A bit of Piper Comanche History
Below are two articles detailing the history of the Piper Comanche.
The first, as you’ll read, is mostly ‘numbers’ – facts, figures, timelines.
The second article is written with heart, with feeling, by a former Piper Comanche owner – XXXXXXXXXX who tragically died in mm/yyyy.
Piper Aircraft Corporation
Originating and manufactured in the United States, the Piper Comanche was developed as a Civil Utility Aircraft for private aviators by Piper Aircraft Corporation.
William Piper founded the Piper Aircraft Company in 1927 at the Vero Beach Municipal Airport in Vero Beach, Florida, United States of America.
Back in the day, Piper, together with Beech and Cessna, was considered one of the “top three” of general aviation companies.
The company ceased production in 2009 – almost 82 years and 144,000 Piper aircraft later.
Overall there are 160 certified Piper models and in 2010 it was believed that approximately 90,000 Pipers were still flying.
Primary Users: Private aviators
Produced between: 1957-1972
Number Built: 4,857
Unit Cost: US$17,850-$36,890
Variants: Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche
Piper PA-39 Twin Comanche
Maiden flight 24 May 1956
The Piper PA-24 Comanche is an American four-seat or six-seat, low-wing, all-metal, light aircraft of semi-monocoque construction with tricycle retractable landing gear.
Together with the PA-30 and PA-39 Twin Comanche, it made up the core of the Piper Aircraft Corporation’s lineup until 1972, when the production lines for both aircraft were wiped out in a flood.
1959 model PA-24
The Comanche is a four-seat (or, in 260B and 260C models, six-seat), single-engine, low-wing monoplane.
The Comanche is an all-metal aircraft with retractable landing gear.
Two prototypes were built in 1956 with the first being completed by 20 June of that year.
On 21 October 1957, the first production aircraft, powered by a 180 hp (134 kW) Lycoming O-360-A1A engine, took to the air.
In 1958 it was joined by a higher powered PA-24-250 with a 250 hp (186 kW) Lycoming O-540-A1A5 engine; this model was originally to be known as the PA-26 but Piper decided to keep the PA-24 designation.
The PA-24-400 was introduced to the suite in 1964.
The following year the PA-24-250 was superseded by the PA-24-260, featuring the Lycoming IO-540D or E engine of 260 hp (194 kW).
The 260 was also available as the Turbo Comanche C with a Rajay turbocharger and was introduced in 1970.
Production of the Comanche ended in 1972 when torrential rains from Hurricane Agnes caused the great Susquehanna River flood of 1972.
Sadly, the manufacturing plant was flooded. Airframes, parts, and much of the tooling necessary for production was destroyed.
Rather than rebuild the tooling, Piper chose to abandon production of the Comanche and Twin Comanche and continue with two newer designs already in production at Piper’s other plant in Vero Beach, Florida: the twin-engine PA-34 Seneca and the PA-28R-200 Arrow.
1959 Piper PA-24 180
The original version of the Comanche was the PA-24, which featured a carburetted 180 hp (134 kW) Lycoming O-360-A1A engine, swept tail, laminar flow airfoil, and all-flying stabilator.
The standard fuel capacity of the PA-24-180 was 60 US gallons (230 L).
The flaps were manually actuated, controlled by the same Johnson bar actuator as the Piper Cherokee.
The aircraft specifications were for cruise speeds of 116 to 139 knots (215 to 257 km/h) and fuel burns between 7.5 and 10.5 gph at 55-percent and 75-percent power settings.
Full-fuel payload with standard fuel was 715 pounds, with a gross weight of 2,550 lb (1,160 kg) and range with 45-minute reserve of 700 nautical miles.
When new, the standard, average-equipped Comanche 180 sold between US$17,850 (1958) and US$21,580 (1964).
A total of 1,143 were built.
In 1958 Piper introduced a 250-horsepower (186 kW) version using a Lycoming O-540 engine, giving the PA-24-250 Comanche a top cruise speed of 160 kts (185 mph; 298 km/h).
Most 250s had carburetted Lycoming O-540-AIA5 engines, but a small number were fitted out with fuel-injected versions of the same engine.
Early Comanche 250s had manually operated flaps and carried 60 US gallons (230 L) of fuel.
Auxiliary fuel tanks (90 US gallons (340 L) total) became available in 1961.
Electrically actuated flaps were made standard with the 1962 model year. The aircraft’s gross weight was increased from 2,800 pounds to 2,900 pounds in 1961, making the useful load 1,270 pounds.
The Comanche 250 had advertised cruise speeds of 140-157 knots and fuel burns of 10-14 gph (55% and 75% power).
Prices of new Comanche 250s ranged from US$21,250 (1958) to US$26,900, which was only US$3,000 to US$5,000 more expensive than the Comanche 180.
It’s believed 2,537 Comanche 2050s were sold.
In 1965 the first of four 260-horsepower (194 kW) versions of the Comanche was introduced.
- PA-24-260 (1965)
- PA-24-260B (1966 to 1968)
- PA-24-260C (1969 to 1972)
A total of 1,029 airplanes were sold from the Comanche 260 line, including the 260TC.
Thirty-eight Comanche 260s were delivered with carburetted engines; the rest used the fuel-injected Lycoming IO-540 engine.
The 260 had an empty weight of approximately 1,700 pounds and a maximum gross weight of 2,900 pounds.
It had four seats, and a 90-US-gallon (340 L)-capacity auxiliary fuel system was available as an option.
Cruise speed was advertised as 142-161 knots with fuel burn of 10 to 14 US gallons (38 to 53 L) per hour.
New, it’s believed the 260 sold for approximately US$30,740.
The 260B had an overall length six inches (152 mm) more than the previous models. This was due to a longer propeller spinner, not a longer fuselage.
The 260B had a third side window and a provision for six seats.
The fifth and sixth seats take up the entire baggage area and will seat smaller adults and is placarded to a total weight of 250 pounds.
Typical empty weight was 1,728 pounds and gross weight was 3,100 pounds.
Fuel burn was 11 to 14 US gallons (42 to 53 L) per hour and advertised speed was 140-160 knots.
New, it’s believed the 260B sold for US$32,820 to US$33,820
The 260C introduced a new “Tiger Shark” cowling, max gross weight of 3200 pounds, cowl flaps, and an aileron-rudder interconnect.
Cruise speed was advertised as 150-161 knots with fuel flow of 12.5 to 14.1 US gallons (47 to 53 L) per hour.
To prevent possible aft centre of gravity problems due to the increased gross weight and its fifth and sixth seats, the propeller shaft was extended. This moved the centre of gravity slightly forward.
With a useful load of 1,427 pounds it has the largest payload of all of the Comanches except the 400.
Often mistaken on the ramp for the 400 model, the slightly longer cowling includes a distinctively longer nose gear door, as compared to the B models and older versions.
When new, it’s believed the 260Cs sold for US$36,550 to US$45,990.
Starting in 1970, Piper offered a turbo-normalised variant of the PA-24-260 known as the 260TC with a Lycoming IO-540-R1A5 engine and dual Rayjay turbochargers.
Twenty-six 260TCs were produced between 1970 and 1972.
Advertised by Piper as a “second throttle”, the turbochargers are controlled using a manual wastegate assembly that places an additional handle labelled “boost” next to the throttle handle in the cockpit, effectively creating a secondary throttle.
The TC model is certified for flight to 25,000 feet, with an advertised turbo critical altitude of 20,000 feet, giving a maximum true airspeed of 223 mph (202 kt).
In 1967 one aircraft was modified with a 300 hp (224 kW) Lycoming engine for trials but never entered production.
Two prototype aircraft were built in 1961.
They used standard Comanche airframes but had 380 hp (283 kW) Lycoming IO-720-A1A engines with a three-bladed propeller.
The design was modified with an even larger 400 hp (298 kW) engine and produced as the PA-24-400.
The PA-24-400 Comanche 400 was produced from 1964 to 1966.
Only 148 PA-24-400s were built.
The base price for a new 1964 model is believed to have been US$28,750.
The Comanche 400 is powered by the 400-horsepower horizontally opposed eight-cylinder Lycoming IO-720 engine, an engine developed specifically for the model.
There have been cooling problems with the rear cylinders.
In 1966 Comanche 400, MSN 26-52, exhibited at the Hannover Air Show, Germany.
The Comanche 400 has a three-bladed propeller and carries 100 US gallons (380 L) of fuel, or 130 US gallons (490 L) with optional extended tanks.
Fuel burn was advertised as 16 to 23 US gallons (61 to 87 L) per hour, at 55%-75% power.
The high fuel burn means that it is expensive to operate.
The 400 had a typical empty weight of 2,110 pounds and a max gross weight of 3,600 pounds.
Book speeds for the PA-24-400 included a cruising speed of 185 knots (343 km/h) and a top speed of 194 knots (360 km/h).
While identical in planform to other PA-24 models, the 400 is structurally strengthened, primarily in the tail, with an extra nose rib in the stabilator and in the vertical fin.
The stabilator, vertical fin, and rudder of the 400 share virtually no common parts with the 180, 250, or 260 hp (190 kW) Comanches.
In addition, the 400s rudder is aerodynamically balanced in a manner similar to that of the Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche and does not have the lead external balance weights of the other PA-24s.
In 1967 a single Comanche was modified by Swearingen with a pressurised cabin.
The prototype, powered by a 260-hp Lycoming O-540 engine and equipped with Twin Comanche landing gear, was designated the PA-33.
The PA-33 was first flown on 11 March 1967.
Sadly, the prototype later crashed on take-off in May 1967 and the project was cancelled.
The Piper Comanche Story
– written by the late ????
The Piper Aircraft Corporation, out of its Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, factory, manufactured its Comanche line of piston singles (designated PA-24s) and twins (designated as PA-30s or PA-39s) between 1958 and 1972.
These airplanes turned out to be some of the more popular models ever built by Piper or any other general aviation manufacturer.
With a total of some 4,834 single-engine sales and 2,155 sales of Twin Comanches, the Comanche line looked invincible throughout general aviation’s heady years of the 1960s.
The Comanches brought Piper into the modern era, and the decision to manufacture them probably helped save the company from obsolescence and financial difficulty.
Having built its reputation as a builder of primarily tube-and-fabric singles, the late 1950s were an opportune time to redefine Piper as a company more geared to high-performance, sleeker-looking airplanes.
Although its Cubs, Cruisers, Super Cruisers, Family Cruisers, Clippers, Pacers, and Tri-Pacers had won terrific followings and were classic airplanes in their own time, they reeked of the past.
They evoked warm and fuzzy feelings and had cuddly names, but they were also slow and dowdy looking compared to competing designs from Cessna, Beech, and others.
Next to Beech’s popular Bonanza, North American’s Navion, and Mooney’s M20s, Piper’s products looked like warmed-over relics from pre-World War II – which they were.
The same held true for Piper’s only twin-engine offering in the 1950s, the Apache.
Cessna’s 310 and Beech’s Twin Bonanza, Barons, and Travel Air flew rings around the under-powered Apache and, frankly, looked sexier, too.
Piper’s Aztec, introduced in 1960, was an attempt to counter the competition’s higher performance piston twins. But what really had Piper worried was the Beech Travel Air, a classy-looking, entry-level light twin with 180-hp engines and the potential to take over the twin-trainer market.
So, Piper’s marching orders were clear.
By 1957, it clearly saw an opportunity for sales of a high-performance, all-metal design with advanced airfoils that would:
(a) offer a modern look;
(b) have cruise speeds and useful loads comparable to the competition;
(c) have interior designs with more comfort features than ever before offered in a Piper; and
(d) sell for less than the competition.
The result was the Comanche single.
The Comanche’s laminar-flow airfoil and all-flying stabilator were viewed as something akin to technical marvels at the time, and these features in particular generated a fair amount of publicity in the press and considerable customer draw.
Buyers in 1958 had a choice between two Comanche singles – one powered by a 180 hp engine, and one with a 250 hp powerplant.
The 180 hp version, typically equipped, sold for $17,850 and could cruise at 139 knots (159 mph) – a really good buy for the money, even in those days, when Cessna 182s with 230 hp engines, 141 knot (162 mph) cruise speeds, and $20,200 price tags were the closest competition – and they had fixed gear.
The 250 hp Comanche, the biggest seller of the line, offered even more bang for the buck. Aimed directly at the Bonanza, the 1958 PA24-250 Comanche went for an average equipped price of just $21,250 and cruised at an honest 157 knots (180 mph).
The 1958 J35 Bonanza typically came with a $28,890 bill of sale and cruised at 174 knots (200 mph).
Both were powered by 250 hp engines, both had 1,000 lb useful loads, yet the Comanche cost $8,000 less. True, the Bonanza cruised 17 knots (20 mph) faster.
But for more than 2,500 customers, the price/performance trade-off was an acceptable one.
In subsequent years, the Comanche single line was expanded. The 260 series brought two more rear windows, six seats, a sleek looking cowl, more power from its 260 hp engine, and optional turbocharging. There were never any “fuselage plugs” or stretch of the fuselage aft of the firewall on any model Comanche, twin or single.
The Comanche 400 came with a huge eight-cylinder engine and 400 hp.
With the boosts in power came greater true airspeeds and performance and useful loads that equalled or exceeded the competition’s, and yet Comanche singles were nearly always priced lower.
Almost immediately, the Comanche singles were labelled the “poor man’s Bonanza.”
To use an automotive analogy of those days, if the Bonanza was the Cadillac Fleetwood, the Comanche was the Chevrolet Impala.
Distinctive, yet less prestigious than the Bonanza, the Comanche spoke to those who wanted to go fast as well as save a little money and have an airplane with ramp appeal in the bargain.
Thus was born the Comanche-as-bargain-hunter’s-delight concept. Buyers saw the Comanche as a way of flying with style and without too much regret.
The same might be said of the PA-30 Twin Comanche, which sold for $41,190 in 1963 (the year of its debut),and cruised at 169 knots (194 mph).
Average-equipped Beech Travel Airs of that vintage went for $66,800 and cruised at 174 knots (200 mph).
Faced with a whopping US$24,000 price differential for a speed advantage of a mere 6-mph, the market leapt on the Twin Comanche-and for good reason.
Its 160 hp engines sipped fuel (fuel flows at high-speed cruise of 14 gph – for both engines – are not uncommon in earlier Twin Comanches), and the Travel Air’s 180 hp powerplants routinely ran at some 20 gph fuel flows at high cruise power settings.
Piper eagerly touted the Twin Comanche for its economy, a marketing strategy intended to win over the twin-trainer and single-engine step-up markets.
Many flight schools purchased Twin Comanches as multiengine trainers.
By the early 1970s, Comanches and Twin Comanches had lost some of their lustre in the new marketplace.
A long, humbling series of major airworthiness directives (ADs) had hurt the Comanche singles.
Once considered examples of advanced design, critics turned to calling Comanches just the opposite, claiming bad workmanship and a piecemeal, bandage approach to ADs.
Safety issues also became major concerns. In its early years, Comanches suffered a number of in-flight airframe failures and many landing accidents, a good number of which were overshoots.
The Comanche’s laminar flow wing makes for a slippery airplane.
This means that airspeed can get out of hand during descents and unusual attitudes, and that the airplane can float during landings.
The answer is for the pilot to think ahead of the airplane and practice proper airspeed and configuration control.
This is something that all pilots of high-performance, complex singles should learn, and the Comanche is no exception.
The Twin Comanche came under special scrutiny because of a number of fatal low-altitude stalls and rollovers.
These typically occurred on training flights and were blamed on Vmc demonstrations and engine-out manoeuvres gone bad.
Prior to 1967, multiengine flight instructors and FAA examiners routinely asked students to perform single-engine stalls and other hair-raising manoeuvres with an engine out.
Given these circumstances, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation believes that the disproportionate involvement of Twin Comanches in fatal Vmc and engine-out accidents in those days is more representative of unsafe training practices and the numbers of Twin Comanches in the training fleet than it is of any deficiencies in the airplane per se.
But false ideas sometimes take on lives of their own and, given enough time, become legend.
Today, many pilots retain the notion that the Twin Comanche is somehow still inherently dangerous.
Other pressures also helped force the Comanche and Twin Comanche out of production.
These airplanes were very labour-intensive, had high parts counts, and were just plain expensive to build.
Plans were in the works to do away with the Comanche and Twin Comanche well before Hurricane Agnes flooded the Susquehanna River and inundated the Lock Haven plant in June 1972.
Piper said that production of any more Comanches and Twin Comanches wouldn’t be feasible, because the tooling and dies for the Comanche and Twin Comanche were destroyed in the flood.
A convenient excuse, perhaps, but in any event, Comanche production ceased with the flood, and its place was taken by the PA-28 Arrow and PA-32 Cherokee Six, Cherokee Lance, and Saratoga single engine models, all of which are built in Piper’s Vero Beach, Florida, manufacturing site.
These airplanes were simpler and less expensive to build.
Piper didn’t build another light twin for production until 1979, when it rolled out the PA-44 Seminole – which is essentially a twin-engine Arrow.
Today, the Comanche and Twin Comanche line is supported by a dedicated group of enthusiasts, most of whom belong to the International Comanche Society (ICS).
The ICS’s staff and its official publication, ‘The Comanche Flyer” can be considered the world’s preeminent source of information regarding Comanche and Twin Comanche maintenance issues, as well as parts supplies and modifications.
As for initial and recurrent training, several training organizations offer type-specific flight training geared to Comanches and Twin Comanches.