December 1, 2002
By Thomas A. Horne
The ideal high-performance used single? For many pilots, Piper's Comanche 250 fills the bill. With good looks, a 157-knot cruise speed, a 14- to 15-gallon-per-hour fuel burn, a 1,000-nautical mile range (with the 90-gallon fuel system), and a current market value in the area of $55,000 to $70,000, this airplane offers a lot of bang for the buck. It may be 10 or so knots slower than a V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza of the same vintage, but its price tag runs tens of thousands less.
The Comanche line debuted in 1958, with the Comanche 180 and 250 models. These two models remained in production until 1964. Subsequent Comanche models — both single- and twin-engine — were built until 1972.
The 180 came with a carbureted 180-horsepower Lycoming O-360 engine, had a 140-kt cruise speed, and went out the door for $18,000 or so. The Comanche 250 was its big brother. Its 250-hp Lycoming O-540 engine gave this airplane a 20-kt advantage over the 180, and yet the 250's average-equipped price was only $4,000 more — but $8,000 less than a brand-new Bonanza J35 , which was the whole point. The Comanche was designed to steal sales from the Bonanza, and the tactic worked — even though Comanche 250s cruised some 17 kt slower.
The result? Comanche 250s sold like hot cakes. By the time its production run ended, some 2,500 Comanche 250s had been sold. This made it the biggest seller of all the Comanches, Twin Comanches included.
The Comanche singles brought Piper into the modern era. Before 1958, Piper built its reputation on slow tube-and-fabric airplanes with cutesy names and pre-World War II design philosophies. The all-metal Comanches, with their laminar-flow wings, retractable landing gear, stabilators, and greater interior comfort than any previous Piper, put the company in competition with the high-performance singles from Beechcraft, Cessna, and Mooney.
Comparisons with the Bonanza were inevitable — and unfortunate. Because the Comanche 250 and its stablemates were slower and less expensive, they were soon dubbed "the poor man's Bonanza."
The Comanche 250 has nice handling characteristics and is very easy to fly. Roll response is sprightly, and the airplane's all-flying stabilator keeps trim forces easy to manage. A few hours in the cockpit and you're pretty much at home. It's important to remember that Comanches are slippery. If you're accustomed to Cessna singles, you'll be sure to notice that speed reductions will take some time and require some advance planning. Of course, this makes itself most evident in the landing phase. The 250's pilot's operating handbook recommends 82 mph/71 kt as a final approach speed, but if you've been doing 90 kt on base you'll be busy lowering flaps, S-turning, or using other techniques to both go down and slow down safely.
Most of the grumbling you hear about Comanches has to do with landings. Close to the runway, those laminar-flow wings ride deep in ground effect. If you're too fast, the airplane can float and float while you bleed off airspeed. Impatient pilots who try to force the airplane onto the runway at too high an airspeed can easily find themselves rewarded with wheelbarrowing on the nosewheel. The airplane has a large nosewheel (actually, it's the same size as the main gear) and, together with the main gears' stubby struts, the landing-gear geometry lends itself to nosewheel-first arrivals, premature liftoffs, and wheelbarrowing. The moral: Make sure you're at the proper airspeed and attitude the moment you touch down. Like Mooneys, Comanches can be cruel to the sloppy.
Comanche systems reflect the airplane's 40-plus-year-old design ethos. There are plenty of traps for the unwary, and much to learn. Here is a brief sampling of some system idiosyncrasies.
Comanches may have looked like the future in 1958, but now they're showing their age. The Comanche 250 is no exception. The price you pay today depends more on condition than model year, according to Vref, an aircraft value reference guidebook.
There are some real beaters out there that could go for as little as $35,000 to $45,000, but be prepared for some restoration work — and expect a high-time engine. On the other hand, a cream puff in like-new condition with nothing broken, full AD compliance, complete logbooks, and a low-time engine can fetch as much as $90,000. If the panel's been totally fitted out with the latest avionics, then expect to pay much more.
One day in 1962, C.S. Hejkal of Dallas bought a new Comanche 250 — N8071P. He flew it for 350 hours, then parked it in a hangar at an airport in West Texas. There it stayed, until two Nashville pilots — Kirby Totty and James Simmons — bought it a year ago.
The protection offered by the hangar and the dry desert air preserved the airplane in like-new condition. The "Palm Beach" interior and paint scheme are original, right down to the side window curtains and red leather seats. Totty, an aircraft broker and A&P mechanic, gave the engine new cylinders, fuel pumps, magnetos, and Lord mounts; overhauled the carburetor; and installed a smaller nosewheel (a modification designed to prevent wheelbarrowing). Inspections of the airframe revealed no corrosion.
Then the avionics got a huge upgrade. Out went the vintage Narco Mark V nav/com. In went a UPS Aviation Technologies suite: a GX50 GPS receiver, an MX20 multifunction display unit, and two SL30 nav/coms. A Century 2000 autopilot and altitude alerter were also added. Now this rare airplane is a strong blend of the old and new. Photographs of Totty and Simmons' airplane accompany this article, and prove this 250's prize-winning status.
Comanche 250s like N8071P are rare birds indeed. Most are well-worn. Recurrent ADs and other aging-airplane issues keep the cost of annual inspections up. On the other hand, the Comanche 250 promises comfort, cruise speeds, and good looks comparable to other single-engine retractables costing much, much more to buy and operate.
For those willing to handle the maintenance and invest in avionics upgrades, the result can be an exemplary classic airplane. And one of the best-looking Piper singles ever built.
E-mail the author at [email protected].
The International Comanche Society (ICS) is an indispensable source of information concerning maintenance and other issues involving all Comanche models. The ICS publishes a monthly magazine — Comanche Flyer — that's full of advice. ICS technical advisor Maurice Taylor has earned a worldwide reputation as a Comanche maintenance guru, and ICS members can benefit from his wise counsel. ICS dues are $64 for the first year, $60 a year thereafter.
Another ICS publication — Tips Special — is a fat compilation of a wide variety of highly specialized, need-to-know maintenance and safety items, reviewed by an ICS technical committee. It costs $45.
For more information about the ICS, visit the Web site ( www.comancheflyer.com); write them at ICS, Hangar 3, Wiley Post Airport, Bethany, Oklahoma 73008; or telephone 405/491-0321.
For a detailed analysis of Comanche accident trends and individual accidents, order a copy of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Piper Comanche and Twin Comanche Safety Review from Sporty's Pilot Shop at 800/SPORTYS or online ( www.sportys.com).
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.
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