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Pacer vs. Tri-Pacer PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Cox   

Piper PacerThere are few aircraft type organizations in general aviation more enthusiastic than the Short Wing Piper Club. That’s perhaps ironic in view of the inexpensive prices of most short wing Pipers. The compact, little, two-to-four seaters are among the cheapest, entry-level airplanes available. Many sell for less than $25,000, especially the minimalist Vagabond, Clipper and Colt.

As the last of the non-Cub Piper taildraggers, the Pacer enjoys a similar price advantage. Even the last of the Pacers, the 1954 model, sells today (in stock configuration) for well under $20,000.The PA-20 was introduced in 1950 as a follow-on to the Piper Clipper after Pan American Airways claimed it owned the name, “Clipper,” (apparently ignoring the fact that hundreds of sailing ships in the 19th century were called “Clippers”).

The Pacer was technically approved as a four-seat machine with Lycoming 0-290 engines ranging from 115 to 135 hp out front. As the name implies, the Pacer was the predecessor to the first, production, tri-gear airplanes from the Lock Haven, Pennsylvania company, Piper’s four-place Tri-Pacer and two-seat Colt trainer.

Perhaps because the Pacer and Tri-Pacer both used engines of similar horsepower, the same gross weight and an identical wing, the question inevitably arises as to which was the better airplane.

The short-wing Pipers were an attempt to improve on one of the few things the venerable PA-18 Super Cub didn’t do well, cruise cross country. The PA-18’s fat, USA 35B airfoil obviously provided gobs of lift, the better to leap off often unimproved strips in ridiculously short distances, but the long wing also produced more drag.

The Cub’s 178-square-foot wing spanned some 35 feet 2 inches, and the short wing Pipers did their job with three feet less span per side and 30 less square feet of area. For a given horsepower, the reduction of wetted area and drag helped generate at least another 15 knots of cruise. Pilots who didn’t need the Super Cub’s spectacular short field performance were attracted to the more compact Pipers, both the Pacer and the Tri-Pacer.

Frank Sperandeo of Fayetteville, Ar­kansas is certainly one of the world’s strongest devotees of the short-wing Pipers and an expert on both conventional and tri-gear Pipers. An A&P mechanic, Authorized Inspector and Desig­nated Airworthiness Representative (DAR) for the FAA, he has the mechanical expertise to repair and restore a variety of airplanes, and he also signs off newly-constructed homebuilt projects for first flight.

A pilot since the ‘70s, Sperandeo began his personal aviation avocation by totally renovating a Piper Tri-Pacer, then stepped up to his present Pacer. Accordingly, he’s eminently qualified to judge the relative advantages and disadvantages of the two types.

As you may have guessed from the accompanying photos, Sperandeo’s current, brilliant red and white Pacer is a definite cut above the average, 55-year-old PA-20. That’s partially because it’s the beneficiary of nearly five years of restoration, a complete rebuild from the ground up. Since acquiring the airplane in 1989, Sperandeo has dedicated nearly $40,000 and 4200 hours of labor to the renovation of his 1953 Pacer, dubbed “Miss Pearl.”

Lavishing so much money and attention on an antique airplane hasn’t been without its rewards. In addition to winning Grand Champion at the Short Wing Piper Convention in 1995 and 2002, the A&P’s fully restored PA-20 won Grand Champion at Sun ’n Fun (1995), Best Custom Classic at Oshkosh (1995) and the Oshkosh Charles Lindberg Trophy for Best Customized Classic (2003). In addition, Sperandeo’s Pacer has won prizes at virtually every other classic and antique aircraft show he’s attended.

Piper PacerIn total, the airplane Sperandeo spent so much time rebuilding has chocked up an impressive 50 top finishes at virtually all the regional shows as well–Arlington, Copper State, Merced, Southeast, Virginia, Colorado and most of the others. (Upon seeing Sperandeo’s handiwork, William T. Piper Jr. commented, “I personally have never seen any Piper that can compare.”)

The numerous awards have served to verify Sperandeo’s reputation for quality construction, but he still has other mountains to climb. “There’s no question Miss Pearl is far from original,” comments Sperandeo, “but the upgrades I’ve made have as much to do with safety and reliability as comfort and performance. Apparently, some judges feel that main­taining the original configuration is more important than safety, and for that specific reason, Miss Pearl doesn’t always win the top prize. But I’m working on it.

“It’s never made sense to me to restore an old airplane without incorporating as many upgrades as possible to improve reliability,” says the A&P. “It seems unrealistic to cling to the original configuration religiously, then be afraid to fly the finished product because the technology is 50 years old.”

In fact, Sperandeo’s Pacer maintains the original configuration but has been modernized in virtually every area. The Lycoming engine has been revised to an 0-320 rated at 160 hp, the alternator has been improved to a 60 amp unit, easily capable of driving modern avionics. A lightweight B&C starter has replaced the original and custom NACA air vents have been installed.

Sixty-six gallon tanks have replaced the original 36 gallon containers, 400,000 candlepower landing lights now supplant the original, etc. “ad bankruptcium”. There’s no area that Sperandeo hasn’t updated and improved.

In total, Sperandao has made some 95 modifications to the Pacer, most of his own design and all approved with appropriate form 337s in place. “This is definitely not a strict showplane or hangar queen that only emerges from its hangar to enter competitions,” says Sperandeo. “I fly the airplane about 200 hours a year, from Fayetteville to all corners of the US, so Miss Pearl truly is a working airplane.”

The builder is especially active in the EAA’s Young Eagles Program, and he’s taken some 100 kids for first flights in the classic Piper. He also flies the Pacer on Grace Flights, transporting children and their parents from remote locations to doctors and hospitals for medical treatments.

When the A&P/AI isn’t transporting kids or competing at aviation displays with his Pacer, he’s sometimes judging other airplanes, another of his multi talents.

Piper Pacer CockpitWith all the modifications and improvements, one of the world’s top Pacers sports an empty weight of about 1150 pounds against a 2000 pound gross weight, 50 pounds more than the stock airplane. Standard fuel on the original Pacer was 36 gallons, but the highly modified test airplane features 66 gallons to feed its 160 hp engine. That boosts fuel weight to 396 pounds, so payload with full tanks in Sperandeo’s airplane now works out to about 450 pounds.

That turns out to be no real limitation, as the four-seat airplane is more accurately a 2+2 machine, more consistent with its actual payload. The Pacer is only about 40 inches across at the front elbows, adequate but not exactly spacious for two.

The Tri-Pacer is essentially the identical airplane fitted with tricycle gear. While there’s little question that positioning the third wheel under the nose rather than the tail makes ground handling easier, there’s also no question which airplane is more esthetically pleasing to the eye. The “flying milk stool”, as the Tri-Pacer was sometimes nicknamed, didn’t have the same charisma as its predecessor, though it very well may have benefitted from a better record for safety during landings in general, especially crosswind landings.

To fly Sperandeo’s Pacer is to visit another aviation era while enjoying all the benefits of modern technology. In 40 years of writing for a number of magazines, I’ve flown quite a few rebuilt classics, but I have to agree with Bill Piper Jr. that this one is in a class by itself.

It’s no big surprise that the big engine and aerodynamic modifications place Sperandeo’s super clean Pacer a definite step ahead of standard airplanes. I’d flown a few other PA-20s and there’s little question N3383A is well ahead of the pack. The most obvious beneficiary of more power is climb, and the test airplane showed considerably more enthusiasm than I might have expected during the test flight and air-to-air session in Plant City, Florida.

Both climb and approach work well at 70 knots, and Sperandeo’s Pacer manages upward mobility on the order of 1000 fpm compared to a book spec of 800 fpm. The extra 25 horsepower in Sperandeo’s airplane probably also generates a higher service ceiling, but the owner hasn’t had occasion to climb much above 11,000 feet.

Straight and level at 7000 feet, the pristine Pacer manages to log a quick 120 knots at max cruise, meanwhile burning only about 8 gph. This gives the airplane a theoretical seven hours endur­ance plus reserve.

During our photo session, we had no trouble keeping up with a new Skyhawk 172R flying at full cruise. Sperandeo suggests a full-throttle, low altitude run yields more like 139 knots.

Control forces are consistent with the airplane’s 2000 pound gross weight, not much heavier than a 150’s but considerably more effective. Throw the Pacer into a turn, and it tracks like a phonograph needle, partially a function of controls made sinewy smooth by the owner’s meticulous attention to detail.

Landings aren’t any special challenge provided you’re tailwheel proficient (which I wasn’t despite 3000 hours in conventional gear airplanes.) As you might imagine, Sperandeo flies the Pacer like breathing, natural and without effort. It’s a fairly easy machine to fly, a little short-coupled and narrow of gear, but anyone with even a modicum of taildragger proficiency shouldn’t embarrass themselves. My marginal performance during transitions to and from the ground weren’t the airplane’s fault.

Landing handling is an area where the Tri-Pacer probably holds the edge over the Pacer. I learned to fly in a Piper Colt a few years back, a two-seat, lesser-powered derivative of the Tri-Pacer, and the experience was satisfying and rewarding.

Performance specs for the Pacer and Tri-Pacer are virtually identical granted similar horsepower. Cruise, climb and service ceiling are within a whit of each other, though the Tri-Pacer does suffer a slight disadvantage in useful load because of the heavier nosewheel.

More than incidentally, Sperandeo’s better-than-new Pacer isn’t for sale, and it probably never will be. The owner has willed it to the Piper Aviation Museum in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.

If you’re into antique or classic airplanes and you enjoy attending the EAA shows around the country, be on the lookout for Frank Sperandeo’s impeccable crimson and white Pacer at venues around the country. You’ll probably find it in the winner’s circle.

Piper PacerMany pilots still regard the PA-20 Pacer as the best of the short-wing Pipers.  Still, the Tri-Pacer was Piper's first, production, tricycle gear machine.  Which is better?