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Piper Tomahawk: From ‘Traumahawk’ to the Perfect Day-Tripper

The Tomahawk's higher than average stall/spin accident rate earned the aircraft a conflicted reputation, and nicknames such as 'Traumahawk' and 'Terrorhawk'.
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Piper Tomahawk: Taking a Look at the Affordable PA-38

Founded by brothers Clarence and Gordon Taylor in 1927, the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Manufacturing Company became Piper Aircraft 10 years later after it was bought out by William T. Piper, the “Henry Ford of Aviation.”

Though best known for the iconic Piper J-3 Cub and its many variations, Piper Aircraft has contributed 160 certified models and nearly 150,000 aircraft to the world of aviation, the majority of which are still flying. One of the most affordable Pipers still available today is the PA-38, the Piper Tomahawk.

Piper Tomahawk: The Basics

The Tomahawk is a unique looking two-seat single-engine low-wing cantilever monoplane with a T-tail, sitting on fixed tricycle landing gear, and pulled by a twin-blade propeller. It was originally introduced to the world as the ideal trainer, designed with CFI’s in mind.

Piper reportedly surveyed over 10,000 flight instructors all over the United States before designing the Tomahawk and did their best to include every physical aspect and handling characteristic they desired in the perfect flight trainer. According to an article on Flight by Marty, the CFI’s desired “an aircraft with ‘realistic’ spinning characteristics, an aircraft heavier on the controls so it would make the transition to other touring types a little easier, a simple ‘in your face’ fuel system, increased visibility and more cabin space.1

Thus, the heavy-on-the-yoke bubble-cabin Tomahawk with a bad reputation for spin stability was born.


The Cessna 152

A Cessna 152 airplane in flightThe relentless sun rose in the summer sky, reflecting off the tarmac as Chase trotted toward the Cessna 152 flight trainer. The little workhorse aircraft wore a slightly faded blue-and-white paint scheme, its weathered appearance acquired during thousands of student pilot flight hours. On this early June morning, 16-year-old Chase climbed into the Cessna’s cockpit for the first time, surveying the controls as he waited for his flight instructor. [Click to read more…]


In its five-year production run (from 1977-1982, though interestingly, the Tomahawk was introduced in 1977 as a 1978 model), nearly 2,500 Tomahawks were built. The small, but roomy two-seat trainer was very affordable when introduced, and remains so today, though the prices increase with the model year. Post-1981 Tomahawks are designated as Tomahawk IIs and will be discussed a bit more in the Variants section.

General Characteristics and Specs for the Piper Tomahawk

The small two-seat trainer has two front-hinge doors for over-the-wing entry into the cockpit, which is bubble-shaped and loaded with windows, giving it exceptional near-360 degree visibility. The Tomahawk is powered by a 112 HP Lycoming 0-235 air-cooled engine and pulled by a 72-inch Sensenich fixed pitch propeller.

Instrument panel in a PA-38 Piper Tomahawk.

Instrument panel in a Piper Tomahawk PA-38. Photo courtesy of Martin Addison, CC BY-SA 2.0

Length 23 feet 1.25 inch (7.4 m)
Height 9 feet 1 inch (2.77 m)
Wingspan 34 feet (10.36 m)
Wing Area 124.7 ft2 (11.59 m2)
Wing Loading 13.39 lbs/sq.ft.
Power Loading 14.9 lbs/sq.ft.
Fuel Capacity 32 gallons / 30 useful (121.1 L / 113.5 useful)
Fuel Burn (75% power, standard conditions)2 6.5 gph
 Oil Capacity  6 quarts

Performance Specs

Takeoff 820 feet (249.93 m)
Takeoff (over 50’ obstacle) 1,440 feet (438.91 m)
Landing Distance 635 feet (193.5 m)
Landing Distance (over 50’ obstacle) 1,462 feet (445.61 m)
Demonstrated Crosswind Component 15 kts
Rate of Climb (sea level) 720 fpm
Service Ceiling 12,000 feet (3657.6 m)
Max Speed 109 knots (125.44 mph, 201.87 km/h)
Cruise (75% power) 100 knots (115.1 mph, 185 km/h)
Stall Speed 49 knots (56.39 mph, 90.75 km/h)
Range 468 nmi (538.57 mi, 866.74 km)

Weights

 Empty Weight  1,128 lbs (511.65 kg)
 Max Takeoff Weight  1,670 lbs (757.5 kg)
 Useful Load  542 lbs (245.8 kg)
 Baggage Capacity/Size  100 lbs (45.36 kg) / 20 cu.ft.

Piper Tomahawk Variants

Piper Tomahawk II

The 1981-1982 models were renamed the Tomahawk II due to many improvements and enhancements regarding performance and overall quality. Among other improvements, the IIs were built with improved cabin heating and windshield defrosting performance, an improved elevator trim system, zinc-chromate anti-corrosion treated airframes, better soundproofing for the cockpit, and larger 6-inch wheels and tires for increased propeller ground clearance, and better performance on grass and dirt runways.

Piper Tomahawk – Real Pilot Talk

Rod Machado, Pilot/Flight Instructor

It was designed by a committee in the sense that Piper began asking flight instructors what they would like to see in a training airplane. Ta-dah! A Tomahawk. This turned out to be one of the more peculiar training airplanes Piper invented. With its highly responsive T-tail, you could easily over-rotate on takeoff or landing and damage the empennage. We had that happen at our flight school and one little bump on the runway during landing and the entire empennage had to be reworked. When the airplane first appeared on the market I tried to spin one. Its nose pitched up and looked like it was going to flat spin. Piper fixed this tendency but I never spun one again. Perhaps the airplane got a bad rap but you certainly couldn’t say it was a hardy trainer like the Cessna 150 or the Cherokee 140/151. I don’t see many of these airplanes around today. This doesn’t make me happy since I want all airplanes to succeed, but that’s the way it is sometimes. Lesson learned? Don’t ask CFIs to help design an airplane. Instead, find out what pilots want in an airplane.

BlueRooster, Pilots of America3

The ‘Traumahawk’ is a nice little airplane to fly. It’s an honest airplane with no real nasty habits, but stalls require the use of rudder inputs more so than the Cessnas do. The audible stall warning device (‘oil canning’ of the skins) warns of an impending stall well before the break. The T-tail makes short and soft field ops kind of interesting, as it gets no wind from the prop, and doesn’t become effective until you reach about 40mph, then it comes in all at once, which can surprise some folks. But other than that it’s an OK airplane.

Brian, CFIIG, Pilots of America4

I like the Tomahawk better than the 152. Tomahawk is more comfortable (wider cabin), carries more fuel, and I think the Tomahawk is easier to land than the 152 (wide gear). Tomahawk was slightly faster but requires a bit more runway than the 152. Excellent points for a trainer. I could do 4 or 5 lessons in the Tomahawk before refueling. The 150/152 I had to refuel pretty much every other lesson. And I would much rather sit in a Tomahawk for 8 hours than a 152 … I think they are great airplane I have over 400 hrs of instruction time in them.

The Problem with Piper Tomahawk Wings

The Piper Tomahawk has a wing lifespan of 11,000 hours, due to possible cracking in the wing spars that can develop into a life-threatening problem after that point. However, there is an STC available to extend the lifetime for up to 7,650 hours for about $4,300,5 which is probably cheaper than replacing the wings in the long-run (you can buy Tomahawk wings on many online used plane retailers) when you add in the cost of labor.

Depending on how often and how many years you intend to fly your Piper Tomahawk, you may never even need to think about replacing the wings or shelling out the cash for the time extension. If, like many pilots, you buy the Tomahawk intending to use it as a time-builder or weekend day-tripper, a used plane with 3,000 hours on it will have decades of flight time left on the wings.

The Piper Tomahawk Stall/Spin Controversy

As deliberately spinning a single-engine Cessna can be more difficult, the instructors Piper surveyed wanted a trainer that could more easily demonstrate spins. Well, Piper delivered on that, maybe too well. With the addition of NASA General Aviation Whitcombe-1 airfoils (GAW-1), among other design aspects, the Piper Tomahawk was designed to take specific piloting input to recover from a spin (versus flying itself out of a spin like other trainers2) to allow pilots to increase their proficiency in spin recovery.6

This led to a higher than average stall/spin accident rate, which earned the Tomahawk a conflicted reputation, and nicknames such as ‘Traumahawk’ and ‘Terrorhawk’. Marty, at Flight, says that “The PA38 accident rate ranged from 0.336 to 0.751 fatal stall/spin accidents per 100,000 flight hours, compared to 0.098 to 0.134 for the 150/152. Having said that, the Piper Tomahawk has a one-third lower accident rate per flying hour than the comparable Cessna 150/152 series of two-place trainers overall, suggesting that – for whatever reasons – it is the safer aircraft.1

An AD issued in 1983 (83-14-08)7 mandated additional stall strips be added to the inboard leading edge to improve and standardize stall characteristics.

According to a flight safety review from AOPA, the Tomahawk may take more time to recover from a developed spin than a Cessna. They add that the basic spin recovery method of “opposite rudder, nosedown elevator, and neutral ailerons” is recommended, while noting an important revision to the pilot’s operating handbook, which says ‘The immediate effect of applying normal recovery controls may be an appreciable steepening of the nosedown attitude and an increase in the rate of spin rotation. This characteristic indicates that the aircraft is recovering from the spin, and it is essential to maintain full antispin rudder and to continue to move the control wheel forward and maintain it fully forward until the spin stops.’8

Brian, (CFIIG/ASEL) says “The only problem with spinning a Tomahawk is that it actually comes out of the spin too easily and nose-low causing it to accelerate past VNE in the recovery if one is not ready for it. The structural failures didn’t occur in the spin, they occurred in the spiral that occurred after the plane recovered from the spin and exceeded Vne. Also note that nearly all of the accidents were with instructors or DPE’s onboard doing intentional spins that had little or no experience spinning Tomahawks. Don’t intentionally spin a Tomahawk, and you will never have a problem. If you do spin it, be prepared to recognize when it comes out of the spin and recover quickly without exceeding Vne.4

piper tomahawk upside down

A crashed Piper Tomahawk near Pen-y-fan summit, by seansonofbig, CC BY 2.0

Regarding his overall feeling on the Tomahawk, Marty at Flight concludes that “If nothing else, the PA38 has withstood the scrutiny of time. It has proven itself over and over as the preferred training platform by numerous organizations, instructors, and flying schools. As far as stalls go, I always found the PA38’s stalling characteristics 100% completely and utterly predictable assuming the correct technique was applied.“1

AOPA expresses a similar view, speaking about the higher stall/spin accident rate. “Does that make it unsafe? No, it only means that the PA38 must be flown precisely in accordance with the Pilot Operating Handbook and with instructors who are proficient in stalls and spin recovery in that aircraft…9

In their safety review, AOPA notes that while it is easy to focus on the negative, there are many positive traits to consider, including “far superior cockpit visibility,” which should help reduce the potential for a mid-air collision; a superior night training safety record; and fewer fuel exhaustion and starvation accidents when compared to similar models.8

Were Production Tomahawk Aircraft Different From the Certified Aircraft?

On March 5, 1994, near Inman Kansas, a Tomahawk crashed with a CFI and a private pilot onboard, during a biennial flight review. Both sustained fatal injuries in the crash.10 The NTSB’s investigation resulted in five safety recommendations, which they outlined in a July 10, 1997, letter to the FAA’s Acting Administrator Barry L. Valentine. In that letter, the NTSB claimed, among other things, they’d been informed that there were significant differences in stall characteristics between the aircraft that was certified and the production aircraft.11

The NTSB’s Letter

First, they said that in reviewing a certification flight testing report from Piper, “The report indicates that only the turning flight stalls (with flaps retracted) were performed. The Board found no documentation that turning flight stalls (with flaps extended) or accelerated stalls (in both flap configurations) was ever tested.” They go on to say that after certification was granted and Piper moved production of the PA-38 to their Lock Haven, PA facility, the Safety Board “learned of reports of significant differences in the stall characteristics between the certification-tested airplane and the production airplanes.

According to testimony the NTSB received from a Piper engineer following the Kansas accident, shortly after Piper began delivering Piper Tomahawk production aircraft, they began receiving complaints from owners and operators that the “lateral directional characteristics at the stall were abrupt and unpredictable, and that the airplane exhibited a rapid roll as the stall occurred.” So in 1979, in an attempt to improve stall characteristics for the airplane, Piper modified the wing design of the Tomahawk by adding two more stall strips. (The Tomahawk was originally designed with two stall strips. The strips are triangular cross-section blocks about 8 inches long and a half-inch wide placed on the outboard leading edge of each wing, and are meant to modify the stall characteristics of an airplane by inducing a stall at a controlled location along the wing.)

AD 83-14-08 eventually mandated that all aircraft be retrofitted with the additional stall strips. However, the NTSB said the additional stall strips may not have solved the problem. They said that in a letter to the Safety Board they received in 1995, a former test pilot employed by Piper at the Lock Haven facility from 1978-84 claims that the aircraft he flew were “totally unpredictable, one never knew in which direction they would roll-off, or to what degree, as a result of the stall.” The NTSB says these views were echoed by a second test pilot, who worked at the Lock Haven facility for at least 6 years, starting in 1979. The second pilot said that not only were the airplanes unpredictable in a stall, “Each airplane did not perform stalls the same from one flight to another.

Finally, in January 1997, the NTSB interviewed a third former test pilot, who worked for Piper from, 1973-78, held the company title of chief pilot, and served as the FAA Delegation Option Authority (DOA) and Designated Engineering Representative (DER). In his opinion, the production Tomahawks being built at Lock Haven were “nothing like the article certified [by the FAA] as far as stall characteristics are concerned.” The third test pilot also claimed that the additional stall strips did not eliminate the observed stall/spin characteristics and that Piper test pilots who were performing post-production flight tests were shocked by the stall characteristics the observed.

The NTSB says they then reached out to the FAA to see if, and when, the agency had evaluated the stall characteristics of production Tomahawks, in either the original two-strip or modified four strip wing configuration. They received a letter back, dated March 3, 1997, in which the FAA said “We requested that Piper search the DOA files for any indication that the FAA was involved in any such testing, and the search did not reveal any such tests. Piper conducted stall/spin tests at their Lock Haven, Pennsylvania facility prior to the issuance of AD 83-14-08; however, only Piper DOA flight test pilots participated, and the FAA was not involved in those tests.

The FAA’s Response

In a letter dated March 31, 1998, the FAA responded to the above (and other) issues brought up by the NTSB.12

The FAA starts by saying that in order to address the claim that the wings of production airplanes were not structurally the same as the certification airplane, they conducted a review of the latest production drawings. “The comparison of the development engineering orders with the latest drawing release confirms that all changes required/approved during development and certification of Piper PA-38-112 wings were incorporated into the production wings. Therefore, the production wings are equal in strength and stiffness to the certification test wings, and this conformity was verified prior to tests.

They also address the three former Piper test pilots the NTSB gathered testimony from. The FAA says that discussions with Piper and a review of the production flight test records “show that none of the employees cited by the Board were employed as production test pilots. Additionally, one of the individuals did not work at the Lockhaven facility during the years that the PA-38-112 was produced. The production flight test reports for all PA-38-112 airplanes do not indicate that a single aircraft failed to meet all type design specifications, including those tested with the two stall strip configuration.

Finally, they note that at the time of the NTSB’s safety recommendations and letter, they were unable to find a report that they were involved in flight testing the four stall strip configuration. “However, the FAA has located the report (Type Inspection Report A4150EA-DO dated August 27, 1979). This report documented the results of stall and spin tests on a four stall strip configured Piper PA-38. The results were satisfactory.

Based on this, it would appear that the production model aircraft were actually the same as the aircraft that was certified, but it’s an interesting side-trip on the Tomahawk’s journey.

Operating and Purchase Costs

According to AOPA, “Piper stopped producing the Tomahawk in 1982 and doesn’t make all the parts for the Tomahawk anymore. However, there are companies that sell PMA parts – FAA-approved Parts Manufacturer Approval, so getting parts isn’t a problem.13

AOPA Insurance Services estimates an average cost, Piper Tomahawk flown by a low-time pilot will cost $1,000 to $1,500 per year to insure.14 On Trade-A-Plane, there are just a few Tomahawks up for sale, ranging from about $25,000 to $33,000, and on Barnstormers there are postings for the aircraft and aircraft parts as well.

According to username “kyleb” on Pilots of America, the annuals for the Piper Tomahawk are fairly cheap (about $800). “There is a 100-hour tail inspection that used to cost about an hour’s shop time, and there is a bracket in the tail that gets replaced every 3,000 hours (IIRC). That’s probably a $500 job, but I did most of the work and got a friendly IA to source the part, handle the paperwork, and help when the job required more than 2 hands.4 He goes on to say that his Tomahawk burned around 6-7 gph, making it an affordable day-tripper.

Conclusion

The Piper Tomahawk is one of the few aircraft I’ve written a profile on that I’m seriously thinking about purchasing for myself! Though it is kind of funny looking in that 1950’s-imagining-the-space-age way, it’s affordable to purchase and operate, was built in part to prepare student pilots for larger aircraft, and seems as though it would strengthen any pilot’s rudder skills, regardless of experience level.

Featured Image: courtesy of Svetlan Simov – AviationListOnline.com

References and Sources:

1 – Piper Tomahawk versus Cessna 152, Flight, Retrieved 4-4-17

2 – Piper Tomahawk, AOPA, Retrieved 4-4-17

3 – Are Piper Tomahawks Dangerous in General?, BlueRooster, Pilots of America, Retrieved 4-4-17

4 – Piper Tomahawk Thoughts, Brian, Pilots of America, Retrieved 4-4-17

5 – Tomahawk PA-38-112 Wing Life Extension, Sterling Aviation Technologies, Retrieved 4-4-17

6 – Piper PA-38 Tomahawk, Wikipedia, Retrieved 4-4-17

7 – AD 83-14-08, FAA, Retrieved 4-4-17

8 – Tomahawk Safety Review, Bruce Landsberg, AOPA, Retrieved 4-4-17

9 – Stall/Spin: Entry Point for Crash and Burn?, AOPA, Retrieved 4-4-17

10 – NTSB Identification: CHI94FA097, NTSB, Retrieved 4-4-17

11 – NTSB Safety Recommendation Letter, NTSB, Retrieved 4-4-17

12 – Accident CHI94FA097, Safety Recommendation A-97-043, NTSB, Retrieved 4-5-17

13 – The Piper Tomahawk: Designed By Instructors For Instruction, AOPA, Retrieved 4-4-17

14 – Pilot Briefing: Budget Buy, Alton K. Marsh, AOPA, Retrieved 4-4-17

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