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Piper PA-17 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Thomas Block   

If you happened to be the proud owner of a pristine P-51 Mustang and wanted a hangar companion for your World War II fighter, what would you get? How about a pristine nearly-World War II example from the other end of aviation's playing field - a Piper PA-17 Vagabond? That little fabric-covered two seat trainer would be all the things your P-51 Mustang was not - a very simple, very inexpensive and very easy airplane to fly (considering the taildragger piloting standards of that era, of course).

This particular choice in a pair of aeronautical mounts was one made by Jeff and Anna Michael. Jeff retired three years ago from his airline pilot job, and he and his wife split their time between a farm in North Carolina and a fly-in community in Florida. The P-51 Mustang has (along with a few other flying and non-flying aircraft) been in the family for many years now, with the Piper PA-17 the most recent addition to the fleet.

This particular Vagabond was restored a dozen years before and became available two years ago. Jeff was immediately attracted to it because it was the first type of airplane that he ever handled the controls in, and it brought back a passel of 50+ year-old memories to him. But the real reason they bought the airplane, he confesses, was that after Anna took one look at the little Piper she immediately pronounced it as "really cute". That clinched the deal for them.

The history of the Vagabond is actually the history of two separate designators: PA-15 and PA-17. In 1947 Piper Aircraft (along with all the rest of the general aviation industry) was in big financial trouble. The post war aviation boom had suddenly transformed into a bust, and everybody was stuck with lots of manufacturing inventory and no pending sales. Piper owed a ton of cash to some New York banks, who sent a financial man down to dictate terms if they were to remain in business. One of the options was a reduction in parts inventory by building a really cheap airplane out of what they had on hand. The initial design took slightly over six weeks to create on paper, and another six weeks to produce in prototype. Within one year of when the very first notations about the Vagabond were made, the government type certificate was granted and production airplanes began coming off the line.

The most obvious design difference between the Vagabond and earlier Pipers was the short wing - the PA-15 wing was actually a Cub wing that was shortened by six feet by simply clipping off the ends. That left the unchanged Cub ailerons intact and now nearly full span - which provided the Vagabond with quite a snappy roll rate for its day. Since the entire design concept was supposed to be as inexpensive as possible, less rather than more was invariably the answer when the engineers tried to solve the design quandaries.

The initial PA-15 had only one right-side entrance door, only one set of flight controls, a single bench-type seat and no shock absorption on the landing gear. The engine was the least expensive powerplant they could find: a Lycoming 65 horsepower - made even cheaper by the fact that it was produced in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and required only a short truck ride to be delivered to the assembly line. The price for this brand-new airplane was $1,990.

Part way through the production run Piper came up with a "deluxe" version of the Vagabond wherein they added a number of options to make the airplane more attractive to flight schools. The trainer version - now dubbed the PA-17 Vagabond (with a different FAA type certificate) had dual flight controls, a Continental engine and a list of other options that included an electrical system, a radio, a six gallon auxiliary fuel tank in the left wing, and miscellaneous additional enhancements.

The Vagabond owned by Jeff and Anna is a PA-17 version that was built in 1948, about half way through the Vagabond's 599 total production run. Their particular airframe has the extra fuel tank in the wing (which, when selected, drains itself into the 12 gallon fuselage on the inside firewall in front of the pilot's legs), but no electrical system. The extra fuel gives the airplane an endurance of about four hours at the normal consumption of less than five gallons per hour. As is the case with most of the remaining Vagabonds, the engine was changed out to the Continental 85 horsepower version many years ago.

Climbing aboard for a flight with Jeff, we began our journey with him hand-propping the airplane into life. It lit off on the third pull on the prop blade, and after Jeff climbed onboard we taxied out. Just as it was certified in 1948, there was one seat belt on the bench seat for the two of us to share inside the cozy cabin. Visibility over the nose while taxiing the taildragger was pretty good, with no need to do any S turns for me to see where we were headed. After a short pre-takeoff checklist, we took the runway and pushed in the throttle.

Being short-coupled (the entire airplane is only a touch over 18 feet in length), the Vagabond takes some careful work on the rudders to keep it straight - particularly on a hard-surfaced runway. With two big guys and fuel we were still a little under the airplane's maximum gross weight of 1,100 pounds (empty weight is listed as 650 pounds) and the Vagabond initiated a reasonable climb. We weren't going up at any great rate - about 500 feet per minute was my guess - but since we were only doing about 70 mph in forward progress the angle of climb seemed more than adequate.

The cabin certainly wasn't quiet, but since the airspeed isn't very high (cruise speed is listed at 90 mph) and neither is the power output, the overall affect wasn't objectionable. Being in a tight cabin right behind it, the best measure of what the engine was doing came from the sensations of smell and heat that accompanied the power as it was being produced. This was flying in the older, classic sense, and it reminded me of my own youth spent in similar airplanes from the era.

Like a Cub, the left side window could be slid back some for ventilation. The view all around was actually quite good, with the flat bottom of the chopped-off Cub airfoil providing a neat frame for our sightseeing. As I would have guessed, the Vagabond was quick on the ailerons, short coupled on the rudder and solid on the elevator.

Back in the traffic pattern, the engine power came back to 1,500 rpm and we flew a pleasant descending arc for an approach. Just like any of the short-winged Pipers that came afterward, by pulling the throttle all the way back we could come down as quick as you please. If that wasn't quite quick enough, the airplane could easily be made to do a nice slip thanks to the availability of all that aileron while pushing on some opposite rudder. A full stall touchdown was followed by some minor squirrel-motions on the rollout to remind the pilot that there were some real reasons why airplanes had rudders back then. We cleared the runway and taxied back to the hangar.

Although the short winged Piper Vagabond was only made for a couple of years, it was the forerunner of an entire family tree. The PA-15/PA-17 begat the Clipper which transformed itself into the Pacer which then had its main gear turned around and another large tire added to morph itself into - anyone care to take a guess? It was, of course, the most prolific of those short-winged chariots created by Piper - the TriPacer.

The Vagabond was the beginning of quite a clan of personal airplanes, and with afficionados like Jeff and Anna Michael, pristine examples of this classic should be around for quite some time. Periodically bringing one to life and loping it around the pattern makes for an interesting balance and creates quite a piloting comparison to the task of blasting into the sky in, say, a P-51 Mustang.

Editor-At-Large Thomas Block has flown more than 27,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his long career as a US Airways pilot, he is also a best-selling novelist.

If you happened to be the proud owner of a pristine P-51 Mustang and wanted a hangar companion for your World War II fighter, what would you get? How about a pristine nearly-World War II example from the other end of aviation's playing field - a Piper PA-17 Vagabond? That little fabric-covered two seat trainer would be all the things your P-51 Mustang was not - a very simple, very inexpensive and very easy airplane to fly (considering the taildragger piloting standards of that era, of course).