The Pacer and Tri-Pacer PDF Print E-mail
Written by John D. Ruley   

Piper PacerI admit it: I was nervous when I went out to fly N6961B. I had never flown a tail wheel airplane before, at least not a real one. (I have several hundred hours "flying" virtual tail-draggers, mainly World War II fighter planes, on a personal computer). Yet Rich Rosa, an air traffic controller at my home airport in Modesto, Calif., told me that his Piper Pacer was "one of the most gentle airplanes around: and I couldn't pass that up.

It turned out to be gentle and a lot of fun to fly. The experience was a real education for me. Not only was this my first experience with a real-world tail-dragger, it was also my first time flying a fabric-covered airplane.


Piper PacerThe Pacer and Tri-Pacer are the most popular of the “short wing” Pipers which appeared after World War II. With thousands of military surplus and pre-war “long wing” Cubs (and derivatives) available, Piper found itself facing bankruptcy in 1948. In order to get a low-cost airplane in production quickly, the company cobbled together a new design making maximum use of existing parts. The result was the PA-15/17 Vagabond, a no-frills two-seater powered by a 65 horsepower engine. It differed from the various Cubs in having a short (29.5 foot) wing.

In 1949 the PA-16 Clipper appeared, basically a four-seat version of the Vagabond, powered by a 125 horsepower engine. It retained the basic features of the Vagabond including a Cub-style control stick, no flaps, and fabric-covered aluminum and steel tube structure.

The Clipper was replaced after one year by the more sophisticated PA-20 Pacer, which replaced the stick with dual control yokes and added manual flaps and a removable rear seat.

Early versions were powered by a 115 HP Lycoming O-235, while later models came with a 125 or 135 HP O-290; many have since been upgraded to a 150 or 160 HP O-320. The higher engine power in an airplane with a very light structure results in a useful load of around 900 pounds and service ceiling over 15,000 feet.

In 1952 Piper created the Tri-Pacer by moving the main gear slightly aft, strengthening the engine mounts and adding a nose wheel. The new airplane also came with an aileron-rudder interconnect, which enabled a pilot to fly with either hands or feet. While the Tri-Pacer isn’t noted for good looks, it was an extremely successful airplane with over 7,000 sold over its nine-year lifespan. Piper also produced a lower-powered, two-seat version of the Tri-Pacer called the Colt, which was marketed as a trainer. Production of the Tri-Pacer and Colt ended in 1961.

That didn’t end the story, though. While Tri-Pacers out-number Pacers by more than seven to one, many pilots prefer the tail-wheel version. Univair saw this as a business opportunity and came up with an STC that essentially converts a Tri-Pacer into a Pacer. The main gear is relocated forward and reversed, with what was the left main becoming the right main. The nose wheel is removed and a steer-able tail wheel installed. The aileron-rudder interconnect is also removed, and toe brakes are added to augment the original single-cylinder parking brake. Most of the converted airplanes also have been retrofitted with disc brakes to replace the original drums.

The FAA actually recognizes the resulting aircraft with a unique combination designator: PA-22/20. The only visible difference between it and an original PA-20 Pacer are the trapezoidal rear side windows (rounded on the original Pacer) and a slight bulge in the rear fuselage which provides the back seat passengers with a little badly needed elbow room.


N6961B Specifics

Piper PacerRich Rosa is justifiably proud of his airplane, a PA-22/20 conversion from a 1956 Tri-Pacer. Besides the basic features of the Univair conversion, it has a Scott 3200 tail wheel, copper battery cables replacing the original aluminum, and dyna-focal engine mounts. The engine is about seventeen hours past TBO but still has compression “in the 70s” on all cylinders. Rosa changes the oil and filter and has a sample analyzed every 25 hours, and he plans to keep flying as long as the analysis looks good.

Annual inspections cost around $500, though Rosa does much of the work himself. Rosa said, “There are 27 pieces of tin [mainly inspection panels] that have to come off at annual; and I’m intimately familiar with all of them.” He’s only seen corrosion around his fuel tank. “You hear people talk about re-doing the fabric every ten years mainly to check the tubes for corrosion, but here in California that’s not really necessary.”

Rosa has a Peterson auto gas STC and only runs 100LL AvGas through his engine every six months or so, “when I forget my charge card.” (Sky Trek aviation, the Modesto FBO, only sells auto gas to local pilots who can show an appropriate STC).

He does most of his flying early in the morning when the air is cool; so much so, that he leaves the winterization plate installed unless he expects to do a long flight on a hot afternoon.

The Pacer is easy to handle on the ground with a tow-bar attached to the tail wheel. The airplane weighs only 1100lbs empty and is easy to move by hand.

Before starting, you do a simple pre-flight, which involves four fuel drains (one under each wing, and two under the belly). Starting is easy, with a 12 volt electrical system and electric starter (compared with hand-propping in earlier models). Things get a bit more complicated when taxiing-especially for those (like me) who’ve never taxied a tail-wheel airplane before.

While the Pacer’s small cowl doesn’t completely block your forward view, you’ll need to sit up (if necessary on a booster seat) or do s-turns while taxiing.

Pre-takeoff checks are simple — basically a magneto check, control check, and testing the carb heat (which is used only when there is visible moisture or reason to suspect carburetor icing). Once the checks are complete, make sure that the left tank is selected (the right tank’s fuel ports can become uncovered in climb if it isn’t full), open the throttle slowly to avoid flooding the engine and after a remarkably short ground roll the Pacer’s tail will lift up. During that ground roll you need to use the rudder pedals. Like any tail dragger, the Pacer needs constant attention until you rotate.

From the moment the wheels leave the ground the Pacer is a dream to fly. With just two of us in the airplane on a cool morning we had close to a 1000 FPM rate of climb. The controls are well harmonized, though the Pacer will want a bit of rudder action as you enter turns. It handles steep turns nicely and is extremely well mannered.

Piper PacerWe climbed to 2500 ft and trimmed the airplane for level flight. At 75% power this produced a true airspeed of about 120 miles per hour and a fuel burn of nine gallons per hour-performance almost identical with what I got in my Cherokee 140 (the first airplane I owned). With the standard 36 gallon wing tanks that gives you a little over three hours with standard reserves. An optional eight gallon long-range tank installed on some Pacers and Tri-Pacers extends this range another hour. Fuel has to be pumped from the auxiliary tank into the right main before the engine will use it.

Many pilots will tell you that Pacers and Tri-Pacers cannot be stalled, and when I tried a slow power-off stall, the airplane simply mushed in a nose-high attitude while developing a 1000 FPM rate of descent. Rich showed me an accelerated stall, which was anything but gentle, with a very definite break, after which we were looking at the ground. He also told me that kicking full rudder while stalled results in an impressive spin entry, more likely than not with the airplane inverted after one turn. I declined a demonstration.

In the pattern, we brought the power back to 2,100 RPM, which reduced speed to around 90mph. Opposite the numbers, reduce power to 1,500 RPM, put on one notch of flap and you’re ready to turn base. Since I don’t have a tail-wheel endorsement, Rich had me follow through as he made a three-point landing, then we went around a couple more times, and I made a “wheel” landing (on the mains), with Rich following me through. He said I did a pretty good job; and at least I was centered, though he had to push hard on the yoke to prevent us from porpoising.

We let the airplane slow as it rolled out, and Rosa told me to stay off the toe brakes to avoid ground looping as we exited the runway. I found that it took considerable legwork to keep the airplane straight as we taxied in but was sad to leave when we put the little airplane away. It was some of the most fun I’ve had flying in a very long time.

Trouble Spots

Pacers and Tri-Pacers generally have low maintenance costs, but there are a few problem areas mainly related to the steel tube portions of the structure, which have a tendency to rust. ADs for the PA-20 and PA-22 include one to replace the original streamlined stabilizer control cables, which had a tendency to crack, and another AD to check tubing around the left front door for rust. There’s a minor AD for the tail wheel that’s cheap to fix, and a much more expensive AD for repetitive inspection of the wing struts. (Univair sells new sealed struts that eliminate the need for repetitive inspections.)

Piper has a service bulletin to check the wing strut attachment points. Rich reports that he managed to work around a Lycoming oil pump AD. Rosa said, “Probably thousands of people paid for that one who didn’t need to.” Rosa contacted the FAA engineer who directed the AD and came up with an alternate method of compliance by verifying the part numbers of the gears in his pump.

The high fuselage and narrow landing gear of the Pacer and Tri-Pacer give it a reputation for poor crosswind behavior, but Rich disputes this. “The airplane can handle a pretty good crosswind, but I wouldn’t recommend it to an inexperienced pilot. I’ve landed with a 15-knot direct crosswind gusting to over 20 knots. I had full right aileron in, and it was sheer luck as much as anything else that I made it.”

Virtual Pacer

Since I’m a Microsoft flight simulator user, I did a Web search to see if a virtual Pacer or Tri-Pacer was available as an add-on. To my delighted surprise I quickly discovered an excellent Pacer simulation available in both nose-wheel and tail-wheel versions. I downloaded the tail-wheel version. Its behavior is very similar to the actual airplane, though every attempt to repeat my one and only “wheel” landing in the real airplane so far has resulted in multiple bounces down the runway.

With a little practice, however, I am finding that three-point landings are possible. To find it, browse and search for “Piper Pacer.” Versions are available for Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000, 2002 and 2004. My hat’s off to designer Brian Gladden for an outstanding job simulating this wonderful little airplane.

John D. Ruley is an instrument-rated private pilot. He’s also a freelance writer specializing in high technology and aviation, and a contributing editor to Windows & .NET Magazine, HP World Magazine, as well as several other magazines. He’s also a volunteer pilot for LIGA International and President of the Modesto Airport Pilot’s Association. You can write to John at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

I admit it: I was nervous when I went out to fly N6961B. I had never flown a tail wheel airplane before, at least not a real one. (I have several hundred hours "flying" virtual tail-draggers, mainly World War II fighter planes, on a personal computer). Yet Rich Rosa, an air traffic controller at my home airport in Modesto, Calif., told me that his Piper Pacer was "one of the most gentle airplanes around: and I couldn't pass that up.