Piper Cherokee

'The Plane With a Future'

June 1, 1991

Everyman's airplane turns 30

For those who grew up in the era of all-metal airplanes, the Cherokee is as synonymous with Piper Aircraft Corporation as the Cub. But when the first PA- 28 rolled off the brand-new assembly line at Vero Beach, Florida, 30 years ago, it was a significant departure from the tried-and-true tube-and-fabric designs made famous by Piper in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.

"If Piper was able to sell as many Tri-Pacers as it has," Max Karant wrote in a prophetic feature titled "Cherokee: The Plane With a Future" for the August 1961 _AOPA Pilot,_ "the Cherokee should go a long way toward filling the sky with private planes." According to Piper, the company built a total of 7,668 PA-22 Tri-Pacers. The entire PA-28 line now numbers 36,132 aircraft, and several descendants of the original Cherokee are still — nominally, at least — in production in Vero Beach.

"The Cherokee was started from scratch at Piper's Vero Beach, Florida, research and development center, and is already in production there, it won't be manufactured at Lock Haven," Karant reported in 1961. "Man largely responsible for the new design is Fred Weick, AOPA 9893, designer of the Ercoupe."

"You know, it's a funny thing" Weick, now retired and living in Vero Beach, recalls of the Cherokee's beginnings. "We go ahead and do things, and afterward, people go and start making history out of it."

The Piper design team headed by Weick never set out to earn a place in aviation chronicles. Their goal was straightforward: Build a good, simple, four-seat airplane at low cost.

Weick came to Piper's new Vero Beach research center in 1957 to work on development of the Pawnee agricultural airplane and the Cherokee. The Vero plant was built to allow the company to expand in an area with a fresh labor pool and weather that would attract top engineering talent. At Texas A&M University, Weick had headed design of the Ag-1, an innovative agplane upon which the Pawnee was largely based. But work on the Cherokee would start with a clean sheet of paper.

"The airplane started out to be a simple little replacement for the Tri-Pacer, and the eye was on low cost. I thought you could make an all-metal airplane for as low a cost as a fabric one," Weick recalls. "Pug [Howard] Piper and I sat down and worked out what we wanted. We had specifications on the shape and the size and the power and the performance."

The new airplane, designated the PA-28 or the twenty-eighth Piper model, would be all metal, with a low wing to enhance ground handling characteristics. The gear on a low wing airplane can be placed farther apart than on a high-wing design, and handling in a crosswind was deemed better in low-wing airplanes, thanks to the wide-spread gear and low center of gravity, Weick said. It would seat four, be powered by a four-cylinder, 150-horsepower Lycoming (150 or 160 hp would be available in early production models), and would have tricycle gear with a 10-foot tread. It would be fairly small, with a wingspan of about 30 feet. Not wanting the PA-28 to compete with the higher priced, retractable Comanche (introduced in 1958), Piper limited the Cherokee's cabin width to 42 inches, 2 inches narrower than the Comanche's.

But although he and Pug Piper (Pug, the youngest son of William T. Piper, Sr., was head of development for the family business) had hammered out the basic specifications, Weick didn't have time to work on the details of the design. Piper hired Johnny Thorp, a talented engineer from California, as a consultant to do a preliminary design. In January 1957, Pug Piper, Weick, and Thorp met to discuss the specifications. (Weick points out that the Cherokee was not, as is often stated, based upon Thorp's Sky Scooter design.) Thorp finished his design study by late spring, but it wasn't until September that the project really got under way.

Karl Bergey was an aeronautical engineer with North American Aviation, but his interest was in small airplanes. When Piper opened its Vero Beach development center, Bergey, who owned and flew a Piper Vagabond, was determined to get a job there. It meant a big pay cut, but he started work in September 1957 as assistant to chief engineer Weick, who immediately put him on the Cherokee project.

"The idea, of course, was simplicity," says Bergey, now a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. Weick and Bergey, with a small design team made up mostly of fresh college graduates, set out to build an experimental model, then a production prototype. The PA- 28 would have half as many parts as the Comanche, which was being developed in Lock Haven, and 400 fewer than the Tri-Pacer. The Cherokee design featured a constant-chord (later nicknamed "Hershey bar"), laminar-flow wing, a one-piece stabilator instead of a horizontal stabilizer and elevators, and other features aimed at simplicity of manufacture, operation, and maintenance. For example, wing surfaces would be large, single sheets of aluminum wrapped around the leading edge and riveted at the trailing edge.

Bergey says the designers incorporated some ideas with an eye toward the future. For example, they left enough room between the main spar and the rear spar for a wheel to be retracted. But there was no sense of making history or that they were designing what would become an archetype for thousands upon thousands of airplanes. "What we were doing was doing a job. And it was a tough job."

It was an incredibly busy time in Vero Beach. They were building a new airplane, a new factory, and a new staff, all at once. "It was the Skunk Works of the general aviation business," says Bergey. "I've never regretted it. It was a grand experience. Fred and Pug were both very capable and thoughtful."

Working overtime and on weekends, the team completed work on the Cherokee three months ahead of schedule and received type certificate number 2A12 from the Federal Aviation Agency on October 31, 1960, for the 160-hp Piper Cherokee PA-28.

On January 8, 1961, the eightieth birthday of William T. Piper, Sr., the company officially dedicated its new Vero Beach plant. An estimated 5,000 well-wishers attended, arriving in 250 airplanes. Dignitaries present included Florida Governor Farris Bryant, television star Arthur Godfrey, and the Reverend Billy Graham.

Cherokee production began slowly but, by late summer, was up to about five airplanes a day. Cost for the standard model was $9,995, although many optional accessories were available at added cost. Soon, higher powered models were available, as were ski- and float-equipped versions. In early 1962, Piper delivered its 500th Cherokee only three months after delivering the 250th. The 1,000th was delivered in the spring of 1963.

The rest, as they say, is history. Cherokee's direct offspring included various models of the Warrior, Archer, Arrow, Dakota, Pathfinder, and Cadet. Among later refinements to the basic Cherokee design were tapered wings, bigger powerplants, larger fuselages, retractable landing gear, and turbocharging. The lessons learned and theories proved in the Cherokee's development, production, and success were reflected in the entire line of Piper models to follow.

"Along with the [Cessna] 172, I would say the Cherokee is one of the two most influential aircraft of all times," opines Terry Lee Rogers, executive director of the Tampa, Florida-based Cherokee pilots Association. Rogers, who owns a 1968 Cherokee 140, describes the Cherokee as "a good, reliable, inexpensive aircraft. My feeling is that it is the finest aircraft that was ever made available to a large number of private pilots."

Three decades after they rolled off the assembly fine, the early Cherokees still are serving well as entry-level airplanes for new pilots. A good example is Robert A. Howells, who keeps his 160-hp PA-28 at Greene County Airport (Il9) in Xenia, Ohio, just outside Dayton. A 130-hour private pilot, Howells passed his check ride on March 15 — about two months after he bought the Cherokee. "It's really a delightful airplane," he says. "It's really very easy to fly."

A psychologist and part-time college professor, Howells wanted an airplane he could use to finish his flight instruction and to take his wife and three kids for rides. He also wanted an airplane that wouldn't break the bank. The PA-28 seemed to fit the bill.

But his isn't just any Cherokee. It is N5001W: the second of all production PA-28s. The first production Cherokees were numbered in sequence. N5000W was the first, Howells' airplane was second, N5002W the third, and so on. Although N5000W still exists, it currently is in storage and is not flown. It belongs to Robert Bynum of Georgia, who was unavailable to be interviewed for this story. Howells now owns the oldest Cherokee still flying.

"This is a piece of history here. It's something I take very seriously," says Howells. "We're going to take really good care of this airplane."

His stewardship is starting out on the right track, Howells purchased the aircraft from previous owner Michael Robinson in excellent condition. It is not entirely original. Robinson added nonstandard wing tips and gap seals on the ailerons and flaps, which improved lateral stability and lowered the stall speed slightly. The new interior is of red velour. The panel includes modem touches like a Terra TXN nav/com with glideslope and loran. But the directional gyro and attitude indicator are original, as is the baseball-size turn-and-bank indicator. Engine gauges are original, with the grainy radium- painted dials beginning to fade a bit. Howells says he's happy with the panel, except that all the instruments are illuminated by an overhead fight for night flying, and you can't see the exhaust gas temperature gauge or the handles for mixture and throttle in the dark.

Howells has the original wing tips and all the old avionics. He lugged out the bulky Narco Superhomer and some other mysterious black boxes during our visit.

Howells' airplane retains some basic quirks that identify it as an early Cherokee. Trim is operated via an overhead crank, rather than the vertical trim wheel familiar in later aircraft (there also is a rudder trim knob beneath the panel). And there are no toe brakes. Both brakes are operated simultaneously with a small handle under the panel, which is similar in size and operation to the parking brake handle on a modern PA-28. The fuel tank selector handle is on the left side panel. And the yokes are narrow in diameter, semicircular, and metal — identical to those in Tri-Pacers and Colts.

The few common problems in Cherokees include cabin leaks and hard starts. Howells involuntarily demonstrated the latter during our visit, but after a quick battery charge, the airplane started right up, and he and I prepared for a short familiarization flight.

Earlier in the day, Howells had flown with Senior Editor Tom Haines on the photo mission for the pictures that accompany this story, and as we taxied, he made much of the "perfect" landing Haines had performed in N5001W. "It's windier now," I said, preparing an advance excuse, though we hadn't yet left the ground. "It's a lot bumpier now."

As we neared the Piper Saratoga ahead of us on the run-up pad, I reached for the hand brake and pulled, expecting to pump gently and slow our taxi a bit. But nothing happened. I yanked back five times with the handle hitting the stop before brake pressure came up, and by then, I had angled away from the Saratoga and toward the turf, with the ugly image of my crashing the oldest flying Cherokee — without leaving the ground — flashing before my eyes. But the brakes soon pumped up well and held during the run up, so we decided to continue. (They worked fine after that, and a mechanic later attributed the momentary brake loss to "a stuck O-ring.") Still, I remained suspicious of the hand brake from then on.

Takeoff roll was not what one would call blistering, but we were off the 3,947-foot runway with lots of room to spare and climbed gradually up and out of the pattern. It was indeed bumpy, but the airplane handled very well as I experimented with various power settings. We tried some steep turns and Dutch rolls. Cockpit visibility was excellent in the turns. The Cherokee was docile in both power-on and power-off stalls, with no pronounced break and a simple recovery.

We headed back to the airport and lined up on final in a crosswind that was stronger than I expected. I carried power on the approach and touched down gently but a little left of the centerline. After that touch and go, I wanted to try some landings without a crosswind, so we flew over to nearby Dayton General Airport South, where the wind was blowing right down the runway.

We fined up on final at Dayton General and seemed to have it nailed, so I decided to impress Howells with my incredible power-off landing technique. I don't know why I thought I was flying a Warrior — surely those stubby little wings out there should have tipped me off — but as I pulled the power back, the Cherokee suddenly assumed the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and our "elevator — going down" arrival pointed out the error of my ways. Howells' "everyone does that" didn't make me feel much better. Future landings were much less traumatic.

The Cherokee cruises at about 120 miles per hour (104 knots) with 75- percent power at sea level. Top of the green arc is 140 mph (122 knots), with a maneuvering speed of 129 mph (112 knots) and a Vne of 171 mph (149 knots). The Lycoming O-320 was certified for 91/96-octane avgas, but due to its unavailability, Howells burns 100LL. Gross weight is 2,200 pounds, the dimensions diminutive: 23.3 feet long, with a 30-foot wingspan (5 less than a Warrior).

Speaking of wings, the one major blemish on the career of the PA-28 came in May 1987, when the FAA issued Emergency Airworthiness Directive 87-08- 08 calling for an inspection of the main wing spar caps on all PA-28 Cherokees (except the Dakota) and Arrows and PA-32 Cherokee Sixes with at least 5,000 hours in service. The AD followed a fatal wing separation in a PA-28-181. Spar cracks later were found in two other airplanes. In November 1987, the AD was revoked and replaced by a service bulletin requiring periodic inspections in high-time or hard-used aircraft. By then, about 800 aircraft had been inspected with no problems discovered. The three with cracked spars had been well-used aircraft, a pipeline patroller and two Alaska bushplanes.

Overall, years of use have proved the Cherokees to be good, basic, dependable airplanes — just what the design team set out to build in the late 1950s.

"I don't think it was the times as much as it was the culture of the company," says Bergey of the project's success. "We were on our own, away from Lock Haven, in a new facility designed to build the new aircraft. There was almost no paperwork." William T. Piper, Sr., ran the company by instinct with the help of his sons, William, Jr.; Thomas (Tony); and Pug. They knew enough to assemble a skilled production team and pretty much leave it alone to do its job. The nearly 130,000 small airplanes built by the company are testimony to the efficacy of that approach.

The financial decline of Piper Aircraft is "almost a tragedy," says Bergey. "It's a first-class line of airplanes, and there is no reason in the world why it shouldn't be able to maintain itself, even in these troubled economic times."

As for Bergey, he eventually sold his Vagabond. Now he flies an Arrow. "I wouldn't feel comfortable buying a Cessna, now would I?"