|Piper Saratoga II TC: Six-Pack To Go|
|Written by Bill Cox|
Most of the time, the first land you cross inbound from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii is Kohio Point on the island of Molokai. Kohio is better known in the islands as the location of Father Damien’s famous leper colony at Kalaupapa. As I go “feet dry” at 10,000 feet and head for Molokai VOR, inbound to Honolulu from Santa Barbara for the umpteenth time, I can’t help but reflect on how consistent the weather is in this part of the world.
The perennial Trade Winds help clear the air, and it’s not hard to understand why so many people regard Hawaii as the nearest thing to paradise, despite the sometimes oppressive heat and humidity. From my artificial perch nearly two miles above the sea, I can clearly see the islands of Lanai, Maui, Kahoolawe and, way off to the left, the twin, 14,000 foot dormant volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, 130 miles away on the Big Island of Hawaii.
As always, approach slam dunks me down to 2000 feet, vectors me past Koko Head and back out over the ocean south of the airport. In the crystalline air, I can see a stream of airliners inbound to Honolulu International Airport’s twin 12,000 foot runways, 8L and 8R. As the busiest airport in the Pacific, PHNL accommodates a seemingly endless procession of airliners, everything from local commuters to 800,000 pound jumbo jets. Little guys such as I wind up relegated to runway 4R, a mere 9000 feet long.
Aviation journalists are supposed to adopt a shield of objectivity in writing about airplanes, but I have to confess to a long-time love affair with the retractable Saratogas. I’ve ferried dozens of them domestically and three or four across various oceans, logging perhaps 500 hours in the type. In fact, a few years back, I even considered buying a fully-restored ’76 Piper Lance, direct predecessor to the Saratoga. Fortunately, reason prevailed (unusual for me), and I decided I didn’t need a roomy, six-seat airplane when I fly almost exclusively with only one or two souls aboard.
While there’s nothing old-fashioned about the modern Saratoga HP, the basic PA-32 design is, nevertheless, a time-tested survivor, blessed with the latest in 21st century avionics. Its derivative ancestor, the Cherokee Six 260, introduced way back in 1965, evolved to retractable gear on the Lance in 1976, was fitted with Air Research turbocharging in 1978 and adapted to the semi-tapered Warrior wing in 1980 to become the first Saratoga.
Though the new-generation Saratogas have been upgraded in most areas and are very different machines in almost every respect, the basic airframe/wing/engine configuration is still easily recognizable as a PA-32. The cowling has gone modern, the prop has added an extra blade with a totally revised semi-scimitar airfoil, the panel is now all-glass and there’ve been dozens of other upgrades, but deep down, the lineage is pure PA-32R.
Every time I climb aboard a new Saratoga, it’s like shaking hands with an old friend. I can’t help but marvel at the airplane’s overall comfort, gentle manners and simple reliability. I’m well aware most pilots won’t be flying their Saratogas across the Pacific as I’m doing, but aside from the inevitable numb-butt sensation, it’s not an uncomfortable airplane to sit in for long trips. Inflight handling is heavy but gentle, the stall is a non-event and the big, 300 hp, turbocharged Lycoming TIO-540-AH1A, though not bulletproof, is reliable and easy to manage.
Honolulu Approach rouses me from reflection and reminds me I still have to land. I switch to tower and a few minutes later, I roll the wheels onto runway 4R, 14:18 after takeoff. That works out to an average speed of 151 knots over 2160 nm, not bad for an airplane that lifted off from Santa Barbara at 26 percent over gross flying into consistent headwinds most of the way.
Saratogas of all description have been winning friends and influencing pilots for three decades, and they continue to be among the most popular of the six-seat heavy lifters. It’s true the market has been limited to only two six-seat retractables for the last 20 years, the Saratoga and Bonanza, ever since Cessna elected to shelve the 210 and all other piston products. Cessna is back in the piston business with three, revived, fixed-gear models, but sadly for those among us who loved it, the more labor-intensive 210 Centurion is gone forever.
Today, the normally-aspirated Piper Saratoga II HP competes only with the Beech G36 Bonanza, and the turbocharged Saratoga II TC no longer has any direct competition. Beech stopped building the B36TC in 2003, leaving the heavy-breathing, six-seat, retractable Piper alone in its class.
At least part of the Bonanza’s benefit is artificial, however. The normally-aspirated A/G36 has always been a little short–legged. It carries only 74 gallons of fuel, 28 gallons less than the Saratogas. Considering that all three airplanes use 300 hp engines and fuel burn is roughly the same, that translates to shorter range. Reduce the Pipers’ fuel supply to the same 74 gallons, and the payload gap is less impressive, though the Bonanza can still haul nearly two passengers more than the TC and one extra person plus baggage more than the HP.
For the retractable Saratogas, the primary operational benefit is improved endurance. At max cruise settings, the TC can linger aloft for about 4.5 hours plus reserve, the HP for 5.0 hours. In contrast, the Bonanza’s smaller tanks limit the airplane to 3.5 hour legs at high cruise. Despite the G36’s slight speed advantage, the Pipers’ additional fuel capacity allows it from 100 to 200 nm more range.
The Piper’s biggest selling point over the old Centurion and the new Bonanza has always been its extremely roomy cabin, roughly as wide as the old Piper Navajo Chieftain twin. Compared to the G36, the Saratogas enjoy a six-inch wider cabin, 49 inches across, and this is one instance in which size most definitely matters. Two large men can ride up front without rubbing elbows, and even those passengers in the rear seats will find space generous in virtually all directions. The Saratogas’ cabin is over 10 feet long, and that translates to good leg room in the four, conference-style, facing seats in back.
Saratogas also enjoy better loading flexibility with a 7.0 cubic foot nose baggage compartment to help counter aft CG problems and a 17 cubic foot rear cabin space to offset forward CG concerns. Each area is approved for 100 pounds, so total baggage capacity is 200 pounds.
If there’s a need, however, you can pull all four rear seats in less than a half hour and wind up with a large cargo area, just as in the old Cherokee Six, now updated and improved as the 6X. Years ago, Piper ran an ad in virtually every aviation magazine with a sequence of photos showing several workmen loading a piano into the back of a Cherokee Six 300. That might be a stretch for the modern Saratoga II HP/TC, but it gives you an idea of the size of PA-32’s cabin.
Similarly, landings have the feel of a heavier airplane, so it’s important to keep the elevator trim moving all the time. Approaches as slow as 75 knots aren’t out of the question if you need to plunk it on and stop it short, but the airplane is happier at 90 knots.
Standard equipment on both the normally-aspirated and turbocharged Saratogas includes the two-screen Avidyne Integra flat panel display, plus enough other goodies to make either airplane a fly-away IFR machine right out of the box. Most pilots will add another $50,000 worth of extras.
And so the Lance/Saratoga enters its fourth decade as Piper’s premier, unpressurized, single-engine six-seater. Piper and most of the rest of the general aviation world are thinking VLJs these days, but for many pilots who may not be able to spring for $1.5 million plus, the Saratoga II TC represents some of the best of the old and the new, more than enough for less than too much.