat fuselage it utilised many of the Cub's structural components including tail surfaces, landing gear, some of the wing parts and some of the production tooling. The PA-15 Vagabond is generally credited with saving Piper from bankruptcy after the war.

Spawned by the PA-15 the PA-17 Vagabond powered by the 65 hp (48 kW) Continental A-65 featured dual control, bungee cord shock-absorbed landing gear as opposed to the solid gear on the PA-15 and was aimed at the flight training market. The Vagabond was followed by the Piper PA-16 Clipper, which is essentially a Vagabond with a 17 in (43 cm) longer fuselage, Lycoming O-235 engine of 108 hp (81 kW), extra wing fuel tank, and four seats.

The most successful Short Wings were the PA-20 Pacer and PA-22 Tri-Pacers, a four seat version of the PA-17 Vagabond. Of conventional construction with a steel tube fuselage frame and an aluminium strut braced high-wing, the tailwheel PA-20 Pacer was revealed to the public in 1949. Power was by either a 125 hp (93 kW) Lycoming O-290-D or 135-hp Lycoming O-290 engine. An adjustable-pitch Aeromatic propeller was also an option. All surfaces were fabric covered.

A rugged aircraft with a spacious cabin, side by side seating, separate doors for front and rear seat occupants, impressive speed, flaps and dual control yokes in place of sticks the PA-20 sold reasonable well. Between 1950 and 1954 1,120 were produced. It had one drawback though, it was still a tail-wheeler and consequently had somewhat limited forward visibility on the ground and rather demanding ground-handling characteristics. WWII had introduced the nose wheel that offered better forward visibility and more docile ground-handling characteristics and in 1954 Piper closed the PA-20 production line.

In February 1951 Piper introduced the successor to the PA-20, the nose wheel instead of the tailwheel landing gear PA-22 Tri-Pacer. The Tri-Pacer offered higher-powered options in the form of 150 hp (112 kW) and 160 HP (120 kW) Lycoming engines. An unusual feature of the Tri-Pacer is the incorporation of bungee-linked ailerons and rudder. Besides simplifying the coordination of inflight manoeuvres, this system which can easily be overcome by the pilot as required, allowed the installation of a simplified form of autopilot marketed by Piper under the name Auto-control.

Variants of the Tri Pacer were the cheaper, less well-equipped Lycoming O-320 150 HP (112 kW) powered PA-22-150 Caribbean and the 108 hp (80 kW) Lycoming O-235 powered PA-22-108 Colt. The two seat Colt whose fuselage more closely resembled that of the Vagabond was designed as competition for Cessna's 150 that was then dominating in the training category and to serve as a stop gap pending the introduction of the PA-28 Cherokee 140.

The rather humble Tri Pacer had its share of action in military conflicts. In the Cuban Army Air Force PA-22's they had their rear-doors removed and a .30 calibre machine gun installed. During the Battle of Guisa the Tri Pacer provided ground support for the Cuban Army strafing the Rebels as well as the dropping of hand grenades from the open door. One was lost to ground fire. In the Congo, Moise Tshombé's Katangese separatists deployed five PA-22-150s allegedly delivered compliments of the South African Air force for use between 1961 and 1963 against the ONUC (United Nations Organization in the Congo) forces send to subdue the insurrection in Katanga. The last batch of 12 PA-22-150s were built for the French Army in 1963.

Almost 1,000 Vagabonds and Clippers and over 1,100 Pacers, more than 9,400 Tri-Pacers and about 2,000 Colts and Caribbean's were produced between 1953 and 1960. Pacers and its variants were the last rag and tube and last high wing aircraft produced by Piper. The type was replaced by the PA-28 Cherokee 140.

Some Tri-Pacers and Colts have been converted to taildragger configuration resulting in an aircraft that is very similar to a PA-20 Pacer, but which retains the model refinements and features of the PA-22. A large number still survive and the revival in the interest in tail-wheelers has ensured that Piper's short wings will grace our skies for a long time.

Specifications 1958 PA-22-160 Tri-Pacer
General characteristics
Crew: one
Capacity: three passengers
Length: 20 ft 6 in (6.25 m)
Wingspan: 29 ft 3 in (8.92 m)
Height: 8 ft 4 in (2.54 m)
Empty weight: 1,110 lb (503 kg)
Gross weight: 2,000 lb (907 kg)
Fuel capacity: 36 U.S. gallons (140 L; 30 imp gal)
Powerplant: 1 × Lycoming O-320-B four cylinder, four-stroke, air-cooled, horizontally opposed, piston aircraft engine, 160 hp (120 kW)
Propellers: 2-bladed metal, fixed pitch
Maximum speed: 141 mph (227 km/h; 123 kn)
Cruise speed: 134 mph (116 kn; 216 km/h) 75% power, 7000ft
Stall speed: 49 mph (43 kn; 79 km/h)
Range: 500 mi (434 nmi; 805 km) with reserves, 610 with optional tank
Endurance: 3:30 at 65% power with one hour reserve
Service ceiling: 16,500 ft (5,029 m)
Rate of climb: 800 ft/min (4.1 m/s)

Classic Aircraft

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