The Aircraft Spotlight feature looks at an airplane type and evaluates it across six areas of particular interest to flying clubs and their members: Operating Cost, Maintenance, Insurability, Training, Cross-Country, and Fun Factor.
If your club is looking for a low-cost trainer, the Cessna 150/152 often comes to mind. But don’t overlook the Piper Tomahawk. When Piper was designing its replacement to the aging Cherokee 140 training fleet in the late 1970s, it surveyed flight instructors and incorporated their input. The result was a reliable trainer that is more spinnable than a 150/152. Nearly 2,500 were made in the five years it was produced. Graham Wilson, chief flight instructor for Windsor Flying Club in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, shares their experience with this T-tail trainer.
Operating Cost (5 stars)
The Piper Tomahawk was designed to be a low-cost trainer and has comparable operating costs to a Cessna 150/152. The Lycoming O-235 engine produces 112 hp and burns about 6 gph. The TBO is a hefty 2,400 hours giving the engine plenty of useful time. Windsor Flying Club charges $127.50 (Canadian) an hour, wet. The purchase price for most Tomahawks is about $20,000.
Maintenance (4 stars)
“It’s really easy to work on and a simple plane to maintain,” Graham said. “Our mechanic here loves working on it.”
The O-235 is a common engine and the annual costs are comparable to a 150. Piper quotes an annual will take about 12 hours of labor, although Graham said their mechanics plan for 16 hours of labor.
Piper stopped producing the Tomahawk in 1982 and doesn’t make all the parts for the Tomahawk anymore. However, there are companies that sell PMA parts – FAA-approved Parts Manufacturer Approval, so getting parts isn’t a problem.
The most significant maintenance concern is the wing has a lifetime fatigue limit of 11,000 hours. One option is to buy a set of used wings. Another is to purchase an FAA/PMA-approved wing life extension kit from Sterling Aviation Technologies, which allows you to extend the life of an 11,000-hour wing to more than 18,000 hours. The kit costs about $4,000.
There are two other maintenance issues to be aware of. The trim wheel drum in the tail can wear out, but it is still available from Piper so it is easy to replace, although a bit pricey. And there is a piece of aluminum that holds the door latch. The aluminum can fatigue and break, generally from slamming the door too often. The part isn’t available or is hard to find, meaning the whole door needs to be replaced instead of just a small part.
Insurability (5 stars)
There’s no problem getting insurance for a Tomahawk and one of the advantages will be lower premiums because of the low hull value, which is generally about $20,000.
Training (5 stars)
The Tomahawk was designed with input from instructors and Piper got it right. “You can tell it was designed by instructors for instructors,” Graham said.
The construction of the airplane is robust with steel spring landing gear. It may look small, but it can take a beating from students. It also has excellent visibility, which also makes training easier.
“What I like about it is all the theoretical knowledge you learn in ground school can be perfectly demonstrated by the Tomahawk up in the air,” Graham said. “Attitude of movements – you take off, you put the nose on the horizon and it magically gives you the best rate of climb. If you stall it, you’ll almost always get a wing drop, so it forces the student to step on the high wing and use the rudder to pick it up instead of aileron. If they put aileron into it they’ll start going into a spin and realize, ‘I shouldn’t do that.’ All the little things aerodynamically you learn in ground school are demonstrated well by the Tomahawk.”
However, it was designed to easily spin and students must understand and know how to recover as it won’t recover on it’s own—hence the unflattering nickname “Traumahawk”.
The T-tail also affects performance on take off. If you’re doing a soft field take off, pilots need to know that holding the yoke all the way back will probably result in a tail strike. First, without much airspeed on the elevator it will act as a speed break. But once there is enough airspeed on the takeoff roll to make the elevator effective, it is very quick and the nose will come up and the tail could strike the ground. “Once it bites you once, you learn to respect the T-tail,” Graham said.
Cross-Country Travel (3 stars)
With a cruise speed of 90 knots and about a four-hour range with reserves based on 30 gallons of useful fuel, the Tomahawk isn’t the best cross-country aircraft. However, Graham said it has ample legroom for taller pilots to stretch their legs compared to a 150, but the headroom could be better. It also has plenty of width, so two people can fly comfortably.
The baggage compartment does hold 100 pounds, but if you have two adults and bags, you’ll have to sacrifice some fuel with only 542 pounds of useful load. However, Graham said if one person were taking a trip, there’s plenty of room to load up camping gear and go.
Fun Factor (4 stars)
“People love spinning it,” Graham said. “There are some bragging rights to say you can fly the ‘Traumahawk.’ If you talk to people, there is a fear about spinning a Tomahawk.”
Many say Piper went to a T-tail design in the late ‘70s to make its planes look sexier. On the ramp it has a little more sports car cache than a 150 with its two doors and bubble canopy, which provides good visibility on the ground and in the air.
“And there’s a neat little fact for those of us who are Tomahawk centric – there’s a scene in the movie Iron Eagle where someone rolls a Tomahawk even though it’s not certified for aerobatics,” Graham said.
Overall (4 stars)
The Piper Tomahawk looks like a modern Ercoupe with a T-tail instead of the twin tails. It attracts attention on the ramp, mostly from pilots who may have learned to fly in a Tomahawk in the 1980s and are nostalgic. It was designed by instructors to be a low-cost trainer and it serves it’s mission well. It’s got low operating expenses, is easy to work on and has a roomy cockpit. Just be sure you know how to properly recover from a spin and the differences in taking off in a T-tail aircraft and it could provide your club with a unique little trainer.