Every aircraft has a personality, even if it is dull or plain. Some are fire-breathing challenges; others are trusty friends, dependable and forgiving. Some are thoroughbreds, others plodding workhorses.
Piper’s Cherokee Six falls into the last category. Never a hey-look-at-me airplane, but always a big, comfortable and flexible load hauler. Performance figures and handling would not excite anyone. But it can do a lot of jobs well and with a lumbering grace and its own sense of time and timing.
Several staff members and friends have an encyclopedia of experience with the Six; some have owned one. Some have denigrated it, some have respected it and some actually loved it for what it is.
Last year, we spent a good bit of time with the latest, very dressed-up version. We all had a good time together; even though airplanes are inanimate things, we felt as if the airplane were enjoying it, too, almost aware that it was being flown by friends who respected its qualities.
Suddenly, to the Piper Corporation, it was gone with the whisk of a marketing broom and transformed into the Saratoga, one of four wide-body singles linked in someone’s notion of a unique selling idea. It also got a new-to-it wing, the semi-tapered design first introduce on the Warrior and now common to all offspring of the Cherokee except the Seneca twin.
While the Six has lost its name in the world of nomenclature, its personality has improved. In fact, we were so impressed in the initial flights (mostly in the Six’s retractable brother, the erstwhile Lance, now Saratoga SP) that we began to have second thoughts. Perhaps it was not so significant an improvement.
But it was. We had more cracks at the Saratoga, and on one very turbulent day, we flew a Saratoga and a Seneca on the identical trip. The difference in response was remarkable.
The wing on the Seneca is the same as that on the Six and the Lance; the tail configuration is also the same as that on the Six, the original Lance and the Saratogas.
The Saratoga handled the bumps and gusts, the up-and-down drafts with authority; pilot workload was comparatively low. The Seneca wallowed and required a great deal more control movement for a similar amount of correction and a great deal more concentration on flying. It was particularly noticeable at low airspeed and during takeoff and landing.
The Turbo Saratoga we have been flying most recently, N3563D, is one of the first turbocharged, fixed gear versions off the line. Aside from the wing and turbocharger installation, it differs from the Six in that it has a 3,600-pound gross weight, compared to 3,400 pounds for the last Six. Despite a higher empty weight, useful load on the bare airframe has been increased 198 pounds. Usable fuel has been increased marginally from 98 to 102 gallons, too.
Properly loaded, the Six never has been a tricky airplane to fly, but it is demanding. Heavily loaded, it takes the same precise touch that big, old, transport category airplanes require, particularly with a loading biased towards aft cg. In such cases, it points its enormous nose towards the sky even on the ground. It looks as though it is out of the loading envelope even when it is not.
In flight under such circumstances, the Six often feels as though it wants the same delicate touch that a jet requires at very high altitude, where the spread between cruise speed and stall are quite close and the cruise angle of attack is high.
Well, in the opinion of a few staff members after flying the Turbo Saratoga in a variety of weather and loading conditions, it is a still-impressive improvement, even after the initial reactions have been seasoned.
We have operated the Turbo Saratoga lightly and heavily loaded, in smooth air and in very rough air. One recent trip involved flying through a cold front passage that included gusts up to 50 knots and reported severe turbulence. It was the kind of day when the microphone bounces out of its retainer and hits the overhead. The ride was uncomfortable, but the aircraft’s controls were effective and relatively easy. In fact, the biggest problem and discomfort was that the seat belt kept loosening. We learned to tighten it every few minutes after the first few sharp knocks against the cockpit headliner.
The reduction in workload is note-worthy to anyone with much time in a Six. The improvement in roll control makes control response in the other axes more apparent.
For instance, even the rudder seems to be more effective. During the flare, it is much easier to move the Saratoga from one side of the runway to the other using rudder only.
Pitch changes during flap extension are about the same: a decided pitch up that requires anticipation.
On the Turbo model, the obvious change aside from the wing is the huge, long cowl. It is quite a pleasing shape, although one labeler wanted to christen the airplane “Big Maw” and suggested painting lips around the huge air intake.
In general appearance it is much the same as the Turbo Lance cowl. However, a great deal more attention has been paid to cooling air flow. Louvers on the top side of the cowl provide smoother, more efficient hot air exhaust and reduce the hot spots that the earlier version suffers. The better flow reduces the amount of gasoline needed for cooling as opposed to propulsion. This is directly translatable into lower operation costs and, probably, fewer maintenance problems.
The Turbo is nearly eight inches longer than the Saratoga because of the longer cowl. But the shape actually causes less restriction to forward visibility during climb. This in not to say that it does not block the view, however. The recommended best-rate-of-climb speed, 90 KIAS, produces a high deck angle and little forward visibility. Even at the recommended cruise climb of 105 KIAS, it is a problem; so we have been using 120, except during actual instrument departures.
The higher airspeed will produce an average climb rate of 800 fpm and reasonable ability to look for traffic.
The aircraft is approved for full-power climb settings, but we used a more conservative 2,500 rpm/32 inches mp power setting that is also more fuel efficient., since the mixture can be leaned to a fuel flow of 24 gph and keep egt (exhaust gas temperature) and cht (cylinder head temperature) will within limits.
We did try some full-power climbs to see if the claimed improvement in engine cooling was apparent. On the hottest day we flew, with an ambient temperature of 72ÂºF, cylinder head and oil temperature readings did not get into the high side of the green after nearly 15 minutes of full power at 105 KIAS.
Pitch and power changes require large changes in rudder trim, and pilots of average strength quickly will learn to use the trim control down low on the pedestal.
The three-bladed propeller installed on 63D reduces takeoff ground roll by 170 feet from a two-bladed prop. Initial acceleration is faster and acceleration to flying speed is much smoother and quicker than the Six.
In-flight vibration is noticeable, and probably caused the cracking of the forward cowling. Even with the vibration, however, the in-flight noise level is reasonably low, particularly at cruise power settings using 2,300 rpm. Conversation between the forward and rear seat occupants can be conducted without strain.
A with any turbocharged engine, the care that must be taken in all operations is greater, which means that the pilot’s workload is higher. Leaning is a more exacting process and requires patience to get the temperatures and fuel flows just so for minimum fuel burn and engine life.
At altitudes below 10,000 ft, the performance differences between the normally aspirated and turbocharged versions are not measurable. Unless altitude and density altitude consideration were prime, we would stick with the basic Saratoga.
Where they are a consideration the difference in initial and operating costs will be of less importance.
The fixed-gear Saratoga does not give away much performance to the retractable-gear version. For instance, the Turbo Saratoga SP is only 12 knots faster at 65 percent power than the fixed-gear version; the Saratoga SP is only nine knots faster at 11,000 feet, its optimum altitude for 65 percent power (which is not the optimum altitude for the Turbo Saratoga). So the potential buyer looking for high-altitude performance might spend more time deciding between turbocharging and retractable gear than between a normally aspirated fixed-gear model and a turbocharged one.
Workhorse or family station wagon, the Turbo Saratoga is an appealing airplane and remains a mainstay in the Piper fleet almost 30 years later.
Edward G. Tripp, AOPA Pilot, June 1980