Pilot report - Piper Saratoga

[Reprinted from Fliteguide / Imperial Aviation]

Popular opinion holds that Piper's big financial crash began during the mid-eighties. By this stage, the Piper family's involvement had long since terminated - emasculated by boat manufacture Chris Craft's attempts at taking control of the aeroplane company's voting stock in 1969.

Not long after this takeover debacle, Piper surrendered to US corporate manipulation. To avoid a hostile takeover and the almost certain asset stripping, which was at the time a fashionable and legitimate money making strategy, the old man, 'WT' Piper, relinquished control to the huge and multi-faceted holding company, Bangor Punta. In 1983, Bangor Punta, to stem increasing losses, sold to Lear Siegler. It didn't help. By 1987, total sales of piston-powered general aviation aircraft dropped to 1,085 airframes, the lowest number since 1947. Of those, Piper were responsible for less than 300.

The company was sold to US entrepreneur Stuart Millar for US$2.5 million. Millar managed to increase production but could not escape runaway liability costs. Moreover, Pipers were considered to be under priced. In 1991, the company filed for bankruptcy, a year in which Piper made only 41 aeroplanes. Now under Chapter 11, production was eked out for a further four years until it was finally placed under the ownership of investment company Dimeling, Schreiber and Park who retained 50%. The balance of shares were held by Teledyne and a creditors trust. Named 'The New Piper Aircraft Inc, headed by Charles Suma, Piper once again emerged from financial oblivion with an energy last seen in the good old 'WT' days.

Piper's history of financial distress has seen them through the disastrous downturn in light aircraft manufacturing during both the late forties, and seventies. In the company's heyday, during the sixties and early seventies, production approached 5,000 aircraft a year. 'WT' Piper died in 1970 at the age of 89. During his stewardship, he upheld a humble dogma of humour, hometown business principles with a straight-talking management style that commanded tremendous respect amongst his employees. His efforts at keeping his company's products cheap and simple however, often hampered expansion and he was always reluctant to embark on projects out of reach of 'the man in the street'. Bigger and more sophisticated aircraft were an anathema to WT.

It took some persuading for WT to accept there was a market amongst Piper buyers for a light twin.

When the decision was made to go ahead with the Apache, WT insisted it would be the cheapest on the market and indeed sold for US$10,000 less than Cessna's model 310.

When the first PA-28 Cherokee was launched in 1961, it was a triumph of low-cost manufacturing techniques. Like the Comanche that preceded it by four years, the PA-28 boasted Piper's all-moving horizontal stabiliser and swept tail. The aircraft was an immediate success and replaced the company's moribund and tired tube and fabric Tri-Pacer. Unlike Cessna, which spent vast sums in convincing people that flying light aircraft was not far removed from driving a car, Piper sold on price and low operating costs.

The demand for light aircraft continued to swell during the sixties and with it, manufacturers began offering wider product ranges. It was inevitable that Cherokee customers would demand greater carrying capacity and sure enough, Piper were obliged to come up with the Cherokee Six. In essence, the 'Six' added an extra four feet of fuselage length but it was also an entirely new airframe, not only longer but wider too with a far larger engine. The wings and rear fuselage though, were almost identical in size to a standard PA-28. Piper added an eighteen-inch extension between the firewall and cabin for use as a baggage compartment. Deliveries began in 1969 and the aeroplane quickly outsold its Cessna 206 Super Skywagon opposition.

In 1976, Piper introduced a retract version, calling it the Lance. According to Piper, in an effort to reduce the Lance's cabin noise and save weight, 1978 models were launched with a 'T' tai. This modification may have enhanced the aeroplane's looks but added nothing in terms of performance. The T-tail went a long way in improving the Lance's sled-like appearance but met with general disapproval from pilots complaining of increased takeoff runs and other handling indiosyncrasies, especially during rotation. Despite offering the Lance with either a normally aspirated or turbocharged 300hp Lycoming IO-540, Piper only produced the T-tail model for two years.

Although WT had passed away and ownership of the company was in the hands of Bangor Punta, Piper was still keeping abreast of fashion and making improvements to its existing designs. The most notable at that time was the introduction of the tapered wing in 1974.

It wouldn't be long before the larger singles also benefited. Sure enough, in 1978, Piper flew their newly named Saratoga with the modified wing.

First customer deliveries were made in 1981 and again there was a choice of either normally aspirated power or turbocharged. The turbo line was closed down in 1984 and with production down to less than 20 Saratogas per year, the normally aspirated line was closed in 1991.

When Suma's New Piper Aircraft Company got back on its feet, the Saratoga was once again available with a number of improvements. Piper's preference for developing its line from existing models is a throw over from the company's earlier days. Cessna did the same but to a lesser extent as witnessed by the Centurion, Cardinal and Skymaster. As a consequence, the Cherokee Six's plank wings, elongated nose and estate-car appearance have always looked awkward - more so from the pilot's seat, which almost has a taildragger view over the cowling. Nevertheless, Piper was selling utility and this is exactly what the customer got.

When the New Piper Company relaunched the Saratoga, it called it the II HP. On firat acquaintance, it seemed the stylists had got the upper hand. The company has actually reduced window size and altered the nostril air intakes to a much smaller and more efficient size. Piper called the intakes 'axisymmetric' and a further benefit was a reduction in drag. The window size reduction did little to enhance visibility. However, it did a greatdeal to improve the slab-sided look so much a feature of the Cherokee-Six line. Piper also modified the interior by moving electrical switchgear to an overhead panel, giving the Saratoga an 'airliner' appeal. Moreover, substantial changes were made to the assembly stage which brought a reduction in lap joints and bigger skin panels.

Like so many clever but simple designs, the standard addition of a rear loading door for the Cherokee Six in 1966 was a great utility enhancement. It has been indispensable to owners ever since. In 1977, Piper turned the entire centre row of seats around and whilst grandly describing the arrangement as 'conference seating', it has been a further attractive feature of the big-fuselage Cherokees. Saratoga and Lance interiors were best remembered for their brusdhed-velour trimmings and faintly ridiculous window curtains that no light aircraft manufacturer, including Cessna and Beechcraft, has managed to look tidy. The latest Saratoga has business jet-type blinds that slide down in their own recesses. Indeed, nowadays, Saratoga interiors are a vast improvement on older models and new aircraft have a refined and bespoke appearance. Velour has now given way to leather and yucky plastic interiors to gentle but hardwearing fabrics. Over the years, older airframes have been steadily refurbished and original velours and mouldings have all but disappeared.

The rear's improvements were matched with a similar front office upliftment when the Saratoga II appeared. The very wide Cherokee Six panel featured lots of ABS plastic, now given over to a light beige, metal finish. It seems the general aviation industry has swept away its vacu-formed moulding machines and given the panel to their metalworkers.

Current models are therefore far more satisfying for the pilot. The entire Piper line benefited. The vast expanse of panel area available to the Saratoga has left more than enough space to install virtually any toy or accessory on the market. In standard form, the right hand side looks almost empty. Although hardly necessary, the overhead panel looks very nice and is perhaps comforting to rear seat passengers who will feel comfortable that the cockpit of a light aircraft is not far removed from present day business jets and airliners.

The panel layout has therefore allowed Piper to put everything where it should be and remove switches and gauges previously tucked along the bottom and out of sight behind the control columns. Notable is the autopilot, no longer a Piper Flightmatic but a posh KFC 150 mounted with the radios in the centre stack. There's even the addition of a press-to-test annunciator and an ATC playback recorder, (itself of dubious value - we've yet to hear of anyone admitting to use one). A glaring omission on the panel is a multi-channel engine temperature analyser. The benefits of such an indicator must surely outweigh the US$2000 cost of fitting one as standard. The company also equip their new Saratoga's with a Sigtronics fuel flow meter and an FS Engineering audio panel that enables the pilot to isolate the intercom so passengers won't hear any embarrassing radio slip-ups. Two intercom positions are available rear-seat passengers.

There are a couple of other clever additions. Piper has installed a panel-switch to power up a single VHF whilst the pilot calls for start or wishes to communicate without having to bring the entire electrical system on line, i.e. switching on the master. There's also a standby electrical vacuum pump operated by a rocker switch. The concept of pilot-friendly gadgets and convenience switchery has at last arrived amongst manufacturers, who in the past considered a cigarette lighter the ultimate luxury.

It doesn't stop there. Doors invariably suffer the zeal of weight-watching design staff - American built light aircraft are particularly bad in this respect. All Cherokee drivers have battled with the awkward latch mechanism, which requires a firm slam and the operation of two separate handles to close the front door. A loose upper latch on a Seneca can produce a hellish airflow howl for the unfortunate passenger in the front right seat.

Piper have now managed to seal their doors with a single mechanism that also engages the upper latch and now the door closes with a gentle pull and downward sweep of an easily engaged handle.

Starting the big 300hp Lycoming is straightforward, although it may take some judicious juggling of the mixture and throttles to persuade the big six into life when hot. There's agreat deal of weight over the nosewheel, the engine itself is a hefty 443lbs, so, like most big singles, steering is somewhat ponderous. The detached feeling on the ground isn't helped by the nose angle and pill-box view through the front screen. Nevertheless, the cockpit layout at last removes any motorcar pretension, which manufacturers for years attempted to emulate. It makes the Saratoga II HP more 'aeroplane-like', which is great news.

It's important to trim the Saratoga in readiness for any pitch or power change. Takeoff is no exception - a consequence of the long fuselage and powerful all-flying horizontal stabiliser. Trimmed correctly, the aircraft flies itself off the runway after rotating at 65 knots with 10-degrees of flap and a climb established at 85 knots. At long last Piper have trashed their 'handbrake' flap lever and replaced it with a slick electric preselect system mounted modestly on the lower centre panel. The maximum gear retraction speed is a low 108 knots, so this task has to accomplished fairly early. The flap operation speed is the same.

Where the Saratoga suffers with thirst it more than makes up in range. 102 gallons is generous tankage, allowing seven hours aloft and eight and a half hours at 55-percent power. This is tremendous for Africa Full fuel allows 627lbs dispersed around the cabin and forward luggage bay - that's three and makes highveld-coastal flight planning a painless and thus safe exercise. occupants and baggage. With a full cabin, i.e. with standard 170 pounders, range would be reduced to 350 nautical miles - 100 miles short of Johannesburg-Maun, enough for Durbanů just - and a single fuel stop for Port Elizabeth from Johannesburg.

The Saratoga is in the same lague as its Cessna 210 and Bonanza cousins, so 160 knots IAS for about 167 knots TAS is about what to expect with 2500rpm and 22 inches of manifold pressure at flight level 095.

This is a welcome ten knots faster than previous models, achieved in part by the airframe tweaks. The wing flap hinge channels are faired over, the mainwheels, which have always sat slightly proud of the lower wing, have been faired and the wing attach bolts covered up. Moreover, Piper has cleaned up the lower flap gaps and removed the tail-mounted rotating beacon.

Handling in the cruise regime is crisp and responsive, particularly aileron feed-back and the aeroplane is kindly in turbulent conditions. The rudder remains fairly stiff but is almost redundant until the time comes to enter the circuit and land.

With the current level of fees and passenger taxes at some of our airports, circuit visibility has become less of an issue. However, there's more leaning and neck-stretching due to the Saratoga II HP's smaller windows. Maximum gear lowering speed is 130 knots, so speed management becomes important when closing the airfield. Those with a few hours on Cherokee Sixes will know of the high trim demands as speed decreases. Some pilots will apply gob-fulls of nose high trim on final approach, knowing that this severly reduces pitch effort at the flare. Otherwise, if you're happy with a high forward stick pressure early during the approach, then that's fine. The approach is most comfortable at about 75 knots with 69 knots being the target threshold speed. The aircraft stalls at about 60 knots in the landing configuration so 65 is perhaps a good flare speed. With thee exception perhaps of the Bonanza family,, to land most big singles involves a wrestle between trim setting, hefty pitch control forces and a somewhat inelegant rearwards heave on the column. The key really is practice but the inherent muscle needed with these types of aircraft is a small payoff for the superb cruising qualities of the Piper Saratoga, in particular, the pleasure of travelling with passengers in a fine cabin environment.

The improvements Piper has made to the Saratoga are not merely cosmetic. The II HP represents a serious and significant advance in Piper's response to the market place. The aircraft effectively throws off the stigma carried by previous wide-body Cherokees of being built to undercut the opposition. In the areas that count amongst today's price-sensitive buyers - cabin, cockpit and quality - the Saratoga moves onto the level of a high quality personal and business aeroplane.


Note: PlaneCheck often has some nice Piper Saratogas for sale