Going Ugly Early

Like many other aspiring pilots, I trained in a well used two-seat Cessna 150. One-Fifties are fine training aircraft, but I wanted to go farther and faster. I wanted an aircraft that could be used for regional business trips as well as trips to the North Carolina mountains. I also needed an aircraft that would allow me to fly in most weather conditions, with an Instrument Rating. 

Not long after getting an IR, I got checked out in N91SS, a retractable-gear, 1971 vintage Piper Arrow II. This plane, with 6,000 hours on the airframe, was a line rental at Orlando Country Airport, (X04).

The Piper Arrow (PA-28R or PARO) is basically a Piper Cherokee (PA-28), but with a bigger engine, constant speed propeller and folding feet. A constant speed prop allows the pilot to variably and precisely set the blade angle of the propeller for each phase of flight. A lever on the panel controls the pitch, thus the engine RPMs, for more efficient take-offs, climbs and cruise flight. Most small aircraft have fixed-pitch propellers, meaning the propeller blade angle setting from the factory is a compromise across the entire performance spectrum.   

The first iterations of the Arrow were built with a 4-cylinder IO-360 Lycoming engine, churning out 180 horses. Later models were upgraded to the 200 HP Lyc with fuel injection. Even later models traded the Piper “hershey bar” wing for the taper wing and a T-tail.

After checkouts in both the Arrow, and a well used Cessna 182, my logbook was updated by my CFI to reflect High Performance and Complex Endorsements.  

The Arrow I rented was much heavier than the Cessnas, and was capable of cruising at 140 knots. This was a good 25 knots faster than what I was accustomed. Initially, the additional speed took some getting used to.  

The Arrow has 4 seats and a small baggage area in the rear of the cabin. Because of the retractable gear and constant speed prop, it falsely gave me, with just a hundred hours total time, the illusion that I was a “real” pilot.  

On trips to the NC Mountains in the Arrow, I was able to “block out” in  about 3 hours, as opposed to the usual 4 hours it took in a Cessna 172, or the 10 hours it required to drive. Even though the cost to rent the Piper was more per-hour; the total dollar cost was not much greater than the Cessna, due to the faster trip times. 

My business schedule was such that I required access to an aircraft on short notice. That did not always mesh well with rental fleets that were sometimes booked weeks in advance. I decided I needed a plane of my own, so I started searching for my own Arrow. Eventually I found N38635, a 1977 Piper Arrow III, in Palm Beach. A few days later, after a thorough pre-buy inspection and some paperwork, I flew it home.

N38635, 1977 Piper Arrow III

When I purchased my first plane less than a year after receiving my license….well, um,….OK, I admit it…I went ugly early. But, it was pretty to me at the time. And it was mine; not some spam-can beat-up rental aircraft.

What was it about the 1970’s where aircraft manufacturers thought that burnt orange/chocolate brown paint schemes, and shag carpeting were attractive? Did they not hire design consultants to ensure their aircraft were as visually appealing as possible?

Despite its questionable aesthetic physical appearance, Arrow N38635 was a well equipped plane in its day. It had a basic 2 axis autopilot, a full IFR panel, dual KX 155 radios, and an Apollo 618 Loran. Ground-based Loran was state of the art RNAV in the mid 90’s. Panel mounted, approach capable, IFR certified GPS units were years away from General Aviation cockpits. 

I soon learned that N38635 was capable of only 135 knots in cruise. So, like any other speed junkie, and after just 6 months of ownership, I felt the need for even more speed and payload than the Arrow could provide. 

Browsing through Trade-a-Plane, I came across an older V-tail Bonanza for sale in San Francisco. After speaking with the aircraft broker, he said they would be willing to trade straight-up for the Arrow. We did, and they hired a pilot to fly the Bonanza from California to Orlando for the swap.  

Lucky for me, my original flight instructor for primary and instrument ratings also happened to be an American Bonanza Society instructor. ABS instructors are experts in the Beech aircraft type. After spending a few hours with him in the Bonanza cockpit, I quickly learned that the aircraft was a much more complex and capable plane than the Arrow in every way. With its 250HP Teledyne-Continental IO-470-C, six cylinder fuel injected engine, performance was off the hook! It cruised at an intimidating 170 knots, (nearly 200 mph), or 35 knots faster than the Arrow. This extra speed got me to the mountains in just 2 +15.  The “M” model Bonanza also has a rather complicated fuel system. It was comprised of 4 separate fuel tanks, but just two fuel gauges, that must be managed to prevent fuel starvation. My ABS instructor made sure I clearly understood fuel management in this plane before he turned me loose.

In retrospect, the Arrow was a nice stepping stone for any pilot moving up to complex-high performance aircraft. But if I had it to do over, I would have gone the Bonanza route from the beginning, and skipped the ugly paint job in the process.

When considering a long term commitment like buying an aircraft, looking for just the right bird is a bit like looking for a spouse…you are better off being very patient and not rushing the process.

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