Piper Tomahawk: The Little Trainer That Almost Made It PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Cox   


Piper TomahawkI remember when Piper put together the press tour on the new PA-38 Tomahawk in 1978. A fresh young demo pilot/instructor flew the airplane all the way from Vero Beach to California for the press introduction, the very first time any of us in the aviation press had seen the airplane. It was a typical press demonstrator, replete with all the standard options, which weren’t many in those days.

I’d read some of the advance information on the airplane, and in addition to competing head-to-head with the well-established and well-loved Cessna 152, the Tomahawk was supposed to be spin­nable. That was something you couldn’t do with the 152, at least not the standard airplane. (As the name implied, the 152 Aerobat was approved for limited aerobatics, including spins.)

As it happened, I was the first journalist the young instructor had worked with, and when he asked me what I wanted to do with the airplane, I said, “Well, let’s climb to altitude, do a few preliminary stalls and work our way up to a spin, then we’ll try some of the more typical student-pilot maneuvers.”

The Piper demo pilot blanched a little, hesitated a lot and said, “Well, uh, I’ve never done a spin in anything. I think I’ll have to call the company about this.”

He did, and Piper’s chief pilot on the other end apparently said, “Go for it,” so we did.

We climbed out of Long Beach over the ocean toward the practice area, cleared the airspace, and after feeling the airplane out in a series of progressively more aggressive stalls, I launched into my first spin in the new Tomahawk. I pulled it up fairly steeply with power full on, maintained the pitch attitude as I reduced power to idle and pushed the left rudder to the floor as the airplane began the stall break.

The little Tomahawk obediently rolled over the top, put its nose down and headed for the Earth, just like it says in the manual. The rotation quickly stabilized, though I did notice the nose starting to come up, so I punched the stick forward, applied opposite rudder and recovered after only two turns.

The Piper pilot was a good sport about it all, but he was a little green, so we went back to the airport and did an hour of standard takeoffs and landings.

Yes, the Tomahawk is still spinnable, though I’m not so sure I’d be quite as enthusiastic about spinning a thirty-year-old trainer these days that may have been ridden hard and put away wet.

The PA38 Tomahawk was introduced to the world in early 1978 with a surprising resemblance to the Beech Skipper. Both were T-tailed, low wing airplanes with configurations that looked as if they’d been designed on the same drawing board. At the time, there was speculation that some disgruntled engineers had left one company and moved to the other and taken their ideas with them. Draw your own conclusions.

Piper Tomahawk InteriorInitial reception of the Tomahawk was excellent, though admittedly, the late ‘70s were the modern peak of production of general aviation. In both 1978 and 1979, the industry produced nearly 18,000 airplanes, a production peak that was never to be seen again. By the end of its first year of production in 1978, the PA38 had sold some 1000 examples, impressive performance even in good times.

Technically, it was an especially simple design in aerodynamics, operations and maintenance. The airfoil was a 17 percent, GAW-1 shape, designed to be at least as benign as the Cessna 152’s NACA 2412 shape. The wing featured a significant five degrees of dihedral and relatively ineffective, long span flaps. (The flaps helped pitch the nose down for landing but only reduced stall speed by two knots.) The main gear was steel leaf springs reminiscent of a Cessna, theoretically, the manual says, “capable of withstanding thousands of hours of student abuse.”

Power was provided by a tough little Lycoming O-235-L2C, pumping out 112 hp and driving a Sensenich fixed-pitch prop. The engine featured a 2000 hour TBO from the very beginning, and now may be upgraded to 2400 hours. That’s one of the longest TBOs of any piston engine in the world.

Inside the cabin, dimensions were adequate, if not exactly copious. The cross section measured 42 inches, roughly the same width as a Bonanza, and the Tomahawk was 50 inches from floor to ceiling. Visibility was generally excellent with plexiglas in all the right places, including a huge back window to monitor what might be gaining on you. The aft compartment floor was adequate for 100 pounds of baggage, but you might be more challenged for space than weight.

The Tomahawk’s stated mission was flight training, and it certainly manifested the economics for the job. In 1979 (first year for the Beech Skipper), a standard PA38 went out the door for about $22,940, compared to $23,070 for a comparably-equipped Cessna 152 and, of course, $27,205 for the Beech Skipper, always the high end airplane. The three airplanes utilized essentially identical engines and horsepower and, no big surprise, boasted about the same performance in comparable parameters. For a quick comparison of the specs on a 1979 Tomahawk, 152 and Skipper, see the chart on page 26.

No big surprise that the Tomahawk comes out second best in stall, service ceiling and climb since it has 25 percent less wing than the Cessna. Conversely, the Piper boasts slightly better range and useful load than the 152.

In the intervening 30 years since that first flight, I’ve had perhaps another dozen opportunities to fly a Tomahawk, and the airplane has been uniformly friendly. If the Cherokee’s handling defines the term “docile”, the Tomahawk comes in a close second while offering operating economies arguably superior to any other “modern” trainer.

I drove one of the best of the Tomahawks across the US from Savannah, Georgia to Long Beach, California, some 20 years ago, and I’m happy to report it had an unidentifiable, totally nondescript autopilot installed. I never found out who made the wing leveler or if it was even legal, but I was grateful it was there.

I can remember being at least satisfied if not impressed with the airplane’s sea level climb performance, and cruise checked in at a consistent 100 knots, not quick but hardly inconsiderate in that I was burning only about 5.0 gph up at 8500 feet. (There’s little incentive to throttle back in hopes of achieving better economy.)

Piper TomahawkThe Tomahawk’s comparatively large, 32-gallon tanks allowed me to linger aloft for an easy five hours, at least two hours longer than I wanted to. Flying into the perpetual westerly headwinds, I managed to knock off an easy 400 nm at a sitting. This meant two legs a day would put me 800 nm down the road, so the trip required three semi-long days.

If there was any notable deficiency, it was medium to high density altitude performance. Even at my slightly reduced gross weight (one person and a single bag), the airplane offered only about 300-400 fpm climb from my regular mile-high stop of Albuquerque in summer. Similarly, the airplane took more than a while to climb to 10,500 feet for the leg across the Zuni foothills of western New Mexico.

If a PA-38 is, in many respects, almost too simple to be true, the type nevertheless manifests a kind of stability and security uncommon with other aircraft. At only 1670 pounds gross, you don’t expect rock-solid handling in turbulence, but the airplane remains surprisingly unflustered in rough air, holding to straight-ahead better than you might expect.

Landings are a total anti-climax if you’re awake. With a dirty stall speed of 47 knots, I used a 60-knot approach speed, the airplane settles on nicely after a short flare. That’s about a 1.25 Vso approach, so you could probably even shave a little more off the bottom if there was a need to slam it on and stop it short.

Even if you do blow the landing, the sprung steel gear preserves your dignity by absorbing your mistakes without launching you back into the sky. If your approach is anywhere near stall speed, the airplane squats on the runway with a minimum of rebound.

The Tomahawk lasted only five years on the market, but that may well have been as much a function of the overall market downturn as of any disdain for the type. Piper sold nearly 2500 of the type before shelving PA38 production in 1982.

These days, Tomahawks are as often associated with first time, entry-level buyers as with flight schools and student pilots. At less than $20,000 for the last model PA-38, the Tomahawk represents one of the least expensive methods of entering the general aviation market. (The Beech Skipper also runs about $20,000.)

Piper Tomahawk InteriorIn contrast, a comparable vintage Cessna 152 will typically set you back more like $30,000, and the aerobatic version costs more typically $35,000. Cessna continued to build the 152 through the close of all piston production in 1986, so there are thousands more airplanes available.

Back in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s when the Tomahawk and Beech Skipper did offer some slight competition to the 152 and there seemed to be a large enough market for everyone, the industry cranked out airplanes at a furious pace. Today, much of the market for trainers is satisfied by a whole new class of flying machines, the Light Sport Aircraft.

Still, if you’re interested in buying a full-fledged, used production machine that was half-trainer and half-personal transport, the Piper Tomahawk may just fill the bill.

Piper TomahawkPiper's Tomahawk was an attempt to build a trainer to compete with the venerable Cessna 152.