Piper Tomahawk: Not your typical trainer
By Julie K.Boatman. From AOPA Pilot July2001.
A lot of pilots met their first Tomahawk during primary training. But it looks more like a time machine than a
run-of-the-mill trainer, with its double doors and bubble view. And this is one time machine that almost anyone
can afford - for less than the price of a convertible, a pilot can expand precious weekends by spending more
time at a destination and less time getting there.
When the original Piper Aircraft Corporation first conceived a new trainer in the mid-1970s, the company polled
CFIs to determine what traits this airplane should have. The Tomahawk delivers what these special customers
ordered: an airplane that provides honest response to pilot inputs, a comfortable cabin with great visibility, and
big-airplane-style handling. Cockpit layout is geared for safety, with the fuel selector front and center on the console.
Flight instructors we spoke to feel strongly that the Tomahawk does what Piper intended. "It's the best primary
trainer ever built" says Jim Tafta of Richmond Flight Center in West Kingston, Rhode Island. "The student is well
trained, and they can't get away with some of the things they can in other trainers." The feedback is overwhelmingly
positive, with one caveat: This airplane, though a trainer, still demands proper training of its pilots from a qualified
instructor. Those with the training have flown the Tomahawk for thousands of hours without incident.
Pilots need special training because of the way the airplane was designed to stall and spin. The wing design,
the same basic section as on the Beech Skipper, was a cutting-edge airfoil - the NASA-generated GA (W)-1 - in the
late 1970s. On the Tomahawk airframe, the wing produces aggressive stall characteristics suitable for teaching primary
students about stall recognition and recovery. However, that design led to a higher incidence of stall/spin accidents, perhaps because the airplane cannot simply fly itself out of a spin like other trainers - it wasn't meant to, so that
students would learn proper control inputs. This is one airplane where it pays to know the territory.
The Tomahawk controls have a heavier feel, as they were designed to mimic those of a much larger airplane. In
addition, the T-tail delivers reduced elevator control response at low airspeeds - and this is actually reflected in the
accident reports to a larger degree than stall/spin issues. During the takeoff roll, the elevator becomes effective at
around 35 KIAS. If the pilot has been impatient and is holding greater back-pressure in an attempt to raise the nose
before this point, the airplane will overrotate. The same effect reverses on landing, "especially when a headwind
shears off"; according to Adam Harris, director of maintenance at East Coast Aero Club at Hanscom Field in Bedford,
Mass., who has owned four Tomahawks over the years. These are simply attributes of an airplane that doesn't fit the
standard mold, Harris points out. "We rent them to people with 10 hours and they always come back."
In fact, if you're looking for an airplane to provide a steppingstone to a larger aircraft, the Tomahawk makes a sound
choice. You face an easier transition in the long run because of these big-airplane characteristics.
The Tomahawk is roomier than you might think, and taller pilots feel more comfortable in this airplane than in a Cessna
152. Ventilation is also better than average, with automobile-style vents blowing cool air at altitude on summer days.
The cabin is wider by several inches than other two-seat airplanes, so you needn't be intimate with your passengers.
The airplane's greatest utility is as a day-tripper. Paul Diette of Mansfield, Mass. bought his 1982 Tomahawk II for trips
around New England with his wife - trips that take less than three hours and only require light bags. The airplane has
proven perfect for the mission: Places like Martha's Vineyard and Bar Harbor, Maine, are reachable in half the driving
Usable fuel is 30 gallons, and during cruise Diette figures he bums between six and seven gallons per hour. He
typically flight plans a true airspeed of 105 knots. Endurance is about 3.5 hours with an hour reserve - with full fuel you
can carry roughly 325 additional pounds of pilot, passenger, and baggage, based on the empty weight of a reasonably
equipped Tomahawk (around 1165 pounds). It goes over gross quickly (it is a two-seat aircraft, after all), but because
of the size of the cargo area, light-but-bulky items, such as an Adirondack chair that Diette flew home after a successful
shopping trip, can be handled.
Just fewer than 2500 Tomahawks were produced in model years 1978 to 1980, with the most units produced from
1978 to 1979. Aftermarket kits for the rear wing spar, vertical fin attach plate, and rudder hinge were developed
to address several AD's (airworthiness directives) that were issued soon after these models hit the ramp. In
1981 and 1982, the Tomahawk and Tomahawk II were made with many of the ADs taken care of at the factory. These later models are preferable, as the installation of AD kits in the field was accomplished with varying degrees of
accuracy. Aircraft with these field ADs may exhibit divergent flight characteristics from the standard Tomahawk
because of what are considered vague installation instructions from Piper, according to several A&Ps we spoke
to. Of course, as the gods of economics would deviously demand, fewer of the later models were produced as steeply rising interest rates and a soft economy helped send new aircraft sales to the basement in the early 1980s. Annual
production runs during 1980 to 1982 were less than 200 aircraft a year - not even one-quarter the yearly production of
Tomahawks in 1978/79. It's no surprise that prices steadily increase with model year, from $16,000 for a 1978 model to
$18,500 for a 1982.
Original Tomahawks rolled off the line with basic VFR instrumentation. The so-called "Special Training Package No. 1"
gave the airplane gyros, external and internal lighting, dual brakes, one (then) King nav/com and transponder, an ELT,
and a heated pitot tube - for a total price of $19,730. Strangely enough, the same airplane (with a radio upgrade or two
along the course of 20 years in service) costs about the same, not adjusting for inflation, as it did in 1979. The price
has rebounded somewhat over the past decade; Harris purchased his first Tomahawk for less than $10,000 in 1989,
while Diette purchased his 1982 model with year-old paint and a fresh engine with a 125 horsepower upgrade for
$22,000 in 1999. More on that in a bit.
One thing for prospective buyers to keep in mind: The Tomahawk wing has a lifetime fatigue limit of 11000 hours.
Some long-in-the-tooth airframes have nearly that many hours after years on school flight lines. Currently, a set of used
wings from an otherwise toasted Tomahawk is the one recourse. There is talk of pursuing a life extension of the wing.
Paul Sterling, owner of Sterling Aviation in Kent, Washington, is working with the FAA to modify the wing spar and lower
the stress levels of critical components in the wing, hopefully adding 5,000 hours to the wing's life. He expects a kit
to be ready in roughly a year,(NOTE: It is now available) and he hopes to keep the cost below $3,000. "The Tomahawk
is kind of an orphan", says Sterling. "We call ourselves friends of the Tomahawk - it's a labor of love. (NOTE: Paul now
has the STC for Wing Life Extention
Sterling has other STCed mods available, including a nose-gear scissor link to greatly reduce shimmy - a problem in
a training airplane with no shimmy damper. Air Mods Northwest offers the 125-hp upgrade to the Lycoming 0-235
engine mentioned earlier. This mod increases the compression ratio and induces a timing change such that the engine
can run at 2,800 rpm continuously rather than the 2,600 rpm limit on the regular 0-23 5. The mod also allows the pilot to adjust the pitch on the prop for cruise or climb operations. If you plan on flying the airplane from airports above 4,000
feet msl, this mod might be on your short list. Madras wing tips add stability and decrease stall speed, but only by a
couple of knots - you either like the looks or not, so really it's a matter of preference. The owner of the STC, Madras
Air Service, left the business recently, so it's uncertain whether these tips will continue to be available. A McCauley
propeller can also be swapped out for the stock Sensenich to reduce vibration, according to Diette.
When researching a used aircraft, type clubs host a wealth of information. two good sources are the Piper Owner
Society and www.pipertomahawk.com, a Web site maintained by Bob Floodeen. As with any aircraft purchase,
experience is key. "Make sure the shop which performs the prepurchase inspection is very familiar with Tomahawks",
warns Tafta. With aftermarket AD kits and high airfraine times ' discrepancies can easily crop up. But even the nicest
Tomahawks out there remain true bargains - and are dearly loved by their owners. Just ask Diette about N91383:
"It is truly amazing that you can explore America using your own airplane and your own flying skills."
Used Plane Market
===Average used price: $16,000 to $18,500