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Cheap Flying Fun!

Aviation Thoughts 9 Comments

Recently I was carousing around on YouTube, looking at some EAA Airventure videos from this year, and happened upon a video about a trip to Alaska from a small airstrip near Dayton OH.  This video was taken in 1960 on 8 mm film, and converted to a digital format, so the quality is a little less than today’s standards, but still quite good.  As I watched the video’s, there are two of them, I couldn’t help but think about how much fun that trip was as a lifetime memory!  AND it proved you don’t need a pressurized twin to make the trip, and have fun.

Because I read about the cost of flying as too expensive, it has always been true, that flying is expensive but in my mind, everything else has not stayed very cheap either.  We used to sacrifice other areas to save enough money to go flying, now flying is supposed to be a right and everyone should be able to afford it, which isn’t the way reality works.  But I digress, as the point I am trying to make, is that flying is an adventure, and this video reminded me of long cross country trips in a small airplane can be accomplished.  I have known people who own airplanes talk about flying to Alaska from the states, but have never had the time or perhaps the funds to make it a reality, but flying to Alaska has always held its charm because of the ruggedness and beauty along the way.

Image result for piper tri-pacer
In this particular video, the trip was made in what was a relatively new airplane at the time the film was made, the Piper Tri-Pacer. The Tri-Pacer was a modern version of the Piper Pacer, which had conventional landing gear…as in tailwheel.  Piper realized the “modern” airplane needn’t be such a challenge to take-off and land, the company added a nose wheel to an existing airframe and called it the Tri-Pacer.  The Cessna Skyhawk started out as a conventional gear airplane also, based on the airframe of the Cessna 170.

The original Piper Pacer is in many ways, like a four place Piper Cub.  They both share an airframe that it is fabric over a welded tubular frame, with a high wing and struts to carry the load from the wings.  The fuselage of the Pacer/Tri-pacer is short coupled and narrow, so if you are a big guy, this airplane probably isn’t for you.  The wing is of shorter span, with small flaps that can make this airplane sink like a rock when you pull the power back to idle while in flight. The engine cowling had large opening to keep the engine cool, and a simple fuel system of two wing tanks carrying a total usable fuel load of 36 gallons.  Great when it was a 135 horsepower engine, a little short when you have a 150 horsepower and need an IFR fuel reserve.

The early model Tri-Pacer featured a 135 horsepower Lycoming engine, that was upgraded to the larger 150 horsepower in later versions, with a few flying Tri-Pacers having a 160 horsepower engine.  The Tri-Pacer had some quirks, such as a right hand door for the pilot and co-pilot, while the passengers would enplane on the left hand side of the fuselage.  Visibility isn’t the best out the side, you have to sort of lower your head to look directly out to either side before banking the airplane, and did I say it was sort of tight inside the airplane?  Think of a width of a Cessna 150 with a few inches added and that will get you an idea of how narrow they are.

Watching the video is enjoyable in many ways, as you wonder what it would be like to fly a long cross country without a lot of navaids that were available back in the 1960’s, as well as limited weather reports and forecasts as we have available today with our personal computers.  What I really got a kick out of, was that he landed on an abandoned airfield in the middle of nowhere, and shut the airplane down to take a look.  So here you are in the wilderness, landing at a place without cell phones, communications, and who knows where the next village would be located, and there you are standing next to your airplane…I imagine the silence of it all was very intriguing.

From Alaska, they flew down to San Francisco before heading back home for Indiana.  The statics shown at the end of video #2 shows a total round trip flight time of approximately 90 hours in a little over two weeks of flying. The airplane appears to have the auxiliary fuel tank under the rear seat, giving another 7 gallons to the 36 gallon wing tanks.  Average speed something in the area of 117 miles per hour, and a fuel burn of eight or so gallons per hour for the round trip.  With those statistics, it appears the expense for fuel in today’s dollars, would be something just over $3,000…but consider, 90 hours of flying is what most pilots don’t accomplish per year! This was all done in a fixed gear 120 miles per hour airplane, which is still available today as a reliable and economical airplane, that can be purchased for under $20,000!

Although the Tri-Pacer isn’t a sleek looking airplane, they are rugged and Piper sold approximately 7,600 of them before ending production in 1960.  The Cessna 172 came along with the tricycle gear in 1955, which meant the demise of the Tri-Pacer because the Cessna 172 had more room, better visibility AND was aluminum.  The Tri-Pacer’s fabric would have to be replaced over time, and with it’s homely looks, didn’t last in the marketplace but did have a good ten year run of production. When Piper caught up to the all aluminum airplane, they featured an airplane called the Piper Cherokee which was 7″ wider and less expensive to produce. The insanity of it all was that the Cherokee prototype flew in January 1960, and the airplane was certified October 31st of 1960!

I have flown in a Tri-Pacer many years ago as a passenger in the rear seat on a cold February day.  With four adults the airplane was cozy, and for the hour flight, I can see no reason to put four people into the airplane with limited fuel.  I recall the airplane climbed well enough in the cool dense air, and the pilot forgot to retract the flaps during cruise, so it was sort of slow at first until we figured out what the problem was 🙂  The airplane was faster than a Skyhawk, while the stalls and slow flight were benign and un-eventful.  However, we did experience the glide ratio while simulating an engine out event, you aren’t going to feel like you are flying a sailplane at this point, so choose a field to land at immediately.

I appreciate the Tri-Pacer for many reasons, and most of it probably when I was a line-boy at the airport in my teens.  There were a few Tri-Pacers based on the field, and can remember an organ piano tuner that would use his Tri-Pacer to get to these locations throughout the country.  He had removed the rear seat, and would fly into some locations that he would land on a gravel road by a church, and tune these large organ piano systems.  He often slept in his airplane, even at sub-zero temperatures.  He had a STOL kit installed on the airplane, and he used it! It was an ugly airplane, it appeared to have been painted with a straw broom, but he got a lot out of it and flew it cheaply.

I recall other encounters with the Tri-Pacer, including a couple who would load their airplane up and fly to Oshkosh every year, and they would take with them everything including the kitchen sink!  One winter day, with the high temperature of -2 degrees F, the only airplane that was out flying that day was a Piper Tri-Pacer! There was one very warm summer day, 95 degrees + as I watched an airplane arriving…it was a 135 horsepower Tri-Pacer with two couples aboard.  They were flying back to Indiana, and I recall that although it was hot out and the middle of the afternoon, they commented that they had been in Montana for a week long vacation and were enjoying the trip.

And again, this year at Airventure 2016, an airplane from Illinois landed just prior to the daily airshow, and shut down not far from where we were located.  The airplane was a beautifully restored Tri-Pacer that looked like it was brand new, although it had been several years since it had been restored. I enjoyed looking the airplane over, because for the money, it is an affordable airplane that still has a lot going for it…enough that I would have flown it to Alaska and back, just to do it!

And so it is.  This is all about perspective, about adventure, and about small airplanes that are affordable.  In a world with precision, computer commands, and ease of communication from a small device that fits in your pocket, an airplane brings us back in time.  A time where it wasn’t about intellectual thought, but by having courage, a sense of risk taking, and when simplicity and ruggedness were the age of man, an airplane transforms time back to that era.  The link to the trip is provided below, I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

9 Responses to “Cheap Flying Fun!”

  1. Ben Says:

    Great idea! For me, I may build a new Vans RV 7a as my project while I complete my A&P training and for less than 100k get a new plane that cruises at 160 knots. Or buy a fairly new one built by a decent builder.

  2. admin Says:

    In the experimental aircraft world of resale, most airplanes can be purchased from a builder, for the price of the airframe kit, engine, avionics that the builder has used in the project. You get the labor essentially for free. Most builders do an excellent job, so you can get a great airplane relatively easy.

    That being said, if I were working on my A&P, I would buy a re-builder project and get familiar with some hands on work fixing up an un-flyable airplane. You can probably find an airplane that is not airworthy, replace the windows, do an interior, rebuild the engine, etc. and sell the airplane once you have completed the airplane. You could be in relatively good shape, plus you have experience working on all these components. You may even be able to find an old classic project that would put money in your pocket.

  3. Ben Says:

    Great idea! I see lots of Beechcraft Bonanza project planes and Pipers as well. Will partner with another fellow A&P student.

  4. admin Says:


    That is what I would do if I wanted to get an A&P license quickly…like building an RV from scratch would take years, you can rebuild an airplane in a year, get the experience, and at the end of the day sell the airplane for more than you have into it.

    I see a lot of airplanes that have light damage, such as a gear up that would have you doing some sheet metal work, rigging, and typically you have to do a teardown of the engine to inspect the crankshaft. Without having to replace a lot of engine parts, you get that experience also.

  5. Ben Says:

    Perfect, thanks, that is what I will do to build confidence in my A&P training. Plus being able to install avionics is good skill as labor is very expensive to put a new Garmin stack in a plane.

  6. admin Says:

    The best way to add value to an airplane, is to upgrade the avionics…even nav/coms are cheap with the new digital displays.

    I am a big believer in panel mount GPS systems, you can find many 1st generation GPS displays like an MX-20 online cheap, tie it into an older King KLN type receiver, and now you have something you can make money on.

  7. Ben Says:

    Agree! One reason I want my A&P is to do avionics upgrades on my own without getting stuck with a 10-20k repair bill. I find lots of nice older planes especially Beechcraft Bonanzas that only really need an avionics upgrade and minor cosmetic work like dual yoke and shoulder harness that can be done if one has the A&P license.

  8. admin Says:


    An upgrade to the avionics would add the most value if the airplane cosmetically was OK. I think if you look around, there are some options that can be added for not a lot of money, with the install being the major expense. Moving maps as a panel mount, make the dash look good.

    I especially like the idea of adding shoulder harness’s, because I think it is the most important piece of equipment that can be added for safety. I hate to see these old airplanes out flying around with nothing but a lap belt, as I think the shoulder harness will save lives in many instances of off-field emergency landings, etc. Plus, I just feel more secure having them and not just a lap belt to hold me in with turbulence.

  9. Ben Says:

    Indeed adding these would be fairly easy as an A&P and add value and safety quickly to an older bird.

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