Piper Cherokee 235: Cheif of the Four-Seat Cherokees PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Cox   

Piper Cherokee 235 in the airCherokees have always had a deserved reputation as the most docile singles in the sky. Flown to the bottom of their speed envelope, they have practically no stall at all. Systems are so simple, even most magazine writers can manage them, and control response is slow enough to keep even the most ham-handed pilot out of trouble.

Combine such gentle handling with copious power, and the resulting airplane becomes even tougher to resist. That’s exactly the formula that made the Cherokee 235/Charger/Dakota such modestly popular machines. As the ultimate power application to the PA-28, the 235 was intended to steal sales from Cessna’s 182 Skylane, and it did, though not as much as Piper might have wished.

Cessna had led the way in the search for a true four-place airplane rather than merely a four-seater. The 1953 Cessna 180 was one of the industry’s first four-seat, full fuel singles, and the follow-up nosewheel 182 upgraded the same basic model to the nosedragger set in 1956. Piper was already a decade behind when they premiered the Cherokee 235, and the catch-up factor was probably a major reason the big horsepower Cherokee never realized its full potential.

I know you’ve heard this song before, but we’re privileged to fly some of the very best examples of every given model. That was exactly the case with the Cherokee 235. Brian Kenny of Apple Valley, California, volunteered his Piper for our editorial abuse, and it was about as perfect an example of a Cherokee 235 as you could ask.
A 1972 F model, Kenny’s airplane represents one of the last of the original Cherokee 235s, before Piper began stretching the fuselage, increasing gross weight, modifying the wing and searching for a new name. The ’73 model was called the Charger (obviously named after the famous Charger Indians) and granted 100 pounds more gross, ’74 thru '77 models were known as Pathfinders and later versions were named Dakotas and featured the semi-tapered Warrior wing. Kenny’s Piper is one of the last of the low-gross 2900-pound, 235 hp Cherokees. That doesn’t turn out to be any disadvantage, because the Cherokee 235 was designed from the start to lift a big load, no matter what the gross.

Piper Cherokee 235 in the airSo why did Kenny choose a Cherokee 235 in the first place, more accurately the fourth place (as this is his fourth airplane)? Kenny's needs rarely dictate a full cabin, and his airplane’s performance benefits from the reduced weight. A contractor, Kenny uses his airplane primarily for flying in the Southwest.

One obvious deficit of the extra horsepower is higher fuel burn. That necessitates carrying more fuel in order to preserve the industry standard of four hours endurance plus IFR reserves. In the later Cherokee 235’s case, standard fuel is an impressive 84 gallons, five hours worth plus a healthy reserve, so the airplane truly can carry four full-size folks plus topped tanks.

Piper Cherokee 235 in the airA typical airplane sports an empty weight of 1470 pounds against a 2900-pound gross. That means in a typically equipped airplane with full fuel (504 pounds the usual 150 pound, add-on stack of avionics and other goodies, you can still load aboard 770 pounds of whatever in the cabin and fly away legally and safely.

Fighter pilots contend you can never have too much fuel unless you’re on fire. In a similar sense, the only time you can have too much power is if you have very little fuel.

Fortunately, Piper’s Cherokee 235 was blessed with both power and fuel, making it arguably the most desirable of the four-seat, fixed-gear Cherokees. With 235 horsepower under the cowl and 84 gallons in the wings, the Cherokee 235 was in many respects the ultimate extension of Fred Weick and John Thorp’s basic Cherokee design, a highly flexible and adaptable platform that was to foster a quartet of fixed-gear four-seaters, a turbocharged and normally-aspirated retractable, fixed gear and retractable six-seaters and even a dramatically stretched and powered up twin. (“Honey, I blew up the airplane!”)

Piper Cherokee 235 in the airThe 235 was targeted to steal sales from Cessna’s redoubtable Skylane, the standard four-seater of the early ’60s that has survived into the 21st century. Unfortunately, the powerful Piper came late to the party. When the slick, low wing design was born in 1964, it was already eight years behind the entrenched Skylane.

Piper’s attempt to play catch-up met with mixed reviews. Piper sold “only” a thousand Cherokee 235s in the first five years. By today’s standards, that would be grounds for a corporate party at Disney World. Back in the mid-’60s, however, such sales figures were regarded as little better than mediocre, especially so considering that Cessna sold some 4200 182/Skylanes in the same time span.

Cessna’s advantage may have had more to do with the step-up phenomenon than any other factor. General aviation manufacturers have known for years that pilots who learn in a certain type of aircraft are more inclined to buy an advanced model from the same company, and Cessna certainly had the major share of the training market. The 150 and 172 gave Cessna a strong advantage in Skylane step-up sales.

There wasn’t anything especially wrong with Piper’s new model. In fact, there was a lot that was right about it. The price was certainly competitive, about 10 percent less expensive than the Skylane with comparable equipment. The Cessna was easy to fly, but the Cherokee was designed from the outset to be even simpler. Handling was almost ridiculously docile. The stall was a total nonevent, so much so that some instructors criticized the lesser-powered Cherokee trainers as too gentle, as if any airplane could be too safe.

Piper kept systems as simple as possible on the Cherokee line. Flaps were manual, a nearly foolproof Johnson bar that resulted in instant gratification, and early 235s were offered with fixed pitch props. (Later models featured a constant speed as optional equipment.) Even the braking system on the early Cherokees was designed with simplicity (if not convenience) in mind, a single lever that applied equal braking to both main gear.

Piper Cherokee 235 in the airThe carbureted, six-cylinder Lycoming O-540 engine was a resounding success, sporting a 2000 hour TBO and reliability nearly as good as the Williamsport, Pennsylvania company’s legendary O-360 model. Like the popular Cessna, the largest, most powerful, four-seat Cherokee did its job in a superlatively adequate manner, nothing outstanding but everything well.

The result of Piper’s quest for simplicity and safety was an airplane that was easily the measure of the Skylane. In fact, the 235 posted equal or better numbers than the Skylane in an area that Cessna had always touted as its special province, payload. The Cherokee 235 was among the first airplanes to lift nearly its own weight in useful load. Early Cherokee 235s truly could carry full fuel, four 170-pound folks plus 200 pounds of baggage and still have payload remaining.

Equally important, the CG envelope was huge, easily capable of accommodating any reasonable distribution of load. Most other numbers were fairly close to the Skylane’s. Cruise was almost identical, climb was close and runway requirement was within 200 feet. Here’s a look at comparative numbers for 1964, courtesy of the 1963/1964 Jane’s All-The-World’s-Aircraft (see table on facing page).

In later years, Piper progressively improved the 235 and did away with all numerical model names in hopes of boost­ing sales. The Cherokee 235 became the Charger (stretched fuselage, larger tail, higher gross weight), then the Pathfinder before finally adopting the semi-tapered, quicker handling Warrior wing and changing the airplane’s name to Dakota, in keeping with Piper’s penchant for indian names. Sadly, the Vero Beach company built the last of the Dakotas in 1994.

Piper Cherokee 235 in the airFor some pilots, however, the basic Cherokee 235, by whatever name, remains a highly desirable package. Ron Courtier of Victorville, California is one of those pilots. A retired USAF aircraft maintenance supervisor on F4 Phantoms and A10 Warthogs, Courtier is an FAA A&P mechanic as well as a 1000-hour pilot who was impressed with the Cherokee 235’s performance and simplicity.

“I’d been renting a variety of airplanes for about 30 years,” says Courtier, “mostly as a recreational pilot, and Skylanes are popular leaseback rentals, so I’d flown them a lot. Accordingly, like most people, my first inclination was toward a Skylane.

“The more I flew the Cherokees, though, the better I liked them,” Courtier continues, “especially the 235 and the later Dakota. As an A&P, I’m something of a Lycoming fan, and I’ve always liked the simplicity of the Cherokee design. From a pilot’s point of view, I feel visibility from low wing airplanes gives them an advantage over high wings. When this 1968 model 235C became available in early 1998 through Lafferty Aircraft Sales in San Jose, I jumped at the opportunity. The 1968 model had the more modern, redesigned panel and the third side window, and it was exactly the airplane I was looking for.”

Courtier has a special appreciation for his airplane’s payload. “I can carry just about anything I can close the doors on,” Courtier explains, “and because my family often flies with me, that’s an important advantage. In May, I’m planning a trip to Albuquerque where my daughter is graduating from the University of New Mexico as valedictorian, and the Cherokee 235 will be the perfect vehicle for that trip.”

Piper Cherokee 235 on the groundThe airplane’s 84-gallon fuel capacity provides plenty of endurance, 5.5 hours plus reserve at 65 percent power, and in combination with a realistic cruise speed of 130-135 knots, range works out to well over 700 nm. If there’s a down side to the 235’s big fuel capacity, it may be that petrol is stored in four tanks, including two out on the tips, so intelligent fuel management is especially important to maintain wings level flight.

Fuel burn with the big engine is considerable, but the phenomenon known as specific fuel consumption is fairly immutable. Most piston aircraft engines burn between .40 and .45 pounds of fuel per horsepower per hour and there’s not much anyone can do about that. Sure, you could hire Roy Lopresti to improve the aerodynamics of your airplane - make it realize more miles per gallon - but there are very few techniques known to allow burning less fuel.

No one would ever mistake a Cherokee 235 for an STOL platform such as a Maule (one model of which employed essentially the same engine), but the Piper airplane can use 1500 foot strips with ease. Remove the slick wheelpants, pump up the struts and the Cherokee’s tough main gear could even handle dirt strips, though the nosewheel might not be so forgiving of an irregular surface.

On smooth runways, the 235 can even fly a semblance of a Maule-style jump takeoff. The technique is fairly simple. Push power to the stop with the brakes locked, release the binders, accelerate to about 45 knots, pull in two notches of flaps and simultaneously rotate hard. If you time it just right, the 235 will leap off the ground in minimum runway and charge uphill abruptly. If you’re a little slow on the rotation, the big flaps will tend to pitch the airplane over onto its nosewheel—not normally a problem for the Maule.

With so much horsepower out front, the 235 overcomes the drag of fixed gear and turns in nearly the cruise speed of Piper’s 200 hp, retractable Arrow. The book number is 136 knots, but plan on that or more if you’re flying with only two up front, the more normal load. Leaving two seats empty reduces weight by more than 10 percent, and that’s bound to affect both climb and cruise speed. A dozen years ago when Piper was still producing the Dakota, I used one for a series of solo editorial missions in the Southeastern U.S., and I saw climb rates well in excess of 1000 fpm and cruise speeds consistently better than 140 knots.

Even if you make many of your flights at full gross, the 235’s power provides a hedge against tall density altitudes in summer. The airplane doesn’t need a turbocharger to launch out of Albuquerque or Denver in summer, though like all normally-aspirated models, the 235 does demand proper leaning and appropriate technique in high/hot situations.

Piper Cherokee 235Cherokee stalls have long been notable for their supremely gentle nature, hardly a stall at all. Usually, they’re little more than a mild pitching moment 10-15 degrees above and below the horizon while the airplane mushes toward the ground at 700-800 fpm. The airplane’s stall is so tame, in fact, that some instructors suggest a full yoke back, power-off stall as a method of descending thru an overcast in a Cherokee when all else fails, Piper’s last chance equivalent of Cirrus's ballistic parachute.

The 235’s landing characteristics are pretty much what you’d expect from a Cherokee, and the extra weight helps rather than hurts the flare, providing a little more stability in crosswinds and a more solid feel at low airspeeds. Contrary to what you might expect, loading the 235 with full fuel and two folks up front doesn't impart an excessive nose down moment during landing. Seventy knots across the fence imparts just the right amount of cushion to bleed off airspeed and set the airplane down gracefully on its main wheels.

In short, the Cherokee 235 has no bad habits. While it could be accused of bland handling, it’s also probably one of the safest and most stable flying machines available. It's hard to imagine a pilot getting into trouble in a 235 if he merely stays awake.
Ron Courtier feels his Cherokee 235 is more fun than anything else he’s flown. “For my money,” says Courtier, “the 235 handles better than the Skylane, the controls are well balanced, and the load carrying ability is excellent. Even with a heavy stack of options, my airplane has a 1326 pound useful load. That means I can load aboard full fuel and still have an 822 pound payload.

“I can’t think of a better airplane for my needs. This is my first airplane, and I like it so much, it very well may be my last.”

Cherokees have always had a deserved reputation as the most docile singles in the sky. Flown to the bottom of their speed envelope, they have practically no stall at all. Systems are so simple, even most magazine writers can manage them, and control response is slow enough to keep even the most ham-handed pilot out of trouble.