Deciding on an airplane type with a limited budget is an exercise in balancing strengths and weaknesses. One type might provide great cruise speed or pay-load, but less expensive examples might come at the cost of a high-time engine or old fabric. For the same price, it might be possible to find a different type that has been freshly restored with a low-time engine, although chances are, it will have fewer seats and less capability.
But what if one type’s perceived weakness is some-thing that can be addressed with awareness and ap-propriate training? In the case of the Piper PA-38Tomahawk, its unique stall and spin characteristics resulted in accidents and a poor reputation early in its production run. The reputation lingers today, but owners agree that if one is willing to train and fly appropriately, it becomes a non-issue—and a non-issue that enables a prospective owner to obtain a lot more air-plane for a lot less money than other types.
Back in the late 1970s, the field of training aircraft was dominated by legacy types that traced their designs back to the 1930s and 1940s. The popular Cessna 150and 152 were based upon the old 140, Cubs and Aeroncas had changed little over the years, and—whether equipped with a nosewheel or a tailwheel—most trainers also had high wings, cramped cockpits, and limited visibility.
When Piper set out to claim market share from Cessna in the primary trainer category, it took a fresh approach. Rather than build an updated Cub or a smaller Cherokee, Piper surveyed thousands of flight instructors across the country to determine what characteristics were most desired in a training aircraft. It solicited input on what features the perfect one should have and how it should fly. The instructors provided plenty of input.
Having spent decades in cramped cabins, they asked for more space and comfort. Having dealt with huge blind spots in the form of a high wing positioned at eyelevel, they asked for more visibility. And they wanted an airplane with a sharper, more pronounced entry into stalls and spins. They reasoned that a student cannot fully understand or properly learn spin recovery in an airplane that will automatically return to normal flight when the controls are released.
Piper got to work and created an airplane that me teach of these demands in the form of the Tomahawk. It built the airframe around the popular 112 hp, four-cylinder Lycoming O-235. Although the low-wing de-sign necessitated a fuel pump, Piper positioned the fuel selector in a location on the panel that’s both easy to see and easy to reach. And, like so many other models in that era, they opted for the style of a T-tail.
The result of the research was a new training air-craft that was thoroughly modernized and differentiated from the legacy trainers of the day. In the end, Piper would sell nearly 2,500 examples between 1978and 1982.In those four years of production, the Tomahawk line remained simple and uncomplicated. The vast majority of Tomahawks are the initial model, known simply as the PA-38 Tomahawk. During the last two years of production, Piper introduced the Tomahawk II variant, with minor improvements to the cabin: heating, ventilation, and soundproofing. The company also made a few smaller improvements to the interior to provide more comfort to those on board.
A survey of Tomahawks listed for sale at the time of this writing found eight examples ranging in price from $25,000 for a particularly rough example to $69,000 for one with a freshly overhauled engine and updated avionics. The median price of the group was $30,500, and the median airframe time was 3,717 hours. A total of 444 Tomahawks are presently listed on the FAA registry.
Because many Tomahawks have been used for flight training at busy schools, it pays to be discerning. Air-frame total time is something to note, as is the condition of an aircraft that might have led a hard life at the hands of primary students. However, an airplane that has been used regularly over the years tends to accumulate fewer issues in general than one that has been a hangar queen, so don’t discount a former school model.
The Tomahawk’s T-tail makes it easy to spot from across a ramp. Like the T-tails Piper fitted to the Arrow IV and Lance, it is said to have been chosen by the marketing department for its looks, but it has more drawbacks than legitimate performance advantages. A Tomahawk pilot must retrieve a ladder to perform a thorough preflight inspection, and to clear ice and snow off of the horizontal stabilizer in the winter or remove bugs from the leading edges in the summer.
Fortunately, the Tomahawk’s other design elements offer legitimate benefits that are immediately apparent. If the cabin size and layout of the Tomahawk had been the accepted norm and the competition had all waited until the late 1970s to introduce their cramped cabins with limited visibility, their airplanes might not have done so well in the marketplace. Indeed, the Tomahawk’s roomier cabin feels downright luxurious compared to an early taildragger or Cessna 150, and the outstanding visibility comes as a pleasant shock to everyone except possibly Ercoupe pilots.
Most two-place trainers endowed with engines in the 100-hp range require discipline with regard to loading, and the Tomahawk is no exception. With full fuel, anyone much over 150 pounds would be wise to consider the weight of the other occupant before de-parting—a survey of 18 owners found that the aver-age full-fuel payload was 303 pounds. Fortunately, the 30-gallon fuel capacity is larger than that of many competing models, and this provides some flexibility with regard to payload.
Piper Tomahawk: By the Numbers
|Price||$25,000 to $69,000|
|Powerplant (varies)||Lycoming O-235|
|Max cruise speed||108 kias|
|Endurance||5 hours at 6 gph|
|Max useful load||505 lbs.|
|Takeoff distance over a 50-foot obstacle||1,440 feet|
|Landing distance over a 50-foot obstacle||1,462 feet|
|Annual inspection expense||Low|
|Recurring ADs||A couple to watch for|
|Parts availability||Good (from the OEM and others)|