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Nov 20 2012

Best Basic Trainer – Piper vs. Cessna

Piper Cherokee was always somehow lost in Cessna’s shadow – even being quite omnipresent across the planet, and beloved by its owners, these airplanes don’t appear to be a flight schools favorite. In all Toronto area there was only one flight school renting out a Warrior, and apparently there is only one flight school in using Cherokees for training in all Canada – Langley, in BC.

So what makes the last Piper creation stand so strangely between the others? In my opinion, it is a combination of factors which make Cherokee an acceptable family ride, but poor basic trainer. And first and foremost of these are…

Bungees!

That’s the first thing you notice while trying to steer a Cherokee around. Every student pilot knows that an aileron should be turned somewhere “into the wind”, in attempt to prevent the airplane from being flipped over by an evil gust of wind. Granted, no student (neither most of the other pilots) would ever encounter a wind so gusty as to flip an airplane. Let alone go flying in such wind – but an attempt to cross-control a Cherokee would immediately result in a physical struggle against the yoke.

Bungees are especially noticeable if you come from Cessna background – suddenly there is no way to check the aileron or rudder hinges during the walk around, twisting the yoke into the wind feels silly, and besides… even the rudder pedals are connected to the nose wheel directly, eager to tell you about every bump on the taxiway! It’s all weird, everything feels so wrong.

Brakes are weak, so direct connection between the rudder and pedals helps in negotiating those tight turns around other parked airplanes (but there comes a bonus – as most of your neighbors will be high-wing Cessnas, it’s too easy to swipe your low wing underneath theirs!) And it immediately made me think that I should keep the rudder straight when lowering the nose on landing roll – or a very unpleasant, or even dangerous, nose jolt would follow.

A definitely strong side of Cherokee is crosswinds handling. Rudder is weak, and transition from steering with a nose wheel to steering with a rudder after lifting the nose, immediately demonstrates that – but still, one of the windy days I was able to handle 20G30 at 80 degrees doing an hour of circuits without ever losing control. Though in many cases I had to use full leg while rolling on the mains (or main, depending on the case)…

As soon as you attempt to pull on the yoke, elevator sensitivity becomes very apparent. And as soon as you try to stabilize the angle of attack, a great deal of precise trim work would be required. Cessna 172 needs trimming, all right, but in Cherokee your right hand would have to switch from throttle to trim, and remain there for most of the flight!

The Warrior I was flying had a 180 hp engine with a constant speed prop, so it was climbing fast and tough, with overall feeling like it can lift up whatever you load into it. With full tanks and four people aboard climb rate was way better than in a 172 SP with same number of passengers and half tanks. Where Cessna struggled, Cherokee moved strong like a tank – though not “vertical” as, for example, a stock Super Cub.

There is no feedback from the elevator, you’d have to fly it much like a flight simulator – moving your hand, looking, reacting, trying not to induce oscillation, holding, trimming, and praying that this last try was precise enough. And in the beginning, there would always be too much elevator – so don’t be discouraged.

Once finally stabilized in the air, airplane does not feel as steady as a Cessna. The whole machine feels short-coupled, wagging a bit here and there, bobbing the nose up and down… Any change in power settings requires re-trimming. Those stupid bungees were supposed to help you stay coordinated during the turns, but if you try to fly with yoke or rudders only – there will be lots of extra banking or yawing involved – so I tend to fly Cherokee with hands and feet working together, ignoring (or rather overcoming) bungees every time they don’t do a good job of “auto coordinating” the plane.

Stall break is soft and easy to handle, with no significant buffeting, and a stall warning produces a weak beep way too early. However, a Warrior I flew did not demonstrate a tendency to drop the wing lower than 10-15 degrees on the power-on stalls, and compensation was easy – despite a weak rudder. Ailerons also work fine through the stall (though the bungees would make you remember about them, obviously).

Try the steep turns. See? All these instability and short-coupling feelings become overwhelming! If you are trimmed for the turn speed and keep working all the control surfaces, steep turns can be done nicely and with reasonable precision. Try to slack and leave bungees to “help” you, or be too muscular on the yoke instead of trimming – and you’d get some seriously ugly steep turns.

Cessna pilot would be pleasantly surprised by an excellent all-around visibility. No need to raise the wing, frantically peeking from under it, hoping to see someone landing on top of you. My wife loves to make aerial photos, and from her perspective, Warrior was an awesome photo-platform, with excellent visibility around and even below – the wing is only restricting the view behind and below, but forward view is awesomely open.

Dashboard, though, is rather high – and 172’ pilot would tend to put a pillow under his butt to get a Cessna-like view. 150’s pilot would be just ok, and anyone who flew the taildraggers would be hard pressed to complain about the lack of forward visibility.

There are unnecessary nuisances, though – for example, fuel tank switch doesn’t have a crossfeed position. Lack of the support for the pilot’s left hand is annoying – you have to hang on the yoke. Upper latch on the door is a pain to deal with, when used and beaten (and most of them are very used and beaten), though prevents the classic Cessna’s “what’s that noise?” after an unexpected door opening in flight. Handbrake is rather awkward to work with. Throttle quadrant levers are generally used in barely ¼ of available travel – and a huge pain to do set them precisely in turbulent air! I generally nudge them with a light pressure of my fingers, rather then moving the levers.

Cruising in a Cherokee is not as plain and simple as in Cessnas, due to all the trimming and re-trimming required – but the speeds may be a tad bit faster with full load. Though nothing exciting, really – a 172 RG feels just about the same, and leaps forward even faster after stabilized at cruise settings. Your passengers would feel less bumps, though – Cherokee feels like it is cutting through the air, while Cessnas are floating through it.

I never spinned a Cherokee, but tried the spiral dives – they looked weird, with fast initial acceleration, but if left on its own, my Warrior was simply stabilizing at some comfortable speed (within green arc), and just sitting there, spiraling to the ground with rather flat bank.

Slipping a Cherokee is a waste of time, same as using its flaps. Both flaps and slipping are inefficient, and invite for a better way to lose an excess of altitude – slowing down. Once below certain magic number (depending on the rigging, I guess), Cherokee sinks like a rock. Even more so during the power-off turn, while simulating an emergency approach! The ground just lifts up and tries to eat you, so you feel like adding power and lowering the nose and doing whatever is needed to keep the speed flyable and the fall, stopped…

Approach requires keeping a right speed. Slow down – you’ve busted it sinking deep and fast, and will need to recover. Speed up – and you will float, and float, and float a few feet above the runway, with plenty of time to think about going around. Nail the right speed – and you will touch down solid and clear, easily holding the nose up and compensating for any crosswind you may encounter. If Cherokee is forced down flat, it softly lifts back into the air, and you may believe that you are still rolling – while skimming a couple of feet above the runway! When there is a headwind to talk about, you can even land “short” (say, longer than 172, but way shorter than a usual Cherokee long run).

All in all – using Cherokee as a training platform does not sound like a good idea to me. For a trained pilot, all these nuisances and idiosyncrasies would not be too much to cope with – but for a newbie flier, many wrong and unnecessary things would be implanted in the brain, and many extra hours would be spent fighting the machine. It is an a-ok family transport, strong and sturdy, sort of like a used SUV vs. usual cars – but nothing really exciting as far as stick and rudder flying goes. Nor it can beat Cessnas in being a pilot-friendly airplane – however, Cherokees are generally cheap, which gives them a deserved share of the GA machines market.