Tomahawk Controversy

In the February 1997 issue of AOPA Pilot, AOPA Air Safety Foundation Executive Director Bruce Landsberg wrote:

"All aircraft have reputations. For some they take years to evolve, while for others the reputations develop quickly. From the beginning the Piper PA-38 Tomahawk attracted attention. When it was introduced in 1977, it looked different from any other two-place trainer; and it flew differently. It didn't take long for the airplane to get a reputation."

Or, we might add, to stimulate controversy. Following publication of Landsberg's article, which announced publication of the eleventh in a continuing series of safety reviews that ASF has undertaken in order to evaluate the safety records of particular aircraft, articles appeared on Web sites and in the aviation press questioning ASF's conclusions in its analysis of the PA-38.

Below are two letters — one from AOPA President Phil Boyer, the other from Landsberg — that address the issues raised.

June 24, 1997

Rich Stowell
Rich Stowell Consulting
P.O. Box 4597
Ventura, CA 93007

Dear Mr. Stowell,

Thank you for taking the time to document your specific concerns with regard to the "Safety Pilot" column that appeared in AOPA Pilot magazine on the Piper Tomahawk and its spin characteristics.

The recent controversy relating to this aircraft best illustrates the very essence of why there is an AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Realizing that some AOPA members own the PA-38, and many more have trained or will train in the aircraft, we turned to our sister organization and asked them to thoroughly look at this issue.

The result was not just a report or article, but a comprehensive safety review of the aircraft and its comparison with other trainers. I can assure you the staff time devoted to this effort was significant and covered every side of the equation.

The PA-38 project was led by the Executive Director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Mr. Bruce Landsberg. His attached letter should answer your specific questions and then some.

Feel free to contact either of us if we can provide additional information.


Phil Boyer

June 24, 1997

Rich Stowell
Rich Stowell Consulting
P.O. Box 4597
Ventura, CA 93007

Dear Rich:

Thank you for your letter to Phil regarding the Air Safety Foundation's Safety Review on the Tomahawk. Since ASF, not AOPA, produced the review, I should provide at least some of the response.

You stated that there are irreconcilable differences between the information in the CFI Checklist article on the Tomahawk and the Piper Report FT-118. The reason for the differences is that in both the CFI Checklist and the ASF Safety Review on the Tomahawk, ASF chose to use the pilot's operating handbook for the PA-38 — issued January 20, 1978, and revised April 30, 1981, and not the Piper report FT-118 that you cite. The POH is required on board all aircraft, is studied by each Tomahawk pilot, and is more conservative in every case than FT-118, which, according to Piper, is a flight test report.

Let me respond to each of your statements:

1. In ASF's CFI Checklist, Fall 1996, we said, "because of its non-traditional design, [the Tomahawk] behaves differently than more conventional...aircraft...."

Stowell: "Then one would expect to see 'different' behavior in the Beech Skipper as well, the rival to the Tomahawk designed for the same mission profile. The fact that the Skipper has not developed a comparable 'reputation' seems to contradict ASF's assertion that the stall/spin characteristics are 'because if its non-traditional design.'"
ASF: Many would agree that the Tomahawk's characteristics in the spin are different from the most common training aircraft, the Cessna 150/152, and those differences are noted in the full ASF safety review. You will see that ASF has numerous references concerning the importance of proper training and checkout in the Tomahawk. The Skipper has some significant aerodynamic differences from the PA-38, because it is a different aircraft. Your assertion that because an aircraft looks the same, it should fly the same is probably not what you meant. I suspect Beech had a different philosophy when they built the Skipper.

With regard to the spin entry and recovery being conventional — as you know, each airplane make and model and individual aircraft of that make and model may exhibit slightly different spin characteristics, yet taken as a group, their spin behavior is said to be conventional. Pilots agree that the PA-38 spin characteristics are different from other training airplanes such as the Cessna 152. ASF contends that, while this may be true, the PA-38 is not so different as to be considered unconventional.

2. You quoted us correctly that "ASF research indicates that the PA-38 is involved in roughly twice as many stall/spin are the Cessna 150/152 and Beech 77 Skipper...."

Stowell: "If taken at face value, then the ASF is implying that it is a wholly acceptable certification standard to have like-missioned airplanes (Tomahawk, 150/152, Skipper) display a range of handling qualities that can lead to a 2:1 margin in stall/spin accident rates. In other words, they're saying that a 2:1 difference is what one would reasonably expect to see given the standard, and therefore it is acceptable."

ASF: There is a philosophical question on how much difference there should be between various aircraft certified under the certification rules that is beyond the scope of this discussion. The certification rules are put in place by the FAA and the industry produces aircraft to meet or exceed the standard. For example, the Piper Aztec and the Aerostar are both certificated under the same rule (identical missions) and have vastly different characteristics. Their accident involvement appears to reflect those differences and pilots understand that. ASF's point is that unless the Tomahawk fails to meet the certification requirements, it is incumbent on pilots and CFIs to understand its nature just as Aerostar pilots need to know their machines.

3. You quoted us as saying, "In a one turn spin...the Cessnas should recover within one-quarter to one-half turn following application of spin-recovery inputs; the Tomahawk may require up to 1.5 turns."

Stowell: "1.5 turns to recover from a one-turn spin??? Is this really what the FAA had in mind when it wrote the spinning requirements in Part 23? Normal category spin requirements are stricter for one-turn spins (must recover within one additional turn) than for one-turn spins in an Acrobatic category airplane (must recover 'from any point in a spin' in not more than one and a half additional turns)?"

ASF: As mentioned at the beginning of this letter, we used the PA-38 POH as the source for information on for spin recovery. The POH states: "Normal recoveries may take up to 1½ turns when proper technique is used; improper technique can increase the turns to recover and the resulting altitude loss.... A one-turn spin, properly executed, will require 1,000 to 1,500 feet to complete." When you quoted Piper as saying that "altitude loss of 1,000 feet was normal for the first turn and recovery," you were quoting from Piper Flight Test-118.

Concerning your question on certification, the Cessna 150/152 series was certificated under Civil Air Regulation (CAR) Part 3, which became FAR Part 23 virtually unchanged. The PA38 was certificated under FAR Part 23 through Amendment 7. The certification requirements allow some latitude as to how an aircraft will comply. In some cases, the aircraft may perform considerably better than the requirement while others meeting the specification do not have as much margin. Both aircraft meet the same spin requirements, but the PA-38 is less docile in a spin than the Cessna 150/152 series, a point to be emphasized during a PA38 check-out.

In our assessment, the Tomahawk has a higher involvement in stall/spin accidents because it is different from other light training aircraft by design. This is John Lowery's contention, and we agree. Where we disagree is that he alleges the PA-38 does not meet the certification requirements. We have not found any information in our research to support his contention, but read on.

4. ASF: "Instructors must know that spin recovery procedures are slightly different for the PA-38."

Stowell: "The listed procedure is more similar to all the rest than 'slightly different.' I do not know how they arrived at this conclusion. I've collected around 100 published spin recovery procedures for different airplanes and cannot find anything unusual in the listing for the Tomahawk."

ASF: The PA-38 POH states:

"(a) Apply and maintain full rudder opposite the direction of rotation.
(b) As the rudder hits the stop, rapidly move the control wheel full forward and be ready to relax the forward pressure as the stall is broken.
(c) As rotation stops, centralize the rudder and smoothly recover from the dive."

The Cessna 152 POH states:

"3. Just after the rudder reaches the stop, move the control wheel briskly forward far enough to break the stall."

These are small but significant differences in recovery procedures for training aircraft. Additionally the PA-38 POH describes "the immediate effect of applying normal recovery controls may be an appreciable steepening of the nose-down attitude and an increase in the rate of spin rotation." Those characteristics are not described in either the C150/152 or the Skipper's POH. Most pilots agree that a Cessna will recover almost immediately from most spins — the PA-38 takes longer. That's important to know.

In the full ASF Safety Review there are excerpts from the POHs of the PA-38, Cessna 150/152, Beech Skipper, and the Grumman American Trainer to allow pilots and instructors see the FAA approved procedures of each aircraft.

5. ASF stated that "some Tomahawk stall/spin accidents occurred when the pilot may have panicked and began to try alternative control inputs."

Stowell: In 1980, AOPA testified before Congress that spin training should not be reintroduced into pilot training.

ASF: The issue of whether spin training should be a blanket requirement in all primary training goes beyond the scope of this discussion. ASF made it clear in the Safety Review that spin training, prior to solo, from a spin-qualified instructor in the Tomahawk is strongly recommended.

Regarding any suggestion of a conflict of interest with Piper, it was fully disclosed in my "Safety Pilot" column in the February 1997 AOPA Pilot that Chuck Suma, president of The New Piper Aircraft, is a member of the Air Safety Foundation's Board of Visitors. There are 16 other members, including the president of Teledyne Continental (who hasn't fared too well on proposed ADs with AOPA), airline pilots, industry suppliers, and a variety of people and companies who have varied interests and agendas. We do it that way to ensure a good cross section of the aviation community.

Piper has not provided ASF any grants. Our financial base is diversified, so no one organization or group has any financial control. As a nonprofit organization, we accept support from many sources and assure those with a commercial interest that they are not buying or renting ASF's objectivity.

ASF did consult with Piper prior to the publication of the report (as shown in the letter that was provided to Lowery) to verify the technical accuracy of the report. We did the same with the manufacturers of the other 10 aircraft on which we have published safety reviews. Prior to publication, ASF sends a draft of the review to the manufacturer, FAA, NTSB, type clubs, and knowledgeable individuals to check for accuracy.

In the September 6, 1996, letter from Margaret Napolitan, Piper air safety investigator, ASF was asked to make four significant changes to statements in our safety review. We made a modification resulting from only part of one of their requests. We did not make the other three significant changes Piper requested. There were two other minor grammatical changes requested that we did make. If you compare her letter to our Safety Review, you will see exactly where the changes were and were not made.

Lowery was provided with all the information that ASF had. This is hardly the picture of an organization with something to hide. We gain or lose nothing by what happens to the Tomahawk, but we are interested in the truth. We have found in our review of the statistics, and in talking to flight schools that have flown and continue to fly the Tomahawk, that it is a demanding trainer that meets federal certification requirements. Some schools have flown fleets of Tomahawks for years with no spin-related mishaps.

Incidentally, Rich, you pointed out that:

  • You have not read ASF's full Safety Review on the Tomahawk as shown in the references cited on your Web site. Enclosed is a complimentary copy of the Safety Review on the PA-38. Pilots and instructors may obtain copies of the review through Sporty's Pilot Shop.
  • You have no experience in the airplane. At ASF we are fortunate to have a staff member who has several hundred hours in the Tomahawk as a CFI and has conducted many spins with his students. This helped us to understand some of the aircraft's characteristics more fully.

ASF did not publish the Safety Review to vindicate or validate the Tomahawk. We reviewed its accident history to educate pilots on its flight characteristics. The statistics are accurately reported in the safety review. If, through further investigation, it comes to light that there was a significant error or cover up in the Tomahawk's certification, we'll be right there with you asking for some more answers.


Bruce Landsberg
Executive Director
AOPA Air Safety Foundation