(June 2011) There are good reasons that the Piper Archer is an airplane commonly found in flight school fleets.
Its stable flight characteristics and simple design make it an excellent trainer. And with enough speed to get you where you want to go, but not too much to get you in trouble, as well as the navigation capabilities and creature comforts that pilots expect today, the Piper Archer’s design has also become a popular choice for pilots looking for an entry-level airplane. Piper has just rolled out a program that makes it easier for its customers to combine flight training and airplane ownership.
Piper’s Ready, Set, Fly program, designed for the Archer LX, just launched this spring in response to an AOPA study that found that lack of convenience, quality of instruction and scheduling hassles were big reasons why people don’t fully commit to learning to fly.
“Piper’s program addresses the convenience issue head on, because the standardized training course will be offered in a highly concentrated, three-week program, with a dedicated, professional instructor,” says Randy Groom, executive vice president at Piper. “And [students] will get to do it in their very own aircraft.”
The Ready, Set, Fly program may also be an attempt by Piper to refocus its attention on its entry-level airplane. Since customers tend to be brand loyal, they need to be captured in the infant stage of their flight training. The number of delivered Piper Archers has steadily decreased, to the point that more airplanes left the factory in 2000 than the total number for the time period between 2005 and 2010. During the past decade, Piper may have put too much effort into its Altair jet and turboprop products, forgetting where those customers generally come from — a single-engine trainer.
Piper is in the process of selecting a training provider for the Ready, Set, Fly program, most likely right at Florida’s Vero Beach Municipal Airport, where Piper has been located since 1955 and where the abundant Piper PA-28 Cherokee family of airplanes first saw the light of day in 1960. Initially, the Vero Beach facility was strictly used for the Cherokee, which became one of Piper’s most successful designs. Piper’s Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, factory remained in operation until the mid-1980s. One reason for the closure was the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes, which caused the Susquehanna River to flood in 1972, destroying some vital production equipment. A few Piper models were produced in Lakeland, Florida during the 70s and early 80s, but by the late 1980s the entire production line had moved to Vero Beach.
The basic design of Piper’s Cherokee series — all-metal, single-engine airplanes with low wings and piston power — was the brainchild of, among others, aeronautical engineer John Thorp, who designed about 30 types of airplanes during his nearly five-decade-long career.
The Cherokee series ranges from the very basic, two-seat Cherokee 140 to the six-seat Cherokee Six. Piper has tested many sizes and configurations of the Cherokee airframe: retractable and fixed tricycle gear, constant speed propeller, Hershey-bar and tapered wings, conventional and T-tails, and even floats. The only things that the factory never explored, it seems, are tailwheeled and pressurized options.
Slotted right in the middle of the Cherokee family, the Piper Archer is a descendant of the PA-28-180, which debuted in 1963. Ten years later, the airframe was modified with a longer wing, bigger stabilator, longer fuselage, higher gross weight, bigger door, more-crashworthy seats and a new name — the Challenger. But Piper’s marketing department quickly realized the mistake in not staying with the traditional Native American names, and the year after, the Challenger re-emerged as the Archer.
The Archer became the Archer II with the new designator PA-28-181 in 1976, when a semitapered wing was introduced. It, in combination with the low-drag wheel pants that became available a couple of years later, significantly increased the cruise speed and decreased the stall speed. The new design was so good that it remained essentially unchanged until 1995, when the Archer III appeared with several modifications, the most significant being the axisymmetric cowl with circular inlets. This composite cowl was a great departure for the mostly aluminum airframe, and it gave the Archer a much sleeker, modern look and, more importantly, less drag.
Simplicity is a word that comes to mind when stepping into the Archer. And in this case, simplicity is a good thing. Switches, buttons and controls are large and conveniently placed. The flaps are manually engaged with a Johnson bar located between the two front seats. There are three notches providing 10, 20 and 40 degrees of flaps. The cockpit layout is slightly reminiscent of reading a book with large text versus one with smaller font. The convenience factor makes it easier for the reader and, in this case, the pilot.
The only slight inconvenience is that the 48 gallons of fuel are divided into left and right tanks. Counting on the Lycoming O-360-A4M engine burning about 10 gallons per hour gives a range of a little over four hours, or well over 500 nautical miles, as long as there is no headwind. Since the Archer is a low-wing design, the option to select both, as in the high-wing Cessna 172, does not exist. Hence, the pilot must remember to switch tanks throughout the flight to maintain lateral balance. This is great for training purposes because it teaches the student the added task of changing fuel tanks, but it may be seen as a slight inconvenience for some owners.
Through the decades, the Piper Archer has undergone countless avionics changes — so many, in fact, that it’s not even worth beginning to make sense of them. Last year, Piper opted to oust its initial glass panel selection, the Avidyne Entegra, for the Garmin G500 PFD/MFD combo. Like the Entegra, the G500 talks to two Garmin GNS 430W GPS/navcom units.
The G500/GNS 430W combination is very intuitive for pilots with Garmin experience. After the flight plan is entered in the 430, adjustments to the heading, course, altitude, vertical speed or barometer setting can quickly be made on the G500 PFD using the small buttons on the left side, to select the function, and the large knob at the bottom to make the change. In addition to standard PFD features, synthetic vision is included on the Archer LX, as is XM satellite radio and weather, though a subscription is required for continued operation.
The Archer LX I flew for this report, N514C, was sitting on the ramp outside the brand-new Cutter Piper Sales office, which aircraft sales veteran Phil Scharber opened in January at McClellan-Palomar Airport (CRQ) in Carlsbad, California. N514C is equipped with an S-TEC 55X autopilot, which is available as an option, and it engages in full communication with the G500/GNS 430W for capturing altitudes or following descent profiles on instrument approaches. The autopilot gets props for its smooth, small inputs and corrections, which make the flight comfortable for pilots and passengers alike. The panel setup makes training for the instrument rating almost too easy but is certainly wonderful for the owner-pilot.
Approach charts are available with Jeppesen’s ChartView for display on the MFD, and a large bonus of having the smaller G500 screens is that the chart is presented right in front of the pilot’s eyes instead of on an MFD screen in the center of the cockpit, as is the case with the G1000.
The significantly smaller size of the G500 glass screens also means the panel has lots of space for full-size backup attitude indicator, airspeed indicator and altimeter gauges. The large font comparison comes to mind once again.
While it stays in line with the Piper Archer’s simplicity, the throttle quadrant gives more of a big-airplane feel than do the push-pull levers most of its competitors use. The overhead switches, including electrical, magneto, primer and starter buttons, which were introduced in 1995 with the Archer III designation, may also trick the Archer’s occupants into thinking they’re in a much faster, more complex airplane.
However, with all those switches out of the way and with smaller glass panels, there is a lot of open real estate on the panel. A second G500 can be added on the copilot’s side, should you feel it looks too empty, and there is definitely room to put the GTX 330 transponder (which normally lives on the right side of the panel) in a different location.
Scharber’s Archer has the PiperAire air-conditioning system already installed, a system that works wonderfully and is a welcome addition, particularly because the fresh air vents that are located near the floor don’t provide much cooling, and it is difficult for a single pilot to keep the door open during ground operations with the location of the door on the copilot’s side of the airplane. PiperAire can be added to a new Archer for $15,000.
As nice as it is, the air conditioning does take a hit on the useful load. Empty weight on N514C is 1,801 pounds, which leaves 757 pounds of useful load, 113 pounds short of the published numbers. With a full tank, that leaves 469 pounds of payload, which is right on par with other four-seat, single-engine airplanes.
Compared with other small airplanes, the rudder pedals require a little extra legwork, and a ridge along the top of the pedals makes braking slightly uncomfortable with thin-soled shoes. As expected, some right rudder is needed during the climb. The Archer is equipped with rudder trim, but its placement near the copilot’s rudder pedals is a bit of a reach. Departing out of CRQ, which is at 331 feet msl, on a slightly warmer than standard day with half a tank of fuel and two light adults in the airplane, our climb rate was around 700 feet per minute, which is about what you can expect from any conventional 180 hp fixed-gear single.
The Piper Archer flies beautifully and is very stable, which, of course, is an inherent requirement for an airplane used for flight training. Control inputs around the lateral and longitudinal axes require little effort. And while the S-TEC autopilot is nice to have for IFR flights and long cross-countries, the airplane flies itself well hands off, as long as it’s properly trimmed.
Stability is also evident when it comes to the benign stall characteristics of the Archer. Full aft yoke produces nothing but a slight buffet, and as long as the rudder controls are coordinated, there is no tendency for the Archer to drop a wing.
At 2,450 rpm at 5,500 feet, N514C got up to 128 knots true airspeed, which is a few knots above what the book told me we should see under the conditions. At around 125 knots, cross-country flying can be a somewhat leisurely affair, but the Archer still represents a capable cross-country option. And for many pilots new to transportation flying, the slow landing speeds, fixed gear and stable flight characteristics of the Archer are welcome alternatives to high-performance airplanes. The soft, leather-covered seats in the Archer LX are incredibly comfortable. Front and rear cabin occupants have a tall backrest, and the pilot and copilot seats also have arch support, manually inflatable with a small hand pump under each seat. There is ample elbowroom in the front and back, and sufficient legroom in the back, as long as the pilot or copilot doesn’t have unusually long legs. Plush leather covers the seats, another addition with the Archer III mods. Interiors are currently offered in three colors: dark khaki, light quartz and dark quartz. There are two options for the exterior paint scheme.
Piper also offers the Archer III in the scaled-down TX version for fleet deals only, with a less luxurious interior, decals instead of paint schemes and fewer included options.
While many small refinements have been made through the years, those flying the Archer nearly 40 years ago would most likely not discern much difference in the handling of the airplane. But it sure would be a treat to see their reaction to the incredible advancements in creature comforts and navigation capabilities offered by the airplane’s much younger descendant.
For a design to survive for decades, it must be a good one. For a customer with a freshly inked pilot’s license, one whose mission is the classic hundred-dollar hamburger or a visit to relatives in a neighboring state, or, particularly with the Ready, Set, Fly program, for someone looking for an airplane to learn to fly and build time in, the Piper Archer is a very good choice.